Reading Up and Chelsea Green Publishing

Photograph of small farm on river bend

Book knowledge and experience 

As you all know, I’m putting together The Plan. It’s quite a Plan so quite a Task. Never one to spontaneously jump into the unknown, I feel I need to prepare thoroughly. Being an academic, the first thing I reach for is book knowledge. I’m reading up on biology, ecology, agriculture, husbandry, energy, construction, as well as education, culture and spirituality.

I’m also going to need experience, so I am going to sign up as a volunteer at Drumlin Farm, a Mass Audubon Sanctuary and working organic farm here in Lincoln, MA. Volunteers work primarily in the fields, but I’m sure they’ll let me observe with their animals.

Family history

There are no farmers in my family. My grandfather, at 85,  does some backyard gardening (tomatoes, wormy compost, fruit trees), but he started only after I left Belgium and to my shame I have never asked him about it. I remember visiting, as a very young child, one distant relative, long gone now. I remember pine needles on a sandy soil, the one skillet in their possession that he wouldn’t let his wife clean, and I think he kept bees (though that might be my current obsessions intruding on the memory). Suffice it to say that, when they find out about The Plan, my mom and dad will declare me crazy. Over a decade of university education and 2 Ph.D.s and you want to FARM!?

I will need to demonstrate or at least state to them (1) that we can do it, (2) that it makes economical sense, and (3) that it will make us (and especially Amie) happy. They will have to see this before they will believe it, and possibly, given their culture, they will never see or believe issue(3). But issues (1) and (2) are “objective” issues, and I want to get clear on the facts and numbers.

Some books

For now, I am reading two wonderful books:

Bookcover of Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway

Bookcover of A Handmade Life by Bill Coperthwaite

That’s already a well-rounded combination, I would say.

Chelsea Green Publishing

Both books are published by Chelsea Green. One look at their catalogue and you fall in love! Their motto is “The politics and practice of sustainable living,” and their titles reflect the broad range that it brings to mind:  from the reflective to the political to the practical.

At the moment I’m most attracted to the practical guidebooks (like Natural Beekeeping Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture and Step By Step Knifemaking, enthusiastically subtitled “You Can Do It!”) and the theoretical titles, like David Holmgren’s Permaculture. Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

What I also like about Chelsea Green is that they aim to practice what they preach. Many of their books are printed on recycled paper, but they go further. They aspire to “Zero Waste Publishing,” which is quite a revolutionary idea in an industry that consumes so many trees (even if recycling). Check them out!

The Dream of Moving Out

Photograph of small farm on river bend

  • Dreaming of moving out

I love this place, especially when summer comes around, as it finally has. The hustle and bustle of Coolidge Corner and Brookline Village, the treelined streets, the many large, grassy parks, the general friendliness of the community, oh and not to forget the two independent bookstores, one of them the Children’s Bookshop. Work/school/daycare are less than 3 miles away… Who could ask for more?

Still, I often dream of moving out. I dream of it constantly, now.

But where is “out”? What does it mean?

  • Peace and quiet

“Out” for me is, first of all, into a place where I can have some peace. I’ve become very sensitive – my senses have - to the small polluting ways of city life. All summer means to me, sometimes, is the surround sound of airconditioners: on and on they drone, while their owners aren’t even at home. Across the street, the engine of a parked car has been running for an hour now, to keep it cool inside. To top it all off, a leafblower starts up close by, filling the apartment with more noise and gasoline fumes…

Then it is hard for me to concentrate on the frolicking of the Red Cardinals in the bushes outside my window, and the beautiful narcissi bending in the breeze. I resort to terrible thoughts of vengeance. Like, last year I planted some wildflowers near our front door – one neighbor called them “weeds, all kinds of silliness”. Now they’re back: a neat row where I planted them, and all over the neighborhood! All those manicured lawns, overrun by weeds… Oops!

  • That panic pushes me

But all “silliness” and petty griping aside, the roots of my pain reach beyond mere aesthetics. All those wasteful habits are guzzling away our children’s futures, polluting the air and the silence, our bodies and our souls. I read the news on peak oil, global warming, bees getting lost… and I feel lost myself. I try to keep my panic under control: I want it to be practical, constructive, realistic, rational, reasonable.

But I am overwhelmed with the feeling that everything I am doing is useless. I can’t concentrate on my dissertation, which needs to be finished by May next year. Or on my freelance writing or the potboiler that is so much fun to put together. Or on the many other projects I have knocking about in my head and on my desk. None of them will make a difference that will count.

