May 23, 2019

Live Simply, So The Birds Can Simply Live

- photo credit Brian Sullivan

I wait for the return of the swallows every spring. For me, they rival the robin for the position of Official Harbinger of the season. 

On the west coast we lived close to a vehicle bridge under which many swallows nested in their little mud homes built on the girders. Now on the east coast, we live on an old farm that has old, open outbuildings, including a small barn, that provide perfect nesting sites for swallows. 

Over the years the wait for the swallows in spring has become troubling.

In Nova Scotia (like most of North America), swallow numbers are down dramatically since the 1980s. It is hardly an isolated case in the bird universe. These ancient descendants of dinosaurs are finally being done in by the new kid on the block, Homo consumericus. 

There are so many threats to the ecosystem that it is difficult to finger any one cause for the decline of birds. More than likely, these threats operate synergistically and therefore become a greater threat together than any one individually.

"The main causes of the recent decline in Barn Swallow populations are thought to be:
1) loss of nesting and foraging habitats due to conversion from conventional to modern farming techniques;
2) large-scale declines (or other perturbations) in insect populations; and
3) direct and indirect mortality due to an increase in climate perturbations on the breeding grounds."
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada 

And I would add: 

4) high consumption lifestyles.

Because of the above, each spring when I spot the first barn swallow of the year, my heart skips a beat. Each returning individual is cause for celebration.  

Before long, small groups of swallows are squeaking and hunting acrobatically around our house, in the yard, and over the fields. When successful breeding takes place, the numbers increase in a most joyous way.

Each barn swallow can eat up to 1000 insects every day. They are perfectly designed to inhabit a specialized niche, which happens to encompass the human world (they like us!), and they do so with balance and efficiency. 

Something else I appreciate is how they demonstrate fearlessness and confidence in their flying skills as they zoom through the air, seemingly recklessly, but in full control.

If only I could live as simply and efficiently as these wonderful birds, without doing any harm, being supremely good at what I do, while adding beauty and a useful service to the circle of life. 

I live simply, so the barn swallows, and other birds, can simply live. When it comes down to choosing between a high consumption lifestyle and the birds, I choose birds.

It would truly be a "silent spring" if the swallows and other birds continued their current vanishing act right into extinction. I would miss them dearly.

May 16, 2019

Change Is In The Air This Spring

I smell flowers. And change.
(Thank you, Nancy, for the flowers.)

Spring brings us into an energetic, creative, get-things-done cycle. And this spring, more than previous ones since we moved to Nova Scotia 4 years ago, I am feeling restless. 

Is that change I smell on the wind?

Since Linda and I left Edmonton, Alberta (a city of one million) in 2005, we have been progressively simplifying our lives in preparation for a low carbon world that will be more simple and sensible than the one we are now unsuccessfully trying to prop up in denial and desperation.

How does one best prepare one's self for this dawning less energy intensive world? 

We feel that renting does not give us the control over our own destiny to the degree we would like to enjoy. But how do people who don't like to buy things turn around and buy the biggest single purchase of their lives? 

Linda and I have always rented, and we have enjoyed the freedom of movement that it has given us. Now we see purchasing an inexpensive rural property as the way to fulfill our the goals we would like to meet over the coming years. 

Thankfully, it looks like that may be a possibility for us because someone that aspires to a more self-sufficient lifestyle that is closer to nature, can buy a liveable rural property here for prices unheard of anywhere else that I know of in Canada (at least in the areas where most people want to live).

For what we would pay in rent in our current location over 5 years, we could acquire an acreage surrounded with forest with a small older home. That would give us the room, and the freedom, to cut our own firewood, grow fruit trees, install solar power and hot water heat, and have a huge garden. 

Linda's wish list includes a walnut tree. Mine, a Rails to Trails system within riding distance of home. Maybe, eventually, the trails will be converted back to rails (The Great Trails To Rails Movement of the 2020s) and we can take the train to our destination. 

In the meantime, I would be able to ride my bike through the woods unimpeded by fast moving, noisy and smelly vehicles blistering by just off my shoulder.

