Sunday, December 31, 2006

To The New Year!

2006 has been a good year. I feel like I'm starting the New Year of Light and of 2007 with a new lease on life. I'm starting 2007 Thirty pounds lighter, having learned how to cook better, making our lifestyle even more sustainable and ethical in partnership with Beo, with two happy, healthy kids, with my Dad having survived his stroke and taking care of his health, with two good jobs in the family, three great dogs and a warm house surrounded by beautiful gardens of our own design.

So what's next? In 2007 I hope to focus on continuing to be the change I wish to see in the world, while improving my family's wellbeing. I plan to stay healthy with smart eating and exercise, and keep my family healthy through activity and good organic food. I will continue to support local farms and try to find even more ways to buy local. I'd like to keep up with the gardens more and spend more time knitting. I hope to start a film screening program to help spread the message of some of the wonderful documentaries out there.

My biggest focus will be cutting back on our consumerism, making our impact by spending less money and spending the money we do have in an even more responsible way. My goal is to put nothing on the credit cards this year, barring any unforseen emergencies, and cut back on spending a bit in every area to start getting ahead. I hope to get more use out of our vegetable gardens to cut back on our food spending, and cut back on our gift buying by creating gifts with the talents and resources we have available to us. Instead of just focusing on recycling Sprout and Bird's used clothes, I'm going to expand that angle to trying to buy at least half of their clothing used. When all is said and done, my focus is going to be on working with the many Blessings we have, rather than always looking for The Next Best Thing. 2007 will be about Living Simply so that our lives are more sustainable and our family is carried closer to our dreams. May 2007 inspire you to follow your dreams!

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Pomanders were the air fresheners of the Victorian era. These days, they can be a fun and simple craft. While you can make a more in-depth, long lasting pomander, you can just do an easy short-lived decoration for fun too. That's what the kids and I did--or more accurately, what I did and the kids watched. We made simple pomanders by pressing cloves into the rinds of oranges, and finishing off the look with a ribbon. Please note, this is slightly more difficult than one might think! We lasted a few minutes with me getting a clove started and Sprout or Bird pushing it the rest of the way through, but it's a bit tedious for a 3 and almost-5 year old. Still, the end result was quite pretty and the kids were still proud of the role they played. Bird was thrilled with her "Baby Sun".
May all of you who are traveling have safe, uncomplicated journeys. May you be surrounded by love. May you feel peace and light in your heart. May you have lots of scrumptious goodies.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Solstice!

Merry Yule! Happy Solstice! We started off with a morning lit by candles and spiced with hot cocoa and mocha prepared by Beo. Then gifts, followed by our traditional holiday breakfast of strawberries and waffles. Beo made a beautiful yule log from a birch log that his Dad gave us last year. I'm glad we saved it, it is a beautiful piece of nature for us to incorporate into our yearly celebrations. Tonight, after a dinner of roasted sweet potatoes, green beans with carmelized onions, spinach salad with pomegranate seeds and pecans, and "Veggie Wellington", we did a great ritual using the log. We lit the candles, each choosing something to leave behind in the darkness. At the moment of Solstice, we blew out the candles, and sat in total darkness (not total silence though, we do have kids after all). Finally we re-lit the candles with hopes for the new year. We finished off the celebrations with a gingerbread cake. I feel relieved that I've done what's important to me and to our family for the holidays. So much stress (positive and negative) is gone with this day. Now I can relax and enjoy holiday celebrations with our church and extended family. I'm so glad we've decided to make this a Family Tradition. I hope that you and yours have as beautiful a Holiday as we did today.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Recycled Holiday Love

Happy Solstice Eve! We are planning a lovely day tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to it! This year we made our own tags for our cookie tins. It's something I've been meaning to do for a while. Last year I remembered to save my favorite Holiday cards, so we got started. While I have pages of stickery gift tags, these are so much nicer! As you can see, it's really quite simple. Just choose a card, and cut out your desired tag shape. (They certainly don't have to be square or rectangular, you can get creative!) Use a paper punch to cut out an opening, and tie a piece of ribbon through. We used the back to write our "To" and "From". This is a fun and simple way to be earth-friendly, thrifty, and look clever doing it. Happy Solstice!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

It's For the Birds

This year we've decided to put our Winter Holiday emphasis on Solstice. After all, it fits in much more nicely with our belief system, and darn if it doesn't make things less stressful to spread things out. Beo's Mom wants to have a fancy Christmas Dinner on Christmas Eve? No problem, we already had our fancy dinner! We have to travel all day on Christmas? No problem, we already had our special day! You get the idea. I'm hoping this will become a family tradition.

I'm trying to instill in the kids a sense of the magic and wonder of the season. With how little they are, I'm keeping things simple too. Lights, newness, nature, peace and giving--it's all good. One of the fun things we've done is to make Solstice Gifts for the birds. In addition to a traditional garland of popcorn and cranberries which we draped on the bird feeders, we made these fun little numbers. These were a suggestion from a Veggie Boarder who owns a wild bird feeding store. They're totally simple to make. Just hollow out an orange, mix peanut butter with birdseed, and fill. I had everything ready to go so that there was no need for patience or frustration on anyone's part. The actual activity for the kids lasted all of about three minutes, but they loved it, and enjoyed setting them out for the birds. It's a simple way for them to get to honor nature.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Tidings of Cookies and Joy

I've done it again: completely freaked out some perfectly nice suburbians by being neighborly. It was all entirely worth it. We had the standard unanswered doors, reciprocal cookies, and guilty "You do this every year and we never give you anything!" Yes, that's the point my friend, my neighbor--the joy of giving! Heck, we're neighbors! This year aside from those standards I caught a neighbor in their jammies. He was very embarassed but I don't feel bad because: 1. He didn't have to answer the door, and 2. I totally owed him. It was payback time.

This year I made four kinds of cookies (about 200 I think: iced sugar, soft molasses, dairy-free snickerdoodles, and oatmeal carmelitas), caramels, and truffles. I put together 8 tins: 4 for our nearest neighbors, 1 for the only other neighbors who are neighborly to us, 1 for my volunteer coordinator at work, 1 for the annual family reunion, and 1 for us (We deserve it.). I also put together four plates for the bakesale at church. It was a lot of work, but I really loved every minute of it. That much energy going into building a real neighborhood is absolutely worth it. At best, I make some friends and lighten the mood while connecting neighbors in our suburb. At worse-or maybe even better-is that the kids see the real effort that goes in to the process of giving, from planning, shopping and baking, to packing and delivering the tins. I hope that even if my spark does nothing in our neighborhood, my kids will grow up to see giving to others as a natural thing, and will always believe in creating community where before there were just plain old people and houses.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sugar Cookie Tips

Solstice is coming! I hope to share a few holiday ideas in the next week. None should be as long as this one, so forgive me!

