Monthly Archives: November 2009

Tradeja: Joining the barter economy

Last fall when the economy tanked, folks began to think more deliberately about what they really need to live. Our sudden stumble into hard times exposed a nerve: if I lost everything, how would I secure food, clothing, shelter, medicine?

Tradeja eggs for honey

When you start thinking at that basic level, money becomes increasingly beside the point. Indeed, we know in the back of our minds that currency is a mere proxy for goods and services. Without actual stuff, it’s just paper and promises.

But beyond that primal fear, it’s an interesting exercise to see if you can find a value for the goods and services themselves in a money-free marketplace. In other words, to barter.

I started experimenting with bartering here and there a few years ago. A friend of mine has a home delivery dog food service with very high-quality ingredients that I know I can trust for the health of my pupster. He and his family love my eggs, so I bartered down the price of my dog food by paying him partially in eggs. And a few months ago, when I learned that a neighbor was keeping bees in his backyard and harvesting honey, we traded eggs for honey.

Tradeja a rosemary and eucalyptus wreath. This one from last year still hangs on my kitchen door. On damp days, the fragrance is divine.

As the holidays approach, a friend and I agreed the other day to trade eucalyptus from my tree for the long, gorgeous rosemary boughs she grows on her enormous bushes. Yet another neighbor brings her family’s kitchen scraps to my compost bins almost daily. And when she started her vegetable garden last spring, I repaid her contributions in finished compost. Bartering encourages a kind of interconnectedness that operates almost like a healthy little ecosystem.

Sometimes I think of it not so much in terms of a direct trade, but a micro-economy that eschews the large corporate presence which feed and feed on our addictions. When I have eggs to spare, I sell them to friends and neighbors, and that’s the money I take to the store to buy more chicken feed. Or if there is some left over, I buy cheese from a friend who keeps goats.

Tradeja a giant wreath of evergreen, pine cones, and winterberry

But really, I’d rather trade directly for other things I want and need. So let’s get started, readers: anyone up for an exchange of goods and/or services? I have eggs, some canned goods, and some fresh produce here and there. What do you have? What can we trade? Do any of you knit or sew? Are you crafty? The holidays are upon us. Can you save yourself and a few others some miserable trips to the mall?

And if you have participated in some good, creative, mutually beneficial barters, inspire us–share your stories!

Let the barters begin . . .

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The Great Colonel Sanders Lookalike Contest

Every now and then we give the chickens a generous helping of cottage cheese to ensure that they’re getting enough calcium to make good, strong eggshells. This usually instigates a riot in the coop. They love the stuff and just bury their faces in it and inhale. Here are some photos of this afternoon’s festivities, just for fun.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Southern Urban Homestead!

Warming up for the big competition: Elton, Freddie, Latifah, Lucy

A strong early showing: Victoria and Latifah

Freddie may take the title . . .

But Elton reigns victorious (while Guinevere glares in envy)

The winner and the two runners-up auditioned for this video, but the producers only wanted white leghorns. Elton, Freddie, and Guinevere have filed discrimination lawsuits. A hearing is pending.

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“Even girls can be farmers?”

One morning this past week, at the request of a friend who teaches at the elementary school near my home, I hosted a visit of the school’s kindergarten class. According to our state’s department of education, as a southern urban homesteader, I apparently count as a “community helper.”

Kinder in the garten

The first thing the kids saw when they arrived was the garden. I explained that some plants like lots of hot weather to grow, and some plants like cool weather. And since this was November, what was growing right now was broccoli and salad greens and beets and Swiss chard, because they like it cool. (I also explained about the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent, and that squirrels eat more than just acorns. I tried not to use bad words, but it was not easy.)

Tasting vinegar and salt in homemade dill pickles

We then moved on to the canning and preserving demonstration. We talked about what happens if you pick some green beans in the summer and then leave them in a bowl in your kitchen, thinking you’ll eat them in November–you get rotten green beans. Then we talked about how salt and vinegar helps keep food from going bad so quickly. Finally, everybody got to taste some homemade dill pickles made with homegrown cucumbers: salt and vinegar.

