Tag Archives: sustainability

Between the Ears

Cool School

If Our Current Education System Implodes: A Radical Idea for A Local, Sustainable Alternative.

A letter to our local school board was sent out this week from our superintendent. Basically this letter talked of the dire budgetary issues the school district is facing, the major cuts in funding from the state, and the need to reduce staff and increase class size, cut already strained programs and services, and further erode our school’s ability to educate our children.

If this trend continues, we may be forced to look for alternatives–and soon.

I have a radical idea for education in a local, sustainable community if the time comes that we can no longer afford the system we have today. I suggest that in addition to parents teaching their own children at home, teachers also open their own small schools in their homes similar to the daycare centers and preschools that are so ubiquitous in our society now.

Granted, I haven’t asked any teachers if these ideas could ever work, but if we can educate our pre-schoolers at small, home-based schools, why not elementary-age students? Why not teenagers? There could even be a certification process, for the ease-of-mind of those parents who don’t trust their own judgement.

Here’s what I like about the idea: Self-employed teachers, greater school choice, walk to school choices (as the small-schools would be scattered throughout many neighborhoods), leverage to kick the trouble-makers out if they chose not to behave and learn, smaller classes, and greater flexibility. Teachers could choose to focus on the kind of education and populations they are most interested in serving. They could, if they wished, coordinate activities and lessons with other small-schools in their area. And the best teachers could command the best salaries. And the best students would be wooed by the schools. And a parent wouldn’t be hindered, necessarily, if he or she did not have money. Agreements for bartering and exchange of services could be worked out or parents could simply chose to educate their own children.

With internet and iPads and curricula out there, do we really need to shove our kids into sprawling industrial-era school buildings for six hours a day? Do we really need to spend all that gas money hauling them back and forth five days a week?

I think this could certainly work for K-8, but school would not necessarily be organized according to age or grade. Students could learn in multi-age classrooms.

Maybe high school could be in the former elementary buildings with sign-ups for classes and open campuses, similar to the way adult education is organized now? Maybe there could be internships and apprenticeships and pick-up softball games and/or a bunch of intramural teams that get together at the community fields/elementary gym to play games instead interscholastic sports? Of course teachers could offer music and art lessons–or just about any kind of special interest out there. Jewelry-making? Why not! Animal care? For sure!

How about converting some of the sports fields to school gardens? What about a school-run vegetable stand or Community Supported Agriculture program? Students could have even greater educational opportunities in the areas of agriculture, cooking, marketing,retail management, accounting, and more.

I’d also be inclined toward voluntary but rigorous exit exams, providing motivation for those who wish to enter college.

How would we pay for this kind of education system? Well, how do we pay for daycare and preschool? Charitable organizations and churches would, probably, offer to subsidize some schools that fit their mission-statements. Those with means and inclination may offer scholarships.

Perhaps there could be some assistance via local taxpayer money for those families who cannot afford the cost, but with all the savings in retirement, benefits, heating, gas, building maintenance, state and federal mandated programs, etc., and with all the choices that would be available, we could probably afford it.

I’m not saying this is ideal, but it can’t be much worse than what we are looking at if budgets continue to take hit after hit, year after year. Teaching, as a profession, will be radically different, but I hate to see teachers lose jobs and our students continue to lose the opportunity to learn from talented individuals because those teachers are let go or choose to leave for more lucrative, stable professions.

Some teachers might see this as an opportunity for self-determination in their careers, and I think the earning potential could be similar to what it is today (which isn’t great, let’s face it). If a teacher had space for fifteen students at $200 per week, that’s $156,000 a year gross.To compare, average daycare costs in the U.S.A. are $11,666 per year or $972 per month.

Hefty tax deductions for parents with children in school would make sense, as well.

All this is very radical, but not that long ago in our history, one-room schoolhouses were the norm. Prior to that, children were taught at home by parents or tutors. In ancient Greece and Egypt, teachers gathered a group of students who learned, literally, at their feet.

All this underscores my fundamental belief that education takes place in one space: between the ears of the student, most times with the guidance of a teacher or teacher-parent. You don’t need a sprawling building with little boxy rooms and a gymnasium and a cafeteria for learning to take place. A kitchen table can work just fine.

Adventures in Window Cleaning

Vinegar and Water Solution

Dear Reader:

There comes a time in every person’s life when she looks out her window and sees only one thing: dirty fingerprints.

Okay, not really. She sees dirty fingerprints, dirt, bird seed from the window feeder, spider webs, pine needles, and dog-nose smears.

With my freshly-painted walls and new furniture arrangement (Hubby and the Teen both approve) mocking my disgusting window panes, I decided to tackle at least one window a day until they are all finished, and this brought me to a project I’ve been meaning to try, namely, “eco-cleaning.”

