Monthly Archives: April 2009

Quick Note: Farming In The City

Dear Reader:

While following links from blog to blog and website to website this morning, I came across this great 30 minute video about a husband and wife who are farming in the city of Portland, Oregon. A few years ago, they began to read about permaculture–the practice of incorporating sustainability into every aspect of our lives–and then about peak oil. In response, they started teaching others about permaculture and peak oil, began working with the city council to create a task force which will investigate the possible affects of peak oil on the city and the best solutions for dealing with those issues, and have created a mini-farm on their less than 2-acre lot in the middle of the city. I highly recommend spending 30 minutes to view this video. It’s inspiring on so many levels. Click here to view the video.

Community Garden . . . Inside the Fence

Last year's garden beneath the trees

Last year's garden beneath the trees

Dear Reader:

Sometimes thinking outside the box gets you into the strangest places–in this case it got me fenced in. Let me explain.

I live in a subdivision. Okay, nobody here wants to call it that because it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter subdivision ala WEEDS (too many trees and dirt roads), but our “homeowners association” is 2000-houses big, is situated on the outskirts of town, and it is a good 35-60 minutes from any of the cities where most of our community members work. Every day, members of my community hop into their individual gasoline-powered vehicles and leave the community in order to travel to their place of employment. We have no restaurants, grocery stores, corner markets, coffee shops, bookstores or any other retail businesses within the borders of our incorporated development. We have to drive out of the community for food, clothing, furrniture, trash bags, tiolet paper, lattes, cigarettes, and everything else people can’t live without. Needless to say, there is no public transportation.

Our 1/4 to 1 acre lots are shaded by tall, half-dead white pines whose tendency to crash down during wind and ice storms can knock electricity out for days, but on this former productive farmland whose old stone walls stand testament to our community’s agricultural past, we cannot cuts trees in order to provide sunlight for backyard gardens. Tweaking the tree-cutting policy to make room for veggie gardens would take an act of the State of Maine legislature, or so one of the community trustees informed me at a Board meeting. However, the Board was willing to consider an alternate suggestion–the community garden.

I can work with that.

Community gardens provide space for food production, foster relationships among neighbors, encourage self-sufficiency, and give our kids a chance to learn gardening techniques. The American Community Garden Association provides guidelines and suggestions for groups just starting out on a communal agricultural venture. Click here to learn more.

Our first garden committee meeting was held this week, and we discussed possible locations. An unused tennis court seems perfect. It is 117 x 117 feet and surrounded by a tall fence–perfect for keeping out pesky deer that love to munch on tender vegetable seedlings. We will be asking the Board for permission to dig up the cracked court surface and to use community-owned loam to provide soil for the garden. Specifics have yet to be worked out such as size of lots, best-practices (i.e. rules), and whether or not we will make a driveway through the center of the garden area so that people can back their pickups to their plots, but community members are interested, echoing a trend across our country to pick up where Victory Gardens in the 1940’s left off.

When the First Family puts a backyard garden at the White House, we know something is changing out there in America. We are beginning to realize that in order to have a sustainable lifestyle, we need to bring food production back home, as in back of the home.

If towns and cities and subdivisions foster a spirit of self-sufficiency regarding food, then we are one step closer to weaning ourselves from big agriculture, big corporations, and big oil. We will provide a safety net for ourselves independent of big government. The spirit of freedom in a summer squash. Self-reliance in a sun-ripened tomato. Can it really be that simple?

A backyard or community garden is just one way to cut your reliance on multinational supermarket chains, food trucked thousands of miles, and genetically-modified vegetables. Other options are shopping at locally-owned grocery stores, frequenting local farm stands, and joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. More on these later. In the meantime, enjoy the warmer weather, the daffodils, and the sound of the “peepers” at dusk . . . outside the box.

Fiction Outside the Box

Dear Reader:

Yesterday my daughter decided to spend her Border’s gift card.

Yes, Borders–one of those mega-chains that can and do out-price and out-stock small independent businesses making it harder or even impossible for them to survive. I have to admit, Borders is one of my favorite places to shop. Just the smell of the place–the heady aroma of books mixed with the scent of good coffee from the cafe area–makes me happy. And the selection! Aisle upon aisle of every kind of book on every subject one could wish to explore.

It’s a book-lover’s paradise, and I love books. Not just reading them, but holding them, turning the pages, looking at them on my bookshelves and remembering all the quiet, comforting hours spent with my nose buried in them. Given enough resources, I’d fill my house with them, every room. As it is, my lovely husband built a whole wall of shelves for me in my tiny office. I’ve already resorted to shelving my books two rows deep and laying others flat when I couldn’t squeeze them in.

