Monday, February 28, 2011

delight to rove uncontrolled in the woods

"The term "backwoodsman" itself emerged from a biased connotation. For those who still regarded England as the focal point of progress, the "backwoods" referred to the Appalachian range "behind" the eastern seaboard. On the other hand, for those who viewed the frontier as the new America, the woods served as the front line of change and the future. "Frontiersman," seemingly, was the positive counterpart.

[James Hall] found that the woodsman's delight to "rove uncontrolled in the woods," like the Indian, doomed him to the same sense of invasion of his "ancient heritage." Ultimately, it would also force the woodsman to defend himself from removal.

For the woodsman, the American pastoral was not one of cleared and tidy farms, but the wealth of the forests and its wildlife; the openness of the hills and hollows; the freedom of not seeing the smoke rise from the chimney of a neighbor; the wilderness and its natural ways that had been denied to the peasantry in Europe's conquered dominions.

"You English are very industrious," Birbeck quoted his woodsman neighbors, "but we have freedom."

-- Jeff Biggers, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland

Thursday, February 24, 2011

gas sipper

Who here owns a vehicle that gets upwards of 75 miles to the gallon?

A few days ago I took a basic rider course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. (It's required, and free, for Army soldiers who wish to ride on post.) In Colorado, like many other states, completing the written and skills portion of this course waives your need to take a separate test at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life, and in just two days, I became now a licensed motorcyclist. Plus, if you're military, you're required to take one before you ride, and so Uncle Sam covers the bill.

I admit I was a little intimidated. I wasn't sure if I'd even like riding, and figured taking the course would be an easy, safe way to find out. Speaking of safe, a few people -- you know, including my Dad -- kept telling me that motorcycles are unnecessarily dangerous. That's Dad Stuff, of course, reminding your progeny not to do things like run with scissors or ride around on two wheels. But the reality is that riding, like flying an airplane, has a little to do with luck and a lot more to do with skill and situational awareness. If you can "Be A Lert!" to what's happening around you, riding really has a low probably of killing you. Much lower than tangling with that two-year-old colt your cousin just dumped in your pasture. As the saying goes, the world needs more lerts.

Truthfully I've always wanted to learn to ride. I passionately despise Harleys. I'm not fond of college kids on crotch rockets. But little, old-school models like you see pictured above intrigue me. It's like a bicycle, except you can take it on the highway. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how perfectly practical it is. Like many of you, I have a day job that takes me off my homestead on a regular basis. My little truck still drinks in a whopping 17 mpg, and gas up here in the mountains is hovering near $3 a gallon. Any vehicle that can claim 50-75mpg, or more, deserves my attention for purely economic reasons.

And then there's the added bonus that it's a helluva good time.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

potatoes for breakfast

Who knew you could make a baked potato in the microwave?

Just turn the temperature setting down to about 1/3 of what you use usually. For mine, this is "medium low." Then cook for about six minutes for a medium-sized brown potato. (They're called "Irish potatoes" in Kenya, and never without the adjective, sort of like "French toast" here in the states.) Make sure you slice it in half or use a fork to prick holes in the skin so steam can escape. I wrap mine in a wet paper towel, because it's crazy dry up here and it keeps the skin from getting wrinkly. And that's it.

Potatoes are wicked cheap. A good change from the Ramen Noodles.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

a sound investment

Picked this patch up at NCOR back when I was in college. Still one of my favorite political slogans. Sadly, the National Conference on Organized Resistance seems to be no more.

Monday, February 21, 2011

new friends

I knew that anti-social cat couldn't resist irresistible puppy love for long.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spent is a poverty video game.

No, really. Imagine that you are one of the 14 million Americans who is unemployed. You lose your house and most of your savings. What will you do?

