The Emotional Process of Transition

Back in May, a colleague and I were talking about how we could revamp our courses to reflect our ecological and other global concerns.  I was reading like crazy, and was really taken by Carolyn Baker‘s approach–the need to mentor and guide people through the psychological and emotional shift that accompanies really dealing with the challenges to come.  It became my goal to design a course that would allow (mostly younger) students to face the realities of their potential futures, align their expectations, and get them thinking about how best to contribute to that future.  I recognized that this meant taking students on an emotional journey, and I’ve been working at structuring the course to do that in the months since.

Ironically, though, what I didn’t know was that I had only begun MY emotional journey with this transition!  Imagine thinking I could hold space for others to go through a process that I hadn’t been through myself! Hah!

As I’ve mentioned, I spent the larger part of the summer in despair and grief.  I have (I think!) grasped the scope and magnitude of what we’re facing.  I have recognized that there are no easy answers.  Climate change is running away from us very quickly, if we were ever in control.  Peak oil transitions are not being dealt with, and so are likely to be dramatic rather than gently mitigated.  The economy may stabilize, as it is now where I live, but even here the indications that we are in for radical transformations of our expectations and standards of living are many.  Everything looks very insecure, very tenuous, and very uncertain.  We are headed into unfamiliar territory, and I am scared.

My last post, about our financial situation, was written from that place of fear.  In the midst of all of the uncertainty, getting control of some aspects of our lives seemed imperative.  I spent weeks driving my husband crazy; every few HOURS I would state dramatically and with great doom:  “We HAVE to move.”  Followed by a few hours later, “We HAVE to stay.”  Followed a few hours later by, “Maybe we should sell everything and go live on a boat.  No wait–let’s buy an RV, park it on a small property and catch rainwater and compost EVERYTHING.  It’s our ONLY HOPE!”  He’s a patient man.

Now, many weeks back, John Michael Greer joined those who have suggested that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief might resonate with our stages of emotional transition, both at the individual and potentially at the community level too.  These stages have been added to and tweaked over the decades, but her essential stages were Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

When I read about these stages in this context, I thought, well, I don’t remember being in Denial, but I can see where I’ve been in Anger and in Depression.  I knew that I wasn’t yet at Acceptance!  But after writing out all the scenarios and worrying about our finances and seeing no clear way out, I suddenly had an epiphany: I was Bargaining!

You see, in all of my fear about all of the uncertainty, and in the midst of grieving for the suffering that I could see happening now and coming down the (Enbridge) pipe(line), I could see Collapse-a-coming.  What was my response?  To bargain obsessively over the details of my life to try to keep OUR lives from collapsing while the changes rolled in.

It was SO helpful to see that that’s what I was doing.  I took a deep breath, and here’s what I was able to see on the other side of my fear.

  • I cannot keep us from feeling the impact of the changes to come.  No matter how I fuss over the details, the whole point of the the collapse (and the reason for my fear) is that it is unpredictable and will affect every aspect of our lives.  We WILL adapt, one way or another, as we already are, trying to make the best decisions for ourselves at each crossroads.
  • There are few, if any, winners in the current system.  A part of me DOES want it to collapse, as the system itself is the problem.  In my estimation, from the research that I’ve been doing, there is nothing to save the system: it’s broke, and it will be the cause of its own demise.  So given that, why on earth would I want to hold on to the parts of our lives that are a part of that system?!  My bargaining was only to try and grasp some stability, hold onto the familiar, no matter how ugly.
  • It’s time–at an emotional level–to step into the changes, and stop fighting them.  I’m not suggesting we stop protesting politically or not try to change our communities to mitigate coming disasters.  But it’s also time to embrace the fact that things ARE changing, and, at one level, that’s what we need.

In my core beliefs, I believe that when I am experiencing great anxiety and turmoil, it’s because my mind hasn’t caught up with where the energy of the universe (or however you’d like to define it) is undeniably pulling me.  Right now, the one thing that’s clear is that the world is transforming.  So it’s time to let go of trying to hold on to anything; time to once again grapple with the Buddhist tenet that life is only impermanence, and that our attachment to the belief that there is anything else causes us great suffering.

Accepting that there is only change ahead, though, opens great emotional and mental space for me.  It distills what is truly important in life, and it’s not necessarily our home, our garden, our safety.  Millions today have been displaced by climate change, millions have left their homes, millions have died.  I may yet be one of those millions, and that will have to be ok.  That reality brings me back to my spiritual beliefs, and those are comforting.

Understanding that I am not special in the changes to come brings me the great peace of solidarity and compassion.  When all of society and culture is stripped away, we are simply left with each other.  And that’s often a richly meaningful place to be.  After all, I teach in my literature courses that one reason to read fiction and poetry from other times and places is that it demonstrates so vividly, so reassuringly, that others have passed through the great mysteries of life before us.  There is community and human connection to be had across history, as well as potential guidance.  I’ll be working on a new course: Literature for Transition.

The last space that is opening up for me as I stop holding on to my current life circumstances is the opportunity for vision.  There are myriad conversations going on right now about Adaptation.  Those are incredibly important, and I’ll be having them myself.  But Adaptation is the logical next step that is consistent with our current thinking, our current paradigms.  But those of us who have long dreamed of a different way of being in the world have been imagining a life outside of those paradigms entirely.  I’ve often dismissed my own such visions as lovely, but unrealistic and impractical;  or possible, but so far down the road as to be not even worth pursuing.

But here’s the thing.  Any vision of life and community that will replace what we have now can ONLY seem crazy, because it’s outside of all of the systems that keep us where we are.  But the systems that keep us where we are are collapsing and will not hold.  So we NEED visions of life that don’t relate to those old paradigms at all.  The realization of this paradox is liberating–it’s time to stop worrying whether “people” will think I’m a little odd, because anything that will seem “normal” is by definition unsustainable and doomed! 🙂

So where am I going?  Not somewhere too crazy, I don’t think.  Not somewhere totally detached from our human history.  Just back to understandings of life systems that have proven to be possible to sustain in an ecological system for millenia at a time.  And nowhere too specific as yet.  Somewhere deep in our human indigenous roots all over the world, where all of the earth is alive, where we are a part of the ever shape-shifting manifestations of Life.  Where Life speaks to us through the plants, through the animals, through the creation stories and Trickster tales of our archetypal mythologies.  Into old stories about mystery, that honour and uphold grief and despair as appropriate and desperately important emotions that take us into the deep self and spiritual knowledge of our interdependence.  And that lead to visions and guidance from places that we cannot see but know in our deepest levels of consciousness to be true.

