How To Build The Ultimate Compost Bin

Step 1: Beg Explain patiently to professional carpenter husband over several months that current compost bins are old and too small and in the wrong place.  Paint dazzling word pictures of abundant food and rich soil that would result from beautiful new compost bins.

Step 2: Research.  Turns out it’s not easy to find a good set of plans!  Most of the compost bin instructions out there are for recycled pallet bins or a couple of other common designs that were dismissed by said husband as either too ugly, too expensive to build on our budget, or lacking in lateral or other significant supports.  We did end up finding these useful plans from the City of Vancouver, and this became our base idea.  I figured that if these plans would keep Vancouver compost dry in the winter monsoons and safe from raccoons and other city critters, they were good enough for us.

Step 3: Take stock of existing supplies and recycle as much as possible.  Can you believe the fr#@%!*g price of wood these days?!  Skipper recycled our previous deck stairs and some cedar posts that he rescued from a job site a year or so ago.  He salvaged as much of the old bin’s cedar as he could.  We bought a small amount of pressure-treated wood for the base, a small amount of cedar for the front pieces, some hardware cloth to rodent-proof the bins, and a small number of assorted screws and other bits and bobs, and we’re still into this for almost $300.  Hence the large number of online plans for recycled pallet compost bins!

Step 4: When the good weather arrives—start building!


Old 2-bin system falling apart. Note loose plywood top--hinges are rusted out and old lid is long gone...
Preparing the new site perpendicular to the old one. New footprint: 10' x 4'.
The frame of recycled cedar posts stacked on concrete pavers to keep the wood off the ground.

We decided to raise the bins off the ground for both rodent-proofing and to make shoveling a little easier on the back.

Coming together: more salvaged and recycled cedar. Former deck stairs create the base. We could have parked our deck chairs right there, it's so sturdy!
Hardware cloth on; first bin complete!
Complete! New metal roof, and compost curing in its new home.

The details…

Each of the front (removable) panels has 2 screws in place at the bottom and has holes drilled in it for air circulation
The metal roof on its cedar frame. Light for me to lift!
The finished product!

It’s our equivalent of Rob at OneStraw‘s Compost Bin of Dreams.  It’s hard to convey through these photos just how sturdy and stable the whole thing is–ready for many tons of compost to be produced in the years to come.  The Skipper is pretty psyched; he’s even taken to pilfering all the fruit peels shed by his crew at work each day and bringing them home in a bucket “for me”. 🙂  Most importantly, the bin’s new location clears the way for the chicken coop, and the bigger size anticipates the fabulous chicken manure and litter that will be piling up in the not-so-distant future.

Apologies for the long hiatus between posts recently.  As you can see, we are now Making Progress in a big way on our spring plans.  I have lots more to report on, so will be trying to post more often.  Stay tuned!

Just Use Your Imagination


What do you see?

This is the back right corner of the deer-fenced portion of our property.  It’s been a little…umm…. neglected this year.  Well, I’ve pulled the morning glory/bindweed off the apple trees and shrubs a few times.  That counts, right?

What you’re looking at is, I think, the overgrown remains of a butterfly garden.  This is a triangular area about 50’x30’x40′ or so, and it has apple and hazelnut trees lining the fence, and then dense plantings of daylillies, crocosmia, irises, milkweed, peony, poppies, comfrey, sedums, sea holly, thimbleberry…the list goes on.  We let all of this grow out this summer so that we could see what was there, but what we discovered is that none of these perennials look like they have been divided over the last 10 years.  The flowers are so ingrown that they are knocking each other over and generally getting in each others’ way.  And did I mention the weeds?  Mother nature has kindly provided a groundcover of creeping buttercup and horsetail.  According to my books, this means we have heavy, wet, clay, acidic soil.  Yup, sounds about right.

So this is the patch that I’ve been contemplating and observing over the last couple of months.  It’s a big area with lots of possibilities.  I’ve considered turning it into more vegetable beds, considered planting more fruit trees and creating a full-on orchard.  I’ve considered sheet mulching the whole thing to improve the soil and to smother some of the weeds.  I’ve considered going with something completely low maintenance and planting poor-soil-loving perennials like lavender and rosemary, and I’ve mapped out potential pathways to create accessible flower beds.

It became clear, as I reflected, that I need to deal with the soil quality and the weeds before I worried about future planting.  I also spent some time thinking about the property as a whole, and what needs we would like to meet from it.  What functions are we still looking to fill, and how might this space help us meet them?

We are pretty clear that our highest priority in our garden is to meet as many of our food needs as possible.  We want to put our time and energy into the food plants and beds; any ornamentals need to largely take care of themselves.  At the same time, we love colour, riots of flowers, cottage style gardens, and that aspect is what drew us to this property in the first place.  We don’t want to lose the beauty and whimsy in favour of a strictly functional space.

We also, we decided this fall, are up for having a few chickens and ducks.

