Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
by Melinda Briana Epler,
One Green Generation
From Being Prepared...
Do you prepare for peak oil? Or climate change? Or economic disaster? Or pandemics, or another type of widespread disaster?
Ok, there is prepared and there is PREPARED in our culture. Having an emergency kit that lasts 3 days to 2 weeks is prepared. Having an emergency kit that lasts 2 months, developing gardening and sewing and handy work and husbandry skills - that's PREPARED. What I mean when I ask above, is do you PREPARE?
I used to PREPARE. For a couple of years, I was really focused on learning the skills and going through the motions to make sure I was prepared for a vastly different future. But then I made a shift in my lifestyle.
...To Creating Cultural Change
Two things happened. The first is that I started to realize that no matter how bad things got in our economy and various disasters around the world, generally change happens pretty slowly. Cultural reactions are slow even in the face of big environmental and economic change. More Hurricane Katrinas will happen, but as a whole people will just move and continue on with their altered but largely the same lifestyles. Gradually our culture will change as this happens, but we won't all of a sudden all start gardening and making cheese. It will be gradual.
The second thing that made me see things differently is knowing that every action we take right now makes a difference to the planet later. Our planet is in trouble, but we can keep it from getting as bad as it could get by lowering our overall impact RIGHT NOW.
For me that means changing my focus from preparedness to lowering my impact. And it means keeping in mind overall impact - in other words, helping to create a cultural shift. So, I don't focus quite as hard on getting my personal impact down to zero now - because I feel I can use my skills to help many other people lower their impact. When I focused on lowering my own impact to next to nil, I had to spend all of my time doing that. But if I partition some of my time to helping others lower their impact, using the skills I have to do so, I can ultimately lower more of the overall impact.
How Do You Create Cultural Change?
We can all create cultural change. It's easy to say you can't do it, that you don't have the power or skills to change other people's minds. But that isn't true. We all have the power and skills to change people's minds, and actions.
How do we do it? By doing what we do best and sharing it with others.
Here's what I do best: writing, video, film, having fun, and being me. I'm also good at gardening and design.
Here's how I share it with others: I write on this blog and my own, and I edit my business blog (it's about sustainable business choices). I participate in our neighborhood sustainability group, and help spread the word about it via the new website. I meet new people and stay in touch with old friends and acquaintances and when it's appropriate, I talk about my lifestyle - I don't preach though, I aim to inspire.
I take part in my community garden patch, and try to open other gardeners' minds with my p-patch itself - it inspires conversation: What is that beautiful pink stuff (amaranth)? Why do you use straw (to keep water in and protect from the elements)? Why don't you plant in rows (to thwart the bugs - my way of integrated pest management)? And so on. And I involve myself with the garden rather than simply being a member and passing through.
And my new business, I do it there too. I help mission-driven organizations and world-changing projects to tell their stories and to do greater good. Rewarding? Yes. Worldchanging? Soon. We're still in start-up phase, but I feel good about it and we're getting to economic sustainability. But even if you can't create your own business, you can do a lot of things to create change in your workplace. I've written about some of them here.
I also attend networking events and support other people doing good things, and others who are struggling to do good things.
The important thing here is to do what you do best, and share it with others.
What Have I Learned?
The most important thing for me during my time of preparedness, was knowing that I can grow my own food, that I can be resourceful, that I have learned the skills and gone through the panicky thoughts so that when/if things really change for the worse I will be mentally prepared and have the skills I need.
I know now that if I had to, I could live off the land. I have a garden in our urban city, and I use it to supplement our nutrition. But I have the skills now to be able to use it for overall nutrition if I needed to. I know how to make bread and cheese and cook all sorts of other things from scratch, I know how to stitch things and more importantly I know how to barter and network.
But right now for me the most important thing is getting everyone to become more like us: more deliberate, more conscious of their choices, more aware of their impact... and then to start the process of behavior change.
Thanks to Chile for inspiring me to write about this shift.
Do You Work To Create Cultural Change?
If you do, please share with us all what you do, so that we can be inspired and learn from you!
Monday, September 28, 2009
This time of year, our roles can change a little. My husband is busy buttoning up the portion of the new roof that needed finishing before our fall rains arrive for good, while I am cleaning the gutters. Most of the time we stick to generalized male/female duties. I do the cooking, he does the manly tasks, such as water system maintenance, chainsaw duties, etc., and our daughter helps either one of us with any task. We are all like ships passing in the night now. But we all have to eat, or snack.
I have devised a few ways to make our bulk foodstuffs a little easier to use when someone is pinch hitting in the kitchen:
Over the years while scouring garage and estate sales, I have accumulated extra measuring cup sets and I now have enough to keep these in with my staples like flours, rice and sugar. Our farmhouse is old, and shy on storage. My whole wheat flour is in the basement milk refrigerator, my white flour and sugar are in the dry pantry off the kitchen. Having a measuring cup in the jar helps a novice cook concentrate on cooking instead of wasting time by forgetting to take the measuring cup from one location to another.
I buy in bulk, and keep most of our staples in buckets and replenish one gallon jars for the dry pantry. Inside the jar lids, I have written the instructions for cooking or taped the recipe from the original packaging. This makes it convenient for someone who doesn't always cook and has the ratio of water to rice in their head.
The fruit room in our basement is where our home canned goods are stored, and while it seems easy to navigate to me, it isn't always so with other members of my family. My hubby makes a beeline straight in the door and grabs what is in front of him, which is canned nectarines. He won't look to either side and hunt for a different fruit. So to keep peace in our marriage I have just devoted one portion of a shelf in the "beeline" to every kind of fruit that I have canned. I can keep it replenished and he gets to choose what he wants to snack on. And further on that tack, I have a pie safe type of cabinet that I call my Christmas cabinet for home canned goods that are for gifts. Still micro-managing, but from a distance. My gift jars stay intact and out of sight, and they are conveniently located for me when I need a gift.
These are just a few ideas off the top of my head - what quick tips do you have that are favorites?
Sunday, September 27, 2009
From Spiral Garden
People are often surprised when I tell them that I’ve never had a permanent full-time job. I have worked full-time hours as a waitress and in office administration, but they weren’t permanent positions – I was doing temp work or extra shifts as a student mostly.
I was a student doing a double-degree before I became a mother. I intended to go to work, to study further, to do something with my life. I’m glad I realised that being an at-home mother is a wonderful way to live. A blessing. A privilege.
I’ve been at home whilst my husband studied, did an adult apprenticeship, worked very long hours, worked away and worked part-time. We’ve always found a way to pay for our expenses and move ahead. We have struggled, but we made it through!
