Monday, October 29, 2012

When it all comes unraveled

We've got 85 degree temps on tap for this afternoon, and it should be temperate for the rest of this week, but that's just the story here on the west coast.  On the east coast, Hurricane Sandy is getting ready to bear down on several states, disrupting services and forcing people to put their emergency plans into effect and find out how well prepared to be independent and off-the-grid they really are.

In a way, I'm envious of their disasters, because west coast disasters tend to be caused by earthquakes and we don't get much notice for them.  Actually we get none, so there's no flying out to Home Depot in a panic to stock up on batteries and bottled water. It can all come unraveled at once. We've had two moderate quakes since we moved into this house, but neither was large enough that emergency plans went into effect.  That's good, because as of right now, we don't have any.  Oh of course, we have earthquake insurance (buying that was  a given when we moved here) but as far as storing water, food, medical supplies and a "bug out bag" in case we need to evacuate, we haven't done anything.

This is not to say we won't do it.  Now that the bulk of our"settling in" chores have been accomplished, I know it's important to put together 1) a bag of goods that could keep me going in my car, should I get stuck someplace, unable to get home.  2) enough supplies in the house itself to keep our family going for a couple of weeks, should "the big one" hit.  

When we moved to this house, one of the things that happened was that our food storage system got out of whack.  We went from having a large pantry to store food to having NO pantry to store food, which has been problematic.  Of course we did the logical thing and downsized what food we keep around here, but let's face it:  should a major earthquake strike and at least one of us is at home, a healthy supply of canned and packaged goods would be a blessing, and would make life a lot more comfortable.  So now that we're moved and have some extra storage space allocated, a good supply of canned goods as well as some dry goods (like dry rice, wheat and beans) would probably be a good idea.  We have a solar oven, so can boil water and cook every day without any power whatsoever, if we'd like.  But if we want heat inside the house, we will also need a generator we can run at least a couple of hours a day.  That's more expensive, so we may get it down the road a bit.  The food I can take care of this week and be ready.  If we needed to, we could all sleep in the same room in order to stay warm.  But food and water are non-negotiables.

So in any disaster (including one that's not your own, like Hurricane Sandy is to us west coasters) can provide the occasion to audit your own emergency preparedness and see what's lacking. You can bet when I hit the store on Friday I will be buying some goods which will be put aside for emergencies and rotated regularly, just so they're there in case we need them.  Those tall bookcases and amoire will get bolted to the wall sooner rather than later, too.

Because while people who live in hurricane zones know what to expect and get some notice its coming, those of us in earthquake country do not. Any moment, any moment at all, could be the time that all those preparations become necessary not only for comfort, but actual survival.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Two eras

Last weekend, my husband and I had an old-fashioned date.  We went wine tasting, to a concert, and then out to dinner. No big deal, right?

But the fact that my husband accidentally left his smart phone at home sent us back a decade or two, and that was what made it old-fashioned.  We spent an entire 10 hour period just experiencing life together, without the aid (or distraction) of the phone.  There were no work calls, no ball game scores to check, and no texts from our grown children.  It was kind of awesome, and strongly reminiscent of dates I've been on in my past.  Because I was a young adult during a time when the mobile phone was not yet a common thing.

In my lifetime, I actually feel like I've lived through two technological eras:  The first was the computer, and the second was the cell phone. Now, of course, those two things have been combined in the smart phone. 

I was thinking this morning about what might be different in my life if I had grown up with these devices the way my children have.  There is no question these devices change situations and even relationships with their presence, as evidenced by our date day last weekend.  There was a lower level of frustration from me because my husband was not constantly distracted by his screen.  He was more able to focus on conversation and the shared experience of the concert we went to and the wine and meals we shared.  It brought us closer.