I’m going off to talk to the trees.

(Note–I’m not actually GOING anywhere.  Don’t worry! 🙂 )


In case anyone is interested, here are some of the readings I’m working my way through these days, and which are offering me lots to contemplate:

The Permaculture Handbook  This is a brilliant, practical guide to how to set up our lives in ways that will build resilience and be ecologically regenerative.  I’m a ways from a review, but I have found it deeply heartening so far.

Carolyn Baker’s work–I’ve been looking forward to diving into these for a couple of months now

Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul  A book about developing beyond our societies pathological adolescence into the wisdom of elderhood; a process that Plotkin argues can only be accomplished through relationship with Nature

David Abrahms, Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry and others working in the Deep Ecology movement

Sharon Astyk, Making Home is now out, hurray! (About learning to Adapt in Place)

“Waking Up Syndrome” Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell.  A quick article with lots of resources by two therapists about the emotional stages that we cycle through as we grapple with our understanding of the changing world.


Post-Peak Living: Our Homestead Economics

As I read and pay attention to both the predictions about what post-peak like might look like over the coming decades and to what’s happening already, the one message that stands out is that it is time to get used to being poorer.

Under the pressures of extreme weather events and disruptions to normal weather patterns, increasing oil prices, and a no-growth/all-debt global economic system, two things seem guaranteed:  everything will cost more, and our wages will not keep pace with that inflation.

The truth is, this has been the case for a long time.  I’ve been working in public service for more than a decade, and I don’t remember the last time a normal, cost-of-living raise was negotiated in a collective agreement I’ve been a part of.  Purchasing power in our neck of the woods has been declining since the 1970s, despite the availability of more cheap stuff.  After all, perhaps the biggest change in purchasing power since the 1970s, the aspect that has kept our western economies afloat for all this time, is really the massive increase in credit available.  Remember how in the 1970s you needed 25% down to buy a house?  And there was no such thing as credit cards?

So the value of our income is going down.  Prices on everything are going up.  And we’re likely to continue in a global economy that is debt-ridden and has run out of ways to grow its way out of recession, which means public–government–spending will also continue to be scaled back, along with our support services.  It’s time to start embracing poverty.

So I’ve been considering the question as I assess the resilience of our lives: How do I want to be poor?  Poverty is usually associated with people who have few choices and live on the desperate edges of survival, and no doubt this will describe more and more of us as the years go by.  But as someone who spent MANY years as a university student working part-time, I know that poverty can also mean living simply but joyfully on not very much money.  At this moment, our household has options, and my goal is to use this time of relative luxury to set up systems that will allow us to live on a much smaller relative income with dignity and little sense of deprivation or despair.

In 15 years, the Skipper will be ready to retire–at least that’s the goal.  At that point, if the economy allows, I could still work at high-ish wages for another decade.  But during that transition, I would like to be as little dependent on working incomes as possible.  And if one or both of us loses a job or we have our incomes go down (or hyperinflation kicks in), it would be nice to be able to continue a reasonable life without ending up on the street.  So we want to start making the wider economy redundant to us, before it makes us redundant to it!

Taking a hard look at our home economics in this light, though, is sobering.  We have been on the “simple living” bandwagon for many years.  The old rhetorics about getting rich by cutting out lattes and investing in mutual funds definitely don’t apply to us!  We don’t “go shopping”, we brown bag it everyday, and we value quality over quantity.  No keeping up with the Joneses here!

But our situation is by no means secure.  We have some debt, and we have used credit to do some of our home and garden infrastructure improvements.  We have a mortgage on a 30 year amortization that I don’t want to take 30 years to pay off; the sooner we OWN land, the better.  I have a small student loan that I previously put in the category of “good” debt, but now don’t see that way.

If the essentials of life are food, shelter, and water (not necessarily in that order!), right now shelter is costing us a LOT.  The mortgage, property taxes, home maintenance, required insurance, and the electricity that runs our basic water and septic functions add up to the biggest chunk of our budget.  Other debt payments are another big chunk, if we include a vehicle, student loans, and credit cards (because we’re paying them aggressively).  We live at the halfway point between 2 small cities: Skipper commutes south, I commute north.  Commuting is environmentally toxic, but also expensive: gas, maintenance, insurance, and a vehicle payment also take a big bite out of our incomes.

Food is complicated.  On the one hand, eating out of the garden is WAY cheaper than buying all those fruits and vegetables (especially organically) at the supermarket.  The garden does save us some money, and I will continue to push toward growing all of our vegetables and most of our fruit for the year.  I do spend money, though, on seeds, organic bulk fertilizer ingredients, and in the last 2 years, building more raised beds.  We provide our own eggs and some chicken and crab/fish, but there are background costs to these as well–feed costs for instance are dramatically on the rise, and that’s before this year’s drought affects them.

There are still all kinds of food items that we will continue to need to buy: grains and dairy seem the most obvious.  I’ll definitely be doing some research about how to mitigate these costs.  We’re in the middle of the year’s provisioning, and I’ll be tracking the math more carefully than usual, and will share what I find.

Here’s the puzzle for us in a nutshell.  We’re getting by, and if all things were going to stay the same for the next 20-30 years, there would be no issue.  We’ve been playing by the popular culture’s economic rules, and by the normal account of things, we’re doing fine.  But if I look a little deeper, our security is more tenous.  We also have projects that we want to undertake to improve our resiliency–a new roof, hardwood flooring, wood storage, etc etc.  At the moment I’m not sure where the money for these things will come from.

My goal is to massively decrease our need for incomes over the next 15 years.  But given the major expenses that we have right now, we have to think hard about how to do that.

Here are the options I’m considering:

Plan A: We will be spending some time over the next few months paying close attention to our spending, to see just how we might be able to cut back on whatever luxuries we have.  There’s not a lot of fat to trim, but I’m sure there is some.  The sad part is, though, that some of those luxuries are ways in which we support important local economies.  For instance, instead of making our own bread, which would be cheaper, we buy it from our extraordinary local bakery.  Although we’ve made our bread often over the years, the bakery we support is investing in local grain production, which benefits our whole region.  So part of this exercise will be thinking through the security of our purchases.  The usual frugal rule of finding the “cheapest” option is a false frugality, because it *increases* dependence on the tenuous global supply chain.

