"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Protest as a Way of Life

I admire the folks who are out in the public squares protesting the ever greater inequality of wealth in this country; the ever greater power of the corporation in writing laws to enrich themselves; the ever lesser power of the people over the political process and over the means of production. I am following the Occupy movement closely and I hold out hope that this will transform over time into a lasting political movement.

However, I am too old and have too many place-based responsibilities to be out there myself. If I were bedding my old bones down on the concrete in Westlake center (ha!), who would be feeding the pigs, milking goats, preserving the harvest? Who would be controlling the means of production at MY house?

In other words, people, there is more than one way to protest. Civil disobedience is awesome and irreplaceable as a means of focusing attention. But the quiet protest of refusing to give your dollars to Monsanto, Cargill, Bayer, Halliburton, GE, and Texaco (among many others) by instead growing your own food, saving your own seed, producing your own electricity, brewing your own biodiesel, and sewing your own clothes is perhaps even more effective.

I'm not trying to say we do all of those things - far from it. But we do many of them. And I am learning how to do more of them. Even if we never reach the point of producing all our own energy, or growing all our own food, having the knowledge base in the community, keeping the traditional wisdom alive is so important. I am quantifiably less dependent on those corporations because I can meet a healthy percentage of my own needs. I have given them a heck of lot less of my money than most Americans (and spent less overall), because I have developed some skills to replace their services.

I may not be out there, visible, but I am a protester nonetheless. And I am as subversive as hell.

Aimee's recommended ways to be subversive in modern America:

1) Maximize your food independence. For some of us, that means growing a lot of food or raising animals. For others, it means learning how to cook from scratch. If you are buying raw materials from your local farmers at the farmer's market, you maximize support of your individual neighbors and minimize your support of the giant agribusiness companies. You also save money and eat better.

2) Buy secondhand. Everything you possibly can. In this way you avoid encouraging the extraction of raw materials and extend the useful life of products. The embedded energy cost in, say, a new car or a new set of dining room furniture - even a new winter coat! - can be stretched over a greater time period and made to serve a greater number of people. For me, buying secondhand clothing is an ethical decision to avoid supporting the sweatshop industry. A subclause to this recommendation is: repair things that can be repaired. Get your fridge fixed a few times before you get a new one. Learn to mend clothes. When was the last time you saw a kid wearing jeans with knee-patches on them, unless they were sold that way to begin with? Take good care of your car. Do all the scheduled maintenance. Learn to do it yourself! Or ask your neighbor.

3) Maximize your energy independence. There are so many ways to do this - we brew biodiesel for our cars. But you might do it with solar panels or windmills, depending on where you live. Or do it by not owning a car and biking instead. Or by living in a smaller house and super-insulating. The sky's the limit.

4) Know your neighbors. Make friends. Develop mutually beneficial networks. Support each other. Lend your tools. Pool your resources. Why should every small-farming family along the same stretch of road own its own haying equipment, for example? That's absurd. Or its own tractor, even? Why shouldn't three or four families get together to buy one tractor instead of four? Does every household really need a chainsaw? No, not if you are on good terms with Bob down the way. And not if you are willing to lend his wife your sewing machine.

5) Most important of all: take charge of your education! Be informed! Get your information from diverse sources. Use your brain. Teach your kids. Go to museums and libraries while they still exist! Buy books (secondhand, of course!). Do not default on your obligation to educate your children, or yourself. It's too important. You can't leave it to the public school system alone. Talk about important issues with your spouse, your neighbor, your kids, your in-laws, your city councilman, your state senator!

6) For the love of God, VOTE!

Milkweed Diaries: Occupy the Pantry. . .

Monday, October 24, 2011

The King Must Die (Goat Breeding and Divine Kingship)

I used to have my own buck. Storm Cloud, son of Flopsy, was (and presumably still is) an extremely handsome, healthy and virile tri-color purebred Nubian buck. He is black and white with brown points, tall, big-boned, from excellent milking lines, and also good natured, with healthy hooves, and never had a problem with parasites. Pretty much the ideal buck, in other words.