But if the smart phone had been around in the early '80's when I was young and single, what might have changed?  Well, I waited by the phone a lot for one particular man, and that would never have happened.  Who knows, maybe I would have sent him a text asking him what was up, and all that build-up of unrealistic expectations and thwarted romance would never have built up any steam, which could certainly have been a game changer.  I hung in there on that relationship for about eight years.  Perhaps if I'd been able to text him more and find out exactly what was going on, I never would have put up with all that.  After all, our imagination used to fill in the blanks when we were absent from our love-crush.  Oh, he hasn't called because he's at the studio and can't get away.  Oh, he's late again because the traffic on the 405 is so bad this time of day.  Nowadays, if we want to know why someone hasn't called or shown up, we just let our thumbs do the talking, or check their Facebook or Twitter status.

What about the times I was with someone I shouldn't have been with, someplace I should never have gone to?  Would a cell phone or texting changed things?  Made me feel guilty when the "where are you" text came in from a third party?  Quite probably. 

And of course when I was in my early 20's I took off and backpacked around Europe for several months.  And one of the things that made that so life-changing was the fact that I was out of touch with everyone I knew for all those long months, which I credit for helping me discover who I really was.  Nowadays the kids who do this have their trusty phone and laptop with them, and are not be out of touch with anyone any more than they would be if they were just around the block.  Not a change for the better, sadly.

Yes, there is no doubt that life would be profoundly different if I'd been born 30 years later.  Some things, like romance and travel are perennial, but how they manifest in a person's life is not.  I'm glad I'm from the era I am, but I do like to wonder sometimes about what exactly would have changed with a screen and a network handy and ever-present communication available.  It's one of those advances that's so large, it's almost impossible to fathom every little and big change it would have made.  But it's worth thinking about when assessing whether or not we've become too dependent on them.

Digging in

All five garden beds are planted at this point, and unless there's a crop failure, we'll have fresh lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, green and red onions and carrots in a couple of months.  It's a good feeling; the last piece of the puzzle that makes this place feel like home.  

I also planted three cottonwood trees out of the property lines on the north side of the house for some summer shade.  I love cottonwood trees so much I can track the seasons by the sounds their leaves make in the breeze.  Spring is a gentle, soft swooshing sound with baby new leaves barely touching each other.  Summer is more of a crisp clapping sound, as the fully-grown leaves shimmer in the wind.  Fall and early winter are a crackly rustle, as the drying, dying leaves scrape together and shudder before hitting the ground.  I miss all those sounds, and hope these cottonwoods winter-over well and explode forth with green shoots in the spring.

Beyond the gate
The other thing I've done is start exploring what's beyond the gate, in the lower pasture on the property.  I've found very poor soil at the top, fantastic soil in the middle, and OK soil down at the bottom.  The top of the pasture is poor because it contains a lot of the rocks scraped off the hill when they graded it to build this house.  The middle is lovely because it's been left alone; it has a nice, loamy topsoil due to the natural growth and decay of the plants that grace the hillside in spring and early summer.  The lower pasture is just so-so because a lot of the rocks on the hill have washed down to what's essentially a gully.  

So here's how I expect things will shape up:  Goats/sheep in the top third of the pasture, vines and berries along the middle swath, and maybe some deciduous shade trees at the bottom, which will shed leaves and gradually enrich the soil down there until it may support some grass.  I'd like a place to grow corn, wheat and pumpkins eventually, which take a lot of space, so this bottom area may be the spot.  But we have to improve the soil a little more first.

That's the 5 year plan, of course.  Today's plan is to grab a shower, freeze some more eggs and go into town and find a new hair stylist.  Takin' things one day at a time.

Friday, October 19, 2012

In the cloud

Today it's drizzling fog, which is a nice change from the warm, sunny weather we've been having the last couple of weeks.  I'm not complaining about either one; the warm sun is lovely and not overbearing at this point in the season.  But it's the change that's refreshing.

We live at the top of a hill, about 1500 feet up, so while those below us would call this weather a low overcast or marine layer, for us up here on the hilltop we're right in the midst of the cloud. So it's foggy and wet, which is something for which I'm profoundly thankful.  We live among dry brush, and so any gift from above that can provide moisture is profoundly appreciated.  It helps keep us safe.