I have usually dabbled in some sort of paid hobby:
For awhile I did some design work on the computer – stationery, address labels etc.
I have usually sold our excess household items etc through auction sites and on internet forums.
For awhile the children and I were packaging our saved seeds and bulk-bought seeds and selling these online. This appealed to us because growing food is something we are passionate about.
We’ve also sold excess eggs, produce, jams and plants from a roadside stall.
I have done some freelance writing and editing. Sometimes a lot of hours for reasonable pay, and sometimes only small amounts of work and financial reward. I stick to my interests with the freelancing, and don’t pursue work outside my field of parenting and education and my passion of gardening.
A couple of years ago I decided to buy an online business from a busy friend who had returned to full-time study and couldn’t keep up with the business. It is called Spiral Garden and is a real blessing in our lives. It is growing slowly into another stream of income for me, while I’m at home with my children – homeschooling, growing food and planting trees.
Ideally our home-based business would also support us all, but then I would be stuck in my home office several days a week keeping the business going. At the moment my husband can earn much more than me per hour, so he’s still out there working. He'd love to be at home with us on the farm, though.
While my hobbies have paid me, they’ve been very much about keeping my mind active and showing my children how there are many ways to make money. The pocket money is lovely, and has helped to support my hobbies at least – more plants for the garden, some fabric for sewing, magazine subscriptions etc.
Now that they're older, the children have developed their own streams of income - husking and weighing out macadamia nuts from our trees and breeding chickens, ducks and guinea pigs. The older three also busk at local markets.
If I needed to make more money to be able to stay at home I would initially look at where I could further save money. A dollar saved is a dollar earned – more because it’s not taxed! If we were still struggling I’d further pursue one of my 'jobs' above or even take in ironing or childcare, because these fit with my lifestyle of being at home with children. If this didn’t work, I would look for casual work outside of normal working hours so that I would go to work when my husband was at home with the children. Now that they’re older (our youngest is five), I can see that this would be much more manageable. I would try to avoid commuting a great distance and a job where I needed to outlay a large amount for clothing etc. I’d want to keep as much of my earnings as possible. For example, I'd rather drive 3 minutes to clean rooms at a local Bed & Breakfast than travel across the region to a more complicated position of employment.
I hope this post helps you to think about your own employment options, especially if you have young families. I encourage you to think about what you’re good at, where your interests lie, what sort of work you prefer, what’s lacking in your community and how you can perhaps make a little extra money to help the family budget or save for the future. I’m not saying that staying at home is better than working, but it has been a wonderful lifestyle for us. Watching my sister juggle her children and work, and seeing my own mother (against her wishes) do the same from when I was three years old – I choose this way because it’s what I can handle. I prefer to be home, cooking from scratch, growing food, bartering with friends and neighbours, mending clothes and making do, and feel blessed to have been able to do so for over 15 years.
Bringing it Home by Wendy Priesnitz
Hundreds of Ways to Make Money From Home by Rosalind Fox and Tessa Stowe
Making Money from Home by Better Living Collections
Making Money from your Garden by Jackie French
Write to Publish by Vin Maskell & Gina Perry
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Many frugal bloggers share the tips they learned from their parents about buying second hand, for myself I've had to learn as I go. Buying second hand was not something within my family culture, neither were hand-me-downs. Even today if I mention a charity shop find to my mother, she tells me I'm asking for flees and problems galore. Only, I've begun to not only find 2nd hand shopping fun and economical, I've started to see the art in it. So I thought I'd write about how I successfully find amazing things and ask you to share your finds & tips too!
1. I started familiarizing myself with the charity shops within my local area & local town, with no purpose of purchasing, but simply to see what types of products they get, if they specialize in anything etc.
2. I keep a notebook of things needed - this might include clothing items, gifts for upcoming birthdays and holidays etc. This little notebook accompanies me on all outings!
3. I size up what typical prices are, for example in most of the charity shops near me books are 75p to £1, however there are a couple of more expensive charity shops where books are £3, while that may be a acceptable cost for a more special or hard back book, I find that is not within my budget for every day items.
4. I make note of which charity shops sell new items - this means I can continue supporting the charity when purchasing items I would not buy second hand (for example underwear)
5. I remember that even if something is £1, if you don't need it then it isn't good value for money!
6. I take my time - if I am shopping for Christmas, I will try to make more of an effort to browse 3-6 months before hand and start purchasing items that would make good gifts such as a collection of cookbooks for a friend who is learning to cook, or jewelry, nice china sets etc.
7. I remember the value in waiting for something! For the last year I have wanted a specific book, it is £25 new and I have wanted it since the day I knew it existed, this week I found it at a charity shop for £3.50, yes more expensive then I would normally pay but it was in perfect condition! Waiting a year made the purchase all the more sweet :)
8. I look at second hand shops in expensive areas - it is well known here that in certain parts of the country celebrities drop off their unwanted goods by the van load, if I happen to be in an upmarket part of the country I'll have a good sift through. In fact I recommended a friend did this when she was away for a weekend, she only had £20 to spend on a winter coat and couldn't find one new, I told her about a specific charity shop known for higher end items and she got the most amazing coat for £4.50!!!
9. I remember that it is still good to purchase quality items, especially when it comes to furniture. It is silly to pay £20 for a table that is falling apart when you can pay £30 for a table that will last.
10. Some charity shops have voucher systems, similar to buying a £5 or £10 gift card to a high street shop! This is a great present or way or saving up funds for bigger purchases or more expensive times of the year!
While I tend to focus on second hand shopping via charity shops in this season of my life, there are also great mom to mom sales, sales via twin and triplet associations, plus car boot (aka garage) sales etc. There are also items available via the internet sites, or simply between friends.
Second hand shopping has given me some great lessons in waiting, prioritizing and appreciating what I have, I am sure that I'm only at the beginning of this journey! So now I turn to you, fabulous readers; Do you have any experience buying second hand goods? What was your best find? Have you got any tips to share?
Friday, September 25, 2009
I grew up an Army brat and then joined the Army myself so moving every 12 months is more normal than not to me. Unfortunately now that I'm out of the Army my husband and I have to move ourselves. We are used to someone packing our stuff, loading it, driving it and delivering it. It's a virtually painless process that cost us nothing. This move it seems will be anything but...
To be honest I didn't even look at what it would cost to have movers come in and do everything for us. I know that the process is prohibitively expensive and since we are only moving 2 hours away I figure we can do it ourselves for a lot less money and with a lot smaller impact on the earth. Including gas moving is going to cost us about $600 considering we are currently in a three bedroom 1,500 sq ft home I think that's pretty good. So how are we doing it?
