Why do I even look at the news – my “consumption” of which is out of spiritual necessity minimized to reading the headlines in Google News? 8-year-old boy shoots himself in the head at a firearms expo, 7-year-old boy kidnapped then shot to death, Neo-Nazi plot to assassinate Obama.

The places where my jawbone fits in its sockets floods with hot anger. My spirit rebels against the hard and cold instances of brutal despair for the individuals and their loved ones, but my mind quickly makes a getaway into the general meaning of such instances. We are supposed to have biophilia, an affinity for the earth, for rivers, for other creatures, for life.

Quickly put on some Bach, open again David Orr’s Earth in Mind on the environment and education – book seem so innocent compare dot the internet, but that’s a illusion – with Amie on my lap “fishing” while she sings about the Whoop-Dee-Dooper Bounce. From the corner of my eye I also stalk the new bird that has been frequenting our feeders, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I’ve been wowed by its red hood, its novelty and most of all, I admit, its rarity here in the North-East. I feel shamefully proud that it is here with us and to make things worse I’m intent on stealing its soul with my camera. Why this need to possess its image? Well, here it is anyway:

Red-Bellied Woodpecker, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I also “caught” the Carolina Wren, who has been around all this time, but whose presence at the feeder is new. Here’s the bird in its box:

Carolina Wren, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I am well aware that the presence of a lens between myself and these birds only distances us further, and that that is an arrogant statement. “Us”, as if the bird cares about how distant I am (as long as it’s at least ten feet). “Further”, as if I can ever bridge even those ten feet. And as if I could feed wildness so I could take a picture for a reward.

Why wasn’t it enough to just see it? The same with the book.  I often find my character has been ruined by my education in general but especially by academics and my “specilisation” in philosophy. It is addicted to sentences and abstractions and  incapable of spontaneously undergoing awe and joy at a natural instance. Such moments of simply being-in-the-moment are too rare, such moments like yesterday, when I cleaned out some of our gutters and marveled at how this wet black soil came to be in them, ten feet away from the ground. Then I thought it’s not soil but decayed leaves and pine needles, and then but that’s what soil is and I nearly fall off the ladder.

Back in the living room I read Orr quoting Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac):

One of the penalties of an ecological eduction is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.

I write “for Amie” in the margin (it is something I need to equip her for), close the book and plot the making of bread and this entry.

Riot 4 Austerity fist with thermometer

We have decided, DH and I, to try the Riot 4 Austerity. It was that whole business with Sharon’s run-in with the New York Times that finally did it: we got really upset about it and this seems the best way to address that kind of inanity.

We’re now trying to establish our baseline (starting point) for the 7 categories. For some it’s as easy as looking at the utilities bill, for others it’s more difficult, but mostly because we have never kept a tally and merely have to start doing so now.

1. gasoline consumption

The desired 90% reduction of the average American usage (500 gallons per person, per year) is 50 gallons.

When we lived in the city we had only one car, a station wagon – bought second-hand with the safety of our still-to-be-born daughter in mind. We still have that, and now another car (a sedan), because in the burbs it is impossible for me to be without a car and drop Amie off at and her up from preschool (5 x a week) and do grocery-farm stand-Farmer’s Market shopping and library (1 x a week) . There is no public transport here. The preschool,  food places and library are each only 1 mile away. DH drives 3 miles to a shuttle into the city three times a week.

Add to that the occasional trip to another store, the landfill to drop off our trash and recycling, and frequent trips to visit friends and that  makes us fill up each car about once a month. It’s not exact science yet, but so far we estimate:

+/- 36 gallons a month for the 3 of us = +/- 150 gallons a person a year.

As I expected, this needs a lot of work, and there is a lot of room for improvement. The cold months are here and I doubt we will ride our bikes to school/shop/shuttle when it’s freezing, let alone snowing. Still, we can consolidate drives and as soon as it is possible switch to the bike.

Here’s a tough one: air travel. It’s been so expensive lately that we haven’t been flying much – 90% of our family live across one ocean or another. But family has been flying in to see us… Should we count that? This is a really difficult issue, something but for another post.

