Mar 26, 2010

Healthy and juicy and delicious am i

#3 in a series of responses to Globe&Mail comments
While this extremeness is not a workable solution for everyone, I think we all can use a reminder that the rat race is not the most important thing in the world. We all should examine our wants and needs and try to reduce our cost of living while not reducing our quality of life.
- "Leaving Sooon's" comment on the Globe and Mail article

Anyone who thinks we've reduced our quality of life didn't see our breakfast this morning. Galen breathed in clean misty morning air as he gathered eggs (and some lunch apples from the root cellar), Sarah went downstairs for a jar of strawberry jam to put on homemade bread, and Zekiah skimmed the whey off the yogurt I made overnight. Tasty, healthy, earth-friendly and convenient - in my books, that's quality.

While we haven't reduced quality of life, we have given up some conveniences. Pizza takes 20 minutes to roll the dough and prepare instead of 2 minutes to order by phone, and the dried beans from last summer's garden need to be simmered in the slow-cooker all day instead of poured from a can. The fire needs feeding every hour. We were the only bikes in the rainy schoolyard yesterday. But convenience isn't quality.

We've given up some comforts. The house isn't as big, the towels off the line are crunchy, the family holiday thermarests aren't quite as soft as the Holiday Inn beds. The thrift store clothes aren't always broken in in just the right places, and the cutlery is rarely matching. But comfort isn't quality.

The more we've "given up" along this long journey, the more clearly we've been able to define and refine our personal definition of quality. For our family, quality means prioritizing people: family and community. It means living sustainably, in a way that doesn't harm the world our grandchildren will inherit. It means living fairly, consuming and investing in systems that value and support rather than exploit other people and other nations. And at times when all those values are in alignment, the result is the most important definition of quality of life: Joy.

Through this lens, the quality of our life has continually improved as we become braver and more creative. These days, instead of my secretary being my most constant companion, I see my children and wife more clearly and more often. Carbon karma is down and community involvement is up. No TV means more time for writing, reading, creativity and play. Chopping wood and jogging to school has me looking not a day over 41. When neighbour Bob strolls up to the fence he finds me ready to chat. I am what I eat - local, organic, small-scale, non-GMO, sustainable, healthy and juicy and delicious.

I agree that "this extremeness is not a workable solution for everyone," if "extremeness" is referring to this particular type of life we've created. There have been times in my life when working 80 hours a week deeply satisfied my values and contributed positively to the world. We lived passionately and consciously in fenced-yard urban houses for several years. For the first 40 years of my life I would have readily agreed with 'Cousin Voltair's' comment, "Thanks, but no thanks. Trading the rat race for milking cows twice a day, 7 days a week, and all the other chores required to maintaining the lifestyle described here isn't necessarily an improvement in my books."

Another Globe and Mail reader, calling himself "ipitythefool", wrote:
Subsisting on canned goods through the winter is not my idea of fun. While I respect these people's choices, that lifestyle is not for me. I like my intellectual desk job thanks. ;)

Thank you for your respect, 'ipitythefool' (how's that for a contradiction in terms :) I genuinely hope that your intellectual desk job is (as mine was for many years) true to your values, brings you Joy, and brings positive energy into the world. Not everyone needs to enjoy my canned goods (though don't knock em till you've tried em). Everyone does, however, need and deserve to find their definition of quality of life, and their own path to reach it. You may well have found that path, or the journey may surprise you as much as becoming a chicken farmer has surprised me.

While writing this, Galen burst into the room, excitedly announcing, "Papa! We're using this old-fashioned cheese grater. You turn this wooden handle, we're holding it down inside this little box and there's this little thing that turns it down, then you turn the handle and this blade spins around and the cheese grates, or it crunches it up. Do you want to come see it?" It took me 2 hours this morning to ponder my way through the quality of life, and my 8-year-old found it in a cheese grater.

