Monday, December 30, 2013

Free to Learn

Peter Gray is a psychology researcher and blogger on Psychology Today. In 2013, he published a book called Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I even found it a bit mind-bending, which is surprising, since in many ways he's preaching to the converted. We've already pulled Eldest from school and are pursuing an unschooling life for our family. But one keen insight I had while reading the book is that while my definition and use of the word 'work' has expanded far beyond the notion of paid work, I still use it as a way to show value. I have described Eldest's activities, more than once, as his work, to show that I place value on it and take it seriously as an endeavour of his. I still see 'play' as something that is optional and not particularly valuable. In Free to Learn, Gray shows that play is truly essential to children's development.

He looks at how our expectations of children and approaches to parenting reflect the wider culture. His main tenet is that our bodies and brains evolved in a hunter-gather context and so we can learn about child development from hunter-gatherer cultures, where children are given a lot of freedom to play with other children, handle dangerous tools to learn how to use them and to observe adults.

Given my interest in agriculture, I found this passage more than a little chilling:
"Agriculture offered many improvements to people's lives. It provided a steadier food supply and thereby reduced, at least initially, the threat of starvation. It eliminated the need to keep moving in search of food and allowed people to settle down and build sturdy houses to protect themselves from predators and storms. But agriculture also came with a big price tag, which could not have been foreseen by those who took the first, irreversible steps away from hunting and gathering. It altered the conditions of human life in ways that led to the decline of freedom, equality, sharing, and play. When we bit the apple of agriculture, as it were, we left the Garden of Eden and entered a world in which we had to do the gardening ourselves, in which toil, not play, was king.
"The hunter-gatherer way of life was knowledge-intensive and skill-intensive, but not labor-intensive. " 
He opens the book with some startling figures on the mental health of young people today. He shows how on a number of scales, young people's stress, anxiety and depression have skyrocketed over the last fifty-plus years. About "85 percent of young people today have scores [for anxiety and depression] than the average for the same age group in the 1950's. Looked at in another way, five to eight times as many young people today have scores above the cutoff for likely diagnosis of a clinically significant anxiety disorder or major depression than fifty or more years ago." Since 1950, the US suicide rate for children under age fifteen has quadrupled, and that for people age fifty to twenty-four has more than doubled. Gray correlates the rising anxiety, depression and suicide in young people to the reduction of independence and free play, and the rising pressures of school work.

I have been pondering why adolescence is so painful. I don't believe that it is inevitable; I believe some people have come through adolescence without pain, although I don't personally know any of them. I suspect that it has to do with the fact that teenagers generally don't get to be part of the adult world until their twenties. I had absolutely know idea what the professional adult working world was like until I started working as a temp. Teenagers don't get much real responsibility; they don't get to contribute in any real way. After reading Gray's book, I'm even more convinced that a lot of adolescent pain is related to age segregation in schools and the segregation of children from adults. Of course, I have no way of proving or disproving my theory. But I have to hope that there is some way for my kids to come through their adolescence unscathed.

My favourite part of Gray's book had to be his descriptions of the Sudbury Valley School, which I'd heard of but not in any detail. Not only are its students free to spend their time however they choose while at school, they can explore the campus and even go off-campus whenever they want. And all students have a vote in the hiring and firing of the adult staff members, who are not referred to as teachers, since their roles are more responsive and supportive than the average teacher. Truth be told, I think this would be a better environment for Eldest than the way we're currently homeschooling. But the nearest democratic school is in Toronto, one of the most expensive places to live in Canada, so it doesn't feel very possible. That said, I'm committed to finding ways for Eldest to get more free play time with other children and to relax our hovering.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

on money and stuff

I've been reading Ben Hewitt's blog for a while, ever since Shannon Hayes (author of Radical Homemakers, which kicked me off on the activities I try to document here) linked to it, probably late last spring. He has two unschooling boys, and I'm fascinated by his accounts of their life, which in many ways looks like my fantasy life -- except they have the actual skills to carry it off.

A couple of months ago, I finally asked my library to buy a copy of his latest book, Saved: How I Quit Worrying about Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World. In a lot of ways, it's exactly the kind of book I enjoy. Some parts memoir or personal anecdote, some parts historical examination and some parts inspiration. The most memorable part of the book, for me, was his examination of how money is made. I've been able to avoid debts other than our mortgage since 2008 and I remain committed to doing everything I can to avoid it going forward. I was already aware that money has no intrinsic value; you can't eat it or burn it to keep you warm (oh sure, you could burn paper money but it would take a lot to cook a whole meal). Its value comes solely from everyone agreeing that it has value. But did you know that money is essentially debt itself? When money is created, it's created by borrowing. 

The other part of the book I really enjoyed was how he and and his protagonist, Eric, acknowledge their privilege. I've been increasingly aware of how much privilege is involved in farming, especially if you can do it without debt. (Eric is not a farmer but he has tremendous skills for foraging and building things and clearly for making friends and building community -- all skills I am aware that I am decidedly lacking in right now.) I enjoyed Forrest Pritchard's book, Gaining Ground, as a fun sort of read, but I continually struggled with his unawareness of his privilege. He tells his story like a pulling up by the bootstraps kind of story, where he's pulling up his whole family with his hard work. I have no doubt he worked very hard and went without spending money for a long time. But he inherited a 300-acre farm full of old machinery and a beef herd already in place. The farm also had an unused home he lived in so he didn't need to leave with his parents. And when his grandfather's 50-year-old livestock trailer proved un-roadworthy, his dad bought him a new, albeit smaller one. Of course that doesn't take away from his commitment to pasture-based foods, the truth of his arguments for farmers' markets or the depth of his struggles and hard work. But as someone for whom the main barrier to pursuing a farming life is access to affordable land, it was at times hard to swallow.

So Hewitt's awareness of and gratitude for his privilege is refreshing. He owns his 40 acres and 2000 square-foot home without debt and he and his wife have huge skills (they built their house and their farm's infrastructure themselves) to produce most of their food themselves. Eric, who at the start of the book lives in a 96 square-foot cabin he built himself, earns $10,000 a year and regularly dumpster dives for food and other goods, is the first to count his privilege: he has the same ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation as most of the people in power and could easily find waged work if and when he needs to. He has tremendous skill for finding food, building relationships and making things. So many of us are blind to these privileges.

The funny thing about my response to the book is that it's actually helped me make peace with money. Before I read the book, I dreamed about a day when my family could live without any need for money. I wasn't sure I'd personally be able to make it reality, but I thought it was possible. But the fact that Hewitt and his wife produce so much of their own food (his kids are also avid hunters and forages) and he still earns about $35,000 a year, makes me realize that there's probably no point in trying to avoid money entirely. As he points out, money itself isn't the problem. "The problem is intent; the problem is how we use money, and what we expect of it." The problem is that our idea of money as security is only an illusion, and our focus on accumulating it serves to make us poorer in true wealth.

"Over the past century or so, perhaps longer, we have been taught that to rely on others is to be weak and incapable. The notion that we should depend on one another is almost antithetical to contemporary American expectations of autonomy and independence. But in truth it is that autonomy that exploits, and, irony of ironies, turns us all into dependents of the very arrangements that profess to offer independence. It exploits our resource base, because it depends on each of us owning the raw materials that enable us to shun one another. But even more profoundly, it exploits us, because it deprives us of the opportunity to experience the richness of interconnectedness and the meaningful relationships it gives rise to. By striving to achieve the American ideal of personal independence, we wind up not just independent but isolated." (p. 151)

Hewitt distinguishes between the unconscious and conscious economies as a way to point to true wealth. "I call our society's way of life the 'unconscious economy' and the way of life life I'm striving for the 'conscious economy' because I fervently believe that the only sane way forward -- indeed the only possible way forward -- is to become conscious of both our actions and our intent, and to understand the ramifications of each."

He quotes from Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics, which I think I must read: "To give and receive, to owe and be owed, to depend on others and be depended upon -- this is being fully alive. To neither give nor receive, but to pay for everything; to never depend on any one, but to be financially independent; to not be bound to a community or place, but to be mobile … such is the illusory paradise of the discrete and separate self."

There are parts of the book and Hewitt's style that I find myself reacting to. As a plain language champion, I can't ignore that his sentences are often unnecessarily complex and long, getting in the way of his message. And his old-timey style is occasionally intrusive and distracting. And as someone for whom social media is often my only connection to people, I reacted to his dismissal of it and other new technology that I use as something we've been duped into. As much as I'd like it to be otherwise, for a number of reasons, at the moment I just don't have the time or energy resources to be reaching out to my neighbours and local friends.