Plan B: Depending on how much we’re able to refine our current spending habits, we may have to look at more radical changes to our lifestyle to free up the cash to pay off the debts, own land, and have a system set up on our land to support a less cash-dependent lifestyle down the road.  Here’s where things get tricky.

We can try to decrease our mortgage.  The real estate trade-offs that affect price are the condition of the house, the size of the house, the size of the property, and the location.  To decrease our mortgage substantially, I’m willing to decrease the size of the house and property, but those two have to remain practical for reasonable food production, processing and storage.  Changing location may be an option, but moving closer to town, where prices are cheaper, also means higher property taxes and more rules–chickens aren’t yet permitted in town, for instance.  Skipper is a carpenter, and in theory fixing up a cheaper house is an option.  But we’d have to make sure that the costs of renovating and retrofitting don’t outweigh the savings in the mortgage.

I’ve considered even more radical options: selling the house, paying off the debts, saving the rest and moving on to a boat or into a trailer for a few years to build up some cash reserves before re-entering the housing market.  But these mean that we lose our capacity for food production, at least in the short term.

Another option is to try to cut down the cost of our commutes.  We’re making some choices about this already; we’ve decided not to replace my fuel-efficent beater, which we think will still keep going for another few years with some money put into maintenance.  It also looks like down the road I might have an opportunity to work closer to home (or more from home), and I’ll focus on that in my project decisions.  If we’re looking at the 15 year mark, and Skipper retiring, then that also takes care of a commute.  However, depending on where gas prices go, we could also consider making a more radical decision to move closer to one job and have the other person find a job in that community.  We both have very good reasons to hold on to the jobs we have, though!

Moving has the potential to make our lives more financially secure, and may prove to be the best option as time goes on.  But it has some big downsides too.  We’re in a house now that needs little retro-fitting.  We’ve replaced almost all of the appliances and toilets with efficient, low-water ones.  We have done a lot of work to the garden to get it producing well, and there’s lots more we could do.  And we’re in a community that has a lot to offer, including the kind of barter and exchange that is so necessary to replace the dependence on outsourcing-for-money.

Plan C:  Plan C is to continue as we are, doing our best, and using short-term credit as necessary.  Then, if things really do get difficult, we consider renting out a room, taking on extra work, etc to make up the difference.  This goes against my pro-active nature and my gut response to the stories on the news every day, but it is a totally valid option which many will pursue out of necessity.

Those are some of the tough decisions that post-peak life has us considering.  How about you?

Surviving the Age of Transition

Yesterday’s top news stories:

In Eastern British Columbia, a toxic mining tailings pond threatens to spill its waste in a small community, potentially contaminating everything in its path including rivers and drinking water.  The cause? Record rains straining the dam.

Extreme heat..well, you know..everywhere (except the PNW), and still almost 100,000 without power almost a week after an extreme weather event on the East coast.  And, of course, forest fires burning up Colorado and neighbouring states.

In BC and Washington, the shellfish industry is scrambling.  Ocean acidification means that shellfish hatcheries’ seed stock cannot form shells.  They are now rearing the seed stock in places like Hawaii, where, for the moment, the acid levels are still tolerable.  The companies then ship the young shellfish back to grow in local waters when they are older and can tolerate the conditions.  The commercial industry is adapting.  Unfortunately, wild stocks don’t have that option.  Mussel beds are not reproducing.

Ocean acidification happens because the oceans absorb 30% of our atmospheric carbon.  Unfortunately, the acidification that we’re experiencing now is from C02 absorbed 30-40 years ago.  So even if there was no atmospheric carbon left to absorb, we still have 30-40 years worth of absorbed carbon on its way.  Goodbye marine food.

The global economy is still flailing 4 years after the major collapse in 2008.  No sign of recovery in sight.  Canada was one of the least affected nations in the world, and we are an energy exporter.  But in this global economic climate, the best we’re seeing is flat “growth.”  Guess what one of the major causes of the meltdown was?  According to the Wall Street Journal, the 2008 spike in oil prices may have been the tipping point.

…To recap: massive species die-off, extreme weather events straining our infrastructure, rising cost of living and flat wages, long economic recessions (when does this qualify as a Depression?)…

Umm, folks?  All those scary scif-fi-like predictions of a world affected by peak oil and climate change?  We’re already living it.  And there’s a concensus building that the tipping points that scientists have spent the last decades warning us about are now visible in the rear-view mirror.

I know I haven’t been posting much over the last few months, and this is one of the reasons why.  I’ve been immersed in the latest research into Peak Oil and climate change in preparation for a course I’ll be teaching in the fall, and the conclusions I’m coming to are leaving me in a thinly veiled panic.  In a nutshell?  We’re screwed, and it’s time to start thinking about how we’re going to survive.

Now, I am not a survivalist.  I am a skeptical academic who is suspicious of fear mongering and who has a sunny, optimistic personality.  And part of what is troubling me right now is just how difficult it is to predict the future.  There are experts out there warning us about the apocalyptic collapse of civilization, and there are others who take the long view of history and suggest a slow, grinding, decline is more likely.  After all, as John Michael Greer points out, after suffering two devastating world wars and a great depression, Europe still did not collapse entirely.


We are looking ahead to a very different future.  Every country in the world is holding massive debt, which in theory falls on its taxpayers to repay.  Money that used to be in government trust has been funneled into and centralized in corporations, and is therefore unavailable.  Each extreme weather event that requires massive emergency funding sucks money out of the public coffers, and thus out of the rest of the economy.  With oil prices staying high (even allowing for modest fluctuation), rebuilding and maintaining our infrastructure gets harder and harder.  Food production is threatened by the double whammy of extreme and unpredictable weather coupled with high fuel costs that impact the cost of fertilizers, pesticides, running farm equipment, and distribution.  The cost of every consumer good continues to rise with the rising costs of production.

In the meantime, at the community level, my provincial government has started to sue its local municipalities to try to recoup healthcare costs.  Umm, fighting over scraps anyone?  I used to look to the natural landscape and systems to help supplement my attempts at self-sufficiency–hunting and fishing–to provide the protein that my small homestead cannot produce.  But those natural support systems–if the ocean acidification example is any indication–can not be counted on for much longer.

