Friday, March 9, 2018

Lent, raising money, vegetable gardens

March is a special time for us. We started a Lenten-type practice with our old church in Boston about ten years ago. For the 40 days before Easter, the idea is to reflect on Jesus as best we can, and ask for what we truly want or need, with the premise that this is a good way to experience God’s presence. The process is profound for me because I don’t often step back, pray, or think about my deepest needs in any sustained way.

As part of Lent, Eug and I give up watching TV shows for the month of March. This year we are also doing intermittent fasting. I generally approach the fasting (from both TV and food) with vague dread. More often than I like to admit, a 40 minute show and cup of hot chocolate at the end of the day is the highlight of my day. When lent begins, I go through a slump the first few days. I find the space and silence alarming— I hate how slowly the time passes getting Hana to sleep without having our laptop open! Then suddenly, a few days in, it’s ok, sortof peaceful and calm. Eug and I talk a bit more than usual, I’m more aware of the kids’ need for some special moments in their day (as now I share this moment with them rather than seeking it after they’re asleep), I think more about the big picture.

This month, thinking about the big picture led me to ask for money, which is new for me and may be a bit odd and creepy. With buying the nursery, Heart & Soil (Yup, now you can like it on Facebook!) there have been opportunities for jadedness, cynicism and fear to creep in. The harshness of our economic system is much more personal than previously, and not knowing how to change it in the very small, personal space of our own tiny business. In fact, it’s pretty hard not to perpetuate that system. The act of land ownership itself, one could argue, is fraught. Yet I am convinced it’s better than saving with Apple and Visa stocks because it’s right there in front of us: we’re responsible for how we treat people and how we create value, it’s not spread between a million shareholders who want to see their stock value increase. In this grey area that is ownership, there is space to make progress, to the current limits of our faith.

Here is where the narrative “I’m busy and don’t have bandwidth to take on a new project” was initially paralyzing— I am indeed busy, at least by my standards, and my worry is often that I will not be left with enough energy to give my kids and Eug. Yet there is also this subtle burden brought by the desire to limit and to say no when good things require attention. In a quiet moment I almost immediately felt this narrative of busy-ness is just one narrative-- though there a physical limits to what I can do, obviously. Being happily busy with things that one is called to is surely life-giving.

In this vein… Eug and figured out that the next step for us is converting a portion of the nursery land into a market garden. Historically, vegetables have been grown haphazardly at the nursery— between rocks and rubble, probably on the down-low. It started when one of the employees at Heart & Soil suggested that he had friends and family who wanted to buy Zimbabwean vegetables, and suggested we should grow them on site.  Yet vegetable gardens are not profitable (well, nurseries are not profitable either, most of the time, but that’s a story for another day) but they can still support people, if the overhead and initial outlay can be somehow covered— support people by supplying organic greens, support people by stabilizing employment. One could argue that producing green, growing, stuff is the one thing that SHOULD be profitable. Again, I digress.

Given the out-of-pocket costs of the nursery, we had reached the limits of what we could do, and thought of asking for help. Asking for help means we need to be accountable to others in a different way than if we were doing it all ourselves, that it is not an act of sacrifice or altruism but a collective attempt at arbitrage— leveraging money, skills and social capital to do something that potentially ripples out positively. The ripples are not a sure thing, and they are little ripples not big waves. We're not trying to be heroes or save anyone. Still, I feel totally invested in the attempt.

Thank you for reading this long spiel, and for any thoughts you can send our way- I’ll keep you updated as we set up the market garden-- hopefully we'll make strides in April.

Noah found this gecko all wrapped up in a spider's web, wriggling around. It was incredibly hard to get the sticky net off it-- it was completely encased. Interfering with nature never felt so good (no pity for the spiders, who have more flies than they could ever dream of)

Friday, February 23, 2018

January and February 2018: sharks, salty water, waiting for rain

Thanks to donations of large amounts of water from farmer's dams and farmers being cut off, the water situation seems... better in Cape Town as a whole, with our day zero moved back substantially.

With two acres, now, and responsibility for 2 intensive school gardens, I feel more like a farmer-- in this drought, I sympathize with farmers more and more, the more my livelihood (or at least my actual day-to-day life) feels tied up with the experiences of farmers. (side note: we have a new president! Yay! And, on the empathizing with farmers note, I feel simultaneously happy and terrified about land expropriation without compensation. YES! Finally movement on land issues! Eeek! Wait! Not my land please!) Our nursery water has turned salty, so we're trying to figure out what to do-- our nursey stock is dying rapidly and we have to decide whether to water with salt water or not water at all-- which feels like no choice at all. Unlike iron, salty water is very hard to fix... so we're praying that it is seasonal and the salt content goes back down once there's been proper rain. I've learned that having a struggling nursery is intense, even if one goes in knowing it is struggling.