Now, this blog isn’t focused so much on “going green” as it is on “going local,” but it seems the two concepts (ideals?) converge quite often. Take cleaning products, for example. It’s not like your local farmer’s market carries a line of locally-produced cleaning products, right? There may be a cottage industry somewhere in the neighborhood that concocts hand-made soaps, lotions, and potpourri, but as yet I haven’t run across anyone selling cleaning fluid. Why? Because ANYONE can make their own cleaning fluid, and your own kitchen is as local as you can get. Here’s what I found out.

A few years ago I was browsing in the book area of One Earth Natural Food Store in Springvale, Maine when I came across a little gem called CLEAN & GREEN by Annie Berthold-Bond.

I haven’t used the recipes for “nontoxic and environmentally safe housekeeping” as much as I’d like, but today was the day to try the glass cleaners. First up, the simple vinegar and water in a spray bottle. I used an old, washed-out spray bottle, poured in the recommended amount of plain old cider vinegar (now see, this is where we could get local out of this. I didn’t have any Maine-produced vinegar, but I will be on the lookout for some in the future. THEN, I’d have a totally-Maine cleaning product), and sprayed the panes of my kitchen door.

The book also recommended using newspaper to wipe the windows. I have a nice stash of old WEEKLY SHOPPERS and SHOPPING GUIDES hanging around, so I took a couple sheets and went to work. Scrub, scrub, squeak, squeak. Did it work? You bet! However…

Printers Ink on Yellow Gloves

I was not happy with the black ink getting all over my gloves and imagining what my fingers would look like if I didn’t have said gloves, and let’s face it, yellow rubber gloves are NOT locally-produced. Also, I found the solution to be kind of, well, wet. I know, I know. Of course it was wet. But it was wet in the droplet sort of way versus a spray sort of way, if that makes any sense.

I decided to try another recipe in the book, called “The Best Window Wash.” I should have tried the best first, probably, but I was drawn to the simplicity of a two-ingredient solution. The Best Window Wash called for the addition of a teaspoon of vegetable-oil based soap. I’ve been using Murphy’s Oil Soap for a long time, and so had this on hand. Plop! I added the teaspoon directly to the vinegar and water solution bottle.

The Best Window Wash ingredients

I also decided to use an old sock instead of the inky newspaper. The addition of the soap made for a much smoother application on the windows, the sock worked fine, and I finished up with a nice polishing with a dust cloth. Now, in a pinch, I could go with the local vinegar/water/local newspaper combo, but I did prefer this soap additive.

I wonder how one makes vegetable oil soap? Could someone take local corn, for instance, to make the vegetable oil and from there make soap? How exactly does that work?

I’ll let you know if I find out.

Clean Window with spider plant

In the meantime, I recommend Berthold-Bond’s book if you are interested in low-cost, environmentally-friendly, and kinda’ neat ways of cleaning your house. Oh, and that spider plant in my window? According to the book, the plants act as natural air purifiers along with aloe vera, English ivy, fig trees, and potted chrysanthemums. Green may just be my new favorite color!

Economy of the Miniature?

Five Weeks’ “Growth”

Dear Reader:

Okay, so I moseyed on down the road a few miles with my good friend, Sandi, to check out a MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmer’s and Grower’s Association) certified farm stand. Piper’s Knoll Farm in Newfield, Maine exemplifies what I consider an ideal local business. Yes, they are certified organic, but according to their website, farmers Karl and Cynthia Froelich use farming methods that go BEYOND organic…including permaculture and biodynamic techniques, managing natural woodland and wetlands for native species of medicinal plants, and using season-extending methods such as hoop houses for greater productivity (they’ve had carrots already, started in the hoop houses in February! Amazing!).

Karl is a stonework landscaper. Cynthia is a Master Gardener and herbalist, and she also conducts workshops on eco-spiritual topics. In addition to their farm-stand, the Froelich’s participate in the farmer’s market in Saco, Maine. They are diversified…just like their farm.


This week I’ve been reading a new book on sustainable life called SMALL, GRITTY, AND GREEN by Catherine Tumbler. A journalist and historian, Tumbler spent a few years researching and touring small cities, specifically “Rust Belt” cities–the old industrial cities left crumbling and emptying in the wake of suburban development, highway-bisection of neighborhoods and downtowns, and the de-industrialization of the American economy as trade agreements launched the flight of production to cheap labor overseas. Tumbler agrees with people like James Howard Kunstler (author of the New Urbanist book, THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHWHERE) who believe that in a post-oil world, our small cities–not our small towns or metropolises–are best suited for a new way of life, one that is sustainable, human-scale, and doable in a low-carbon future.