The burning question for me at the moment is: how long do we have?  And of course, that’s an impossible question to answer.  Way too many variables.  And this makes planning and preparing and adapting tough.

Right now, in this moment, everything is great.  Skipper and I have good jobs, we can afford our mortgage even if costs increase or wages go down in moderation.  The garden is in full swing, and happy, adorable chicks are racing around exclaiming over every new leaf they find.  We and our families are healthy, and our network of wonderful friends continues to grow.  I count our blessings every day.

But I’m looking around our homestead and lifestyle with fresh eyes.  If the economy (globally and locally) continues to shrink and prioritize, we will need to become increasingly self-reliant.  Right now, all of our water and septic needs require electricity.  Rain catchment is moving up the list of priorities, as is the “pizza” oven, which I initially considered a luxury.  But wood-fired ovens need small, hot fires from small brush, of which we have lots from our prunings.

I’m going to be experimenting with dehydrating in the greenhouse, which is otherwise too hot and dry to use in the height of summer.  Dehydrating is less power intensive than freezing or even canning, although I’ll still do that too.  I’ll be working at building my capacity to keep us in food year-round, but I won’t be investing in grow-lights.  As one friend put it: you can replace heat cables.  You can’t create light without power.  A small solar panel won’t power even a cfl grow-light at this point (and covering the greenhouse roof with solar panels defeats the purpose! 🙂 ).  But YMMV–depends what happens to our sunshine over the years to come.

Oh and permaculture?  I’ve been reading and admiring for a few years, integrating a technique here and there.  But I’ve been stuck in the idea that there’s little that’s “natural” about permaculture–you’re basically trying to imitate a natural system with imported plants in order to create something productive for humans.  But now I get it–permaculture is essential, and I will be picking up the new Garden Farming for Town and Country asap.  Because although working WITH natural systems is the only way to be productive without oil, climate change means that the ecosystems that we’re used to integrating into will be changing dramaticallly.  So we need to work with more resilient perennials, maximizing diversity, and creating food systems (even basic ones with annuals to supplement) that require few if any inputs in the future, when it counts.  In the long term, we will need to go back to living off the surplus of the land, but the land as it is is too degraded to support us.  Permaculture is the way to rebuild that support system.

I’m also reflecting on our chickens.  Our flock is very productive and useful; they will stay.  But the backyard chickens movement has really focused on dual-purpose birds, and I’m starting to question that.  Dual-purpose birds are calm, don’t fly much, and produce both eggs and meat.  Awesome!  But they were really bred for the integrated farm, to live off the farm wastes and surpluses, like grains.  They could also often forage over the whole farm property, which could provide lots of food.  Neither of these scenarios describes our situation.

The vegan argument around livestock has long revolved around the feed conversion ratio: even the most hybridized birds eat 2 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of meat, which is a waste of grain that could be feeding people directly.  Now there are lots of reasons why this is not a useful argument, but the core principle remains: if grain prices continue to rise and my forage space is limited, are dual-purpose chickens the right livestock for us?  I will be investigating the Mediterranean breeds and the Euskal Oiloa to see if the more traditional third-world backyard bird–the scrawny egg producer that needs much less feed–is a more viable option.

Over the coming months, I’ll be considering every aspect of our lifestyles for their resiliency, and I’m prepared to make some radical changes if necessary.  After all, our family has a window in which to get better prepared, and I want to make the most of it.




The Homestead Takes Shape: Spring Projects 2012

Funny how everytime I disappear from blogland for a while, it seems that everyone else is slowing down too.  Have we all been busy with Spring Frenzy getting the planting season up and running?

There’s been far too much going on here to fit it all in, but I thought I’d post this little photo essay to show a little of what we’ve been up to.  I’ve written before about our journey over these past few years: year 1 we mostly observed the property and brought some of the interior of the house up to snuff.  Year 2 we re-did the raised beds and brought chickens into our lives.  Here we are in year 3: we have been steadily shifting the rest of the property, which was mostly ornamental gardens, into more food production.  We’ve moved shrubs, taken down trees, and built more raised beds.  AND today we should be hatching out our SECOND batch of chicks with our mama Blue-Lace Red Wyandotte hen!  The garden is alive and thriving (mostly), and we’ve been eating greens all of May.  As of June, we’re adding turnips and new potatoes to the homestead diet, and peas and strawberries will be next…Now all we need is the heat to arrive to shift us from spring to summer! Click on any of the photos to see them in more detail.

Before: Spring 2010


The new raised beds we built last year (2011). One of the big spring projects you can see just behind them, under the large apple tree. We dug up and rearranged blueberry plants, then added an everbearing strawberry and an asparagus bed in front of them.


A couple of notes about this photo: you can’t tell that these new beds overtake and use up the bit of lawn that was there before, and you can see the new hop supports towering over the whole garden!

Hop Alley

I know I need to do a whole blog post on the Skipper’s Hop Project.  A happy homebrewer, he ordered organic hop rhizomes from Left Fields Hops, which grows hops for the famous Crannog Brewery.  He has, if I remember correctly, Galena, Mt Hood, Cascades, Chinook, and Centennial–good West Coast intense flavours.  In year 3, hops plants reach maturity and go crazy.  So Skipper has installed a 16 foot-high support system, complete with pulleys, so that they can grow in a controlled fashion and be harvested “easily.”  Stay tuned for how things turn out!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the garden…

New raised beds where ornamental shrubs used to be…
Skipper took down the tall cedar that’s in the middle of the Before pic, which let the sunshine back into the middle of the garden. Then he built a new 6’x8′ bed.


The late spring crops are underway:

Summer Brassicas on their way…


And in the coop behind them rests our Broody Mama Hen…

Her first batch, which hatched out at Easter, is now 10 weeks old!  (Pics are from a week ago, though) We have 3 sleek pullets and 2 wee roos, who will go to Freezer Camp in another 6 weeks or so.

Ginger, one of our newest pullets…

The 10-week-old crew was hatched from a mix of purchased Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte eggs (2 of which produced pullets) and our own eggs from Australorp and Silver-Laced Wyandotte hens, fertilized by a Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte Roo.  We ended up with the two Silver-Laced Roo and one Australorp-cross pullet, known as Cocoa Bean.  As we waited for Hen to go broody again, we wrestled with what we we would hatch out next–really the decision about where we wanted to take our flock.

