Depletion and Abundance: Building Resiliency

Prepare to be poorer.

That’s one of the most central messages in Sharon Astyk‘s book, Depletion and Abundance. And it’s really not a message of fear and doom, but a new way to look at the whole question of self-sufficiency.

Last year, I did a little blog series On Self-Sufficiency, where I worked out my thoughts around what self-sufficency means. At the end of the series, I decided that I was going to move toward thinking about self-reliance instead. After all, once you work through the idea that you want to run away and create a little kingdom where you can survive anything on your own, most of us pretty quickly decide that divorcing ourselves from the wider community wouldn’t be desirable even if it were possible. Self-reliance became more about learning to be able to provide what I could for myself, while not needing to do it all, and recognizing that building community is where real security lies in uncertain times.

Astyk, though, has painted a picture that has me thinking a little differently again. It’s all the same dots–climate change, peak oil, food costs rising, etc–but she connects them in a way that’s fresh for me.

The upshot is this. Climate change means more “natural” disasters more often. More flooding, more tornadoes and hurricanes, more intense storms, more droughts. Sound familiar?! But the realistic impact of these is that in our wealthy Western world, the government will declare states of emergency, send in the troops, provide emergency reimbursements for losses. In other words, society will expect our leaders to take the same steps that it traditionally has when a major disaster hits, only it will be called upon to spend that contingency money more often. Again, this sounds eerily familiar this week…

So one major impact of climate change is that higher levels of government spending are needed.

Peak oil, of course, is going to make everything more expensive. Again, this is happening already. In Canada, at least, a recent report confirms that everything is costing more, even when gas is isolated (which, of course, it isn’t!).

I don’t know about where you live, but the general state of things at the momentalso  seems to be that governments are already facing massive debts and budget deficits. The US is barely functional, if the recent federal budget debacle is any indication!

So we take governments that are already in debt, combine that with heavier demands for emergency funds, and higher costs for everything under the sun, and we get….yep, you guessed it… higher taxes and spending/program cuts. And we get those at the same time that we as individuals are facing those higher costs for everything too.

So whether all of this happens quickly and apocalyptically, as many thought was happening during the big crash in 2008, or whether this is indeed a “long emergency,” and regardless of the whole conversation about mitigating climate change and shifting away from fossil fuels, most of us are facing a financially challenging future.

What I like about Astyk’s response to all of this, is that she doesn’t suggest that we are all doomed, or that we should run away and learn to live in the woods. Instead, she just says in a practical way, you’re going to have less cash–so how are you going to earn it, and what are you going to spend it on?

Becoming resilient is not about becoming totally self-suffienct as an individual or family. It’s about finding your own balance of how you might meet the challenges of the future. Most of us will continue to work for some money, and we will still need money. But we need to think about where that money will need to go. Will you be able to afford a long commute? Or perhaps doing that commute will enable you to meet all of your other needs without money. Can you save your money to buy staples like grain and grow the rest of your food yourself, rather than needing to move to a really large property that would make growing those grains yourself possible? Maybe you want to save your cash to run the computer and the washing machine and not put in the expensive solar panels because you can meet most of your other needs yourself. Maybe, like us, you have family across the country and you will need to save cash for what undoubtedly will be more expensive flights. We can make that happen if we make trade-offs in other ways.

Prioritizing is one important part of planning; diversifying is another. This is a psychological shift that I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I grew up thinking about finding vocation, career, calling. In reality, I’ve always done a lot of things, usually working at a couple of different jobs over the course of a year while in school. Though my job is still insecure, I have nevertheless had work full-time or close to it teaching for the last 5 years. As I disclosed in an earlier post, I also want to farm for some of my income. I also love to write, and always have a few projects on the go. For a long time, I thought all of this needed to be either/or. I struggled thinking I needed to BE a teacher, or BE a writer, or BE a farmer.

Now, though, I’m finally coming around to the fact that all I need to BE is myself, in a happy life with the people I love. That likely looks like doing a variety of things to earn some income, building resiliency through growing and harvesting food–domestic and wild–devoting time and energy to good relationships with family and friends (who, after all, are the ultimate safety net), and building relationships and strong networks of support in my community, to ensure that we all survive together.

Resiliency means having a wide range of skills and resources available, and the flexibility and creativity to adapt.  No one can have all the skills and resources necessary for a fulfilling life (plain survival is something else, I guess), so we gain resiliency–and security–through networks and multiple ways to meet our needs.

All of this also makes me feel a little better about our finances.  Although we could/ should be building up a reasonable cash cushion when possible, our money is going into building our resiliency in other ways.  Saving for the future is good, but putting in a woodstove means one less need that requires money to meet.  Storing emergency food is important, but having a garden with some reliable perennial crops, knowing our wild edibles, and being able to save seed makes a big impact in how much food we might need to store, and how varied and healthy a diet we might have should we ever have to survive off those stores.  And both protect us from needing to be wealthy should food costs soar in a crisis.

So, oddly, all this reflecting on an uncertain future ended up making me feel more empowered by the choices we’ve already made, and more confident in making decisions to come.