One of my favorite and yet most labor-intensive holiday traditions is baking and decorating sugar cookies. I thought I'd share some tips for these classic holiday treats. I use Betty Crocker's recipe, minus the almond extract. It's a tried and true favorite. The biggest thing with your recipe is to use real butter. I always stock up on Organic Valley Butter when the holidays approach! I also prefer recipes that use cream of tartar. Once you've made your batter, let it chill properly (at least 4 hours) and then set up your workstation. You'll need parchment lined cookie sheets, flour, a rolling pin, and cookie cutters. Preheat your oven. Flour your work area, and divide your dough in half. Put one half back in the fridge while you roll out the other. Try to get the dough to an even thickness of about 1/4". My best tip is to try to make similarly shaped cookies within each cookie sheet. For example: snowflakes, suns, and stars go together at our house. (How Celestial!) It's also a good idea to pay attention to whether the edges of your shapes stick out much--those will bake more quickly. In years past when I've done double, triple, or even quad batches, I've done sheets of just one shape, which works great. (An Aside: Are Reindeer Really Worth It? It probably depends on your cookie cutter. Here we end up with a lot of headless reindeer. Last year, I admit it, I made 9. Having accomplished that feat, this year I made two, just to keep on my game.) You want to try to get as many cookies per rolling of dough not just to save on labor, but also because the dough will become a little bit more tough as it's re-rolled, and picks up more flour from the rolling surface. Make sure that collected trimmings are put back in the fridge. Keeping them cool makes them much easier to roll. I will sometimes put them in the freezer if I'm moving quickly.

Bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes. You'll have to decide for yourself whether you want the pure, light colored, cakey cookie, or whether you want to let them get a bit crispier, and brown around the edges. I have a tendency to overdo mine. I like them somewhere in-between, and try to pull them out of the oven when they've just barely started to color at the edges. Again, uniform shapes will help them to bake evenly. I allow the cookies a couple of minutes to cool on the sheets, then move them to a wire rack to finish cooling. (Another aside: Make sure your oven mitt is not wet when grabbing a 350 degree metal pan. If you flinch and your cookies slide smoothly from the parchment paper to crumble on your oven bottom, you may become distraught.)

Once the cookies are completely cool, you're ready to decorate. I generally break this up into two days, because it truly is a lot of work. I find it easiest to lay all of the cookies out at once so that you can work with one color of frosting at a time. I use a simple frosting of butter, vanilla, milk, and powdered sugar. It's not environmentally friendly, but the best tool I've found for frosting is a ziploc bag. Cut a very small bit of corner off, or if you want to use a decorating tip, make a slightly larger cut, and simply put the icing tip inside the bag. Make sure the frosting is completely dry before packing the cookies away. This may take an hour or more. If you have dogs, they will get grumpy at being left outside for so long, so as to present cookie snatching. This is par for the course.

You can absolutely freeze these cookies, but they are better unfrozen once they've been frosted. If they are stored in a totally airtight container, they'll became a bit soft, so I prefer loosely draped plastic wrap. Yes, I know they're "just" sugar cookies, but up until now they're one of the few holiday traditions I felt was "mine". I may only eat two or three, but I love the look of the rows of lovingly crafted, good ol' fashioned iced sugar cookies.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pumpkin Muffins

A recipe post is long overdue. These have become one of my favorites. Muffins, when made the right way, can be a healthy and filling food when you can't seem to make yourself sit down for a meal. They're also a great snack to grab when you are filling up the house with Holiday Goodies, in preparation to do the neighborly cookie gift tins! This recipe was adapted from Isa's recipe on The PPK, which can be found here. It's a fabulous recipe to work from. The original recipe is vegan, simply by using soy yogurt instead of the Stonyfield I have in my fridge. I also cut the fat by subbing apple butter (applesauce works too) for half of the oil.

Pumpkin Muffins (Makes 12)

1 3/4 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice

1 cup pureed pumpkin (I use fresh but you can also use canned)
1 tablespoon vanilla yogurt
1/2 cup soymilk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup apple butter
2 tablespoons molasses

Directions: Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease muffin tins with vegetable shortening or spray on oil. Combine dry ingredients. In a seperate bowl, whisk together wet ingredients. Pour wet into dry and combine. Fill muffin tins 2/3 of the way. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Tale of Two Cabbages

I've been meaning for some time now to write about the vilification of Whole Foods, and how thoroughly I reject that vilification. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a very valuable book that explores food issues well in some areas, however I took great issue with Michael Pollan's characterization of Whole Foods and it's role in the Industrial Organic world. (As an aside, I don't necessarily have a problem with Industrial Organic, but that's not the point right now.) Pollan cited the lack of local organic produce, and chose extremes like out-of-season organic asparagus from South America to illustrate his point. As it turns out, Pollan didn't even bother to contact Whole Foods about his book. Pollan claims that he was trying to take a purely consumer perspective, and didn't want to get too journalistic about it. If this is so, then it was terribly shortsighted. (See Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's letter to Pollan, and follow their exchange, here.)

Pollan had obviously never been to my Whole Foods. If he had, he might have been impressed. Generally there are at least a few dozen varieties of local organic produce being offered. The number of local selections is advertised daily, and it's often more--I've seen it as high as the 70s. When we worked on a small organic farm southwest of Milwaukee, we learned that the CSA sold excess produce to the Whole Foods. We were very impressed, since they are a relatively small operation. Our Whole Foods carries a number of items from Tipi Produce, a farm just about 20 miles away, and I've seen one of the farm owners at the WFM dock, unloading their truck himself. Apparently not all Whole Foods are this good about stocking local produce, and I suppose it depends on the availability in their area. My personal feeling is that every local item they stock is a huge boon to that local organic farm, and rather than blighting Whole Foods for not having more, we should praise them for what they do have. To me, even the Iowa zucchini or Washington pear is better than the conventional alternative at Pick n' Save--and do we think Pick 'n' Save is going to have local choices? I can assure you, they do not.