But even the ideal buck - even the divine Pan, were he to descend to Earth in the form of a buck - is only good for three years, maximum. After that, every doe on the place is either his sister, mother, or daughter. After three years, all bucks must be replaced. Now that I think about it, I am sure that is where the ancient tradition of the Summer King comes from.

For those of you who don't know, in ancient days, in Pre-Christian Europe, pretty much across the continent from Ireland to Asia Minor, there existed a tradition of divine kingship. The details varied from place to place, but basically, a king won his throne by supplanting the previous king, who was put to death.

Usually the reign was set for a specific period of time - a year, three years, seven years - after which there would be a solemn ceremony to replace the old king with a new, younger, stronger king. Sometimes the kings would fight to the death - a battle which was weighted against the old king - and sometimes the king submitted, after his appointed term had ended, to a ritual death of one kind or another.

The best documented of these rituals, perhaps, is that of the high festival of Dionysius, in certain parts of ancient Greece. On the appointed night, there would be an orgy, a great feast and dance, and the king would be celebrated, bedded by all the women he wanted, and gotten totally drunk. Then the Queen and her women - in a divine, drunken frenzy -would take on the personae of Maenads and literally tear him to pieces. His body would be plowed into the fields.

After that, the Queen would accept the new king into her bed and the country would be ritually fertilized for another year - or three, or five, or seven years. The Queen herself would only be replaced when she ceased to bear children.

However barbaric we might think such customs were, it seems to me they were expressing an inescapable biological reality. That is - you can't let one buck rule forever. That way lies genetic degeneration, illness, loss of hardiness, and general weakness in the herd. Inbreeding is bad.

Bucks must be replaced, alas. One might fairly ask, why bucks and not does? Well, think about it for a second: does provide kids and milk, year after year. One doe can feed a family of five with her offspring and her milk, each and every year for some ten years. A buck produces nothing but sperm, and his own meat. And each year, his sperm is less and less valuable. As is his meat, actually - meat from a mature, un-castrated billy goat is not, shall we say, a gourmet item.

Luckily, in a modern age, we can choose to trade bucks and shuttle them around rather than kill them when their local utility declines. I sold Storm Cloud to a lady in Portland, Oregon.
He went on to a delightful life servicing other does, and presumable, when he outlives his usefulness there, she will sell him on. Meanwhile - I need a new buck.

I have had a difficult time finding a buck this year. In my next post, I will detail my struggle - but for I will just say I think it is over. I think I have finally found a decent Nubian buck, albeit at a rather exorbitant price, and that I expect all my does to be pregnant within a month. It is late this year - I'd rather they were impregnated last month, but so be it.

Anyone looking for a great read - a truly wonderful novel, on my all-time top-ten list - which treats the subject of divine kingship in depth would be well-advised to read Mary Renault's The King Must Die. It is both a fabulous adventure story and a history lesson. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Brewing Up a Storm (Drinking and Driving)

My first batch of hard cider came out great! I can't take all the credit - or even most of it - or, in fact, hardly any of it at all. I pressed the apples, but J. (my homebrewing friend who moved away and gave me all his equipment - see Cider, Revisited) found the recipe and walked me through the beginning of the process with little baby steps.

After pasteurizing the fresh juice, cooling to room temperature, and tranferring into a sterilized carboy, J. "pitched the yeast" which basically means, pour your yeast into the carboy, and added the airlock. A week later, after it stopped bubbling, we transferred the cider - now somewhat alcoholic - into a second clean carboy, leaving the dregs behind. This second carboy bubbles away with an airlock for another week or so, and then it's time to bottle.

Since I was trying to make carbonated cider, I had to add some more sugar to the cider before bottling it. The idea is that the sugar will fuel a second fermentation in the bottle, creating carbon dioxide which provides the fizz. Just like champagne. I managed the final bottling on my own.