How about you?

More Spring Projects: Check!

Just a few pics and updates.

When we moved the chicks out to the coop, we were hoping to integrate the two “flocks” fairly smoothly.  But it became obvious quickly that the new ones were just too small to defend themselves against the older birds, even those that aren’t aggressive.  They don’t stand a chance right now against the older Wyandottes or those 3 Buff roos.  But we needed them out of the house, and we also needed a simple set-up for our housesitter to manage the two groups while we’re away in a couple of weeks.

So the Skipper partitioned off the coop with some wire to keep the two groups in contact in all ways except physical.  And then he had the stroke of genius to open up the nest boxes and take out the partitions between the 3 boxes to creat a little extra space where we are keeping the food and water for the little ones but that we can conveniently access from outside.

After a couple of days in this arrangement, we noticed that everyone was roosting up on the top roost together, right through the wire. 🙂

At the same time, we wanted to get the older birds some regular access to their summer forage area–our developing orchard.  So Skipper fenced off a large area, put in a gate for us and a little latchable door out of the chicken run.  And they were off!  I posted pics earlier of the happy chickens enjoying the weeds and grass, but here’s a pic of the fence:

Pretty!  Just outside the fence in front here is a cherry tree, and then our transplanted rhubarb.  There’s a little patch left next to that that I’m going to sheet mulch and plant probably some quinoa or amaranth.  A sunny spot for a tall plant that the chickens will enjoy eating later in the season.  And the fence may enable some more space for tayberries or other climbing/training food plants…

Yesterday, one of the Wyandottes finally discovered that the apple trees don’t just provide some cover and tasty treats on the ground.

Unfortunately, she also seemed to find the leaves and newly-emerging blossoms quite tasty!  Hopefully they won’t do too much damage.  Famous last words… 🙂

The next project was to figure out how we were going to cover the raised beds in order to move the tomatoes outside asap.  We decided after some experimentation to go with 6 ft lengths of 1/2″ pvc pipe in simple hoops, to which row cover is clipped with 1/2″ irrigation pipe, which seems to clip quite tightly (much better than clips made of 3/4″ pvc).  Should work well!

We can’t stake around our beds to keep the hoops up, so Skipper fastened some pipe clamps to the side of the bed, and then created a sleeve out of 3/4″ pvc that the hoops slide into.  Nifty!

All this infrastructure–irrigation is next–will have the garden in full swing over the next couple of weeks.  I’ll have the tomatoes out, the potatoes in, artichokes transplanted, the peas trellissed, more carrots, mesclun and lettuce seeded, and then I’ll start my corn, beans, and squash in order to transplant them out on the first of June (or so!).  Then it will be time to start the fall crops!  No rest for the wicked, I guess!

We Interrupt This Program…

For a few comments on the Canadian Federal Election results that came in last night.


Like everyone else in the country this morning, I’m waking up to a very different government than I expected to have even a few weeks ago.  There’s much to celebrate, and also much to fear; it’s a weird feeling, and the whole country’s going to have to take a little breather, I think, to get used to this very new look and feel in our Parliament.

For those who weren’t paying close attention, here’s what happened.  For the last number of years, we’ve had a Conservative minority government, with 3 other parties making up the balance: the Liberals (Canada’s oldest political party, usually centre-left, and often called the “natural governing party”), the NDP (a European-style social democrat party that is a perennial 3rd, but is beloved for having brought universal healthcare to Canada), and the Bloc Quebecois (the Quebec seperatists that has held Quebec for 20 years, which has so many seats that the BQ has held the Official Opposition role before, but that can never form government because they only run candidates in Quebec).

The minority government means that to pass any legislation, at least one other party has to vote with the government, otherwise, the government doesn’t have enough seats.  This often leads to co-operative governments, but in the last number of years, it’s led to a lot of posturing and squabbling.  Very creepily, it’s also led to the Conservative party to ignore a lot of the rules and conventions of parliament.

In fact, the Conservatives were so deceptive and rude that we had this election because the rest of the parties ended up finding the Conservatives in contempt of parliament–the first time in history that rule has been invoked.

Despite the circumstances, though, pretty much everyone was predicting that we’d end up after the election with basically the same government that had just been dissolved.  And until a couple of weeks ago (we have 6 week election campagins), that looked like a pretty safe bet.

But that’s not what we’re waking up to.  Instead, the Conservative’s “give us a majority government or doom will come to us all” campaign seems to have worked, and they won a substantial majority last night.  On the other hand, the NDP’s relentlessly positive campaign  of practicality, working together, and platform policies of supportive and caring government also seems to have worked.  The NDP more than doubled their record number of seats and have formed the Opposition!  It’s hard to overstate what a transformation that is.  The Green party also had an amazing, exciting breakthrough and their leader won the Green’s first seat ever!  And the NDP’s gain came at the expense of the BQ, which is down to around 3 seats (haven’t checked the final numbers), and is basically eradicated as a party.  The Liberals have been pummeled; some are wondering if they will ever return.