And the small things we’re doing to make a difference don’t add up to enough.

  • Cut and run

I would dearly like to make a difference here, make it work here. I don’t like running away; it seems like a defeat to me. And everyone (who is priviliged enough to be able to)running off to the country or the wilderness would just make matters worse. But I bump up against the limits of this place, this community, and they suffocate me. Not being allowed to compost, for instance, angers me. Every time we bring up renewable energy as an alternative to our oil-heating, we are ignored. Residents only think as far as they are planning to own their appartment: any “future investments” are up to their buyers.

I don’t get shrill (except here perhaps: is this shrill?). I’m not the assertive kind. I wish I were an activist, but I crumble in any kind of confrontational situation. I can’t make this place change. So I plan our escape. I count my blessings: easy access to information, an ability to do the research, and a husband who will one day, once I have enough information, arguments and confidence, understand the wisdom and the need to execute the plan.

  • A child’s role

Amie plays a large role in my “enlightenment,” which started to burn more brightly a couple of months ago. Yes, she is almost 2 years old. But it took me at least a year to get over the shock of motherhood, to settle back into the habit of sleep and a clear mind so I could think beyond tomorrow.

Also, the rapid development of her cognitive and language skills is forcing me to more articulateness, thoughtfulness, and accountability.

Because, one of these days, she is going to ask: Why?

I dread that day, and I dream of it with a passion. And I want to be ready.

  • The plan

So here’s the plan:

  1. to be self-sufficient for a large chunk of our food: grow vegetables, plant fruit trees, keep chickens and even goats, and even, even bees
  2. to be self-sufficient for at least some of the objects we use: furniture, toys, clothes, housing, electricity and heating…
  3. to be autonomous, self-regulating, responsible.
  4. to be skillful, handy, creative, flexible.
  5. to be confident and active after questioning, discerning, investigating (a never-ending process).
  6. to be a good stewart of what little of nature is under our “control”, and respectful of the rest.
  7. to be happy and joyful.

I thought it would be a long list, but this is really all I want. Is it so much to ask for? Is it so hard to get?

I and You: Mastering Personal Pronouns

I and You

Amie is now in the habit of formulating descriptions of what she is doing as follows:

“Are you x-ing?”

She does this in imitation of our own (incessant) questions about and observations of what she is doing, and because she is struggling with the personal pronouns “you” and “I” and “me”. Once in a while she will use “I,” as in “I know” and “I see,” but these are stock phrases and I doubt she is really getting it there. 

We are trying to teach her about the relativity of the personal pronoun, in 4 ways:

  1. First of all, we’re trying hard to wean ourselves off the proper names, off saying, of myself, “Mama hurt herself!” or, to Amie, “Did Amie hurt herself”? It’s tougher than you would think. Strange, because it’s not like we started talking like this to one another or to other adults! Still, when talking with Amie, we revert back to it if we don’t make an effort to be conscious of it.
  2. What helps us, and maybe her too, is to emphatically point to ourselves when saying “I”, and to the addressee (mostly her) when saying “you”.
  3. Each time she uses “you” for “I,” we tell her gently: “Amie should say: ‘I am writing.’ Can you say it?” Then she repeats it, correctly, and we praise her. This works best with requests: “Amie should say: ‘Can you pick me up’. Can you say it?”
  4. When correcting her, if possible, we take her hand and make her point to herself while stressing the “I” or “me”.

An embarassing example

In any case, we were looking through the board books at the (crowded) library today, and I can see that Amie is pooping. She sees me seeing this and pronounces, loud and clear:

“Are you pooping?”

Of course she meant “I am pooping.” But no doubt every child and parent in the room took it quite literally! What could I say, but: “Shh, Amie, we have to be quiet in the library!”

It’s time to set those personal pronouns straight, don’t you think?

(Then we nearly clogged a toilet with the g-diaper!)

Drawing as it Develops: Two more articles

Amie’s airplanes drawing of 29 April 2007

I’ve added two more articles on the development of Amie’s drawings, the last one (no. 4 in the series) finally relating the “Breakthrough” I posted on earlier.

Here are all the installments so far:

  1. First Drawings of a Very Young Child: Amie at 16 months
  2. Circles, and Coloring Books (a Mistake?): Amie at 18 months
  3. NEW More Circles, Graphs, and post hoc naming: Amie at 18-19 months
  4. NEW Naming and Representation: Amie at 20 months

Also, don’t miss the growing list of Tips and Resources for Drawing with Very Young Children.