Then I was suppoosed to let it mature for several weeks before imbibing, but I was impatient. Of course I had tasted the cider as I was bottling it, and it tasted pretty good. Not knowing how long it might take to develop some fizz, I waited about four or five days before opening up a couple bottles. There was some slight fizziness, but nowhere near as much as in a bottle of commercial brew. The taste, however, was very good - off dry and apple-y. I drank a bottle as though it were beer, and felt quite tipsy. Clearly, stronger than beer, though not as strong as wine. I'm guessing somewhere around 8%.

Over the next two weeks, all twelve bottles disappeared. I think I gave away six, and Homero and I shared the other six. So, no idea how it might have tasted after the recommended six weeks in the bottle. Better luck this batch - it's a five gallon batch instead of a two gallon batch, so there will be many more bottles. I hope it turns out as tasty this time. The fresh cider was not quite as good - nor as sweet - as the last batch of fresh cider. I'll just have to hope for the best.

Homero has been brewing, too. He's had virtually no work these last few weeks, and so has been turning his attention to those projects that tend to languish when he is busy. One of these is biodiesel. It had been a fair while since the last batch, but over these last two weeks he's made several batches, using up our stored oil and our chemicals. All three vehicles have full tanks, and there is still some thirty gallons leftover to refill them again. I think he made seventy-five gallons in all.

The oil is free to us - he has arrangements with a few local restaurants to pick up their used oil with his oil-sucker. The oil sucker is a very cool device he made. Basically it is a fifty-five gallon drum fitted with hoses and valves. He sticks it in the bed of the pickup and goes to one of his restaurants that has a full oil-dumpster. Then he can use the compression of the engine of his truck to create a vacuum inside the drum and suck up oil. I was very impressed. The oil is free, but the chemicals are expensive. Homero did the math a while ago and at that time, biodiesel costs us about $1.40 a gallon, when you figure in electricity. So, filling the three gas tanks cost somewhere in the vicinity of sixty dollars, or about one-third the cost of regular diesel.

Of course, it takes time, too. Homero hasn't quite got the fiddly precise process down, and so he spends many hours on each batch, and it can be quite frustrating. But even so, it's a highly worthwhile endeavor, economically speaking. Much more so, truth be told, than my cheesemaking or cider-brewing. But I get a lot of satisfaction out of my fiddly processes, too.

I am so proud of him. Of us, really. We are just a couple of homebrewers, each in our own specialty. Driving homebrew on his end, drinking homebrew on mine. Don't worry - we won't mix the two. Never the twain shall meet.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Great Hen Giveaway (It's Not His Fault)

It's not hard to tell roosters from hens, not when they are full grown. Here; I'll show you.
This is a hen. Hens are female. They lay eggs.

This, on the other hand, is a rooster. The rooster is easily recognized by his many colors, his long feathers and his large red crest.

We had too many roosters - eight, which is six more than we needed. I advertised six free roosters on Craigslist. A man called, and I told him to come pick them up after dark, when they would be easy to catch. As it turned out, I was at the grocery store when he showed up, so my husband caught the roosters and gave them to the man.

Can you guess where this is going?

This morning, I counted the roosters we had left. Four. That means that my husband gave away three roosters and three hens. We still have too many roosters, and now we have three fewer healthy young hens.

True - it was dark. That's true. I'm just going to keep repeating that to myself. And ask the next Craigslist guy to call me personally before he shows up.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Filling Up the Freezer (Great Grapes!)

It was an insanely beautiful day today - much nicer than late October has any right to be. The sun was out in full glory, and I could feel the heat on my shoulders all day long as I completed various fall chores. This has not been a good year for leaves, and so even though the sky was a bright, washed blue, I did miss the sharp contrast of the yellow, gold, and red leaves against it.

That's an awfully petty complaint, though, isn't it?

I had a productive day. This morning, I went and cut a whole lot of grapes. A neighbor woman was advertising on Craigslist that she had a nearly unlimited amount of concorde grapes, and would sell them for $5 the five gallon bucket. That was the first thing I did this morning - cut grapes. It's a fine task - searching through the thick leaves, just beginning to wither and yellow, for the dark blue bunches. Her elderly pit-bull bitch followed me around the vineyard, occasionally pushing her wet nose into the back on my knee. It took me some twenty minutes to fill the bucket.