Today was a shining example in favor of Whole Foods. Our Farmer's Market goes indoors for the winter. While there's still an impressive selection of veggies available, most of the booths are now crafts or meats. Even my favorite feta artisan was missing today--a sad day indeed. Our favorite booth still had a great variety of root crops, but no cabbage. I have a cabbage dish planned, and so searched thrrough all of the booths, and finally came back to the only one I had found. The box of cabbages was labeled: "$1 each". I asked the farmer if they used sprays. "Sprays? Yeah I use sprays. 'Course these have been in storage for a long time, and I haven't sprayed since September." I'm not sure what that was supposed to mean. Had he harvested before he sprayed? I don't think so. Did he think the pesticides had worn off with time? I grimaced, then handed him a dollar and selected a cabbage (see the cabbage on the right above). I still hadn't decided if I'd actually use it. Next we went to Whole Foods for our remaining groceries. I selected a locally grown organic pumpkin, passed up some local organic white mushrooms for crimini, and picked up a pound of organic Wisconsin cranberries. As I searched for (and found) local organic leeks, I spotted some gorgeous cabbages. I searched for their sign above, and lo and behold, they were local and organic (see cabbage on the left). Understand, I found a better choice at Whole Foods Market than I did at our incredible Farmer's Market. Besides the produce, I found locally (in-town) produced veggie burgers and baba ghanouj, milk (Organic Valley, but still-produced within an hour or two drive) and local yogurt, whose maker was handing out samples right there at WFM. Upon returning home, I saw that our favorite farm stand at the Farmer's Market sells to WFM too. (In fact, click the link to see the guy who sold Beo his 25# of sunchokes this Spring!) I think I had a better local haul at Whole Foods then at our farmer's market, which I consider one of the best in the world. Perhaps my Whole Foods is one of the best in the world too, and I've simply lucked out. Either way, it's part of the Whole Foods company, and it deserves to be recognized for the wonderful role it is playing in making small organic farms sustainable in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Well, this is it. My last blog as a 20-something. Turning 30 isn't difficult or depressing for me. I think the thirties are fantastic. 29 was the hard birthday for me, it's when I knew 30 was coming and I think I got my apprehension out then. I spent the last year looking forward to 30. Today though, I was really struck at the milestones--the last time I'll wake up in my 20s, the last time I'll give the kids a bath in my 20s, the last time I will cook a meal in my 20s. I even asked Beo to take a picture of it. It was a good one: Mollie Katzen's Samosas. They were a flashback to a wonderful first that I celebrated this past weekend: my first girl's weekend, and I couldn't have celebrated it with better folks. I got to hang out with my beloved Virtual Veggie girls in Kansas City. It was quite a treat! I don't know if it's just that this is the first change in decade that I am mature enough to truly consider and appreciate, or it it's that I really feel like this one is the real transition to adulthood, but either was, I do feel it's a momentous occasion. After all, after this post, I'll be changing the heading on my blog so that it will no longer read "not-quite" 30. Since this is one of those years that my birthday falls on Thanksgiving, I'm especially struck at how thankful I am for my past 30 years--what a wonderful family I was raised in, what an incredible husband I have, what a great family I married in to, and what an amazing family I'm raising. I'm looking forward to the next 30 getting more and more spectactular.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


My degree is in Anthropology, and my related studies delved into archaeology as well. My favorite study in that field was that of pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology. The "scientists" who say that certain Inca carvings show that they had space travel and communicated with aliens; that the Mayan pyramids prove that the Egyptians sailed the ocean long before common science says humans did, and taught them how to build pyramids. While some of it sounds silly, there's plenty of pseudoscience that's quite damaging, that people believe wholeheartedly, such as the "science" behind many Creationist arguments. I digress. When one of my favorite professors was introducing us to the subject, we read two 'articles'. One described an archaeological site found 2000 years from the present. It was thought to reveal a ritual site at which some highly socially ranked individual was making a sacrifice. Of course it was obvious to us that it was a frat boy hugging a toilet. The second article purported to use mathmetical equations to show that if everyone kept saving their issues of National Geographic, the earth would eventually not be able to stand the added volume, and there would be grave consequences. I wish I could find the joke-article, so I could remember what all was going to happen. A change in the gravitational pull of the earth? Tidal waves, earthquakes, eventual collapse? I want to know, because I'm afraid it might happen--not with National Geographic magazines, but catalogs.

I don't know where they all come from. Some I have actually ordered from, and they're fine. Others I've ordered from and I get two or three catalogs from because they have my name misspelled or un-hyphenated, etc. Others seem to think that they need to send me a catalog every week in case I've lost mine. Some are connected behind the scenes. I order from a toy catalog and come to find out that the clothing catalog and home furnishing catalog I receive are owned by the same company. I would have to guess at where all of the liberal catalogs got my name--there are plenty of suspects. I'd like to know who sold my name to Pottery Barn, Pier One, L.L. Bean, Land's End, and a myriad of home furnishing catalogs, which started showing up in our mailbox shortly after moving into a new subdivision. The mortgage company? The home builders? Who was it? Regardless, I'm receiving about a dozen catalogs every day now. I go through the rigamole role of sorting through them, making piles of "Might Order From", "Approved and Just Like to Look at", "Already Unsubscribed", "Must Unsubscribe". I can only handle 2-3 removal requests at a time. I have to jump through hoops, and the response is always that catalogs are pre-printed, and I'll receive 2-3 more catalogs before they stop. Just enough to get me through the holiday season I suspect. So far I've resisted giving in too much to the advertising aspect of it. Even with "Free Shipping!" and "$10 off your $65 order!" I've remained fiscally solvent, which is quite an accomplishment for me.

Besides the advertising being shoved into my mailbox, the environmental aspect bothers me immensely. There are only one or two of the two day haul pictured above that are printed on recycled paper. What a waste, to picture the resources that went into that catalog, and that's duplicated across the country. It's shameful. Of course I recycle all of my unwanted catalogs, but I'm nosy and can't help but wonder what my neighbors do with theirs. Do they buy that pig shaped casserole dish, which they never knew they needed so much? Do they suscribe to the wine of the month club? Do they order the Super-Low-Price toys without a second thought to why they're Super-Low-Price? Perhaps scariest of all, do they recycle them? Or do they pile up in the back room, collecting dust, moving towards the day when the piles of sheeted ink will cause Earth's gravitational fields to shift?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Holy Ravioli!

A while back I read an article about roasting butternut squash. One of the suggestions for the finished product was making ravioli filling. It sounded just heavenly, and has been in the back of my mind ever since. The back of my mind, rather than on the table, because it seemed like an awful lot of work. My mother-in-law suggested using wonton wrappers to make the ravioli, but after fruitless searching for the aforementioned shortcut, I decided to go ahead and make my own pasta. I don't have a pasta press, so as was suggested by a beloved Virtual Veggie, it was quite an upper body workout.

The first step was to make a mound of 2 cups of flour, make a well in the mound, and break in 3 eggs. I was going to take a picture of this volcano-looking step, but my eggs quickly mucked onto the counter and didn't look so pretty. Next time, I will defy the experts and do this step in a bowl. Whisk the eggs, then gradually work in the flour. Once you've incorporated the flour into the eggs, knead the dough for about 5-10 minutes. My dough was still very dry, so I added a tablespoon-ish of olive oil. I divided the dough into 2 balls and let them rest, covered, for 10 minutes. Next, I rolled out the dough. The instructions (all which used a pasta machine) said to get the pasta thin enough that you could see your hand through it. Well, I could, if I held it up to the light. I rolled out each ball in 2 separate sections. On one section, I brushed an egg/water mixture. I then spooned about 1 tablespoon of filling (roasted butternut squash with a bit of finely mined onions) onto this section, about bit about 2 inches apart. Next, I laid the second layer over the filling, and carefully pressed the two layers together in-between the mounds of filling. I used a ravioli cutter to cut the squares apart, but a pizza cutter would work as well. To be sure the ravioli was sealed, I simply used the tines of a fork to press the edges together.

