Monday, November 30, 2009

Out of the Garden - For Now

I dashed out about noon during a lull in the gale-force winds to harvest the last of the bok-choi, which turned out to be enough for several meals. I also pulled and harvested two of the four stalks of Brussels sprouts. I quit at two stalks because it had started to pour a very cold rain. The sprouts range in size from from big peas to small marbles. I threw a few in the quick ramen soup I made for lunch and they are absolutely scrumptious.

At the moment I'm planning a chicken soup for dinner. I'll toss in a generous amount of sliced bok choi and do the Brussels sprouts as a side dish. I've got bread for Tony on the go, and hope to have time and motivation to make a loaf for myself after the bread maker cools off enough to bake a second loaf. His is more important, because buying a loaf of gluten-free bread for him costs $8.99, while I can get a loaf of organic whole grain flax bread for $1.98.

While I was lying in bed last night, waiting for the Sleep Fairy to thump me with her hammer, I had the very cheerful thought that tomorrow is the 1st of Dec, which means.... I can begin my spring garden in 60 days!

While this doesn't mean I can put seeds in the ground, I can start seeds, in my little greenhouse, or alternately, this spring I am going to try a technique called winter-sowing. In winter-sowing you plant your seeds in a container, like a recycled clear plastic salad "box". After removing any labels from the top or sides you partially fill the container with soil appropriate for starting seeds. You sow your seeds, water them, put a few holes in the lid, pop it on and place outside in the weather so the seeds can germinate on their own time table.

This works with any plant that self-seeds from year to year which is usually started early and transplanted. I'll be trying it with onions, leeks, beets, chard, squash, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, bok choi and rapini and spinach. Not one to put all my eggs in a single basket, I will also plant some of these in flats in the greenhouse, just in case it doesn't work as well as it should.

Of course, every year there are things you will do differently. I am going to buy a turning fork, and work a bunch of compost and manure into my raised beds and containers, just as soon as I can get into the garden in the spring.

All of my sun-hungry plants will still have to go in back, in the 4x4 and the containers on the garden tiers, as seen here early last spring. But since the mock cherry came down in front there's a lot more sun there. I think there's enough for herbs and leafy greens, which I will mix with a few flowers. I'll move my smaller 10" and 12" containers to the front and hopefully avoid the midnight "shopping" which occurred last spring, when someone helped themselves to newly transplanted pots of tomatoes and peppers. This year I think I'll connect all my larger pots together with a couple of 1 x 2s screwed across the rims of each row of pots.

Looking through my plastic shoebox full of seeds I see that I should have to buy only two or three seed packets. I have no chard, beets or leeks. I seem to have everything else, assuming they are still viable.

Next spring I am going to try and restrain myself from buying every plant in the nursery, hardware, grocery store and WalMart with a cunning plan. I will make a list and carry a shovel. Every time I am tempted to buy bedding out plants which are not on the list I will simply hit myself in the head with the shovel.

Of course I want flowers and colour, but in small and disciplined doses thanks. One of everything doesn't even look nice. Much better to concentrate on a few solid and reliable bloomers in a limited palette of colours, than something that ultimately looks like an explosion in a paint store. Coordinating flower displays has never been one of my strengths.

So, as I harvest what is probably the last produce to come out of 2009's garden, 2010's garden is already jumping out of my imagination.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Right Brain - Left Brain

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: At the age of 37 she had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions -- motion, speech, self-awareness -- shut down one by one. In this astonishing presentation Jill Bolte Taylor describes how she studied her own stroke as it happened -- and has become a powerful voice for brain recovery, as well as for the process of self-transformation.

It is My Nature

There is a Buddhist chant which, translated into English, goes: "It is my nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging; It is my nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness; It is my nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying.”

Though I had been faced with life-threatening illness at age 27, I don't believe that even then, I could conceive of my own death. I remember vividly the moment that wisdom - the actual knowledge that I was going to die - occurred. Oddly enough it was not at a time of illness, stress, or of unhappiness. I was not grieving or facing loss. I simply woke up one morning with the knowledge of my eventual and certain death. It came with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, a surge of fear. The fear subsided, but the knowledge stayed.