Mutual curiosity

After the taste test came the highlight of the visit—the chickens. There was lots of chicken talk and good questions (“What do the chickens eat?” “Are there baby chicks in those eggs?” “Why do they peck?” “Do you have any roosters? Why not?”). The chickens were just as curious about their visitors as the visitors were about the chickens. We looked at how different colored chickens lay different colored eggs. We also talked about how the eggs weren’t the only benefit from the chickens, but that their poop is great for fertilizer for the garden, so the chickens help the vegetables grow, and then they get to eat some of the vegetables. We cracked an egg open so they could see that it looks just like the ones they eat, only better!

We got the guitar out (apparently this fulfills another state requirement) and all sang a chicken song together. This is a little tune I wrote for my adorable niece. It has many verses, but here’s the one we sang:

Bok bok baaack!

What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
They peck outside, they peck indoors
Take a little break then they peck some more
They’re happy and they never get bored
Peck and peck and peck and peck!

Then we sang a verse with the chickens, in their own language:

Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok baaaahk, bok bok baaaahk!
bokiebokiebok, bokie bok bok bok!
Bok bokie bok bok bok bok bok,
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!

It was quite the rousing chorus. Some even threw in a few funky chicken moves.

As they were leaving, one little girl asked, “So this is a farm?” I said, “Well, it has gardens and animals that are living and growing and giving us food, so I think it counts as a farm, even in the city.” Then she asked, “Even girls can be farmers?”

Here’s hoping that’s a seed sown.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening, Putting Up

Squirrels: Just want to have fun?

If you have ever tried to grow a few tomatoes here in metro Atlanta, then you probably know how grateful the squirrels are for the easy handout.

I was in denial at first. It was about six years ago that I began to notice my produce mysteriously disappearing from the vine. At first I thought–in true, scary, cranky old-lady gardener style–that some pesky neighborhood brats were sneaking onto my property and raiding my patch. Then I decided if some poor starving person (or teenager who suddenly craved my tomatoes instead of fast food) was going to all that trouble to take my vegetables, he or she needed them more than I did. I tried to make peace with it.

But then one summer morning, from my upstairs window, I saw what was really going on.

That little bastard was hanging upside down by his toes from the tomato cage, plucking a nearly-ripe fruit from the vine, taking one bite, then throwing it down on the ground. Taking another nearly-ripe fruit, one chomp, toss. No compunction whatsoever about the abundant waste, not to mention the flagrant theft. No consideration at all for the fact that I had, back in January, carefully selected those seeds from the bedazzlement that is the Totally Tomatoes catalog, nestled them in organic seed starter on top of a warming mat and under a grow lamp in February, transferred the delicate little seedlings to larger containers in March, and finally in late April moved my green toddlers out into the sunshine and prepared earth. All that work so that the evildoers could steal my fruits–every single one.

What happens to Swiss chard seedlings when they aren't inside the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent

And they didn’t stop there. Once they had wiped out the tomatoes, they moved on to the squash, cucumbers, lettuce, chard, kale (anything leafy green, really), peppers. During the summer droughts of 2006 through 2008, they would dig up entire plants and gnaw on the roots. (I placed shallow pans of water for them outside in hopes of deflecting their interest. They thanked me then went back to decimating my green bean population.)

After three or four years of watching my optimistically started spring gardens reduced to vast wastelands, it finally got to me. I would come home from work after thinking all day about the delicious pasta sauce I would make that night–or the fabulous stuffed chard leaves, or just a salad of fresh cucumber–only to find stuff half-eaten, fruits stripped off their plants, plants dug out of the ground. I’d stomp and yell and shake my fist while the squirrels sat nearby and laughed and chattered. Tears actually flowed along with the curses.

And then there was the evening I stood, bereft, under the oak tree near my kitchen patch, my eyes scanning the landscape for the giant almost-ripe mortgage lifter that had been there only hours before, when a mushy bit of its remains fell out of the tree and landed on the ground in front of me. A final, cruel insult.