But overall, it's definitely worth the read. I recommend it. And I also recommend Hewitt's blog

Monday, December 9, 2013

sourdough buckwheat pancakes

I've been making sourdough buckwheat pancakes at least once a week and often more frequently than that since I first started my gluten-free sourdough starter last March. These things are the bomb. I've been meaning to post the recipe here for ages, but somehow I haven't quite gotten to it. But now Kelly at Oh Lardy has asked for a good buckwheat pancake recipe, so it's time.

In the summer, we went to my parents' cottage for a few days and left the starter at home. My mom had bought a gluten-free pancake mix and even with good maple syrup, I couldn't believe how bland they were (compared to my sourdough buckwheat pancakes of course). If you're reading this, Mom, there was nothing wrong with the mix -- just my tastebuds.

So now I'm spoiled.

I've also found the pancakes work great as sandwich holders for ham and trout -- they're especially nice with dijon. Delightful. Although the other day I tried having one as part of a fried egg sandwich and it was not good.

I've mentioned my love for the rhythm of sourdough recipes before and it hasn't dampened in the eight months since. My favourite recipe is by far these pancakes. They alone make keeping the starter alive worth it. And it didn't take much to create the starter. I used this recipe.

Gluten-free Sourdough Buckwheat Pancakes

The night before, I mix together:

1 cup buckwheat flour*
1 cup of starter
about 1 cup of water

Often I need a bit more water. It should be fairly thick batter, because the morning's ingredients are almost all wet, but not stiff at all. I mix them all together than put it in the oven with the light on.

In the morning, I turn the heat on under the griddle and pull out the batter. I mix in:

3 tbsp of melted butter
1 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 to 1 tsp sea salt

After those are mixed in, I add:
1 egg, beaten

I grab a quarter-cup measure and make sure I'm all ready to go with a hot griddle (I use pretty high heat on mine, but I've used medium-high heat and been fine too). Then, in a separate bowl, I mix together:

1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp water (if the batter is too thick, try 2 tbsp of water)

Once the baking soda and water is somewhat mixed in, I use a spatula to scrape it all out into the batter and fold it in thoroughly. Then I use the quarter-cup measure to pour out each pancake.

*if you need to be gluten-free, make sure the buckwheat flour wasn't milled in a mill that processes wheat. Either light or dark buckwheat works fine, although I find the whole-grain flour more flavourful.

Important note about cooking gluten-free pancakes:
They take longer to cook than gluten-y pancakes. When you're cooking gluten-free pancakes, you don't just wait until bubbles form to flip them. You wait until the very outer edges of just starting to dry a bit and then you flip them. They should also be puffy looking, although I've discovered that if I'm a bit late with the flipping they deflate a bit.

These are really very forgiving to cook. I've made them with thicker and thinner batter and they've been fine, I've made them on higher and lower heat, more and less done… they're always edible. Especially if you slather them with butter under the maple syrup.

So enjoy. If you make them, I'd love to hear how you like them.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

First egg!

First egg!

We've been waiting for our first egg for a while now. One of the Plymouth Barred Rocks, who we've started calling Scarlet, has had a bright red comb and been squatting when we pet her (she's the only one who lets us), both signs of sexual maturity, for more than a week. Eldest has been checking for eggs several times a day and I ask him every day when I see them at lunch.

Scarlet started acting a bit oddly today. It's been very cold this weekend (it went down to -13C last night and didn't get up past -7C this afternoon) and yesterday they refused to leave their run when we opened their gate for some free ranging. Today we again opened the gate and they weren't particularly keen to go out, but eventually they all got our and found a sun spot by the house to cuddle up in. But Scarlet was wandering off on her own. Usually they wander as a group or at least with a friend or too. She went into the coop and came out. Then she flew up on the roof!

She didn't stay up long but it was weird. She paced back and forth in front of the run, as if she couldn't remember to go around the corner and into the gate. She went into the coop and came out. I was doing a bit of work nearby during one of her entries to the coop, and I could hear her scratching in a nest box.

I've heard that the first egg is a bit distressing for hens. They don't know what's happening, and I imagine it's a bit like being in labour and giving birth. Every day. I'm sure they get used to it after a while though. Anyways, her odd behaviour made me wonder if today might be the day. But I'd also heard that sometimes they act oddly for a couple of days, so I didn't want to dwell on it too much. A little later, I was sitting on the couch when suddenly I heard the egg song! (I admit to some considerable googling over the last few weeks on the subject.)


How exciting! We had just had eggs for lunch, so we haven't eaten it yet. But tomorrow!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

it's the simple things

(not our hens' eggs - nobody's started laying yet)

I really miss being at home most of the time. I never get to all the things I want to. I didn't roast a pumpkin or make granola. I didn't finish clearing up the laundry room so we use it as a pseudo-mudroom, didn't clean up Eldest's room so he and Youngest can experiment with sleeping together. I could go on. But I won't. For all the domestic work I'm not doing, I am being pretty productive with my photography and my husband is managing the domestic realm pretty decently, so I can hardly complain.

But I am human, and I certainly do have negative, woe-is-me moments.

Today was miserable, weather-wise. The wind blew loud and fast, and the rain came cold and sharp. It was a day made for books and fires and soup. But my two-year-old is too loud for much book-reading during his waking hours and our fireplace is covered with boxes to prevent the same two-year-old from having another fall of the hearth like when he was 14 months old and went unconscious after what seemed like a seizure. (He was ok, although that spell caused me to see the dietician who diagnosed his severe anemia.)

And besides that, I hadn't finished tucking in my garden plots for the winter. I'd spread chicken compost from my friends who also provided our chickens and still provide us eggs. But I had read that I needed to mulch the beds to prevent the compost nutrients from just running off over the winter. So this afternoon, with much grumbling and self-pity and questioning of this dumb attempt to learn how to grow food and outsource less, I drove out of town and bought some straw bales. I had half-expected the farmer not to be there, so I hadn't thought as far ahead as to where I would put the straw. Really, the only logical place was to spread it on the garden and be done with the thing for this year.

All the way to the garden I grumbled and felt sorry for myself that I wasn't curled up reading in my warm house. But something great happened when we finally got there. It was still cold and windy as all get-out, but the rain stopped and my two-year-old actually heeded my request that he not step on the beds and he stayed in safe areas and did safe things. He even got into helping. So the three of us spread the straw over our three beds, and I found myself enjoying the work and the frosty nips on my cheeks.


I expected to feel satisfied with the task done, but I also just felt good, physically, too. Once again, I intrinsically enjoyed a task that felt like an obligation.

Increasingly, I'm finding my joy in simple moments. This morning, it was when my husband turned on some music while he did the dishes and I chipped away at Mount Foldmore, and the kids sort of helped me (by which I mean Eldest helped and Youngest didn't unfold). I'd put a stewing hen on (not one of ours) to make soup for tonight with some sage and peppercorns and bay leaves and already the house was smelling like the best chicken soup. It just felt really good.

The soup wasn't the best ever but it was pretty damn good.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

coop tour

When we decided to build a chicken coop, we had to figure out a plan pretty quickly, with no previous knowledge of what chickens actually need. So we did a lot of research, fast. There's so much conflicting information out there, ultimately every decision came down to gut feel, personal preference or some other subjective method. For the person who comes looking for chicken coop design ideas, here is what we did.


So this is where we started. We chose the dimensions for simplicity, based on plywood sheets of 4 feet by 8 feet. We adjusted the design a bit. The low wall is four feet and the higher wall of the coop is 5 feet tall.

And here it is the day after Halloween. (How happy are we to have our jack o'lantern get eaten? SO happy!)

We would have liked to build nest boxes out from the main part of the building, but my dad was only here for two days, so it just seemed more complicated than it was worth. Plus we could always upgrade in the future. For now, the nest boxes are in the main part, just behind the bottom of the Baker St. sign, and we access them through the human door on the east wall.
This picture shows you our roost ladder. Mostly the ladies all crowd onto the top bar, but I think they still have a fair amount of growing to do, so eventually I imagine they won't be able to fit. I read that the roosts should allow 12 inches for each bird's width and we spaced the boards about 14 inches apart from each other I think, to prevent higher birds from pooping on lower birds.

We changed the placement of the windows. Originally I was planning for just one, but we decided to do the two we had in the shed, with one of the east side for morning light, and one that opens on the west side for summer breezes. (The prevailing winds come from the northwest. I was hoping the house would shelter the coop heavy winds, but it does not.)

We were very concerned about ventilation, as we read somewhere that you need one square foot of ventilation per hen, even in winter. We ended up not putting in a vent on the north side like in the drawing because we figured it would be too windy. So we left the spaces between the rafters open, and created a vent on the south wall. Since then we have filled the rafter spaces with styrofoam sheets of insulation, which we'll take out in the summer. We've also covered the vent, which is right over their roosts.