One big goal is living without a car. There it is. I said it. 

I bought my first car before I was legally able to drive it, that is how excited I was to add tons of gasses into the atmosphere while enhancing my lifestyle by endlessly looking for greener grass. More freedom. Better views. 

That freedom of movement and experience came at a cost that is now exerting itself in atmospheric changes we have never seen before. Each year breaks more records than the one previous.

Still, the thought of being without a vehicle makes me anxious. Is a rural lifestyle consistent with being car-free? 

But I also hate that most of the vehicles I have owned have been depressing money pit, smog-spewing, insect slaughtering monsters. 

It should be said that a lot of what we want to do has been modelled for us by readers of this blog. We are inspired by you because you see where this thing is going, and are instigating much-needed changes in response. 

We thank you for sharing your experiences here as we create a synergy that helps to gently nudge the world back to more Earth-friendly ways of living that are low  on stuff and high on satisfaction. 

It is exciting to ponder the possibilities for creating a beautiful, low carbon, low stuff simple life that builds on what we have already achieved, whatever that looks like over the next little while.

Is it the time of year, or is there a stronger whiff of change in the air this spring?  

I'm feeling' it.

May 7, 2019

Vegetarian Chipotle Baked Bean Recipe

Chipotle peppers are the secret ingredient in our baked bean recipe. We put the leftover peppers in a jar and refrigerate (we also use them in our Pea Soup recipe).

I never did like the meat in conventional baked beans, even when I ate meat. However, the flavour pork adds needs to be replaced. In our house, we do that with canned chipotle peppers and smoked paprika.

Chipotles are smoked jalapeƱos, so you get a smoky flavour from a plant based source. Be warned though - along with the smoky you also get the fiery heat. Cut back on the peppers if you prefer a milder dish. 

This vegetarian baked bean recipe uses Navy (Pea) Beans, the variety with the most fibre, which your colon will love (the colon requires about 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day to be healthy). It's hearty and healthy food. And they taste great.

Canned beans are convenient but often high in added sugars, fat, salt, additives, and BPA contaminants from the plastic-lined cans. Your healthiest option is to make them from scratch so you can control the ingredients, make a baked bean to your personal taste, and save money.

Vegetarian Chipotle Baked Beans

  • 2 cups (454 g) Navy (Pea) Beans
  • 5 cups (1.18 L) cold water
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1½ tsp. (7 ml) salt
  • 2 tsp. (10 ml) cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. (15 ml) Bragg Seasoning (or use soy sauce)
  • 1 tbsp. (15 ml) brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. (15ml) prepared mustard
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) molasses
  • 1 can (398 ml) tomato sauce
  • 3 medium to large chipotle peppers, cut into small pieces (you can also add a bit of the sauce)
  • 1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) smoked paprika  
  • Pinch black pepper

Sort and rinse beans. SOAK BEANS OVERNIGHT in cold water. Drain. 

Add 5 cups cold water, cover, heat to boiling, then simmer until nearly tender. Drain and save the liquid (we use it to make a delicious vegetarian gravy).

Brown onion and garlic in oil, then place on bottom of casserole dish. 

Add remaining ingredients in with the beans, stirring gently to combine, then pour entire mixture into casserole dish. I prepare the chipotles by putting them into a small bowl and cutting them with a pair of kitchen scissors.

Add enough water to cover mixture. Cover with lid and bake in oven at 350°F for an hour, or until beans are tender.

When beans are tender, remove 1 cup of beans, mash, then stir back into pot carefully. Cover and bake another 30 minutes. Add water as needed to keep beans covered. 

Ten minutes before serving, remove cover to darken up the beans. Season to taste. 

What we don't eat immediately, we put in 500 ml canning jars and put in the freezer for a quick, easy addition to meals later. We often have them on a bed of rice with steamed carrots on the side.

May 2, 2019

Dandelions Are Food, Not Weeds

It's food, not a weed.

Can a perfectly good food plant be labelled as a weed? Ask the common and much hated dandelion. 