I love being in the cloud.  It reminds me of when I worked at Griffith Observatory and we'd have nights when we would also be up in the cloud. Up on that hill, I'd also stand outside in the drizzling wetness you get if you're in the magic zone -- about 1500 feet above sea level and within striking distance of the ocean. I'd walk out to my car after work at about 11 pm, and feel the light spray of the drizzle on my face and in my hair.  I'd use the windshield wipers until I got down to the bottom of the hill and Los Feliz Blvd., when the weather went back to being a regular overcast.  I had descended from the cloud and it felt like coming back into the corporeal world, after leaving the mystical one. 

This weather pattern is familiar to me, and yet another thing that makes me feel like I've come home.

This morning the chickens and animals are all out and about, enjoying the dampness.  My seed beds are also grateful for the cool, and are sprouting winter lettuce, onions, chives, scallions, and carrots.  Later today I will head over to the garden center and see about picking up some broccoli and cauliflower transplants.

It's a good life here in the clouds.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sharp-shinned hawk

For the last two days we've had a visitor to the henhouse and aviary, the sharp-shinned hawk seen above.  To the right is a much better picture of this species of hawk, which I shamelessly snagged off the internet.  The first picture I took from inside the house, right before I went outside and scared him off with a broom and some choice words.

While I believe he's hanging around the coop because of the two doves and Floyd the pigeon, I can't be too sure.  Sharpies, as they are called, are generally known for flying off with small game like sparrows, doves and squirrels, however they have also been known to occasionally take down a full-size chicken (if its isolated from its flock and out in the open) and eat it right there on the ground where it's taken.

If you're attuned to the normal sounds and noises around your property, you will almost always know when there's a hawk present. The meadowlarks, finches, sparrows and even the jays go completely silent out in fields and in the trees.  Inside the aviary, there's a general rush of wings as everything attempts to fly under cover, to safety, and then it also goes completely still.  That was the general situation when I checked out the window and saw our friend on top of the run.  

Truly, the term, "it was quiet -- too quiet" must have gotten its start in the barnyard, in the presence of a predator. 

So for the time being, my hens are mostly confined to their chicken run and henhouse.  While the run and coop are quite roomy and therefore not truly confining, I like knowing they are out and about in the garden during at least part of the day, keeping the insect population under control and fortifying their diet by eating those as well as a variety of weeds, seeds, and soils from our property.

But safety first, at least until this fellow migrates on to wherever he's going.  And if I stay vigilant, he'll at least realize the meal he's wanting is not available here and move on someplace else in the neighborhood before continuing his journey south. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Back to your acorn

James Hillman wrote a wonderful book a decade or two ago called "The Soul's Code."  It's about how people come into the world more or less knowing what and where they are supposed to be.  Just like an acorn "knows" in advance that it will become an oak tree, rather than a poplar, a spruce or a dogwood.  

I agree 100 percent with this theory and can say that, if I had listened more to my inner acorn and less to voices and influences outside me, I would have gotten to where I am now, which is in many ways the best place in my life, a whole lot faster.

As a child I was passionate about caring for, learning about and stewarding all manner of plants and animals.  We had a patch of dirt outside our apartment's back door, and even at 7 years old I spent my allowance at the nursery, buying coleus, marigolds and pansies for the dirt patch, and houseplants for indoors.  Almost all of them died because I lacked the knowledge then to take care of them and my parents had no interest in it and therefore no knowledge to pass on to me, but again and again I still dug into the dirt and tried to grow things.  

The same thing went for animals.  Once a week, we were allowed to visit the Delavan Science Center across town, and from the minute I got off the school bus to when I heard the toot of the horn that told me it was time to go back, I sat in the small barn on the property and observed the chickens and goats.  It would not be an understatement to say I never wanted to leave that barn.  I loved it.

But I lived in Los Angeles, and so as I grew up, the city influenced me and I became a quintessential young urban adult, versed in culture and trend but cut off from the dirt and the beating heart of nature and its creatures.  I survived, but I made blunder after blunder and wandered through life with no compass or North Star to guide me. It would not be an exaggeration to say I was a lost soul.  I was lost to any faith that could help me, and also lost to myself.