I have since had numerous friends and relatives die. Many refuse to face the fact of their own mortality, and deny to their last conscious moment that death is even possible. There's no discussion of the terror they face, because they won't admit that anything is wrong, even in the most extreme moments. To the end everyone tiptoes around the subject.

From a Buddhist view, illness and the knowledge of your own mortality provides a profound opportunity for spiritual transformation. The very basic tenant of Buddhism is that we are born to die, and the entire point of Buddhism is that we can use this apparently hopeless situation to fuel our spiritual practice.

When we quit running and turn to face our fear of pain and death we can experience life in its richness, without the mental and emotional convolutions of avoidance. When we embrace illness and pain without fear it can allow us to develop wisdom, a calm spirit, and deep compassion for other beings.

When you are in physical pain, observe your thoughts. What I have found is that I worry what the pain means, what it might presage. When I experience pain, I often project anxiety on it, worry about it, worry that it will never go away (and how will I cope?), and imagine it signals imminent collapse or death. These are random thoughts that flit in and out of my head, but they serve to magnify the pain. And they are counter-productive.

I had been experiencing pain in my abdomen for quite a long time, but when I told my doctor, and she asked me to describe it, I was at a loss. Despite all my worrying I had never really stopped to observe the pain, when it occurred, what triggered it, what made it go away. You'd think these would be the first things you noted, but talking to many other people I find this is the norm. We jump from twinge to worrying about impending doom in a millisecond.

Now I try to look at pain as if it were an object, without any attempt or effort to change its nature or intensity. What shape is it, what size, colour, exact location? Is it steady or fluctuating? When does it appear and what makes it go away? Not only has this allowed me to learn to manage an ongoing problem, but it has relieved me of the burden of anxiety I had wrapped around it.

I find when I observe the pain as I would a stone or a tree stump, it begins to dissipate. It's harder and harder to find "the" pain, and the closer my observation the farther away the pain moves.

This takes concentration, and is not always possible. Sometimes you just want to sleep, and a pain pill seems the easiest way out. But I am learning to rely more on this mindfulness technique, and less on medication. It has had a secondary side effect. When I didn't hesitate to pop a couple of pills to gain relief from say, a migraine, I didn't pay as much attention to my body's signals that I was in a vulnerable state. I would eat chocolate, for example, when I know that a migraine always follows even the smallest taste.

Now, I think how it will taste (wonderful) and how I will feel (terrible) for three or four days afterwards, and decide that a minute or two of that flavour is not worth days of nausea, pain and inactivity.

One type of "meditation" practiced by Buddhists is to simply sit quietly and pay close attention to the rise and fall of bodily sensation. An itch there, a twinge here, a muscle tightens and relaxes, cold hands, a flush of warmth, a pleasant tingling in the cheeks, a pain behind the ear. This is called the flow of bodily sensation and it is a ceaseless process. Some of it is pleasant, some momentarily painful.

You may find you've never really listened to your body. Perhaps pain has to scream to get our attention. At the moment I am learning that if I listen to my body I can often head off pain. I can eat, move, or think differently. If you've ever had a migraine or chest pain immediately following a blazing row you'll understand by what effect thinking differently can have.

Accepting that my body (and my spirit) have needs that have been largely unrecognized because I was too busy mentally and physically to listen encourages me to stay in the moment, to allow my body to speak to me, through pain if need be. When I pay attention, I can allow my pain to not only improve my spiritual outlook, but my physical one.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

H1N1 - To Vaccinate or Not?

We've just gotten back from town after getting both our seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccinations. We stood in line for about 30 minutes, had our pokes, and waited afterwards for the requisite 15 minutes to make sure we weren't going to be the one in three million who inflates like a puffer fish and needs adrenaline to breathe. Even so we were in and out in less than an hour.

Apparently the media has had a difficult time sorting out their feelings about H1N1 and the vaccine. On Monday they invest their voices with the right note of concern/hysteria and quaver, "Booga! Booga! BOOGA! We're all going to DIE!!!!!!"

They then interview an expert in a lab coat who says, "The flu vaccine will kill you if the flu doesn't. Either way, it's now clear we are all going to die! Well, some will die, or the vaccine will turn you into a monkey or give you a case of the munchies.... uh... no, it might give you a fever, hmmmmm, it could make your arm sore!" (Looks around desperately) "Are we on-air?"