This website offers a click-through simulation, rather like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, of what it's like trying to make ends meet working a minimum wage job -- or not working at all. It's put on by the Urban Ministry of Durham, NC. Fascinating. Share it with your computer-savvy teenagers and everyone you know.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

earth mother

Crouched in the dirt, her sandals fill my vision. Thin, dainty straps crisscross above painted toes. She's singing softly, but her sandals have all of my attention. They belong with a fancy dress, worn for evening out in the city. They ought to be stepping out of a fancy powder blue convertible. They ought to be walking beside a gentleman who offers an ermine boa to match, and takes those sandals down to the opera house. I imagine one sandal cocked out into the air as she crosses her legs under her dress, her hair smoothed into the waves that became popular around the time of the War, when she was just out of high school; fine earrings, a hint of lipstick, like a moviestar. Such a beautiful, kind woman deserves to be taken out to all of the places where I imagine those sandals.

Instead, they step carefully among the rows of carrots and spearmint. I follow close behind. She moves my small hands from the budding vegetables to the weeds, without breaking her song for an explanation. I draw designs in the dirt with a stick, and reach up to brush the dirt from her marvelous sandals. She smooths the hair on the top of my head, smiling as she sings. When we reach the end of the row, a thorny patch of mixed berries pokes up from behind a green plastic barricade. Inside, raspberry bushes aren't quite ready for picking yet, but the strawberries are. She hands me one, and points at another that is just becoming ripe.

I put the whole thing into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully. So much juice and flavor. Tastes better than any candy treat, and has more meaning to me. I can't have strawberries all of the time, but only now, at this time of year, when they burst forth from their little green-fenced bed. And they didn't come from some far away place; they came from here. My grandmother grew them, on this patch of land behind the house her husband built, next door to the house she in which she was born.

As more years go by, it's almost painful to recall how much those days in the garden meant to me. At the time, the edible fruits of our labor wasn't important to me. I wish now that I'd spent more time learning what was planted when, and where, and how to care for it. But I will never forget the taste, and the songs I learned by osmosis, and the attention paid just to me, as we worked together in the dirt.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

grow lights

On the desk in the bedroom, level with an east-facing window, sits a tray of basil seeds in potting soil. I'm glaring at them as I type this, actually. You see, that's what they've done for the last five weeks -- sit. They mock me and my lack of gardening skill. It's like Eddie Izzard's Encore on Computers routine.
"I can't germinate because you've forgotten to give me something."
"What, what is it? I'll give it to you, I swear, if you'll just let me know what it is."
"Oh, no, I can't tell you."

I have a suspicion that what these seeds need most is probably sunlight. Tucked in between two mountain ridges, we only get sunlight from one direction -- east. And we only get it for about five hours on a winter day. Any one spot on the property probably only has sunlight for about thirty minutes. The dogs curse this as they get up to move from one tiny sunlit patch to another as it moves across the sky. You have to wait till 10 am for it to peek up over the northern ridge, then follow it patiently as it slinks across the canyon, before disappearing again over the southern ridge at around 3 in the afternoon. Which is why, although it might be a balmy 60 degrees down in the valley, up here my driveway is still packed with ice. I can sun myself on a rock for a short while in a T-shirt, but back inside the cabin, shaded by rocks and tall trees, the furnace must run to have any hope of coming close to that temperature.

Our fine state of Colorado legalized medical mary jane not too long ago, and as a result the countryside is spattered with little shops catering to the indoor grower. Knowing nothing about gardening save what little I recall from elementary school, I stopped by one afternoon. I own quite an impressive bookshelf on growing green things, and I've even read most of them -- it's just that most of it doesn't make sense to me. Bean sprouts can't meow or crow or nudge me when they haven't been fed or watered. They don't respond to their name, or to loud noises. In fact, plants in general often mystify me as to how they can be considered living things in the same category as ducks and termites. But I digress. Hoping for a little instruction, I let the young salesman give me his schpiel.

Unfortunately for him, it backfired. You mean to tell me that these fancy "grow lights" that start at $25 are basically the same thing as a shop light I could get from the hardware store for $6? They take the same bulbs? Blue light is better for sprouting, red light better for flowering, but you can get the effect of both if you just put a warm and a cool bulb together in a two-bulb shoplight? Who knew?