I have been accused of being a relentlessly positive person (mostly by my more pessimistic husband 🙂 ).  And I am.  But I don’t base my optimism on rose-colored glasses or willful ignorance of reality.  The Conservatives now have almost unfettered power, and this is very scary to me.  I am ideologically opposed to them in almost every way, including the fact that they are very ideologically driven, which I find scary in and of itself.  I think it’s pretty clear that I will vehemently disagree with the direction the government takes for the next 4 years.  I expect to be disgusted and sad and worried.

But.  This is not the end of the world or of the country as we know it.  Canada, along with every other democracy in the world, goes through political cycles of left and right and sometimes other, and Canadians have had Conservative governments many times in our history.  Living in a democracy still means that the people have a lot of power.  And it is our collective culture that determines who we are on the ground, not our government alone.  Just because this government will do less than nothing about climate change adaptation or prevention, for instance, doesn’t mean that Canada does nothing.  We are all going to continue to do the work that we feel is important, and continue to move issues forward that we feel need to be addressed.

And, the NDP and Greens (and the Liberals, too, though I don’t really care as much about what happens to them) now have 4 years to gain support, to work on their policies, and for the public to get more comfortable with them.  Because sometimes the universe is just biding time.  Would Obama (whatever you think of him) ever have been elected if George W hadn’t had 8 years to really show the country and the world what he was made of?

More than anything, I love it when the will of the people is strong and unpredictable.  My favorite move in curling is when someone throws a rock that completely clears the ice and everyone gets to start again.  I love it when all the rules change and we have to throw out all the ways we used to think and reconsider all our options.  That’s what Canada looks like to me this morning–scary and hopeful all at the same time.

Day One: I’m a Versatile Blogger!

Thanks to Stacey at YarnSalad, who tagged me with the pay-it-forward

Versatile Blogger Award!

I’m supposed to reveal 7 things about myself that readers of my blog wouldn’t know, and then tag 5-15 other Versatile Bloggers to share the good vibes.

So here goes nothing!

1. I’m a No-Poo Girl.  I have curly, fine, fluffy hair, and several years ago I read the revolutionary The Curly Girl Book.  In it, the author writes that the best thing curly girls can do is skip the shampoo. Curly hair doesn’t move the scalp’s natural oils down the hair shaft very well, and using shampoo that strips those oils away just makes things worse.  So rinse often, use a fair bit of conditioner to detangle, and then use a bit of gel on wet hair, air dry, and curls will stay in place and look good all day.  It’s brilliant!  My hair is no longer the bane of my existence, and feels completely predictable.  Even on my wedding day.

On the down side, this system means that I look like a wet rat every morning for a while until my hair dries.  And camping and sailing is a hair nightmare that I have yet to sort out (beyond threatening to cut it all off!).

2. I am addicted to the idea that moving house will solve all problems.  Careful readers of the blog may have figured this one out already, and those who know me will only be surprised that I am admitting to this problem in public.  I can’t help it!  We moved every few years as I was growing up, and my father, from whom I get this deficiency, even once moved us a few blocks away just because he liked the next house better.  Then I went to university and started moving every 4-10 months.  Then I travelled for a year.  Then I came back to BC and moved every year for another several years.  Even after I met my husband, he stayed in one place for several years while I bounced around every 8 months doing my PhD in another city and coming back to be with him for a few months in between.  The Skipper gets nauseous at the thought of packing a box.  I compulsively read the real estate flyers.  I’m working on it.

3.  I’m afraid of heights.  Some heights more than others.  Specifically, I get irrationally terrified when I’m on structures that are very high, but that I can see through the bottom of.  Trestle bridges, ferris wheels, roller coasters, even metal staircases that use grids (?) instead of full steps.  Don’t even get me started on gondolas.  I haven’t tested this one in a while, so I don’t know if I’ve gotten any better.  I should check.

4.  I LOVE stinky, peaty, full-strength single malt scotch.  I got hooked while living in Scotland.  I love dark beer, and drank a lot of it in Scotland.  In fact, I drank so much of it, that after a while my tolerance was getting ridiculous (ahh to be 23 again!), and I was tired of getting dehydrated on my way to getting tipsy.  Someone suggested I switch to whiskey (water of life), and I’ve never looked back.  Skipper and I made a pilgrimmage a few years ago to our favourite distilleries on the Isle of Islay, and we have photographs of said distilleries on our walls as our art.  Islay is a small island off the West Coast of Scotland.  It has distilleries, oysters, and cheesemakers.  We thought it was heaven! 🙂

5.  Red Wine Used to Make Me Sick.  Thank goodness I grew out of that one!  I don’t quite know how that happened, actually.  On said trip to Scotland, another reason I switched to whiskey was that every time I drank a couple of glasses of red wine, I ended up bent over the toilet.  Even at parties where I was trying to impress people with my coolness.  Sigh.  Thank god I’m not 23 anymore!

6.  I used to be a pretty decent knitter.  Taught a few folks, knit some nice garments, formed some knit groups; knitting was a real passion.  I’ve let it go and come back to it before, and I expect to again.  I love wool, love colour and texture, love working with my hands, love following a pattern.  But in the last couple of years of my PhD I dropped it, and I just haven’t picked it up again.  I have a beautiful stash upstairs that calls my name, though.