But otherwise, apart from some rats eating our ducklings, the animals are well, the vegetables are relatively ok (no thanks to you, MOLE RATS) and the trees are almost through the summer. Soon, things will cool down and I believe in my gut that next summer will be easier.

We only have one guinea pig, but he's living the good life-- we've finally found an option that works pretty well. Guinea pigs outside don't work because of predators. There's guinea pig poop everywhere, but he's a very happy guy.
Uncomfortable. Cat pretending to be interested in a spot on the floor. Guinea pigs knows from experience she's faking it. No, I don't know why there's bloody toilet paper in the corner. It's human blood though, if that helps.

Bubbles gets to eat the freshest produce in the family. He has his own farm-in-a-pot.
At rest.

We found the body of a small shark floating in the ocean, and brought it home for further examination.

Hana was convinced it was a doll for a while.

Noah did a dissection, with the help of Sam's dissection kit and a shark model that Meera sent us!

Our goose keeps nibbling everything because he's a bit blind and thinks everything is food. 
If you're on instagram (I'm not yet...) Eug is at 

Our first bunch of bananas is maturing. It has taken ages and we are extraordinarily grateful...

Noah remains the only person who can pick up Henry II when he ventures into illegal territory.

Our male goose seems to have had a stroke. He's doing ok, but we have to nurse him a fair bit-- he's like a very old man.

Sometimes people say how lovely it is that our kids play outside so much etc. But I think it's worth noting that they spend a ton of time doing various things on the iPad, also. I think there's plenty of time for both. 

Noah is really interested in photographing interesting creatures.

We have an area of our reservoir dedicated to the protection of frogs. Ok, it's just a pile of bricks. But it does the job. When we actually have water again, we'll have to figure out how to pile them up so that there's always something above the water

It can be hard to find things that bring together all our kids. Noah leading them in starting a fire for tea is one of those unicorn things. a 7yo, 5yo and 2yo Starting an outdoor fire during a drought. What could possibly go wrong. We were watching.

Mint tea.

The kids are really into minecraft legos... The countdown to getting minecraft is on, and I have an alert for whenever minecraft legos are being sold second hand on Gumtree.

This is our first watermelon of the season. I planted Sugar baby-- not sure if this is normal, but I planted 10 seeds, got 4 vines to transplant successfully, and will likely get 4 watermelons total. Which I guess is still cheaper than buying 4 at the shop, right? Right? right. What is cool is that I'm going to have a lot more seeds for next year.

My parents said they always used to store pumpkins on roofs, so I thought I'd store ours on our Jojo rainwater tank. They were too heavy, so now they're back on the table. 

We started out with a good pumpkin and butternut harvest, as well as really good amounts of zucchini, but sadly it's slowing down as disease starts to hit, and we're starting to get a lot of shield bugs laying their eggs in the zucchini and butternut. Here is where there are probably some important lessons to be learned about figuring out the best calculus between size of garden, the amount of labour available, the amount of composting materials available, and what we actually eat. I generally try to grow a lot of things that are expensive at the store (peppers, tomatoes) but these don't necessarily provide a lot of calories. Even though there's so much still to figure out, I'm so glad to be starting to actually harvesting stuff! 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Day zero and the challenge of becoming a hopeful, non-cynical prepper

There's rising panic over our taps being switched off on 21 April 12 April, and some 4 million people going to collect 25L of water, per person, per day, from some designated taps spread across the city. Some have rightly pointed out that this is what people in informal settlements have been doing for years. There's fear of anarchy and a lot of people practicing picking up 25L containers and collapsing (I also fall over when I try to pick up 25L with one hand, but it seems ok if I'm able to divide into two buckets-- still it obviously won't be workable for a lot of people).

A couple of things come to mind in the context of this panic-- albeit from my own position of privilege. I think everyone in Cape Town should be carefully preparing for Day Zero. At the same time, it's worth stepping back and thinking, without any panic, about this crisis, and also about the next crisis, one that we can't anticipate.

There's quite a bit of overlap in the prepper (emergency preparedness)/homesteader communities in the U.S. (where a lot of blogs and videos originate, though I suspect there are many preppers in South Africa, also). Still, I sometimes distance myself from the preppers because a) I'm worried that they may support Trump, b) they are sometimes heavily armed and preparing for the zombie mob, which I think has had many negative unintended consequences in the many years when there hasn't been any zombie mob. c) they sometimes seem to hate or fear people. All of which are stereotypes, I know, so I'm sorry if it seems like I'm perpetuating those.

