Wednesday, June 24, 2015

June journal

The kids have adjusted to living at my parents' house. I'm grateful to be in a household with four adults, with my sister's family just next door.

Some cool stuff from June:

Clay Room, Hout Bay

We've gone to the clay room twice to make gifts for birthdays. I justify the expense by saying it's a bit like an art class, where you get a cool plate or bowl at the end... The brilliant bonus on our most recent visit was that they had three jumping castles set up for a party later in the day:

Heaven = painting clay + bouncing castles
The first two creations from the clay cafe are the kids' bowls now.
Eli's in the top right, Noah's still full of breakfast, in the front. 

We're still doing art first thing in the morning. We sometimes get into a bit of rut, then I remember to look up something and prepare a little. Five minutes of prep goes a long way. We've recently discovered watercolour pencils.

Eli still likes pastels over anything else. He seems to be right-handed, but he sometimes likes drawing with two hands at once...
On the day when this photo was taken, there was loadshedding (electricity outages) and our day starts out pretty dark in winter:
Burning the candles on both ends.
Giant bubbles!
We've been looking out for glycerine for this project and found some for R5 at our local Spar. It's cheap, it's fun, it works!


Noah has been wanting to learn chess for a while, but he also hates feeling like he's being told one way to do things, so up to now we've waited. But recently, he's been learning chess using an iPad app called Dinochess. His eighteen year old cousin is an avid chess player, and has also started coming over to play with him. Noah uses the "hint" function on Dinochess liberally.


As part of the quest to preserve my dad's sanity while we're crowding out my parents' house, we went to Tulbagh for a couple of days. We tried to work and hang out with the kids...

Running to start art time.  
Noah explains he's going to draw the mountain landscape. Eli explains he's going to draw a train track.

This locust hung out all day, and we spent a lot of time watching it.

Tulbagh is a pretty quiet area, so there's not tons of places to go to-- we decided to pull over and find a place to play by the river. It turned out to be the party bank of the century, covered with glass and trash. But the kids didn't care.

Trying to be good citizens, we spent a few minutes cleaning up. I spent cleanup time trying not to let my compounded public health/mom paranoia get the better of me.

Planning stuff by the river.
This time, the swimming pool was much too cold to swim...

...But not too cold to play, and try out making vortices in the pool
This time we discovered Fynbos guest farm, where you can call ahead and ask to visit the animals, in exchange for bringing some vegetable scraps. It's a lovely and inspiring visit, with a lot of detail and work put into making the farm pleasant and interesting. The animals-- rescued from various places-- seem really happy.
Hello goat!

Hello turkey!!

Hello Horse!! They leave their horses to free-range. The horses were calm and friendly.
Hi pig!

They have brushes for pig-scratching, which the pigs seemed to enjoy...
We also visited Die Tolhuis, where we saw some baboons and explored another mountain stream. The kids loved this playground by the side of the highway... but it was super cold and I just wanted to go inside. The owner encouraged us to just let the kids play while we were inside, so I briefly overcame my fears and we did just that.

Winter colours.

The kids and mountain streams...  
When we visited Tulbagh wholesale nursery, I was pretty much in heaven-- trees for half the Cape Town prices!! But Eli was disgusted that such a large nursery doesn't have a playground.

Truck tire swan...
bananas for R40!
Grapefruit for R79!

If only I had a large truck.
Noah found rocks and sticks to make a garden sculpture. Hopefully Eikelaan doesn't mind...

Cool websites I've gone to for inspiration this month:

Project-based homeschooling for discussion of homeschooling generally, and an approach based on engagement in specific projects. 

Happiness is here -- I love this blog about unschooling kids about the same age as Noah and Eli. Those organized wooden toys get me every time!! But I also had the insight that some things that look totally awesome on a blog don't fit every child's temperament (like when we try to copy stuff from Pinterest, right?!) and that I shouldn't derive theories about all children from my tiny sample size of two. The kinds of organized beautiful learning zones on this blog are completely lovely, and would make me go crazy if I tried to replicate them right now.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Beginning a permaculture farm, and building a house in Cape Town

I haven't used the phrase "permaculture forest" much in my descriptions of what we're doing on our plot, but for about half the plot, that's probably the best term for what we're attempting. At the same time, having killed many a plant following the latest farming theory, I'm hesitant to follow a set of principles as dogma. We're attempting pretty close spacing of trees, together with mulch and support species, and seeing how they grow. We have one acre total (4100m2), and in this space there'll be two small houses (one for my parents, one for us), and a shipping container (which we will be converting into housing for Eug's mom and brother, and for storage/guests when they're not staying).