1) Cut the clutter. You know you need to do it, you know you have things that you never use but no one wants to sort through it all. This is the "easiest", greenest, and cheapest way to move. The key is to start early and organize in stages so you don't get overwhelmed. I started going room by room and closet by closet. Everything we were keeping got boxed up, everything else was sorted into trash, recycle, donate, and sell. I started with the easy rooms first and saved the basement (aka pit of unidentified items) for last. This way I went into the hardest part of the sorting with a sense of accomplishment . The basement was tackled over a couple weekends to avoid burnout. I knew if I pushed to do too much I would throw out things we might need or keep things we might not. It's better (if you have the time) to take things slowly and purposefully. Most of what we get rid of went to Goodwill. A yard sale wasn't an option for us and I really don't like wasting a lot of time trying to sell things. Unless I think I can realistically get $30 or more I don't bother. So far I've made $235 selling stuff, not bad eh?
2) Get used moving boxes. I got boxes from three individuals, all found through Craigslist and all were free. Cardboard boxes are remarkably durable and can be used three or more times without showing signs of wear or losing their structural integrity so why waste money and resources to purchase new?
3) Use newspaper and household linens as packing materials. If you get the newspaper you can save your own or you can get a big stack from a recycling center and then rerecyle them after your move. You do want to be careful though, newsprint can bleed or rub off in which case you may want to opt for packing paper or your sheets :) Instead of buying or renting moving blankets to protect your furniture use your own blankets and towels and save yourself some money.
4) Shop around for a moving truck and then shop around for discount codes. I googled "discount codes for budget rental truck" and pulled up a long list of various discount codes. Some work and some don't but even if they don't all you've lost is a little time. I saved $40 using an online discount code. That may not seem like a lot but it's the cost of a tank of gas for one of our cars (which we have to drive to the new house anyway). Oh and make sure you get the smallest truck you need. Most moving companies offer guidelines based on the number of rooms in your house or the square footage but these are often very generous guidelines. Take a good look at your stuff and then go look at the trucks you can save $10-$20 by using a smaller truck.
5) Once you've got the truck move as quickly as possible. In addition to mileage charges most rental trucks have daily charges and you want to pay as little as possible. The idea of moving everything you own in less than 24 hours may seem daunting but if you pack and preposition your stuff before you have the truck it won't be so bad. We already have 2/3 of the house packed up and have started to stack everything on the first floor. By the time we have the truck everything will be stacked on the first floor and ready to be quickly moved onto the truck (with the exception of the furniture upstairs which we need a dolly to move).
6) Shop around (including your friends garages and tool rooms) for moving equipment. It can cost $15-$20 to rent a dolly for a day but a dolly is essential depending on the furniture and appliances you are trying to move. Go out on a limb and asks friends and coworkers if they have a dolly you can borrow or if they can borrow one from work. I never would have thought my father had a dolly but he does and can borrow another from work for free. If you aren't that lucky moving truck rental companies usually rent dollies but so do home improvement stores so shop around for the best price.
7) Beer (or other beverage of choice) and pizza is usually cheaper then the hourly fees movers will charge. Ask friends if neighbors if they will chip in with your move in return for a free meal. You could also check your local Craigslist to find "movers" who have cheaper than average hourly rates. But keep in mind they may not have any sort of insurance or guarantee so if they break something you are out of luck. Of course your friends don't come with insurance either...
8) Return anything you rent on time as there are usually excessive late charges that you don't want to have to pay.
9) Once you've moved and unpacked offer up your cardboard boxes on Craigslist so someone else can use them to move or simply recycle them and any packing material you may have.
10) Once you've moved take a night off to check out a local restaurant. You'll want the break and it's good to get out in your new neighborhood.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Having produced cheese as a hobby now almost weekly for more than 8 months, I thought it would be a great time to share some tips that I have learnt with you.
Tip #2. Have everything all prepared and layed out before you start. As I am waiting for the 15-20 minutes for the pot, stainless steel utensils and cheese cloths to sterilise, I get a clean tea towel and lay it on the kitchen bench next to the stove top, ready to place all the tools on. I select the recipe well in advance, and get out all the necessary ingredients and put them on the side ready to go. Cheese making requires un-chlorinated water for diluting some ingredients, so I have to pre-boil some rain water from my tank and let it cool to room temperature. You could use bottled water, but I do not due to environmental reasons. I pre mix the diluted calcium chloride with this water, and do the same with the rennet. Something I learnt in the Boy Scouts that I shall never forget and that is the Scouts motto, "Be Prepared".
Tip #3. Although the process of cheese making is not particularly difficult, it can be time consuming. Ensure you take into account all factors involved in culturing the milk, renneting, stirring, milling, and pressing. If making a simple hard cheese, allow at least 4-5 hours to entirely finish the process. I make one cheese, Wensleydale, that take over 9 hours from start to the final pressing! Mind you the final product is well worth the effort.
Tip #4. Start off with a simple cheese to build your confidence.
- Try a soft cheese like yoghurt cheese which is basically putting 1 kg (2 pounds) of natural yoghurt into a cheesecloth and draining for a few hours, then gather into a ball and suspend over a large pot overnight in the fridge. Simple, yet tasty and you can mix in different flavours, either savoury or sweet to liven it up as a dip.
- Ricotta is another easy cheese to make. Take 4 litres of milk, bring to about 93C (200F) and add a quarter of a cup (67ml) of white vinegar or lemon juice and stir. You will see the milk separate into curds and whey. Ladle into cheesecloth lined colander to drain. When cool to touch, tie the corners of the cloth into a ball and wrap the ends around a large wooden spoon and drain over a large pot. After a few hours of draining you can add salt to taste and it will keep for about 5 days in the fridge in an airtight container. Great for lasagne and any other dish that requires a large amount of ricotta. As I said, simple successes give you the confidence to try something a little harder next time.
Tip #5. If you find that you enjoy making simple and basic cheeses, see if you can find a local cheese making course that is held nearby. The knowledge that you will learn will take you to the next level, and as I found, the interaction with other amateur cheese makers is priceless. Some of the courses can be expensive, but I found a relatively cheap one that was definitely worth the money. I have attended two of these courses (basic and mould) at our local community centre. Have a look around your local area. You might just get a suprise.
Tip #6. When taking the next step and you have the urge to make an intermediate skill level cheese, like cheddar, feta, parmesan, edam or the like, try and make one like feta or caerphilly that only take a short time to ripen so that you can taste your handy work quickly. By making these quick to ripen cheeses once a month, you will always have some type of cheese at hand at home and never be tempeted to by that processed store bought rubbish that some supermarkets try and pass off as cheese!