You can see the big vent here: thanksgiving-8842

You can also see the other thing on the right-hand wall that I'm very proud of: the poop pit door. It wasn't my idea, but all the best artists are the best thieves. Apparently chickens poop most of their poop at night, when they're roosting. We chicken wired under the roost ladder so the birds can't walk around in their poop, and we made a sort of trap door, so we can just open the door and scrape out the poop. We can do it daily if we want. And the rest of the coop stays pretty clean, since they're mostly outside or sleeping.

Here it is open, with some shavings spread to absorb some of the moisture and odour:

And here are the nest boxes with the first curtains I've ever 'made': thanksgiving-8830

We read somewhere that hens like their nest boxes dark and private, so I thought the curtains would help. I've been holding onto our old rice bags for ages, because they're so beautiful, but I haven't known what to do with them. This seemed a perfect use. We nailed a small board along the floor so that the eggs won't roll out.

The downside of the poop pit is that it significantly reduces the square footage available for the hens to hang out in during the day if they want. I had read to give hens 4 square feet of floor space each, and at 4 feet by 8 feet, ours was big enough for 8 hens. And I pretty much cut that in half with the poop pit. Given that our run is roofed, I'm not too worried as they really don't spend a lot of time in the coop (so far, anyways), but I'm very aware that we're really at max. capacity with our 9 hens. So we will be making some hard decisions for at least some of them when they stop laying eggs.

The last thing to show you is my husband's ingenious mechanism for opening and closing and locking the chicken's pop door. I will confess that at the time I thought he was overcomplicating things, but I let him go ahead because he was so clearly enjoying it. But I have to say, now, I'm pretty impressed.


We can open and close it without going into the run, which is nice because we usually do it in semi-darkness at either end of the day. Our run is predator-proof enough that we could just leave it open but I figure when it's cold it's nice to shut them cosy and even safer. Plus we have recently seen raccoon footprints around a few spots where they've tried digging under the fence. (Thank goodness my husband didn't listen to me when I suggested we take the 'easy' way out and just fence down to the ground to avoid all the digging required to bury the fence!)

Back to the door. So my husband rigged up a pulley system that takes the cord up to the roof and outside the run.

He rigged up a neat little thingie to hold the door open. _DSC8740

Here the little arrow/handle hanging when the door is closed. _DSC8748

He had to add a weight to the door so it would close most of the way on its own. _DSC8743

He also built the bits to hold the rod in place, and he made the end of the rod angled on one side so it would go over the door while closing it the rest of the way tight. _DSC8755

He even made his own handles for the rod from some pruned branches. _DSC8739

So I think that's just about it. We've also done tons of research and a few amendments for helping the hens manage the cold, but I'll save that for another post.


Monday, October 28, 2013

final harvest and some chicken pics

In some ways, my garden this year was a pretty big disappointment. I planted so many beets over the season but I've really only gotten a few pounds. The ones I planted in July keep getting eaten by something. The early ones were stunted by my idiocy (i.e. compacted soil). We didn't get many carrots considering how many seeds we sowed. And our pumpkins and squash plants were nearly killed.

But there were some successes. The best was the celeriac. Well, not the celeriac I tried starting way back in March. Those poor, stunted things have only survived and haven't produced so much as a hint of a bump. But the celeriac starts I bought did very well. Tonight I rushed to harvest the last 10, and the final tally is 18 roots for a total of 22.75 pounds, including the greens; I feed the leaves to the chickens and freeze the stalks for flavouring stocks. Celeriac seems pretty disease and pest resistant. While everything else wilted under the onslaught of powdery mildew and squash bugs, the celeriac kept going through it all. I think it was their kind of season: cool and wet. Even though we had lots of slugs, they never appeared to suffer at all.

By the numbers, zucchini was the real success, which I harvested at least 27 pounds of (I'm pretty sure I forgot to weigh and record a few too). I planted two plants of the variety Costata Romanesco, at the recommendation of Carol Deppe. When I bought the seeds last January, I thought I would try my hand at dehydrating foods, including squash slices like Ms. Deppe, but life went in other directions. My main desire for the zucchinis were to eat them grilled, which I discovered last year. But the first zucchinis I cut off the plant tasted absolutely terrible grilled. I still don't know why: if it's soil (truth be told, none of our vegetables taste as good as local farmer-grown vegetables) or the variety or what. But after that I stuck to grating them for baking, freezing them for future baking, and using them in chutney. Even so, I'm ashamed to say I couldn't keep up. At least a couple of them rotted before I could get to them. The plants did pretty well, especially compared to the delicata squash and sugar pumpkin plants. I did see a few squash bugs hanging about the zucchini and thought they'd be goners, but they didn't seem to struggle too much.

I'm still declaring the pumpkins a success. We only harvested four out of the seven fruits that formed (one withered and two got eaten by pests so I fed the remnants to the chickens) but that made for nearly 12 pounds of food. I will definitely try squash and pumpkin again, but I'll give them more room.

Some volunteer potatoes sprung up and we got 7.5 pounds of potatoes from them - just tonight we found two more big Norlands when we dug up the celeriac. Let it be known: volunteer foods are welcome to turn up in my garden any time and I will let them live until I can eat them at the first opportunity.

My husband spent most of today insulating our chicken coop and buying a heat lamp in preparation for tonight's forecasted -5C. We had a chicken mentor assess our coop the other day, and it needs some work to keep the birds warm. We're not really ready for -30C nights, but we'll chip away at it and hopefully have a long while before we need to be ready for it. We turned the light on tonight but they were all still awake at 9 o'clock, so I think it weirded them out. We turned it off, hoping they would be able to relax and the new insulation would keep them warm overnight.


We still have a lot to learn. But they are really lovely to have around. I love having creatures who eat our vegetable scraps with gusto and will eventually turn it into eggs and compost. And they're lively and adorable and sing some pleasing songs. Tonight a bunch of them gave themselves dust baths for the first time (that we'd seen anyways), which was fascinating. But the best is when they jump up to get the wee berries from our burning bush (at least I think that's what it is). A couple of experienced chicken keepers I know were surprised to hear that chickens would do this, so maybe it's just ours, but they are adorable. It's my new mission to try to photograph them jumping for berries, but with the days getting shorter and me at work for most of the daylight hours, I don't know if it will happen. In the meantime, I offer some of these.


Now that I've seen what fun they have when we let them loose in our backyard, I am struck by what cruelty it must be to contain hens four to a cage for their entire lives. I'm so glad we're having this chance to get to know the pleasures of chicken keeping beyond fresh eggs.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Thanksgiving goings-on

Canadian Thanksgiving is coming to a close. We spent a couple of days at my parents' farm, where we had a most delicious turkey dinner, mostly made by me.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that I bring a local, pastured turkey instead of my mom buying the usual Butterball. And then, of course, I had to learn how to cook it, because pastured birds are a breed apart for cooking, apparently. And then I had to manage the timing of everything. My mom made a few things and my husband made one, but the rest was mostly me.

I brined the turkey at sunrise. My parents' covered porch is a beautiful thing.thanksgiving-8807
Mostly I was worried that it wasn't anywhere near thawed, and I figured the brining would help a lot with that. I added sage and garlic and peppercorns to the brine and it smelled delicious right away.

Then it only took a little over two hours to cook the 15-pound monster. Apparently pastured turkey cooks much faster than stuffed, all grain-fed birds. My husband told me privately that he thinks it might have been the best turkey he's ever had. It was so moist! It wasn't perfect -- the legs weren't quite done when the breast was, so we carved off the breast and put the rest back in, where it got dried out. But it will be fine in soup.

Before we went to my parents' we went to the garden plot to pull a celeriac for coleslaw and to see how everything was doing. And we discovered the most wonderful wee surprise: that stalwart Delicata squash plant that somehow managed to grow three tiny squash after being nearly destroyed by squash bugs had actually managed to grow FOUR squash. One was hiding under the zucchini plant.
I've got it curing in the kitchen window now.

Before we left and after we came home, we put the finishing touches on the chicken coop and the birds arrived tonight. I plan to write a whole post about the coop and the decisions we made, but in the meantime, here is the view from my living room window:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

on discipline

I think there's a common assumption, around school and other things in life, that sometimes you just have to do things you don't want to. The implication vis a vis children and especially education is that kids need to learn to do things they don't want to do by being forced to do things they don't want to do.

I confess I've been prone to this anxiety from time to time, especially since we started homeschooling. But I don't think the belief is factual at all. Discipline comes from love. It comes from connecting with the larger goal or need more than the short-term inconvenience or unpleasantness. I learned discipline from loving horses. Getting up early to feed them and turn them out before school, returning home early to muck their stalls, feed them and bring them in... well it wasn't always fun when I was a teenager. But I connected with the larger goal of wanting to ride one horse and compete and improve with one horse, and that required shovelling shit and getting up early and sometimes opting out of fun things to take care of this dependent creature.