2. Electricity

Last month we used 448 KWH.

The goal is 90 KWH per household per month.

We can’t figure out why we use this much. We used to live in a basement and had the lights on all the time, and we used almost half that amount of electricity.  Here we don’t need the lights on during the day, use compact fluorescent bulbs throughout, never have lights on in rooms we’re not in, turn off computers when we’re not working on them, line dry our laundry – if not in the yard, in the dry basement next to the boiler – etc. Maybe it’s the old fridge that came with the house? The radon remediation system that we were promised uses very little? We have a power meter that you plug in in between the socket and the appliance, so we should find out soon.

3. Heating and Cooking Energy

Average US usage is 750 Gallons per household, per year. A 90% cut  =  75 gallons.

We cook with electricity since there are no gas lines here.

We heat the house and the water with oil. We had one of the most efficient burners installed a month after moving in and we also had the house insulated, but we don’t know yet what our consumption is going to be. We do know we have 2 honking big black tanks with 490 gallons of oil sitting in our basement (they came, full, with the house). We are planning on having that last us 2 years, because we signed up for Chunky Chicken’s Freeze Yer Buns challenge, so we keep the day temperature at 64 F and at 58 F at night.

Our baseline?

No real idea, but let’s (over?)estimate at 500 gallons a year and we’ll find out soon.

4. Garbage

According to the numbers, the average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage per person, per day. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage.

4.5 lbs a day! It boggles the mind. Discounting recycling and all the kitchen waste that becomes compost, I think that

we make that reduction at about half a pound a person a day quite easily.

I haven’t weighed our garbage yet, but will do so from now.

5. Water

The Average American uses 100 Gallons of water per persons,p er day. A 90% reduction would mean 10 gallons.

I think we will do well here as well. We shower every other day and we make it quick, and Amie gets a bath once a week (she won’t stand for more often, abhors it!). We flush selectively and are very water conscious otherwise as well. In the garden next year we plan to have water barrels and other ingenious water saving measures in place. We’ll start keeping a tally on the water meter but for now

I estimate we use 20 gallons of water per person a day

 6. Consumer Goods

The average American spends 10K per household, per year on consumer goods. So A 90% cut is 1,000 dollars.

This is a tough one to estimate. DH insists we collectively buy only about $1000  a year. I’m not so so sure, but it’s possible. We go shopping for clothes once a year (e.g., I own 2 pairs of shoes) and I don’t do cosmetics. We  get a lot of second-hand and hand-me-down children’s clothes. As for toys and books, a lot of these come from friends (thank you!) and we are frequently at the library. We shop wholesale and in bulk for many things like paper goods, etc. Furniture, garden tools and those things often come through Craigslist and Freecycle.

We’ve managed to become quite thrifty with our weak points as well: electronics for DH (he’s been eying that flat screen tv but we don’t have cable anyway) and books for myself (since taking Chile’s Quit Now challenge I have bought only a few gardening and homesteading books). So,

 I estimate that we spend $2000 per year, half on new stuff, half on second-hand.

I don’t know whether that’s a conservative estimate or not. It’ll be fun to see how well I guessed once we have more concrete numbers.

 7. Food

Oh, tough one, and the organizers seem to have had a tough time coming up with a good calculation as well. I like it that instead of sticking a dollar price on this, they have opted to tie the reductions to the percentages of

  1. locally (within 100 miles) and organically grown foods
  2. dry bulk foods transported over distances longer than 100 miles
  3. wet goods transported over distances longer than 100 miles.

The idea is to bring  the percentage of (1) up and to lower the parts of (2) and (3). Ideally, one’s  food purchases should be (1) 70%, (2) 25% and (3) 5%.

During the growing season I shop for most of our veggies and fruits at the Farmer’s Market and at a farm stands right nearby. All that has closed down now, and we were too late to sign up for the winter CSA’s.  Our town only has only one supermarket: Whole Foods. Going anywhere else means more gas mileage. WF is expensive, but we are careful when we go there. We seek out the local produce (keeping in mind that WF does dare to call “New York State” “local”in Eastern Massachusetts). We also think twice before buying exotic foods such as kiwi’s and mangoes, and often stick to apples. We buy our cereals, grains and flour from the bulk section (and use paper bags), but more at wholesalers like BJ’s if they have the organic kind. We have cut down substantially on meat (and often buy that local) and fish and make our own pizzas. Our major vices are coffee and tea.