Having essentially 4 breeds in a flock of 10 was not always easy, and we wanted to get down to two breeds at most.  But how to choose?!  In the absence of a decision, we simply collected some of our own eggs again to keep on standby just in case.  When the time came, I suddenly realized that we might have inadvertently solved the problem: if our eggs were crosses of our best egg layers (the Buff Orpington and Australorps) with our favorite temperament and prettiest birds (BLR Wyandottes), the crosses might end up being the best of both worlds!  So that’s what’s under Hen right now.

Report to come once the chicks arrive–stay tuned!




Life, Death and Roosters

On Sunday, we culled a rooster.

This was our big handsome Roo, a beautiful Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte rooster, who has been leader of the backyard flock for the last several months.  Roo was an excellent leader; he protected his hens from eagles and ravens and hawks and was always tame and calm around us and all our visitors.

So why did we kill him?  Because once Hen went broody, Roo started acting very aggressively toward our second rooster, Percy, who is Hen’s sweetheart.  We let it slide for a while; Percy had lots of space to get away, and there were no serious injuries.  We suspected that one of the two roos in our small flock would have to go (2 roos to 7 hens is too many, generally speaking), but they had been getting along well for months without issue.  While Hen was ensconced in the nest box, Percy was the odd man out, and we actually wondered if he might have to be the one to go.

But when the chicks hatched and started running about happily, Percy became an awesome Papa, and Roo started acting aggressively toward Hen too.  The choice became clear.

Why did we kill him?  Why not just rehome him, or sell him?  Because my views and values around death and eating meat have been transformed by raising livestock, even on this tiny scale.

I grew up in a pretty normal urban North American environment, I think.  We had the occasional pet–fish, rabbits, later a small dog.  As a child, I found my goldfish periodically belly-up  in the fish bowl, and gave up after a few replacements.  One of our rabbits disappeared–probably thanks to a raccoon–the second one was (I hate to admit it) released (to become one of the contributors to the urban feral rabbit pestilence!).  The dog was found another good home when it no longer fit my parents’ lifestyle.

One of my grandfathers died when I was a child, and I vividly remember everyone crying at the funeral.  But that was pretty much the extent of my experience of death.  I ate meat until I left home, but being vegetarian was nothing radical in 1980s and 90s Vancouver, meat in-and-of itself had no relationship with death for me, and my reasons for giving it up had only peripherally to do with animal rights.

In other words, I don’t think I had much exposure to or gave much thought to death as I grew up, nor did I feel the kind of regular, close attachment to animals that might make me feel like their deaths were inherently a horrible thing.  Death was an abstract, as was food, really, until just a few years ago.

Coming up to 4 years ago now, my father died of cancer at 57.  He was diagnosed a few years before that, and he embraced living every day of those few years he had left.  Some of the time, as he headed out with friends and family for another round on the golf course, I would forget that he was sick at all.  I remember distinctly, though, coming home one Thanksgiving and feeling with great and highly uncomfortable clarity that he and my mom had come to a deep level of understanding that he was, in fact, going to die, and I wasn’t at all there yet.

We all spent a lot of time together, in his final weeks; it was a precious and blessed time that has left me with many legacies thatcontinue to unfold.  One of those was a different understanding of death.

You see, Dad was diagnosed with a very rare cancer about which very little is known and about which very little treatment could be offered.  Fairly quickly, he was left on his own, outside of the usual cancer treatment industry, and he died at home, peacefully in bed, on his own terms.  It was the best of all possible passings, from my point of view.

In his last weeks, we talked about the fact that not so long ago, having a family member close to death and then dying in a bedroom at home would have been a normal part of life.  Just like being born at home was the normal way to be born, dying in an upstairs bedroom being cared for by one of your children and their family was the only option.  Most traditions even include a time of the family sitting with the dead body in the home while visitors pay their respects.  But when we started outsourcing seniors’ care, we also largely outsourced death, and for me, at least, death then became something strange and abstract and foreign, something that existed only in my imagination, and as such, something potentially horrifying and troubling.

Another of my father’s legacies, I now know, was the  gift of being open to the mysteries of Life and the universe and the spirit.  He was a minister, and I was raised Christian, although I wouldn’t categorise myself that way now.  His death shoved me back into spiritual journey, and I have found myself returning to many of the vaguely Buddist beliefs that shaped my worldview in my early 20s, particularly non-dual theology: the belief that God is not an old man on a mountaintop ( 🙂 ), but instead is the divine life energy present in all things.  In my mind, God is simply Life (with a capital L), creativity in its most basic desire to explode into every possible material experience.

Life is clearest to me in the garden.  Life is growth and then decay, and death might simply be the point at which life decays so much that it becomes life again.  I plant a seed, it grows into a plant which flowers in order to reproduce.  As soon as it flowers, however, the process of decay begins until the plant finally dies, at which point the decomposers take over and turn the plant into the food and soil that become another plant’s life.

In the garden, death is so clearly a necessary, transient, beautiful, and enriching phase.  There is nothing scary or horrifying about it–without the death which is the harvest of my vegetables, I would have no life.

When we first got chickens, I had no real plan for the roosters.  We talked about buying pullets–already sexed females ready to start laying–but decided to raise straight-run (unsexed) chicks to make sure that they would know us and be comfortable and tame around us.  From the beginning, the chickens were intended as a kind of pet, though certainly of a more independent kind!  I had vague ideas about letting hens live out their natural lives with us when they got too old to keep laying, and even more vague ideas of what roosters might be for; we certainly didn’t intend to keep any of them, at first.  Eat fertilized eggs? Gross!  I had equally vague understandings of chicken sex and anatomy! 🙂

As our chicks grew up, we found ourselves with the unsurprising percentage of 7 boys to our 7 girls.  We had to put one rooster down early because it developed physically lame and began to suffer.  We had no idea what we were doing, but going to a vet was not an option, and the internet was a fount of information.  Nonetheless, that death was not easy or peaceful, precisely because we were such amateurs.  The next two roosters we found another home for.

