Tag Archives: peak oil

Growing In The Shade

Red sky in the morning . . .

“Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

Dear Reader:

The above quote is an old adage I learned as a child. Basically, it means that if there’s a red sunset you can expect clear, sunny skies the next day, but if you have a red sunrise, watch out for a gloomy day ahead. (click HERE for a scientific explanation.)

I say, with all the news we’ve had lately about oil prices, revolutions in the Middle East, mega earthquakes, nuclear power plant problems, our national debt ceiling about to be reached come May, and a stalemate over our Washington budget, we are seeing a red sky in the morning here on planet Earth. Will we heed the warning signs?

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard about Peak Oil yet? If you haven’t, I encourage you to find out about it as quickly as possible. The Post Carbon Institute has published a Peak Oil Primer (click HERE to read it)that will give you an overview of the issue. Basically, Peak Oil is the point in time when we have used up half of the original oil reserves in the world. If graphed on a bell curve, the extraction and production of oil would form a “peak” at this point, and from that point on extraction and production will become more difficult and less efficient over time. Another term for this is “energy resource depletion.” Or, as I like to call it, “running out of gas.”

You can also watch a few documentaries:
COLLAPSE with Michael Rupert (click HERE)
THE END OF SUBURBIA (click HERE)
ENERGY CROSSROADS (click HERE to view the trailer)

These are just a few. I encourage you to explore and share what you find.

In essence, what these films (and the myriad books that are available–more on those in another post) tell us is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, in our current way of life depends on oil. Our food is grown with oil-based fertilizers applied by oil-run tractors that are manufactured using oil. Irrigation pumps to water the fields run on oil. All plastics are made with oil. Obviously, our transportation is mostly oil-fueled. We heat our homes and hot water with oil. Our clothing (and just about everything else in the stores) is shipped to us via a fleet of trucks that run on gasoline. Suburbia depends on the automobile to get its residents to and from work, school, stores, and hospitals. We have fewer and fewer walkable, liveable communities.

I am aware that this all sounds alarmist. It is. I am alarmed. The more I learn, the more I read the news, the more I think, the more alarmed I become. All my little projects here Outside the Box have been attempted because I believe the only way to make a difference in this alarming scenario is to go local. Even then, deep down, all this square-foot gardening/buying local milk/knitting socks feels more like child's play than a real answer to the disaster-waiting-to-happen. Unless everyone else begins to localize, too.

A couple years ago I tried to bring Peak Oil and its implications to the attention of my homeowner's association–asking that we begin to think about some changes to our bylaws that would allow us to become more sustainable and less dependent on oil and outside resources. Opening up the canopy to let in much-needed sunlight was my biggest plea. I said we needed to be able to learn to grow our own food in our own backyards, and and that takes eight hours of sunlight, minimum. I also said we could become more energy independent if we used solar technology to heat our homes and hot water, possibly even selling excess energy back to "the grid" and easing some of our home economies and off-setting increases in our association dues.

As you can imagine, nobody took this seriously. Maybe it was because I also mentioned raising goats.

I understand that some people moved here to "get back to nature." Our development was created as a vacation community, after all. I understand that people "up to camp" like the old, Maine pine trees swaying above the cottage while the sunlight sparkles on the lake. It is beautiful. I like it, too. I wish our way of life could continue on just the way it is now, driving outside the community to go to work and coming home to our nice houses and power boats and microwave ovens and the wind sighing through the pines while we sip our pre-dinner Merlot on the deck while the steak sizzles on the gas grill. It's a wonderful life.

I just don't happen to believe it's gonna last. Hopefully I'm wrong.

While we wait and see what the future holds, I'll keep on playing around with my projects. I can't do much about what other people chose or chose not to learn. To give up entirely would mean giving in to fear.

In the spirit of doing something even if it is a drop in the bucket, I am plunging ahead this year with more garden boxes. I am going to focus on vegetables and herbs that can be grown in the shade and hope to trade for some tomatoes and peppers and squashes from someone with a sunny garden spot. I’m also going to experiment with those Topsy Turvy planters . . . growing tomatoes upside down on iron hooks stuck into my septic field–the sunniest spot in my yard. I’m also contemplating growing a few tomatoes in large pots . . . on top of my septic tank, the area of my yard that remained mostly snow-free all winter despite record snowfalls due to the heat underneath the dirt.