Maybe all my little basil seeds need is a little bit of light, after all.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

grass in the streets

"The great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy out farms, and grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."

-- Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan,
speaking at the Democratic National Convention of 1896
as quoted in Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness

Monday, February 14, 2011

tan your hide

I killed a fox a few weeks ago.

I think that killing predators is probably a reality of keeping livestock. We can debate the morality of it, but if you intend to raise animals for food or livelihood, protecting them from human and non-human invaders is just part of the package. I keep a shotgun by the door. One morning when the chickens and the dogs were all raising a ruckus, I had occasion to use it.

It took me over an hour to skin. I wanted the face -- the ears, the nose. The pieces that make it unmistakably fox. Working outside in the bitter cold, I decided that I didn't want the paws enough to spend another hour coaxing them out. But what to do with it now? The dogs showed no interest in eating it whatsoever, disturbed, perhaps, by a fellow canine. We ended up mixing some pieces of meat into a stew with other ingredients. I can't stand to waste it, even though the consensus of most of the people I've spoken with is that fox meat is for vultures, not for people, or even dogs.

Now I'm left with a very nice, thick red pelt. And I have to say, I've haven't yet figured out a method for tanning that I consider to be reliable. I'd rather experiment techniques with something less rare than a winter red fox. So for now, I've just salted it. This is the same method I used on a coyote skin about six years ago, and that skin seems to be holding up well. It has very little smell to it, and has not rotted. The only drawback to the salting is that it remains hard and brittle -- not something you'd want to make mittens out of. But for something that will probably just hang on the wall and look cool, like this fox, it's fine. Just make sure you use plenty of salt.

Friday, February 11, 2011

human-powered enterprise

"What are you humming?" I asked one morning. The sun was shining across the waters of Lake Victoria, and little children were chasing their donkeys laden with water kegs up the hill to the village of Wagusu, Kenya.

Eddy, my host in the village, looked up from the watermelons. He grinned shyly. "I am writing a song to my mother," he said. We were going to see her in a neighboring village later that afternoon. "When I am finished, I will write a song to your mother. She carried you for months so that you could come work with us today."

We had many such short-yet-profound conversations over the course of my stay, and even three years later I am still drawing meaning from many of them. Eddy, an ambitious young man about my own age, had done a lot of work to get his tiny village put on the map. He'd made partnerships with Africa Home Adventure and the Kenya Voluntary Community Development Project to bring foreign volunteers, and their funding, into projects he had helped pilot. I paid around $100 a week for one of the most rewarding "vacations" I'd ever had. Only a very small portion of that went to buy things needed to host me -- some soap and cooking oil, for the eggs and cabbages we harvested in the field ourselves -- and the rest went to fund a vocational-technical program for girls.

The vo-tech program consisted of a small adobe -- that's mud, you know -- building, fancy because it had a poured concrete floor. Inside were two treadle sewing machines. The girls received training in tailoring and could come here to take turns using the machines. Some were orphans; others provided support for elderly family members. All of them were excited to have access to this simple machine, which required no electricity and gave them an opportunity to start their own businesses. To become self-sufficient.

How strikingly different our versions of self-sufficiency seem on the surface. To me, it means being able to make enough of my own food and materials that I don't need to depend on products imported from far away and produced through practices with which I don't agree. To the ten-year-old girl who unobtrusively followed me through the watermelon fields, all it meant was a chance to turn a bolt of cloth into a garment, and make a few shillings to buy eggs for her ailing grandmother. She was just learning to write her name, and could recite a few phrases in English, but she was a fiend on the sewing machine. School academics were important, but distant -- sewing skill on the treadle was critical to survival and future.