After that, though, we had to suck it up.  We started to understand what “flock management” meant.  We were the flock keepers and we had to do what was best for the health and well-being of the whole group, which at the time included younger chickens that were being hurt by rooster #4.  It was time to get comfortable with “processing”.  The Skipper fashioned a “killing cone” (the chicken is placed upside down through a cone so that the head pokes through–death throes are contained, the jugular is easily accessible, and upside down, the bird is comfortable and relaxed), took a deep breath, and we said goodbye.  The Skipper, who once worked as a commercial fisher, commented that this shouldn’t be any different than killing the thousands of fish that had crossed his path over the years…but of course it was.

That roo was packed up into the freezer, but it was a few months before we felt prepared to eat him–to bridge that gap between individual animal and food.  I had started eating small amounts of meat by this time, and I had small pieces of that roast bird as well.  I was starting to get comfortable with the idea of eating meat, although I still was (and am) uncomfortable with leaving the category of vegetarian.

Our big red Roo on Sunday was our 4th culling in about 6 months, and the process is starting to feel familiar; we are gaining confidence.  A friend–another vegetarian turned farmer–has asked us to come up to her place and show her how it’s done, and I think we were glad to go through the process ourselves one more time before sharing what we’ve learned.  This time round, we got orgainzed in advance; we knew what to expect and had learned from previous experience how to prepare.  As I helped gather materials and scrubbed the kitchen clean, I felt like I was going through another set of rituals that would have been commonplace not so very long ago (and which probably still are in many homes).  The cleaning and gathering felt appropriate to the weight and significance of the death to come and to the gratitude and humility I feel for the life-sustaining food that the death provides.

The preparations went smoothly, and I felt confident and sure.  Until it was my turn to go and collect Roo.  I got the birds into their run and put out their evening scratch, knowing that when their attention is on the ground, I can easily pick them up.  When I got everyone settled and went to pick up Roo, though, all my breath left me and the world tilted a little.  It is a powerful and uncomfortable feeling, that knowledge that you are leading an animal to death.  And so it should be!  Like saying grace before a special family gathering, saying a blessing and a prayer for forgiveness and gratitude seems the only appropriate thing to do–regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.  I took a deep breath to steady myself, and from then on, the rest of the process was straightforward.

What I’ve taken away from these cullings most of all, I realize, is that although death is the part of the process that we dread, the part we have to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for, the part so culturally loaded, death is in fact not the biggest part of culling.  Death, in our backyard circumstances, is extremely quick and painless: there is only a split second between alive and dead.  And now that we’re more sure of what we’re doing, there was probaly no longer than a minute between Roo blissfully eating his favorite food with his harem, and no longer being alive.  We should all be so lucky!  Compared to the hour of getting all the equipment assembled and the kitchen ready, then the hour of plucking, butchering, and disposing of the intestines, feathers, blood, etc (which I bury in the garden for lucky plants and micro-organisms to convert into more food), the actual death is the easy part!

Perhaps the biggest shift for me over these years since my father passed away and in the months of being so intimately tied to death on our wee homestead, is that I now understand in a visceral way that death is not just not an end–whether you believe in spirit or not–but that death is also not necessarily a tragedy.  When there is suffering, death is a gift.  Death was welcomed by my father; he was ready to go.  When we kill an aggressive rooster, it is a gift to our remaining flock.

For the first time in my life, I can also say with deep honesty that I am not scared of death, whether of a loved one or of my own.  Skipper and I were talking not long ago about cancer, heart disease and other dreadful ways that people we know have died over the past year or so.  He asked, as we have contemplated over the years, about how I would cope with him getting sick, how could we prevent one disease or another.  I realised in that conversation, that it no longer mattered.  Death WILL happen.  No matter when or how I or the Skipper go, it will be too soon in our life together.  The remaining partner will grieve deeply, then have to find a way to carry on, if one of us has been left behind.  Those are the truths of life; the details don’t seem that important anymore, and I’ve realized that there’s no need to live my life in fear of them.

So why did we kill big, beautiful Roo–such a proud and handsome creature?

Because he was starting to harm the flock and needed to be removed.  Because he had the best of all possible Roo lives here, and although we may have been able to find another place for him to live out his days, it’s more than likely that place would not have been as nice as this, and that’s not good enough.  Because if we had left things as they are, the two roosters would have eventually fought each other to death–Nature’s way of sorting out excess males is often brutal, painful, prolonged, and humiliating.  Because, although selling him is technically another option, roosters are not economically valuable–even high-quality heritage birds go for as little as $10.  A breeder might have taken him, but it’s more likely that he would have become food for some other family.  The 4 lbs free-range, pastured chickens that we buy from local farms around here periodically cost $14 +.  Roo dressed out at over 6 lbs.

Most importantly, though, we processed him ourselves because doing so meant his stress-free life continued right up until the moment of death; because we know his death was quick and painless;  because the meals that he will provide for us are as sacred–unique and not commodified with a price tag–to us as his life was; because his body will feed us and the garden, generating new life on the homestead.  And because, for me, this has become the ultimate definition of ethical eating.

Backyard Flock’s Broody Hen Adventure: Easter Hatch 2012!

We have no idea what we’re doing.

Back in February, Skipper and I started to muse that if our favorite Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte hen went broody in the spring, we might let her hatch out some chicks.  How adorable it would be to have her lead chicks all over the yard!  Not long after that, and well before we’d had a chance to think through the logistics, Hen went broody.

We considered our options in our small set-up.  There weren’t many.  We tried moving Hen to a brooder in the workshop.  She wanted to be back with her flock, and she returned to her nest box.  We decided, what the heck, collected some eggs and let her sit in the nest box.  The other hens, after some protest (not laying, then laying UNDER the coop), went back to laying in 2 nest boxes instead of their usual 3.  And we waited.

Hen was an awesome broody.  She sat devotedly, but also took care of herself.  She would get up, eat and drink, take a walk and stretch her wings, take a dust bath.  On a nice day, we would let her out of the run by herself, and she would spend twenty minutes or so stretching and flapping and walking around the whole yard before returning to sit on her eggs.

When we decided to leave Hen in the nest box, we started thinking about how the chicks would manage when they hatched.  They needed a ladder!  This was our first concept of how to hatch chicks in the coop:

Note "curtain" duct-taped up to give Hen a little more privacy. 🙂

Eggs take 21 days to hatch, in theory.  But in reality it can take 20-23 ish, and there are always reports of extremely early or late chicks that still make it.  20 days was April 4th, the earliest date for the first eggs that we put under Hen (the majority went under her about 12 hours later).  That Wednesday came and went, as did Thursday, day 21.