Tip #7. Once you get the basics right fairly consistently, don't be afraid to experiment a little by adding other flavours to your cheeses during pressing or milling. I add a layer of home grown sage leaves into the middle of my Wensleydale and it imparts a fantastic flavour. I add home grown dried birdseye chilli to my Monterey Jack to produce a variety called Pepper Jack. I have even added green peppercorns to my Pyrenees style cheese as mentioned in tip #1. It is all about the cheese and the final flavour.
Tip #8. Have patience. A good cheese, like a good wine, needs to ripen for a specific period of time and get better with age. Try and resist temptation by eating your cheese earlier than recommended. All hard cheeses take time to mature to the right taste. You would be amazed by the difference a week or month between tastings. Depending on the cheese, if tasted early it will be very mild, but if left for longer then the flavour gets stronger over time. I will give you an example. I made some Camembert, tried it at 3 weeks and it was fantastic. Left one for 4 weeks, and it was so strong it was overpowering but out of this world. Another example, my first Caerphilly cheese I sampled at 15 days, when it was supposed to ripen to 28 days. It was nice, but when we tried it at 28 days, it was fantastic. I don't dare try my parmesan until at least 12 months!
Tip #10. Don't forget to have fun and share the final product. I usually make my cheese on a Friday night, with a few glasses of wine to relax after a tough week at the office. I find it very therapeutic. I also enjoy breaking out a small cheese platter when friends drop by whereby sharing all the different tastes. Most say I should sell it at a local farmers market, but I think it would spoil the fun of the hobby. Some of my friends have never heard of most of the cheese types that I make, because the main cheese consumed in Australia is cheddar or processed cheese slices. I love the variety that home make cheese making gives you.
Who would believe that you can make so many different types of cheese with plain old milk! It is great fun, so give it a go, and remember the most important rule. Don't cry over spilt milk :-). If you have had some cheese making experience, either positive or negative, please share via a comment. If anyone has any questions that are specific, I will try and answer, but remember I am just a humble cheese artisan and a may not have come across that problem before, but I will do my best to get back to you quickly. If you would like further information, my personal blog has many cheese recipies and fully documented step by step method of most of the cheeses I have made so far. Just have a look at the right hand side bar and click on a photo of the desired cheese for the tutorial, of you can click here for all the posts I have written about cheese making.
Have fun with cheese making and catch you next time at the Co-op!
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
- Walk. If you can't walk, Bike. If you can't Bike, take Public Transportation. If you can't take Public Transportation, Carpool. If you can't Carpool, don't go. Or at least think twice about it.
- Stop watching television. Cruel, isn't it? I know, but listen: not only does the television suck up a lot of electricity, but it also sucks up a lot of your time. That's time you could spend gardening, cooking, cleaning, or talking and laughing.
- Eat fresh, local foods. You can find them in your garden, the farmer's market, a local farm, a CSA, a local co-op, a natural foods store, or a local grocery store - but the more you eat fresh, local foods, the less packaging you use, the less refrigeration you need, the less gas is used transporting your food, and the better the flavors and vitamins within the foods.
- When not in use, turn it off. That goes for water, lights, computers, televisions - you name it, if you aren't using it, turn it off. It's amazing how much money you can save this way, let alone resources.
- Take advantage of thrift stores. Suss out the best ones in your area - you just might be amazed at what you'll find! I wear nice, fashionable office clothing and about half my wardrobe came from thrift stores. Including some nice pairs of shoes! You can also find some household items this way, and even decent furniture.
- De-complicate. There is no reason to have twenty different cleaners in your cupboard, when vinegar mixed with water can do just about everything. And if vinegar doesn't work, try baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, or good old soap! Cheaper, easier, and better for the environment too.
- De-stuff. Stop buying stuff because society says you need it. Instead, do without or buy it conscientiously - buy something that will last. And by the same token, go through your cupboards and closets and garage and start to give away stuff you don't need. Someone else probably does need it, and right now it's probably unnecessarily complicating your life in little ways.
- Become a part of your community. It's an amazing feeling when the small world around you is somehow tied to you, and you are tied to it. When you're connected to your neighborhood you create an informal barter system by learning and sharing both things and ideas. You can also work to improve the neighborhood together, and become a unified voice in political campaigns. There are a number of ways becoming a part of your community can reduce your negative impact and increase your happiness.
- Compost and recycle. Of course, right? It's amazing how little garbage we have each month because just about all our waste can be reused in one way or another. If you don't have regular recycling pick-up, collect your recycling in your garage and take it to a local recycling center - almost every city has one. And composting is easy in your own backyard or under the kitchen sink!
- Plan ahead. Plan ahead for the holidays by making things to give. Plan ahead for work by making your lunch in the morning. Plan ahead for tougher economic times by putting a bit of money away. Plan ahead for the winter by canning, freezing, or drying foods in the summer. Plan ahead when you're buying an appliance or a piece of furniture - make sure it will last a long time and work in different locations. Plan ahead on your trip to work or your trip across country, so you don't have to buy anything at the last minute. Plan ahead when you go to the grocery store - plan your meals, or at least write a list before you go - so you know what you need later in the week. Plan ahead.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Hello, I’m Francesca, one of the new writers here at the co-op. I write from a tiny rural village in northern Italy, perched on a green hilltop a few winding, steep, narrow kilometers inland from the Mediterranean. My husband and I moved our young bi-cultural and bi-lingual family here ten years ago (I’m Italian, and my husband is US American). I blog about our life as a family of five over at FuoriBorgo.
We moved here from the city with a vague plan to spend a couple of our children’s early years in nature, and an even vaguer plan to start a biodynamic vegetable garden. Ten years later we’re still here: our three children are growing up as country kids, and our garden fills on one of the narrow terraces built centuries ago by the local farmers, striving to raise a living on these steep-sided valleys. The descendants of these farmers are one of the main reasons we’ve stayed: our neighbors and the other villagers, most of whom are elderly farmers, who welcomed us open-heartedly, and who taught us something we'd never considered when we came here on our quest for nature: the unique value of community life.
We started getting to know our neighbors on the day we moved in, when a thin, elderly, weather-beaten man with thick snow-white hair and big strong hands drove up on a small tractor, and offered to haul our belongings up to the house. He drove up to our house and back for the rest of the day, while the young movers we’d hired sat in the shade of a large fig tree eating its fruits and praising the “paradise” we’d found, which they'd cursed as a “place from hell” when they’d first seen how steep the pathway was that led to the front door.
