Monthly Archives: June 2009

Thinking . . . Small?

Smart Car

Smart Car

Dear Reader:

Most of us were brought up to “think big.” We were encouraged to strive for the best grades, the best position on the basketball team, an acceptance letter from the biggest and best university, the most prestigious job with a big company, big paychecks and bigger raises, and “trading up” from starter home to McMansion. As adults, we compare ourselves to our neighbors and friends to see who has the larger diamond engagement ring, the nicer SUV, the most professional landscaping, and the better clothing labels. We feel cheated and depressed when someone has more than we do. We are brainwashed to want more, no matter how much we already have, and we are never really satisfied.

We are told this is the American Way.

Has “thinking big” worked for us? Sure. We’ve made huge strides in medicine and science. We’ve enjoyed a high standard of living. We’ve reveled in great personal freedom. Has all this made us happy? Sort of.

Science Daily reported a story on the relatively new “Map of Happiness” created by Adrian White, a social psychologist at the University of Leicester. White used data from UNESCO, the CIA, and other sources to rank countries according to self-reported happiness and satisfaction with life. The results showed that happiness seems to be related to three primary factors: health, wealth, and access to education. The United States ranked 23rd. Denmark ranked 1st. Canada ranked 10th. Great Britain came in at 41.

I guess we aren’t doing too bad.

When it comes right down to it, money does make you happier . . . up to a point. David R. Francis reports on the following conclusions from a study by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald for the National Bureau for Economic Research (

1. For a person, money does buy a reasonable amount of happiness. But it is useful to keep this in perspective. Very loosely, for the typical individual, a doubling of salary makes a lot less difference than life events like marriage.

2. Nations as a whole, at least in the West, do not seem to get happier as they get richer.

3. Happiness is U-shaped in age – that is, it falls off for a while, then stabilizes, and rises later in life. Women report higher well-being than men. Two of the biggest negatives in life are unemployment and divorce. More educated people report higher levels of happiness, even after taking account of income.

4. At least in industrial countries such as France, Britain, and Australia, the structure of a happiness equation looks the same.

5. There is adaptation. Good and bad life events wear off – at least partially – as people get used to them.

6. Comparisons matter a great deal. Reported well being depends on a person’s wage relative to an average or “comparison” wage. Wage inequality depresses reported happiness in a region or nation. But the effect is not large.

According to these analyses, some wealth is necessary for happiness. The countries with the greater wealth tended to be higher on the happiness scale, though not in direct proportion. Money provides for basic necessities like shelter, food, and clothing. Money buys us greater autonomy in lifestyle choices. It is important to remember that health and access to education were also important factors. So, a country with less money than the U.S. can raise the happiness level of its citizens by providing health care and education, even if it doesn’t raise the overall GDP of the country. These factors probably launched Denmark to spot #1. Here in America, we’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a great abundance of wealth. It’s made us pretty happy.

So what happens when the money runs out? Are we doomed to unhappiness?

The economy is still staggering from the housing market bubble of 2008. Looking ahead, we see that energy costs are bound to go up. Workers have been laid off, people are losing their houses and their health insurance. It seems entirely possible that for the first time in our history, the younger generations will have less than the ones which came before. The question is, can we still be happy, even with less? If happiness is somewhat dependent on comparisons, could we learn to compare factors other than wealth?

By thinking small, could we actually live big?

It isn’t as if this is a new concept. Henry David Thoreau experimented with voluntary simplicity. In Walden, he wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”–Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

At Walden Pond, Thoreau chose to live in a small cabin and to write about his experiences. Today, some enterprising architects are also thinking small when it comes to housing.

One of my favorite websites to visit is the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. I first heard about it from my friend, Jenny, and I’ve been intrigued ever since. These houses are truly tiny–65 to 837 square feet. Take a look at them here. The smallest of them can be built on wheels and parked like an RV. They are engineered down to fractions of inches so that the spaces are marvelously functional. The architect/builder Jay Shafer, lives in an 89 square foot house with built-in shelves, a sleeping loft, a bathroom that IS the shower, and even a small, propane fireplace!

Jay says, “The simple, slower lifestyle my homes have afforded is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.”

A luxury!

The tiny Tumbleweed Houses are cheaper to build or buy, are cheaper to heat, and they are mobile–all of which means greater autonomy and security for the owner.

Speaking of mobility, do we really need large automobiles to make us feel successful and happy? Legroom is a concern for many of us Americans. We are big people and seem to be getting bigger all the time. According to a study found in the American Center for Disease Control, men and women have gained 24 pounds on average since 1960 and have grown an extra inch in height. For those of us who are on the smaller side, however, a small car might be just as satisfying as a big, awkward SUV. Take the SmartCar, for example. It can fit into tight parking spaces, gets 46.3 miles per gallon in the city and 68.9 miles per gallon on the highway, and it’s cute!

Of course, if you live in the city, you could probably save yourself many headaches by not owning a car at all. Fewer headaches equals greater happiness in my book.

Unfortunately, I live out in the country. One of my goals for the summer is to try riding my bicycle to the grocery store in town rather than driving the red behemoth Ford F-150 I’ve been driving ever since my 1992 Escort became scrap metal this winter. If you happen to be driving toward the market, I’ll be the geek with the day-glo orange flag on the back of my bike. Please observe the speed limit, and for God’s sake, stay off your cell phone while you drive!

Perhaps the key to happiness is being more aware of what makes us truly happy. If our basic needs–shelter, food, clothing, education, and healthcare–are met, what’s to stop us from being happy with less stuff, smaller houses, and more fuel-efficient cars? Perhaps if we stopped comparing ourselves to our neighbors, we’d be happier with what we already have instead of feeling somehow “lesser.” Take a moment to think about what truly makes you happy . . . not just for the short term but over time. I bet it isn’t your house or your car.

I feel fortunate to live here in the United States where my basic needs are met and then some. As the economy slows and energy costs rise, we will need to continue to be thankful for those basics and perhaps learn to do with fewer of the extras that in the end, are really nothing more than notches on a measuring stick. Like Thoreau, we can perhaps try to live more deliberately. Like Jay Shafer, we can learn to enjoy the luxury of a simpler, slower lifestyle. In the future, thinking small may be the key to living large.

Quick Post–Good Article On Capitalism

Dear Reader:

Since I am no economist, my previous explanation of capitalism was basic–and probably missed the mark. Here is a more complex, comprehensive article about capitalism found on the Front Porch Republic website. Click here to read the article.

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Socks

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Sock

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Sock

Dear Reader:

So the strawberry jam didn’t happen as planned last week. We’ve had rain, and when it wasn’t raining, I was volunteering somewhere or going to a school function or a homeowner’s association meeting. Though I do not earn a paycheck these days, I find my life full of good and useful work. I reshelve books at the elementary school and public libraries here in town. I serve on the Community Garden Committee in my homeowner’s association. I cook the meals, wash the dishes, clean the laundry, drive the child to bus and appointments, organize social events for the family, keep up with a couple online/offline mother’s groups, and attend and work at Parent/Teacher Club events. This year I even donated a knit handbag to the Historical Society penny auction. I’ve been a Girl Scout leader, a class mother, and a chaperone on many a field trip, but, alas, my income tax return showed a big fat zero next to my name in the earnings column. As far as the U.S. governement is concerned, my work doesn’t count.

Since I’m past my thirties, I don’t much care anymore what people (or IRS accountants) think about my earnings-challenged lifestyle. Much. It’s only when someone asks me at a party or upon introduction “So, what do you do?” that I feel a little bit inadequate–if not as a human being, then as a party guest. It’s something to do with the way the conversation comes to an abrupt and embarrassing dead-end when I tell them I’m a stay-at-home mom and library volunteer. I suspect this is a lower and middle-class problem. If I were planning $500 a seat fundraisers instead of pricing used items at the school tag sale, I’d probably generate a little more interest. If I were an heiress–or the wife of a gadzillionaire–I’d doubtless be much more interesting even if I never opened my mouth all night long. Money, as we all know, talks.

In any case, not having inherited a fortune or married Bill Gates, I’ve learned to quickly turn the conversation back toward the person next to me by saying in my sweetest voice, “Anyway, enough about me. What do YOU do?” The relief is evident. The party goes on.

When it comes to volunteering, I’m heartened by Sharon Astyk’s 2009 book, DEPLETION AND ABUNDANCE.

In her book, Astyk spends a chapter talking about the “informal economy” and how more and more Americans may find themselves moving into a lifestyle more like, well, mine. Where I am practicing voluntary depletion, however, many others could be forced into an economically-challenged situation by the global realities of a Peak Oil world. Astyk, concerned about the large “footprint” of the average American, decided to cut her use of energy by something like 90%–and she challenged others to do the same. Her blog Casaubon’s Book follows her continuing adventures in voluntary simplicity.

If Sharon Astyk, with her PhD in literature, can be content staying home, raising children and livestock while continuing to work on her writing projects (which includes her respected blog and published books), then so can I–minus the livestock.

Instead of raising chickens or goats, I knit, since that is unlikely to disturb the neighbors or get me in trouble with the homeowner’s association. This week I tried my hand at sock-making . . . pedicure socks in particular. These socks are useful when you want to wear a pair of flip-flops or thong-style sandals and show off your pretty pedicure. In the spring or fall, you could wear these to the spa and put them on right before the polish is applied, saving your feet from the chill and your polish from getting smeared. (I don’t know what you do about polish-smearing in the winter.) I’ve had exactly one professional pedicure in my life, but something about these socks appealed to me. I used up a lone skein of yarn that had been sitting in my knitting basket for a couple of years and spent a few challenging hours learning how to turn heels.

One sock came out floppier than the other. I ran out of yarn on the second sock and had to bind it off with a scrap of different yarn. However, I learned a new pattern and have started a second pair–in cotton this time–using another skein of yarn leftover from an earlier project. If you’d like to try these yourself, the pattern can be found on These cute pedicure socks will make fun gifts for the nieces and friends in the coming year, so I intend to make a slew of them out of my leftover yarn–saving money and reducing my cabon footprint at the same time.

When it suits its purpose, even the U.S. government has been known to advocate voluntary simplicity. During WWII, when raw materials and food were needed for the war effort, propaganda campaigns created posters and slogans advocating reduction in consumption.
Use It Up Poster 1943 (I found this poster image at Texas Star Books. The poster sells for $195. Enough said.

Back then, our government told us it was patriotic to use and buy less. What a difference from today when our government tells us that the patriotic thing to do is spend, spend, spend. Ironic, eh? This seeming paradox of spending ourselves out of economic disaster makes sense only when you consider that capitalism is based on growth. When you invest your money, you expect to get that money back plus interest, right? Let’s say you invest in a company that makes . . . socks. The company has to sell enough socks to to pay your money back to you, plus the interest, plus cover all the costs of doing business–payroll, raw materials, energy inputs, insurance, etc. If you want to get your money back with interest, then, you have to hope that everyone goes out and buys scads of socks this quarter.

This is, of course, a simplification of a very complex system, but the root of capitalism is growth. We’ve been encouraged to spend, not save. We’ve been bullied into playing the stock market, working more hours than we should, buying more than we need, using more natural resources than is wise, buying oversized cars and mega-sized houses, changing fashion styles every season–all so the economy would grow. Now, I won’t go into who REALLY wins in this particular game, but it isn’t you and me. We were promised a nice, fat retirement if we put our money into 401K’s and IRA’s rather than paying off our credit cards at the end of the month. Now the house of cards has fallen, the housing market scam has collapsed, our investments have taken a dive, and guess what? If we haven’t reached peak oil production yet, we soon will, and then the fun will really start. Our economy runs on oil–cheap oil–and when the yields start to go down and the prices start to go up, growth will slow even further.

At least, this is what the Peak Oil activists and experts tell us. They could be wrong. I encourage you to research for yourself.

You would think I’d be depressed, believing as I do that our hyper-driven, mega-pixel, high-definition, overabundant life is in jeapardy. I do have my moments, of course, but I also see some good things ahead in a lower-carbon world. More time spent with family and friends. Less concern over being “in-style.” More nutritious, locally-grown food. Vibrant, local communities. Craftmanship instead of crappy goods produced in an overseas sweatshop. Live entertainment rather than electronically-delivered entertainment.

I, for one, would be just as happy to write on a piece of paper instead of a laptop.

The point I’m trying to make is that voluntary reduction in energy and other resources is preferable to an involuntary crash of our entire system. This is Sharon Astyk’s point, as well. Though some of us may be more naturally geared toward a use-it-up, wear-it-out lifestyle (my mother despairs of my ever having matching furniture), we can all find some small ways to make do with what we have rather than going out to the mall for something new. Instead of paying the ridiculous costs of a movie-theater ticket, play charades with your family . . . or if you’re really ambitious, organize a community theater production. Instead of buying a new pair of sandals, make do with the five or six pairs taking up room in your closet. Sew a new set of buttons on your shirt instead of throwing it away. Take a stay-cation instead of a vacation. Visit your local consignment shop. Consider bartering rather than buying. Visit the library rather than Borders. Learn to brew homemade beer (this would be a fun activity for spouses to work on together). Pick up a couple of needles, unravel an old sweater, and ask a friend to teach you how to knit. Go for a walk after dinner instead of plunking down in front of the advertisement delivery system . . . errr, television.

Take a first step toward energy and economic independence.

Do you have some good tips on how to reduce, re-use, or recycle? Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.

A Raw Deal

Raw Milk After Skimming Cream

Raw Milk After Skimming Cream

Dear Reader:

The sun is out after what seems like days of rain (we had a sunny break on Saturday, but much rain the previous week), my rosa rugosas are beginning to bloom, the chives blossoms weigh down the stalks, and my husband and I chipped enough brush on Saturday to provide me with plenty of mulch for the flower beds, around the garden boxes, and prepping ground for some additional bulb and apple tree planting at the end of the season.

This morning, I threw together a batch of 5-Minute A Day bread dough, and it is sticky and stretchy and springy–hopefully perfect for the round boule of crusty, moist artisan bread I’ll bake on a stone this afternoon. A dish of freshly-made, naturally-yellow butter sits in my ‘fridge beside a carton of eggs from Sarah’s chickens. I feel as if I’m getting into a rhythm here with these few, basic local foods–bread, butter, eggs, milk. Soon there will be strawberries from the farm up the road, lettuce from my garden, maybe some early peas at a farm stand. Isn’t summer wonderful?

Speaking of milk, I thought this would be a good time to talk about why I’ve chosen to buy my milk from a local farm. This milk is raw . . . refrigerated and clean but unpasteurized. If you’d asked me two years ago if I’d ever consider serving unpasturized milk to my child, I would have given you the “are you CRAZY?” eye. What I’d always heard–and you, too, probably–is that Louis Pasteur singlehandedly saved humanity when he discovered that by heating foods we can kill the bacteria in those foods rendering them much safer and healthier to eat. The USDA strongly recommends pasteurization. I would be remiss if I didn’t state that here. Before you make any decisions, please do your own research. There were once (and maybe still are in some instances) good reasons for heating milk to boiling and killing off a good deal of the bacteria found in it.

According to a Cornell University website: The process of heating or boiling milk for health benefits has been recognized since the early 1800s and was used to reduce milkborne illness and mortality in infants in the late 1800s. As society industrialized around the turn of the 20th century, increased milk production and distribution led to outbreaks of milkborne diseases. Common milkborne illnesses during that time were typhoid fever, scarlet fever, septic sore throat, diptheria, and diarrheal diseases. These illnesses were virtually eliminated with the commercial implementation of pasteurization, in combination with improved management practices on dairy farms. In 1938, milk products were the source of 25% of all food and waterborne illnesses that were traced to sources, but now they account for far less than 1% of all food and waterborne illnesses.

Note the sentence I’ve highlighted with bold print? According to Cornell University, at least, milkborn illnesses were not a big problem throughout history but only after we embraced industrialization which led to increased milk production and distribution in the late 1800’s–before adequate refridgeration, in other words. When people began to move into crowded city conditions, the relationship between humans and their food sources changed. Where once each family had a milk cow or two, now milk was being brought into the cities from outlying farms. Rather than a cow-to-table time of a few minutes, you had a cow-to-table time of hours . . . much more time for nasty pathogens to be fruitful and multiply. Good for the bacteria, but bad for the poor humans who ended up with diptheria.

The National Academy of Sciences Press published this little gem, backing up what raw-milk activists have been saying about the “secret history of milk.” I encourage you to click on the link and read it for yourself. It is brief, only a paragraph, but one sentence in particular stands out. The author states that prior to the late 1800’s, food items, with the exception of flour, were locally produced and purchased. One can presume, then, that it was only when we ceased to buy local milk did we begin to have severe outbreaks of diseases which led to government intervention in our milk supply and production which led to pasteurization.

So, what’s wrong with pasteruized milk, anyway? There is much to debate on this issue, but the fact is that when you heat milk, you destroy the “good” bacteria” which aids in digestion along with the “bad” bacteria which can lead to disease. The Weston A. Price Foundation campaign for Real Milk provides the following information/opinion with references:

Pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer. Calves fed pasteurized milk do poorly and many die before maturity. Raw milk sours naturally but pasteurized milk turns putrid; processors must remove slime and pus from pasteurized milk by a process of centrifugal clarification. Inspection of dairy herds for disease is not required for pasteurized milk. Pasteurization was instituted in the 1920s to combat TB, infant diarrhea, undulant fever and other diseases caused by poor animal nutrition and dirty production methods. But times have changed and modern stainless steel tanks, milking machines, refrigerated trucks and inspection methods make pasteurization absolutely unnecessary for public protection. And pasteurization does not always kill the bacteria for Johne’s disease suspected of causing Crohn’s disease in humans with which most confinement cows are infected. Much commercial milk is now ultra-pasteurized to get rid of heat-resistant bacteria and give it a longer shelf life. Ultra-pasteurization is a violent process that takes milk from a chilled temperature to above the boiling point in less than two seconds. Clean raw milk from certified healthy cows is available commercially in several states and may be bought directly from the farm in many more. (Sources are listed on Click here to peruse the website yourself.

What led me to raw milk? Asthma and allergies. I visited a chiropractor in hopes of relieving some of my asthma symptoms, and the good doctor recommended I take a look at the Weston A. Price website. Learning that highly-processed milk can sometimes lead to allergies, especially in children, I decided to give raw milk a try. It wasn’t as if I’d never had raw milk before. My great-uncle ran a dairy farm for years, and my sister and I would often accompany my grandmother to “Unkies” farm to get a jar of milk from the big, square, steel cooler. Didn’t I love those little calves in their special room off to one side of the barn! And I distincly remember the big bull standing in his own pen with an actual metal ring through his nose. Amazing how peaceful and loving cows’ eyes are and how little and mean a bull’s!

For a little while my parents also bought milk from a farm. I remember hating the taste of that milk (having grown used to the blander stuff from the supermarket), so it was with trepidation that I sipped the raw milk from a nearby farm last summer. To my great amazement, the milk tasted wonderful! Rich, creamy . . . clean! My daughter loved it. Her friends who came to visit us loved it. I noticed a difference in my daughter’s digestive health almost immediately. I wasn’t so lucky with the asthma, but I still enjoyed the taste.

This milk was being produced and bottled by an organically certified farm in a town a thirty-minute drive from my home. The hours I could pick up my order were not convenient, and I wondered if the wastefulness of the gasoline could be justified. So, when I heard about a more local homesteader who was willing to sell her extra milk, I jumped at the chance. Laura and Nate run Down Home Farm in Parsonsfield, Maine. Check out their website here (I’ve also put it on the weblist over in the right-hand column for future reference).

Isabelle the Belmont Cow

Isabelle the Belmont Cow

Laura’s cows are small and brown and pretty. Even the bull is kinda’ cute. And the milk they produce is nothing short of a miracle. I skimmed the cream from this week’s jug and found I’d taken almost a fourth of the contents of my gallon! The resulting butter is naturally yellow. The cows are pastured so they can eat the grass that nature intended them to eat rather than grain silage that so often produces the rank smell of store-bought milk in winter.

The price of the milk is a little higher than the grocery store, but not by much, and I know I am paying not only for quality, but also for the support of a local farmer whose price is far above rubies. Where can you find local milk? Check this listing. Another good bet would be to go to a local, independent natural food store and ask. The proprietors of these establishments are a great resource for all things natural, organic, and local. If we seek out and support local farmers like Laura, we strengthen our local economy and preserve our local food supply. I envision a day when once again all our food except for extras like olive oil, coffee, spices, and other luxury items comes from our local farms. Talk about homeland security!

Fresh From The Oven

Fresh From The Oven

Well, the bread is out of the oven, the outdoors is calling me, and class is dismissed. Tune in next week to talk about strawberry jam . . . Outside the Box.

Homemade Bread Update

Dear Reader:

When my friend Lynn read my article on making homemade bread, she shared a great recipe with me. She promised this artisan bread was a cinch to make–no kneading and can be stored in the ‘fridge up to two weeks making it possible to simply break off a one-pound size glob of the prepared dough, shape it into a boule, let it rise for about thirty minutes, and bake it on a stone for a crusty, fresh loaf of homemade bread. Imagine my glee when I found this article online at the Mother Earth News Magazine website! Here you can find detailed instructions for the bread, plus variations–everything from an authentic, thin pizza crust to pecan rolls. Yummy!

If you like these recipes, the authors have crafted an entire book based on their excellent, easy-artisanal basic bread entitled ARTISAN BREAD IN FIVE MINUTES A DAY. Take a look at the article in Mother Earth News (a wonderful magazine for anyone interested in growing food, farming, homesteading, alternative home-building, etc.), and then, if you are hooked, click on the book title to link to the authors’ website.

The authors of the article (and the book) claim that a loaf of this bread costs you about 50 cents to make. Now that’s something we localists can get behind, right? Spending less on bread every week leaves more money to buy locally-made goods or put in our locally-owned bank savings account.

Try it and let me know how it turns out for you by posting a comment. And thanks, Lynn, for introducing me to this cool bread!!

Quick post: video about going local, why, and some how’s

Bloom where you're planted

Bloom where you're planted

Here is another great 30 minute video interview that Janaia Donaldson recorded as part of Peak Moment Television. This one is a good back-and-forth about strengthening local economies. Make a mug of coffee or cup of tea, sit back, and enjoy a thought-provoking bit of video. Click here to watch TO BE OF USE–SERVING THE COMMUNITY.

How Does My Garden Grow

Boxes in mid-June

Boxes in mid-June

Dear Reader:

Here we are mid-June, and my seeds have sprouted in the Square-Foot Garden boxes! As I dropped those little seeds into the soil-mix a week or so ago, I thought about what an act of faith it is to plant a few tiny seeds and expect them do what nature–or God–meant for them to do. You cover them up with a little bit of soil, provide a little water, and hope for the best. There’s really nothing left for the gardener to do but watch . . . and pray.

I imagine that’s why row planting seems safer, more traditional. You put alot of seeds into a row and when they sprout, you simply thin them to the proper spacing. This is a huge waste of reproductive energy, but the odds are better, I suppose, when you really count on those plants coming up, growing, and producing food that will feed you and your family over the long, snowy winter to come.

Square-Foot gardening is different. Properly done, you can space your seeds systematically according to the size of the resulting plant and waste little seed to wasteful thinning. Sounds wonderful! But what happens if the few seeds you planted didn’t sprout at all? In a subsistance situation, those few seeds could be the difference between starvation and survival. Weighing the odds, most farmers would chose overplanting and thinning, I imagine. I’m lucky that my garden boxes are just for fun right now. Fun and learning, I should say. Still, I worry.

Everything in my boxes has come up except one–the parsnips. I hover over those four, bare, seedlingless squares and bite my lip, worrying about the parsnips. I wonder if they are doing anything down there beneath the surface of the soil or if I should try sticking some more flat, beige seeds into the soil mix. Is the soil too wet or too dry? Did I plant the seeds too deep? How do seeds go about sprouting anyway?

Wikipedia gives a good, basic explanation of the germination process for those of us who have forgotten our elementary science experiments. Remember sprouting bean seeds in a jar?

Basically, each seed contains an embryonic plant surrounded by starches and other food-type goodies for the baby plant to use. When certain conditions are met–water, oxygen, light–the embryonic plant is activated and begins to grow. Now, I imagine there is chemistry involved in this. Cells must begin to divide (ah, another elementary science lesson comes to mind: drawing a diagram of a plant cell colored with crayons or pencils) causing the embryo to grow and eventually emerge from the seed casing. I observe this in my bean boxes right now. The dark-colored bean shells have split off, and a slightly alien-looking, pale, splotched sprout thrusts out from beneath two sides of the seed.

cucumber seedlings

cucumber seedlings

So, how does my garden grow? Well, the cucumber, summer squash, butternut squash, pie pumpkins, and carrots are all mostly up and reaching for the sun. The peas are peeking out around the twiggy branches I stuck in next to them in case they want something to lean on when they grow up. I’m waiting on the parnips, as I said. The greens I planted beneath a few of the tomatoes are making a nice little carpet that, alas, I will be forced to thin. (Okay, I admit, I was too chicken to only plant a few of those miniscule black seeds in all that loose, crumbly soil-mix. I really, really wanted some greens this summer, even if it meant thinning. Sorry Mel Bartholmew.) Even the basil and cilantro have begun to show themselves in the front boxes, and the greenleaf lettuces planted next to the rhubarb in a regular garden bed look like they are coming along nicely. One of the tomatoes–Sungold–has a yellow blossom on it already! Things are pretty much working out according to plan so far. My faith has been rewarded, I guess.

Sun-gold tomato blossom

Sun-gold tomato blossom

As we attempt to grow our communities, perhaps we need to have the same kind of faith we throw at our garden beds. The seeds of community activism we plant to today will one day receive just the right amount of water and oxygen and light (enthusiasm, cooperation, and vision) and will sprout into community organizations designed to nurture our social and economic needs. It isn’t always easy to have that kind of faith, but sometimes you just have to throw those seeds into the ground and hope for the best.

How are your gardens coming along this year? Have you ever tried to start a community group or service and found yourself wondering if it was going to work out? Do you know anything interesting about germination of seeds? If so, stop on by and share . . . Outside the Box.

A Porcupine, A Turtle, and A Dragonfly

June 3 2009 019Dear Reader:

A porcupine, a turtle, and a dragonfly went into a bar . . .

Oops, wrong characters, wrong story. Let me try that again: A porcupine, a turtle, and a dragonfly crossed paths with me yesterday, and I was reminded once again why I enjoy living here in my rural subdivision despite the dirt roads and scrub-brush and towering half-dead pine trees and the somewhat marshy, shallow lake. This place is a regular wildlife refuge! In my six years here I’ve seen deer, moose, skunks, racoons, snapping turtles, painted turtles, pileated woodpeckers, blue herons, loons, and a fox. Some people claim to have spotted black bears. Red-winged blackbirds abound in the cattail marsh up the lake aways. Bass and pickerel haunt the water. Three winters in a row we had an owl hooting in the pine just in back of our house. I’ve seen dragonflies in every shape, size, and color among the yellow waterlillies and purple pickerelweed lining the shore.

But yesterday was notable for the sheer variety of creature sightings. Watching the porcupine try his hardest to get out of the road, into the brush, and under an overhanging rock, I wondered if maybe a quilly mating season was underway. Waddling across the road must be an effort for these stout, short creatures who carry an arsenal of daggers everywhere they travel, and I imagine it must take some strong incentive–food or sex–to tempt them from one weedy ditch to the other.

The painted turtle, thank goodness, was on the side of the road and not in the middle where I might have run her over. As I passed, she stopped, craned her neck, and took a good look right back at me before going on her merry way. Where was she going, so far from the water? I’ve seen tribes of them sunning their shells on the dead, bleached tree stumps up at the far end of the lake but never in the road. Was she looking for a good spot to lay her eggs? Hunting frogs in the swampy depression at the foot of the wooded hill? Do turtles even eat frogs?

After a long day of community activities and square-foot garden planting, I sat down in the late afternoon to drink a cup of coffee on my front steps, and there on the cement walkway was the first dragonfly of summer! He was an unremarkable color with a single pair of wings, but he was a reminder of the hot, sunny days just ahead. Dragonflies are beneficial insects, along with ladybugs and bumblebees and many more.

Sipping my coffee and contemplating my winged companion (could it be that the myth of faeries was inspired by these delicate, winged creatures?), I began to think about the web of life and how we are all part of a vast ecosystem that connects such varied creatures as porcupines, turtles, dragonflies, and people. There are the creatures we don’t even see–the underground insects, the beetles beneath the bark of a tree, dust mites, bacteria. Everything works together, sometimes coming unbalanced but then righting itself again sooner or later.

The kind of landscaping and gardening we do can either fit into this ecosystem or work against it. A fairly new approach to designing human habitats is permaculture. Permaculture design is based on the idea that everything works together and has multiple purposes. Everything is connected, so the idea is to take advantage of those connections to create beauty, function, and usefulness. For example, when you raise a few chickens in your backyard garden, you can feed your kitchen scraps and weeds to the cluckers (waste management), harvest the eggs (food), and use the resulting manure as compost for future gardens (soil building). The chickens will also hunt for insects that might otherwise harm your plants (pest control).

Another example of permaculture design is the concept of garden guilds. A guild is a plant community where each plant benefits from the other. Native American peoples developed a plant guild that is known as the Three Sisters. Corn, pole beans, and squash are planted together. The corn acts as a trellis for the beans, the beans (a legume) help add nitrogen to the soil for greater fertility, and the squash acts as a natural mulch to keep down the weeds that might steal nutrients from all the plants.

Another guild is an apple-tree guild. I learned about this one in an awesome book called GAIA’S GARDEN: A GUIDE TO HOME-SCALE PERMACULTURE. I took this book out of the library and decided to buy it about five sentences into the introduction. It has not just theory but also practical suggestions and guidelines for using permaculture principles in your home landscape.

The apple guild is definitely one I am going to try. I was already planning on installing a couple of apple trees into my landscape, but now I will also plant a ring of daffodils at the distance where the trees branches will end at full-growth. The bulbs will inhibit the growth of grass beneath the tree, so there will be less competition for nutrients and less need to fertilize. Deer and gophers do not like to eat daffodils, so planting them at the edge will keep those creatures from damaging the tree. Within the circle of bulbs can be flowers and herbs that attract beneficial insect pollinators like bees, or that can be used for food or medicine by humans. The author of the book, Toby Hemenway, mentions things like yarrow, comfrey, dandelion, clover, and fava beans. Some of these also work as mulch plants and nutrient-adders. Everything works together, making less work and headache for the gardener while also creating a beautiful environment that mimics what Mother Nature does. You don’t see entire fields of corn growing up spontaneously, but you do see tiny understory plants growing beneath trees in the wild.

A flicker of blue outside my window just caught my attention. A jay is making a call at my garden boxes. Guess I’ll go see if any of the new tomatoes and peppers need a drink. Maybe I’ll scooch down for a look at the teeny-tiny ants that have colonized my lawn and think about the interconnectedness of nature. Or maybe I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee and read some more of Hemenway’s book.

Have you ever practiced companion planting in your gardens? What animals or insects have you observed recently? Share you experiences, join the circle, celebrate connectedness right here . . . Outside the Box.