My crack team of squirrel assassins

Friends and neighbors had many creative suggestions. The best idea (supplied by my dear friend the executive director of the Oakhurst Garden) was to pay the seven-year-old kid next door to sit in my yard all day with a BB gun and have at it. His unenlightened parents, however, did not see fit to take him out of school for said violation of child labor laws. Others suggested I get cats, not knowing that indeed I already have two cats, who lounge in their window bed and watch the squirrel raids for recreation between naps. If I happen to be around, they say, “Hey–look. Those squirrels are eating your garden. You really should do something about that.” Then they turn over and go back to sleep. Helpful, those guys.

I hunted around on the internet for solutions and ended up paying actual money for (hold your nose) granulated fox urine. Turns out you can get anything on the internet. I sprinkled the granules throughout and around the garden. The cats informed me that it stunk to high heaven and then turned over and went back to sleep. Caleb, my Australian shepherd, thought it was the most Exciting! Smell! Ever! And could he have a little with his dinner? The squirrels, on the other hand, didn’t even seem to notice and continued to cut their swath.

There were other ideas: dried blood spray (as effective as the granulated fox urine). Plant double everything so that there’s enough for me and the squirrels (I got double squirrels). Used cat litter (Caleb thought he’d died and gone to heaven). Human hair clippings (actually worked on direct-sewn seeds until they sprouted). My Rabun County friends had lots to say about .22s and squirrel stew (the .22s are illegal to fire in these here parts, and I haven’t adjusted to the idea of squirrel stew just yet).

It was while watching a PBS special on Ronald Reagan and his crazily misguided Strategic Defense Initiative that it came to me: I needed to intercept the missiles before they got anywhere near the garden. To paraphrase the Great Communicator himself, I needed a program to counter the awesome squirrel threat with measures that were defensive.

The Squirrel-Proof Net Tent

What I needed was an SDI for my garden.

Since I couldn’t get permitted for satellites with laser beams, I settled for a giant nylon tent made of garden netting. After pondering on it for a few months, my then-boyfriend and I hatched a plan, which we implemented last March.

Pegged and weighted down the edges

The Squirrel-Proof Net Tent is made of nylon garden netting, PVC poles secured into the ground with some short lengths of rebar, some of those plastic lock ties, and a few garden fabric pegs. To add a little prayer to my pragmatism, and to let the squirrels know I wished them no ill, I festooned the whole thing with a few strands of Tibetan prayer flags.

The center pole of the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent

Yessiree, folks had their doubts. My father told me I shouldn’t underestimate the ingenuity and determination of a city squirrel (this is the man who once built an entire carnival for the squirrels in his front yard–zip lines, ferris wheels, whirligigs–all baited with dried ears of corn). Others delighted in reminding me that squirrels can dig, chew through wood, and fly through the air. They were sure the squirrels would chew holes in the net.

Corn and Squash

O ye of little faith. Ye just want the terrorists to win.

My beautiful Roma tomatoes

But I had faith. I planted strawberries, Swiss chard, beets, salad greens, and my beloved tomato plants. Then I got really bold and put in four rows of corn. Cucumbers, squash, peppers, sweet potatoes. Then I held my breath. And guess what? It all grew. Thrived, even. I had a gorgeous tomato crop, and even the corn was delicious. I had won!

Rainbow Swiss chard

And then one night the outside light over my driveway threw a few sparks and died. The squirrels were mad. Livid. Banned from my garden, they took their frustration out on my wiring. Chewed right through the insulation. Got it fixed. Chewed threw it again. Have to fix it again.

Time to make that pasta sauce

And so, the squirrel wars continue. A few holes did appear in the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent by this fall, and the insurgents did do some damage to my broccoli crop. I patched it up this past weekend, however, so we’ll see if she holds.

Sam has his own BB gun now. Hmmmm . . .

Maybe I’ll get new prayer flags. Or a hired gun.

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Starting with what you have: homemade pizza

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I had some sweet peppers, some tomatoes that had ripened on my kitchen counter, and garlic. In the bowl are the tomatoes, the garlic, some pesto I had made from my basil crop last summer and frozen in ice cube trays, plus a little olive oil and salt and pepper. Great bruschetta or pizza topping.

Sunday night, and once again I want to take something yummy to my weekly gathering with musical friends. The rest of those green tomatoes have turned a lovely red, and I have lots of garlic from the CSA. I also have some sweet peppers that I picked last week.