7.  I am descended from illegitimate children on both sides.  I grew up knowing that my dad’s father was born in England to a well-to-do unwed mother who sent him to live with another family.  (A long story that I will tell another time)  But we found out more recently that on my mother’s side, the ancestor who had come from Scotland (4 generations back?) came to Canada alone, with a small son.  The full story may never be known, but illegitimacy seems likely.  In fact, I’ve come to recognize that this history must describe a large percentage of us who are descended from colonials, or indeed from immigrants of any kind, especially from those who immigrated before say the 1970s.  Moving overseas was a convenient (and sometimes the only) option available to wipe the slate clean and start again.

So there you go!  Something new about me.  And now for the tag…who do I read who amazes me with their versatility, and who might be willing to share a little about themselves?

How about:

Miriam at Mucky Boots Farm.  Not only did she used to be a teacher and now is a farmer, but according to her blog, she is also now capable of jacking up a building!  Tell us more about your many talents, Miriam!

Amanda at As A Bee.  I don’t know if she’ll have time to participate, but Amanda is as resourceful and multi-talented as they come.  She knits, she makes honey, and she and her husband are currently raising a new baby while they liveaboard their sailboat.  Amazing!

Maeve at Life in the Cowichan Valley.  Again, I hope she has time to participate!  Maeve is a local writer and editor, and she’s currently participating in a very cool re-skilling group with women who are learning to do everything from sew to make sourdough bread to…well, go look at the list!

Another local blogger I’ve been reading recently is Rural Aspirations.  This writer is a new homesteader/farmer who is (I think) also homeschooling and designing their permaculture property.  Lots of interesting things going on over there!

Hmmm.  Well, I hadn’t intended to go with all local bloggers, but now that I have, I don’t want to break the pattern!  Unfortunately, I think those are all the bloggers I know about around here.  So I’ll throw out a wild card:

Neysa at Dissertation to Dirt.  Neysa’s is one of my favorite blogs, perhaps unsurprisingly, because she’s another academic who has switched to farming.  But Neysa’s put her money where her mouth is: she and her husband left school in the big city, farmed as apprentices for a couple of years, and are now in Austin, getting ready for their first season selling produce and flowers from their own farm!  Neysa doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of being a young farmer in the US, and I’ve learned a lot from her.  Even if she doesn’t have time to participate, she’s worth reading.

I’ll be contacting these talented–hey, they’re all women, too!–bloggers to invite them to continue the chain.  But even if they don’t, I hope you’ll check them out.  And I will just mention that the other blogs I read regularly are so brilliant they are intimidating.  But I’m a big fan of all listed in my blogroll…

Spring Blogging Goals

Well, I can’t quite belive it, but I am getting close to my one year blog-iversary!  May 13, 2010 I posted my first entry, creatively entitled, “Spring!” (or was it “May!”).  Incidentally, it will be interesting to compare garden notes with those May entries–the local garden expert was on the radio today confirming that we are 3 weeks behind average because of cold temps this spring.

At any rate, stats-wise, I’m pretty happy with how this blogging year has gone.  But a month or so back, I realized that I was creeping up to 100 posts.  And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be good to have done 100 posts in a year?”  Somehow, this would average out to blogging once every 3-4 days, which seems admirable, and might mitigate my long absences lately!  Now, with just a couple of weeks to go, my total posts (which I’m cheating a little, because I think that number includes drafts that I never posted, but there aren’t many of those) sit at 86.

I taught my last class of the semester this morning, and for the next 2 weeks, I’ll be marking, gardening, and getting ready for an upcoming trip.  If I’m going to attempt the 100 post mark by my anniversary, then this is as good a time as any.  So that means I’m setting myself a wee spring blogging goal: 14 posts (13 after this one!) in 15 days!

Now that’s asking a lot from someone who’s barely been posting once a week.  But I’m up for the challenge!  As it happens, there’s lots going on to blog about.  We’ve got a cold frame up over our new raised beds, seedlings ready to be transplanted, chicks about to be integrated with the older flock outside, a new flower bed just created, a herb bed in need of creating, morning glory threatening to take over our back 40 once again.  And, perhaps most fruitful, I’m reading Sharon Astyk’s thought-provoking book, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front.  So stay tuned for more posts on wrestling with living in the present while preparing for an uncertain future (is there any other kind?).

And thanks to my friend Stacey, over at YarnSalad, for tagging me with the “Versatile Blogger Award” meme–you’ve given me something to get me started with tomorrow!

The Sustainable Backyard Flock in an Industrial World

Backyard Feast is finally about to take the plunge with a Backyard Flock!

As I’ve been not-so-subtly hinting over the last few months, we’ve been planning to add some chickens and some ducks to the backyard homestead this spring.  And despite yesterday’s snowfall (!), spring is here, with the first local poultry swap scheduled for Sunday.  We took advantage of the snow day yesterday to gather our supplies for a brooder (to house the chicks and ducklings in a warm, temporary home) and the coop-to-be.  We’re just about ready!