These cities–in Maine, I think of places like Biddeford/Saco, Sanford, Waterville where the textile mills once ran three shifts a day–still have infrastructure intact that could be used when we inevitably must begin producing things here in the U.S. of A again. These small cities are surrounded by smaller rings of suburban and exurban development than the big metropolises–meaning the farmlands are closer to the urban center. Taking a look at the numbers, Tumbler makes the case for small-scale farming over commodity farming, retrofitting empty retail “malls” and concrete big box structures into sustainability centers–even hydroponic farms and raised-bed crop-raising on top of the parking lots, and the breakdown of highways instead of the constant necessity of maintaining them.

So, imagine a small city with parks and mixed-use architecture and Broadways and downtowns. Imagine a bus system, walkable neighborhoods, sidewalks, and fewer cars. Imagine suburbs with community gardens and backyard chickens. And then imagine a ring of fertile farmland cultivated by thoughtful, intelligent people like the Froelichs who provide food and medicine for the people in the city and suburb. Imagine a city without a Walmart but instead a bunch of locally-owned shops–a Plummer’s Hardware, a Betty’s Dress Shop, a bakery, a butcher shop, a bookstore–not just downtown but in many neighborhoods. Imagine a downtown district with a department store, a theater, a park, upscale shops, a music hall, City Hall, art galleries, restaurants…and lots of interesting people to watch when you sit down for a latte at the cafe.

Early Girls

Okay, so I am drifting into a utopian fantasy. Or else I’m reminiscing about a time in America just before I was born, before the rise of the cookie-cutter suburb, the two-car family, the two-income household, NAFTA, GATT, off-shoring, and the shrinking of the middle class.

What about today? What am I doing living in a single-use exurban housing development that is really like living at camp year-round? How can I work toward that other, larger vision? I garden, and I tell myself I am keeping some knowledge alive. Honestly, though? The economy of my miniature garden box garden is really pitiful!

I spent about $100 on “ingredients” for my straw-bale tomato experiment. The bales were pricey, considering. Then I had to add in the nitrogen fertilizer–not exactly organic farming practice there, folks. I bought three heirloom tomato plants, and if all goes well I may actually be able to save some seeds for next year. The other three (Early Girl) are not heirloom, and I have no idea if the seeds are viable or not. If these six plants produce thirty or so pounds of tomatoes all together, I suppose I may break even.

As for the other garden boxes, these are really nothing more than fun. I might as well have planted all ornamentals, since the small (miniature) scale of my garden-box garden will produce nothing more than a few servings of each kind of veggie, even if the plants produce well.

For instance, my peas are beautiful and blossoming, but really I may end up with a pound of snap peas at most. At Piper’s Knoll today, I bought a pound of snap peas for $3. The radishes have been fun, but I could have bought a bunch for $2.50. A large bag of greens was only $4. Sigh. My greens boxes have been the biggest disappointment of all: the spinach went to seed at two-inches tall, the arugula hasn’t even sprouted, the micro-greens did no better than the spinach. There is probably something wrong with the pH balance in the soil (all those pine needles?), though the romaine and green leaf lettuces are still growing if slowly, slowly…

The basil plants look great. The cucumbers are blossoming, and I’m hopeful for a good harvest. And if the zucchini and summer squash don’t end up with that gray mold stuff, I COULD have squashes coming out my ears in another month or so. Let’s hope! But in the end, this sort of gardening will never feed the family. Another $100 for ornamentals and cuke, fennel, basil, cabbage, sage, and pepper starts will, if I’m lucky, provide enough produce to pay for itself. If I’m lucky. Otherwise, I can put it down on the books as “entertainment” or maybe “education.”

Really, economically-speaking, I would be better off putting that $200 toward membership in a CSA farm like Piper’s Knoll. Maybe they’d let me come over and do some weeding now and again because…

I attempt to garden because I want to keep the rhythm of the growing season beating in my heart. I want my daughter to see me digging in the dirt and pulling a round, purple radish out of the ground, grown from a seed I planted. I want her to taste a cucumber right off the vine so she can appreciate the difference between it and the tasteless thing that rode on a truck from Mexico all the way to Maine and landed on a supermarket shelf.

Will I do this again next year? Yeah, I probably will. I’ll also buy as much produce and meat and eggs locally and in-state as I can…because those farmers are the people who will feed us in a low-carbon future. I encourage you to search out small-scale, diversified, biodynamic farms in your area and support them with your food dollars and your friendship. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Turkey in the Straw-Bale

Straw Bale Garden Rows

Dear Reader:

Since I live in an HOA (homeowner’s association) that does not allow “livestock,” you may have already guessed that the only turkey in my straw bale garden is me.