On Good Friday, we started to see some action–heard some peeping, and then saw our first chick emerge!

As the big day approached, though, we had started to realize that the ladder was not going to work.  Day-old chicks would not be able to get up and down.  Where would they eat chick food or get water? If all 9 eggs hatched, how would they all fit with Mum in the nest box?!  How would the rest of the flock react to these little bodies running around?  How would Mum react to the rest of the flock getting near her babies?!

I did some research on how folks raise chicks with the rest of the flock in the coop, but most of the time people who do this have lots of space, and simply partition of a section.  Our 4×8 coop is tight for our flock of 9 as it is…Then I saw it.  The chick condo!  Skipper built a platform coming out from the nest box, complete with security edges, so that the chicks could walk out from Mum and get to food and water.

Chick Condo V. 1.0: Note hardware cloth to keep the big birds from being too curious and to keep the chicks in...

By Friday night, Skipper announced that we had twins!

Saturday morning, though, was very sad.  Skipper went down early to check on everyone, and found that one of the twins had made it, but the other had not, and a third chick, that we had heard peeping under Hen the night before, was lying crushed underneath her.  We couldn’t be sure what had happened, but that night had been a very cold one–frosty and below zero celcius.  It was possible that the wee one had just not been able to keep warm enough overnight.  That morning was still chilly, and we knew there were more chicks on the way.  We set up the heat lamp in the coop, over the platform, which meant that the first chick could now be comfortable when s/he left the nest, could get to food and water, while Hen hatched out the rest of the eggs.  As the next chicks emerged all dry and fluffy from under Mum, we gently brought them out of the nest and dipped their beaks in the waterer.  Before long, we had 5 happy, active chicks racing around from the nest to the warm spot under the heat lamp.

By Sunday morning, Hen had left the nest.  She had given up on the last 2 eggs hatching, and sure enough, when we checked them, there was no noise or movement.  We gave up on them too.

But once Hen was up and moving around, the limitations of our set-up quickly became obvious.  For one thing, the heat lamp was too hot for Hen.  She would jump down off the platform, which we had anticipated, thinking that she could get to food and water and move around.  But we hadn’t thought about how much Hen would want the chicks with her!  She desperately wanted to show them around the coop, introduce them to the food and water, to scratching and running.  She would jump down, scratch about, find food, call excitedly and the chickies would all run to the edge of the condo.  At one point, I went to check on them and saw that there were only 4 chicks!  Hen was sitting on the floor of the coop, and luckily the 5th chick was tucked safely underneath her.  No idea how it got down there!  And of course, it had no way to get back up! Back to the drawing board…

After contemplating our options once again, we decided to repurpose our wire brooder and move it into the chicken run.  The brooder was at least a bigger space, on the ground, had room for food and water, and in the run would be predator-proof.  With a few alterations, it worked great.

Then we had to decide whether to separate the new family from the rest of the flock, and if so, how to do that in our limited space.  For the first day or two, the new family slept a lot and seemed happy to stay in the brooder.  We shut the rest of the flock out of the run for an hour or so each day and let Hen and the chicks get out and explore.  Watching them all in the dust bath was a hoot–until one of them got lost underneath her!  We let the flock back in and watched closely to see what would happen.  Although they were all mostly ok together, one chick did get pecked, and all the big birds were extra curious about the food that might be in the brooder…and I fussed like the mother hen, worried that the babies would get stepped on or lost in the big run.

So here’s what we have set up now:

Brooder V. 5.0: Skipper has fenced off the portion under the coop and running back by the ramp. Happy flock!

This is working great at the moment.  The chicks are growing fast, and my hope is that in another week or so, we will start experimenting with taking down the fencing and having everyone mingle.  The chicks, now a week old, are racing around, digging and scratching, and have no trouble following Mum from quite a distance.

The learning curve for all of this has been steep this week, but we knew this time around would be.  Our loose plan is to do this again, so we’re really figuring out the process before we build (and by “we”, I mean the Skipper of course!) anything more permanent for brooding chicks with a broody hen.

What we’ve learned so far?

I’m pretty sure that our poor-ish hatch rate is because we didn’t keep our eggs cool enough.  The books say, keep the eggs at “room temperature” “on the counter in the kitchen.”  The problem?  Our woodstove and open-plan living space.  Our kitchen stays at about 25 during the day, is very dry, and gets a lot cooler at night.  Not a great place to maintain the integrity of an egg!  So next time, we will try for a bigger batch of eggs, and take better care of them while we wait for the broody to take over.  On this hatch (although its hard to tell exactly yet), it looks like the eggs we bought are largely the ones that became healthy chicks–those are the ones we kept cooler and were fresher.

I don’t think we’ll go back to brooding in the house ourselves.  The natural way is SO much better, despite the bumpy start.  It’s amazing to see the chicks in the hay and dirt so quickly, and handling ordinary temperatures so young!  They are getting so much richer a chick experience than we could ever give them.  There’s no heat lamp outside, and the chicks don’t seem to care at all.  They tuck under Mum at night, and whenever they need to warm up.  Otherwise, they are out on our 10 degree days with seemingly no trouble at all.  They have no need for vaccinations or medication, because they are building their immune systems on the deep litter in the run–eating dirt, flock poop, and all the low levels of bacteria and micro-organisms.  I keep a little apple cider vinegar in their water to keep their probiotics up, and so far so good.  Their environment is in every way superior to living on a shelf-liner in our bathroom!

If we ever build another coop, we’ll build in an area that can be flexible for brooding.  But in the meantime, we can do this in our small set-up, with a little resourcefulness.  There are lots more stages in this process to come, though, so we’ve got a fair bit to figure out yet.  Like, what will we do when this batch grows up?!

And, yes, we’re kinda hoping that in another month or so, Hen or another hen will go broody, and we’ll get another chance to apply what we’ve learned.  By the end of the summer, we will either have a staggered flock or a replacement one.  At least that’s the plan!

My Canadian Budget Lament

Okay. So I suspect that few of my readers are paying very close attention to the Canadian Federal budget that came out on Thursday. And, truthfully, with a Conservative government in power at the moment, whose values and basic ideological premises are very far from my own, I have been somewhat disengaged from Canadian politics these days. My own political views are pretty entrenched, and I’m just hoping that the Conservatives don’t do too much damage in the short term.