Chickens and ducks have many benefits in the permaculture garden, beyond their obvious value as providers of eggs.  Ducks eat slugs.  Chickens eat all kinds of insects and are especially helpful as clean-up crews under fruit trees.  Both produce awesome manure for the veggie garden.  They eat weeds and our leftovers (including some things that shouldn’t go in the compost), and what weeds they don’t eat, they scratch up regularly so that particularly pernicious weeds can’t get established.  Hurray for chickens and ducks!

As with anything, though, moderation and planning are key.  Too many birds in too small an area can mean: 1) the humans have to provide for all of the animal needs, which can be expensive and time consuming;  2) that precious manure overloads the area and becomes a smelly toxin rather than a source of fertility; 3) the landscape becomes a moonscape from scratching and eating and has no time to recover.  These issues lead to heavier responsibilities for humans, and unpleasant living conditions for all involved.

So I started looking at space requirements.  Chickens and ducks can be free-range animals that largely look after themselves.  Great!  But there are some downsides: they become prey for raccoons and other predators; they lay eggs wherever they want to and poop wherever they want to, leading to rotten eggs and messy decks; and they lay waste to veggie beds, defeating their “garden-helper” purpose.

How to balance these issues?  I found the most helpful and inspiring information on Paul Wheaton’s permie forum: the paddock system.  In this system, chickens and their coop are rotated every week or so through 4 different paddocks.  Each paddock gets a week of scratching and manure and weeding, and then 3-4 weeks recovery time to benefit from it.  The chickens forage the rich section which is still laden with plants and bugs, and meet many of their food needs naturally.  Sounds awesome!

Then I returned to my own patch of the yard and ran into a few obstacles.  1) this section has no level ground for a coop and is full of trees–paddocking will be difficult. 2)  Was this section big enough to rotate 3-4 chickens through? 3) Was it big enough to not have to rotate them at all? 4)  Could the chickens and ducks be housed and forage together in the same area? 5) I have to dig up the overgrown perennials.  I will, at the same time, pull up many of the weeds (hopefully).  What kind of groundcover and/or shrubs could I plant that would feed the birds and be durable in a short time frame? 6) Would it be better to let the birds have the whole yard and to just protect the veggie beds from them?

After MUCH (metaphorical) digging, questioning, reading and considering, here are some of the answers we have come up with.  1) For chickens to have only a positive, sustainable impact on the landscape and not need to be rotated, they need a LOT of space.  The recommendation from the Earth Care Manual is about 1 chicken per 600 square feet.  2) Ducks and chickens are reasonably comfortable companions, but they don’t live together well in close quarters: ducks like things wet and they are messy; chickens need homes that are very dry.

Protecting the areas we don’t want the birds in and giving them the rest of the yard is a possible option down the road.  But the stories vary, and I think it would be best for us to get to know our birds and their habits first, and we can always let them out to roam periodically.  There are some inspiring photos and experiences of this method here.  We are around our property a fair bit everyday, but we do work, and there will be days when we are both away for much of the day, and we worry about the predators when we’re not there.

Here’s what we’ve come to, in the end (or I guess it’s a beginning?).

We will build a chicken coop just a little ways from this area, next to the compost (convenient!).  It will be attached to a reasonably sized run that will be predator-proof where the birds can hang out during the day in safety and comfort.  The run will be attached via a closeable walkway to the area in the photo above, which will become an orchard/ foraging paddock that they will have access to as often as possible.  I may divide the orchard into 2 paddocks for rotation; we’ll see.

The ducks will be housed in the orchard, and we will put in a little water pool for them on the highest ground.  The house and that pool will be contained in a predator-proof run.

The whole area will get a couple more fruit trees (plums!), it already has comfrey, and I will add some shrubs and groundcover (still working on that!).  It will get 4 foot or so–hopefully attractive–fence surrounding it, and we will choose breeds that won’t fly over that height (Indian Runner ducks for sure!).  At the top end of the area, the fence will run inside of a cherry tree we just planted, which will create a 4′ wide bed that runs the length of the orchard.  I’m very excited about this!  The bed can be irrigated when we empty the duck pool each day, and my plan is to take cuttings from our delicious tayberry bush and grow more of them against the fence.  I’ll also transplant our rhubarb to this section where it will be in full sun and well fertilized.  I’m considering leaving sections for squash or potato crops or other large annuals; another option is to keep it in perennial veg: sunchokes, artichokes, etc.  It would also make sense to grow chicken and duck forage here: some oats or millet, or just kale and other hardy greens for their winter diet.

In terms of permaculture solutions, I’m very happy.  Multiple functions: orchard, forage, pest control, fertilization, people food, happy animals, functional fencing, waste products become resources…

Can you see it?


Moosemeat Stew

As a tradesman, the Skipper is a bit of an unusual breed.  He’s gained quite the reputation amongst his crew over the years about the food he brings in his lunchbox.  There are always lots of dried and fresh fruit and nuts, and some oddly-coloured vegetarian lentil stews and curries and soups have been eyed with concern by his peers.