I never make my bed. I'm sure some would label that behaviour a lack of discipline. But I think it's a matter of the pleasure of getting into a made bed at night (and I do find this a pleasure on days when I wash the sheets) is not enough to make me take the extra time in the morning or any other time of day. A few nights ago, at midnight, I proclaimed myself a rock star. Not because I was doing anything remotely musical but because I did the dishes when I really didn't feel like it. My husband asked, "Do you ever FEEL like doing the dishes?" And I do. In fact, most of the times I do the dishes because I feel like doing them. Not because I take pleasure in the act, but because I connect to the larger goal of having visual space to breathe (and actual space to prepare food) on the kitchen counters.

André Stern, a grown unschooler and French musician, takes it one step further. He says: "Learning takes place because of the interest we have for things; self-discipline arises from the pleasure one has from doing these things. We believe, wrongly, that discipline is a framework imposed from the outside, that it requires a system that forces the child to do something, to practice. However, the natural discipline comes from the child, from within. It grows out of pleasure and curiosity."

Speaking of discipline, we are still plugging away on the chicken coop. It's feeling pretty heavy and slow, but my dad came today and gave us a bit of a kick start to finish. We aren't finished yet, but the gate to the run is built (thanks, Dad!) and the fencing has begun. Soon, I will get a feeder and waterer, and set up a place to store bedding and feed... Soon, I think we may actually have hens cooing around in our backyard. Soon, when we want an egg, we may just be able to walk to the backyard.

Friday, September 20, 2013


I spoke too soon. Ever since we started building the chicken coop, which is still unfinished although we've been making steady progress, life has felt awfully overwhelming. I'm not sure the coop is to blame. Work has blown up, in a way that I can't even blog about. I started teaching a 12-week photography class last weekend, and I took on a small freelance gig, in the hopes that it could be the start of a different sort of paid work.

The problem with trying to create change in your life is that it orients you to the future, which can make the present more difficult and harder to enjoy. But I'm working on it.

In the meantime, the coop is coming along. I now know to budget at least double the money and triple the time you think something will take if you're doing something for the first time. Also, maybe start in the spring if it's an outdoor project. Because if you have to paint, you need the nights to stay above 10C.

The work on the coop has become considerably less satisfying than the initial burst when, within hours, we went from nothing to a floor and four walls and rafters. Now we have to figure out details and solve problems we didn't anticipate. It took my husband ages to cover the ventilation areas with chicken wire to prevent predator attacks. We've done a lot of the detail work now. We still have a few areas of the coop to cover in chicken wire and then comes the worst job ever. Fencing in the run by digging the chicken wire down a foot deep into the earth. I am NOT looking forward to that. In the meantime, here are some pictures of our progress so far.

ChickenCoopDay5+6-8451 ChickenCoopDay5+6-8448
That is a whole lotta staples my husband nailed in. His hands were bloody by the time he was done.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

a chicken coop!

It's funny how a decision can be both relatively spur of the moment and a long, long time coming. I've been pitching the idea of our own backyard hens to my husband for many months now. For many months, he has resisted, citing the work required and the smell. When he came on board the farm fantasy train, though, I wanted to start moving forward. We are growing vegetables in a community garden and we're learning, but there are two very limiting factors to really getting into it: the space available is limited there (although VERY generous by community garden standards) and it's not at home, which makes it difficult to spend as much time and attention there as I'd like to. The next obvious step would be to start growing food at home, and while our yard is very big, it is shady all over and, also, already landscaped. The previous owners were huge gardeners. It's possible I could find a few spots for some leafy greens, but that's probably it, and that's not enough to motivate me.

What we can do in our yard is have chickens and see how we like that. It would probably be a good idea to get some sense of whether we even like caring for them before we do something crazy like buy a farm. So last weekend we decided to just get chickens this fall. I know of a local breeder with heritage breed pullets (I'll tell you all about him after we've supplied ourselves... sorry) that he's willing to sell at the moment, so we needed to move quickly on a coop.

Our first impulse was to buy one ready-made, but I thought back to my 2012 resolution, and we thought about how much Husband and Eldest have been enjoying making neat stuff, and it seemed like a great time to learn something about carpentry and have some fun with creating our own design. It happens that my dad is a whizz at building. He built my family's cottage all by himself, and both his dad and his grandfather were carpenters. And it happened that my parents were unusually available this long weekend to help build it.

So we've spent the last week obsessively learning about what chickens actually need in their dwellings. All week I wasn't sure we'd actually go through with it, but my dad had set a challenge: have all the materials and design done by the time he arrived Saturday morning. We had a concept figured out and bought a bunch of materials but there were still a lot of details to be worked out based on what actually works with the materials, things that we really needed my dad's input on.

I discovered that I really enjoy building stuff when I can learn from someone who knows what they're doing. Because my dad is a MACHINE, we made such fast progress that I stayed really motivated. Over two days, we were able to go from this:

to this:

I think my favourite part is that we're using windows we found in our shed. The run will be fenced and roofed as well. I'll go into more detail about our design when it's done.

In the meantime, I will say that I had a great time this weekend. We were all working together on a common goal, and it felt great. Eldest was Grandpa's assistant and loved it. Husband did a lot of childcare and heavy labour while I learned from my dad about how to drill screws in, hammer nails (this wasn't actually the first time he taught me that, but I needed a refresher), and generally asked why every time he quickly figured out an angle or did something apparently without thinking. I used power saws for the first time ever and at the moment I'm feeling reasonably confident about finishing off the rest of the coop. Except for digging the trench to bury the chicken wire al around the perimeter of the coop and run. Our neighbourhood offers such a variety of animals who would love a chicken dinner, I feel like we really need to do our due diligence with predator protection. (Our friend lost most of her flock a year or so ago in a single night to some predator.)

I think working on a joint project is a really good way to connect with my dad. He told me about how he spent a whole summer helping his grandpa build his last house. He was 10 and his grandpa was 80. His grandfather built the whole house, stairs, cabinets, roof and all, using only hand tools and he could figure out everything with the tables on his square whereas my dad had to place each rafter to figure out the bits to cut out. His grandfather's saws were so sharp, he could saw through a 2x4 in three strokes, and every night he went down to his basement to sharpen all the saws he'd used that day. What an amazing experience that summer must have been for my dad.

It was really an amazing and beautiful weekend, working together with three generations. More than once, I thought, "I could get used to this." I even made this zucchini plum chutney, and even though the author said it was better after some time, we tested it today and it was delicious and a gorgeous, well... plum colour. Which is wonderful news because I have a LOT of zucchini to use up. I plan to try it with rhubarb as well.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

lessons from the garden

Our community garden plots have not done that well this year. It may be that last year's success was all down to beginner's luck. But there have been compounding factors. The spring was cold and late. By the time planting conditions arrive, I had just started working full-time and had barely any time to do any work there. Then it rained and rained and rained, and I didn't want to do any work there. The weeds took over. I managed to fight them back, and we've harvested a few zucchinis and some potatoes that just showed up, missed in last year's harvest I guess.

I've learned some new things. The seeds I planted in early April did germinate, but that's pretty much it. I thought it was better not to till the soil, but apparently that's only if you have adequate organic matter. The poor beets and chard are so stunted, even four months later, I'll just put them back into the earth. So that's a good lesson: keep the soil from compacting. 

For the second year in a row, the peas died as soon as they started producing a few pods. I don't know why, but a fellow gardener suggested it might be a lack of the bacteria in the soil that helps the plant fix nitrogen. I remember in an episode of Gourmet Farmer, they worked with a soil biologist who cultivates microorganisms to boost food production. They grew two side-by-side patches of the same vegetables: one with specific amendments of compost, nutrients and microorganisms and one just with compost. At the end of the season they did a taste test, and not only did the first patch produce more and better looking vegetables, but the vegetables all had much better flavour from that patch. I wonder if there's someone in my area who cultures microorganisms for hire. At the very least, I plan to prep my beds properly this fall: more compost, hopefully from my friend with the backyard chickens, plus a cover crop to turn in next spring. I haven't done a lot of research but I'm thinking buckwheat or maybe some kind of vetch. 

This year, I've been trying my hand at squash instead of potatoes. I planted zucchinis, delicata squash and a pie pumpkin. The pumpkin is rampant, overtaking its neighbouring zucchini and already setting 7 fruit with more female flowers on the way. The zucchinis are not as prolific as I was expecting, but they're producing. And the poor delicata appears to be living up to its name. It was nearly destroyed by squash bugs before I discovered what they were and how to fight them: hand-to-exoskeleton mortal combat. I use duct tape wound sticky side out around my hand to catch them, because they're wiley and hide quickly when they see you coming. It's trying to make a comeback, so we'll see what happens. It had set fruit, and I was very excited, but those parts have all died, so I may not get any. I've caught a bunch of squash bugs on the pumpkin too, but my watching and killing appears to be keeping them at bay so far. The zucchini seem utterly unaffected, touch wood. 