I found my acorn again when I bought my first house about 15 years ago.  Suddenly I was up to my eyeballs in dirt -- my own dirt -- and back amid nature, even if it was only in my large suburban back yard.  I planted trees whose leaves rustled in the wind, made nesting boxes for the wild bird population, and grew things to my heart's content.  And it surely is no coincidence that about that time my life finally achieved some honor and some order.  I was nurturing my son, nurturing the land and nurturing my animal friends, both wild and domestic.  In short, I had finally become the oak tree I was meant to be, rather than the spruce tree I'd been trying (unsuccessfully) to be for far too long.  

Nowadays I grow things for food or just because they're beautiful all day long and spend my nights sitting under the thousands of stars that you can see from our property.  And the circle is complete.  I finally became what I was supposed to. But I wonder how many people out there are still wandering through the desert of life, lacking their own North Star, all because they stopped listening to the inner voice that knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing here, and are instead listening to the well-meaning friends and family members, or even the media or their culture, instead.

I hope everyone reading this honors their acorn and becomes a mighty oak in their own right, sooner rather than later.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Rail System

Copyright Alex Gillman

Later today I'm driving to the train station at San Luis Obispo to see my son, who is riding aboard a private railcar owned by some friends.  There's talk of him working on this railcar eventually, which would be a dream job for him while he's in college.  He loves to travel, and he absolutely loves trains.

He and I were talking last night about the fact that, with rising fuel costs, it is probably the rail system which will sustain us in the coming years, transportation-wise.  It's more efficient and much cheaper to ship both freight and people via rail lines versus automobiles, trucks, busses or even airplanes.  That's why, I suspect, billionaire Warren Buffet recently purchased Burlington-Northern Railroad.  Obviously his forecasters are seeing the same things we are, and are planning for future profits.  

It's not a bad way to travel, either, providing you're willing to move more slowly than you would via jet.  But with the advent of wireless internet, even the most important businessperson can stay in touch and keep working as they ride the rails.  

One bright spot in The Long Emergency, if you enjoy train travel I guess.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Luxury HenHouse

I only need one of these, and the holidays are coming.  Really, $100,000.00 is not much to ask for one's hens to be comfortable, now is it?

From the Neiman Marcus fantasy catalog:


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Eggs Away!

One of the glories of summer is the number of eggs we get from our sweet hens.  Three hens, three eggs daily, like clockwork.  We've eaten a lot of omelettes and given a fair share away to friends and family over the past few months.  In fact, it's been a regular egg-a-palooza around here. But with fall comes shorter days and with shorter days comes less eggs.  It hasn't happened yet, but I know it's coming.  

But the good news is, eggs can be preserved pretty easily.  Simply take a half-dozen eggs, mix them gently, add either a half-teaspoon of salt or sugar (depending on whether you'll be using them for sweet or savory dishes), mix them again, place them in a ziplock bag and pop them into the freezer.  

Once you're ready to use them, remove them from the freezer and thaw them in the fridge  until they're ready to pop into whatever winter recipe you need them for.

Huevos Frios

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A menopausal memo

I've figured out that the two things that interfere with my post-menopausal night's sleep the most are alcohol (specifically wine) and sugar.  Of course alcohol is basically sugar, so sugar is probably the lone culprit when it comes down to brass tacks.  I love sugar.  But I also love sleeping the sleep of childhood, where my rest is thick, deep, sweet and I awaken after a full 8 hours slightly groggy but incredibly refreshed.  

I love wine and I love baked goods, but apparently when I have either (or both) several days in a row, its my sleep cycle that suffers.  I awaken at 4 am, unable to return to sleep, too warm, and tossing and turning.  

But I am still able to have exactly two squares of 72% dark chocolate, daily, to no ill effect, so that's been my go-to treat recently.  

I will never completely give up chocolate eclairs, or a good cabernet, but taken too many days in succession, my body is simply telling me they are not good for me. OK.  Message received.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

What do you call this?

I call it a start.  These are the first two of, eventually, five raised beds which will provide us with most of our vegetables in the coming years.  I can't begin to tell you how hard it's been this summer to swallow my pride and head over to the farmers' market to buy overpriced produce which I know I could grow better myself.  