His work mates unpack some predictable snacks and junk food, and they are largely meat and potatoes kinds of men.  They are generally not adventurous eaters and the Skipper gets lots of ribbing.  But there’s a twist.

Most of the meat these men unpack from their lunch boxes looks familiar on the surface: burgers, pepperoni, salami.  What’s not obvious at first glance though is what kind of meat it is.  Most of these men hunt and fish for a considerable portion of their food.  The burgers and steaks are elk (and occasionally bear), the pepperoni and sausage are deer or moose.  The Skipper used to claim to be a vegetarian, but he found those elk burgers hard to resist!

Though they may be meat and potatoes guys, and as far from hippie leftist environmentalists (like me! 🙂 ) as you can reasonably get on this coast, they are often deeply concerned about where their food comes from too, and they can be highly suspicious of factory farmed meat.  Many of them raise (or have raised) their own chickens and turkeys for meat birds, “so we know how they’re raised and what they’ve been fed.”  And some of their wives are AMAZING cooks (and just plain amazing women!).

When we get together with these families, we steer clear of politics and religion and other touchy subjects, but we can all talk for hours about food and the stories of how we caught it, grew it, cooked it, enjoyed it.  Anthony Bourdain argued recently that it’s meat in particular that brings people together in these communal connections, but I think food in general can do it.  These men know I’m vegetarian; it’s just one more way that I’m a little quirky.  But that’s ok.

Which brings us to the moosemeat.

So the Skipper has a friend and colleague who was headed off moose hunting recently, and he tried to talk the Skipper into taking some home.  A moose is a huge animal, and there would be more meat than any one hunter can manage without help!  The Skipper was more than happy to take some, but he wasn’t sure how I’d react.  He brought home 4 steaks and cooked up two on the first night.  One was for me!  I had a bite or two to taste it.  It was fine, tasted a little like liver.  It’s incredibly lean meat–almost looked like a kidney in colour!  But usually when I taste meat these days, I think, “meh”.  It’s ok, not repulsive or anything.  Intellectually, I’m fine with the idea of eating meat from these kinds of sources.  But when I taste it, I certainly don’t think, “where has this been all my life and where can I get more!”

So the second 2 steaks sat in the fridge for a couple of days, and I didn’t want them to go to waste.  I started thinking about moosemeat stew.  I thought, if I made a big stew with lots of veggies, then I could happily eat it, and I’d leave the meat in chunks so that they would be easy to pick out and send the Skipper’s way.  I headed to google for recipes.  Believe it or not, I’ve never made any kind of meat stew!  Sarah Palin’s name came up a lot in the google lists.

I dredged the cubes of moosemeat in seasoned flour and browned them in butter.  I took them out and carmelized an onion in the fat that remained.  I deglazed the pan with some wine, added potatoes and carrots and some thyme all from the garden, some crushed garlic cloves and a bay leaf, some rosemary.  I put the meat back in and covered it all with veggie stock.  It simmered for an hour or so and then I added a few diced roma tomatoes and checked the seasoning.  Simmered the stew for another 45 minutes or so and called up the Skipper to test the meat.  It was ready, so I made up some dumplings and added them to the pot, closed the lid and simmered another 15 minutes.  Done!

It was AWESOME.  I’ve made a lot of vegetable stews in my day, but you just don’t get that flavour right.  There wasn’t that much moose in it, but what was there was delicious and added a ton of flavour.  I told the Skipper (half teasing) to go back to his friend and tell him that he was allowed to bring home some more.  🙂

I have to say that this was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve made.  It was rich with flavour, memory (of stews of my childhood), and human tradition.  It is still a unique feeling to me to cook a comfort food meal like this, one that people have made for uncountable generations, with almost no ingredients from the grocery store (butter, flour, salt, pepper).

Moments like these still feel a little strange.  I feel deeply connected, unexpectedly, to my ancestors–both immediate and ancient–as I meet these food needs more directly and outside of the food chain that I’m so accustomed to.  It’s wonderful, but also unfamiliar.  It feels like change.  And it’s addictive.

The Paradox of Slow

Deb’s comment on my “Slow Life” post got me thinking.  What does it mean to live “Slow?” I think we’d all agree that a slow life isn’t really slower in terms of labour or tasks in the day.  Or is it?

Slow Food developed out of protest against “fast” food: mechanized, highly processed, void of soul or nutrition food that was/is (?) making inroads in Europe and attracting people away from their rich traditional practices.  Slow Food became so popular as a movement that folks began to figure out ways to apply the philosophy to all other forms of their lives: money, sex, music…life.  In the last 10 or so years, Slow Food has become the Slow Movement.

I haven’t considered myself part of a slow movement, per se, even though I’m happy to have joined Slow Food Vancouver Island this past spring.  The slow food movement is deeply involved in the issues that concern me: industrial food systems, the politics of food, as well as an investment in preserving traditional food cultures around the world, which, in light of the first two can be a highly political act.

