Solar eye

Today we talked to the tree removal people, and the quote they gave us was reasonable. We’re talking a lot of trees, here: six largish-large oaks (some white, some red), one massive beech and one younger one, and three tall pines. Then there will be stump removal (necessary because we want to plant an orchard instead, matching each cut tree with at least one new dwarf one) and splitting and chopping fire wood. We’ll leave the first to the experts, but are planning to do the second and third jobs ourselves. I plan on becoming an expert in chopping and stashing away two more years of firewood while also gaining a kick-ass figure!

So far we’ve received three (ball park) quotes for a 5 kilowatt solar PV system and a solar hot water system. They too, given the incentives, could be within our means. We need to crunch more numbers, but one thing is for sure: it will be nice to open up our canopy for the gardens, but if we decide not to go with the solar array(s), we won’t take down the trees.

Above is the image one of the installers took when on our roof, which at that point still had 2 feet of snow above a good 10 inches of ice on it.  That was excitement enough for me!

sewing machine in bedroom

I finally managed to sow the row covers together. I used these 5′ wide spun covers to shield the beds from the downpours over Summer, but they were a pain to position because they were too narrow for the 4′ wide beds. Some end of it was always coming undone, and because we couldn’t stretch them, they sagged and billowed in the wind. The solution was to sow two strips together into one comfortably wide one that would stretch over the hoops and have some left over on the sides for anchoring.

Not wanting to sew about 40 feet by hand, I got out our sewing machine. It is a hand-me-down from my aunt and makes only one stitch, but that is sufficient for most of our purposes. Both my mom and MIL used it when they were here, and they showed me how to thread it. Many times over. But, not having a head like that, I forgot. So imagine my horror when I opened the lovely red suitcase to find it… threadless!

Well, after a lot of messing about, sighing, cursing, and some foot stomping, I got it done, mostly with the help of DH – okay, he got it done. I got to reflect again on my unkindness to machinery. You should see me kick the vacuum cleaner when it gets stuck behind the corner of some furniture. When my laptop does something weird, I take care to immediately hand it off to DH.

DH was also reflecting on this, but aloud:

– You really have no patience, do you? How come you have no patience with this? Etc. etc.

You know, that kind of commentary. Oh, those poor machines. Lucky for all of us I struck upon the following reaction:

– I have a lot of pity for the machines in this house. But no mercy.

That kind of thing always cracks us up.


That’s the second person intimating to me that my home canning might not be safe. Usually the question comes quietly: “Are you sure the jars are okay?”

Though it riles me, I’ve come to expect the attitude. It’s like with eggs. When I tell people about wanting chickens for their eggs, half the time the reaction is: “But what about bird flu?”

The prevalent philosophy is that factory food must be safer: it’s more measured and controlled, and the processing is done by machines, and machines don’t make mistakes, and also, they preclude human contaminants.

That last one, I think, is what matters a lot to many people: they find the idea of human hands touching the food, or anyone breathing on it, icky. And the average home kitchen does not stack up against the scrubbed concrete tile and stainless steel scoopers and mashers and stirrers. The latter are self-cleaning, preferably.

And of course the food manufacturers will do their best by their consumers. They won’t make mistakes. They’ll clean their equipment judiciously. And use only the best ingredients. There have been no sickness or deaths with factory-processed foods. Right?

But consider factory-canned foods and bisphenol A, the stuff that got banned from baby bottles. One of my favorite watchdogs, the Environmental Working Group, determined that almost all factory-canned foods and beverages have bisphenol A in them, simply because most cans are lined with bisphenol A epoxy resin as a sealant (here). That not just in the can, but in the food.

Infants and young children are at greater risk because of their small size and developing bodies. Studies of laboratory animals or cultured human cells have shown exposure to bisphenol A can cause neural and behavioral changes, precancerous growths in breast and prostate tissues, early onset puberty and other effects at very low doses. In addition, bisphenol A crosses the placenta and has been found in amniotic fluid and umbilical cord tissue, showing that there is no prenatal protection from a mother’s exposure. (here)

Recent reports from the National Institute for Environmental Health conclude that there is concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children at current levels of exposure to BPA. Presently, there are no recommended minimum exposure limits for infants or children. More research is also needed to understand all the health effects that may be associated with exposure to Bisphenol A. (here)

But we’ve been consuming it since the ’30s.