I also have a big patch of celeriac. Convinced there was no way I'd find anyone selling celeriac seedlings, I tried starting my own from seed. Celeriac needs a long, frost-free season to mature, so there is no direct seed option here in Ontario. A number of the seeds I planted germinated but they've done very poorly. They were only really big enough for transplanting in July. Luckily, the Guelph Urban Organic Farm was selling celeriac seedlings, so I bought a bunch and those ones are thriving, with large bulges already swelling from the ground. I couldn't bring myself to actually kill the celeriac I started, but I highly doubt they will produce any food. They are still struggling and small. Next time, I need to start them a month earlier, and feed them lots of nutrients. I'm pretty sure the planting medium I started them in just didn't cut it.

* * *
I started this post several days ago, but didn't know how to wrap it up. Tonight when I went to the garden, I discovered my pumpkin, with all its five glorious, perfect pumpkins (one died and one got eaten since I wrote about it above), is all but dead. It's had powdery mildew and for days I've been meaning to spray it with milk and water a la Dr. Google, but you're supposed to do it during the day, and I can't get out there easily during the day. And, to be honest, I didn't think it was THAT urgent of a situation. The plant does look a lot like the delicata that was destroyed by squash bugs, and I have killed a bunch of the suckers on the pumpkin, but I didn't see them overrunning the plant the way I did the other squash. And I killed bugs every other night for a week.

Anyways, tomorrow I'll try to detach myself from the ever-voracious nursing toddler so I can spray the plant in the morning and get into work on time for my 9:30 meetings with senior executives. I am very, very bummed out about the state of my pumpkin plan. I was so looking forward to all the pumpkins.

I guess this too is an important lesson: never count your pumpkins before they ripen. Also, don't try to grow them vertically or plant them too close to each other or other squashes.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

homeschooling update

A number of people (in fact, I think, most people we've discussed the recent changes in our life with) have expressed surprise that Husband is just continuing the homeschooling now that I'm working full-time. I generally express surprise in return. We made the decision together. And it doesn't make sense to send a kid to school because another parent starts bringing home the pastured bacon. Or at least not to us. But I do understand that some couples are not on the same page around homeschooling. For all our problems, and there have been many (one day I will blog about how we narrowly avoided separating late this past winter), but there are two things that could have been a huge source of marital strife and haven't been for us: one thing that is unbloggable and homeschooling.

That said, we do deserve a bit of credit. I don't think every couple or maybe even most couples could change up their roles as successfully as we appear to have. He approached the transition like training for a new job, and I approached it as sharing what worked for me but with space for him to find his own way.

My sister recently asked us what our plans for the fall are, vis a vis Eldest and school. The question caught me by surprise, as our decision to homeschool is not a year to year thing, which makes the answer pretty clear: more of the same. I think Eldest is thriving. There have been a few areas where I thought the unschooling approach might break down, but it hasn't. (I've seen rumblings on the Internet that some people are quite dogmatic about what constitutes unschooling, but I haven't encountered them myself. And besides, I'm not much of a one for labels. I understand unschooling to be based on a trust in children's innate capacity and drive to learn and because of that fundamental trust, we follow our family's interests and give the kids space to pursue their own interests on their own timeline, rather than following an arbitrary curriculum or timeline).

One are where I thought approach might break down was swimming lessons. I believe swimming is an important life skill and it's one of the few things that I think my kids must learn (cooking and reading are two others), although I'm agnostic on the timelines for the learning. At the beginning of last summer, Eldest was afraid to even put his face in the water. He loved water in baths, but deeper water was very scary for him. Last summer, we discovered a wonderful learning opportunity: private lessons with a young woman in her family's backyard pool. No other kids in the water, and just one teacher to get to know over the summer. 

It took a while for him to trust the instructor, after a bad experience with private lessons at a public pool (the teacher told him she would catch him and then didn't - he was furious and so were we). But once he did, he made amazing progress facing his fears under her guidance. She just had a knack for when to push and when to withdraw and let him do something fun. This year, it's her sister who's teaching and she seems to have the same knack. He's now swimming across the whole length of the pool, treading water, and jumping off the diving board, all without a life jacket. What I love especially is that within the lesson he seeks out his challenges, asking if he can swim farther or tread water for longer or practice a particular stroke he enjoys. It's just wonderful to see his newfound confidence. It's worth noting that he made a major leap after our weekend at the cottage, when he spent an hour or two in the deep water (wearing his life jacket) playing with all the other kids with no intervention from grown-ups. 

The other area where I thought the unschooling approach might break down was with transitioning out of training wheels on his bike. For ages he was scared and refused and we didn't push him. I was of two minds: that he didn't really NEED to ride a bike without training wheels and that maybe we should just force him (Note to self: any time I've tried to force something on Eldest it has been not only unsuccessful but generally traumatic for everyone involved). Then, at the beginning of the summer, we realized that the training wheels had become bent and almost never touched the ground anyways. So Husband adjusted them even higher and taught Eldest how to put his foot out for stopping and starting. After a few days of that, or maybe a week, Eldest asked to have the training wheels removed and he's been biking like a fiend ever since. 

In other homeschooling news, Eldest is pretty much reading. Mostly he taught himself from road signs and grocery store signs and from having us read to him. Then one day he read a board book to Youngest, and now he's reading some of his own books. His vision remains a bit of an issue, I think, because he mostly reads larger print words and refuses to put his glasses on for smaller print. And he still likes the experience of being read to, which I think is great. 

I can't remember if I've already said this here, but I think there are disadvantages to reading independently at an early age. I was reading novels by age 5, and I don't really have any memories of my parents reading to me. And we never developed the practice of discussing what I was reading and thinking critically about it, so I got kind of messed up by reading all of VC Andrews' books when I was 11. And finally, I use words as my primary method of gathering information. If there are words, I pretty much ignore any other information. Whereas I see Eldest takes in all the other information first, and then the words add to it. 

I think one of the biggest benefits of homeschooling for Eldest has been that he can watch me try to learn my own things and make mistakes and learn from them. And he watches Husband too. Eldest has a bit of a perfectionist bent that was making him very private about his learning and making mistakes. But I think he's getting a lot more comfortable with exposing his learning and mistakes, and that's such an asset in life, I think.

Monday, August 26, 2013

apple season

I think this might be a good year for apples. Inspired by Not Far from the Tree, I plan to drop off a few notes like this tomorrow. note-8328

Sunday, August 25, 2013

life and stuff

So we're a few months into the new regime, of me working full-time, a couple of kilometers from home. I'm afraid to say it, but I think we all agree that life is pretty good. Of course I'm having to pick and choose how I spend my time outside work, and the kids miss spending as much time with me as they used to. But there are some very good things about life at the moment.

I swear my husband is happier. He's slower to commit to that declaration, fearing that it's just the novelty of change. But he has more energy, he laughs more easily and he snaps less at the kids. He really loves being outside for most of the day, and they've really been enjoying the summer. He and Eldest have gotten up to some really cool things. They built an insect hotel (it just needs some roofing), a rustic sailboat, and a cardboard airplane (this may still be in the works, but I think they decided it just wouldn't fly. They've bought balsa gliders and other storebought flying things. One got caught in the wind, did a 180 and landed high in some trees, irretrievable. My parents brought an awesome hawk kite home from China a couple of years ago, and we've been too afraid to fly it. But after seeing some kite flyers a few weeks ago, they were inspired to go kite flying, and the hawk kite was amazing. They've discovered the National Film Board of Canada's website and have watched a whole bunch of animations by Norman McLaren, among other nature and geography documentaries.

They all come to visit me at lunch, and I nurse Youngest and get to connect with what they've done and what they're planning for the rest of the day. I ride my bike or walk most days, or they give me a ride if I'm feeling cruddy or if the weather is cruddy. Life is much easier with Husband at home and Eldest homeschooling than when we were both working, Husband out of town, and Eldest was in daycare. In the morning, it's only me who has to get out the door at a certain time. I think this is pretty dreamy.

Husband does a lot more cooking, and we've discovered he does amazing things with meat. In late May, we got a quarter of a grassfed beef. We lost some of it in a freezer malfunction, but still have a lot left, and he's been learning to cook the new cuts with aplomb. He makes the gluten-free muffins and granola I used to make, so Youngest and I can have snacks. He hasn't yet taken over the broth-making, although we haven't done much over the summer because I haven't wanted to heat up the house. I wonder if he will in the cooler weather.