Tuesday, the talking head on the news says, "Booga Booga seriously overblown."

They then interview an expert in a bow tie and perky manner who says, "Actually H1N1 isn't as bad as the regular flu, hardly more than a cold. Don't worry, be happy! The flu vaccine is probably not even necessary. Epidemic is now over, we're safe as houses or mother's milk" (Thinks of the recent real estate crash and reports of pesticide contamination in mother's milk and reconsiders his words) "It's certainly not lethal." (Looks around desperately) "Are we on-air?"

Wednesday, is "BOOGA Day". (with panicked expert)

Thursday is "Have No Fears" day. (with reassuring expert)

Friday Booga. (with panicked expert)

Saturday... "Do we have to talk about this H1N1 still? Does this story still have legs? No? Okay.... There will be dance recital Monday put on by the Sam Butler School fourth grade class.

Sunday... "Ten students from the fourth grade class at Sam Butler Elementary have H1N1, We're alllll going to die!!!! Vaccinate vaccinate!! (interviews with panicked expert, principal, parents)

We've listened to this nightly revolving door with a panic attack in two of the four sections for months. No wonder some people can't make up their minds whether they want the vaccine or not. Can we have some sanity here, or do all TV journalists now graduate from the Hen House School of Journalism where there's nothing to worry about until an acorn falls from a nearby tree? Then it's mayhem in the hen house.

The polio vaccine became available in 1955. While parents were terrified that their child would contract polio, horror stories circulated about the new vaccine. It was said that the vaccine would cause polio, or that your child would be "contaminated" by it. The same arguments were used then and now. My parents were afraid to have me vaccinated. So while all my classmates trooped off to have their vaccinations I sat in the classroom and waited by myself.

A year later after a field trip I woke up with a severe headache and nausea. Mother told me to get out of bed and stop whining. Dad checked and said, "She's burning up!"

Within 72 hours I could not move a muscle, and could barely breathe. I had paralytic polio, the only case in our school that year, because everyone else had been vaccinated.

I missed the rest of that school year and part of the next. I stopped growing. I am the same height now as I was shortly before my 11th birthday. I had to learn to hold my head up, sit up, use my hands, stand, walk, even chew and swallow solid food. I got carried to the year's end picnic. In junior high someone else carried my books, and I was dismissed early from each class so I could crawl the steps alone. I wore braces and I still walk funny.

My parents loved me and thought they were doing the right thing. I barely missed dying and I have had to contend with near constant pain, a crooked spine, and less than half the muscle mass I should have had in neck, traps, arms and legs, for the last 52 years. And on top of HypoKPP having polio has not been an experience which made my life easier.

Tony and I stood in line today for both H1N1 and seasonal flu shots because we are old enough to remember when there was no choice. And we figure there's no point in taking the risk of getting the flu, whether the panic over the situation is overblown or not.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Didn't I Take Metal Shop?

I didn't take "Home Ec" in high school. Even without "Home Ec" I have managed to feed my husband and brood of chilluns for 40+ years without a single case of food poisoning. However, on nights like this I regret my decision to take biology instead of metal shop. That moment of poor planning left me with a distinct lack of skill with a cutting torch and no practical knowledge whatsoever in the gentle art of metallurgy.

As I sit here, rocked and buffeted by 90 kph winds all I can think of is the hundreds of un-captured kilowatt hours flying past us. I have only the vaguest idea of how wind (or solar) power is converted into a usable form, but still I long to tack a turbine onto the front of the Beach House and let the wind have at 'er.

I long to be off the grid while maintaining some level of comfort, or at least to reduce the power bill. Last month, when we had the roof leak and had to run the dehumidifier at maximum capacity night and day for three weeks, and turn on the heat, our power bill was the highest it's ever been - $63.00. Power has gone up by a couple of cents a Kwh, and it makes a difference in the bill.

Thankfully Ian was here last week and plastic wrapped us. It was a big job we couldn't begin to do alone. But at a time we carry reusable shopping and produce bags and are trying to use less plastic, it took 32 running feet of 8 foot 5 inch wide heavy weight plastic to close in the deck. Even though we should be able to reuse the same plastic for about three or four years it's enough to make you weep.