Listen, my hands and my kitchen are clean when I prepare the food, and I follow the recipe to the letter, as well as the canning instructions. Come winter we’ll be eating our own garden-grown or Farmers Market (locally) grown food, and nothing extra.

{UPDATE} Nice discussion beginning in the comments.


I am reading Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred. The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Many points are too loosely argued for my taste – as in, I doubt it would convince my DH, who is a total techno-optimist. As a confirmation for what I believe, it reads pleasurably.

But these lines grabbed me:

With each new generation of technology, and with each stage of technological expansion into pristine environments, human beings have fewer alternatives and become more deeply immersed within technological consciousness. We have a harder time seeing our way out. Living constantly inside an environment of our own invention, reacting solely to things we ourselves have created, we are essentially living inside our own minds. Where evolution was once an interactive process between human beings and a natural, unmediated world, evolution is now an interaction between human beings and our own artifacts. (p. 32)

I have read in many environmental books that we are destroying nature, that great Other. McKibben, in his seminal End to Nature, hangs nearly his entire argument on the despair of there being just us.  I never realized what it meant until I read Mander’s words.

Don’t say that this is not true, that there is no other, that it’s just us. In many parts of our world this is already true:  in mega cities, malls, schools, work places. Look around you: what do you see that will take you out of your own mind? What do you see that is not you? Sorry, the potted palm does not count. Nor does the lawn. The creatures visiting your lawn, yes, but how often do you see them, look for them? And it is getting worse second by second.

Then you may ask: so what?

A few weeks ago I was on my way to fill up the buckets with rain water  when I came upon this creature amongst the weeds.


A garter or garden snake, about as dangerous as a field mouse (to us, not to the field mouse). But it’s a snake, and my biological instinct was: hark! And it felt good, that jolt of surprise and rapt attention, that lurch out of the of the ordinary.

I was, for a few seconds, out of my mind.

If we eliminate what is other, then we are without surprise, without instinct, without perspective, and without the possibility of ever being truly free.


If for some reason you couldn’t leave your house, how long could you and your family survive on the food and water you have at home? If your answer is three days, you can count yourself “normal”.

If for some reason the grid blinked out, would you be able to cook that food, heat your house and light your evenings? If you answer no, congratulations, you’re “normal”.

If for some reason you had five minutes to evacuate your family, could you walk out confidently, knowing your family, and your house, will be “all set”? If your answer is again no, you guessed it, that’s “normal”.

My answers are more or less the same. And it feels awful.

What with the wood stove now (it’s being installed on Friday), and our cords upon cords of fire wood, we could heat the house and cook (though not bake), and boil some water for washing and perhaps for purifying. But that’s about it, and upon evacuation I’d have to spend my five minutes looking for our social security cards and some cash.

For months now I have lived (not very gracefully) with this gap between the fears I now take seriously, and paralysis. My paralysis stems from the slippery slope built into the “for some reason”. What reason, I ask.

Oh, it’s just a winter storm that knocked out the grid, and they’re working on it. So let’s have a week’s worth of food and a non-electric way of cooking it (if it’s not winter). But maybe there’s a sudden break in the supply of oil and while the powers that be fiddle and connive, no food is making it into the supermarket, no heating oil into the house, and no gasoline into the car. Okay, so we need two more months of stored food, and a way of washing clothes, and perhaps we should also find a reliable way of purifying rain water, or stock some drinking water in our basement. But there has been a chemical spill, and we need to hunker down. Then we’ll definitely need some good water, along with all the above and some sort of safe (and livable) room in the basement, and a way of going to the toilet there. But what if it’s a nuclear disaster? What if it’s the end of civilization and the mob is coming to get all our stocked-up emergency supplies? We’d need a gun to protect ourselves, and there we draw the line, and anyway, would it be worth it, life I mean, under such conditions?

And so it goes.

But today I received this book, Just in Case, by Kathy Harrison. And though she does discuss the dreaded Nuclear Disaster, I think with her help I could take one step down the slippery slope, stop and catch up, then take another step, etc.

It helps to already have a way of heating the house and water for the next three years, but in a few months I would also like to have:

  1. four winter months worth of stored food and recourse, for the rest of the year, to fresh, homegrown food and stored staples like grains and sugar,
  2. a year’s worth of soap, cleaning products, toothpaste and toilet paper,
  3. a well-stocked first aid kit,
  4. enough water for two months and several ways of filtering and purifying bad tap or rain water for a year,
  5. an off-grid device to charge batteries for reading and flash lights and a radio,
  6. skills like making bread, growing and canning food, chopping wood, administering first aid –  skills that I could anyway use today,
  7. emergency packs for quick evacuations.
  8. No gas masks, no nuclear bunker, no guns. Just common-sense just-in-case.

Tomorrow I plan to turn the blueberries I got from the farmer’s market into jam, to can them into eight 8 oz jars, to line them up, neatly, on a shelf in the basement, and to just stand there and look at them and say: I’ve begun.

It will feel so good.

Amie picking raspberries at Drumlin (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

This Saturday we returned to Drumlin Farm for the Harvest Festival and we had a blast. We danced to the Old Mariners’ Dixieland Jazz – they were in their sixties and seventies and pretty hardcore, apologizing for playing a song so recent as from the thirties! We took a hayride into the fields I remember with such fondness and picked the last of the raspberries.  I was wishing we had that much sunlight in our garden. I would love to have a berry patch like that, for the berries, for sure, but also for the picking, which is just such a mind-clearing and calming activity. We also got some gourds (now curing in our porch) and large as well as small pumpkins, of which Amie painted one.

Amie painting pumpkin at Drumlin, october 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

On Sunday we drove “into the city” (it’s still funny to say it like that) and in between two parties we visited the MIT Museum.

Amie and Kismet, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

There Amie got acquainted with the”emotional robot” Kismet (above), the kinetic sculptures of Arthur Ganson, and the ongoing and ever changing exhibition of holograms. Amie was most charmed by Ganson’s Machine with Wishbone and the tiny armchair jumping and bouncing over the cat. But she was most mesmerized by his self-oiling machine, of course, how could she not? All that sleek oil dripping down… Maybe that’s what caused her proclamation, as we headed back out again: “I want to go to a coffee shop!”

Two conversations.

  • The Future: Star Trek or Middle Ages?

We were noting all those people cueing up in front of the stores to get their hands on an iPhone.

– “Idiotic,” I judged, “an irrelevant piece of junk”.

– “Sacrilege!” DH countered – he’s not wanting to get an iPhone, he was just defending what it stands for.

Personally, I have been letting go, slowly at first, now faster and faster, of the idea of the future that most of us grew up with: that sci-fi sleek, sanitized, technologically facilitated world.

Now I am envisioning something more primitive and – in my eyes – wholesome: something a darker green, where growing food is the priority. No replicators a la Star Trek, but hands digging in the dirt, pulling out a carrot. No communicators, but a friendly chat with the neighbors. No transporting out to another continent, but a walk around the commons.

It all sounds very “medieval” to my husband, who is a real technology devotee and will not let go of that old dream. I don’t mind the word “medieval”: as a historian with an interest in those times, I have a more realistic – i.e., less dark – idea of the Middle Ages.

– “Well,” I concluded, “it is going to play itself out, one way or the other, in our lifetimes. We’ll revisit this talk in a couple of decades and see who was right.”

– “Okay,” he joked, “record it in that medieval contraption of yours, “your journal.”

What will we be consulting, in let’s say 30 or 40 years? The moleskine, or this blog?

  • Potboiler or highbrow?

Later in the evening I was reporting my progress on The Potboiler (working title of my adventure novel). Deep into my narration of medieval manuscripts, Greek myths, aniconic Bronze Age worship of the Mother Goddess, the metaphysics of time (*)… DH interrupted me:

– “That doesn’t sound like the Da Vinci Code!”

– “I found I just can’t write something like that. I think it will be more like The Name of the Rose,” I stated.

– “But I want those millions!” DH exclaimed.

– “The Name of the Rose made millions,” I could reassure him. “And they made a movie of it too. Don’t worry, we’ll still get by.”

(*) I hope that’s not a spoiler!