So in this circumstance I really appreciate some of the helpful information and ideas that preppers bring to the table. About 3 years ago, we had severe electricity shortages. About 2.5 years ago, there were a few days when we couldn't leave our street because of violent protests in the nearby township. And now, there's the possibility of us having no water whatsoever, and the type of chaos that might ensue. There are some preppers who argue that there won't be one massive mega-collapse of capitalism as we know it, but rather a slow decline. The crises of the last few years may have been a demonstration of that. That's not even including household crises-- like illness or unemployment-- that we all have had at some point. I really don't want to live in fear of the next crisis or be constantly focused on others' perceived shortcomings; I also don't think that capitalism and consumption as we know it can continue.

I think the first way to be a hopeful, non-cynical prepper is to recognize that we can't control everything, and that things might go badly, and things might be hard, but don't need to break us. (then again, they may totally break me, and that is also potentially ok, one moves on from brokenness. I'm not meaning I'm stronger than the average person here). I'm saying fearing difficult situations is not the best approach, and preparing for the absolute worst sometimes means being consumed by thoughts of the world at its absolute worst. Which I find is too depressing, and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In my case my faith plays a role in how I think about my own limitations.

The second way is to do what we can to have systems in place for lots of different kinds of possibilities. I know I'm speaking to the middle-class here. It's really hard to prepare for crisis if you're already in crisis, so I'm not meaning to diminish that for anyone who might be reading from within a crisis.

By this I mean when it comes to security, energy, water and food, it makes sense to have several options available, or be in the process of putting options in place. Not necessarily expensive, complex options-- rather things that will help us live a better life even if there is no crisis. I'll go through how we think about each of those four areas:

We don't have much in the way of security because that's not really our thing, it's a bit of a weakness. We don't want to do the scary electric fence thing, but we're gradually making our fence stronger and safer by planting thorny, hardy but still beautiful plants on our perimeter (who may die during the drought, but I think they may survive). We also stay home a lot, have a small house, and are thinking about doing something to make our doors and windows a little more secure-- in the next few years.

For energy, we have access to municipal power, we have solar power, a low-pressure solar geyser, a woodstove for winter, a sunstove for summer, and we cook day-to-day with gas, and keep spare cannisters.

Water (and sanitation)
For water, we have a wellpoint (recent) and collect all rainwater (to a Jojo tank and reservoir); no water that enters the property leaves, as we also have two simple greywater systems. We're also gradually putting together a two-week supply of drinking water, by which time we hope to have collected enough rain water to survive and thrive without any municipal water. We've used a composting (dry) toilet exclusively for a few years now, and I write about it a little here, here, and here. The key is that we didn't put everything together all at once-- we set up slowly, and things started to work better over time. Still, we're using our greywater reeds less as we try to not waste the little dishwater we use.

For food, I'm working on improving our storage of some key groceries (I haven't preserved much  in recent years), but we're also working on growing more and more of our fruits and vegetables (using stored rain water from the reservoir) and expanding our flock of chickens and ducks (and making sure we have thought through their feed, also). This might not be possible for you, or it may be more possible than you expect. We spend a few days a month organizing and distributing staples (meat, legumes, dairy, grains, oil) of pretty large quantities of food, from small scale businesses and farmers, to between 20 and 30 families, including ourselves. This might get interrupted in a crisis, but I appreciate that it doesn't involve the complex supply chains of large supermarkets. For me, these are less about pessimism and anticipating doomsday, and more about homesteading in a way that adds resilience. I imagine we'll always get some food from elsewhere at least some of the time, but learning how to grow and compost adds resilience to our household and to our community. It's not just about growing, it's also about learning to cook and bake good food with few ingredients and little water and energy. All of which takes time and can't happen all at once in the context of crisis. In the crisis our fears come to the fore and it's hard to do anything other than crisis mode. A lot of learning probably also happens during crisis, but I think it's often less costly and more gentle on the environment if one changes slowly.

Resilience is also about finding ways to not contribute to the crisis (even being part of the traffic when there's a rush to the supermarket or the water line). Even not needing too much money, or having a few people to support us in our kids' learning, seems to be part of thriving independent of crises. I don't think high-tech fixes are necessarily the answer (60m deep boreholes with advanced filtration so you can still use insane amounts of water, for example).  There might be cool technological stuff, but I feel like a lot of times it's about learning how to do basic things-- as much as is possible given one's current circumstances-- and finding our ways to good systems through trial and error. This also teaches us to live more simply, which I think is one key to not contributing to crises. Learning happens slowly and incrementally-- we certainly have a long way to go.