Pizza, anyone?

I have a simple and delicious recipe for pizza dough from the Everyday Greens cookbook: yeast, sugar, salt, flour, olive oil, a little cornmeal if you have it (and I do). Once I have gotten that started, I turn to the toppings. I decide to make two different pizzas.

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Roasted sweet peppers

The first is a kind of bruschetta mix: the tomatoes chopped and mixed with minced garlic, plus some pesto I had made and frozen in cubes back during the summer from my garden basil. I mix that with a little extra olive oil and salt.

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Picked and minced some oregano from the garden

For pizza number two, I roast, peel, and slice into strips the the sweet peppers. I caramelize some onion and add that to the peppers, along with a balsamic vinegar reduction. I run out into the garden and pick some fresh oregano and mince and add about a tablespoon. Then I open a can of black olives and chop them in.

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The pepper/olive/onion/balsamic/oregano mixture for one pizza

The pizza dough goes down on parchment paper sitting on a wooden pizza paddle. I add the topping, then throw some shredded mozzarella, parmesan, and asiago cheese over both pizzas. Each takes about 15 minutes at 400 degrees in the oven on a pizza stone (preheated in the oven).

And the reviews are in: one Sunday jammer said, “It was so deliciously beyond mere pizza . . . mmmmm.”

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Voila!

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Blow up yer TV, throw away yer paper, go to the . . . city?

I was never a hippie, but I was educated by a few recovering ones. The Foxfire program, a phenomenon that began in the late 1960s and still survives (albeit in an altered form) today, was invented by an idealistic young teacher who took teenagers in a Rabun County, Georgia,  high school into the local community to tape record interviews with old folks, document their Southern Appalachian wisdom and ways, and present it in a series of “oral history” books

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The Foxfire Book: Hog Dressing, Log Cabin Building, Mountain Crafts and Foods, Planting by the Signs, Snake Lore, Hunting Tales, Faith Healing, Moonshining, and Other Affairs of Plain Living

published by Doubleday. Decades ago, I was a Foxfire student.

The Foxfire books, the first of which appeared in 1971 and presented a litany of skills for “plain living,” sold millions of copies. With the earnings, the teacher established a nonprofit organization called The Foxfire Fund and bought acreage on a secluded, pastoral mountainside that everyone still calls “The Land,” and there he moved and restored a collection of log structures from other locations. He also hired several more idealistic young teachers to expand the Foxfire experiential teaching approach into music, audio and video production, and cultural preservation. Together, they lived and worked in the cabins on the property.

museum

The Foxfire "Land"

The Foxfire books were so wildly successful in large part because of timing. The Whole Earth Catalog, published regularly between 1968 and 1972 and then sporadically until 1998, had been a major force in the “Back to the Land” movement embraced by many ecologically minded young people with a sudden hunger to live simple, self-sustaining lifestyles in the country—often communally. They wanted to raise their own food, build their own solar-paneled log homes, and make their own clothes, and the Whole Earth Catalog gave them the supplies they needed. The Foxfire books taught them how to do stuff, with extensive, detailed directions on gardening, canning and preserving, hunting, home remedies, sewing, building, even moonshining if one were so inclined.

LastWholeEarthCatalog1971_jpg

The 1980s, when I was a Foxfire student, were kind of an awkward, transitional time for the program. “Back to the Land”  had soured as simple living turned out to be rather complicated, the Foxfire books were no longer selling by the millions, and the idealistic young teachers had grown somewhat cynical. But I still benefited greatly. For one thing, it set me on my editorial career path. For another, I learned how to do a few useful things like make wine, de-scent a skunk, and ask good questions. And the recovering hippie teachers introduced me to important things like The Utne Reader and Joni Mitchell. Their mentoring inadvertently inspired me to leave “The Land” in search of more “sophisticated” things. I graduated from high school in 1985, and off to the big city I hied meself. But I can’t say that I never looked back. Every day I look back.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard an interview on the radio the other day with Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who has written a new book titled Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, arguing that “By and large, cities are probably the greenest things that humans do.”

This, from Mr. Back-to-the-Land himself.