But I’ve been reading a recent series on the history and concept of Empires by John Michael Greer over at the Archdruid Report, and I couldn’t help but be struck and saddened by the pattern that is emerging.

Greer has spent the last few weeks outlining what characterizes an empire, whether British, Roman, or American. To greatly oversimplify, an empire is defined by its desire for expansion and growth, which of course means that the raw materials feeding that growth disappear quickly from the local area. New territories are needed, and usually conquered through military action, to provide the natural resources that will continue to feed the growth at home.

The plantation model of colonialism, where a small, elite group of colonists oversee the exploitation of large numbers of locals in service of massive cash crops for export (think cotton, tea, chocolate, coffee, bananas), Greer defines as the “‘wealth pump.” The wealth pump sucks all the wealth OUT of the local area and funnels it back to the motherland.

The archetypal examples of this model, like Africa today, or Latin America at the end of the 19th century, are easy to see. What’s less obvious at times is the way this has played out in countries that are not usually categorized as “developing” (such an ugly word when we look through this lens!). Greer points out that, really, any country that is not the current superpower has to align itself along the wealth pump in one way or another. Canada, for instance, in NAFTA, sucks wealth out of Mexico to be funnelled home, but then in turn exports its natural resources at a great rate of knots out to the US and China.

Greer sets all of this up to make a significant point about the current environmental unsustainability of empires. He calls it the “empire of time.” America’s expansion, you see, has relied not only on a spatial consumption of resources (from territorial expansion), but also on fossil fuels, which are, of course, ancient deposits of carbon from life gone by. The wealth pump has been sucking up resources not just from places, but from the past.

These images of the wealth pump and the empire of time were in the forefront of my consciousness when I listened to the details of the Canadian budget being handed down.  I can’t help but think that the political elite in this country, as elsewhere, is simply focused on its own current wealth pump, which is sucking out the resources of the future for the gain of those in power at the present.

A couple of examples stand out for me: the focus on oil and gas extraction over environmental protection, and the move to delay access to government retirement benefits from age 65 to age 67.

It’s no secret that this government’s values are based in “The West”, which is a euphemism for allied with resource-based economies (as opposed to the manufacturing economies of central Canada, which have been devastated by the economic transformations of the last few years).  Among the goodies for resource businesses in the budget: a shortened and “streamlined” environmental review process and a time limit of 24 months for that process to take place and a decision to be made.  This is in direct response to the more than 4000 people who signed up to voice their position on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline; if all those were to be heard, the process would take significantly longer than those in charge would like.  But the government is also continuing to gut their ministries of environment and other scientific agencies who simply research and report on environmental impacts and the climate changes being currently charted–they are eliminating the pools of data that could be used to argue against their policies.

This is the wealth pump unconcerned with the future, and focused only on what produces the most wealth for the present.  I’ve had young people point out to me recently how short-sighted this is: by definition, these jobs in the non-renewable resource industry are NOT renewable!  So in 20, 30, 40 years, we will have a generation of young men (mostly), who have spent the most active years of their lives in jobs that will disappear just before they would be ready to retire from them, with little to retrain for, and with no other local economy to keep viable communties intact.  For anyone living in BC, this is a familiar picture–the devastation of communities left behind when logging or fishing economies disappear isn’t pretty.

To make matters worse, the government has also decided to move the age of access to retirement benefits (Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement, both introduced decades ago to alleviate desperate poverty levels among seniors, particularly women) from 65 to 67.  Now, on the surface, this doesn’t seem unreasonable; after all, we are living longer and healthier lives than we were back in the day when these programs were introduced.  And of course, “financial times have changed” and we need to make sure that the system remains “sustainable for future generations.”

Can you say bullsh*t?

While Greece and other nations may well be in financial crisis that require desperate measures to stave off short-term bankruptcy, Canada is not.  In fact, the reason for the current “challenging economic landscape” is the Conservatives themselves.  One of the first things they did when they took office was cut the Goods and Services tax by 1 and then 2 %.  Then they cut corporate taxes and income taxes.  One economist months ago pointed out that if the GST went up 1%, THERE WOULDN’T BE A DEFICIT.

But under the rhetoric of “keeping money in the pockets of the individual to make the best choices for themselves and their families,” the government made sure that the wealth pump kept churning out the cash for big business and the most wealthy.  Sorry, but by keeping the extra $300 or so dollars a year in my pocket?  I can’t improve my healthcare options, send children to a national subsidized daycare system, or retrofit my home with solar panels to relieve pressure on the hydro grid.  But now, of course, the Conservatives have an excuse to shrink government in order to “grow the economy”.

So the problem here is twofold.  One, the shift to the later retirement benefits dates kicks in for those 54 years old today and younger.  So that generation with non-renewable jobs that will disappear? They will be the same ones who are struggling and in need of benefits down the line.  And if the federal benefits aren’t there, the provinces will be shouldering the burden in the healthcare, retraining, mental health and conmunity support expenses down the line.  My future earnings are being pumped into the present gaping hungry maw.

But it’s the bigger picture that’s most disturbing for me.  Once the oil is gone, you see, what will we have left to rely on?  Imagine if infrastructure of all kinds continues to crumble, or simply becomes too expensive for you to access.  Look to Greece or Ireland for contemporary examples.  Political instability, food and gas that’s too expensive to afford, high inflation, no jobs.  What would you do?  Well, young people in both of those countries are either leaving to go elsewhere to work (if that’s an option, which is by no means certain) or going back to the family land to try to eke out a living.  In Europe, the second is an option only because families still have traditional lands to go back to.  In North America, that tradition doesn’t exist.

My point is that when the empire of time and territory ceases to support us–and that day is looking precariously close to my eyes at the moment--all we have left is nature.  When we can’t buy food or water, we will need nature to provide it for us.  And all the reskilling in the world isn’t going to help us if hydro-fracking has poisoned the water, or if all the arable land has been paved over for housing.  It’s all very well for the wealth pump to be sucking Northern Alberta dry now, but when the oil is gone and the landscape is uninhabitable, then what?

So I am heartbroken, considering my future, as my government chooses short-term gain.  And though I believe that these examples that civilization will not sustain itself do open opportunities to reinvent the system, they also means that I am looking at the localization movement  and its economics in a whole new light–as the only thing that might sustain us by the time I need to retire.