All in all, life feels pretty sweet for the most part. Of course, I could do without some of the office politics stuff, but I work with some wonderful people who make me feel like a good person, and I enjoy the thinking and writing aspect of the job. I just wish it didn't take up so much time.

I've been harbouring a farm fantasy ever since I read Radical Homemakers and realized that there could be a different way to have a farm than the way my parents did. Although I have moments where I think, maybe we could just keep things as they are, the fantasy isn't really abating. Now that Husband is experiencing the joy of life at home without a lot of external schedules (some days anyways), he's seeing the value of my vision, and I think he's finally on board with the farm fantasy. This is a very good thing.

Obviously, with us having no real skills (other than my years of horse shit-shovelling experience), it's at least a year or two out. And in the meantime, the community garden experience offers good learning. We're also going to get chickens this fall, to see how we like having them. If/when we get a farm, I think I'd like to start with chickens, provided we enjoy working with them.

I keep reading and watching memoirs and shows about urban folks moving to the country to grow their own food, and there's one major gap in their stories. Nobody talks about the money, about how you finance this dream without debt, especially when you have children you need to feed, shelter and clothe and who can't earn their keep just yet. In our area, you can't even get an acre with a house for much less than half a million dollars. So I'm pretty sure the farm dream requires moving some distance away.

I remember when we were debating whether to try homeschooling with Eldest, we noticed that it's very hard to make a decision to try something that could be better or worse, when your current situation is ok. It's much easier to try something new when everything sucks. You don't have anything to lose. But if things are ok, even nice, you stand to lose a lot. Especially if it involves moving across the province to a place where you don't know anyone.

Last fall I went to a parenting workshop with Ingrid Bauer. And she said, "This is sweet. And yet I want to reach for something sweeter." That's where I'm at, I think.

As sweet as life is at the moment, I don't want to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. I think three or maybe four hours, maybe every other day, would be perfect. I'm not the kind of person who goes outside for the sake of going outside in the winter. But if I have animals to feed, I'll enjoy it when I have to. I enjoy the forced observation of the garden and feeling my body move. I want more of all that.  I'm hoping to blog more about this process of learning and transformation, but that just seems to get squeezed out. If I'm honest, it probably doesn't help that this space doesn't answer back.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Vegetarian Myth

I recently read The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. I'm not sure what to say about it, but I definitely think it's worth discussing. Written by a former vegan of 20 years, at times it's probably pretty alienating for current vegetarians and vegans (if they can get past the title of course. I found the title slightly embarrassing. Some of my closest friends are vegetarians and I did actually hide the book when they came over. And although it was so well-written that I wanted to read it all the time, I felt very uncomfortable pulling it out in waiting rooms or other public places.)

When I'm reading a book, I often earmark pages I want to come back to for a second look, maybe to quote in a blog post, or to research or ponder something further. This book was so compelling and well-written I think I earmarked every second page. I struggled a bit with her tone, because she did sound patronizing to vegetarians. But her point was that vegetarians already care deeply for their health and the earth; the decision to become vegetarian or vegan more often than not comes from concern for the wider world. But in her view, and she's pretty convincing as far as I'm concerned, that decision is wrong. Vegetarianism will not save the planet and feed its hungry people. Keith also goes into the nutritional side of things, although on this front I was already well convinced. (There's nothing quite like having a malnourished infant to teach you good nutrition.)

She gives evidence of how the human body has evolved for eating more meat than plant matter. And how even if you yourself don't eat dead animal flesh, your soil needs it to grow vegetables. And she also talks about the massive surplus of males that come from dairy and egg production. (An episode of River Cottage touched on how with the veal industry pretty much destroyed by ethical concerns, often male calves are killed within a day or two because modern dairy breeds don't make good beef. This seems like a terrible waste of a life. In that episode, Hugh visited an ethical veal farmer who gives the calves a decent, slightly longer life at least, and I came away feeling like I'm going to consume dairy products, it's only fair to also consume ethically raised veal. Although I haven't yet found a source. I think the same goes for male chicks from modern laying hen breeds. Heritage livestock breeds were often bred to make good meat and dairy or eggs and, depending on the animal, to do field work too, so there was no waste. But modern breeds have been overbred.)

Factory farming animals is wrong in so many horrible ways, but there is another option. Raising animals humanely on pasture improves the soil and converts grasses -- which are inedible to humans -- into human food. Forgive me if I've already linked to this but it seriously blew my mind: raising pastured livestock reverses global warming and desertification. Watch the video about livestock in sub-Saharan Africa. And raising annual monocrops like wheat, soybeans and corn is pretty devastating to the environment. Keith basically blames the last 10,000 years of agriculture and the aggressive and sexist civilization it gave rise to for the dire state of our planet. I found her discussion in this line absolutely fascinating and I couldn't wait to see what she proposed as a solution.

I was disappointed. Perhaps you saw that coming. She didn't really have much of a solution except to eat what grows where you live and to grow at least some of your own food. I think this is sound advice. But she lost me when she talked about the massive die-off of humans that needs to happen to come back to sustainability. I read The Hunger Games at the same time as I started Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, which was a pretty freaky combination. But I would rather do my damnedest to improve things before I or, worse, my kids have to live The Hunger Games.

All that said, The Vegetarian Myth is worth the read. I just wish it offered a better solution and more hopeful prospects.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

weird things

This morning our pasture-based farmer had fresh chicken feet. I need to get more bone broths into my guy and I think chicken stock has more versatility, flavour-wise than beef. So I picked up a couple bags for 50 cents each. I have a habit of doing things that scare me (not physically -- I have no interest in skydiving or bungee jumping -- but psychologically), and I've been thinking about trying to learning how to butcher a whole animal, just to see if I could. But anyways, the feet. I figured there's no time like the present since it was cold and gray today and due to be colder and grayer tomorrow. I don't know how people keep consuming bone broths through the summer because it adds so much heat and humidity to your house. My goal is to make and freeze as much broth as I can.

So anyways... these creepy chicken feet. They are seriously creepy. If I'd known I might need to peel them and would have to cut their toenails off, I would not have bought them. But I did it, and it really wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. They'd already been peeled, so I didn't blanch them. I just put them in the pot with cold water, a couple tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and let it sit for an hour before slowly bringing it to a simmer. It looked gross for a long time. If I stir it, it still looks gross when they come to the surface of the pot, but it smells quite delicious. It helps that I added some vegetable scraps and onion skins, bay leaves and peppercorns, I'm sure.

So that was weird.

The other weird thing was driving to the other side of town, to a near-deserted milk processing plant to buy an 11-litre jug of organic maple syrup. The deal was totally legit (not like I was buying raw milk or anything), but the producer doesn't sell his syrup at a market. He drives a milk truck part-time, so he just takes orders and delivers them on his way.

I'm not normally picky about organic production for maple syrup since nobody sprays maple trees, but they use slightly different detergents and defoamers than conventional maple syrup production and this bulk quantity was bigger and less expensive than any I've seen elsewhere. This is a very large jug of maple syrup we have now. When we open it, we'll pour some into a smaller bottle and put the big jug in our new (to us) deep freezer until we need to refill the smaller bottle.

Because of our dietary restrictions and also because I've been trying to shop seasonally and locally, we have like four different places we buy our groceries. If I got stuck in a weekly shop frame of mind, I'd pretty much have to shop every day, which I did in the early days of all these changes. I figure one solution is to buy as much in bulk as I can. So some time ago I bought 50 pounds of rolled oats (only to discover that Cure Tooth Decay says oatmeal is about the worst thing for children with tooth decay. Crap.) And now 11 litres of maple syrup. Next up could be a whole lamb or perhaps a side of pork?

* * *
Speaking of weird things, a huge change in our lives is coming soon. My old job was vacant, and with such short severance coverage from my husband's lost job, it just seemed like a no-brainer to see if they might be interested in rehiring me. So as of May 21, my husband will be the primary caregiver and I will win bread and bring home the bacon. This way, I can walk to work in 20 minutes or bike in 5, which means no second car (Hallelujah!) and a bit more family time every day. It means my husband won't have to take the first job that comes his way, even if it were far away. It means we can keep eating well. It means I can apply all the learning I've done about myself over the last year or so to my work life. Of course, it's slightly ironic that it came within months of my finally feeling like I was getting this at-home gig and doing ok at it, and literally within days of feeling like I just had the sweetest life ever. I can still feel that way though. And it will be my new project to feel that way while working.

But oh I will miss my kids. They will be great, I'm sure, and will love the chance to get closer to their dad, but I will miss them. Especially Youngest, who is still nursing on demand. Eldest had weaned by this age, but he was hale and hearty and he was drinking milk. Youngest can't tolerate any nutritious milk substitute, so breastmilk remains very important nutritionally. Especially when he gets sick. He's still pretty thin, so when he loses his appetite, he really suffers.