I can spend hours in a Borders bookstore, wandering from travel to romance to history to religion to nutrition. The workers keep an eye on me, suspecting foul play, but I just smile at them and continue browsing. It’s a rare day I leave without dropping fifty bucks.

But those days are over. This year, I’m shopping locally.

Once upon a time, I worked in a small, independent bookstore in Oxford, Maine. I know first-hand how the big book chains and Amazon.com cut into these little jewelboxes of literary treasure found in fewer and fewer of our small towns. The store in which I worked, Books ‘n Things, was owned and operated by Katie Whitehead. With a seven-month-old baby on my hip and trepidation in my heart, I went into the store and inquired about work. I was handed an application. Katie interviewed me a week or so later and offered me a few hours during the week plus Saturday mornings–a perfect schedule for a new, stay-at-home mom.

It was a dream job for someone who loves books. I had a discount. I had access to the newest fiction. Katie had a subscription to the New York Times Review of Books. The salary didn’t matter so much as the stimulation, the chance to get out of the house, the opportunity to use my baby-numbed brain a little.

Katie worked hard, she expected her employees to work hard, and I learned alot from her. I learned about Books In Print and publisher catalogs and how to “front” books on the shelf. As she insisted her employees count back change rather than depend on the calculator, even my math skills improved.

The best part, though, was the personal relationship with the customers. The regulars would come in week after week, and I got to know their preferences. We’d chat about our favorite authors or just about life in general. At Christmastime, people would come in to buy books for everyone in their family, and we’d wrap the selections in heavy, purple wrapping paper.

The store was small enough that I knew our inventory and could usually get a requested book into someone’s hand in less than a minute. If we didn’t carry the book, ordering was a simple process, and we would call the customer when their book arrived, most of the time within a week.

Katie advertised in the local paper every week, supporting the local economy. She donated books for school fundraisers, supporting local education. She gave many a teenager their first job. She hired teachers looking for part-time income to supplement their salaries.

Katie and her bookstore were an integral part of the Oxford Hills community, as independent bookstores are important to communities all across America. Dollars spent at a local business are much more likely to stay in the region. Studies have been done to show this. Read this study done in mid-coast Maine about the positive effects of local business on communities. Case Study.

Unfortunately, the survival of these small, literary havens is threatened every day by competition from the big-box and online book retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble. However, even the big chains admit that independents do a better job in some areas. Read this article about an independent bookstore in Illinois.

When a Walmart opens up shop down the road and offers steep discounts for the new release hardcover books, that cuts into one of the most profitable area of sales for independent sellers. You’ve probably seen the movie YOU’VE GOT MAIL, starring Meg Ryan as a children’s bookstore owner and Tom Hanks as a mega-book retailer whose newest store drives the little place out of business. That’s what happens to independents when Borders or Barnes and Noble rolls into town. Amazon.com offers the convenience of home shopping, and that, too, can eat into profits. It’s amazing to me that any of these independent bookstores have survived at all–but they have.

They have fought back with online shopping from their websites. They have fought back with a program called Booksense, which has now evolved into a program called IndieBound developed by the American Booksellers Association. One of the most exciting aspects of the program is the giftcard program which allows booksellers to accept each other’s giftcards. An IndieBound giftcard bought in Maine will be honored at a participating independent bookstore in Ohio.

Independents have also fought back by highlighting their uniqueness, their customer-service orientation, their ability to find new voices in literature that the big chains might miss. Because of these independents, smaller publishers and new authors get a chance to reach readers. Regional authors are often showcased at smaller stores. The booksellers at independents are often more knowledgeable than your average cashier at the big-box store.

We can help them survive by voting with our shopping dollars.

Katie sold her bookstore back around the year 2000, but Books n Things is still alive and well, now housed on Main Street in Norway. If you’re ever up that way, stop in and check out the selection. I’m sure the new owner will appreciate the interest and the business.

My town doesn’t have a bookstore. Neither does the town next door. Or the town next door to that. Even the city of Sanford lacks an independent bookstore. The town of Alfred has a nice antique bookstore, and Sanford does have a used bookstore run by a nonprofit organization, but for new books I’ve resorted to shopping at the Borders in South Portland and on Amazon. However, with the need for local-shopping pressing down on me, I’ve done a little research and discovered a locally-owned shop in Saco called Nonesuch Books. There is also a South Portland Nonesuch Books, so there really is no excuse anymore for shopping at Borders . . . or Amazon, as I can order the books online from Nonesuch or simply make a quick call to a helpful bookseller.