Voila! The entire process took about an hour to an hour and a half. It was quite time consuming and tough on that upper body! I kept the finished ravioli covered with a damp paper towel until I was ready to cook them. To cook, I simply dropped the ravioli into boiling water for about 6-7 minutes. To highlight the ravioli, I served it with only a touch of butter and a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan. (Sides were pan roasted beets and steamed broccoli, both still in-season, making for a very local meal.) It was really quite good. The pasta was thicker than it should have been, and thus a bit rubbery. I wouldn't do this again without a pasta press. Also, though I tried to keep the filling kid-friendly, the kids were skeptical, so next time I'd spice it up with some garlic and what else but garam masala. I hope to try both in the future--the one where I own a pasta press!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"Embracing the Ebb"

The following is entirely quoted from "Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy" by Sarah Ban Breathnach. November 1.

There once was a mighty queen with a short fuse. One autumn, as the year was beginning to ebb, the queen fell into a deep melancholy. She could neither eat nor slumber, and tears of an unknown origin fell frequently, which infuriated her, triggering angry fits that made those around her quake in fear.
Each day the queen summoned a new adviser from her esteemed circle of sages to explain the cause of her baffling condition. In they came and out they went: the court physician, the stargazer, the psychic, the alchemist, the herbalist, the philosopher. All were dismissed as chalatans for their inability to unravel the mystery of the royal black spell. They counted themselves lucky to have only their illustrious careers shortened.
"Surely there must be one among you who knows the source of my suffering," the queen cried in despair. But her pathetic wail was greeted only with akward silence, for all were wary of her wrath. Finally, the royal gardener was moved by compassion for the poor woman and slowly approached her throne.
"Come into the garden, Majesty, beyond the walls of your self-imprisonment, and I will disclose your dilemma." The queen was so desperate, she did as she was bid. When she went out to the garden for the first time in many weeks, she noticed that the bright, vivid colors of summer had faded and the garden seemed bare. But it was not, she saw, wholly bereft of beauty, for it was regal in autumn's brilliant hues of crimson and gold. The air was refreshingly cool and crisp, and the sky, pure blue. "Speak, gardener," the queen ordered, "but choose your words carefully, for I seek the truth."
"Majesty, it is not your body or your mind that is ailing. It is your soul that is in need of healing. For while you are a mighty and powerful queen, you are not Divine. You are suffering from a human condition that afflicts us all. Earthly souls ebb and flow in sorrow and joy according to the seasons of emotion, just as the seasons of the natural world move through the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. These are the days to be grateful for the harvest of the heart, however humble it might be, and to prepare for the coming of the year's closure. Even now, the season of daylight diminishes and the time of darkness increases. But the true Light is never extinguished in the natural world, and it is the same in your soul. Embrace the ebb, my beloved queen, and do not fear the darkness. For as night follows day, the Light will return and you will know contented hours once again. Of this I am sure."
The unhappy queen considered this wisdom thoughtfully and asked the gardener how she possessed the secret knowledge of inner peace during the seasons of emotion. The gardener led her to a brass sundial. It read:
This too, shall pass.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Tricks in Treats

Tempted by all of that chocolate this year? Don't forget that a lot of those "fun size" goodies laying around are made with cocoa harvested using child labor, in terrible conditions. Companies like Nestle, Hershey and Mars have agreed to work to eliminate child labor and slavery from their sourcing, but they continue to source from the Ivory Coast, where these problems are rampant, and continue to refuse to offer fair trade prices to their cocoa growers. You don't really want to eat something harvested by impoverished (and by some claims, enslaved) children, do you?

If you're giving out treats, check out Endangered Species chocolate squares, packaged up in a jaunty orange wrapper for Halloween. This is the second year in a row that we'll be giving them out. They're on sale at WFM this week for $2.99 a bag! (That's an incredible deal.) If you get kids who make a face and say: "What's this?" (Not that that's ever happened here!) you can either launch into an expose on fair trade and all-natural chocolate, or simply say, "Beggars can't be choosers."

In-Depth Info from
Care 2 Petition to Nestle/Mars
Fair Trade Chocolate Sources
Wire Tap Magazine Article 2005

Thursday, October 26, 2006

And now for something completely different...

I was using up apples today: dried some (more later on Sustainable Harvest), made and froze Thanksgiving's pie (it's gonna be so purty), and had a few left over... This is the second time I've made individual tarts with leftovers from pie fixin's. There wasn't much crust left so I pulled out the cookie cutters. I have a love-hate relationship with cookie cutters. Today I loved them.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Real Life

Lately I've been reeling with the press of the responsibilities of my life. I have a huge event for work coming up, an event that comprises a third of my non-profit's budget; an event that is flopping. I've been stressed and putting in extra hours and trying hard not to completely fail in my role as a mother in the meantime. Beo has convinced me that I needed to put my foodie-nature aside and keep meals a bit more simple until life has calmed down a bit. I must admit that I've been feeling sorry for myself and haven't been the kindest person to anyone, myself included.

Last week I had a reminder about what life is really about. Beo called me on Wednesday to tell me that a friend of his had passed away. This beautiful girl was a former co-worker of Beo's. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor almost two years ago. She fought an admirable battle and came through with flying colors. We last saw her about six months ago, and things were going well. We learned this past week that things suddenly turned around and she declined rapidly, and died a peaceful death on Sunday after having a chance to say goodbye to her family and closest friends, and drifting to sleep. She was 22. Life isn't a given. Life is a gift to be cherished and celebrated. This week was a reminder to me to not put my head down and push forward through life, but to take each moment as a blessing, breathe deeply, be grateful. I'm grateful for this reminder, even though it's a painful one, and I choose to honor her life by remembering to honor the life all around me, including my own.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Guilt-Less Shopping Guide

The more I've researched, the more I've found how complicated the issue of responsible consumerism really is. I have some tips for how to do research on what you're buying, but I also want to make clear that I realize that it's not feasible to be perfect. In fact, we have very few "perfect" options. Even Fair Indigo, whom I cited in my last post on this issue, takes flak for not revealing the source of their Fair Trade products. Mostly I think that's just a PR issue for competing retailers, and Fair Indigo has defended themselves well. If you're just looking for a good store or company to do everyday shopping with, is a good starting point. If you are trying to find one brand of something that you're going to buy a lot of, then that's the place to really dig deep. For example, after hours of research, we buy 99% of the kids clothes from Hanna Andersson. When I was re-stocking my wardrobe, I bought new from amazing Patagonia and also Prana, and tried to buy things that weren't so fabulous company wise second-hand. We buy a lot of high end shoes, so I really did my research on those. If you tend to stick to one brand of beauty products, do your research. You get my drift. Now, some pointers for doing that research.

1. Google! Search the product name followed by "human rights", "labor practices" "factory" "working conditions". A lack of information is a good thing. If nothing comes up, make sure there isn't a higher up parent company. Merrell shoes, for example, is owned by Wolverine Worldwide. While nothing comes up for Merrell, Wolverine has a history of violations. I discovered that they have taken major steps to turn things around, which brings us to the next point.

2. Make sure you have the most recent information. I was dissapointed to see that a number of flags came up for violations from 2-6 years ago. A lot of this outdated information was on Amnesty International's watch site. I personally felt that a lot of their information was really digging too far, and "eating our own", but they do have very thorough information. Further digging showed that things have really turned around. If you do find information on past violations, you'll have to dig deeper to see what they've done to correct things. Look for things like changes in CEO, using overseas watch dogs to monitor conditions, etc. Levi's used to be a major violator, but they have won awards for their turn around, and are actually going to be introducing an organic cotton line.