When I got the idea for the “Day in the Life” meme, though, I thought about what kind of life I should name.  I didn’t think it was fair to call my life “Sustainable” or even “Self-Sufficient” as yet, and “A Day in the Transitioning to Sustainability Life” was a bit of a mouthful. 🙂  So I thought “Slow” might be a better fit.

Slow means, to me, that my rhythms of life revolve around our human-scale relationships and tasks.  Our time is devoted to meeting our needs in the simplest, most direct way possible, within the bounds of our current society.  This is a hard thing to describe!  Life is not “pre-industrial” by any stretch of the imagination, nor is that really a goal.  I am wary of nostalgia for “how things used to be”, idyllic dreams of which do permeate the environmental movement as they did the Back to the Land movement in the 60s and 70s.  At the same time, I am drawn to the vision and appeal of a time when the scale of life of life was still human and community-based rather than caught up in a mass-mechanized, petroleum boom.  I look back regularly to techniques for how people used to do things when they had no choice but to them themselves, and I work to make sure that knowledge isn’t lost.

But, of course, Slow does not mean easy or relaxed!  Meeting my needs more directly is clearly more labour and time-intensive.  BUT, I now understand that time and labour is what we have in our lifetimes and we use it up over our years on earth one way or another.  The question for me is not about saving time or labour, it’s a question of making sure that my time and labour are used in ways that I believe in and feel deeply connected to.  I would argue that the dream of leisure time for the masses was a corporate schtick designed to get the masses to buy more stuff in the post-war boom (while understanding that some of these labour-saving devices did enable women to enter the workforce in numbers that revolutionized their rights and recognition–a post for another day!) But I realized long ago that for me, simply trading my time and labour for money in a corporation was not a goal I could strive for.

My life is not slower, in the sense that it is full and busy.  But it definitely feels slower, because I am not multi-tasking at every moment, stuck to a crackberry, spending my day on the road, with little time and energy left over to do anything but crash out on the couch eating frozen food in front of the tv.  The point of “A Day in the Life” was precisely to illustrate that, in fact, if you’re looking to change your lifestyle, it is possible, rewarding, soul-restoring, and, truly, more full.

Which sometimes translates as busier.  But somehow, spending all day in the kitchen processing tomatoes doesn’t feel “fast”.  I grew the tomatoes from seed, and my relationship with them spans months.  In June, it felt like they were taking an eternity to grow!  And now that I’m watching them die in October, I’m aware of the months that will go by before I can plant them again.  As I develop my planting plans for next year, kicking myself for not planting more to get us through the fall and winter (!), I’m both wondering how we will ever accomplish everything we want to before then, and savouring the winter ahead as the time to relax a little and enjoy this part of the seasonal cycle.  And that is the paradox of Slow that I seem to be living at the moment.

So happy fall and Thanksgiving (if you’re in Canada), and here’s hoping you too get a few slow moments here and there.

More Garden Tour Pics

Sigh.  Technical difficulties.  Here are more pics from the day’s adventures:

The blueberry patch in another whimsical front-yard raised bed garden
Chicken Tractor Coop built on a large wheelbarrow base. Ingenious!
Large, fenced veggie plot using keyhole raised beds. The whole thing is positioned on the bottom side of a stone retaining wall reflecting heat and light onto the beds.

Happy garden dreaming!

Cowichan Valley Edible Gardens Tour

I’m always trying to peer over garden fences and pry holes in hedges to peek at the amazing veggie gardens in my neighbourhood.  So when I found out that the Cowichan Valley Green Community was putting on an Edible Gardens tour for the first time this year, I knew I had to go.  What better way to spend a fall Saturday afternoon?!

The tour had 10 properties scheduled for viewing over 4 hours–not nearly enough time to do all of the gardens justice.  The properties ranged from a 37-acre farm that a colleague of mine is trying to set up over the next few years as a permaculture teaching farm (woot!) to the tiniest of city lot front-yard veggie plots.

It was inspiring to see so many folks using the simplest and cheapest techniques to create productive spaces.  And so much fun to see all the different plants and combinations being created.  I’m particularly interested in the ways that people mix vegetable, fruit and flowers in beds and borders.  I know this is the way to go, but I haven’t quite been able to make it work to my satisfaction in my own gardens.

I’m actively planning my garden structure for next year, including re-building the raised beds and re-conceiving a large perennial flower bed, which could become a mixed area of the garden.   I’m also keen to acquire some chickens and/or ducks next year, so we’re pondering how these might impact the property in the best possible way.

Inspiration and goodwill abounded at every turn on the tour.  Here are a few images that capture the fun…

This roadside garden bed outside the front gate was the potato patch! Note the grapevine planted at the base of the telephone pole...
The front-yard garden on the other side of the gate: raised beds, scarecrow, rebar-polytunnel frames, and reusing asphalt shingles between the beds to suppress grass.
Spectacular and tasty 8 ft tall Amaranth! I'll definitely find a space for this next year.

Our Refrigerator is (Almost) Empty

Could you live without a fridge?