But all this planning has been an interesting process for this city girl.  My total pet experience over my lifetime was a goldfish or two that got flushed not long after they joined my childhood family, 2 bunnies–one went to a racoon and one to the local feral population–and a small lapdog who joined our family for a few years while I was in my late teens.  Skipper’s experience was the complete opposite: he grew up very rural and with animals just around.  There was a big dog who lived outside, a rough pen with a couple of geese and some ducks.  These weren’t city pets brushed and groomed each day and let out of their cages to play with the kids for an hour now and again.

So when we started contemplating adding animals to the property, I started on the research.  But I was wary; we wanted to do things as naturally and sustainably as possible.  As always, though, in our industrial world, it can be ironically difficult to find reliable information, and nearly impossible to do things “the old-fashioned way,” even if you can find out what that means.

We all know, for instance, that “once upon a time,” everyone kept a few chickens around in a pretty laid back way.  But how many chickens?  How were they fed?  Did they keep a rooster or two?  How were they all housed?  What were the problems they encountered?  Are those practices still the best ones?  Details are sketchy and hard to come by.

My fantasy flock is a self-sustaining one.  I have a rooster and a harem of hens who spend their days happily foraging around the property for most of their feed, are friendly and calm, breed a new batch of chicks once in a while, and are tucked in at night in a cosy, clean coop.  It all looks something like this.

The unforseen challenges of my fantasy started quickly, with where and how to acquire chicks, and of what kind.  I had decided early on that I was interested in dual-purpose heritage breeds.  These are the traditional backyard breeds–hardy, calm, good egg layers, with enough substance to become meat birds if desired.  They are beautiful and have great storied histories, which is fun for me. 🙂  The “problem” with the heritage breeds, though, is that it’s difficult to tell the males and females apart until they are fairly mature.  This means that most often you buy chicks as “straight run” or as a mystery group, where you work with the hand you’re dealt.

So what does everyone do with the roosters that they end up with that they don’t want in their laying flock?  Why they eat them, of course. (or find someone else who will)  This may be glaringly obvious to everyone reading, but it was a bit of a puzzle to me–I haven’t eaten chicken in almost 20 years, and I had no idea I was eating rooster. 🙂  So first challenge: if we raised chicks, and wanted heritage breeds, then we get roosters, and the responsible thing to do is eat the roosters.  Hmmm.  (I’m leaving out the hours spent on the detective work of what age do you need to separate the roosters from the hens, do we have the space for that, when do they start to crow, and how loud would 6 roosters be housed together?!  Would they fight? etc etc…)  Luckily for us, we live just around the corner from a local pastured livestock farm that has invested in a processing facility for small farmers on the south island.  They will process as few as 1 bird at a time, and their prices are entirely reasonable.  So that’s an amazing option right in our backyard.

Keeping a rooster on hand to keep the flock going is more complicated than it seems.  You need more hens than we really want to keep one rooster.  You assume that all the eggs you collect are fertilized, which apparently creates no difference from regular eggs because we store them refrigerated which keeps any embryos from developing in any way that we could ever be aware of. know…city girl.  Hmmm.  Or you house your roo somewhere else, which is not really practical for us.  So for now, at least, we’ll be bringing in someone else’s chicks when we need them.  Which shouldn’t really be very often, as the heritage breeds can be decent layers for a number of years.  But our flock won’t be sustainable, as in self-sustaining.

Next problem. Where do those chicks come from?  In the backyard chicken craze sweeping North America, I’m noticing that people seem to treat chickens as one more trendy consumer commodity.  Not that they treat them irresponsibly, necessarily, once they have them, but in the way that they’re obtained.  You see, few of us have the neighbour anymore that we would simply go to for some extra chicks if we wanted them.  There are very few self-sustaining, traditional backyard flocks around these days.

So most folks go online and research.  They look at pictures and read about breed temperaments and stories, and learn their way up the curve, just like I’m doing.  And then they go online, to a hatchery website, and hit the “buy now” button for the chicks and the breeds they want, enter their credit card numbers, and wait for the call from the post office that their day-old chicks are ready for them to pick up.  Who knew?!

This mail order chick business is not new at all; one of the biggest hatcheries, McMurray, has been around 95 years!  And the hatchery business is not inherently unethical.  I don’t think.  They are largely still family run by people who love the business, from what I can gather.  But still.  Tens of thousands of eggs line hundreds of incubators in dozens of buildings.  As the eggs hatch, they are carried in trays to people who sex them if possible and pack them up into boxes and send them out into the mail.  This is not exactly natural.  And in fact, commenters on the forums do seem to notice differences in personalities between “hatchery chickens” of particular breeds, and naturally raised birds.

But there are no guarantees that small breeders are raising chicks the “natural” way.  In fact, to be a responsible breeder, particularly to keep a heritage or endangered breed viable, takes incubators and carefully controlled scientific attention.  But at least that attention can be given to each bird when the scale is still small.