When I got home, I washed and sorted the grapes. I soon learned that only the very ripest and blackest of the grapes were sweet enough to eat out of hand. The majority of the grapes were dark red, but still sour. Not knowing quite what to do with them.I decided to juice them and boil down the juice (with added sugar) into a concentrated syrup that I could can and use throughout the winter to make grape juice. I saved out the sweetest for table grapes, and spent the next couple of hours juicing grapes and boiling down the resulting juice. I have to say, I'm not very happy with it. It isn't clear and claret-colored like store grape juice - it's kind of thick and brownish, and not very good looking. It tastes delicious, but I doubt it will make an attractive table beverage. Oh well.

Other freezer-related developments: we butchered the last two baby goats, and I put one of them into the freezer in the form of small, carefully wrapped packages of raw meat. The other was, as usual, steamed for several hours and consumed in the form of tacos. My family, my sister's family, and our friend C. the butcher's family all ate heartily, and there was enough leftover to send C. home with several pounds of shredded, cooked meat; to send my my brother-in-law home with a couple of pounds, and to put a couple of pounds in the freezer as well. According to my calculations, one medium-small seven month old goat can feed twelve adults and eight children, three times over. Or, I guess, thirty-six adults and twenty-four children. That is, of course, with side dishes, tortillas, beans, etc.

Lastly, we bought a side of beef. In years past, we have always bought a side of beef jointly with my sister's family - a quarter for each of us. That has always been plenty of beef. In fact, I think I just cooked the very last roast from last year's quarter last week. We didn't choose to get a whole beef because we wanted more meat. We did it because the farmer (a neighbor) couldn't find anyone to buy the other half of this small steer. Rather than lose the beef, I said we would take the whole thing. My sister's family is splitting their half with various relatives, but we haven't made any plans here. I seriously doubt we can use an entire half, so I'm going to have to look for somebody to share our half with.

Hey - if you live nearby - this is excellent beef, 100% grass raised and grass finished. We've bought from the same folks for four years running and I have never tasted such good beef in my life. I can see the cows out my front window and can personally vouch for the fact that they live happy, natural lives and that the land is beautifully cared for. You can get in touch with me through the blog if you are interested. I figure I have about a 100 pounds of beef to sell, in the form of hamburger, roasts, steaks, and ribs.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Yucky Season Arrives (October Images)

Not everything about October is yucky. Apples, for instance. I love apples. I love apple season. I love the smell of the kitchen when an apple pie is in the oven, or the dehydrator is full of apple slices, or I am canning applesauce. I love pressing apple cider, even though it makes my back and hamstrings hurt for days. I love biting into a crisp green apple, juicy and tart, and following it up with a bite of sharp, homemade cheese. I love the amazing abundance of apples - so many forgotten trees, with so much surplus fruit that it falls all over the yard and the roadsides, free for the taking. I like giving windfall apples to my animals - every species loves apples. The horses, of course, but also the goats, the pigs, the chickens, and even the rabbits. Everybody loves apples. Even the apple-mast left over from pressing is useful; it makes wonderful compost. I love the look of apple trees in November, after most of the leaves have fallen but the apples are still clinging to the bare branches, bright red against a frosty blue afternoon sky.

I also like pumpkins. I like carving jack o' lanterns with my kids, and I like roasting the seeds and putting them in the kids' lunches for weeks after Halloween. I like eating pumpkins, too - in almost any form: simply roasted with butter and salt and pepper, as pie of course, and in soup. Oh I love delicious pumpkin-cheese soup with roasted poblano peppers. I like the empty fields, dark brown, bare and bedraggled looking, dotted with bright orange orbs. I love going outside on Halloween eve and looking at the glowing jack o' lanterns lined up on the porch. It makes me feel cozy and safe, remembering that their original function was to serve as guardian spirits, protecting the house and inhabitants from evil forces abroad in the nighttime as the year tips into darkness and death.