Right now my garden is waiting for warmer weather before it can be planted out. My lawn, however, is bursting with greens that are ready to harvest. But they are weeds.

I made up my mind to try dandelion greens the day I saw them being sold in the grocery store. It was something I had never seen anywhere else, and it caused me to do a double take.

Is it a noxious weed to be poisoned and picked relentlessly in the quest for the perfectly useless lawn, or is it an agricultural crop sold in grocery stores? How can a weed be of value? The very definition of weed means "something of no value".

Either the grocery store is ripping people off charging them for a valueless product that can be picked in almost any yard in the country, or the system has been lying to us about so-called "weeds".

Turns out the system has been lying to us about weeds, and many, many other things. In this case, the weed known as dandelion is about as nutritious as non-weeds, like kale. It is also delicious, having a lighter taste, and more delicate texture. 

The entire dandelion plant is edible - greens, flowers, and roots. They contain anti-oxidants, are beautiful, and are one of the first flowers in spring making them very important for bees. They have been used as a healing plant for thousands of years, just not in lawn-loving North America.

Linda and I have been using dandelion greens in smoothies and salads this spring, and I can see no reason not to use them all year. I might even plant a few in my - gasp - garden. 

If I was a plant the system might mislabel me as a weed. I have often felt like a single dandelion in a flat field of green grassy monocultural conformity. Not to worry, what the system labels a weed can actually be very valuable and ultimately useful. 

April 29, 2019

Home Cooking Reduces Packaging Waste

Cast iron Corn bread. Can you even buy cornbread in a store? I have never seen it.

It seems like everything in the grocery store comes in plastic. Even the stuff that doesn't, often gets put in plastic before it leaves the store. Non-plastic packaging may be less harmful, but it still uses precious resources. What is an aspiring zero-waster to do?
How about home cooking?

Making as much of our own food as we can helps us meet several objectives:

a) To avoid highly processed/low nutrition foods that may contain GMOs, nasty chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, high levels of sugar/salt/fat, and who knows what else? E-coli? Salmonella? Listeria?

b) To be able to control the ingredients in the food we eat, and

c) To create affordable dishes that are fresh, yummy, and that provide health promoting effects (food as medicine).

However, given the tidal wave of packaging (especially plastic) washing over the planet, there is a consideration that might be the most important of all. 

A big benefit of cooking at home is cutting down on packaging that contributes to both the garbage stream as well as recycling materials. Processed foods usually mean over-packaged foods. About 1/3 of the plastic produced in the world is used in the packaging industry. 

I used to think that humanity was going to pave over the entire world, but it looks like the globe will be shrink wrapped before that happens.

Granola bars before being cut.

Every time we make something at home rather than buy it pre-made from the store or take-out, we are avoiding packaging waste. Not to mention that cooking can be an immensely fun and rewarding activity.

Some packaging can be recycled, but in the major scheme of things, "Refuse" is better than "Recycle". Recycling still requires large energy inputs, from the trucks that pick up the stuff, shipping to a plant, recovery, then returning the materials into the system. 

A lot of times more basic foods come in friendlier packaging. Flour, for instance, comes in paper, and the same with whole oats. 

Two different kinds of veggie pizza.

One serving of baked beans in a reusable canning jar means one less tin can that needs to be recycled. And don't forget about the paper label (that used to be a living tree). 

Making a salad at home is easy when you use a pre-packaged salad kit. These are the ones that say "triple washed" and yet can still make you sick. A lot of the produce inside these kits comes from areas experiencing water stress, and all that washing wastes a lot of water.

The salad kits also contain several plastic bags within the bag. Much convenience usually means much waste. And they can make you sick. 

Make a salad at home with your own ingredients (washed the way you like) is also easy. The Big Food Industry has made us very lazy in the kitchen, and the unintended consequences always end up biting us in the behind (and other parts of the digestive system).

Tomato-based pasta sauce with tofu about to go in the freezer.