Compost Dream Replaced by Other Dream

Compost Dreams Dashed

The vote is in and it’s a veto: the majority of the Trustees of our condominium have said no to our composting bin idea.

The first one was personally against it, the second one would dearly like to do it herself, but she knew many other residents would revolt. The third and last Trustee, well: that’s me.

It is true, we are already having trouble getting some to recycle their paper! Many others won’t even want to be educated on the topic. Also, we are composting neophytes, and there’s more than a chance that we will have stinky bin within a month of starting it.

So that got me dreaming about this place:

Photograph of small farm on river bend

I don’t remember where I got the photograph (looks like a newspaper), and I don’t know where it was taken, but it’s somewhere in Europe, possibly Belgium.

Wouldn’t you want to live there (I don’t mean in Europe, but on this farm)?

I’d be afraid Amie would fall into the river though… One more reason to teach her how to swim!

The Fetus Fone and other Pregnant Fantasies

The Baby Tote

When I was pregnant with Amie, I often amused myself thinking up all kinds of ways to make the pregnancy easier on us.

For instance, later on in our pregnancies, when the weight begins to pull our spines out of allignment and our back muscles out of shape, when all those vital organs need to start moving over, and when any kind of comfortable sleep position becomes impossible… wouldn’t it be great if we could just whip out the uterus and stick it into a bag? 

I am thinking an ergonomical backpack, with handy sidepockets, but for the more fashion-conscious it could be an elegant totebag, and an Italian leather briefcase for the businesstype. Once our babies get really heavy, we could bring in little carts or carry-ons… We would take it with us wherever we go (of course), keep it in our laps while having lunch, stash it underneath our desks while working. And this is the clincher: at night, we could just park it underneath the bed!

Ok, I don’t know how it would work physically. I mean: what would giving birth be like? In any case, I think it’s one of my brighter ideas and I’ve suggested it to Nature, and hopefully she has passed it on to Evolution. Women (maybe even men) of the distant future, you’re welcome!

The Fetus Fone

Another innovation was the Fetus Fone. In all honesty, I think I have to credit Amie with that idea. I made a little comic about it at the time:

Comic of Fetus calling Mama

If I had to choose, I would opt for the phone. Not for the fresh insights on Kant and the nature of space and time, but because of the only scary moment in my pregnancy.

One blistering hot summer morning  in the eigth month I rushed into my midwife’s practice, barely on time (I abhor being late; it stresses me out). When the midwife put the Doppler against my swollen belly, even I realized Amie’s heart rate was way too high. The midwife asked me if I had drunk any water yet, andI admitted I hadn’t. Five minutes after I sipped some icewater, Amie had calmed down.

All she wanted was a sip of water!

A Fetus Fone would have saved all of us a great deal of worry. I think I might take a patent on the idea (hey, people are trying to patent turmeric!), and I’d better also reserve the Fetus Fone TM, and the domain.

Gotto go, got work to do…

My Articles Elsewhere

Did I mention I am also a Feature Writer for Once in a while, as I publish more there, I’ll post a widget with my latest articles, like this one:


Latest Articles by Katrien Vander Straeten


Don’t miss my latest article: the more detailed and informed review of Lucy Cousins’ Maisy Books than the one I posted earlier.

New Article Series: Drawing with Very Young Children

Amie’s Drawing of 18 April 2007

Amie, 28 April 2007


I think Amie has made (or is in the midst of making) a breakthrough in her drawing. I happened to catch it on video, and may try to find a way to share that clip with you (at present that is beyond my technical skills). 

It has prompted me to start writing a series of articles about the development of Amie’s drawings (so far). The first two installments can be found here:

  1. First Drawings of a Very Young Child: Amie at 16 months 
  2. Circles and Coloring Books: Amie at 18 months

Also don’t miss a (growing) collection of Tips and Resources for Drawing With Very Young Children.

The first series will document the development of Amie’s drawings from age 16 months to 20 months (December 2006 – April 2007). 

Amie’s drawings serve as examples of the typical development of drawing in very young children. I touch upon the theory of art development in children, but there isn’t much available about this very early stage at the end of the second  and beginning of the third year.

And I know, I know! If I keep calling every minute change in my daughter’s drawing skills a “breakthrough,” the word won’t have any meaning soon. But I really think she made making progress that is not continuous: a leap, in other words. True, a small one, but visible, significant perhaps… Someone, a specialist, help me out here!