We aren't so different, really, both bored by the study of things that don't produce immediate, tangible results. It's not that theory isn't interesting, it's just that it takes a backseat when there are so many other, more pressing things competing for attention. All this girl needed was the loan of enough money to buy her first bolt of cloth -- less than $5 -- to give her the hope that she needed to consider her ability to change her own future. A micro-microloan. What do you need to feel you have a bit of control over your destiny?

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Earlier this year, I decided it was time to buy a sewing machine.

But not just any machine. I had previously inherited a small electric model, which had finally reached the point of needing to be put out of its misery. The rubber coatings on the electrical cord had all dry rotted to dust. Metal innards had corroded to a fine grainy green. In short, it looked like it had been left all alone in a swamp for a couple of decades. "Maybe you can fix it," was the advice from my grantor.

But you can't fix such problems, at least not without a significant investment in research, time, and new parts. New sewing machines, like most consumer gadgets produced since I was born in the early 1980s, aren't designed to be fixed. They aren't designed to be repaired, tinkered with, or adjusted at all, actually -- they're designed to last just long enough for the warranty to run out, so you'll have enough faith in the product to go buy another one. Anne Leonard's The Story of Stuff video cleverly illustrates this idea of "planned obsolescence."

But of course, I don't need to tell you that they don't make 'em like they used to. I just want to remind you that the antique mall, flea market, and craigslist are all better ways of finding stuff you really need, that's still in reliable working shape, than heading off down to Big Box Mart. For me, this meant eyeing up the beautiful 1927 Singer Sewer you see above, rather than plunking down even more money on an electric machine that will probably need to be replaced before my unborn kids make it to elementary school.

Treadle machines aren't just a thing of beauty. They're extremely durable, easy to work on, easy to repair, and it's surprisingly easy to find -- or fabricate -- spare parts. Singer makes a strong effort for many, many of their modern parts to be interchangeable with all models of singer machines. That means that the bobbin for a sewer made in, say, 1918, is exactly the same bobbin you can find on the shelf of Big Box Mart designed to fit a modern electric machine. I read a craigslist post recently where a woman selling hers (for an exorbitant amount of money, as an "antique") noted that you can't sew on it any longer because you can no longer buy a belt for it. What utter nonsense! First of all, if you desire, you can still buy treadle belts. But when I bought mine, it didn't come with a belt, and I didn't bother to order one. I took out an old pair of leather boot laces and slapped them on, with a little bit of fiddle rosin to make them slip less. Done.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad back when I was driving my very first truck across the country alone. My air conditioner compressor exploded for no good reason one day in the mountains. I couldn't afford a new one, and really just wanted to get off the mountain and get home before I went looking for a used one. I'd called him to say how frustrated I was that Dodge didn't make this model of truck without an air conditioner. I figured I could just walk into the local NAPA, slap the short belt on that would skip the air conditioner's pulley, and be on my way, but no. "Well," came the reply, "Have you got a pair of pantyhose?" Of course. Why hadn't I thought of that? If the auto parts store didn't sell a belt of the length I needed, I could fabricate one on my own.

It's this kind of ingenuity that I fear is rapidly being lost. It worries me not just on a nostalgia level -- though I do believe everyone ought to be as self-sufficient as possible, just because -- but also on a security level. My soldiers can't fabricate parts they need and don't have. They wouldn't even know where to begin. They have a difficult enough time trying to maintain the equipment they're supposed to know how to repair. The throw-it-away-and-get-another mentality that has so thoroughly permeated our entire society has far, far-reaching consequences.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

the little one

So tall at just 7 months; this little pup's going to grow up to be a big dog.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Operation Recovery

Operation Recovery is the latest political action hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War. What it demands is simple: that troops suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, or Military Sexual Trauma not be forced to deploy again. We are in our tenth year of war, folks, and some people -- including my partner -- are facing their fifth tour.

All soldiers have an inherent sense that the mission comes first, and that their personal problems should wait. This is something they must overcome internally before they can seek help. Once a soldier has made that difficult decision, they should not be blocked by their commanders. They should not be forced to deploy again. They should not be turned away from seeking mental health services. We should be proactively seeking out veterans who may need a hand up to keep them on their feet. Instead, we are turning away those who voluntarily seek help. What do you think is happening to all those who can't speak out?