Then there’s the feed issue.  Again, luckily for us we live in a pretty strong granola region.  In our travels yesterday, I started asking questions at the feed stores.  We have access to all-veggie feeds, non-gmo’d feeds, and organic feeds.  In fact, we don’t have access to ordinary feeds that use meat meal at all!  I’m not actually sure that this is a good thing–chickens are omnivores, after all, and “veggie” = soy most of the time.  Hence the non-gmo’d or organic options.  Sustainable?  Hmmm…  Then there’s the medicated vs non-medicated options!  And you thought feeding yourself ethically was complicated!

So these are just a few of the pitfalls of keeping a “sustainable” backyard flock that I’ve encountered so far.  And I haven’t even got the chicks picked out or home yet!  But you get the idea.  It’s a difficult task, navigating through and around the systems of the industrial world!  I’ll save our specific management plans and the story of how things “used to be” for another post.  But meanwhile, wish us luck on Sunday!

The Turning Tide…Now What?

2011 is already shaping up to be a very interesting year if you pay close attention to climate change issues.  The flooding in Queensland is terrifying to me.  Partly because I spent a fair bit of time in and around Brisbane in the late 90s, and partly because the Canadian newscasts keep defining the flooded areas as “the size of British Columbia” and Brisbane, as a city of about 2.5 million, is the same size as Vancouver.  It’s all too easy to visualize my whole home province underwater, with the water moving in closer and closer to Vancouver until it too is watching helplessly as restaurants and homes sail by.

Yesterday CBC was reporting on the looming crisis in Winnipeg and throughout Manitoba.  The ground throughout the province is completely saturated with water.  There are feet of snow on the ground, which is normal, but the rivers are up to 2 meters above their normal levels, and the temperatures are up and down in huge swings.  Winnipeg is known across Canada as “Winterpeg”, and they’ve got another 4 months of winter yet to go.  But authorities can see the writing on the wall: they may be in for the flood of the century.  And that’s if nothing takes a serious turn for the worse (ie heavy precipitation) between now and spring.

Yesterday, as I was teaching grammar, we were reading a sentence about Calgary (Alberta) and chinooks.  A student asked what a chinook was, and I explained that Calgary is in a unique geographical area where periodically during the otherwise frigid winters, a warm wind blows through and brings spring-like temperatures in for a few days.  Then I stopped and commented, “actually, I guess we’re all experiencing that these days!”

I don’t know about where you live, but doesn’t it seem pretty clear that the days of consistent, predictable weather are over?

Now I know, these phenomena are not unprecedented, and I know I’m not supposed to confuse climate with weather.  And it’s an El Nina year.  But, really, aren’t we there yet?!  For years  environmentalists and scientists have been telling us about all the terrible things that could happen to us in the distant future if we don’t start to change our ways today.  Well I don’t know about you, but I think there’s ample evidence that we’re right smack dab in the middle of climate change disaster.  And apparently, it’s only going to get worse: there will be more of these severe weather events, in more places, more often.  On the west coast, here, we’ve gotten lucky so far, but I’m starting to realize in a more visceral way that whatever major disaster we might face is coming.  It’s when, not if.

Which begs the question, so what?  It’s not like I haven’t been working on my carbon footprint for years; I’ve kept up with the science and I know there are controversies.  I’ve changed MANY of my household habits, joined groups, had heated discussions, written letters and signed petitions.  I teach environmental issues in my classes, even if they are English classes. 🙂

Today, though, I was really struck by another aspect of the problem.  I was listening to the radio, and the call-in show was about mining in BC–traditionally a hugely important economic industry here, though less visible on the coast.  The Minister for Mining was talking about the trends and technologies that make up mining today.  Yet almost every single caller was questioning the environmental issues associated with mining–which are legion and highly destructive.

What struck me while listening was the impasse…the same old problem of two parallel truths and stories that are fighting it out right now.  On the one hand, the Minister took a realistic approach.  The elements being mined are essential for our lives today.  Metallurgical coal, for instance (which incidentally was a major Queensland industry whose incapacitation is having a massive global impact), is used to make steel.  You cannot make steel without metallurgical coal.  The Minister outlines the very real problem: do we need steel for pretty much everything? yes we do.  Is there a substitute for steel? Not many, and many of the substitutes, like plastic in cars, are not better, from an environmental perspective.  What’s your environmentally-friendly water bottle made of? Mine’s stainless.  So then we ask ourselves, would we rather that this metallurgical coal was mined here, where we have strict environmental and safety regulations? Or somewhere else?

Of course, this is the same argument the Canadian oil industry uses about the tar sands…

The public keeps saying, loudly, NO.  We don’t care if it isn’t logical, if there aren’t alternatives, if it hurts the economy.  We aren’t thinking about that.  We just want our salmon rivers to survive, and we want clean air to breathe, and we don’t want an oil spill in our coastal waters.

It’s hard to tell if that’s the same thing as making progress.  I think it probably is in the long term.  But in the short term, I’m noticing something interesting in myself.  I’m becoming politically more and more disengaged; I’m having fewer debates about most things, and I feel less sympathetic toward any kind of rhetoric.  I roll my eyes at the knee-jerk predictability of polarized positions.