This is actually the one part of our new life that makes me long for the old one:  The Visalia farmers' market (Central Valley) is so vastly superior to the Templeton farmers' market (Central Coast) it's astonishing considering both markets sit in the heart of perfect areas for growing local food in abundance.

But whereas the Visalia farmers' market features true local produce which is reasonably priced, the Templeton farmers' market features high-dollar fruits and veggies, much of it grown in the Central Valley and trucked over the hills to sell in Templeton, as well as some professionally grown produce being sold as small-farm products.  Kinda sad, really.  

But whether its the farmers' market or the produce aisle in the supermarket, what you can grow on your own property will still be guaranteed to come to your table fresher and therefore more nutritionally charged-up than lettuce picked last week and packaged to sell or a few cases of hothouse tomatoes which took a U-turn and never made it to the supermarket because someone decided to sell them at a huge mark-up at a coastal farmers' market.  

Next week I'll be planting lettuce, onions and carrots and in another couple of weeks, spinach, broccoli, snow peas, and cauliflower.  I'm currently freezing eggs in anticipation of the short days when the hens will not be laying as much, and digging out all the produce we froze last spring to use in our fall meals.  Bottom line, we're getting back to our former self-sufficient ways, and it feels like coming back to the faith after spending a few months living on the wild side.

But we'll hopefully have some vegetables in time for Thanksgiving, which means my weekend trips to the farmers' market can finally come to a close and I can leave the Templeton farmers' market to the foodies willing to pay high dollars for produce that's probably traveled as far as if they'd bought it at the grocery store for half the price.  Huge relief.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


My only regret over this past summer has been the fact that homesteading activities have not been what they were in years past.  Sure, I canned my quota of tomatoes and strawberry jam, continued hanging my laundry out to dry, and made my own laundry detergent, so perhaps I shouldn't be too hard on myself.  Summer in these parts tends to be a time when you reap the bounty of the garden and not much else anyway.  It's too friggin' hot to do much more than that, even here on the coast.

But we sit here with almost two acres of land and have, so far, done nothing with it, and that bothers me.  We only just got our first two planting beds built last week, and have yet to get them filled with dirt.  We had to buy some new kitchen appliances (a new stove and dishwasher), due to the age and energy use of the fleet that was here when we moved in -- an unexpected, but necessary, expense.  But I feel a little like I'm drifting right now, with no true mission or purpose here except to continue making this home more livable for us as a family.  It's happening.  But it's expensive and time consuming.

But I don't want this to turn into a decorating blog, even though I love decorating.  This is a homesteading blog, and maybe a wine country blog on occasion, and of course a midlife blog.  

There was no pear wine this year, but we did get three chickens who produce delicious eggs on a regular basis.  No summer veggies, but that did allow me to visit the local farmer's market and see what an outrageous mark-up the folks here put on their locally grown produce.  I may not have dirt in those raised beds yet, but I do have compost ready for them.  It's six of one versus a half-dosen of the other.  Progress rarely happens on all fronts at the same time.  But there is still progress.

Yet, without working the land and growing things, I do feel a little like I've drifted through this summer, entertaining family and friends here at the house, attending cultural and wine-oriented events, and learning my way around.  There are some advantages to drifting, however.  Drifting allows you to be carried by the current and gives you the chance to observe the course you're on, the scenery to each side of you as you pass, and lets you take in the lay of the land slowly, with time to digest what you're seeing and how you feel about it.  I'm still learning the lay of the land here.  Soon we will have food growing here, and perhaps some more animals.  But it's going to take some time and some money.

And so, for now, I drift.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Because it's too hot

Outside right now there is a chicken coop to be cleaned out, a gazebo that needs another coat of varnish to keep it waterproof when winter comes, a load of laundry out on the line that's probably already dry, plants that could use some extra water, a garden to be planted, and a side yard to be organized.  Not doing any of it because 103 degrees outside right now, and I do draw a firm line between being productive and killing myself.  Heat stroke is so unattractive. 

But I can sit inside and blog, which it occurs to me I haven't done nearly enough recently.