Mar 21, 2010

Know-it-Awl Parents

Everything I needed to know about parenting I learned in Grade 11 Woodworking class. Things like:
-Measure twice, cut once
- Put away your tools when you're done
- Use the right tool for the job
- Once you start a cut, commit to it
- Wear your safety equipment - it looks cooler than a sawed off finger
- Cut a bit bigger than you think you'll need. You can always cut again later, but if you don't give yourself enough it's hard to add on again.
-The rough cuts are quick, but the quality is in the finishing
- Keep your tools sharp
- Go with the grain for a smooth finish; cut across the grain when you need to expose a rough edge.
- Use local, sustainably harvested wood (OK, Mr. Mills didn't say that in 1984, but he would have if he were still with us today)

Mar 20, 2010

Raw Milk, please!

Breakfast this morning was French Toast, made from homemade bread, fresh eggs (blown to keep the beautiful strong shells for Easter) and fresh raw milk from the cows we share with some neighbours, adorned with homemade strawberry jam and the last of our own maple syrup. Now the government want to deny my family this nutritious, natural, local meal.

We're legally allowed to drink raw milk in BC. But no-one's allowed to sell it to us. Tuesday's BC Supreme Court ruling just shut down the same type of "cow-share" program that we quietly enjoy here - we pay for a "share" in a cow, then get our share of yummy, full-fat and full-nutrition fresh raw milk for our butter, cheese, yogurt and whipped-cream making, as well as for drinking.

People are given the legal choice to consume, buy and sell cigarettes, alcohol, GMO produce, and hotdogs scooped up from the slaughter-house floor, but not raw milk? I just worry about when the Egg industry will become as strong as the Dairy industry and shut down my little fresh egg operation so we all have to buy those pale yellow watery tasteless unhappy "Safeway" eggs.

I'm ranting. Stop listening to me and please read this amazing article by Nadine Jazz, who says it all much much better.

Mar 18, 2010

What's so Radical about Homemaking?

#2 in a series of responses to Globe&Mail comments
I'm not sure that reverting to traditional, out dated ways of life is necessarily radical.Its wonderful if you can do it but I don't know that I'd call it all that radical.
Now if you insisted on doing so entirely in a vinyl pink bodysuit that might be radical.
- "BC Philosopher's" comment on the Globe and Mail article

We're not doing anything new here. There's nothing radical about wanting to be connected to our food sources, live slower, spend out time engaged directly in activities that nurture our bodies and souls and communities. As another reader commented, "If that is radical, then so is watching television or wearing a sweater or getting a library card."

What's different from our grandparents' life is that we're coming back to it. Choosing to forgo the trappings of consumerism makes it much more Joyful than if we just couldn't afford them; much like deciding to go on a fast is nothing like not being able to get enough to eat. In this regard, "Teapots" was somewhat correct in her comment that this "reminds me of Tolstoy walking around his estate in sackcloth pretending he was a peasant."

I would argue that while our life is "traditional", it's not "outdated." While we wake up to the timeless crow of rooster, we also get to enjoy modern conveniences - we have not gone Amish and given up power tools, the station wagon and trailer, the smoothie blender, the high-thread-count bamboo bedsheets. The internet and easy transport options give us many more options for secondary income, and let us remain connected and involved in the wider world. There are homesteaders who choose to go into the woods with a few hand-tools and re-live Little House on the Prairie, but most of us pick and choose from the wide menu of tools and trends that support the path we've chosen.

The main thing that's new about our life is the intentionality, the statement that this is our contribution to environmentalism, social justice and community. Our grandparents took good care of the earth, produced and ate local food, helped their neighbours, etc etc just from a practical and instinctual knowing that it was the best way to live and pass along quality of life to future generations. We've grown up in an age that has lost that natural connection and innate knowledge, so we're having to push ourselves to reclaim and start living it anew.

The only thing radical about remoulding our lives to honour the environment, social justice, community and family is that so many people perceive it as radical.

Mar 16, 2010

The Root of all Evil, and Good

First in a series of responses to Globe&Mail comments
"As usual, the Globe and Mail highlights the high-end version of the idea. Raising all of one's own food must provide a wonderful sense of security, but it's not a realistic prospect for most of us."
- Independently Poor

Money isn't evil or good, it's just a tool as necessary for us "Radical Homemakers" as our hoes and maple tapping spiles. Many comments after today's Globe and Mail article were, like the one above, centred around the economics of our lifestyle choice, and not around the underlying philosophy.