On a macro level, it makes a kind of counterintuitive sense. Cities—or at least the ones that don’t sprawl on forever like metro Atlanta and Houston—concentrate people in smaller geographic areas, giving the open spaces a break. Brand also calls himself “a big fan” of slums. He says that people who live in gigantic squatter cities are “moving up what’s called the energy ladder, toward more and better, greater electricity.”

I’m not sure I fully understand that last argument, but it does raise an interesting question for me: Where does the urban homestead fit into this scenario?

While it is the most densely populated city in Georgia, Decatur is hardly a slum. It has lovely homes and a high average household income and great schools and beautiful greenspaces and a strong environmental ethic that plays out in built environments informed by “New Urbanism” principles. And I live comfortably on a nice piece of property with just enough space for gardens and critters. Can the principles of urban homesteading apply in places like Mumbai (think Slumdog Millionaire)? Are the ideals that Foxfire represented to me, those notions of “plain living,” not only possible but even environmentally preferable in an urban setting?

I haven’t read Brand’s book yet, and I wonder if he ventures into this question. Perhaps he considers community gardens. Or maybe he thinks about the kind of renewal taking place in cities like Youngstown, Ohio, which has been struggling economically for so long that shrinking is now part of its planning—that is, abandoned property is being returned to the earth, as gardens or protected greenspaces. Or about the “guerilla gardeners,” who enact a radical view of land rights by planting gardens on derelict properties they do not own.

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Corn grows in Monrovia

Perhaps Brand looks at rooftop gardens, or at the way agriculture asserts itself in some of the world’s poorest cities: when I was in Havana, Cuba, staying in a Soviet era high-rise in 2002, I awakened every dawn to a rooster crowing 23 floors below. And last year, in Monrovia, Liberia, I took this photograph (from a speeding car—sorry it’s so blurry) of a patch of corn growing in the middle of this city that is struggling to recover from fourteen years of devastating civil war. We saw delicious-looking fresh roasted corn sold from outdoor stands all over the place. This is not idealism; it is not an ethical or environmental choice. In Havana and Monrovia, “plain living” is survival in the ruins.

Urban homesteading, or just signs of life?  I welcome your thoughts.

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Starting with what you have

Tonight I’m getting together with some friends to play music. We do this weekly, and usually we try to bring a bit of something to munch on as we socialize before we sit down with our instruments.

tomatillos, tomatos, and cilantro

tomatillos, tomatoes, and cilantro

This afternoon, with the evening in mind, I did a study of those tomatillos in the bottom drawer of my fridge (if you’ve been following the harvest, then you know they’ve been collecting for some time now). I also have a number of green tomatoes on my countertop, collected from the vines before I yanked them up a couple of weeks ago. Some of them—surprise!—turned red before I could bread them and fry them.

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Roasted tomatoes and tomatillos

Then I recalled the cilantro seeds I’d tossed into the dirt back in September. They’ve sprouted and are coming along nicely in this cool weather, so I pinched a few leaves. Add to that a couple of the jalapeño peppers I picked a few days ago,  and what do you have? The start of a mighty fine salsa.

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Jalapeños and garlic roasting

So I roasted the tomatillos and tomatoes under a broiler, and I skillet-roasted the jalapeños along with some garlic (from my CSA) on top of the stove. Chopped a bit of white onion and the cilantro.

I scraped the tomatillos and tomatoes—juice, skins and all—plus the peppers and garlic into the food processor and pulsed until it was chunky. Added in the onion (which I had minced and rinsed), cilantro, a pinch of sugar, a generous teaspoon of salt, and a squeeze of lime juice. Darn tasty, and took about 20  minutes.

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Voila!

Instead of thinking, Now, what do I want to take to the Sunday jam tonight?, I started with what I had: tomatillos that were going to rot if I didn’t use them, the last red tomatoes of the year, jalapeños, garlic, onion. Add to that stuff I keep around anyway (salt, sugar, limes), and it’s not too difficult to get creative and come up with something delicious in about the same amount of time it would have taken me to drive to the store and pick up something for tonight. It was cheaper, too.

Of course, it’s just luck that I happen to have a bag of tortilla chips in the pantry to go with it!

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