The porch facing west-- our plot goes about halfway to the wooden fence in the distance (there's one 1/2 acre plot vacant next to us). On the right of this picture are three olive trees.
The metal part will be the house, then we also have a porch and a sunroom-type thing, framed in wood..
On the building side: Building a house is really hard, even though we're not actually the ones building it. We want control and a sense that we're being good stewards with our resources (we also don't want to run out of money), but we're beginners and we don't really know much. And we're working and living about a 30 minute drive away from the farm with our two small kids. The house is very small (36m2, or 387sqft on the ground floor, plus a loft space of about 120sqft which will be the adult's bedroom one day, when the kids stop sleeping over). It's a little difficult to imagine living in this house with three growing kids, but most of the world occupies much smaller, less fancy spaces. My prayer, coming from a place of stress, is "what would it take for building to be a good process?" And usually the answer God gives is along the lines of remembering that the house itself is a gift, not proportional to any kind of work we've done, and that perhaps it could also be a blessing to those doing the building. We've also had some pretty fun encounters buying second hand stuff for the house (a few doors, a spiral staircase, a bathtub, wood flooring) from interesting people. Eug, who swore his career sanding, staining and varnishing was coming to an end when we finished renovating our old house, has been doing just that with old doors and stairs. I'm very lucky and grateful.

Stairs prepped for the spiral staircase.
On the farming side:

Both houses on the plot will be one bedroom cottages with lofts, so they don't take up a huge amount of space- less than 1/8 acre with some space between them for my parents' dogs to roam. Still, with a small pond (or the cement structure for a pool that came with the property), a few vegetable beds, as well as chickens and ducks, greywater systems, water storage tanks and medium-scale composting, the space gets used up pretty fast. Getting dairy animals does not seem to be a practical use of space, at least for now. So, despite my voracious appetite for goat care manuals, goat ownership fits in the "not in the next five years" category. While we could buy all or most of our animals' food, and therefore keep them in a smaller space, I'm not sure that's a great idea for us. The significant costs of land -- the costs of ownership and the cost of purchase, as well as the opportunity costs of not growing fruits and vegetables -- would also make those animal products extraordinarily expensive.

It seems like chickens, ducks (muscovies) and bees (and maybe fish-- tilapia) are a good use of space and well-suited to the cost and relatively poor current state of our land, as well as to the climate. The chickens and ducks will ultimately be able to roam free in the forest once the trees are mature (perhaps in five years' time). I'm still considering whether raising a couple of pigs every year for meat might be workable, if we can find a good butcher to help us.

Given the years it takes trees to grow and bear fruit, we've been focused on starting a food forest. The goal is to get as close to a self-sustaining forest as possible, with various layers of foods and support crops (most notably nitrogen fixers and stuff that quickly accumulates biomass for us to chop and drop onto the forest floor). Food forests are a bit of a fad, at least in the online world that I'm exposed to, often involving certification, designers, large earth moving equipment and surveying instruments to figure out how to catch water along contour. We don't have easy access to that stuff. So instead we're looking at the land as best we can and thinking of how to catch and retain water, increase the amount of biomass, and plant trees in an micro-environment that most suits them. When I am less pregnant, or Eug is less busy sanding and painting things, we will dig ditches by hand to catch water.

Blackberries growing along the fence. The leaves look dry but they keep the soil below pretty moist.
In Cape Town, there's a lot that potentially grows very well, because we don't have frost (except perhaps on the mountains) and there's plenty of sun. We're less able to grow things that require a certain number of cold hours per year, or which don't tolerate the months of heat of drought-- such as apples or walnuts-- but there are even varieties of apple that can do ok our climate. It's even possible to grow tropical fruits, if they're well-placed in a warm, protected spot. On the other hand, our soil looks a lot like sandpit sand, so there's a ways to go before trees will be healthy and thrive here without any help.