If you have a shady area of your yard, if your entire yard is shady, and if you want to give gardening a try, HERE is a list of plants that will grow in 3-6 hours of sunlight. Compost heavily. Water regularly. Read the article about Peak Oil and share it with others. Good luck, and let us know how it turns out.

Wine and Vinegar

Springtime (?) in Maine

Dear Reader:

When I began this Outside the Box venture, my goal was to stay out of big box retail stores for one year and to document ways to buy from locally-owned (or at least NOT big corporate-owned) businesses. Along the way, I’ve dabbled with everything from gardening to spinning, figuring that if I can’t buy it, I might as well learn to make it/grow it myself.

One thing I didn’t jump into completely was locavorism–only eating food grown, say, within a 100 mile radius of my home. I bought locally-produced food products when they were easily available, but I also spent the bulk of my food income at the local grocery store. It seemed just too big of a jump to try to eat only protein, veggies, grains, and fats produced nearby.

The other day, an acquaintance I’d met through a community mom’s group contacted me to ask about local food sources in our area. I gave her what I had, and then I began to ponder whether or not I was ready to take the plunge this year and try for a 100-mile diet. As I wrote out my weekly meal plan and grocery-store list, I circled everything on the list that I thought I could purchase from Maine farmers. Surprising to me, I circled more than half the items.

Maine Wine and Vinegar

In fact, I believe that with the exception of rice, my family could live on a locavore diet–substituting good ol’ Maine potatoes and corn for the brown rice I usually prefer for starch. Around me I have beef and eggs and chicken (and I believe pork, though I haven’t done too well seeking it out) and venison, if my husband shoots one this year or if I finally do what I’ve been threatening to do for a long time and learn how to use a bow and shoot one myself.

There are some veggie farmers in nearby towns, and I can grow a few things for myself. I bought some wine from a Maine vintner (Blacksmiths Winery in Casco)and some raw vinegar from Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner while stopping to get a prescription filled at the local Hannaford’s a couple weeks ago.

I’ve purchased safflower oil from safflowers grown in-state (found at a health-food store in Kennebunk). Milk and cream come from Downhome Farm just up the road in Parsonsfield. We have blueberry, apple, strawberry, and raspberry growers in our town.

I’ve purchased Maine cheese in the past, though I haven’t seen any mozzarella–the lack of which might make for some unhappy family members on pizza-movie night.

The woman from whom I buy my beef has also started a food co-op featuring Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative offerings. Options aplenty!

After I shared my limited local food sources with my mom-friend, she shared the following with me. It is a newish farm in Alfred, Maine called Groundwork Farm which offers a community supported agriculture program (CSA) where you pre-buy a share in this year’s crop. Check out their blog by clicking HERE. I quickly zipped off an email to request an application, and I hope that there are still slots available.

I will also need to sit down with a calculator and my husband to see just how far down this locavore road we can go this year.

I find it so encouraging to see new farms starting up and so many people becoming interested in supporting local agriculture. It is especially encouraging this week as news from Libya and the Middle East reinforces my concerns about the future of energy–hence life–in the U.S. The sooner we begin to localize, not just food but everything, the better off we will be.

I urge you to find CSA’s, local farms, and local artisans in your neck of the woods this spring/summer. New customers will encourage even more young people to see farming as a viable career. Speaking of young farmers, I also found a great blog dedicated to these amazing young tillers of the soil. The blog is called The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles, and is part of Greenhorns, a land-based non profit dedicated to helping young farmers across America. I’ve found many of their blog posts to be inspiring.

I will be adding these blogs to my list this week and doing some basic “housekeeping” here Outside the Box. It’s been two years already! Time to sweep out the dusty cobwebs.

Do you have any great blogs or websites that inspire you in your daily life? Sharing information is a simple way we can all learn from each other as we head into an uncertain future. Thanks for continuing to read!