To thank our neighbor, we bought him some nice wine from Piemonte: we hadn’t realized that the basement of the ancient stone house we were renting was his winecellar, where he had several thousand liters of wine he’d made the previous year. From day one we tried to bring him and his family gifts to thank them for their boundless generosity: they gave us fruit and vegetables from their fields, helped us fix our car or our phone line, advised us on gardening, lent us their tools, and were always there to lend a hand. But somehow our gifts never felt quite appropriate.
Gradually we learned that, in an ancient rural community, you don’t really thank your neighbors with presents. People here lead a thrifty and frugal life, with few needs and little waste; what little they need they grow, build, hand make, or repurpose. They spend their days working in the fields and in the woods, with few days off, at the same pace as the unrelentless and unpredictable rhythm of nature. The best way to thank your neighbors, we learned, is to offer to help when they need it, just as our neighbor did on the day we moved in.
We began to sense this during our first vendemmia, the grape harvest, which falls at this time of year. The economy of our village is mainly based on growing wine grapes, and long rows of vines lace the terraced side of our valley. Tending them is a year-round job: we see our neighbors out among the vines in all weather, pruning, weeding, manuring, tying up tendrils, and so on. The vendemmia closes this agricultural cycle, and brings together many people - relatives, friends, people from neighboring villages - who work side by side for several days of reciprocal help – not for wages – and then move on to the next person’s vineyard. The vendemmia embodies the values of rural, communal life.
The day before the vendemmia starts, stacks of colorful plastic crates appear at the edge of the vineyards. We know by now that we need to be out at 8 o’clock the following morning, with our own pruning shears, and will soon be snipping grapes amid the crowd of people of all ages, but mostly elderly, who gather to help with the harvest. Vendemmia is a festive job, and feels more like a social gathering with work in nature rather than just plain work. The chatter of the harvesters can be heard all along the valley.
At the end of the day, when everyone’s hands and clothes are sticky and stained with grape juice and the shears are nearly glued shut with it, we linger wearily around the now full crates, sharing one last story together. For the next few days, the pungent, sourish smell of fermenting grape juice drifts up from the cellar, and scents our house.
It took Tom and me several vendemmie to recognize the widespread network of reciprocity that sustains our village. This constant exchange of mutual, manual assistance creates a strong sense of community, and in the end, makes life possible here in a small, isolated village populated mainly by the elderly. When we city folk finally understood this, we also saw that the most important lesson our children could learn by living the country life wasn’t so much how to climb a tree or grow a tomato or track a boar through the forest, but how to repay people with the gift of your own time, effort and attention – not with a simple, store-bought gift, however valuable.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Living The Frugal Life
I got interested in bread baking as part of a frugality kick about two and half years ago. It wasn't really that much of a departure for me, as I trained professionally as a chef and am pretty comfortable knocking around a home kitchen. But I never expected to get to the point where all the bread we eat is made at home, by me.
I save a considerable amount of money by making our bread. Buying our flour in 50-pound bags helps even more, and I've stockpiled enough bread in our chest freezer to get us through summers without the need to bake and heat our house up when it's already hot outside. On the other hand, baking in winter helps us use less heating oil in our furnace. But when it comes to the yeast in the bread we eat, there's only a very minimal savings to be had in using a sourdough starter instead.
Sourdough bread has its virtues, taste not least among them. It's also widely held that bread made from sourdough remains fresh longer than bread made with purchased yeast. But undeniably, sourdough has its drawbacks as well. It is far more temperamental than any manufactured form of yeast. It needs tending to, and is not always ready the moment when baking is most necessary or desired. It requires more planning, and perhaps most crucially, more judgment from the baker, which of course must rest on the baker's experience and skill. So if you are new to the art and science of baking, you might want to spend a year or two working with the far more predictable active dry or instant yeasts. But despite these drawbacks, sourdough breads persist because they are delicious and because they use yeasts that are always freely available.
From what I've read, a well established sourdough starter always contains and is dominated by the local micro-organisms of the area in which it's found. The three major micro-organisms are yeast, lactobacillus and acetobacillus. We breathe all three of these in with each breath we take, as they thoroughly permeate our environments. Fortunately, they are all harmless to humans. In bread doughs the bacteria compete with the fungus (yeast) for the same nutrients. While yeast produces bubbles of carbon dioxide that cause the dough to rise, the bacteria are busy breaking down parts of the starchy flour and creating flavorful byproducts in the process. (This is why good bread tastes considerably better than raw flour.) In doughs made with commercial yeast, especially doughs made with added sweeteners, yeast gets a serious leg up on the lactobacillus and acetobacillus, outcompeting them and smothering any effect they would have on the dough. Such breads are either lacking in flavor, or they have flavoring ingredients - natural or otherwise - added in to make them tasty. But in doughs made with only very small quantities of commercial yeast (which therefore require very long rise times), the acetobacillus and lactobacillus naturally present in the flour and air have a chance to contribute to the flavor of the bread. Sourdough starter already has populations of all these micro-organisms in a more or less friendly balance. That's what gives the bread its distinctive flavor.
Different regions have different wild populations of acetobacillus, lactobacillus, and yeast. Think of the cities of the world which are famed for their bread. Those cities are blessed with some of the very best populations of these micro-organisms as far as bread baking goes. Even if you were to smuggle a sourdough starter back from one of these illustrious bread cities, after a few weeks the flora and fauna local to your area would take up residence in your starter and outmuscle the imports. (Unless of course you bake bread in a surgically sterile cleanroom.) So given a little time, sourdough is always a local product.
If you want to work with a sourdough starter, you can start one from scratch. Or you can acquire a portion of someone else's starter. I have even used the cheater method of saving a bit of store-bought raw pizza dough to begin a starter. You could also send a self addressed stamped envelope to Carl's Friends for a little bit of dried sourdough starter.
If you want to follow the from scratch method, I recommend beginning in either spring or fall, when room temperature is roughly 65-70 F/18-21 C. You can find a detailed walkthrough for beginning a sourdough starter here, using a few different variations. One method I have found to work well is to begin with whole rye flour, which naturally contains more yeast than wheat flour. Of course, these yeasts come from wherever the rye was grown, but the local yeast will take over soon enough. Whole rye starters are rather smelly and don't rise much at all in the first few days, so don't be alarmed if you observe these traits when working with whole rye flour. If you have chlorinated water, be sure to allow it to sit out overnight before mixing it into the starter. You will need to repeat this off-gassing for chlorinated water at each stage of the starter process, so it may be worth your while to seek out some well water or spring water for this project.
There's an entire world of breads, pancakes and crepes out there that you can explore once you have a sourdough starter ready to go. Have fun with it!
Friday, September 18, 2009
The harvest continues. Granted, growing and storing your own onions isn't something everyone will want to do, but this is how I do it. When the first of my mature onion plants started to flop over a couple of weeks ago, I pulled the soaker hose off and bent down the rest. This gives notice to the onions that it's time to transfer all energy from the leaves down into their bulbs, and as the soil dries out the outer-most layers will start to toughen.
Next step is to dig up the plants, leaving them out in the sun for a day to kill off the wiry roots, then move them onto screens under the shade of the trees until the tops dry out too. If, or when, autumn rains threaten, I move them inside the sun-warmed garage to keep them dry and to continue curing.
Not all onions store well. Sweet raw sandwich-type onions won't store at all, and red ones usually not for very long. You have to start with the pungent yellow or white varities specifically labeled as storage onions to have them last through the winter. The little bags of onion sets sold in the big-box stores in Spring usually aren't storage onions, but you can play with curing the mature ones to see how well they'll do under your storage conditions. I like Copra onions when I can get them (my local garden store sells onion plants by the bunch in late winter), but this year had to go with Big Daddy so will see how they compare. If necessary, I might have to go back to raising my own storage onions from seed to get the kind I want.
I pick out the thick-necked onions and ones that formed a flower stalk (they won't dry well enough to store), damaged ones, and the ones that didn't form a nice bulb, and bring them into the house to use now for canning tomato sauce and salsa. The rest will cure in the warm airy garage, the longer the better, until the the leaves crumble off at the neck and outer skins rattle, so they'll keep in storage.
Onions store best in a cool (but not freezing) and dry spot. They can be braided, the same as garlic when the stems are still flexible, but I've found the stem often won't hold the weight of the bulb and an onion falls and bruises. They can also be stored in net bags, like I do my shallots (I reuse the net stocking-like bags oranges are sold in at Christmas-time for shallots - hanging them from a ceiling hook in my pantry), but it's harder to pull out ones that are starting to soften early enough to prevent them from spoiling the others. Some folks recommend using old pantyhose, dropping an onion into the toe, tying a knot, add another onion, knot, and repeat until both legs are full and hang the whole thing up. That's a bit too labor-intensive for my tastes.
I just store my cured onions in open shallow baskets down near the floor in my cellar, the coolest spot. That way, it's easy to sort through each winter week and bring up the ones that need to be used up first. My onions usually last at least until April, when I can then start on the first of the perennial Spring onions coming up out in the garden.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Most of my friends either tell me I'm the weirdest or the most interesting person they know. Why? Because I grow some of my own food, collect rain water, keep bees in my backyard, shop at farmer's markets, buy raw milk and make everything from scratch (I mean everything, even crackers, oh yeah and maple syrup).
Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Susy and I'm one of the new writers here at the Co-op. I blog about organic gardening, growing food, preserving food, beekeeping, eating locally and other related topics over at ChiotsRun and check out my Flickr photostream for images of my newest escapades.
I live here at Chiot's Run with; my husband - Mr Chiots, my dog Lucy the garden namesake and our 3 cats that also help make our house a home - Samson, Soafie & Dexter. We live on a small lot (1/4 acre) in a development that's kind of rural but we still have a HOA. We've been working hard over the past 7 years to improve the soil on our little bit of land in order to grow some fruits & vegetables of our own, but we're limited by the shadiness of our property since we're surrounded on 3 sides by very large trees.
We own a business and both work from home and enjoy our simple, yet busy life. We love to try to do as much ourselves as we can, which is what has brought us down the road of simplicity and self-reliance. We don't really have dreams of being fully self-sufficient, so we have spent the last couple years creating a network of local people to provide us with the things we cannot and don't really want to do for ourselves, like raw milk, beef, chicken, eggs, etc. We believe in doing our part in building a strong local economy for healthy sustainable foods, and for us that means working hard to earn money to support local farmers.
We also strive to be good stewards of this lovely planet we live on. While we don't drive an electric car, ride our bicycles everywhere, or shun modern conveniences (at least not too many of them), we try not to be wasteful of the resources we do use. We collect rain water for our plants, we try to buy things with as little packaging as possible to reduce our waste and we strive to buy things as locally as possible and not to buy things we don't need. We also garden organically, and I mean completely organically, we don't even use "safe" organic pesticides.
So what do you think, weird or interesting?
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Readers of my personal blog will know that I am currently on a drive to re-building my nest egg. See, I once had a very healthy nest egg until about 3 months ago...and then I lost 90% of that nest egg.
I lost it as a result of a frugal mistake - a very poor attempt at self-insurance...
Have you ever wondered if it was worth insuring? I have. Especially car insurance.
As a bit of a background - here in Australia, we have compulsory third party insurance. This insurance covers any costs incurred by a person who may have been injured or died as a result of my negligent driving. While this insurance is good, it does NOT cover damage to vehicles. For that I would need additional cover - for many Australians this additional cover takes the form of "comprehensive insurance". This would cover damage to vehicles, tow truck etc etc.
Now, I've been on the road for 16 years now and I've never had to claim against my comprehensive insurance. For 16 years, I drove and paid for comprehensive car insurance and wondered...what if I just put money aside instead of paying insurance?
Then in recent months, with so much going on in my personal and work life, I just let it...lapse. I set aside the money for comprehensive car insurance in my "nest egg" account and forgot all about it, fully expecting that nothing would happen (as nothing happened in 16 years).
And of course, it did. Three months ago, I hit another car. It was dark and raining heavily. Three cars ahead of us, one of the cars suddenly braked (not sure why). I was behind another car and didn't really see it happening. All I know is that suddenly the car in front of me touched his brakes then swerved wildly on to the large median strip in the middle of the road. I panicked and hit my brakes *hard*. Bad move. This just 'caused my car to lock up in the wet weather and I slid out of control and into another car.
No one was injured - thank goodness. However, the damage to my car (above) was over $3,000. The damage to the other car (which I was fully liable for) was about same.
Now if I recalculated my car insurance. If I had continued to pay car insurance - to date, I would have paid the insurance company $8,000. So *if* I had not paid the insurance company, and saved the money I would have $8,000 in the bank. But of course, I don't. I only stopped paying car insurance this year...
So what were my mistakes (aside from the driving mistake of hitting brakes hard in wet weather)?
I did not think through my venture into self-insuring. I just approached self-insurance from a "savings" point of view and did not think about the risks involved with it. Darren from Green Change commented on my post about the accident and succinctly gave me the direction I needed to have in approaching self-insurance:
While my first attempt at self-insuring did not exactly wipe me out - it did take out 90% of my nest egg. I was lucky - it could've been much much worse. I shudder to think what could have happened had I not had the nest egg to begin with. I shudder to think what could have happened had I hit a luxury car.
So what am I doing now?
With Darren's advice in mind, I've now thought through my approach to self-insuring my car.
- I have chosen to take out third-party property damage insurance rather than comprehensive insurance. My car is a very common model - parts are easy to get, as well as quite reasonable in costs. I can afford to repair my car BUT its another story with others' car/s or property. Third party property damage covers the cost of any property damage I may cause to others as a result of my negligent driving.
- I decided to lower my insurance premium by increasing my minimum claim threshold (known as 'excess' here in Australia) to $1,000 instead of $500. Given my savings patterns, its almost certain that I would be able to pay $1,000 towards my claim in the event of an accident.
- I have decided to take advance driving lessons. While this doesn't lower my insurance premium in any way, it does (at least in my mind) lessen the chances of me making the same driving mistake again.
In response to my changes in insurance, I have also increased the amount I put aside for my savings.
In short, I am now partially self-insuring. I am insured for things that can wipe me out financially but not for things I can repair, easily replace or even just do without.
As for my nest egg? Well, I'm also slowly re-building that. To date, I have recouped 25% of the original amount. I have more plans for rebuilding my nest egg but that's a story for another day.
How about you? Do you self-insure? What is your approach to self-insurance?
Monday, September 14, 2009
We all live when we live, we can't go back or forward, we are living our lives right now, and dealing with whatever comes our way. It used to be a common marketing tool for companies to package their goods in re-usable containers. This was an enticement for the thrifty housewife to choose one product over another. Instead of single use packaging, if you bought coffee in a mason jar that could be used for canning - you were in fact going to save money. Another great example of this was the flour sack made from beautiful calico that could be used for sewing projects for the household.
More vintage jars - meat, condiment, and shortening containers.
Most of these older jars take a regular mouth canning lid and can be used for dry storage/decoration and canning too. Mayonnaise used to be sold in actual mason jars that were made for re-use. That is where the advice to can in mayonnaise jars comes from. Sadly, that is no longer the case. Some of those jars are still around, but haven't really been marketed that way since 1950 - since the companies realized they could squeeze out more profit by going to a lower grade (thinner) glass for their jars.
Will manufacturers go back to this? Probably not in our greedy world. But we can look for ways in the home to squeeze more "profit" out of our purchases. A penny saved is a penny earned and sometimes more.
We use sisal twine for our haymaking operations. But we buy straw for bedding and that farmer uses poly twine. So instead viewing the plastic twine as garbage we look for ways to use it. Being mindful and creative we see the twine as a 5' foot length of tough material that may be used for putting together a temporary pen or...
But to make the twine the most useful, we need be careful to cut it at the knot, and to save it in a manner that neither takes up space or allows it to become a tangled mess. Instead of a constant mess on the barn floor, this hank of twine looks functional and is handy.
We also save the good cotton string from our feedsacks - I have used it to string my pepper ristras, and am entertaining thoughts of knitting with it.
In the kitchen I save bacon grease for cooking. I make my own butter and pack it in canning jars for freezing, but I do buy butter from the store also. It is usually wrapped in wax paper. I find that if I save these wax paper butter wrappers, I can use them for greasing a baking dish. Folded up and stored in a ziploc bag in the refrigerator, I have ready made baking helpers. I am getting one more use out of that purchased butter and its wrapper before I throw it away. Every little bit does add up, I save money by using something that would get discarded, and I don't have to purchase a product specifically for greasing my pans.
I like to think of ways to re-use things, and I keep that in mind when I am at the store.
Lids from my coconut oil jars become extra lids for refrigerator storage of my home canned foods.
Vitamin bottles can become seed storage containers
Feed bags can become mulching material, or something to kneel on to stay clean while gardening.
Plastic food containers can become storage containers. Just make sure if you are reusing plastic containers for food items that you follow the rule of hot and cold. Do not put hot foods in a container that was made for cold foods, as the hot product may cause chemicals to leach from the plastic that was made for cold products. For instance - soup in a yogurt container is a no-no. Also it is not recommended that fatty foods be stored in plastic either. Hence, my butter goes in glass jars.
These are just a few money saving ideas off the top of my head - what creative tips have you found to be useful in your household?
Sunday, September 13, 2009
From Spiral Garden
For awhile, we've been wanting a house cow. We have lots of grass and lots of water and we love fresh raw milk from Jersey cows. Recently I heard of a farmer who was changing to only bigger breeds of cattle and selling off his handful of Jersey milkers. I got a farmer friend to help me choose a sound animal and waited to find a foster calf for her.
This is Honey, the foster calf. She came from another dairy. She was excess to their needs because she isn't of the breeding they wish to pursue in their herd. She is a Jersey heifer calf and came here at just under 2 weeks of age.
This is Lucy the cow (formerly known as 3361) getting to know her foster calf. She has never raised her own calves before as they're separated on most farms. Lucy probably didn't know her own mother cow either, but fed from a nurse cow twice a day at the dairy.
This is probably one of the first times an actual calf has suckled on Lucy. We had to tie them up so we could more easily handle them (the photos don't show all the kicking and head-butting which went on!) Honey had been feeding from a cow, though, not a bottle, so she knew what to do!
Once Honey was full, we had to milk out what remained in the udder. Lucy is used to being machine-milked in a dairy, not hand-milked in a paddock by two inexperienced milkers! At first we just milked onto the ground to give her very full udder some relief.
And then we introduced the bucket and caught some milk to take up to the house. The children lined up with cups for warm creamy milk fresh from the cow!
This is Honey a week later. She's feeding twice a day from Lucy and trying little bits of other feed too. She might be feeding more often from Lucy, but I supervise two big feeds whilst Lucy has her grain mix in a bucket and stands still for longer.
Lucy can be led to the bails now, so we're milking her out in there each afternoon, once Honey has had her fill. They still sleep together a pen each night, but Lucy is free to come and go into a larger paddock throughout the day.
Lucy is in calf so will feed Honey until she weans, then probably have a couple of months' break before delivering her own calf (another heifer we hope), and so our little milking herd will grow...
Saturday, September 12, 2009
By Notes From The Frugal Trenches
I've shared here before that I don't know how to crochet or sew, my knitting attempts are best left unseen by members of the public, and my growing of all things edible, well um, leaves a lot to be desired! I put my hands up and admit it because I'm on a journey not a race, a journey of learning what works for me, and a journey of accepting it may take time to acquire these new skills. There are many posts on this co-op about other writer's ability to make lovely things ranging from soap to granola to knitwear. But I thought for anyone who is a novice like me, whose attempts often fail, I'd write about just what we can do to redeem ourselves and feel like we are giving something of value even if we don't make it ourselves.
It is no secret I don't like a lot of plastic, mainstream toys or jewelry and I certainly don't have the budget to purchase often lovely unique items from private sellers, but I have found a good compromise. Here are some gifts that work for me!
• I think ahead about the people I want need to give gifts to and write down their favourite hobbies and interests, with some suggestions. Keeping this in my diary helps remind me to think & plan ahead.
• I make a realistic budget for gifts each month, and break that down into a budget per person
• I frequent charity shops, not simply to buy anything but on the look out for treasure! For example for a friend who loves all things vintage, I found the most remarkable vintage tea set in perfect condition for £7.50!
• I purchase charity gifts - for example requesting catalogues from places like World Vision or smaller organizations who have good gift & fairtrade initiatives. Recently I found some lovely handmade stationery from children in Guatemala! I purchased these note sets and a bracelet (total £6) for two friends for their birthdays and both were very well received
• I donate to charities in people's names! One year for everyone on my Christmas list I made a donations to a village in Africa for purchasing livestock, plants, soil, immunizations etc.
• If a friend or family member has a special interest - I look at something that will help cultivate that, for example a small holding magazine subscription, or natural mothering subscription for a friend who is a new mum!
• My one skill I have & I enjoy is cooking, so I will make soups or meals for friends and family
• I have found giving plants for the garden, or grow your own herb boxes to be very welcome
• I purchase experiences - for example for one friend who was ashamed she didn't know how to swim, I purchased her a swim lesson (private instructor) specializing in adults and then gave her 4 handmade vouchers from myself, for an hours swimming together!
• I find one off shops (thankfully we have several where I live) and look for unique gifts that I can keep at home ready for when needed.
• I trawl through etsy and bookmark lovely, frugal and green things I find there! And yes I do swoon over the talent people have!
• I remember that time is just as special a gift as something physical, the photo above is from a day I took a family member to the beach for their birthday, treating them to a lovely english high tea overlooking the sea! I then took this photo and gave it afterwards as a little momento of our trip!
Finally, I'm learning to have patience with myself, to start small with low expectations and to learn simple new skills so that one day I just might be able to make something worth showing on this blog!
Well, I really hope I'm not the only one who has to admit they are a work in progress when it comes to handmade gifts! So, if like me you sometimes have to resort to other frugal, green & simple gifts I'd love to hear what you do!
Friday, September 11, 2009
While I (N.) would love to be able to convince my boss to let me expense an Airstream like the one above I really don't see it happening. I think if I crunched the numbers it would be cheaper to purchase it instead of paying for me to stay in hotels 5-10 nights a month plus I would get a free (to me that is) airstream after a couple years but it's just not "the norm." It would be green, well relatively, I mean I could eat local and organic in it, use homemade cleaning products, conserve water etc but it takes a bit of fuel to get that thing around and convincing them to spring for solar panels would be impossible :).
In the absence of my own eco Airstream I'm forced to travel in rental cars and hotels rather frequently. Many times I'm in different places every night so it's hard to minimize the waste I generate. Hard but not impossible. I want to talk about the camping principle of packing things in and packing them out. Now that I'm traveling more I've realized there are certain things I need to bring. I bring my own towel and washcloth, my own coffee mug, my own soap, my own battery charger and GPS. Each own of those helps me be a little bit greener and generate less refuse.
By bringing a towel and washcloth I can make sure I'm using one that hasn't been washed in harsh chemicals and screaming hot water. Eventually I'd like organic cotton or hemp towels but my current towels work just fine so I'll use them until they are worn out and then repurpose them. It also means I use one towel instead of dirtying five towels in five different hotels, the same with the washcloth.
At home I don't drink a lot of coffee but on the road it's a neccessary evil and while I suppose I could carry around my own coffee maker to garuntee I'm using fair trade organic that's not really practical. At least having my own mug means I can get my day started without the paper and/or plastic to-go cups. I rinse my thermos out with hot water right after I've used it and then when I go home give it a soap and water cleaning.
The battery charger is just handy. Most of my work equipment uses batteries and I don't ever want to be in the position where I need to run out and buy nonrechargables at the store. The GPS is another nice to have and it does prevent me from printing out pages and pages of mapquest directions while also preventing me from inadvertently getting turned around and wasting gas and emissions trying to find the right road again. (This is especially helpful since I lack any sort of internal sense of direction)
My new "toy" is a hand cranked flashlight. It's made of plastic and was a giveaway from an oil company... but hey it serves as a light in the car or the hotel room so I don't have to turn on a light to find the bathroom or in case the power goes out.
Soap is an easy one and most of us bring our own toiletries anyway. The key is to leave as many things as possible untouched. You don't want to use the plastic in your hotel or the local restaraunt or the gas station if you can avoid it. Because once you touch it you are responsible for it, or at least that's the approach I'm taking now.
I try to "pack in" light but smart. I also make sure to "pack out" as much as possible. In hotels it's pretty easy to avoid using anything. Most of us bring water bottles (which I forgot to mention) so you don't need to use the plastic cups and we've already talked about toiletries. What is a bit harder is what you eat and drink. The key is to eat in as many sit down resteraunts as possible because they will use glass, real dishes, and real silverware. You don't want to go to a place with plastic and cardboard and heaven forbid styrofoam. You can go a step further and find local places that use local and organic ingredients or a step further still and, depending on the duration of your trip, pack all your food and dishes. I won't lie, I'm too lazy for this. I do keep a small stockpile of healthy snacks in my car for "emergencies." If I don't have time for lunch or know I'm going to eat late I can eat one of these snacks instead of heading to the nearest fast food place or gas station for a jolt of sugar and empty calories.
The reality though is you aren't going to avoid waste 100% of the time. So when you can't you need to be smart. I look now at the type of plastics that I use because Philly only recylces 1 and 2. If I fall off the wagon and buy a bottled soda then the empty bottle spends the rest of the week with me until I can bring it home to recyle. The same with the daily newspaper at the hotel. I could abstain but then they would just throw it out anyway. I'd rather take it home to my worms or at least to recycle. I know the idea of schlepping around recyclables isn't fun but it will certainly motivate you to use less things and its really not that hard. You stick it all in a bag and at the end of the trip into the recycle bin it all goes.
If we all followed these simple steps we could avoid creating more waste and the majority of what we created could be recycled or composted. Just because we are traveling or on vacation doesn't mean we should abandon our green principles.