Which brings me back to yesterday. My daughter isn’t participating in my experiment, and she had this giftcard from a generous great-Aunt and Uncle. (Thanks Aunt Sandy and Uncle Niles!) I went into Borders with her, and that familiar smell of books and coffee hit my nostrils. I resolutely ignored the piles of discounted fiction calling to me and followed my daughter to the children’s section. Addiction takes many forms, and it just didn’t feel right to walk up to that checkout counter with no books in hand. They called to me as we wound our way from the back of the store where the smart spacial engineers stuck the children’s section knowing the parents would have to pass by tempting displays all the way to Harry Potter and back.

I’m happy to report that I resisted. Danielle spent the gift-card that was burning a hole in her pocketbook and happily read all the way home. Feeling slightly depressed, I promised myself a trip to Saco very soon, and dreamed of the day when some enterprising (and independently wealthy) soul opens a bookstore here in my hometown. In the meantime, I have library books and my bulging shelves to keep me satisfied.

For those of you who would like a little reading today, I’ve posted a short story on my Fiction Corner page. I can’t promise you it’s any good, but it is free!

A Fellow Believer

I found this short, excellent essay on why handmade is a good choice. It is posted on a fellow wordpress blogger’s site, and I couldn’t have put it better myself so I’m linking it here.

A Handmade Easter

handknit bunny

handknit bunny

Dear Reader:

Meet “Scrappy.” He’s a handknit Easter bunny made from yarn leftover from other projects (thus the name) and my first attempt at creating a toy by hand. I finished him at midnight last night, and while I’m not totally satisfied with the results, I am pleased to have created an Easter basket “outside the box.”

The plan was to put together a basket for under $10, presenting a viable alternative to Wal-Mart’s offerings. Because I already had a wicker basket, scrap yarn, and polyester fiberfill, the stuffed bunny cost me nothing but time. I used a pattern found in Luise Roberts and Kate Haxell’s excellent beginning knitter book FIRST KNITS, published by the Martingale Company in 2005, but substituted yarns and didn’t bother with the cardinal rule of testing the gauge . . . mostly because I wasn’t going to go out and buy new yarn anyway. The stitches needed for the pattern were fairly simple, but sewing the pieces together was a little more difficult. If I had blocked and pressed the pieces before sewing them, the end result would have been neater, but hey, it was midnight! My daughter, who is eleven, doesn’t mind a few uneven seams and crooked embroidery eyes.

Did I manage to fill the basket for under $10? Sadly, no. Candy bought from the locally-owned grocery store was surprisingly inexpensive. A miniscule chocolate bunny, some foil-wrapped chocolate coins, two sugar-crystal sticks, a roll of Mentos, and a toothbrush came to less than $10, but I couldn’t resist tucking in a graphic novel purchased at the Scholastic Bookfair held this week at the local elementary school. The book was $6.99, pushing my expenditure over the limit. However, buying the book at the bookfair benefited the school (one-third of the sales comes back to the school), and let’s be honest, I probably would have bought her the book anyway. All in all, I think she was happy with her Easter basket, and I didn’t spend one penny at a big-box retail store. I didn’t have to travel thirty minutes out of town, I supported my local school and a local business, and I “made do” with materials on hand.

On this Easter day, I wish all of you peace and springtime joy. It is the season of new beginnings, new growth, a reawakening of the earth after its winter nap. We spotted a robin hopping around on our lawn this morning, and green grass is beginning to poke up near the edges of the house. The small lilac sports round, hard buds, and only one or two snowpiles linger where the pine shadows fall most deeply. Enjoy this day with family and friends . . . Outside the Box.

Movie Night

Dear Reader

Friday night is movie night at our house, and I have to make a confession: we subscribe to Netflix. I can hear you gasping right now. I know. I feel awful about it. Our town has a little video store/ice-cream parlor, and for the first four years here I rented a movie or two every Friday night. I love this store–Main Street Video. The owner, Jim, offers six or seven flavors of Green Mountain Coffee, a breakfast menu that includes hugemongous homemade muffins, and an excellent selection of Shain’s of Maine ice-cream flavors. There are cute little tables and chairs in the seating area, a collection of board games for those who want to linger awhile, and a nice, cozy, neighborhood ambiance.