A year or two back, this was a hot topic among those striving for the ultimate sustainable lifestyle.  For those in the Riot for Austerity trying to cut their energy and resource use by 80%, the refrigerator came in for close scrutiny.  It’s a huge energy suck–often the biggest draw in the house besides heating.  So there were many who experimented with unplugging the fridge all together.  Usually this meant taking lots of things out of the fridge that don’t need to be there (most condiments, for instance), buying smaller amounts of fresh foods more often, European market style, and learning to do without a few things–like ice water or ice cream–that many folks around the world do without too.

Many who experimented were surprised to find out that they didn’t miss their fridges.  They were able to modify coolers or ice boxes for short term use and didn’t miss the constant electric hummmmmmmm or the charge in their utility bills.  Others found that there were a few really important things that needed refrigeration (breast milk came up a few times!), but that they could easily make do with a bar fridge or other, much smaller, appliance.

I watched all of this with some bemusement at the time and generally felt this was a more radical move than was necessary.  We moved into our condo and I LOVED my brand new, highly efficient, bottom freezer, stainless steel refrigerator.   Every couple of weeks, the Skipper and I would take a trip out to our favorite farm, and we’d come home and STOCK that fridge.  It would be packed with fresh produce from top to bottom.  My most important criteria in a fridge became large, deep crispers with humidity control–the more the better.

When we moved, we knew we would need a new fridge at some point.  The one we’ve inherited is 10 years old, white, the seals get moldy, and the freezer is up top.  The crispers are ok, but they are at the very bottom, and you have to open the fridge door REALLY wide to access them.  There’s also not enough tall storage on the door…you know…for the wine bottles. 🙂  We are such geeks that we have spent more than one Saturday walking through appliance stores drooling over the wares…

Most importantly, I thought we would need a bigger fridge.  After all, I thought, if I was stocking the last one full with the produce from the farm, surely with my garden producing well, I would need something even larger?

Well here it is, the peak of the harvest season (such as it is), and our fridge has been on the verge of empty for months.  It holds eggs, cheese, milk, juice, condiments and sometimes leftovers.  And the occasional piece of fruit that is creeping too quickly toward overripeness.

The bulk of what we’re eating is, of course, in the garden!  And although I could harvest all the carrots now and keep them in the crisper, there doesn’t seem to be much point when they might just get a little bigger if I leave them in the ground.  It is more convenient sometimes to harvest a couple of heads of lettuce and assorted spicy greens, wash and dry them all at once and keep them in a bucket for easy salads over a few days, but even that isn’t constant or even essential to freshness.  Then there are the tomatoes, which should never even see the fridge, and so are taking up the dining table (we eat on the couch, of course!).

The pantry is filling up slowly with potatoes, jam, and with a little luck, canned tomatoes, and the freezer is PACKED.  Crab bait, crab, salmon, berries, a few loaves of bread, and the odd Costco purchase buried in the bottom.  Can’t live without that.  But the fridge?  I’m rethinking what we might need.  Maybe we don’t need a full on kitchen reno to get some more counter space.  Maybe we just need a bar fridge and a countertop swapped in where the standard one is today.  Might save some money and energy too.

The Crabby Life

As I alluded to in my last post, these days the crabbing is FINE.  The crabbing life is a new routine for me, and I thought that it might be unfamiliar to many out there, especially those without much experience on the coasts.  I’ve also been reflecting on the idea of doing a few posts on the daily experiences of sustainable living–especially for those dreaming and wondering what it might feel like to live a little differently.  So if you’re stuck in an office looking at the fall rains, or if you’ve only ever eaten “imitation crab meat” from the grocery store or in a California roll (or both!), come with me on what has become our evening routine…

Evenings on Cowichan Bay

The phone usually rings about ten to five.  “Almost ready?” The Skipper calls when he’s a few minutes from home, and I start getting ready to head to the boat.  Sometimes I walk the 15 minutes to the marina, other evenings I hop in the van when he swings by.  Skipper comes in and grabs the bucket, some fuel, his old work gloves, and some bait from the freezer by the back door.

Crabs are the scavengers of the ocean floor.  They are notorious for eating EVERYTHING (they’re the ants or the cockroaches of the sea, really!), but they seem to particularly like fresh remains.  So folks around these parts save the bones and assorted carcasses from the salmon or other creatures they’ve caught through the season to feed the crab.

In the early evenings, the winds on the Bay are usually dying out, and we spend a peaceful few minutes motoring out in our wee sailboat out to our traps.  It’s a chance for us to unwind from the day a bit and hang out together without any distractions.  If there’s still a little wind, we might put up the sails for a half hour just to relax a little longer.

Our traps are down between 100 and 180 feet, depending on the location.  I haven’t thought much about those distances, other than to think about where the crabs might be (they like deep water).  But the Skipper observed this evening that these discrepancies mean that within a few hundred yards, the ocean bottom rises up 8 stories and then dips back down again!  There’s a huge hill under the water that we don’t even realize is there.  Amazing!

The trap’s location is marked with a small red and white buoy–you can just see it by the rail of the boat in the photo above.