For the record, we are still very tied-in to the money economy. We do not aspire to 100% self-sufficiency. It cost a lot of money to buy these 5 acres. 2/3 of our $3,500 monthly budget goes to the mortgage, Waldorf school tuition and property costs - to cover it, Sarah runs her business full-time and I consult part-time (oh, and we bring in a whopping $50/month from egg and garlic sales). We are planning for a retirement that involves more than just cashing in our relationships - investing in this land and hopefully another piece of rental-income land in the future, instead of the stock market. We pay taxes and enjoy nationalized health care. "Radical Homemaking" (not the term I would have chosen) does not have to mean rejection of money.

It's true that this leg of our family's journey started with enough money to buy this land - due in part to selling a Vancouver home at the height of the boom, and in much larger part due to a lifetime of living frugally, investing wisely (and ethically), and being darn lucky. But we didn't wait to have enough equity to start this life.

The start of our journey, our awakening, came years ago and didn't cost a dime. It started (as I wrote last week) with a simple decision to not use the interstate highway going through town. Then to stop spending money in fast-food chains. Then on to buying locally. So many ways we found to hone our energies in our chosen direction that didn't have to end up here on a farm - that in fact was quite a surprise.

I wish the Globe and Mail had interviewed my friend Steve who walks 40 minutes to work and grows veggies by the sidewalk alongside the well-manicured lawns of his urban neighbours. Or Keira who turned her Vancouver yard into a delicious urban jungle, and helped launch the Sustainable Living Arts School to empower others to cultivate their natural prowess. Or City Farm Boy whose "farm" is a patchwork of unused urban backyards where he tends the land, sharing the bounty with the homeowner. Three examples of friends at three different socio-economic levels, all finding creative ways to live their values in an urban setting.

And for those who think they may find the same Joy we do in tending to the chickens twice a day and chasing cows at 10pm, it is possible to go rural without a lot of equity. There are families out here who rent land, share land in community, intensively farm a half-acre plot, volunteer at a CSA farm (Community Supported Agriculture) or as Woofers. The equity-less renters of our cabin were our full farm partners. There's enough work in the farming community for all who want to make a serious commitment.

But this isn't about homesteading. It's about living a life true to our core values - defined in this "radical homemakers" book as "environmental sustainability, social justice, family and community." It's about being willing to step outside of the parts of mainstream society that don't support those values. Each family has different values, different resources, and different creative solutions. Money is always a factor but doesn't have to be a barrier - it's just one of several ingredients that has to be measured (sometimes creatively) in a successful transition.

Globe and Mail article published

I'm on the front page of the Globe and Mail! Today they published the article about "Radical Homemakers", interviewing me and some other families about how we've re-jigged our lives to center on "environmental sustainability, social justice, community and family."

Over the next week I'll be expanding upon elements that were missed in the excellent article that's just too short for the topic, and responding to the fascinating commentary that has unfolded on the Globe and Mail site. For now, it's just great to see a national newspaper highlight these types of issues on the front page (together with a rock band and two Canadian Paralympic gold medalists). Go, Canada, go!

Mar 12, 2010

A Friend in Need

One of the surprise questions in the Globe and Mail interview was, "So you have to rely on other people a lot?" To be fair, she wasn't attaching judgment to the question, but much of society - our Western society, at least - would consider this a weakness, a failure to stand on my own two feet. Mooch.

The simple fact is, I do and always have relied on others. And I think it's a good thing. I called Joe at 9:30 the other night to help round up the escaped cows, and dumped the kids on Chantell this afternoon for a work meeting. At age 42 my mother still has to co-sign loans because the bank doesn't understand wealth and income the way we do.

I also carried Joe's baby to school and back every day to give them a one-hour sanity break, and sent Chantell back to my nearby house to make lunch for her boy instead of driving way back to her house to retrieve the forgotten backpack. I gave my mother grandchildren.