Of Arugula & Lilacs

Dear Reader:

It is the time of arugula and lilacs–a juxtaposition of sweet, heady scent of flowers in the air and the cool, peppery tang of herb on the tongue. We seem to be bouncing between extremes of late. One week it is sunny and seventy-degrees, and the next week we are shivering in the a cloudy, forty-degree chill. One day the stock market is steadily climbing and jobs are added to the economy, and the next day we shake our heads as the Dow plunges a thousand points in a matter of minutes–a drop attributed to a computer “glitch” of all things. The Greek economy tanks, and then it is bailed out. People protest in the streets. Meanwhile, the grass grows, the dandelions turn to fluffballs, and we plant our cool-weather-loving peas and kale in hopes of a good crop in a month or so.

Here at “the cottage” I’m keeping myself occupied by scanning my favorite doom and gloom websites–Whiskey and Gunpowder and James Howard Kunstler’s peak oil/new urbanism blog–and cooking up a batch of homemade beef stock. Last fall, I picked up my beef order and stuck the large brown paper bags into the freezer. Once I found the hamburger bag and the steak bag, I didn’t bother to open the rest until a few weeks ago when I discovered, to my delight, soup bones. Soup bones! Could I learn to make my own beef stock? Why not!

This morning I cut up some onion, celery, and carrots and put them in the bottom of a stock pot with a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, and a sprinkling of dried parsley. I then roasted a meaty soup bone in a 400 degree oven for thirty minutes, pried the bone off the bottom of the roasting pan, and placed it in with the veggies.

Covering the whole mess with some water, I set the pot to simmering on the stove. My whole house smells divine. In a couple of hours, I will be able to strain the stock, skim the fat off the top, add some stew meat and potatoes and carrots and more celery and maybe a can of stewed tomatoes and have myself a fine evening meal.

Baby Arugula Thinnings

In the meantime, I moseyed out to the garden to have a look at my cool-weather crops–the arugula, claytonia, and mache beds. The arugula needed thinning, so I now have a nice bowl of baby greens to go in a salad this evening.

No matter how grim the news in the outside world, there is always something to celebrate and enjoy if you take the time to look around you. Lilacs, for instance. Arugula, for instance.

Coffee with a friend. A favorite book. A special meal. A short nap. A brisk walk. What pleasures have you enjoyed today . . . Outside the Box?

Cooking The Old-Fashioned Way

Bread Pudding

Bread Pudding

Dear Reader:

I wanted to use some version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” for my title because while I’d really like to be down at the canoe landing and staring out across the sparkly lake, I decided I had better make like an ant and work before I play. The grasshoppers have been buzzing in the grasses these late summer afternoons, and the sun has finally ripened a couple of my cherry tomatoes. One of the big beefsteaks was starting to turn color, but something took a big ol’ bite out of it. I suspected a creepy-crawly tomato worm but could find no trace of the sucker last evening. I threw out the two or three fruits he/she had sampled (why not eat the whole darn thing before moving on to the next, I’d like to know?) and decided that pests are simply a part of the big picture.

It’s easy to be philosophical when one’s parents have stopped in with a bag of free produce from their larger and much more productive garden.

I digress.

Summer weekends are a fabulous time to shop . . . in your neighbor’s yard. No, I’m not advocating late-night raids of the blueberry bushes and corn rows. I’m tallking about yard sales. Some readers may remember an earlier entry regarding old cookbooks and my quest for pre-World War II tomes. I scored one beauty at an antique store in nearby Cornish village a couple of months back. It is a musty, solid little book entitled LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE: HOW TO COOK ODDS AND ENDS OF FOOD INTO APPETIZING DISHES by Isabel Gordon Curtis.

LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE circa 1901

LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE circa 1901

This little jem was published in 1901 by the Orange Judd Company. The first chapter begins, “Do not throw away scraps of fat” and procedes to explain how to save all the bits of cooking fat and drippings and suet, to clarify them, and to use them for frying ala the ubiquitous vegetable shortening of today. “If only a teacup of fat is added to this supply once a week, it will save the buying of fat for frying purposes, even in a large family.” (pg.1)

The book goes on to give multiple recipes for using leftovers of every type: stale bread, cold coffee, cereals, sour milk, cold potatoes, vegetables, sauces, beef, veal, pork and ham, poultry, stale cake, cheese, and fruit. You know the recipes are old because each one lists only a few simple ingredients and absolutely no canned soup. Take Plain Cabbage Salad for instance: “2 cups shredded cabbage, 4 tbs. oil, 1 tsp. salt, 2 tbls. vinegar. Shred cabbage very fine and leave in ice water for an hour. Drain it and marinate with the dressing. This is a favorite supplement to fried oysters.” (pg. 75)

While the simplicity and lack of processed food products pleased me, I was dismayed by the frequent mention of refrigeration. Isabel Curtis must have been referring to old-fashioned ice-boxes, right? It got me wondering when the first refrigerator was invented. Off I went to cyberspace to find out.