Once we get to the marker, the real work begins.  I take the tiller and try to hold us in one place, while the Skipper gets ready.  He hooks the buoy with a pole, and then begins to haul the trap up by hand, up 200 feet of rope!  You can imagine how much effort that takes in the resistance of the water!  But he doesn’t seem to mind. 🙂  In fact, all through his teens growing up on the East Coast of Canada, he fished commercially for cod with his uncles.  They were “handlining” or “jigging”, which meant spending several hours a day pulling up 10-30 lb cod fish on a small fishing line with a hook, one after the other.  He swears that’s where his muscles come from!

The Skipper at Work

As the trap gets closer to the surface, he can start to tell how full it might be! (Either that, or we’ve caught an octopus, a giant starfish/sunfish, or hooked an old boot 🙂 )  Much anticipation until the trap breaks through the water….

Then, if we’re lucky…


We can keep 4 per fishing license per day.  So between the 2 of us, we’re looking for 8 males that are big enough to pass muster (there’s a regulated size limit).  Small ones and females go back into the deeps.

If they can get out, they're too small!

Big ones go in the bucket where they wrestle for space and make funny whispery noises to each other–almost like they’re smacking their lips.  If they had lips.  Maybe that was me.

The bait gets replaced and the Skipper hefts the trap back over the side.  We’re so low-tech that he measures the depth by the feet of rope left after the trap hits bottom.  Simple, but it works!

Once we’re home, the big pot gets some water under the steamer basket and gets set on the stove.  The Skipper has the slightly grisly job of “dressing” the crab, which means he pops the big back shells off them and rinses out all the guts and brains.  They get cracked in half and stacked in the pot, then steamed for 15-20 minutes.  Then we usually eat dinner–usually not crab!

We’re stocking the freezer these days, so after dinner, once the beasties have cooled off, we spend the evening shelling and then vacuum sealing the meat.  Crab in pasta, sushi, chowder, pizza…it’s going to be a good winter.

It’s a time consuming routine, and my hands are toughening up from cracking shells every evening, but it’s very satisfying.  And still feels like a miracle to bring wild foods–exotic and special when purchased in the store–into our staple diet.  And shelling, like so much of the fun of self-sufficiency, is easy to do while being entertained by episodes of The Simpsons or Trailer Park Boys! 🙂

The next day, I’m faced with a big smelly pile of shells.  There’s so much nutrient value in there that I’ve been loathe to throw the pile away.  But they can’t go in the regular compost pile, or we’d have every cat and raccoon for miles around in our backyard.  So I’ve been burying the shells in the trenches where I’ve just pulled up our potatoes.  I’m hoping by next summer they’ll be broken down enough to feed some happy plants.  Next, I have to find out what veggies like calcium!  (I know about tomatoes, but they’re in the potato family and can’t go there next year…any ideas?)

The Paradox of the Nanaimo Bar

The most evil of industrial foods?

They looked soooo good.  And what a bargain! According to the label, I was looking at 1.48 kilograms (more than 3 lbs!) of Traditional Nanaimo Bars:”delicious, creamy pastry filling generously layered on top of a traditional chocolate and coconut base and covered with velvety smooth chocolaty topping” for all of $7.99!

I was standing in the “bakery” section of Superstore, your basic mass warehouse-supermarket chain where nothing has seen anything resembling a bakery in days.  I had not taken leave of my environmental ethics or of my senses; I was looking for a treat.  The Skipper and I were headed off sailing for the weekend, and this time, we weren’t going to eat out at all.  I had carefully planned for 4 days of simple meals, easily prepared under sail or on the Coleman stove (found one at a garage sale fo r$2! Score!).  Pasta, salmon, salad, sandwiches, cereal, eggs, etc.  But I know that treats–both sweet and salty–are important for the morale of all sailors when confined to the small cockpit for hours each day.  All that fresh air seems to make us hungry more often, and we do more snacking and eat smaller meals than we do at home in our regular routine.  Portability and easy storage is also key, and finger foods, or foods that can be eaten with minimal cutlery straight out of the container, are most welcome when everything is sliding about on the waves.

So I felt nothing but glee as I walked out the store juggling my giant cardboard box of fake “chocolaty” goodness.  I knew the Skipper would be overjoyed–nanaimo bars are his favorite and rarest indulgence.  And I wasn’t going to pack ALL of them; that was the best part.  These babies could be easily frozen, and then we could take them out and savour them occasionally for weeks to come.

Over the weekend, then, we licked the chocolate-coconut crumbs from our fingers each night (and afternoon) and rolled our tongues around the slightly oily “cream” filling as we tried to eat the squares in as few bites as possible, before the heat from our hands melted the chocolate coating.  And I contemplated the paradox of the nanaimo bar.

I realized, of course, that what we were eating was an almost completely non-food product.  And most of our time is spent trying to eat nothing but real, whole food.  I wondered out loud to the Skipper, “do you think we could make a real food version of the nanaimo bar?  You know, with butter, real chocolate, etc?”