The epidemic of soldier and recently discharged veteran suicides is no real mystery to me. People argue that the military has changed, that it's not as bad as it used to be, and that the soldiers who complain are just "malingerers" -- people who feign ailments or purposely injure themselves to avoid duty. Let me say that if this is the improvement, I'd hate to see how it used to be. Take these examples:

*Jeff Hanks, denied treatment over and over again. He finally went AWOL on the day he was supposed to return to Afghanistan, and was committed to a mental health institution. Only the inpatient commitment was enough to stop his unit from arresting him and forcing him to return overseas, and he is still currently facing AWOL charges.

*SPC Kirkland, a soldier who was sent home from Iraq because he was believed to be suicidal, then ridiculed by his Rear Detachment chain of command and left alone in the barracks, where he killed himself.

*Suzanne Swift, a soldier who was sexually assaulted by members of her unit the first time she went to Iraq. Rather than go after the perpetrators or offer services to her, her unit demanded she deploy to Iraq a second time with the same individuals. When she refused, she was charged with desertion.

These are just a few published examples. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more that we may never know about. Despite what the military Public Affairs Office puts out about taking mental health more seriously, the truth is that soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines are still routinely denied care and punished for speaking out. But as these examples show, some courageous veterans are refusing to be silenced. Please show them your support.

What you can do:

*Educate yourself and your community about the problems of veteran suicide, and the lack of care we are receiving from the military. You might start by reading some of the articles or watching videos linked from the Operation Recovery webpage.

*Print the free flyers and post them on your college campuses, military bases, Veteran's Affairs buildings, or any place where young people congregate, to let returning veterans know they are not alone. Post them at your natural foods store, yoga class, or farmer's market to draw attention to the issue for veterans and non-veterans alike.

*Host a traveling "Operation Exposure" art show.

*Request a veteran speak to your college class, book club, church, or other group. Connectting with your local veterans groups is a great way to find speakers, as well as determining what needs are most great in your particular region.

*Sign the Pledge of Support. I don't personally like putting my name on the internet as a petition signatory, but I know that lots of other people view it as a symbolic act.

*Host a film screening that will generate discussion about veterans and traumatic stress. I have heard good things about Stop-Loss and The Ground Truth, but I haven't yet personally seen either.

*Write to your Congressional representative and tell them to make mental health care for returning veterans a priority. Demand that they investigate access to care for current servicemembers.

*Donate. Lots of people don't like to give money, and that's ok -- the above options might be better suited to you. But if you support the cause and don't have the time, energy, or gumption to do any of those things, donating can be a way to help. Donated money allows us to bring traveling art exhibitions around the country. Donated money also allows us to provide travel scholarships to veteran's retreats, so that we can get to know each other. For some veterans isolated in their own communities, these trips that are fully funded by strangers are their only chance to interact with other veterans and can be tremendously healing.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

the great lard experiement: take 1

So the lard didn't turn out exactly like we hoped.

If you notice, it's a rather dark color. It smells pig-ish, almost like bacon grease. We used it to fry up some leftover chicken giblets, but decided that we're going to call this batch "needs improvement" and use the rest as dog food gravy. In small amounts, of course.

The pig fat was free from the grocery store, about two pounds of trimmings that they would have otherwise thrown away. We've also decided that, in the future, we're going to make 5 or 6 lbs of starting material the requirement, since it takes so long to make. It seems that one pound yields roughly one pint of lard.

We started by cutting the fat into 1" cubes. Then we put them in a dutch oven, with a small amount of water in the bottom, and put the whole thing in the oven at 300 degrees. Kept it there for about... oh... five hours, until the cracklins were mostly small and hard. They turned out delicious, by the way.