Cooking at home has multiple benefits for the individual, society and the environment. One of my favourites is that I am actively refusing the excessive packaging and waste involved with pre-packaged and processed foods. 

Food, and everything associated with it, should promote personal and planetary health, not illness and depletion of the gifts of Mother Nature. 

Cooking should be a sacred ritual unsullied by the sins of the corporate industrial food industry and its rallying cry of "profits before the people's and planetary health!"

April 24, 2019

Anti-Shopping Mantras - Part II

When I want to adjust my shopping chakra, I use a few tried and true mantras that provide me with the resistance against consumerism that I may occasionally need. 

The traditional purpose in using mantras is to create transformation, and many agree that they are powerful tools in this regard. Indeed, mantra is a Sanskrit word that means "sound tool". 

It is beneficial, then, to have a few of these in your anti-shopping toolbox. (You can see Anti-Shopping Mantras - Part I here.)

Anti-Shopping Mantras

- "I don't need that. Nobody needs that."

- "That harms the environment."

- "That will not improve my life."

- "My purchases don't define me."

- "I can focus on life more effectively without unnecessary material possessions holding me back."

- "That is not worth the hours of work required to purchase it."

- "This won't make me happy."

- "I would rather have the cash, or work less." 

- "I already have enough."

- "This was made by a large corporation that pays no taxes, and I don't want to support that."

- "I live without things other people have because I want to, not because I have to."

Mantras can help us become free of harmful thoughts, words, and actions. Try using these, or make up your own, to reduce the temptations that constantly bombard us and manipulate us to buy things we don't need.

Do you have a favourite anti-shopping mantra of your own?

April 22, 2019

Earth Day and Earth Girl

Linda aka Earth Girl in her preferred habitat - surrounded by Nature.

On April 22, 1967 Earth Girl was born. I was 6 years old, and living 6,000 kilometres away. Little did I know that our paths were destined to cross 20 years later.

Three years after Earth Girl's birth, on April 22, 1970, millions of people took to the streets on the very first Earth Day. What got people into the streets was a desire to highlight the negative effects of 150 years of industrialization. 

Fast forward to 1987, and we see that fate finally had its way with us. The day our paths crossed represents one of the best moments of my life. I had found a partner that loved Nature as much as I did, and was willing to go to any lengths to enjoy and protect it.

Now, it is difficult for me to separate Earth Day and Earth Girl. It seems that they are one and the same. She would rather live poor in a cave close to nature than reside in a high society penthouse with unlimited wealth. She will not be separated from her source, our source, THE source - Mother Nature. 

Today, both are imperilled. 

Mother Earth and Earth Girl have both endured terrible attacks, perhaps from similar sources. Has 200 years of industrial development caused the disease of multiple sclerosis? No one knows, but I am certain that it hasn't helped. 

Unfortunately, the conventional industrial "treatments" haven't helped either, and they often make things worse. How can you treat something when the cause remains a total mystery? We should be very wary of a system that is causing all the problems offering so-called solutions to those problems.

But Linda has found her own treatment, and that is living close to Nature.

This morning I got up to initiate our morning routine, and wanted to do something special for her as she lay in bed waiting for me to assist her. I opened our bedroom window wide. She listened, and smiled. 

Our room was instantly filled with the sounds of songbirds singing their praises to the Earth, and perhaps to Earth Girl as well. We could hear a woodpecker hammering on a hollow tree trunk in the distance, and some peepers, too. 

I didn't buy anything for Linda's birthday, for what could be better than the ample gifts of Nature? Plus, she doesn't want anything. Just me. 

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Is the Earth better off than it was in 1970? 

MS aside, I can confidently say that 52 years after Linda's birth, she is better than ever. 

Today I celebrate Earth Day. But I am celebrating Earth Girl even more.

April 20, 2019

Of Calypsos and Quests

Today I am sharing an excerpt from a book written and illustrated by the author, naturalist and artist, Briony Penn. When I lived in Victoria, BC I got to know her work through a regular column in the local newspaper. I looked forward to each new installation because I enjoyed her words and loved the artwork that accompanied each article.