We give; we take. That's why there's a we, instead of a me. We are connected, and the web grows stronger each time we lean on each other. This is an essential part of being human in the human family.

In spite of the cleverly symmetrical example above, it's not quid pro quo. There are some people who give me far more than I'll be able to return, and others whom I serve and will never turn to. As a young wanderer I was given couches to sleep on, was mentored, was given career breaks, and now I'm in a phase where I can offer that to others on their path, even as I'm still being supported. It's a cosmic, karmic quid pro quo, and no one is counting.

Do I rely on people more now that we're "Radical Homemakers" in the country, on lower income, and have more farm chores. Yes. Gloriously, beautifully yes. We are deeper into a community of people who openly embrace the human need to embrace and hold each other. Who more easily ask for help, and more freely offer it. Not better people, just less afraid.

Mar 11, 2010

More than food

"Hi Rick. I'm a reporter with The Globe and Mail, and an author I'm interviewing suggested I contact you. Her name is Shannon Hayes, author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. She mentioned she follows your blog and considers your lifestyle, like hers, "radical homemaking," that is, requiring less income to live a more ecologically balanced and fulfilling life. I'd love to speak with you about your decision to become a stay-at-home dad and rural farmer."

Well, that got my attention. Guess when I claimed to be a radical homemaker a few weeks back, someone took me seriously. But during the interview, it was a challenge to represent the ideals that I and apparently a growing movement of people are aspiring to. I waxed eloquent on food production, slow economy, and connected community. But there's so much more to it than I managed to express on the fly on the phone. So, Globe and Mail, here's what I wished I'd said:

We didn't "join" this "movement" when we moved rural. We moved towards it when we started to prefer the Utne Reader to Readers Digest, and became part of it when we made our first radical values-based behavior change. It had nothing to do with food or social justice or the environment; in our case it was transport. Sarah and I decided to stop using the major freeway that blasted through the middle of town. A ferociously dangerous, bi-level, multi-lane beast that divided the city along ethic and economic lines, suddenly didn't feel like a healthy part of our lives. We could afford to spend an extra 5 traveling minutes to slow down on smaller city streets that allowed us to see people, stop by small stores, travel more safely, breathe a little easier and let our hearts and wheels race a bit slower. Just like that, one little piece of our lives was more in alignment with our wedding vow to "live simply."

After conquering the interstate (via boycot), we moved on to the next goliath: foresaking chain restaurants in favour of ma&pa greasy diners. Better to support local ownership, more character in the food and clientelle, more sense of discovery. Nothing yet about organic, just quality in our lives, investing our money where it would do greater good, enjoyment, connection.

Layer after layer has peeled away in the intervening years. Awareness of what we believe in slowly and beautifully seeps into choices around transport, careers, religion, child-rearing philosophy and schooling, local food, organics, recycling, reusable toilet paper, politics, charitable donations, toys, giving up wireless, exercise, sleep patterns, clothing, treats, toothpaste, travel (air vs. train vs. none), videos, facebook frequency. The list is as endless as the number of things we do or don't do, consume or don't consume, touch or are touched by. Each and every experience of each and every day adds up to the sum of how we are living out our faith. This level of intentionality used to be exhausting; now it's the biofuel that drives us.

So please, Globe and Mail, don't reduce this to an article about homesteading. There are people all around making brave and original choices. They're not all rural farmers, not all long-haired Waldorfian liberals, and certainly not all as brazenly public as I've chosen to be. The idea of radical homemaking is so much more than where we live or what we eat - it's how we try each moment to live with integrity, how we can look ourselves and our neighbours and our as-yet-unborn great grandchildren in the eye and say that we are doing our best to live up to what we believe to be a Right and Fair and Sustainable and Joyful way for us all to share this world.

Mar 10, 2010

The Teacher Whisperer

Tonight all 17 parents of next year's grade one class gathered to "call" the new teacher. We lit candles and spoke reverently of what qualities we hope this new person will embody as he or she guides our children for the next 8 years.