I turned first to Wikipedia. (See here) According to the section on the history of the refrigerator, the first refrigerator coil which condensed aromatic vapours as a coolant was invented in the 11th century. The 11th century! Okay, I just about fell off my chair. Wasn’t that medieval times? The Dark Ages? And yet, in America at the turn of the 20th century, half the population used ice-boxes for cooling food while the other half just used the even more natural method of root-cellaring.

Home refrigerators did not become commonplace until 1927 with the General Electric Motor-top model, long after my 1901 cookbook was printed. Take a look at the frontispiece photograph of young ladies in floor-length dresses and long aprons and little white caps ranged ’round a table at the New England Cooking School of the Good Housekeeping Institute.

Lady cooks from 1901

Lady cooks from 1901

Thinking about refrigeration, or lack of it, one can certainly appreciate the important place of the family milk cow in 1901. At this stage in history, fresh milk meant that morning’s milk, not the stuff in the jug with this week’s date stamped on the side. However, clabbered milk and butter and cheese and sour cream had their place in the home cook’s repertoire. LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE includes thirty recipes for using up sour milk, including cottage cheese. (Those of you who read last week’s entry will appreciate this discovery.) “4 Quarts sour milk, 1 tsp. salt, dash white pepper, 4 tbls. cream. Put the sour milk in a large pan and into it pour four quarts of boiling water. Allow it to stand for five minutes, then turn it into a pointed muslin bag like a jelly bag. Hang this up at night over a pan and let it drain. In the morning it will be dry and ready to mix with the cream and seasonings.” (pg. 47)

One of these weeks I’ll order an extra gallon of milk from Downhome Farm and try to make cottage cheese. Maybe when the weather isn’t quite so warm. The old warnings about diptheria and whatnot are hard to purge from the deep, dark recesses of the brain, no matter how much I’ve read on the subject of the nutritive value of raw milk. Is nutritive a word?

Yes. A quick look at the old Webster’s Dictionary confirms it on the page with guide words nuciature – nux vomica. Nux vomica? Sounds just like what I was worried about, n’est ce pas? Or some spell from a Harry Potter book, one of Severus Snape’s conconctions, perhaps. In fact, it is only the latin word for a poisonous seed. See, you never know what you’ll find out here Outside the Box.

Anyway, on the same shelf as LEFTOVERS, I spied another book with the enticing title NEW ENGLAND FLAVOR. Unfortunately, this tome by Haydn S. Pearson turned out to be a charming memoir of a New Hampshire childhood and not the cookbook I was hoping it to be. Fortunately, I also like charming memoirs of New England persons, and so this well-preserved volume with pretty little pen and ink illustrations by Leonard Bosburgh came home with me, as well. It should make for some cozy reading this fall when I sit outside wrapped in the shawl my sister sent home from Venezia this summer and sip Earl Gray from my favorite Monroe Saltworks mug.

So what does this have to do with the formentioned yard sale? I’m getting there, trust me. This weekend on the way home from Parsonsfield to pick up my milk, I noticed a table loaded with cooking pans and decided to check out the yard sale as two of my Reverware lids have recently lost knobs, forcing me to gingerly pick lids off boiling pots with dishtowels in hand to prevent scalding myself at the stove. (Can you imagine trying to diagram that last sentence? Actually, it might be fun. Who needs Sudoku? We ought to turn our kids on to sentence diagrams.)

The Rumford book

The Rumford book

Not only did I find a nice set of stainless steel pots for $5, I also scored a pretty, tatted-edged table runner and a treasure-trove of cookbooks. There’s the RUMFORD COMPLETE COOKBOOK, copyright 1908 in its 43rd printing in 1948. In this book, consomme is made with a quart of defatted meat stock . . . not a bouillon cube. Excellent. The baking powder is, of course, Rumford, which makes me wonder about those Anne of Green Gables books. Was it Rumford baking powder that Ann wrote about? A quick search on the web tells me no. It was Rollins Reliable baking powder. However, I came across this interesting site which gives in great detail how to visit Prince Edward Island and find all kinds of places referenced in the Anne books. Take a look if you are interested in visiting the island.

I may have to revisit Green Gables from the comfort of my couch corner this winter. Funny how this entry on cookbooks into turning into an entry on books-I-want-to-read-this-winter. Must be the Ant in me.

Continuing onward in history, I also picked up Marjorie Standish’s cookbook, KEEP COOKING-THE MAINE WAY. Printed in 1973 by the Maine Sunday Telegram, this book also delivers lovely pen and ink drawings of a girl, eleven or twelve year’s old, I’d guess, stirring a pot, fishing from a pier, canning perserves, and eating cake under the watchful and envious eyes of a large cat. Mrs. Standish was well-known for her weekly recipe column in the SUNDAY TELEGRAM according to the note “About the Author” at the front of the book. At the time of the book’s printing, I was four years old. Here I discover the expected “cans of soup” ingredients . . . expecially cream of mushroom. Flipping through the pages, one encounters “packages of cream cheese” and “packaged stuffing” and even frozen packages of peas. Still, some of the recipes use authentic, whole ingredients, most noteably in the Fish and Shellfish section. The Fillet of Sole with Oysters looks particularly appealing with its quart of fresh mushrooms, sole, oysters, chicken broth, butter and lemon juice. (page 35).

Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook

Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook

Two other books I picked up but haven’t had much time to peruse were the PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH PEOPLE’S COOKBOOK with the charming bird graphic on the front. This one was published in 1978. Also, the WISCONSIN COUNTRY COOKBOOK AND JOURNAL by Edward Harris Heth with some beautiful woodcuts by Arlene Renken. What is it I like so much about these black and white illustrations and recipes mixed together?
Wisconsin  cookbook

Wisconsin cookbook

I guess they go together like, well, cabbage salad and oysters. This book was written in 1956, but I suspect the recipes may be older than the hills, passed down from one country cook to another before Edward Heth captured them for the printed page and posterity. I will review and share, maybe later this winter after I have tried out some of the Potato Pancakes, Dill Bean Roll Ups, Beef Goulash with Red Cabbage, and whatever Lupscush is. Am I becoming a foodie?

Maybe it has something to do with all this talk of impending peak oil doom, but I’m obsessed with food these days. Not so much the eating as the growing, storing, and cooking of it. I’m thrilled to see the yellow summer squash growing on the vines. Picking the prickly pickling cukes from my boxes is a thrill. I’m going out this afternoon and plant the old green bean squares with a late crop of lettuce. We ate the last of the green beans sauteed in a little olive oil and dried garlic with a splash of soy sauce. Delicious hot and even better cold the next day on top of a salad with some lettuce, onions, cherry tomatoes, and a bit more olive oil.

As for leftovers, a few weeks ago I found myself in possession of a half-loaf of homemade bread going stale,a few eggs from Sarah, and milk that needed to be used up. Remembering bread pudding from my childhood (in the 1970’s, but my mother knew a thing or two or three about real cooking), I hauled out the book of recipe cards she gave me at my wedding shower, and proceded to make a good, old-fashioned dessert. I will share it with you, my constant readers. Bon Appetit!

OLD-FASHIONED BREAD PUDDING
3 cups soft bread crumbs (okay, I took the bread, sliced it, and then cut it into cubes)
2 cups milk, scalded with 1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
14 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg
(raisins, 1/2 cup if you have them)

350 degree oven. Place bread crumbs in 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Blend in remaining ingredients. Place baking dish in pan of hot water 1 inch deep. Bake 40-45 minutes or until silver knife inserted 1 inch from edge comes out clean. Serve warm, with cream. (That you skimmed from the raw milk from the local farm, of course. SB)

Still much to do this summer–pickles and blueberry jam, cotton wrap skirts, and finishing my research on “the weed.” What have you been up to in August? What tasks lie ahead. Remember the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper, take the time to do the work necessary for a comfortable winter, but don’t forgo the grasshopper stuff altogether. Find an hour or two to sing and play in the summer sun. Make some bread pudding, or get an ice-cream maker and churn some homemade blueberry ice-cream. Check out the yard sales around town. Drop me a line anytime . . . Outside the Box.

Short Post: Listen to Program #2–Small Towns and Cities

I’m not a big one for podcasts, but stumbled onto James Howard Kunstler’s online radio program the other day and recommend it for anyone who is interested in the future of our cities, town, and rural areas. (Click on the green link and the page should come up. Scroll down and you’ll see a black podcast player with a list of episodes.)

James Kunstler is a journalist/novelist who has spent the past few decades observing and commenting on what he calls the “Happy Motoring” Suburban American life. Kunstler is funny, articulate, and I believe dead on when it comes to the future of our society. To get you started, I recommend scrolling down to the #2 program on the site–“Small Towns and Cities.”

Sprawling Apart

Lady's Mantle Sprawl

Lady's Mantle Sprawl

Dear Reader:

Here in my rural subdivision, life goes on as usual–at least on the surface of things. The Fourth of July weekend brought an unusually large number of ATV’s careening down our (posted) roads, an impressive parade of decorated motorboats chugging across the lake, and a barage of illegal fireworks booming behind the sheltering pines from dusk ’til midnight. The smell of grilled meat wafted across shaggy, soggy yards. Neighbors we hardly ever see strolled by, blinking in the novelty of sunlight after two straight weeks of rain. Friends stopped in for potato salad, bratwursts, and strawberry shortcake.

Looking around, you’d never know there was a recession on or staggering-close-to-ten percent unemployment or a war. Maybe that’s part of our American charm–our optimistic belief that sooner or later everything will work out just fine and yankee-doodle dandy. The ungraspable debt will be paid off. Terrorism will be defeated forever. Want ads will sprout like weeds in the classifieds section of the newspaper. Solar and wind power will totally replace oil energy. We will go back to building our subdivisions, taking thirteen car trips per day, and listening to talk radio on our hour-long commutes to and from work in the city.

The fact is, people here in Maine (like the rest of the country) LIKE suburbia.

In 1999 the Maine State Planning Office conducted two homebuyer surveys to see where people were moving and why. They discovered that 42% of people who were buying homes opted to move from a city to the suburbs or rural outlying area. 33% were already in a suburban setting and moved to another suburban setting. An analysis of the survey sums up:

These homebuyers appear to value being within walking distance of
a corner store and the library, knowing neighbors by name, knowing
they can drop by a neighbor’s home and that he or she will feel
comfortable doing the same. They say they would as soon be close to
gyms, ball fields, movie theaters, and cultural activities as be able
to walk out the back door to hunt, fish, ski, or snowmobile. They
value running into friends and acquaintances at the coffee shop on
Main Street as well as seeing wildlife out the windows of their home,
and visiting neighbors on their porches after dinner as much as
watching a solitary sunset from their homes. Some prefer privacy to
contact with neighbors but still want proximity to stores and services
and don’t want to be forced to get their privacy by moving to largelot
suburbs or the country. Still others may prefer a rural setting,
but if they knew they were contributing to the loss of wildlife
habitat, working farms and woodlands, or open space around towns, they
would reconsider.

The sad fact is, the suburban model of housing development is so ubiquitous that we homebuyers feel we have no other choice than to move to the suburbs if we want to escape conjested streets, too-close neighbors, concrete landscapes, and social isolation. This urban sprawl has eaten into our valuable agricultural land and has eroded wildlife habitat. Ironically, when we do move to the suburbs in search of a sense of community and small-town neighborliness, we are often disappointed. Let’s take each of the values listed by homebuyers and compare those values to the realities of my homeowner’s association (which shall remain nameless.)

#1 Walking distance to corner store and library: We can’t. My housing development was built in the 1960’s on rural land at the edges of two separate towns. We have very few points of entry from town roads and state routes, and there are no sidewalks or even breakdown lanes amenable to walking or even bicycling, even if we were inclined to walk or bike the miles between our home and the distant town centers. Zoning rules prevent any retail development in our association, so we have no coffee shops, corner stores, booksellers, or newspaper stands within walking distance. The only businesses of which I’m aware are home-based childcare operations and perhaps some telecomuters working out of their basement offices.

#2 Knowing the neighbors by name: In old-fashioned, small-town or city neighborhoods in years gone by, houses were built close to the street. You knew all the neighbors and their kids. You chatted with them over the picket fence dividing your properties and waved at them from your front porch. You sat in each others’ kitchens and drank coffee. You worked with them at businesses in town. You went to church with them on Sunday.

While this theoretically can take place in a subdivision, the reality is much different. Built on a series of cul-de-sacs, our houses sit back from the road. Decks and porches are relegated to the private, backyard area rather than the social, front lawn area. Few of us work in our actual towns, commuting instead to jobs in the city. We have no churches or other traditional gathering places in our association, though we do have a couple of clubhouses. We have compartmentalized our lives–working one place, socializing another, coming home to the subdivision to sleep. We could make more of an effort with our neighbors–probably should–but neither the design of the subdivision nor our car-driven lifestyle lends itself to old-fashioned neighborliness.

#3 Close to gyms, ballfields, cultural activies, etc.: This we have. Our homeowner’s association amenities include an outdoor pool, two indoor pools, tennis courts, clubhouses with billiard tables and meeting rooms, etc. Most of us could walk to at least some of these amenities, and the use of them is included in our association dues. Sadly, while we have the space for cultural activities that might invite more civic participation and neighborly interaction, we homeowners are so disconnected that these sorts of activities are rarely planned and sparsely attended. The infrastructure is there, however. While we can’t do anything about the road layout, we could, if we wanted, hang out at the gym or hold movie nights at the clubhouse.

#4 Wildlife out the window: Ah, we have this, too. Our rural subdivision has wildlife preserves in place, dirt roads, a lake with lots of marshy areas, and quite a few undeveloped (and undevelopable) lots. I’ve seen deer, moose, loons, herons, foxes, and turtles while driving or walking in my neighborhood or canoeing on the lake. Proximity to nature–animals, trees, wildflowers, wild berries–is a big plus. We can swim in the lake, hang out on one of the many association beaches, cross-country ski through the woods, and sit outside beneath a shady beech or oak tree.

All in all, my rural subdivision is a pretty good place to live . . . for now.

But what happens when things go wrong? If energy costs become too prohibitive and traveling back and forth to school, to the grocery store, and to work becomes a financial hardship, many of us may choose to leave. Others of us will be stuck here whether we like it or not, struggling to figure out a way to live in a place with very little to offer in an energy-depleted world.

Would it be possible to transform our suburbs into sustainable communities where we could shop, work, and play all within walking distance of our homes? Or would the suburbs become the future American slums as some New Urbanists predict?

While we still may have some time before the realities of peak oil hit (when demand outstrips supply in a real way as opposed to the artificial shortages of the 1970’s), the time to address the cons of our suburban design while continuing to protect the pros is now.

The Maine State Planning Office survey revealed that those same homebuyers who were flocking to subdivisions would just as soon live in walkable, urban communities if city and town neighborhoods were planned to reduce traffic, to provide areas for privacy as well as common areas for community, and to design parks and other wildlife areas. Adding a good pubic transportation system within the urban neighborhood will also be a big plus on the side of urban development. State planners encourage this kind of New Urbanist vision as a way to reduce sprawl into our valuable agricultural and wild rural areas, and there are indications that buyers are already moving back to the urban centers. Click here to read about The Great American Neighborhood program. How will our old sprawling subdivisions fare in competition? How soon before home values begin to fall?

If we want to protect our investment, we’d best be thinking about how to provide those things that future homebuyers will be seeking and the current subdivision model doesn’t provide. We need to think about transitioning our single-family residential communities into walkable, mixed-use villages where people can work and worship and play and shop. We need to devise some kinds of “Main Street” areas for community gatherings and cultural activities, and we need to figure out how to provide public transportation. We need to think about education and how to get our schools back into our neighborhoods rather than on the edges of town. It wouldn’t hurt if we figured out how to feed ourselves by promoting the creation of backyard and community gardens, farmer’s markets, and food co-ops.

If we don’t take care, those who can will go elsewhere . . . and the rest of us will be stuck at the end of our cul-de-sacs wondering how it all went wrong.

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 new book called DEPLETION AND ABUNDANCE. Click on the title to read a great overview from the Energy Bulletin website.

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 Knitty.com. 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 simplicfication 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.