I would estimate for now that our percentages are (1) 50%, (2) 35% and (3) 15%.

There is much scope for reducing (2) and (3). We’re working on our garden and as of this summer, we’re counting on being more or less self-sufficient for veggies. We’re also going to can and freeze, and install a root cellar so we can get by next winter. Other more short-term projects are to bake our own bread again and to revisit (with the town) the possibility  of keeping chickens.

I plugged all this into the calculator (so cool!) and this is what our baseline looks like:


RIOT Calculator 081027

Here’s what Amie drew today. She is obviously feeling much better, as testified by this springy Tigger. He’s jumping, see, and holding a black balloon, and there’s a tree behind him. She drew this at her little table while no one was watching.

Amie’s Tigger holding a balloon, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Winnie-the-Pooh has become Amie’s favorite. We read a story from the original book every evening. She doesn’t quite understand everything, but loves it nevertheless. She walks around saying “O bother” and pretending all her stuffed and Schleich animals are characters from Winnie-the-Pooh.

Amie Drawing of Christopher Robin, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

This is Winnie-the-Pooh on the left, holding a balloon and a branch, with a tree behind him, an Christopher Robin standing in the doorway. Notice the mix still of figures with bodies and those without. I’m really impressed because she used two colors without being asked, and thrilled that she is also adding context spontaneously now.

Someone suggested we buy her a Pooh or Tigger doll, but we don’t see why. It’s great that she can think of her old Sleepy Bear as Pooh, and of her IKEA kangeroo as Roo. Her imagination makes them so, and so much more beloved too because of that investment.

I have been a daily reader of Sharon Astyk’s blog Casaubon’s Book for years now and I am rereading her book, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, with pencil in hand.  Sharon was the one who made me conscious of the opportunity for a different, more sound kind of lifestyle, like I’ve outlined in What We Do and in this blog. And while persuading me Sharon made me laugh and cry and made my heart race with indignation and swell with hope. But first of all she was and is always thorough in her discussion, brutally honest also about herself, and, most importantly, down-to-earth and practical, feasible. What she was doing, I could do too!

So like many I was holding my breath when Sharon announced on her blog that a visit to her homestead from a reporter and a photographer from the New York Times was imminent. What an opportunity, but would the Times do her – do us, the believers – justice?

The resulting article, “Completley Unplugged, Fully Green,” by Joanne Kaufman (sorry, you may need to subscribe, for “free”), was a grave but not unexpected disappointment. To Sharon first of all, as is noticeable in the title of her blog entry on the subject: I was a Whore for the Mainstream Media (19 October 2008).

The article appeared in the “Fashion and Style” section of the paper. Fashion and Style? Really now. It’s no wonder then that, while presenting a typically short, superficial and selective portrait of Sharon and some of her colleagues, Ms. Kaufman devoted the article’s last page to consulting “some mental health professionals, to whom “the compulsion to live green in the extreme can suggest a kind of disorder” (my italics).

In the extreme.

True, unplugging the fridge, using a composting toilet and heating with a wood stove to an indoor temperature of 52 degrees, cosleeping in some form or other to pool body heat is not something we all do, but compulsive? Are refusing to drive many miles every Saturday to a Little League game,  washing out Ziploc bags, growing one’s own produce, raising chickens and containing one’s spending on consumer goods dysfunctional? Even air-drying  one’s clothes, keeping an eye on one’s trash-output, and taking showers rather than baths (which is “Among the less intuitive” of measures) are made to seem obsessive.