Yet, the plastic not only makes it a degree or two warmer on the deck than outside in the howling wind, even on cloudy days, it makes it much more comfortable inside. Without the wind sucking the heat through the walls we can keep the thermostat at 21 C (70 F), rather than the 23C (74F) we needed last winter to be comfortable. So we save both electricity and propane. That has to be worth something environmentally.

All these compromises between your ideals and your reality make it clear that few of us are in a position to point the finger at those who abuse the environment simply to stay alive. Dang it's fun to be on a high horse, but the only way we will ever solve our environmental problems is to sit down together and figure out how to provide a decent living for everyone on the planet. Doesn't sound as if the politicians have any interest in it, so it's up to you and me now.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hunger Hurts

We may complain of tough economic times in the US and Canada, but in Third World countries over a billion people are facing imminent starvation. Over one billion people in the world are chronically hungry. In fact today, more people die from hunger related causes than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. In response the United Nations has launched an online appeal for individual donations to fight hunger.

The one billion number is about 100 million more than last year. To meet the needs, the World Food Programme has to raise U.S. $6.7 billion. Donations to date stand at U.S. $2.9 billion. Will you help provide a basic food package containing foods like these to a mother with a family of hungry children?

The World Food Programme's "Billion for a Billion" campaign aims to feed one billion hungry individuals. "Feeding a billion people might seem like a challenge, but small donations can make a big difference. If a billion Internet users donate a dollar or a euro a week, we can literally transform the lives of a billion hungry people across the world," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of WFP. And you can help here.

"Governments have supported WFP in its mission to feed the world's hungriest people, but they cannot be expected to do it alone," Sheeran said. "It's time for members of the public to act. Citizen action has abolished slavery, given women the right to vote, and helped to ban the use of land mines across much of our planet," Sheeran said. " ... Why shouldn't we draw on that inspiration and try to harness the power of individual action to feed the world's hungriest people?"

Donating is easy, as you can use a credit card or your Pay Pal account. It takes only a minute or two to donate a small sum which will feed people who might otherwise starve in these difficult economic times.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What can you build with six toothpicks?

I read a whole list of Simple Living and Green blogs, and one of the topics which comes up frequently is, "How do you do it all?" How do you manage to live a sustainable lifestyle, i.e. garden, put away food in season, cook from scratch, hang the laundry, recycle, avoid noxious chemicals in cleaning solutions and garden, plus hold down a job, take care of a family, and participate in your community?

Over at "One Green Generation" there's talk of prioritizing and Community Building. Yesterday Rhonda Jean at "Down to Earth" wrote of seeing things differently now that's she and her husband are older and less physically capable of sustained hard work.

Personally my frequently asked question is, "How do I do it?" It's estimated that 17% of Canadians and Americans have a significant disability. Many others have chronic illnesses which limit their capacity to do physical work. That's our peer group.

Rhonda Jean says that until she was older and had begun to experience the effects of aging she thought she wanted to live to be 110, and felt that illness was a weakness. That's pretty typical. Few people understand what it is like to live with a fraction of the capacity for physical work that the "average" person has. But like everyone, the house must be cleaned, you have to clean yourself, laundry has to be done, shopping must be done and food must be prepared.

Picture a toothpick as 10 minutes of capacity for work. At the beginning of the day you are given six toothpicks, and every time you are active for 10 minutes you lay a toothpick on the table. Once the six are on the table you must sit for the rest of the day.

How do you play this game? Do you get in the car and go grocery shopping? All six toothpicks get laid on the table. Did it take two hours? Then tomorrow and the day after you only get three toothpicks a day. Be gone three hours and for four days you get two toothpicks per day.

Yesterday we did some insulating jobs, and a fair bit of cleaning. We both spent 10 toothpicks. Today we have two toothpicks each to spend, tomorrow will probably be the same. As Tony just said, "Not much movement in the hacienda today." Irritatingly enough, the chores have no idea that we have only a limited supply of energy to work with. They march on like an army bent on reaching the battlefield.