Eureka lemon-- it had a tough summer but it's recovering well now.
Theoretically, it would be great to completely oversupply fruit trees and support species to the half acre, then see what does well as they grow to maturity, chopping the rest for mulch and firewood. In practice, it takes a long time to plant trees well, and it's hard to see trees grown from seed succumb to guinea fowl or giant moles or roaming chickens. Grafted trees cost between R70 and R300 (US$6 to US27) at the nursery, so we've been slow to buy the more expensive trees-- we don't want to waste them! I've also been sowing quite a lot of nitrogen fixing tree seed that I've collected while biking around.
Put in a fig today. It seems super hardy from a summer with very little rain in a concrete patch of my parents' yard, so I'm hopeful it'll survive.
So far we have pomegranate, acacia (siberiana and xanthophloea), moringa, pawpaw (papaya), cape gooseberry, goji berry, almond, granadilla, hanepoort grape, pineapples, seedling avocado, seedling mango, lemon, peach, guavas, elderberries, prickly pears, macadamia nut, a few olives (already there), sweet potato and spekboom. Waiting at my parents' house in Plumstead we have a fig, more pomegranate, some more small nitrogen fixer tree seedlings, tamarillo, blueberry, orange, apricot, plum, more peach, more lemon, more pawpaws, many more grapes.
All the heads from the pineapples eaten during the summer season are growing along our fence, about 20 in all. 
Once we're on the plot we'll buy or grow from seed/cutting blueberries, granadilla, rasberries, grapefruit, Natal plum (num nums), kei apple/wild apricot, more spekboom, marula, more orange trees, naartjies, bananas, coffee, persimmon, more macadamia,  cultivated mulberry and many more support species. A friend has gifted me with lots of native seeds received from Kirstenbosch, including edible natives, that I'm going to try and cultivate.
Moringa-- starting to go dormant for the winter. I'm not yet sure whether moringa is going to be a success, but I'm hopeful. We have about 10 on the plot.
The dreaded acacia saligna (port jackson) is currently the main support species/nitrogen fixer on the plot, as it was there before we arrived and I've been coppicing them rather than trying to pull them out completely. They're deeply hated here in the Cape, but on our plot it takes me about 2 hours to cut all of the port jackson shrubs down to ground level-- the wood is soft and very easy to saw through. I guiltily admit I love them-- while everything else was struggling to survive over the dry, hot, summer, the port jackson thrived. Which I guess is why they're a problem to native habitat. Coppicing them seems like an good investment of time every few months, particularly given all the leaves and branches we get in return. We're careful not to let them go to seed, so there's not too much danger of our choices affecting our neighbours. We're also on the lookout for a few tons of (probably horse) manure, leaves and grass cuttings to cover and build the sandy ground.

Whew. So starting out is a slow and demanding process. But the goal is so exciting: an off-grid* home with a resilient and quite prolific food system that requires little outside water or other inputs. From a more abstract/idealistic perspective, I love the idea of leaving a piece of land in great condition, and of feeding our boys on food produced right where we live.

If you're trying permaculture here in Cape Town, or have some edible perennials in need of a home, please do let me know! We'd love your wisdom. And if you're the praying type, please could you pray that our builders do a great job, and we're able to move in and settle down before the baby comes.

*sortof- we'll be connected to the municipality's water supply for emergencies/drinking water.

Friday, May 29, 2015

May update & reflections on homeschooling

Until pretty recently, public school was quite an important part of what I believed in-- it lent itself to images of some level of socioeconomic equality, whereas homeschooling evokes images of elitism, unnatural cloistering, or religious conservatism. Those images don't necessarily fit with what public schooling or homeschooling actually looks like in South Africa (or anywhere)-- at least the parts of South Africa I've lived in. Bad public schools offer virtually no social mobility for those living below the poverty line, and at worst are akin to prisons, whereas elite public schools are, well, elite. A school leaving certificate is seen as a major tool for making ones' way in the world, which I'm not sure is really the case. And the middle ground is so hard to find.

So part of the choice to homeschool has evolved out of the extraordinarily complex choices facing parents in South Africa: private or public? How diverse? How good is good enough? A lot of times this complex choice is framed in terms of our children's long-term futures-- we want to do the best we can to get our kids to whatever adulthood we perceive as ideal.The thing is, when we make a choice about school we're also making a pretty massive choice about our lives in the present, and that's even more difficult: Do we spend more time at work, or have a more demanding job, in order to send our children to better schools? Do we find a public school that's pretty good, but then subject ourselves to 2 hours in a car each day? Do we move to stand a better chance of getting into a "good" school? I don't know the answers to these questions in any kind of universal way, but it's this cascade of decisions that we're consciously sidestepping when we're choosing to homeschool.