But as soon as I posed the question, I realized its futility.  You see, most of the time, the industrial food that we talk about is based on some kind of traditional dish.  Frozen pizza, chicken burgers, canned spaghetti, deli meats, string cheese….you know what I’m talking about.  Children don’t know these can be–were once always–produced from scratch in the home kitchen for hundreds of years, and most modern tastebuds don’t even recognize the original flavours.

But the nanaimo bar is a different beast.  This was a square invented by a housewife in the 1950s, and it owes its existence to the unique baking/non-baking, melting/non-melting properties of margarine.  It would cost a fortune to make these puppies from quality, organic ingredients, and the Skipper and I agreed, they wouldn’t taste at all the same.  This is not a treat of the real, it’s an industrial indulgence and should be appreciated for exactly what it is.

I recently shared my philosophy about such things in a comment on the inspiring Seattle-based blog, Sustainable Eats.  Annette was lamenting the busy start to the school year and the food shortcuts that become necessary sometimes when life gets crazy.  I could relate, but I realized that I had become far more relaxed about these moments in the last few years.  I have come to believe in an 80/20 principle.  I believe that it matters what we do MOST of the time, not what we do ALL of the time.  I think that when we first awaken to the seriousness of the crises that confront us we often head straight into panic.  We want to change everything in our lives so as not to contribute a moment longer to the troubles of the world.  But I know for me this quickly turned into a longing for purity, an attempt to create a life completely apart from the everyday evils.

In my experience, that attitude leads quickly to two things: burn out and a sense of doom.  Because it’s not possible, in any way, to escape the world as it is today.  There is no such thing as purity.  Scientists have found toxic chemicals that are only produced in one region in China deep in the most pristine Arctic permafrost ice.  Those few remaining indigenous communities in the world trying to stay true to a traditional way of life do so with the full knowledge of the alternative that is knocking at their doors.  We’re all a part of this world and all of its industrialized craziness whether we like it or not.  And if we try to escape, if we search for purity, depression, anger, and bitterness seem to be the inevitable result.

So what do I do, then?  I do the best I can, and I enjoy–with JOY being the key word–the changes I can make in those areas that are in my control.  Like growing my veggies and fruit, supporting those who are trying to produce food in sustainable ways, and campaigning actively for changes to the larger system.  But I also pay tribute from time to time to the realities and pleasure of the industrial system.  It’s evil, but it has its perks.  The way the world is going, these perks are likely to be fleeting, and they deserve, in my opinion, some appreciation for their cultural time and place.  It’s entirely possible that our grandchildren won’t ever taste a Twinkie or be able to understand what margarine is/was.

So whatever your favorite industrial indulgence, enjoy it.  Not often, and with the full recognition that you are working to eliminate it, but enjoy it–without guilt and in solidarity with your cultural community.

And then go back to what you do 80% of the time.  Which for us is eating food as real as real can be.  Like this!

Crab! Hauled by hand off our sailboat 1 km from home using the bones and scraps from our salmon filetting. Ultimate sustainability!

PS: Apparently everything I’ve just written about Nanaimo bars is a lie.  According to the City of Nanaimo website, the best recipe is made from butter, sugar, cocoa, nuts, eggs, etc. and the most industrial ingredient is Graham crumbs.  I must say those aren’t the ingredients on the label in front of me!  But we may have to test my theory and try the recipe… 🙂

Humans are Animals Too

I wonder sometimes about us humans.  Well at least us urban and semi-urban ones.  There’s a lot of talk in self-sufficiency circles and in the environmental movement about how “we” are completely disconnected from nature generally and from our food production in particular.  I’ve been struck again this week by the paradox of animal rights that comes out of that disconnect from time to time.  Some animal rights activists, many of whom are also environmentalists, don’t seem to understand that we humans are animal elements of the ecosystems we inhabit, that we do not exist outside of the ecosystem and determine the best course of action for everything else.

Though I grew up in the city and never really thought about where my produce came from, I did think about food a lot, and in the early 90s, I became a vegetarian.  I was living in the mid-western US, at a residential college.  Coming from the west coast of Canada, I had never seen so much meat in my life!  Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks!  Every day!  In my second year there, I worked in the cafeteria.  All that meat being served came out of the freezer in processed chunks–none of it looked like it came from anything resembling an animal.  I didn’t have any difficulty with my choice to avoid all of it.  I stayed away from the fish there too (mostly because it only came in the form of “battered fish sticks”,  and “battered” always seemed an ominous term), but fish and seafood never entirely left my diet.

Since we moved here, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about meat.  When the 100-Mile Diet authors started down their path, they wrote about how they had to change their vegan diets to find more local sources of protein and fat.  Tofu and olive oil was out, salmon, butter, and eggs were in.  I can grow soybeans, garbanzo beans, and oilseed sunflowers, but when I consider the indigenous diet here, fish is king.  Fish produced oil for food, but also for lighting and other now-petroleum-based products.  Fish is still the staple protein for First Nations communities here, especially the remote ones, and the decline in fish stocks is a profound concern.  If I was going to give up a food for ethical reasons today, fish should be it.