3. Stay away from China. Unfortunately, there's something to be said for buying Made in the USA, although that's not a guarantee of fair labor practices. (Just look at Walmart!) European companies are generally good on labor as well. Just make sure that their product is manufactured in Europe and their sourced items are clear too. Ecco is a shining example. They own everything that goes into their shoes, right down to the farms where the leather is sourced. Look on their website and you will even find the addresses of all of their factories. Transparency is a good thing.

4. You get what you pay for. Even if something is expensive, do your research, but it tends to hold true. The fact of the matter is, the reason you can pay $1 for a bottle of shampoo is that someone got paid pennies to make it. Aveda is another award winner for their natural sourcing and labor practices. They have extensive reports that even analyze their shortcomings. Will your shampoo cost you $32? Yes, but it was sourced sustainably and someone got paid fair wages to make it. The same is true all the way down the line. Learn to love more with less. Pay for equity and justice. Vote with your dollars.

So what if you go through all of these steps and either can't find the information or are concerned about violations? Contact the company. I have sent out a plethora of e-mails over the past weeks. Most I got a form response, and they basically said that they do their best. I trusted the ones that told me how they make sure that their standards are met. I vetoes the ones that I got no response from. This isn't a foolproof way to do your research, but it's still important because the company hears that you care and are concerned about the issue. Especially if you are a devoted customer of a brand, make sure they know how important labor issues are to you--even if their record looks clean. The fact is, it is hard for big companies to find fair labor, and only demand will increase supply at this point. Of course, buying second-hand is almost always responsible in every way imaginable, but not always an option.

We can't all be perfect, but we can all make an effort to do our best to make sure that the world is what we want it to be. The first step is opening our eyes to the reality, the second is acting to change, and the third is speaking out. So please, take the time to do the research and make sure that your votes with your dollars are educated.

Ethical Consumerism

Prepare for me to wax dramatic. I'm feeling very passionate about this issue. I've long been a supporter of fair trade coffee, chocolate, and sugar. I check the labor practices of the companies I buy the kids clothes from. Somehow I've remained blind to the big picture.

We recently watched "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price". If you haven't seen this movie, I highly reccomend that you do. I don't think it's a perfect movie, and in fact I think some of it was a stretch. The film makers also have a website, but there is some inaccuracy there for sure, as they list Jefferson, WI as a "victory" having stopped Wal-marth and unfortunately, the nearby town is actually throttling full-steam into Walmartdom. However, there is some good information in the movie. There was much in this movie that was disheartening and depressing, but it was one relatively small portion of the movie that hit me the hardest, and that was the manufacturing labor.

The film makers visited a company in China that manufactures products for Wal-mart, and showed the squalid conditions that the workers are forced to live in. (They are charged rent whether they "choose" to live there or not.) The food is so bad that workers rent kitchens to prepare their own food. The workers work long hours in terrible conditions, and make cents an hour. You really need to watch the movie to see the conditions. I will admit that I sobbed through the last portion about the labor practices. The film makers interviewed a former Wal-Mart employee whose job was to evaluate the labor practices. He didn't realize that his real job was to lie about the factories, and he got fired for telling the truth. This wonderful man said that the first day that he visited a Wal-Mart factory, he went back to his hotel room and wept. I would too. We are paying $15.99 for a toy that cost Wal-Mart .37 cents to make. This is slavery people. Slavery. Slaves got room and board too, right? That's about all these people are getting. Thousands and thousands of people, working for pennies, sweating, slaving.

What bothered be the most was the almost instantaneous realization that it's not just Wal-Mart. If I walk into Target and buy that toy, I'm no better off. What about clothes? What about towels? What about everything that my dollars go to? You'd think that a little research would go a long way, but I'll tell you that I haven't found it all that easy. While I've found great websites for Europe and Canada that help consumers figure out who and where to buy, I couldn't find much that was simple for American consumers. I googled and googled, and I did find links to, and various fair trade organizations. I wanted to find something that helped me find the best everyday companies though. Long ago I found a site that did this, so I hacked back into an old chat board and found my posting. The site is As far as I can tell, they do a great job of creating a ratings system that is based on the values you choose, be it environment, labor, gay rights, etc. It is not comprehensive and often gives ratings for stores rather than brands, but it's a good start.

One thing I discovered is not to trust the website of the company. Of course they paint a very rosy picture. I checked out Mattels corporate responsibility practices and standards, and they all look great. Unfortunately they don't hold to their own standards. I found various reports of them paying factory workers 40% less than the legal minimum wage for where the factory was located. So really do your research. I researched for hours, literally, until I was convinced that Hanna Andersson was the company we would buy the kids clothes from, guilt free.

We have a responsibility as members of the human race to educate ourselves about where our products are coming from. Before you spend another dollar, make sure you're not paying for a rich executive to get fatter while someone sweats and starves. It's dramatic yes, but sadly it's also the harsh reality of America. We're living our lives on the backs of poor workers. It needs to stop.

Other Resources:
Recent Chicago Tribune Article
Fair Indigo
Global Exchange
Fair Trade Federation
Sweat Free Shopping

Friday, October 13, 2006

Wholesome Breakfast

Fall is here in full force, with the tempature dropping from pleasantly sunny but balmy to 35... to 29! We had our first snow of the season earlier this week, albeit a small one. On these chilly mornings, a warm hearty breakfast is a must. Steel cut oats started out as something I heard about on Weight Watchers. We went back to them when we started cracking down on our waste, and realized how economical they are while saving packaging. Yesterday I got an organic cotton bag full of organic steel cut oats for 89 cents a pound. Steel cut oats are more nutritious and filling than rolled or quick oats, which have been steamed, thus releasing much of the nutrients. Steel cut oats do take a bit longer to cook, but you can always do them in the slow-cooker and wake up to a warm breakfast. The basic formula is 1/4 c. steel cut oats to 1 c. water. Here's my favorite way to prep them.

Autumn Morning Oats
1 c. Steel Cut Oats
4 c. Water
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tart apple, diced
1/2 c. raisins

Place water and oats in a large saucepan, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes, stir in apple and vanilla. After 30 minutes, stir in raisins. When 40 minutes has elapsed, remove from heat. Stir in cinnamon to taste. If desired, serve with milk, yogurt, or maple syrup for topping.

Obviously you can get creative with whatever ingredients you want to add. I will mention that it gets a bit messy and sticky. Some recipes call for butter, which may keep it from sticking to the pan so much. I hope you enjoy experimenting with steel cut oats and experiencing that pleasantly warm and full feeling that gets me through my morning!

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Sense of Wonder

My Mom is an early childhood professor and involved with early childhood at a national level. Over the past couple of years, she has been co-authoring a book about preschool standards that focuses on nurturing children's natural sense of wonder. This past summer when she and my Dad visited, we set up some photo shoots for the book with Sprout and Bird. At the time it was just fun to get the great shots, but as time has gone by, I've been more aware at what a sense of wonder they really have. Lately I've been amazed at how much joy and learning can be celebrated in the very food they eat.