Living the Simple Life is anything but easy. There's a reason the stores are bursting with energy-hogging but time and labour-saving devices. In the late 70s we lived the Simple Life. I've washed clothes on a washboard, we heated and cooked with a woodstove, lived without electricity or running water, and it was no picnic. It was educational but very hard work and damned uncomfortable much of the time, and we were in our 30's, and much stronger then.

Having had this "education" in simplicity we are not at all eager to repeat it. We are deeply committed to using energy sparingly and wisely, to grow what we can, put away food in season for use in the winter. We buy and eat local foods as much as is possible. But frankly it takes most of our available energy to do these things and we could use some new ideas.

Here are some things I already do:

I cook in quantity so we can eat the same meal for two or three days.
I try to prepare ingredients so they can be used quickly, like cooking a dozen potatoes instead of two, chopping onions and putting them in the fridge, make extra rice
Make easy dishes in the crockpot, etc.

Most of the time we cope with this quite well. But we can get temporarily discouraged when both of us are fighting colds or for some reason we absolutely can't keep up over a period of weeks. We need to keep a clear head and think outside the box. We need ideas. Your energy saving and/or efficiency strategies would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, November 09, 2009

More 'Shrooms

While walking the Red Menace this morning I noted some newly emerged mushrooms at the back of our site. One lone beautiful purple mushroom was of a type I hadn't seen before, of course that category includes most of the mushrooms of the world.

After the cat was back inside I got the camera and took a couple of pictures. Then I spent an hour looking at all the pictures of purple mushrooms in my book and comparing ones that looked suspiciously like the one in question with examples on the web.

Certainly a beautiful thing, a lovely royal purple-brown with a pitted tan underside that has no gill structure. I have come to the tenuous conclusion that my mushroom is a Boletus Mirabilis, sometimes known as the "bragger's bolete".

Surprising how many different kinds of mushrooms are found in this very small area. I'm trying to count how many I have seen in this 10 x 40 foot space in the last 18 months and it must be at least a dozen, including the semi-transparent and gelatinous cup fungus which grew in the garden last year, and now this purple beauty.

I'm going to quit looking up!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

November's Garden

November's harvest is primarily branches, blown out of the willows in the past few days. The garden is cross hatched with them until you can barely walk the path. So picking up branches and raking leaves is a job for one of the sunny, brisk and breezy days predicted in the next week.

But that not's quite all. We have a lot of lovely bok choi and kale which is green and vigorous. I will pick some of that bok choi when I'm finished with branch-picking. I've been saving it for lasagna and lasagna it will soon be. I often use spinach in lasagna, but the last couple of times I've used bok choi, which is just as good, and could hardly have been any fresher. The cold snap we had earlier wilted the bok choi temporarily, but it roared back to life and is actually growing in the cool wet weather we have had lately. And, as a bonus, it has outlasted the cabbage moth caterpillars, who tried to eat us out of bok choi, but finally pupated or were eaten by birds. (I am hoping the latter.)

The kale never seemed to even notice the cold. It's only about eight inches tall but it's vibrant green. I think I will crop the outer leaves, cover the plants with row cover and see if we can get an early spring crop from them along about March.

Nestled among the kale plants are volunteer carrots, which are far too small to pull. I will snip them off to give the kale more room. The variety of carrots I chose were the size and shape of a small radish. Unfortunately they tasted like carrot-flavored soap. At the end of the kale row, invisible in this picture, except as a yellow spot, is golden-leaved oregano. It would make a lovely ground cover in the shade garden, but will not be in my veggie garden next year.

Time for the Brussels sprouts plants to come out. The "sprouts" range in size from a pea to a small marble. I don't think I would grow these again for food value, but they are strikingly beautiful plants. Of course the bed under the willows where I planted the poor things had only an hour's unobstructed sun, so I should be thankful that they produced anything at all!

I have garlic to plant, just need to decide where. But it's almost time to put the garden to bed for the year, and begin dreams of next year's garden, which will be perfect in every way. Or so I imagine, as I thumb through the seed catalogues and read other's gardening blogs. Perfect....

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Fungus Among Us!

And aren't we thrilled? My friend Dave, over at Outhouse Capitol of Canada posted some beautiful photos of mushrooms he'd taken he taken in the last while.