As my daughter grew into more sophisticated movie tastes, however, it became increasingly difficult to find something to watch. The selection of PG movies is excellent–all the animated films you could ever want. The selection of thrillers and romantic comedies and horror flicks for adults is more than adequate. What we had trouble finding were those rare movies appropriate for ‘tweens–especially a ‘tween who thinks she’s already a teen! Nothing animated will do. Uh-uh. There is no way, however, that we will allow her to watch anything with an R rating, and the PG-13’s must be carefully screened, as well. We soon ran out of choices, and every Friday afternoon at the video store became something of a horror show between me and the ‘tween.

Someone told us about Netflix, we checked it out, and we succumbed to the endless selection and really good deal. Sigh. At some point, I may have to give it up out of good conscience. And the ‘tween won’t stay ‘tweeny forever. For now, though, we can watch re-runs of the Walton’s (which are REALLY just as good now as they were when I watched them every Thursday night at 8 o’clock thirty years ago!) and enjoy our family movie night.

Netflix also gives me a seemingly endless selection of documentaries from which to choose, and I know which one I’ll be ordering next. I saw this link automatically generated by wordpress.com and followed up on it. Take a look! I’m going to find this movie and watch it. Escape From Suburbia link.

I don’t happen to agree that the suburbs are destined to become ghettos, as some predict. With a little planning and a will to change, I believe suburbs could become workable, viable communities in their own right–not just satellites held in orbit of the city by the gravitational pull of jobs and cultural activities. But I’m no expert. Perhaps after view this movie, I’ll know a little more. I’ll keep you posted.

As for my defection from Jim’s place, well, I try to make up for the video dollars by stopping in for the ice-cream more often. In fact, we stopped in for the first cone of the season last Sunday, and I’ve been craving another ever since!

In the meantime, I’m working on a handmade project for Easter . . . my idea is to create my own “ten-dollar” Easter basket ala the new Wal-Mart advertisement. (I looked for a link, but couldn’t find one. Just watch t.v. for a couple of days. You’ll see the ad I mean. The lowest-priced one at http://www.walmart.com was around fifteen dollars!) Only a few more days, though. I better run . . .

Why local?

Dear Reader:

A few contemporary writer-philosophers have influenced my current obsession with local living, peak oil, sustainability, and the future of civilization (such lofty topics reduced down to homey essentials like eggs, raw milk, yarn, and wild pickerel!) One of these is writers is James Howard Kunstler who has written non-fiction books such as THE LONG EMERGENCY, a contemplation of what will happen as our oil-based economy begins to run out of juice, and a novel entitled WORLD MADE BY HAND–a futuristic fiction about an upstate New York town after civilization has come to a screeching halt.

Granted, Kunstler is on the fringe when it comes to predicting where our society is headed. He’s an alarmist of the first order. It’s my deepest wish that what he thinks will happen, and soon, will not. However, sometimes I find it instructive to take a long look at a “worst case scenario.” People like Kunstler predicted the recent economic collapse (though I think they saw the collapse coming from an energy-supply issue rather than a real estate debacle), and for that alone, they deserve a hearing. If you are interested, take a peek at Kunstler’s blog

Perhaps civilization won’t crash and burn to the extent Kunstler postulates, but we do need to consider how deeply dependent we are on that black liquid that bubbles up from ancient, underground beds. 

Oil. We live on it. Our food is grown with it. Commercial fertilizers are derived from oil products. Farm machinery is run on it. Our food and other necessities like clothing and shoes and blankets and housing materials are shipped to our communities on fleets of boats and eighteen-wheelers run on diesel fuel. Oil heats our homes. Everything from cookware to clothing to car parts are made of plastic which is an oil-derived product. We travel by plane, train, and automobile–all run on oil.

Up until this moment, we’ve managed to get more and more of the stuff out of the ground, which worked superbly for an economy based on the concept of continual growth. Though there is some debate about whether or not we have reached peak oil production, there is much evidence to suggest we are now on the downward slope. The following artlicle by Colin Campbell for ASPO International explains the theory quite concisely. “Understanding Peak Oil.”

As oil becomes harder and harder to harvest and refine, the cost will go up, the economy will react, and things will change . . . how much they will change is the big question. Perhaps we will find alternative sources of energy and will transition before too much chaos descends. Perhaps not.

I ask, why wait? We can begin to transition ourselves and our local communities now by producing more of our own necessities right in our backyards. Let’s build an infrastructure that will be local and flexible enough to withstand whatever happens in the larger world. Maybe there will be some new oil-field discoveries that will last us for the next hundred years. Great! Maybe we will figure out cold-fusion technology and never need to worry about energy again. Fabulous! Strenthening our communities is a valuable endeavor even in a BEST-case scenario. In a worst-case scenario, it could mean the difference between life and death.