I like el Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. We celebrate it here in the old fashioned way, by dressing the household altar with an ofrenda, or offering. We drape the altar with a bright colored cloth and lay it with fruits and flowers. We set up the photos of our dead ancestors, or if we don't have photos, then we write their names on slips of paper. We light candles and drink hot cocoa and (for the adults) mezcal. The children and I bake sweet egg-bread in fanciful shapes and eat it dipped in the hot cocoa. We talk, tell stories about our dead loved ones, and honor their memories. Always on the altar is a memento mori in the form of a beautiful little Caterina statue (Lady Death). In this way, we teach our children - and remind ourselves - that the end of all life is death, but that spirits live on as the beloved, beautiful memories that we leave behind. This simple ceremony provides surprisingly strong comfort.

So, with all of the things I love about October, why did I name this post "The Yucky Season?" What is it that I dislike so much? Well, there's the darkness, the gloom and the incessant rain; the damp chill that cannot be banished from the house even by blasting the propane furnace; the smell of wet dogs and wet towels and wet shoes. There's the omnipresent rot - rotting vegetation, rotting leaves, rotting carpets in the mudroom. There's the utter lack of light and warmth. But most of all... most of all...

There's mud. God, how I hate mud. Chilly, slippery, stinky, horrible mud. I wake up at seven thirty and by eight fifteen I am liberally spotted with grotesque ordure. All winter long I will smell like.. well, not mud exactly, but mud that is one third mixed-species animal by-product. You know what I mean. There's no way to avoid it - farmers smell like farms, and never more than in the Yucky season.

Oh well. I'll just try to keep a pot of spiced apple cider simmering on the stove all the time, that ought to help.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Selfish Neighborliness (More Milk!)

At the Second Annual September Swap Meet and Cider Press last week, I met a really cool neighbor lady named M. She brought apples to press, and we made a trade of a bag of (my) raw alpaca fiber for a bunch of (her) canning jars. She also has goats and we talked about that. She also moved here from a city and we talked about that. All in all we spent about 45 minutes chatting and exchanged phone numbers at the end of our conversation, saying we would get together and make cheese sometime.

Day before yesterday, she called me up and said there had been a death in the family and she needed to travel out of state for the funeral. She was sorry to intrude on so new a friendship, but she didn't know anyone else who could milk her goats while she was gone. Having been in a similar situation - not a death in the family, but needing a goat-sitter who can milk - I know how tough it is to find someone you can trust to milk your goats right. Poor or incomplete milking can lead to mastitis, which can kill a goat or ruin her udder right quick.

Of course I said I would be happy to board her goats while she is gone. She has two goats, but only one in milk, a Saanen who is giving about a half-gallon a day. Those of you who raise goats know that this was a fairly big leap of faith, on both our parts. I don't know that her goats are healthy, and she doesn't know that mine are. She has never seen my place, and knows nothing about the state of my fencing or the quality of my feed. I don't know if her goats are jumpers who might destroy my fences and run out on the road and get killed. Without the goodwill and trust that comes with a long friendship, we are both taking a chance that something awful might happen - a sick or a dead goat - and that there would be bad feelings on both sides.

I know that many people would simply say "sorry, but no." While I understand the reasons that would lead them to refuse, I cannot agree with them. My feeling is that human relationships are ultimately more important than animals. It's true that I basically don't know this woman from Eve, and that we may never have a serious friendship, so what do I owe her, you might fairly ask? The answer is, I owe her nothing. Not a damn thing. She didn't offer to pay me, either, and in fact the idea never crossed my mind until just this second.

I'm doing this because it's plain and simple the right thing to do. Yeah, I will get the half-gallon of milk a day that her goat gives, and I'm thrilled about that, since my goats are close to to dry. That milk will most likely translate into three or four pounds of cheese. And I assume that I will get an "I.O.U." to squirrel away in case I ever need a goat-related favor. I also get to feel like a nice person. Don't worry, I'm not going to sprain my arm patting myself on the back for altruism. I'm getting my fair share here.