Recycling Comic Strip

Comic strip experiment

This is an experiment. On a Previous Blog I published a comic strip once in a while to illustrate the funnier side of our life. It was the (only?) part of the Previous Blog that most of my readers liked. I hope to make more of them and publish them here. The biggest problem will be to portray Amie – as you can see, I am not very good at drawing.

Recycling background

Before our Town of Brookline made it obligatory, our condominium didn’t have recycling. Everything went into the trash, a.ka., landfill (since also the private haulers were not obligated to recycle). It was a thorn in our eye, and the only way to extract it was to do something about it.

So we bought a couple of bins, set them up in the basement, and spread the word. I would guess about half of our residents contributed. Every two weeks my husband and I would stuff a bunch of large trashbags heavy with glossy magazines and leaking rotten food and juice into the back of our station wagon and haul it to the recycling center.

That’s where this particular comic strip comes from.

Comic Strip of Bol and Bol and the Environment

He can be quite cheeky, but obviously he doesn’t really consider his obligation to the environment fulfilled. But I still don’t know what he meant, and he has always maintained that he doesn’t remember ever having said that. It’s also very strange for me to post this comic, as it was drawn before Amie was in the picture…

My child has a life without me too

First weeks at daycare

A dear friend, whose daughter was born a month after Amie and is Amie’s only playdate buddy (I’m not exactly the gregarious type), just survived their first week of daycare.

The first week (for some, the second and third, too) of daycare is awash with waves of despair, glimmers of hope, heartwrenching goodbyes (“I will be back”) and tearful reunions. Our own first weeks, now 4 months ago, are still clear in my mind, and I should write about them soon.


But I want to remark on my friends’ amazement and confusion when she went to pick up her daughter at the end of the third day. Her daughter was climbing (backwards) down the stairs, by herself!

I remember well a similar experience we had. In the third week, we were having dinner one evening after daycare (Amie only goes three days a week). Baba and I were chatting, and Amie was doing a good job feeding herself. Suddenly she looked up from her bowl and said:

“Happy birthday” (sounding something like /happy b-IR-d-day/)

That got our attention – as did and does everything she says and does, by the way. The last time that we knew of that she heard the word “birthday” was at her birthday party five months ago. She must have heard it more recently, but where? Seeing our puzzled faces, she repeated it:

“Happy birthday, Laura.” (/Lauwaah/)

Laura is her lovely daycare provider. Then I remembered, yes, it was Laura’s birthday. It had been mentioned a couple of times last week.

Amie,  clearly encouraged by our insistant requests for confirmation and explanation (like we’re absolute idiots needing everything to be repeated back to us at least five times), piped up:

Cake!” (/kick/) 

And for good measure:

“Laura – happy birthday – cake!”

Again I could corroborate: when dropping Amie off that morning, I had seen a big cakebox. But it was she, Amie, the 17-month-old, who put two and two together.

And so here was, telling us a story about something that had happened. Before, all her chatter had consisted of descriptions of present situations, wishes (commands) and feelings. Now she thought back to the past, and related it to us. What a leap!


But when I analyzed the experience later, I realized there was something else that made it all the more intense, and complex:

  • She had told us about something that she had experienced without/no thanks to us.
  • This proved that she is, in fact, a person outside of her home.

Many of you, reading this, may laugh. Perhaps you were never that naive, perhaps you were but have forgotten, perhaps you are like Amie’s Baba, who is wholly immune to such subtleties of emotive analysis… But for me, it was a profoundly disconcerting realization.

I analyzed that big blob of mother-emotion into these elements (there might be more, I’m still working on it):

  1. happy amazement, because she was doing something we hadn’t thought she could do,
  2. pride, that she can do it,
  3. confusion/alienation, because now there is suddenly a side to our child that we are not familiar with,
  4. fear, because it is confirmed now, something we always knew: she is exposed to experiences that we can’t control.

Growing up 

Of course I will realize it again and again, and after a while the novelty and shock of it will wear off. I will start to relish those stories, as they get clearer and more elaborate, and I will no longer be taken aback.

Then a day will come when her experience, and her story (which I do hope she will tell me) , will be so shocking (being bullied at school?) or wonderful (falling in love?), that I will realize it again: my daughter is her own self. A small self, at the moment, but growing, swelling with experiences of which I am not a part. She’s not even two, but she is already growing up.

(That’s rather soppy, I know, and so trite! I assure you am more the cool-analysis-of-my-fuzzy-warm-feelings  type. But this ending is where the post took me. Go figure!)