And of course there are my other interests, which will necessarily take a backseat. Whenever I get worried about this, which is with some frequency, I remind myself that to everything there is a season. We knew my husband worked in a volatile industry when I quit my job, and I accepted that leaving the workforce might mean I couldn't just jump back in whenever I wanted at the same level I was at. I would flip burgers if I needed to. I just didn't expect the situation to arise so soon, before I'd developed the practical skills of resilience I've been working on so slowly. But the fact that I'm literally able to return to where I left is so lucky, I can't help but wonder at the synchronicity, that maybe I still have some stuff to learn there.

Edited to add: I just realized I was missing a pretty important word in the first sentence: FEET. The farmer had chicken feet. I have corrected now.

Monday, May 6, 2013

tooth decay

Poor Youngest did NOT enjoy his trip to the dentist this morning. I'd been thinking about taking him for a while, but since my husband lost his job a week and a half ago and we have only a few days' more coverage for health benefits, it was time. I very much want to try curing his tooth decay with diet before trying conventional dental treatment. But I wanted to know from the dentist just how bad the decay was. I didn't get a solid answer this morning, but we've been referred to a pediatric specialist. With the appointment not until July, I figure we've got two months to do our best to improve his teeth.

I mentioned Cure Tooth Decay earlier. It's pretty compelling, and I figure it's worth a try before putting my not-even-two-year-old under general anesthesia and drilling bigger holes in his teeth. The main thrust of the book is that the explanation for tooth decay dentists are currently working with is wrong. It is sugar that primarily causes tooth decay, but not because it feeds the bacteria in mouth, which produce acid that harms your teeth, as is currently believed. Rather, it's the spikes in blood sugar that mess with your ratio of calcium to phosphorus in your blood, which in turn weakens your teeth. Also, the lectins and phytates in grains prevents you from absorbing the minerals necessary to repair teeth. And get this: whole grains are worse for your teeth than refined grains, which have less phytic acid. White rice and white flour apparently cause fewer problems than whole grains. Which has me thinking. Pretty much all gluten-free grains are whole grains.

A number of dentists worked in the early part of the 20th century on exploring the nutritional causes of tooth decay and curing it through diet. One of them, Dr. Weston Price was able to cure children's tooth decay with just one super-nutritious meal per day. He also travelled the world looking for traditional cultures with the best dental, reproductive and general health and exploring their diets. Although the cultures he explored ate a wide variety of foods, what they had in common were generous quantities of fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K.

So, based on the recommendations in Cure Tooth Decay and our wariness of eliminating any more foods from our diet, here is what we're going to try to do:

  • eat eggs in the morning instead of oatmeal
  • eat soups and stews with homemade bone broth, meat and vegetables for lunch instead of eggs
  • eat stuff we normally eat for dinner (mostly meat and vegetables, sometimes rice and vegetables)
  • supplement with fermented cod liver oil and royal butter blend (once we can find a Green Pastures distributor in Canada) instead of Halibut Liver Oil with synthetic Vitamin A and D-Drops, which we're currently giving him; this will provide vitamins A, D and K
  • as much as possible, eat only soaked and/or soured grains
  • eat more mineral and vitamin C-rich vegetables like leafy greens and cruciferous veggies
  • eat more fermented foods (my sauerkraut is coming along nicely but isn't quite ready yet)
  • as much as possible, only serve fruits or other sweets with fat and protein to slow the blood sugar spike
  • use more honey and maple syrup than refined sugar for sweetening
So that's the plan. I hope we're able to implement it without too much difficulty, especially given that there will likely be big changes for us coming up soon.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

farm show treats

Eldest and I have become addicted to farming shows. It started with Tales from the Green Valley two winters ago and moved through Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm and quite recently Wartime Farm. (I wasn't as big a fan of Wartime Farm. Tales from the Green Valley was really my favourite.) Then we discovered River Cottage and recently finished all the River Cottage shows. In the middle there, we found Australian show Gourmet Farmer, which is A LOT like early River Cottage but in Tasmania.

Now we don't know what to watch. So it was a great thrill to discover (thanks Wikipedia!) that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Mr. River Cottage himself, did a few other shows. We're currently gobbling up Treats from the Edwardian Country House, and I'm looking forward to checking out A Cook on the Wild Side whenever we can get a hold of it (it's not on youtube). Pretty much all of the others are on youtube. If you're in Ontario, Wartime Farm is on TVO too. Gourmet Farmer was, ahem, a little harder to get a hold of. Also, be warned that there's a lot of butchering and even some slaughtering on some of those shows. It was a little disturbing in the beginning, but personally, I feel it's important to see, that it's an important reality of eating meat.

Anyone else watch farming shows? Can you recommend any new titles for us?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

not all dairy is created equal, or things I wish I had known

I first went off dairy in December 2011 at the advice of our (long-gone) paediatrician. She said Youngest's problems were likely a sudden, mild dairy intolerance. She didn't actually recommend I eliminate dairy because it was such a mild intolerance but I could see my baby wasn't doing well, so I gave it a try. It didn't make a whole lot of difference to Youngest, although his skin got a little better, but I noticed, after the first week of feeling like hell, that *I* felt MUCH better.

The following February, I connected with a naturopath, because it was clear that Youngest still wasn't doing well, and I wasn't sure what else to try eliminating. She guided me in eliminating pretty much everything. His symptoms all cleared up, and so we carefully tested a bunch of foods that had been eliminated. I was really looking forward to the dairy challenge and I planned a big dairy-stravaganza. I had oatmeal cooked with milk for breakfast and a yogurt-blueberry smoothie for a snack. Then homemade (gluten-free) macaroni and cheese for lunch and the plan was to have it for dinner too. But by the time dinner came around, I was feeling so horribly ill, I couldn't face any more dairy. Youngest also reacted to the dairy.

In the summer, when Youngest still wasn't thriving despite having eliminated all the seeming culprits, the naturopath suggested we try him on cheese and yogurt separately to try to get some more calorie-rich foods into him. We found he could tolerate yogurt but not cheese. Strangely, she didn't suggest giving him butter.

Since then, I have learned a few things about the potential allergens in dairy products, and they are not all created equal. People seem very quick to jump on the elimination bandwagon, but I'm not convinced it's the safest course of action. I know for myself, I tried eliminating everything before I'd given even a moment's thought to how I might replace those nutrients in my diet. I suspect, in as gentle and non-blaming a way as I can, that eliminating all those foods so suddenly contributed to Youngest's malnourishment. It certainly wreaked havoc with my milk supply. So I guess I'm saying I think it's worth considering adding in as much non-allergenic, protein-rich foods into your diet before you start taking away gluten and dairy.

Anyways... here is what I wish I had known when I first started eliminating dairy. I suspect I have a lactose intolerance. Lactose is the sugar in milk. Our family doctor keeps talking about it being a fat, but it is not. I've also heard people talk about how their babies were lactose-intolerant and so they too had to cut out dairy, but that is highly unlikely, as breastmilk is full of lactose. Most babies react to the protein in cow's milk, of which there are two: casein and whey. Most babies who can't tolerate cow's milk, also can't tolerate sheep or goat's milk, but that is not something I have actually tested myself (yet).

Butter is the least allergenic dairy product. It has very little lactose in it and almost no protein. It does have some milk solids in it, which may contain traces of lactose and protein in it that can cause reactions in some people but not usually many. If you can't tolerate butter, unless you have an anaphylactic allergy, you will definitely be able to tolerate ghee or clarified butter (so says my dietician who has a PhD so I trust her on these matters). As I learned recently in Jennifer McLagan's book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes, (a wonderful book that I highly recommend) clarified butter is not the same thing as ghee. I haven't actually made either (yet) as butter has been fine on its own for both me and Youngest.

And while I'm on the subject of butter, in case you didn't know, it is an amazing health food. Vegetable oils are devoid of vitamin and the oxidize easily, making dangerous free radicals that can hurt your cells. But butter is rich in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, especially if it's made from the milk of grass-fed cows. I have found a local source of butter and I believe the cows are grazed during the months of green grass. I buy Nutri-Springs butter from the Stone Store here in town, but one day I plan to go out to the farm to pick up more of their offerings. Here is an article from the Weston Price Foundation with more of butter's health benefits. The 'science' that generated the Lipid Hypothesis (the idea that animal fats are the cause of heart disease) was completely wrong. You can google it if you want and read until the cows come home.

Yogurt is probably the next least allergenic dairy product, but not all yogurts are created equal. Because it's fermented, both the lactose and the casein are much more digestible. Watch the ingredients though. Many times, especially in low-fat yogurts, milk solids are added back in after fermentation, which means you're getting a whack of lactose and casein without the benefit of fermentation. Low-fat yogurts also have a host of other ingredients, so I always go full-fat. My favourite yogurt, which is also relatively local and available at the Stone Store, is Saugeen Country yogurt. They use whole milk, unhomogenized but pasteurized, so you get little bits of cream that float to the top. Their website is really well-written and informative to boot, so they get bonus points from me.