This summer was full of wonder in our own backyard. We plant a seed, and months later it provides us with food. Amazing! Bringing the kids into the food preparation brought a new aspect. I was thrilled with the joy they found in combining ingredients to create new things--the wonder of sticky batter transforming into popovers, how good pesto became when the basil was torn from the stem by their own hands.

Fall has brought new wonder as we've visited local farms during their Harvest festivals. I'm entranced by the passion the kids find in picking apples right of the tree, or spotting chickens rooting through the vegetable gardens. They've seen bees at work making honey, and maple syrup tapped from the tree. At one local celebration, a local farmer commented on how good it was for the kids to see where their food comes from. A discussion ensued about how so many kids have no idea where various foods come from--how they don't even know where milk comes from. How many kids are in this position? How many have never seen the stars? I wonder how many parents know where their kids' food comes from, and how many would change their buying habits if they knew. I believe strongly that giving children a sense of the true wonder of organic, local food, makes them healthier in many ways. Nurturing that sense of wonder for them can open up the wonder of it for us as well.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Belief-O-Matic has an intriguing quiz, the Belief-O-Matic, that asks a series of questions and then matches your response with the faith they fit. There are questions about the nature of God, morality, the afterlife, and more, and you can even rate each question on how important it is to you. Someone posted the link to this quiz on the Weight Watchers Veggie Board this week, and it was neat to see all of the results, and people's responses to them. I thought that the quiz was well done, and wasn't at all surprised with my results. I consider myself a Unitarian Universalist, and if pressed for details, I'll say I'm a UU with a Buddhist bent, and many Pagan beliefs as well. My top 10 Faiths were:

1. Unitarian Universalism(100%)
2. Neo-Pagan (98%)
3. Liberal Quakers (93%)
4. New Age (92%)
5. Mahayana Buddhism (86%)
6. Secular Humanism (82%)
7. Theravada Buddhism (82%)
8. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants(81%)
9. Taoism (76%)
10. Reform Judaism (67%)

I've only recently heard about the similarities between Quakers and Unitarian Universalists. Today I heard an interview with someone who attended a Quaker day-school, and was suprised at her descriptions of some of their services. They were much more in-line with my thinking than the Christian way that I had thought of them in the past. The interview was with the Authors of "The Faith Club". They are three women in New York City, who got together after September 11th with the intent of writing a children's book about how their faiths (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) were similar, but ended up finding a real need to hash out the prejudices, sterotypes, and real diferences before they could do anything else. It sounds amazing, and I look forward to reading it. They also have a website which encourages people to start their own Faith Clubs. People reaching out, getting to the root of our differences, acknowledging our similarities, and trying to achieve peace. Imagine that.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Little House in Suburbia

A couple of weeks ago, I quietly tested the canning waters. I decided that with all of the grapes and apples from Prairie Dock Farm, I'd attempt not only my first canning, but my first jelly. I don't like the taste of packaged pectin, and I hoped that the fruits were tart enough to literally hold their own. Had I realized the extent of work involved in the process, I might have backed out. First came de-seeding two pounds of grapes. That would be tedious enough with conventional grapes. The organic grapes held quite a few..."surprises". Then I cooked the salvaged grape pulp down, squeezed it through cheesecloth, and was left with a dishearteningly small bowl of lovely purple juice. That sat uncovered overnight in the refrigerator. The next day I quartered apples and removed any "surprises" as with the grapes. Same process--cook, strain, apple juice! It was difficult to see all of the "waste" created in the juicing process, although I knew it would benefit our own gardens in time. Then came the real test of combining the juices, adding sugars, and cooking to the right temperature. I was very nervous about the judgement of when it was ready, due to the Spring's marshmallow debacle. I persevered through my fears, poured the thickened juice/gel into the jars, sealed them, processed the jars. The small amount that was left in the pan gelled encouragingly. I scraped it onto some crackers for Sprout and Bird, who dubbed it "Super Jelly".

It took me a while to even get up the courage to test the seal on the jar, even though I knew that if the seal was bad, I'd be up a creek. Luckily, the seals were good. I was still too nervous to test the jelly to see if it had set though. I couldn't imagine going through all of that work for a failure, though I acknowledge that failures are often a necessary part of the path to success. Last night we went to the Harvest Festival at Prairie Dock, and I figured it would be fitting to take a jar of the jelly I'd made with their bounty. First, I had to make sure I wouldn't embarass myself. So we popped a seal on the jar, and I nervously stuck a knife in. Success! It had gelled beautifully. We spread some on Beo's freshly baked sourdough. It was wonderful. It's amazing to have something so comforting made from such simple components. I can certainly see the joy that creating and preserving brought to our prairie ancestors, and to modern preservers of today. I hope to experience it more often now that I've overcome my intial fears. I realize now thought that jelly like this must have been quite a luxury, and while I'm thankful for the bounty of local farms, and my ability to create from it, I'm also quite thankful for grocery stores.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Nature Check-In

We are very lucky to be in a nature-filled area, despite the suburban nature of our neighborhood and the proximity of the interstate. We are right on one of the flyways to one of the nation's largest migratory rest stops, which is about an hour north of us. Last week we went up to Horicon Marsh and rented a canoe. We saw blue herons, egrets, white pelicans, and gulls galore. At our own home-sweet-home we get quite a variety of birds too. The lots across the highway have yet to be developed, the river is only about a mile away, and there is a wetlands area to the northeast. Sunrise and sunset bring flocks of Canada Geese on a regular basis, and occasionally we see other unidentified geese and ducks. Only slightly less common than the Canada Geese are the Sandhill Cranes. They are wonderfully majestic animals, and there's usually a pair or two that make our area their home year round, even when the others have moved on.

The past couple of days we've had new visitors. The other day Beo came home and quietly herded us all outside. Lo and behold there were three wild turkeys just on the other side of the fence. I imagine they came wandering down the hill from the lightly forested area on the other side. They didn't seem too worried about us. I'm not sure how much of that was the fence giving us a good blind and how much was just a lack of brightness on the turkey's part, but we were able to get very close to them. (Doesn't the yard look great? It's been cool and rainy, and everything is staying green despite the chill. The no-mow mix seems to love it, and the sycamores are putting on a last burst of growth before fall.)

Today when I stepped outside something caught my eye on the corner of the bench on our porch. Do you see it? Don't feel bad if you don't. I'm particularly paranoid about this area because it's where our jumping spiders live, and where we once saw a big ol' wolf spider--sitting right on the underside of the top of the door frame (prime drop-on-your-head real estate, right?). So my eyes do a quick inventory when I walk out, and they rarely betray me. Okay, I usually just go out through the garage, but I'm trying to be braver. Did you find it? Look under the rock by my little green duck. Ooh, it's a tough one. Yeah, in fact from that angle it's virtually impossible to see it. Here he is! After some cursory research, I think he's a Cope's Gray Tree Frog, but I'm not sure. I don't want to lift the rock up and scare him. I think whatever kind of frog or toad he is, it must be good luck to have him there. I'm enjoying the change of the seasons and the different wildlife we're seeing with it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Taking Time

I'm so glad to be back home. I can't remember the last time I was away from home for this long. I don't think I've ever travelled in such an erratic manner for so long. I'm home again, but things are such a blur that I can hardly imagine feeling like "things" are back to normal.