Consulting the book I decided, that as closely as I can determine the first is a polyphore, probably a Ganoderma applanatum. The other is probably Flammulina velutipes, aka "velvet foot", a fall-winter blooming type.

This morning, while out for a ramble in the sun I noticed that an old tree stump in a neighbour's site was shingled with Flammulina velutipes! I grabbed the camera and took some pictures. This stump is a good 18" across, so this is a nice display. Not as nice as the one Dave found but close at hand!

From the top it is difficult to tell that these have any stems at all, but getting down on all fours and looking very closely proves otherwise. A close examination of reveals a few dark slender stems.

Going back a bit to early summer, I caught this row of 'shrooms sneaking through the grass across the road, bound for who knows where. When I went back to take a second picture the next day they had entirely disappeared. This is not unusual in our hot weather. Mushrooms come and go in a single day. Since I foolishly neglected to get a photo of the stem or gills, I can't now identify them. Next year I will be smarter in my photography.

A couple of weeks later these little caps made an appearance at the base of the mock cherry tree in front. They began as perfectly smooth little grey-white spheres, within a couple of hours they had flared out and the caps split, looking like dancer's skirts. By the next day they had collapsed and disappeared back into the soil.

And in mid-September these, which I believe to be Neolentinus lepideus came up adjacent to the mock cherry in the back end of the site. Sure sign that these trees are not at all healthy. These were much larger than the caps in front, some two inches across at this stage, opening to a good four to five inch umbrella. In the cooler temperatures they lasted three or four days.

They have short fruiting periods but never mind, I enjoy watching them come and go. Paul Stamets, author of ‘Mycelium Running  - How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World’, says, "...fungi are in constant biomolecular communication with its ecosystem.  They are articulate.  They are inherently intelligent." See a five minute video of Paul here, and tour his incredible mushroom-growing facility.

I think it would be fun to grow mushrooms, where I am not so sure, but they are certainly interesting to watch.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Our November KIVA Investment

This lovely and somewhat tired-looking lady is 40-year-old Fatuma Samson from Morogoro, Tanzania. She is the person we are lending money to this month through KIVA.

Fatuma is married with four children between the ages of 4 and 13. She has been in business since 2006, operating a mama lishe, a local restaurant or café. From it's name I'd venture to say that mama lishe means something close to our English phrase Home Cooking.

In Tanzania a mama lishe is outfitted with a rough wooden table and long, wooden benches. The food is all-local: rice, ugali (a hot sticky dough made from maize flour), plantains (a cooked savory banana), served with beans, vegetables, meat, and a variety of sauces.

Fatuma works at her mama lishe five to eight hours per day, six days per week. She is assisted by her husband. She asked for a loan of 300,000 Tanzanian shillings ($250.00 USD) in order to purchase additional ingredients in bulk to expand her menu and increase her profit margin.

The agency administering the loan is called SELFINA, which has taken a lead role as a pioneer of micro-credit in Tanzania. The organization is engaged in the economic empowerment of women in Tanzania. Customs and traditions in Tanzania make it difficult for women to own land and assets, and they are termed non-creditworthy by financial institutions. This leads to poor financial support and poor access to basic needs and services for women with low incomes.

KIVA allows individuals like us, who may only have a few dollars a month to spare, to pool funds with other micro-investors and provide loans to hard-working small business people around the world. As they repay their loans our investments are returned to us, and we can invest it in another business, and thus help another person.

The first two women we loaned money to, Jane Mbasagi and Sabina Anyango Otieno have already begun paying back their loans. We have put their repayment funds right back into KIVA, cooperating with other KIVA lenders to lend Fatuma the money she needs to prosper and lift her family out of poverty.

Unlike money handed over between governments, which often ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians, this money goes directly to the borrower, where it is needed. The people on Kiva's site are real individuals in need of funding. You can browse entrepreneurs' profiles on the site, choose someone to lend to, and then make a small loan, thus helping a real person make great strides towards economic independence and improve life for themselves, their family, and their community.

I'd challenge my readers to share the enormous wealth we enjoy with others who work just as hard, but do not live in such fortuitous circumstances.