When I imagine the broader social consequences of homeschooling I have two main responses 1) Our lives are small and our intentions in homeschooling our kids comes from a place of hopefulness, prayer (often for our small lives to form part of some bigger story), and thoughtful consideration 2) Maybe small cottage schools and home schools would positively, rather than negatively affect the education of many South Africans living below the poverty line.

In these updates, I mainly focus on what we're actually doing. Not because we're doing something special, but to keep a record for ourselves and demystify some of the day-to-day stuff, for others. That said, we don't take pictures of the kids crying or running away when we set lunch on the table. So it's a skew picture, often with idealized bits of what we're hoping for rather than the full picture of the day. Looking back, it's also clear that some things are going really, really well, which is sometimes difficult to see when one is still hearing cries almost every day.

This month I was inspired by Thomas Jefferson Education. Occasionally I want to have something tangible to show for our days -- like the kids starting to read or count better. But I'm sold on the idea that these early years are primarily about building a good foundation relationally, and providing the kids with lots of good stories.

Making a solar oven

We used this instructable (somewhat flexibly) to make a solar oven. It was a fun project that the kids got super engaged in-- though it'll be even better when we find out if it works. I didn't fully think through doing this in winter.

Eli faithfully scrubbed an old window we found on the plot. Unfortunately, the pane of glass broke when we were cutting it, so we have to buy a new one.

Put some food in the painted black box, a pane of glass on the top, angle the foil-covered sides towards the sun, and voila!

Life and love with Honey Bunny.
 Craft time
I've finally embraced craft time, and it's been a very helpful transition for me. Planning seems to make all the difference. The kids are super keen to try new things at particular times of day. A couple of blogs have suggested that art is sometimes less rushed early in the day (including a favourite South African-based blog, so that's what we've been trying out-- though haphazardly-- this month. For Eli, this is often cutting and doing stuff with stickers. For Noah, it's more likely to be weaving, colouring or drawing. The kids have a small table here at my parents' house, but I find that sitting together at the big table is a lot better, as I can do something with them and there's lots of space.

Eli makes Totoro out of origami paper.

Making planets
Eug's mom sent us two wonderful sticker books for the kids. Korean sticker books are the best (Ok, probably there are some great sticker books in other places, but so far I haven't found good South African sticker books). 

Laq time

In the kids' birthday package were also these small Japanese building blocks, called Laq. They're a lot more compact than legos (yippee!!!), have only a small variety of blocks so if you lose one it's less of a crisis than with legos (yippee!!) and they build slightly different kinds of things-- including different angles etc. After a frustrating morning feeling like I was back in organic chemistry, I'm now a huge fan. Following the paper instructions is pretty difficult (more difficult than with legos) but using the blocks gets super fun because of the options created by 45 degree and 30 degree angles.

iPad reading
This month we were gifted my mom's old iPad. So we also dropped speech therapy in favour of a couple of iPad reading programmes. Unlike speech therapy, which the kids did for the chocolate, the reading programmes they do for love (iPad love). It also helps with speech-- to discover the sounds that go with specific letters or words helps Noah to understand the words that he typically mixes up. The two apps the kids have really enjoyed are Endless Reader and Joy of Reading. They have different strengths, and together seem to have helped the kids progress in word and sound recognition. Of course, we still spend a lot of time reading to them. To be honest, I'm hoping that Noah is reading somewhat independently before our baby girl is born in September. It's not necessarily a reasonable goal, so I'm saying it to you rather than to him, and trying to hold it lightly. Progress over perfection (on my part), who cares if Noah reads now or in a couple of years time. Well, I do, but that's my own issue.

Otherwise, our attempt at a schedule seems to make the kids feel safe. They do a fair amount of baking and cooking (in which I try not to have a heart attack, so no pictures), time at our plot (I keep on forgetting the camera) and lots of playing. It's getting pretty cold and rainy here, so I'm excited at the prospects of fires and a sense of security and rhythm here, in my parents' home.