To believe Ms. Kaufman, these are all signs of the “carborexic” “zealotry” of “energy anorexics,” who obsess “over personal carbon emissions to an unhealthy degree, the way crash dieters watch the bathroom scale.” One has to ask: “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work? Is it taking precedence over everything else in your relationships?” “If you can’t have something in your house that isn’t green or organic, if you can’t eat at a relative’s house because they don’t serve organic food, if you’re criticizing friends because they’re not living up to your standards of green, that’s a problem.”

That’s right, but really, none of the people presented in the article, least of all Sharon, fit that description. One only has to read the words of the interviewees closely to realize that.

So one might then say that in Ms. Kaufman’s defense I have the wrong impression of what she “suggests”. But this one line gives her away: “Certainly there is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the compulsion toward living a green life“: at this point in the article, the italicized part is stated as a given.

I resent that.

Wanting to live a more sustainable life, safeguarding a better future for our children, and taking up one’s responsibility as a citizen of the world are not a compulsion. A compulsion is “a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, esp. one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will“. What Sharon stands for is on the contrary a fully conscious and conscientious positions to proven problems.

Sharon deplores that the Riot for Austerity – a community effort of many quite sane people like you and me – was not mentioned. She no doubt also regrets the last line of the article, in which her own words – spoken perhaps, off guard – are co-opted as the inane  conclusion that the whole issue is like a fun game.


It is clear to me that the article philanders to the lowest common denominator by presenting  Sharon and “her ilk” (that’s me, too!) as being just as crazy as the gun-toting survivalists who hole up in the hills. And the constant mentioning of the children (Sharon’s, Colin Beavan’s , the Lavines’) suggesting, as Sharon comments, her “low-level child abuse (cold house, no baseball)” are a clear grab for outrage.

This article reveals more about the writer – and her media outlet, since it chose to publish her article – than about her subject. It’s bad and irresponsible reporting, and it demeans Sharon, her admirers (like myself) and the Times readership. I don’t care if this is how “the Mainstream Media” usually operates. We still need to speak out against it.

We’re all sick.

Amie came down with a cold on Friday. She often has a bit of a runny/sneezy nose in the mornings, and Friday morning was no different, except that she didn’t want to go to school. She loves her preschool, but only gets “fully committed” when she is actually there, or after she has come home. Getting her ready and over there and especially over the threshold – especially when it’s me who’s doing the drop-off – is a less enthusiastic affair.

I asked her: “Are you feeling sick?” She said: “Yes”.  She had no fever, though I caught her shivering a bit – but then this was the first really chilly morning of the season. Was she “faking it”? I doubted she could. Can they, at her age (3.3)? I explained to her about lying, and about how important and fun school is, and how much it costs and Baba needs to work for paying for it, and that Mama also needs to work in the mornings. I explained what “feeling sick” means. Etc.  She still said she was sick.

By that moment in the conversation we had reached the school gate and the teacher  was inviting us in. Amie did the usual thing of clinging to me, but unusually she didn’t let herself be persuaded. I decided to bring her home.

On the way back home I was torn: was she faking it not to have to go to school? Or was she sick? Either way, I realized, I was sunk!

I remember faking it myself. I did that quite often because I didn’t have a happy school life for the most part.  I remember also the despair of my mom on those occasions. She sort of seemed to know, I thought, or at least I persuaded myself so I didn’t have to feel too guilty about it. My woes at school always seemed to legitimize my duplicity to myself, but still there was always my mom’s quiet sadness. Was it because she had work to do at home and I would be in the way, or because she knew the sad reasons for my faking it, or because in the end it meant she had to be unsure now whenever I claimed to be sick, and it made her judgment of the real situation so perilous…

Driving my child back home from school, I finally understood.

In a couple of hours it became clear she was really sick, so though I felt very sad for Amie, I also felt relieved.

It quickly deteriorated into something worse.  Yesterday I thought we might have to run to the ER because her breathing was very shallow and rapid, and the wheezing and rumbling in her chest was alarming. I watched her closely as she slept for most of the day. When awake she was so fully invested into getting enough air into her lungs that she didn’t speak all day, not a singly word except for “tissue”, until after a nap at 5 pm. Then she suddenly perked up with a feverish energy, and she couldn’t stop talking and singing for a while, in a high-pitched, trembling, short-of-breath voice that broke my heart. But she was breathing easier, and today, though she is still sick, and vomited up what little she finally ate, I know she has turned the page on this one.

Not so hubby, who lies moaning in bed. And I also have a runny nose. I’m fighting it, though, by frenetically vacuuming the house, cleaning the kitchen, doing the laundry and turning over the compost while Amie is asleep. Which she is now, on the sofa next to me,  rumbling and snoring away while I blog.

How about you? How does it make you feel when you suspect your child is faking it? How do you remember it from your own childhood?

Sorry I’m a bit late posting this, but this article by one of my heroes Michael Pollan appeared in the New York Times a couple of days ago and it put a chunk in my throat that is still stuck there.

It’s a good thing… balance, especially when you’re a pessimist like I am. I got my balance today when I wanted to put some balm on Amie’s poor nose (snotty cold in progress here) and she cried out:

– No, no, only on the tip of my nose, not on my snorkels, not on my noseholes!

Freeze Yer Buns Challenge 2008 (c) Crunchy Chicken

Yes, I’m taking the challenge, probably the most difficult one of all for me, because I’m one of those people who always feels cold. At the bookends of the summer, when other New Englanders are still/already wearing their t-shirts outside, I’ve got my scarf on and a sweater. I am unapologetic about that, but not about turning up the fossil-fuel heat that we are, at the moment, dependent on.

So far we’ve been blessed with mostly good weather (61 degrees and sunny right now), but we had a some cold days a couple of weeks ago and turned on the heat. Having a new boiler installed was one of the first things we did after buying the house, as the old boiler was literally an antique. We wanted to see how and if it works properly. We have forced hot water with cast-iron floorboards and about 1200 square feet to heat (1500 if we also heat the guest zone, but we shut that off). Unfortunately there is no way to turn off any of the radiators, so we can’t close the bedroom doors and just heat our living space.

We had a tough time finding the right settings, but the main problem was me. DH and Amie are “warm” people, walking around in their light sweaters – and even that had to be forced upon Amie. I was dressed for deep winter, had my hands wrapped around a cup of steaming tea most of the time, and I was still shivering. DH set the thermostat to 64 degrees during the day (or almost 18 Celsius, which still makes more sense to me) and I complained, I admit. And though I hated hearing that infernal boiler fire up, I turned it up a couple of times.

But I shouldn’t.

So I pledge 64 during the day and 58 F at night.

(That’s 17.7 and  14.4 C)

 Now I’m going to peruse Crunchy Chicken’s Freeze Yer Buns posts from last year to see how I can make this any easier.

So over the weekend we dug a big pit (8′ x 3′ x 1.5′)  where part of our vegetable garden will be. Tomorrow spells rain, and we didn’t want all that laboriously dug and sifted soil to wash away.

So we decided to immediately apply the “Bomb Proof Mulch” from Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden – a book we heartily recommend, by the way. It’s a recipe for soil-building, but since we already have pretty good soil (except for it being a little clayey) we felt comfortable with adapting it a bit. Hemenway also recommends to leave the existing soil and the vegetation on it be, as it will all decompose and gets better underneath the “mulch”, but as we have so many stones and roots in our soil, we had no choice but to dig and double-dig.

First we drove out to the next town over to get us some straw, with which we proceeded to stuff the car (four bales). I know Amie looks dubious in the picture, but she loved it.

Amie among the straw, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We also got some bags of composted manure – Moo Doo, cheap for $5 a bag (the farmer wanted to get rid of them). It really didn’t smell too bad, but we did get some strange looks from people along the road.

Car with Moo Doo (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we rolled up our sleeves, double-dug the whole pit (loosened the soil at a depth of more than a foot and took out some more stones) and threw in a bag of Moo Doo:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 1 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we stuck most of the sifted soil back in:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 2 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we  heaped on half a wheelbarrow load of a mixture of our homegrown compost (of which we don’t have much yet), green grass clippings and a lot of browns like fall leaves and partially composted wood chips and watered that. The idea is that this nitrogen rich material attracts worms and beetles other decomposers:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 3 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Next we covered it with a layer of all those cardboard boxes we saved from our move (staples and tape removed) and again soaked that:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 4 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we put on the other half wheelbarrow of the compost, clippings, leaves, and partially composted wood chips. Here the idea is to entice the decomposers who made it to the layer below to eat through and digest (thus compost) the cardboard:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 5 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we put our straw to work, laying down two layers of “books” of straw, soaking again. This is really the “mulch” part of this exercise:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 6 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Lastly we put the rest of the sifted soil, partially to weigh down the straw (it can get a bit windy up here on our hill) and partly to cover up this now very conspicuous patch, and partly because we still had a little left over.

Bomb Proof mulching stage 7 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

It totally looks like I did nothing, doesn’t it? But I did! Then I had to rush off to Yoga and felt wonderfully invigorated, though I may still have smelt of manure a bit.

Total cost for this patch:

  • 1 bag of Moo Doo = $5
  • 1 straw bale= $8.99
  • about 9 hours of work (two of us, but it included a lot of mucking about with a homemade sieve and some pesky tree roots)

Next weekend we tackle another 8′ x 3′ patch and hopefully as we progress the cost in time  and effort will grow less. Come winter we’ll be able to sit back and dream of all  that mulch working away on our soil.

With regard to the square-foot-gardening, I found a helpful way of planning, recording and keeping track of the crops: check it out here.


This weekend we finally got our asses in gear (that’s the expression, right?) and started to clear more of the to-be-vegetable patch to the side of the house.  Yesterday we cut down whatever overgrown chrismas trees needed removing, mostly using a bowsaw (I really enjoy using a bowsaw; a friend lent us an electric chainsaw and, really, it’s just not the same).

Today we started digging out a 8’x3’x1′  hole and sifting the soil. It took us five hours, the two of us, with some help (and counter help) from Amie. She was very cute with her yellow plastic shovel, filling up a bucket, complaining like we are wont to complain (a bit) and then concluding “You can fill the bucket, Baba!”We now are left with the hole, a big pile of sifted and somewhat clayey soil, and a smaller pile of pebbles, stones, rocks, boulders, and tree roots.

Next up: double dig (stick in a fork and wiggle it around a bit), add the soil amendments (mainly compost, proably our own but I doubt we’ll have any left after this small patch) and fill it back up. Then tackle the next 800 square feet!

I’ll take pictures tomorrow. It’ll be good to have some before-meanwhile-after pictures. I always enjoy those same-angle pictures that gardeners put up on their blogs.

Mel Bartholomew’s new Square Foot Gardening (c) Bartholomew

We’re planning on following Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method – the old  one, since we have pretty good soil, but I’m going to check out the new book as well (*). I had such fun last week trying to figure out how much land to set aside for potatoes (our main local starch around here).


  • Carla Emory wrote to plant at least 50 lbs per family.
  • 1 lb of potato “seeds” planted yields 10 lbs of harvest.
  • The best seeds or tubers weigh about 2-3 ounces
  • If in the traditional method we assign 3 rows 40′ long and 3′ apart, we’d plant 78 plants at intervals of 18″, which would come to 10-12 lbs of seed, and would yield a harvest  of 100-120 lbs.
  • Using Mel’s method of planting a main crop of 1 seed a square foot, the same area  of 10 X 40 feet would take 400 plants (so 800 ounces or 50 lbs) and yield 500 lbs!

500 lbs. is too much, even for me, for whom potato is the ultimate comfort food. But if on our first try we hit it somewhere in the middle of the traditional yield and “Mel’s yield”  we should be covered.

(*) In his new system Mel “grows up”: he fills his square-foot boxes with “Mel’s Mix” of1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 compost and 1/3 peat moss – so it doesn’t matter what soil you have, or if you have any at all, really.

Amie in the meantime is becoming a good helper around the house as well. She is really good at folding towels and handkerchiefs (yes, we use those: no paper tissues in our house). I can’t wait to show you the drawings she’s been making…

Amie’s pile of folded laundry (c) Katrien Vander Straeten