On the other hand, deer and rabbits are currently in overabundant supply.  Deer and rabbits have become de facto protected species in our urban and semi-urban environments–we don’t hunt in the cities (for some good reasons!); these critters are cute and fluffy and fun to watch; they are no threat to us, so we’ve left them alone.  At the same time, we’ve eliminated many of their other predators (wolves, cougars, etc) through deliberate culls or through habitat destruction.  Those predators were often threats to us, and we felt justified in getting rid of them.  But now the deer and rabbits are overrunning our islands and damaging our ecosystems themselves, as they eat too many of the indigenous plants and destroy the habitats of songbirds and other small but valuable creatures.  They also eat farm crops and gardens and are generally pests.

The obvious solution to the deer and rabbit problems (and it has been suggested often) is to do a controlled cull and use the meat for food for the local population.  Free range and organically raised (well, except for the occasional garden pesticide)!  But the outcry is predictable, and soon donations pour in for impractical and expensive sterilization programs or other more “humane” alternatives to killing them.

I may be a vegetarian, but I also recognize that humans are predators.  We are not at the top of the food chain with some sort of moral responsibility not to consume those below us.  We are a *part* of the cyclical, integrated food web.  We are food for other predators, or at the very least, for the earth worms and plants when we die.  If we try to escape our role as predators in the ecosystem, we are still interfering and disrupting the balance.  And even if we don’t eat meat, we still act as the world’s biggest predators when we clear-cut forests to grow soybeans and other large plant crops to feed ourselves something else.

Going vegetarian is often cited as one of the biggest impact choices we can make to mitigate climate change.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the industrial production of meat is immoral and and an environmental catastrophe.  It’s also one of the largest impacts of the North American lifestyle and is completely unsustainable as an export to the rest of the world.  The Chinese can not ever eat as much meat as North Americans–there isn’t enough land and water and petroleum for it to be possible.

But all those low-impact inhabitants of the developing world?  The ones who actually live on less than a planet’s worth of resources every day?  They’re not vegetarians.  They live in small-scale ecosystems with small food gardens, a few chickens, a goat, maybe a cow.  They get eggs and milk regularly, and kill a chicken perhaps every few weeks.  On a very special occasion, they kill the goat.  Hopefully *after* it’s birthed its replacement!  The animal manure feeds the garden, and the meat supplements what would otherwise likely not be a subsistence level of calories.  It may not be the most fun life on earth, but it’s kept a balance for tens of thousands of years.

I’ve just finished reading Jon Jeavons’ infamous and influential How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine. It was really interesting, and it will likely become a useful resource for me.  But I wondered about its central claim: that it takes 4000 sq ft to grow enough food for one person.  That amount of land sustains intensive vegetable and fruit crops, and enough grains and potato-like starches to eat year round.  Then it also produces enough compost fodder to replenish the soil in the other beds.  It makes sense as a system, but I kept wondering about where the chickens fit in?  Surely it would be more land-efficient to not try to *grow* all the calories we need to survive, and instead use some of the waste products of those crops (the kitchen scraps) to grow animals that produce ongoing food supplies (eggs and occasionally meat) as well as manure to help replenish the soil?  The nutrient and caloric density of meat surely means we would need fewer of the grain/starch crops that are so land-hungry?

I was thinking about all of this as we pulled our crab trap out of the water in the early evening yesterday.  The salmon bones and heads went into the bait trap, and a bunch of crab came out.  The little ones and females went back, and we kept a big male for dinner.  With about 6 big salmon, we have enough fish for the year in the freezer.  We’ll freeze a few more crab through the season, and if we’re lucky, add some prawns.  If we had a few chickens, we’d have the eggs that right now we buy around the neighborhood.  We’ll have enough potatoes and lots of other veg to get through the winter–it’s our first year, so we’ll see how much we need to supplement and for how long.  Over the coming years, I hope to be able to grow dry beans and peas for storing too.  And maybe some wheat or oats.

But surely this is sustainable?  It certainly feels low impact.  And most importantly, it feels like we are a part of the ecosystem we’re living in.  We have a role to play too–not in an abstract, intellectual way that declares that animals should have the same rights as humans, whatever that means.  Animals are not different from us, we *are* a species of animal.  And we have to consume to live like everything else on earth.  But we can also give back and replenish the earth, like every other creature does, and we can respect and help to nurture the lives of the plants and animals that we must consume.

So will I stay a vegetarian?  I’m not sure.  It’s been close to twenty years, and what I crave and how my digestive system has adapted are now part of that decision.  And although I have no trouble with the idea of chickens and eggs, I’m not sure I could bring myself to eat the bird I had raised for a couple of years! But the food landscape today is vastly different than it was twenty years ago.  And I’m not sure that if I had grown up in the kind of life I’m living now that I would have ever felt the need to give up eating animals to begin with.  We’ll see where that takes me.