We have two leadership races underway, a referendum coming up, municipal elections scheduled, and possibilities of both provincial and federal elections looming.  This could be a big year in BC politics.  But all I want to do is garden and hang out with chickens.

I think it’s because in my gut, I feel like all the rhetoric and political action is getting to be beside the point.  People can keep talking all they like.  But the reality is unfolding before us–the world and the weather is changing dramatically.  I’m done worrying about the future and trying to change everyone else.  The disasters are here, and I’m trying to build a life that can survive and thrive in the midst of them.

And the best part about that approach?  It’s fun!

So I hope you’ll pardon this long, serious post yet again.  I’m in fact feeling quite energized and excited about this new year.  I might not even vote at all! 🙂

Taking Stock: 2010 and 2011

Well, we’re two weeks into January, and I’m already behind.  Anyone else feel that way?!  2010 was an eventful year, and my list of hopes and goals for 2011 (no resolutions here!) was mighty long.  But with starting a new semester of teaching, dealing with some unexpected issues with our vehicles, some extra cold and snowy weather (well, by West Coast standards.  You know.  It got below zero overnight, and it snowed, and the snow stayed on the ground!  For more than a day!  Classes were canceled and the campus closed!), I just haven’t found my groove yet.

I hit an overwhelmed moment over the weekend, where I thought, “We’re just never going to get all of this done.  It’s time to scale back the expectations.”  So I thought it was time to take stock.

My goals in 2010 were pretty modest (by my standards!).  It was our first year in our new house and property, so there was just a lot of learning.  We watched and celebrated every new plant that burst out of the ground, admiring and photographing each new bloom.  We weeded and pruned, we added cubic yard after cubic yard of bark mulch, cedar chip for pathways, and topsoil to top up neglected beds for vegetables.

We learned.  The Skipper took a pruning class, I read every book I could get my hands on (and a few I couldn’t–thank you Google books), we went on garden tours and farm tours and edible garden tours.  I started planting in earnest in February, and we ate until December (well, we’re still snacking a bit here and there, actually!).  Our pantry is still stocked with potatoes and some garlic, and the shelves are lined with jars of tomato sauce and jam.  We learned how to crab, and the freezer is still loaded with crab and salmon.

Most of all, by the late fall, I felt like this garden was really ours, and that after a year of observing and reflecting, I was ready to make some changes and create a homestead that would work for us.  Setting the goals was easy:

  • move and rebuild the compost bins
  • create a real orchard space where a few fruit trees are now; add pasture grasses and other forage plants underneath
  • move most of the perennial flowers to the front of the garden, where we can enjoy them from the house and deck, and create a few more small flower beds out of the overgrown perennial garden (where the orchard-to-be is now)
  • rebuild the main raised beds to make them much deeper and to get more growing space out of this section of the property
  • get chickens and ducks!  Which means decide on breeds and sources, build coops, raise chicks, and fence off the orchard to be their summer free-range area (they can free-range the rest of the garden in the off-season)
  • plant more fruit trees
  • rebuild, expand, and create a paved area around the pond so that we can better enjoy it (this area is a mess right now, but expanding it means a lot of work, including moving trees)

Like I said, making the plans is easy.  But carrying them all out is another thing entirely.  What’s not on this list is working full-time and maintaining the garden that we have now, as well as continuing to grow as many–if not more–veggies than I did last year.  And that’s not even the whole list, it’s just this year’s goals for the garden! The house, boat, and other projects would be another whole blog…

So I’m trying to find ways to make this doable.  This weekend I need to get my seeds ordered and the first few seeds of the year started (luckily, I have a large stash from last year’s buying frenzy 🙂 ).  I have started to weed the current raised beds to try and minimize the weeds in the future ones, which will incorporate the soil from these.  I’m trying to be thorough, which also means it goes slowly.  I also need to finish cleaning up the fall beds (the ones that aren’t getting ripped out) and get some manure on them, so that I can plant into those in the next couple of months as we rebuild the new beds.  This includes moving a VERY dense and overgrown strawberry bed.  Sigh.

My original goal was to get all the perennials moved, and the “orchard” re-planted with some pasture/forage crops so that spring chickens and ducks (March? April?) would be able to enjoy them.  But attached to that goal was moving and rebuilding the compost bins so that we could build and set up the coop and then fence the new section that’s been nicely replanted.  All by…the end of March?  It doesn’t seem possible now.

So what will have to wait?  I’m considering letting go of the poultry dream for this year…or even just for this spring.  I think just getting the gardens re-organized and the infrastructure set up should be our main focus.  If we manage to get everything done by the end of the spring, then we can always buy a few pullets instead of raising chicks.

It’s hard to let go of the dream, especially when dreams are so instant!  But I’m a big believer in avoiding burn out by going slowly and enjoying each day.  I don’t want to get frustrated and feel like giving up before the summer starts!  And I don’t want to see my beautiful garden as an overwhelming chore–the goal is to gain joy and have stress dissolve when we step outside, not to stop seeing the flowers for the lack of progress.

So there’s my official resolution for 2011: don’t try to do it ALL, and enjoy each of the baby steps along the way.