Beo and I had a chance to get away for a night while we were staying with my family in South Dakota. I think it's funny that on the rare occasion that we can get away by ourselves we end up talking about the kids. We usually do though. We had roasted vegetable risotto and pesto-cheese ravioli at a romantic Italian place, and discussed our parenting. We decided that what everything comes down to is taking time to just be with the kids.

Modern life hands us so many opportunities to draw on the hours of our day. We cook, clean, organize, read, travel, shop. I constantly flit to the computer to commiserate with like-minded folk, research, educate myself, and escape. It's so easy to be connected on-line (much easier than in real life, in my opinion) that it's a real draw on my time. The kids are generally relatively happy to play, watch a DVD, color, etc. When they have my full attention we're generally working on a project or running errands.

Last week there was a point where Beo and his Dad took Sprout fishing. Bird and I walked to the lake and bug hunted for my sister's entymology project. We had to just wait on the lakeshore for the boys to come pick us up in the boat. With Bird though, it wasn't "just" waiting. First I realized what a great conversation we were having on our walk. Bird could ask questions uninterrupted and I could actually take the time to answer thoughtfully. She chased a butterfly in the park for a good 5 minutes, never doubting she'd catch it. (It would have been a miracle if she'd caught it, and I finally called her off.) On the lakeshore, I pointed out a snail shell, and when she realized there were more scattered along the beach, the hunt was on. She gathered quite a little collection. It struck me as I watched her quietly explore the water's edge that our lives are usually so hurried. Even just hanging out with both kids, I'm usually so busy just keeping track of them and keeping them from getting eachother too riled up. I'm missing the window to see a much clearer view of who they truly are. You get a child alone, with no agenda--just time, and they Pop into 4-D. There's a magical aspect you don't see in everyday life.

What Beo and I decided during our dinner was this: we'll give the kids the gift of time, which is better than anything we could ever buy them. Monday will be family days. We'll have homemade pizza and watch movies while we eat--something Sprout thinks is the coolest thing in the world. One night a week will be Beo's night to spend 15 minutes with the kids doing whatever the kids want. Each month on the date of the kid's birthdays (or the closest possible morning), they'll get to go out to breakfast with one of us--by themselves. (I saw this tradition in a Parenting magazine, and think it's a great idea.) The kids need to know that we realize what a unique spirit they have, and that we honor it. We'll start out slow with these reminders to give them our time, and take it from there. I'll close now--Beo's making pizza and I'm off to take Sprout to the video store to select our viewing pleasure for this evening. Family night!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Just a Fly-By

I am in for one evening in a very busy week. Last week we did a day in Chicago, visiting a Veggie Board friend, the Shedd Aquarium, and dear friends whom we haven't seen for far too long! The next day we were off to Lake Geneva to visit the in-laws, and did some insect collecting for my sister (The Biologist, not the Vulcanologist. Gotta love the Science!). The following day we headed to South Dakota. Yesterday we went to Omaha and back with my family, visiting the Henry Doorly Zoo. We got back home today, and I leave tomorrow morning for a statewide interfaith conference. I don't think I've travelled this much since the days of Beo and my crazy road trips. At least 24 hours on the road this week so far, and I'm on to add 7 more in the next couple days. Thanks to everyone for keeping up with my blog. I love seeing my visitors from far and wide (check out the map at the bottom of the page!), and hope you all enjoy my posts, though they're sometimes few and far between. I have a post or two in store once I'm able to settle back into home.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Science is COOL

My sister has the coolest job. When she graduated from college, she had the opportunity to go into a master's program to study volcanoes at either Hawaii or Alaska. My sister, being my sister, decided that Alaska was the best program, and despite having to leave behind all of her family to live at the ends of the civilized world, off she went. (OK, calling Fairbanks "civilized" is pushing it. Not really--it's a really decent size town with all the amenities. It's a really cool place.) My sister studies geophysics. Now first of all, how cool does that sound? I love telling people what she does. She actually studies the relationship between earthquakes and volcanoes. One year since she's been there one of their offices got a call from NASA, who connected them to the International-freaking-Space-Station, who could see an ash plume from one of the volcanoes AVO studies. (Cleveland, pictured above, photo courtesy of AVO, Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) How cool is that, I ask you?

She did a lot of monitoring of Augustine this year. When things got busy with it's activity, they were monitoring it around the clock. Sometimes she would be the one to notice different patterns that would indicate changes or allow them to predict new patterns, raise warning levels, etc. So cool! She has even gotten to go to a couple of the monitoring sites, which as you can see in these pictures isn't just amazing in the scientific sense. She gets a unique view of Alaska's rare beauty. (This view of Augustine taken by Mariah Tilman, courtesy of the Alaska Volcano Observatory.) I often joke with her about the volcano/earthquake movies out there, and how she's totally living those out!

Last night the movie plot thickened. My sister told me about a volcano that they expected no activity from in any of their lifetimes. People on the mainland took pictures of plumes coming from the Fourpeaked mountain region where they don't even have monitoring equipment because of the complete unlikelihood of activity there. (Photos courtesy of Alaska Volcano Observatory, taken by Lanny Simpson, Alaska High Mountain Images.) They confirmed ash in two places this week but they haven't pin-pointed the source yet. The only thing they can do is go look at the volcano. When they went out yesterday afternoon in a plane, the observers saw a steam plume coming down from above the clouds, but couldn't see the source. On this heavily glaciated mountain, there were two gushing waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside. It's so mysterious! So interesting! What could be causing this unexpected eruption? Does it correlate in any way with the other volcanic activity in the area? I personally find it absolutely fascinating. I feel cool just having the inside scoop. I'm very proud of my little sister, volcanologist extrordinaire.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How Local Can You Go?

This summer has been a fabulous time for eating local. As our favorite foods took their turn in providing an abundant harvest, we stopped planning our menus in advance and started letting the market plan the menus for us. Ratatouilles; eggplant "steak"; tomato pie; crisp green beans; lentil soup with fresh peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes all filled our table. Some nights we still went for the simple side of life. I was surprised at how much that's changed from what it would have been a few months ago. In the spring this would have been from a Seeds of Change jar of sauce, boxed pasta, and Whole Foods Market frozen broccoli. It will be again in a few more months, I know. For now though, we get to enjoy broccoli and purple cauliflower hand picked and delivered to be selected at the market that morning, pasta handmade less than an hour away, sauce made with ingredients that came exclusively from our garden (with the exception of oil and salt), and homemade bread for garlic toast. The spirit of local, slow food makes this simple meal something magical.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Tomatenis

This rare specimen represents a new variety that is sure to gain heirloom status. Very early fruit. Highly productive variety. Fruits hold well for extended periods. May pair nicely with this new variety from California, according to one's palate.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I suppose it started for me when we moved into our first real house as a married couple. I feel silly admitting it, but I sort of expected people to show up at our door with baked goods, welcoming us to the neighborhood and introducing themselves. Days went by before I realized that not only was I not going to be visited by the welcome wagon, but people would go out of their way to pretend that they hadn't noticed that anyone had moved in. A year later, my naive self thought: "Surely the birth of our baby will bring out those neighborly instincts!" Luckily in my alternating panic, stupor, and adoration after Sprout's birth, I didn't notice the complete absence of neighborhood visitors nor the distinct lack of casseroles. Our church was very supportive when Sprout had his surgery. A woman delivered some mums leftover from a harvest service, and another asked me to drive the 20 minutes to her place to pick up some chili she'd made for us. Gaia bless the Unitarians.