In the future, anyone who is interested in self-sufficiency, sustainable living, growing/raising of backyard food will avoid these HOA’s like a nuclear testing field. Not that HOA’s aren’t pleasant places to live. And not that they couldn’t be designed ON PURPOSE to support sustainability and community and nice things like backyard poultry that loves to eat up nasty ticks while providing delicious, nutritious eggs with deep-gold yokes. The tragedy of my particular HOA is the squandering of so much potential for self-sufficiency, learning, discovery, and…extremely tasty eggs!

The other problem I’ve discovered is the lack of sunlight due to so many tall, skinny, 100-yr-old pine trees that have sprung up from the old, deserted pastures of a time not so long ago when we were agrarian and proud of it. Don’t talk to me about “old-growth forest.” (See the stand of pines in the background of the photo above).

Old-growth forest does not have fieldstone walls running through it, people! This is old farm land. Pasture. Probably dairy cows. Whether we like to admit it or not, our HOA is built on livestock droppings now covered over with the pines and with the hardwood saplings struggling and finding bright pockets of sunlight in which to stretch now that the pine forest is beginning to break down.

Stumped

This is the stump from a pine that fell (tipped) not 30 ft from our house. The pine forest is crumbling around us, but not quickly enough to give me adequate sunlight for a full-scale kitchen garden. The only spot with enough sunlight for things like tomatoes and peppers and other sun-loving plants is directly over the septic field–where I’m not convinced I should create a conventional garden.

Faux Homestead

Now that nine years have gone by, my house is just starting to feel settled-into. The area directly in front, past the beech trees and the remnant of stone wall is the leach field. Here, I get six to seven hours of sunlight, but I was at a loss as to how to plant on it. One day, while bopping around the cyber world of Facebook, I saw on a friend’s wall the answer to my problem: straw bale gardening.

At least I think the bales will be the answer. The Facebook page led me to a website called Introduction to Straw Bale Gardening. I ordered the pdf version of Joel Karsten’s book/let. This weekend I moseyed on down to the farm supply store for straw bales and 24-0-0 fertilizer and then over to Plummer’s Hardware for stakes and string. In a couple of hours, my garden rows were ready for “conditioning.”

The process is pretty simple. Take some straw, sprinkle on some nitrogen, soak it with water, repeat, and wait for the composting to break down the straw into a growing medium. The stakes hold the ends of the rows tight while the string (or wire) between the stakes provides a trellis for growing plants.

An unidentified flowering shrub in my back yard

Once I set these up, I observed the sunlight beaming down on these bales from 8 a.m. until almost 4 p.m. yesterday. My hope for a bumper crop of tomatoes is almost as bright as that Flower Moon the other night.

The beauty of straw bale gardening is the ability to place a garden on any surface–not unlike container gardening. Theoretically, it is cheaper as containers can be expensive. However, I will warn you that this may be a bit of a marketing ploy. Containers will last for years, while a straw bale will only be good for a year, two at most. Of course, the spent straw, now composted quite a bit, will then be perfect for creating “lasagna gardens” or for use as nutritious mulch on other garden beds. Also, the bales I bought were expensive–$5.99 each! The 50lb. bag of fertilizer was $30.00, but it should last me a good while. I’ve since discovered that the fertilizer was probably not necessary. I could have put on a layer of the $30/TRUCKLOAD of Tibbett’s compost and maybe started the process a bit earlier.

Delilah by the Woodpile

There are also organic fertilizers that could be used. Bloodmeal. Urine.

Yes, you read that right. Urine is full of nitrogen and is completely sterile. I haven’t quite become that brave yet–not brave enough or obsessed enough about sustainability to pee in a bottle for feeding the perennials, let alone the tomatoes. But there is something poetic, I think, about completing the cycle in the same way that using composted cow manure completes the cycle.

So, my little front-yard experimental garden is almost ready for planting. I have the four old boxes for greens. I have the five new boxes for peas and string beans and squashes and carrots and herbs. I have the two rows of straw bales for tomatoes and peppers and maybe some greens or something in between. My perennial beds have been divided now. I’ll be putting some more herbs in the sunny perennial bed to go along with the rudbeckia and echinacea and the lilac shrub and chives.

Partly Sunny Side

Next year I may create a big perennial flower bed on part of that leach field–the kinds of flowers for bouquets and for dying homespun skeins of yarn, perhaps. And I still want to create an apple tree guild between the beeches and the compost bins.

But this year, oh this year, I’m longing for tomatoes. Big, fat, juicy, red tomatoes.

Chosing A Sustainable Life

My blogger/local community friends at The Existential Gardner posted a wonderful piece about our sustainable past, our industrial present, and hopefully a sustainable future. Since they said it so much better than I ever could, I’m going to share the link so you can enjoy it for yourself. This is one I will read again.

http://theexistentialgardener.blogspot.com/2012/03/imagining-sustainable-lifestyle.html