All cheese has casein in it, I'm pretty sure. I admit I haven't done a ton of research in this area, but harder cheeses have very lactose in them, thanks to the fermentation. Unfortunately, my dear chevre has lots of lactose in it. I spoke to a goat farmer at our market recently, who himself is lactose-intolerant, and he can't tolerate his own chevre either. How sad! I also discovered this from personal experience. But he assured me his older, harder cheeses are tolerable. Which makes me think that all those jokes on Big Bang Theory about poor Leonard's lactose-intolerance are inaccurate. But what do I know? Everyone's different. I'm pretty sure cottage cheese is terrible for lactose but I haven't actually tested it myself or done much research, since I don't particularly miss it.

If I had to do it over again, I would have just eliminated milk and cheese to start, and left yogurt and butter in, since they are good sources of probiotics and vitamins, respectively. I think eliminating whole food groups from your diet should be done with great care and foresight. The dietician suspects that Youngest's intolerances are really secondary; his damaged gut is the primary problem, and gluten, soy and dairy proteins are the hardest for any gut to break down, especially once it's damaged. I think that gut problems are widespread, and perhaps that is the first thing to address, before eliminating foods wholesale. But that's just me.

I've heard a number of people say things like, "It's not rocket science," when talking about nutrition. Having a severely malnourished child, possibly due, at least in part, to my own lack of nourishment before and during pregnancy, gives me a different perspective. I think nutrition IS kind of rocket science. Especially since so much bad science, coupled with heavy lobbying from industry interests and strong marketing and advertising tactics, has pretty much destroyed any food culture we had. In my own family, I would have to go back to my great-grandmother's recipes, at least, to find real food.

So... I hope if you're considering eliminating dairy, or if you already have, this gives you some extra things to think about and some new ideas to try. I definitely think it's a good thing to try to figure out exactly what element of dairy causes you problems, so perhaps you can invite some other dairy products back into your life. I myself am in much happier with yogurt and butter back in my life.

Monday, April 15, 2013


Last year, we didn't really get any peas in our garden. By the time the pods were plumping up, it was too hot and the poor plant turned yellow and died. But the fresh peas we bought from local farmers were so amazing, I am determined to try again. Last Monday it was mild and the sun came out for about an hour when the kids and I were free. So we headed over to the garden plots to see how they came through the winter, and I thought, in a fit of foolish optimism and dark vegetable cravings, why not throw in some beet, chard and pea seeds if it's not too wet? After all, the packets say to plant them as soon as the ground can be worked. The soil was moist but not mushy or mucky (the other big mistake learning opportunity I made last summer when I tried to plant beet seeds in too-wet soil), and we'd even beaten the weeds, so I threw in a row of each. I knew there was pretty good chance it wouldn't work out, so I still have seeds left, but maybe we'd get lucky and have the first chard and beets and peas of the season.

Well... I haven't actually checked on them, because it just feels too ridiculously hopeful, after days of heavy rain and a big two-day ice storm. Surely the poor things have rotted in the ground? Or have they? If anyone with knowledge of these things reads this, please share your thoughts.

Friday, April 12, 2013

surfacing from sourdough

I am no longer suffocating in sourdough! (AND 19 of my celeriac germinated!) On Easter weekend we went to my parents' place and I put the sourdough starter in the fridge and hoped for the best. It was just fine when I got home, so I left it in the fridge and I'm only feeding it about every three days or so. Which is much less expensive and also gives me more freedom in the kitchen, or elsewhere. Truth be told, I didn't really like any of the gluten-free sourdough breads I made. And I had to make so many sourdough buckwheat pancakes and sourdough muffins to keep up with the starter, that I had no room to eat the sourdough bread. I think I will keep the starter, but maybe I just don't need a lot of bread in my life at the moment. The sourdough pancakes are totally here to stay.

One of the things I like about the sourdough way is that it splits the labour. You spend a few minutes before bed mixing some starter, flour and water for pancakes the next morning, leave it in the oven with the light on overnight and then add fat, eggs, sweetener, salt and some baking soda in the morning before cooking. You mix some starter with oats and flour and just enough water to make dampen it all after breakfast, and then during naptime that afternoon or after dinner, you add other stuff to make muffins. There's a pleasant, slow rhythm about it all. I adapted my favourite banana bread recipe first to be gluten-free then to be sourdough and they're ok. Pretty nice I guess. Moist with a nice texture, although slightly cakier than I would prefer.

Baking has a reputation for requiring absolute precision but I have found that is not true if you loosen your expectations a little. If all you expect is something that is mostly like a muffin and kind of sweet, it's very easy to meet it, and you can take a fair amount of liberty. The last batch of muffins I made I measured the oats, sourdough starter and flour, butter, brown sugar (approximately) and eggs - oh and the baking powder and baking soda (the sourdough probably does add leavening but not enough to fly solo. I just sub the starter for a cup of the flour and half a cup of the water in the recipe). But I didn't measure the pumpkin (probably a cup and a half) or vanilla extract (probably a tablespoon - I made the extract myself last year and it's pretty weak) and I added a whole grated carrot just because. And they came out fine. I did warn a guest that they were a bit odd, but that was more because of the sourdough thing.

I've been exploring the sourdough thing because I'm thinking about only eating soaked or soured grains. My youngest has two extra teeth crowded on top and late last fall we noticed a few dark spots on the most crowded. It must be tooth decay. And one of his teeth is chipped and just today I noticed there is less tooth than yesterday or the day before. Given his nutritionally-deficient past and foods we are avoiding, it just makes sense to me that there is a dietary cause and potential cure. My googling led me quickly to Cure Tooth Decay, but I was skeptical. Then Owlet mentioned it and the diet they adopted. Last week a mother in the homeschool group mentioned that she loved the book and was two months into its most extreme program and she had already noticed a big difference. She lent me the book and I'm nearing the end. I hope to write more about it when I'm done. In the meantime I will say that it's VERY compelling. And as much as I shy away from 'extreme' diets that seek to cut out whole groups of foods, I think I shy away a lot more from dental surgery on my young toddler. One of the things I like about the book and its suggestions is that it is not dogmatic. It encourages you at every turn to do what feels right to you, and the website has testimonials from people who didn't go whole hog but still saw major improvements.

I will say that if we do adopt (more) major changes to our diet (now that we've mostly normalized the last year's changes), I will develop a strategy and add in new foods before removing any. If I had to go back to last spring and do it all over again, I don't know if I would jump on the elimination diet and identifying intolerances. Our dietician suspects that Youngest's intolerances are really secondary, because his gut was so poorly it just couldn't digest gluten, soy and casein - the hardest proteins to digest. We're back on corn now -- I think that was a nonstarter all along, but tomatoes seem slightly iffy. It's also possible that eliminating those foods so suddenly, without getting comfortable with their replacements could have made his deficiencies worse.

Anyways... I don't think I will eliminate grains totally but I may prepare them all better to make them more digestible. And I may try to eliminate refined sugar but I think I very much want to keep honey and maple syrup in my life. But first it's time to add lots more vegetables.

* * *

Here is my favourite banana bread recipe. If you make muffins instead of a loaf reduce the baking time by at least half and possibly more depending on your muffin holder thingie (I don't want to say tin since there are so many other materials).

Banana Oat Loaf 

1/2 c butter or marg
3/4 c brown sugar
1 c rolled oats
1/2 c hot water
1 c mashed bananas (3-4, the riper the better, I never measure)
3/4 c chopped nuts(optional)
2 eggs beaten
2 c flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt (I usually reduce this a bit)
I add chocolate chips as well (3/4 c-1 c? I just eyeball it)

Place soft butter, sugar, oats, hot water, mashed bananas and nuts in large bowl. Stir until well blended. Add beaten eggs. Beat until well blended. Sift together flour, baking powder, soda and salt; add to first mixture all at once and stir just until dry ingredients are moistened. Fold in chocolate chips.(if desired) Spoon evenly into greased loaf pan. (9 x 5 x 3 inch) Bake at 350 degrees about 65 minutes or until done. Remove from loaf pan, cool on rack. Let stand for a few hours before slicing (If you can wait that long).

I've also used grated zucchini, carrot, often with some applesauce, grated raw beet, grated apple, pumpkin puree and squash puree in place of the bananas.

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I haven't forgotten about my giveaway. I was hoping to have more than one person enter, and that's kind of why I didn't give a deadline. Feel free to enter now if you're interested. Oh -- and the only entrant so far wanted to know what a schmeck is. Schmeck is actually a verb. It means to taste really, really good.