The diagnosis of my mentor-in-all-things-old-timey, based on what I described over the phone, is that we cooked it at too high a temperature for too long. He says it has to be done more slowly, at a lower temperature, and that will help eliminate the dark color and pig taste. He also described to me a lard press. I'd never heard of it, but apparently it's a device you can use to squish the last bit of lard out of hot cracklins. Has anybody ever used (or even seen) one?

Well, since all the ingredients (except the electricity for the stove) were free, I'm sure we'll be trying it again. Maybe next time we'll try it in a doubler-boiler pot on top of the woodstove.

Friday, February 4, 2011

dual military

The Army owns both T and I. He works full-time active duty, and I work "half-time" National Guard. I say half-time because it seems there's always work at the unit to do. Three or even five day drills aren't uncommon, in addition to special work days during the month. Not to mention all of the unpaid time, because when you're a leader, your soldiers belong to you all of the time, not just when you're drilling. All that said, though, I still prefer the National Guard. I can walk up to my unit and say, hey, I need to move to Colorado, and they'll find a way to get me transferred. I can say, 'Hey, I've got a wedding to go to that weekend, can I possibly work a different one?' and every once in awhile they'll agree. And I don't need to spend five weeks at JRTC for no apparent reason.

Yes, I know, it's pre-deployment train-up. My unit went through seven (yes, seven!) months of that ourselves on our way to Iraq, before they re-structured National Guard deployments to be shorter. But the reality is, he's not doing a whole lot down there besides sitting around with no cell service practicing being miserable. Meanwhile, there's an empty plate at my dinner table.

People often ask me if it's difficult to be a dual-military couple. The first answer is yes, of course. When we both need to be on duty, finding someone to take care of the animals is a real challenge -- especially when most of our friends are also military, and likely will be away the same times we are. (Luckily we don't have children yet, and are planning to wait on that until T gets out a year from now and can be a stay-at-home dad.) We're constantly getting socks and TA-50 gear mixed up. But it's also tremendously rewarding. We can bitch about work to each other and not have to translate from acronymese. We share a deep emotional commitment to service. And perhaps most importantly, as we're both combat veterans, neither of us is bothered by the other's demons that come in the night.

view from my front porch

If you're jealous, remember that it's -20°F.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

the central problem of progress

"To wrest greater quantities of food from a wheat field, you need to breed varieties that give the greatest yield, that is, the greatest number of bushel per acre. To be successful, your breeding program requires a large and diverse gene pool, which gives you lots of choices. But when you finally come up with the most bountiful wheat, all the farmers plant it. The progeny of the favored variety overwhelms the wheat gene pool, forcing landraces and ancient types, and even useful related weeds, to disappear. Therefore, when you need to breed a new variety -- because the favored one has become stressed by bad weather or a killer disease -- there is less diversity remaining in the gene pool on which to base your search for a solution.

Repeat that scenario many times, and soon, so little diversity remains that breeding better wheat is almost impossible. It's like deliberate, programmed forgetting. Apply it to the glory of Greece and Rome, and you get the Dark Ages. Apply it to agriculture and you get famine, migrations of hungry people searching for food, and
inevitably, war."

-- Susan Dworkin, The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist's Struggle to Preserve the World Harvest

I share this because it's one of the most succinct explanations of the need for biodiversity I've ever read. There is a direct relationship between security and a people's ability to feed themselves. You wouldn't think this needs to be explained, but so many people ignore or choose not to believe it's true.

This book tells a fascinating story about a variety of wheat rust that nearly decimated all the world's wheat crops. It began as a mutation of an existing wheat rust in Uganda, and because so much of the world's current wheat supply is genetically similar, it spread frighteningly fast. The story follows a scientist who made "gene banks" part of his life's work, believing in the power of biodiversity. That's all well and good, and I think barrels of seed from every known variety stored in a secret underground vault are probably a good idea. But if we think this can be an insurance policy against loss of biodiversity, we're sadly mistaken.