Happy Holidays!

At the end of every November, I look forward to upcoming winter holidays.  As a long time student, I associate December with finishing classes, writing exams, and then a nice two or three week break.  It seems over the last few years I’ve been suffering from that deeply ingrained expectation!  :0

This year, I have finally come to understand that I get the same 1 week holiday between Christmas and New Year’s as every one else (and of course, there are many who only get the stat holidays, so I should count myself lucky!).  And so we continue to simplify and strip away the holiday tasks.

This year, we are not giving any presents and are sending just a few cards.  The Skipper did get a few Christmas lights up on the house–mostly to not bring down the neighbourhood! :)–but for the first time in many years, I have not unpacked any decorations for the house inside.  I’m not doing any baking, and we will treat ourselves to a few bakery goodies.  We decided to head over to the mainland on Christmas eve, and we will go over to another home for a Christmas feast instead of hosting one ourselves, as we have often done.  With any luck, when the actual days off arrive, we will be able to relax and enjoy them, rather than having a big, intensive build-up adding to the regular work-week before the big day, which then itself involves a fair amount of work.  Some years that work feels festive and worthwhile, but this year, it just didn’t feel like there was enough time before to get ready or afterwards to recover.  So we will keep things quiet.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be celebration!  Our Christmas feast will be with an aunt and uncle who celebrate Christmas eve with a Danish-inspired meal: fresh roast goose, rice pudding, braised cabbage, apple and prune stuffing… and all that family cheer.  We’re looking forward to that gathering immensely.  Then we will stay in the Big Smoke as long as we feel like, wandering along the decorated streets, treating ourselves to all the yummy favorites that beautiful local delis and bakeries and markets have to offer this time of year.

We’re working away on our garden list of tasks, and looking ahead to everything the new year will bring.  The 2011 seed catalogues are out, the chicken and duck coop plans are coming along, and the new raised bed layout has been decided.  2010 wasn’t always easy, but it has been transformative, and I’m hugely excited about what’s to come.

So thanks so much for coming along for the ride with me over these past six-plus months of blogging and gardening adventures. Here’s wishing all of you have a restful, rejuvenating, and joyful holiday season!



I Don’t Want to Go Back!

To the grocery store, that is.

Here we are, mid-November.  There’s kale and swiss chard going reasonably strong still, and my August planted winter crops–lettuce, beets, spinach, corn salad, gai lan, and carrots–are coming along fine.   I’ve got a vigorous-looking brassica patch, but not much of it is really ready to eat.  I planted most of these too late, I fear.  Everything grows SO much more slowly in the fall.  I now see why west coasters are advised to have the fall crops in the ground even in July!  In mid-summer it felt impossible that the growing season would be over so shortly, but once the days start getting shorter in August, the window really does close quickly.  I get it now.

We’ll have supplements to our meals from our garden for a while yet.  I’ve got a cold frame to put over the chard, a row cover over the more delicate greens, and the brassicas will weather most anything.

For our first year of growing, we’ve done pretty well, I think.  I’ve got a good stash of canned tomatoes (diced and in sauce, and green tomato relish) put up.  We’ve got lots of potatoes to keep us through much of the winter, and a few onions and a bit of garlic.  There are lots of berries in the freezer, with enough salmon and crab to keep us going for months yet.

But the 100% eating from the garden is officially over.  I’ve had to start supplementing at the grocery store more seriously in the last few weeks: fresh fruit, a full head of lettuce, some brussel sprouts.  A bag of carrots when the succession gap in my planting became clear.

It’s not a lot to have to buy, but I haven’t been in the produce section of a grocery store in months, and it’s a bit of a shock, I have to say.  The grocery store is a complicated ethical minefield in ways that the garden just eliminates.  This seems especially true this time of year, when local produce is scarce, what is local is rarely organic, and what’s organic starts to come in from farther and farther away.  It’s a sad, frustrating feeling to stand in the middle of a huge, brightly-coloured fun-fair of abundance and feel like there’s nothing I want to bring home!

There is the farmer’s market, which has wound down considerably, but in theory runs year-round.  But I’ve found the farmer’s market a bit frustrating too, this year.  Either everyone seems to be growing what I am (and therefore what I already have), or they’re not growing what I would be growing and would like to buy.  Brussel sprouts are our favorite winter vegetable, and I’m not sure mine are going to come to much–they haven’t yet.  But I can’t seem to buy them from any of our local farmers!

All of this is, of course, highly motivating.  The mantra continues: “Next year will be different!”  That is, if we ever get through these mounds of winter projects so that next year I can pay a little more focused attention to my planting schedule. 🙂

So beware, any of you who are thinking it might be fun just to grow a little food in the backyard.  If you’re anything like us, before you know it you’ll be trying to grow everything you can and then some.  Next come the chickens and ducks (I’m anticipating their help with the clean-up next year 🙂 )…I’ve even been reading about pigs and goats! (I’m repeating to myself regularly that we don’t have enough space…yet.)  We’re brewing beer, wine, apple cider… How quickly when you opt out of the industrial food system you just can’t bear to step back in!