When we moved to our new home, I saw the chance to make it the neighborhood I dreamed of. We set up for trick-or-treat the day after moving into our home, but few candy-beggars visited. A month later at Christmas time, I baked cookies and Beo and I delivered them to the neighbors, introducing ourselves since only our next-door neighbors had introduced themselves to us. Mostly we got looks of confusion and muttered thanks. The neighbors we knew gave us some of her own cookies a couple of days later. Reciprocity, I suppose. Was it that no one expects those kind of neighborly gifts and longer? Is it that people don't want to feel indebted to someone? Is it simply an overvaluation of privacy? After the second horrified look of a new neighbor presented with a load of fresh baked bread, I gave up. I stopped saying "Hello" when walking neighbors pretended not to hear me--or even crossed to the other side of the street. I stopped waving then every driver looked the other way--or worse, stared at me impassively. If they didn't want to be my friends, well I didn't want to be their friends either. So there.

I had settled into this frame of mind nicely. After all, we don't even have a "Neighborhood Association". It's a "Homeowner's Association". My neighbor-free life was broken only by pleasant surprises from our next door neighbors. One, a seamstress, asked if she could make Bird a Christmas Dress. Another, a pastor, offers us gifts of extra food from his church, and once even a jar of Apple Butter ("No preservatives or anything, and all of that natural stuff!" Gods bless him, too.) to thank us for sharing some excess produces. I neighbor them right back with pesto kits from the garden (complete with pine nut baggies!) and heirloom veggies (complete with history and recipe suggestions!).

My reverie of non-neighborness was broken by a conversation with my Dad. They're considering getting a play system for the kids, and my Dad asked if anyone else in our subdivsion had a play system yet. When we told him that we'd be the first, he said he thought we'd be surprised at how many friends we suddenly discovered when our play system was installed. I was a bit taken aback. Would people really bring their kids to our backyard? Did I want them to? The next week on an early morning run I spotted a play system like the model we'd been considering. It was one subdivision over. As I rounded the cul de sac, I realized that the house right across from them had a similar system, and there was a third right next door. They were all neatly fenced into their own spacious yards. I began to wonder if this lack of neighborliness had it's drawbacks after all. The following week in a more tighly packed rural suburb, I saw 3 play systems in adjoining yards. Back to back. I doubt they were even the reccomended distance apart from foreign objects. I felt tears spring to my eyes. What's more, we were on our way to an incredible neighborhood playground--just 2 blocks away.

This week on a flight to Pittsburgh I prepared myself to enjoy the bird's eye view of the country as we descended. Instead of pure amazement, I was shocked to see the rows of swimming pools that lined the backyards of the suburbs with matching houses. What about that 5th house--the one that broke the perfect line of pools? Even the smaller neighborhoods, obviously lower (middle) class even from the air, were dotted with splotches of blue. (It was very easy to find an example.) What's the point of all this chlorine?

So far I've seen our lack of neighborliness isolating our children, isolating adults, creating akwardness, and driving excess. Is there anything else? In a recent article in Plenty, the author cited two studies which seem to point to our lack of social contact as one of the key factors in our skyrocketing anxiety rates. Now not every neighborhood has fallen to this depressing phenomenon. Our good friends live in a neighborhood where neighborhood barbecues, babysitting co-ops, and even group dates are the norm. They seem to be an exception to an ever-expanding rule though. The organization I direct has a mission, which I wrote: "Neighbors Serving Neighbors in Need". We call our services of visits, rides to the doctor's office, help with grocery shopping "neighborly-type" services. The only issue is that we have to recruit and import the neighbors to help them. Let me tell you from experience: A lot of folks out there could use a good neighbor. Our program and others like it only see a growth in demand.

Do Sprout and Bird see any parity between the lively neighbors of Sesame Street and our own? Do they ever envy (as I do) Mr. Rogers' friends, delivery men, and mayor popping in to say hello and have a visit? Maybe that kind of neighborhood is as imaginary to them as Dora and Calliou's neighborhood. Maybe they don't even know that they used to really exist. Maybe the don't realize that they still can. I'm reversing my stance on the acceptance of my non-neighborly neighborhood. I'm going to be knocking on doors again this year, armed with christmas cookies. We'll make this neighborhood a community yet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Monarch Madness

A while back, I posted about finding two monarch caterpillars on the butterfly weed in our new prairie. I wasn't convinced that they were monarchs, because monarch caterpillars are supposed to be on milkweed! I decided to go ahead with our science experiment/miracle (while simultaneously saving our butterfly weed from utter decimation) and bring one inside. (The same one pictured in the previous post, actuall!) I brought in some "ditch milkweed" for it, and when it finished the sprig of butterfly weed we'd brought it in on, it grudgingly started in on the huge milkweed leaf. I could not believe how quickly it ate, or how much it pooped! I've never really thought about caterpillar poop, but for how much they eat, I understand. As soon as it "spun" it's chrysallis, I knew it was a monarch. Their chrysallis is like no other. In my research I learned that they don't actually spin a chrysallis, they just shed their last caterpillar skin and poof--there's the chrysallis. It's incredible. Later in the week, Beo pointed out some native red milkweed to me. It looks very different than what I traditionally think of as milkweed, but it also looked quite a bit like the butterfly weed. Beo did some research and found that sure enough, the plants are closely related and monarchs happily lay their eggs on butterfly weed. It took a little over a week, and the chrysallis turned clear, and then poof again--a butterfly! It really is a magical, amazing, awesome thing. When the monarch first emerges, it's instinct is to cling, and so Sprout and Bird got to experience the magic of having a monarch on their hands. It took it's first drink (while on Sprout's finger) from the big butterfly bush in our front yard. He eventually crawled on to the bush, and about an hour later we saw him take flight for the first time. Amazing, amazing. I can't even explain! We did the whole thing a second time with a second caterpillar. We had well over a dozen caterpillars on our native plants this year. In the weeks since, our butterfly bush, one of the last sources of nectar as fall comes on, has been alive with butterflies of all shapes and sizes. Today when I walked out there was a monarch clinging to a cluster of buds, and I smiled, knowing the likelihood that he went from egg to caterpillar to butterfly in our own yard. We've created a Magical Monarch Machine.