Seeds kept in a vault are vulnerable to rot, pests, and fire. But more importantly, they aren't growing. They aren't making the tiny adaptations to changes in drought patterns or pests that living, reproducing creatures can make. If you vault away a traditional wheat seed today and pull it out a hundred years from now, it may not be able to deal with the increased level of salinity, or the new armyworm, or a multitude of other pests we haven't even dreamed of yet, that have all been living and reproducing and interacting with the real world in the meantime. One of the most critical aspects of food security -- and by extension, peace in general -- is small farmers tending genetically diverse crops.

Monsanto and the other big seed companies seem to honestly believe in what they are doing. They believe that they can feed more people on the planet by growing more wheat on one acre. They believe they're helping the environment by helping to prevent more acres of forest from being cleared to serve as agricultural fields. I think there is probably a place for high-yield, hybrid varieties in a world food system, if only to feed the massive quantities of standardized ingredient requirements for things like military MREs and Chips-A-Hoy cookies. But those who think monoculture on its current hegemonic scale is truly the solution to world hunger are deluding themselves.

Any cursory student of international relations can tell you that the problem of world hunger isn't that there's a shortage of food -- some figures say we currently produce more than twice as much food as all the people on earth could possibly eat -- but that poor folks can't afford to buy it. Take a look at your own community if you're not convinced. Are the people who come to the food pantries and soup kitchens folks who couldn't find adequate calories in the grocery store? Of course not. There's plenty of food to go around, if you've got enough cash. And the rock-bottom prices of cereal grain commodities that are driving farmers off their land don't affect the much prices of Hamburger Helper at Safeway.

It's the same story the world over. And as Vandana Shiva said, when the very farmers who grow the food are having difficulty feeding their families as they sell their crops to pay off their loans, it ought to be a sign something is seriously out of whack with our food system.

What do you think? Is it possible to feed the world with organic crops? In the long term, can we afford not to?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

miracle of wood heat

I don't know that I've ever been in cold like this.

Thermometer on the porch is reading -19°F. It only goes down to -30, which we might hit after nightfall. The windchill was supposed to be -40. I have about two days' worth of wood stacked on the porch. Inside the cabin, the woodstove is keeping the livingroom at about a cheery 60°. Not too bad, considering that the gas is out in our whole town. Our tiny furnace is hardly more than an oversized space heater. Never enough to heat the house by itself, it could still take the chill off and bring us up about five more degrees. I still have fuel for the kerosene heater, which I haven't lit yet, as well. Maybe I'll make some bread in the electric oven to get a little more heat that way, too.

The dogs are so much like little children, the older one copying me and the puppy copying T. The older dog will come inside when she's cold; she's made it a point to be outside doing her business for as few seconds as possible. The younger one, just like T, doesn't seem to notice how cold she is. She just wants to be where I am. She'll come out and frolic in the snow with me, steal sticks from my kindling pile, and generally ignore the temperature until all of a sudden she's really cold. Have to keep an eye on her. I wonder about getting them dog sweaters. Stupid as a fashion statement, they'd be practical if ever I wanted -- or needed -- to bring them on a hike with me in weather like this.

We have a new cat, the first cat I've owned since childhood. He's quite antisocial. Spending most of his days hiding under the couch, he comes out occasionally to bother the dogs and eat pieces of plastic. If he keeps attacking the puppy unprovoked, he's going to find himself locked outside with the cold and the foxes to fend for himself.

Work is canceled due to weather, as are most of my volunteer hobbies. The fire department is on standby, expecting to shelter residents affected by the extreme cold and lack of utilities. But so far, we haven't had any takers. Everyone up here on the mountain seems pretty self-sufficient. I wonder at what sort of panic might ensue if the folks down in Colorado Springs lost the utility umbilical cord to their furnaces in weather like this. Meanwhile, tendrils of woodsmoke curl up from my neighbors' stovepipes. An excuse to stay home, tend the fire, make cocoa, and catch up on reading isn't really so bad.