But I would do it anyway- if neither of the goats were in milk. It's just what neighbors do. I have moved from a place -Seattle- where I lived for fifteen years in the same house without knowing the names of more than a couple of my nearest neighbors to a place where I know everyone. I know their history, I know what grades their kids are in, I know if someone is ill or if someone is widowed. I know my neighbors because they sit in the pew in front of me at church, or check my groceries at the store, or teach my children in the second grade. If, back in Seattle, I had needed to fly off to a family member's funeral at a moment's notice, I wouldn't know who to ask to pick up my mail and feed my cat. Here, I have my choice of a half a dozen people.

The price of that luxury is BEING one of those people for my neighbors, too. You need someone to milk your goat? HELL yes. Want me to pick up your groceries while you are laid up with a broken arm? Yup. Visit your sick mother-in-law? Need some frozen casseroles while you are at home with your new baby? Help with your leaky roof? Yes, yes, and yes.

The truth is, for me at least, that doing these things isn't just a quid-pro-quo; it's a pleasure in and of itself. I adore being part of a community that depends on each other. It makes me very happy to be known as someone who can be counted on to provide a decent lunch, or a ride at a moment's notice, or a shoulder to cry on. I am damn proud of my dependability. And I feel extremely blessed to be part of a web of similar people.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Cider, Revisited

As I wrote in my last post, our neighbors J. and L., our pastors and friends, are leaving town. In exchange for Homero fixing up their car, they are giving us all of J.'s homebrewing equipment - and a couple of lessons. On saturday, I went over to their house with a few gallons of freshly pressed apple cider to get my first lesson.

Wow, J. has a lot of stuff! He's a fairly serious homebrewer - meaning, I guess, that he brews several times a year and consistently turns out a yummy product. The pile of equipment he is giving us was enough to almost cover their kitchen floor. Three carboys of varying sizes; yards and yards of various types of tubing; airlocks, small buckets, mesh bags, filters and funnels of all descriptions. Large stainless steel kettles. A stainless steel chiller - which is a really cool item that enables to cool down five gallons of boiling mash to room temperature in short order. A stand-up bottlecapper. Bags of bottlecaps. And several boxes of bottles.

the bottle-capper

the chiller

When I arrived, J. had a batch of dandelion wine in the smallest carboy that was ready to bottle. So we did that first, and I learned how to sterilize bottles and tubes, siphon the liquid off the top of the carboy into the bottles and how to use the bottlecapper. We sampled the wine, of course, and it gave the rest of the proceedings a certain golden, summery glow - which I believe is the whole point of dandelion wine.

Some of the equipment...

J. has not actually tried making cider before, probably because he doesn't have a cider press. Believe me, when you have ten or fifteen gallons of fresh cider on hand, turning it into a storable product - a storable alcoholic product - floats to the top of one's mind. Winemaking, let us not forget, is one of the preservation arts, no less than smoking or drying. Originally, in fact, winemaking was most likely a semi-accidental by-product of preserving fruit. The pleasant effects of alcohol were probably a felicitous side-effect, one that was only afterwards studied, harnessed, and turned into an art in its own right.

God bless the internet - in under five minutes, we had located a simple recipe for hard apple cider. We added two cups of sugar per gallon of fresh cider and brought it to a temperature just short of boiling. Then we let it cool to blood temperature, more or less (we didn't use the chiller, because it needs to be well-washed and sterilized), and poured it into the carboy. At this point, before you add the yeast, you want to aerate the product, so we shook it up real good.

Then J. put in the yeast - a champagne yeast which I bought at the Four Corners brewing supply in bellingham, and capped the carboy with an airlock. Today, not quite 48 hours later, he called me to let me know that the cider is bubbling away. In a week or so, we will decant it into another carboy for the secondary fermentation, and a week after that I will bottle it. Probably by myself, since I think J. and L. will be gone by then.

I hope this batch comes out better than my single past batch, which was wholly undrinkable. I'm very much looking forward to adding brewing to my small but growing repertoire of traditional skills. I can think of no other ability that has the ability to add so much cheer to a long dark winter.

I read in the paper today that there is a new La Nina system forming in the pacific, meaning another wetter and colder than usual winter around here. Here's hoping that we will have plenty of hard cider to keep our spirits up!