That's right, 8 years. In Waldorf education, teachers stay with the same class from grades 1 to 8. They develop deep, lasting relationships with each child, understand the dynamics of their particular group, learn patterns and detect growth and blockages in each individual child. They become one of the most significant individuals in that child's world. At the closing ceremony last year the 8th graders were openly weeping as their beloved teacher wished them well on their high school journey.

If Zekiah's gonna be with this teacher for 8 years, the hiring committee better get it right, right? But the most powerful thing I felt tonight was a deep shared trust in the philosophy and system we have entered. We did not demand 10 years experience or advanced degrees or any particular expertise. We just asked that the teacher genuinely love our children, hold their best interests at heart, and be committed to a course of lifelong learning for the children, parents and him/herself.

The two kindergarten teachers present will be part of the hiring committee, ensuring that our views and their own understanding of our children will be honoured during the process. It will not be a matter of hiring the best person, but the best person for this unique group of children and families. What a privilege to have any part at all in the choosing of our child's teacher.

When I asked Zekiah what he hoped the new teacher would be like, he simply said he wanted Mr Wilt, the outgoing 8th grade teacher who we hope will apply for the position. "He's the nicest teacher in the school," Zekiah explained. "Galen told me."

"And do you know how I know?" continued Galen. "Because all his students are happy."

If the person we psychically called upon tonight can have that effect on my child (especially my 8th grade child!), I'll say this was a night well-spent.

Mar 8, 2010

Good fences make good neighbours

There's alot to be learned from building a fence. A true right of passage for a homesteading man. A statement of permanency and purpose, of stewardship and commitment. A legacy of security, strength, bulging biceps and aching shoulders.

You learn about power. Two-plus days of pounding fenceposts by hand, building strong corner braces, pulling and nailing wire mesh, hanging the gate - what a glorious way to greet the spring. When I speak of it my wife notes a proud, alive gleam in my eye that's not there after the average late-night grant-writing sludge. It's the raw, physical dominion and union that is an elemental turn-on.

You learn who your friends and neighbours are. Friends like Trent who shows up with two loads of fenceposts, and Joe who works far later into the twilight than his body tells him to (and who shows up at 9:30pm a few nights later to help herd the cows back inside and repair the section of fence we didn't do so well). Neighbours like Bob who's so pleased he's offering to either help pay or (hopefully) to give us some of his old beekeeping equipment. And neighbours like Fran who makes us create a new fence parallel to hers but 2 feet apart so that we don't mess up "her" posts. Same fence, very different reactions.

You learn the power of man to change the environment to his own whims and needs. I made an arbitrary decision to give more space to kids and less to animals. We ran the fence straight across the field rather than following the contour of the base of the hill, instantly creating a huge play area on one side of the iron curtain and pasture on the other. Over time the cows will mow and trample fertilize one side while kids and I mow and trample and don't fertilize the other side, slowly and deeply redefining the land as well as its usage.

You learn history, past and evolving. Somewhere in the Old Testament (Leviticus?) farmers were encouraged to "cut corners", leaving the very edges of their fields unharvested so that hungry peasants and travelers could eat. These days, cutting corners is a negative - doing things on the cheap - and the current social concern when laying out a field is the idea of placing the fence 10 feet shy of the property line as a "wilderness corridor." 3400 years later, same fence placement, different priorities.

And most touching, you earn the deep gratitude of those big brown-eyed, trusting beasts who'll be this fall's burgers. When set free in their new pasture they bucked and jumped (literally) for joy, then came over to nuzzle me and kiss my hand (again, literally). Wildside Farm will be selling the best-tasting grass-fed beef in the valley this summer, in no small part due to the fact that these cows have felt safe and loved. There is some scientific explanation about them not releasing stress hormones, but at a cosmic level we'll just be tasting the love.

Unlike Robert Frost (excerpt from Mending Wall below), we do indeed need a fence to give our cows healthy freedom within safety in their short life, and for the sheep who will next season take their place. But I plan to build a stile so Bob can hop over and chat while we poke around the bee hives, and I dream of someday breaching the double-barrier between us and Fran. Something there is that doesn't love this wall between us, that wants it down.

...'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say '.Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself.