Sunday, 31 July 2011

Looking to the past

Aurora @ Island Dreaming

The problems that the world has begun to face (whether consciously or not for the majority) - financial, energy and resource descent, and an increasingly unpredictable climate - signal the onset of a decline in material living standards for many of us - a sizeable number of whom have got used to ever increasing levels of consumption and material wealth over the past decades. How we individually and collectively navigate these challenges will largely determine the quality of life we experience; and I personally do not believe that a decline in material consumption is a one-way ticket to misery and social breakdown.

Last year I finally got around to visiting my city's flagship tourist attraction - the historic dockyard. This is the home of the Royal Navy, and the place that it keeps its historic flagship, HMS Victory. As Victory is now preserved as a museum in dry dock (though technically it is still in commission) and has been restored and patched up several times over the centuries, it offers a sanitised view of life on a 250 year old warship. There were no fires, slop buckets, wounded soldiers, or unwashed sailors on board when we visited and conditions on board would have been grim when the ship was in active service.  But it did show that humans have lived and thrived with far fewer resources, far less complexity, than we have today. 

Fast forward a century, or take a walk a few hundred yards across the dockyard, and step on board HMS Warrior, the most advanced warship of the 19th century navy. The British Empire project was well under way, and it shows - a majestic, iron clad ship boasting the very best engineering and built and furnished from raw materials imported from across the world. By today's standards, it is still rustic (no running hot water, no electricity)  but it shows something of how humans climbed up one side of a bell shaped curve to the level of energy and resource consumption we enjoy today. Can the past show us a possible path down the other side of that curve?

 In the UK there has been a resurgent interest in WWII era house keeping since the onset of the financial crisis. This era, more so than more recent economic recessions, inspires people. Government pamphlets from the era covering everything from victory gardens to 'make do and mend' have been republished, and wherever you are in the world, you have probably seen at least one piece of merchandise or blog buttons with the phrase 'Keep Calm and Carry On' splashed across it. 1940's cookbooks have been reprinted and ration diet challenges taken - none of which is necessarily a bad thing when it inspires people to face the material challenges in their lives with 'Blitz spirit'.

The problem with looking to the past for inspiration on how to live today is the tendency to over-romanticise things, to look through the prism of the Hollywood movies we may have seen - to believe that society was rosier back then and the hardships that people faced were more severe but somehow more 'real' and endurable than the more familiar, boring challenges we may find ourselves facing today. A discerning eye is necessary when adopting historical practices and 'lost' skills - some make no sense, financially or ecologically, in the modern era. Still, many of us will be engaged in old fashioned, rustic and downright medieval experiments of our own in our quest to lead simpler, less consumption driven lives; and we will extract great enjoyment from them. 

If we can overcome a tendency to romanticise, there are real lessons to be learnt from the past. As humans we have used our ingenuity and opposable thumbs to increase our ability to exploit resources, increase consumption and create waste. Any era before our own shows that it is possible to live with less than we have today; and it is possible to live a good life with much less. Combined with the vast knowledge we now have in physical, environmental and social sciences - knowledge we have traditionally channelled predominantly into growing a consumer society - the practices and perspectives of our less spendthrift forbears might show us a way forward through challenging times. If our ascent has been characterized by increased consumption and  decreasing quality, increased outsourcing and decreasing self reliance and self determination - how might we be able to fashion our descent?

I am currently rereading articles and books from the 1970's and 1980's fuel crises and back-to-the-land movement, and the DIY and craft books that were spawned by that era - because they happened to be my first introduction, many years ago, to the issues we currently face. Much has to be taken with a pinch of salt, much is still valid and inspiring. What periods of history are you inspired by?

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Outdoors and our kids

by Eilleen

Hello everyone!

In my personal blog, I am running a competition for the National Tree Day campaign which is tomorrow.

Did you know that:

- only 13% of our children play outdoors more often than indoors?
- only 35% if our children play outdoors everyday?
- 1 in 10 children play outside once a week or less?

This is a huge difference from my childhood. When I remember my own childhood, I remember riding on my bike and exploring the neighbourhood all day.

My fondest memories were of my brother and I waking up on a Saturday morning, cycling (what I now know to be) 5 kms to a huge playground and we'd stay there all day. We knew it would be time to go home when the street lights would go on!

I remember cycling to the river and swimming with my friends. There is a small cliff face in that river and we'd dare each other to jump off the top and jump in.

I remember cycling even when it was cold - so cold that frost would form on my beanie and my gloves as I am riding!

I remember having tree climbing competitions where we would dare each other on how high we can go.

I want that for my kids......but.....its hard.

I sometimes feel that I should not let my kids out of my sight and if I let them go to the playground by themselves, then I am a bad mother.

I sometimes feel that I just don't have enough time to go outside with my kids and still get dinner done and pay house bills.

I would like them to jump in the river....but the government has now bulldozed the little cliff face next to the river so kids can't jump off there.

I would like them to climb the trees in the public recreation area outside my home.....but the government recently they came and chopped off all the lower branches to stop children from climbing the trees.

The trees without their lower branches

....... because all of that is dangerous....and the government might get sued.

While my children still play everyday outside, I know that they do not spend as much time outdoors as I did as a child.

And that just makes me sad.

I will be outdoors for National Tree Day. I can't join any of the planned activities, but you know what? The outdoors is just a door away. I hope you will be too.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Making Peace with Tomato Horn Worms

When I first started growing tomatoes I used to pick off the tomato or tobacco hornworms and squish them with a rock. Then one year I missed one and spotted it with the tiny white eggs from a parasitic wasp on it's back. Ever since then I've made peace with the hornworms in my garden. I never pick them off or do anything to get rid of them. They get to eat some tomatoes leaves and a tomato here and there in complete peace. Why the change of heart? Making Peace with Horn WormsI don't want to get rid of them and risk the parasitic wasp not having a host for it's eggs. I also don't want the birds to go hungry, as they seem to find these giant juicy worms a complete breakfast. The truth is they're not that damaging to tomato plants and I can plant extra plants just for them. Perhaps a little defoliation is good for tomatoes this time of year and I don't mind losing a couple tomatoes, I have plenty to go around. The truth is that often when we step in we upset the balance of nature and make our problems worse down the line. If we squish or kill all the hornworms we'll never have the braconid wasps in our gardens. Without the wasps we'll end up with more hornworms, aphids and other insects. We may also inadvertently kill a hornworm that has already been parasitized by a wasp since it takes a few days before the white worms appear on their backs. Making Peace with Horn WormsI'm convinced that I'm encouraging biodiversity in my garden by making peace with hornworms and other things viewed as "pests". I have noticed that the less I interfere with nature the more balanced things become, even in my small quarter acre garden. I encourage you to let the hornworms and other pests live and see how everything balances out in a few years!

Do you have any pests that you've made peace with?

Here's an interesting article from the BBC about how plants can send out SOS signals to predatory insects when they sense they're being attacked by caterpillars & other insects. And the specifically studies hornworms.

Wild Berry Season is Almost Here

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Strawberries and raspberries in the garden are trickling in and finding their way into the freezer, but we are a ways off from picking wild blackberries.

The most plentiful blackberry around here is the Himalayan blackberry Rubus armeniacus, a terrible invasive plant that will take over if you turn your back. There seems to be no way to completely eradicate this noxious weed, so we fight it for most of the year and resign ourselves to picking the berries when they ripen in August. A true love hate relationship. It's hard to resist stocking the freezer with these plentiful berries.

Irma Harding, my home economic advisor reminds me that I need to rotate my freezer stores if berry season is imminent, so with that in mind, blackberry pie has been on the menu lately.

These berries are juicy, so to avoid the filling boiling over the pie pan in the oven, I thaw the berries thoroughly and let them drain. Depending on the deepness of my pie dish, I may only use half of the reserved juice.

I like to use tapioca starch in my pie fillings, mixing it thoroughly with the sugar for the pie before adding to the berries. For this pie baked in a 9 x 13 pan I used 1/3 cup of tapioca starch, for a medium thick filling. Not firm, just juicy enough to go well with ice cream.

Add the sugar and thickener to the drained berries.

Stir gently to mix and let the mixture macerate to draw more juice from the berries. I do this step before I make the crust. By the time I get the crust ready, the berries have released more juice and I can decide if I need to add any of the reserved juice. If you have fresh berries, letting them macerate overnight or at least a few hours with half the sugar will release the juice. I like to drink sweetened blackberry juice much more than the task of cleaning bubbled over and burned pie filling.

Baking on a catch pan helps keep the cleanup to a minimum. The taste of the pie more than makes up for a little scrubbing. Delicious! Time to fill the freezer again...

Saturday, 23 July 2011

No sew doily scarf

by Eilleen

Hello everyone!

Well, its proven to be a cold winter here in Australia's capital. While the temps have been around the 10 degree celsius mark (about 50 degrees farenheit), freezing winds with a chill factor of about -1 C (or 30 F)have been sweeping through much of the southern east coast.

Anyway, I thought I'd share this easy, frugal (and green) idea for a scarf. Basically, grab a few doilies together.

Tie the doilies end to end with a ribbon.

And voila! A scarf.

I wish you all a fun weekend ahead. :)