When she moved on to other projects, I desperately missed her regular nuggets of wisdom and beauty. I vowed to use what she had taught me about nature, art and writing to guide my own creative aspirations. 

The following is from Penn's book, "A Year On The Wild Side: A West Coast Naturalist's Almanac". The artwork above is also from the book.

This is a story for my two boys. They are hearty men now full of earthy wit and valour, well on in their manhood quests. Every spring before puberty, they would join me on a smaller quest to find Calypso orchids hidden in the forest. This is the lecture in comparative mythology that I delivered before they ran kicking and laughing into adolescence. Poor kids, but they turned out all right. 

There once was a shy nymph from the island of Ogygia. She was the goddess daughter of Atlas and went by the name of Calypso. One day, Odysseus, the son of the King of Ithaca, was shipwrecked on her island. Odysseus was a handsome, hearty hero and full of earthy wit and valour. He discovered Calypso concealed in the forest and she fell desperately in love with him. He was stranded and couldn’t leave the island, and she begged him to stay forever, promising him eternal youth. Odysseus was young and longed to get back to his quest, and eternal youth had no appeal. After seven years of holding Odysseus captive, Calypso finally relented and built him a raft, releasing him back to his quests and the prospect of old age. He left behind a lover, gazing out to the Adriatic after him.

In the forests of our islands in the Pacific, you might remember discovering Calypso. The name of the coast’s most beautiful and secretive wild orchid commemorates that Greek goddess. Although I usually put up quite an opposition to names that are derived from stories made up almost 20,000 kilometres away, I have to admit a certain fondness for Calypso (the Haida called them Black Cod Grease). She embodies an eternal human condition — unrequited love, and she behaved well in the end. She made him a raft, she put together some sandwiches and a Thermos flask, and she kissed him and waved him a fond farewell. And Odysseus embodied another eternal human condition — the need for quests — and he behaved well, too. He was true to his own nature and never lied. He also knew better than to trade his soul for eternal youth.

One day, you might want to go and visit those Calypso orchids. It is the kind of beauty you would expect to flourish on a magical island with nothing but the sun, wind, forest, and waves to cultivate. There are five dancing sepals and petals, the colour of which can only be described as sweet Calypso madder. They catch the droplets of dew and direct the mead and pollinators into the fecund lips of mottled sienna, white and raw ochre where all creation begins.

Remember this image of creation. In one sense, Calypso is a subtle and fragile beauty — not to be spoken about, as if in the mentioning of it, it will be lost, just like her tenuous hold to the Earth through a few spiderweb-like root filaments attached to her bulb (or corm) or her rare scent, which only hits you in the aftermath of an April shower soaking into the dark forest duff.

Like the goddess, the orchid’s real essence flourishes in association with an earthy character — like Odysseus. Calypso only germinates and grows when there is a particular species of mycorrhizal fungus whose own filaments penetrate the seed to convert unusable starches into usable sugars. That association is most intense in the first seven years, as the embryo plant develops to maturity. Pollen is the lover, but fungus is the friend — a nurturing but vital type of friend. If truth be known, it is better to pine for a good friend than grow immortal with an unwilling lover.

When you were little it was easy to spot Calypso, as you were so near to the ground and had an eye for small things concealed under the windfall of the winter storms. Odysseus showed his true heroic qualities by finding her as an adult and then leaving her. There are many who don’t. There will probably be a while that you don’t, too.

You’ll join the throng of audacious mortals who charge through the forests of our islands, tripping on the delicate filaments attached to the earth while wired to pounding tunes, throbbing wheels or pulsing chainsaws. You’ll try out manufactured scents that drown out the ephemeral perfume riding on the air. And the unmentionable subtle colours of Calypso-madder lips spotted with dew will be outshone by the fluorescent glow of your Nike Icons.

But halfway through the quest, I hope your memories of something richer will kick in, and you will notice this rare plant once again. And I hope that you will do the heroic thing and leave her, since once picked, the orchid dies forever.

You can enjoy more of Briony Penn's work at her website by clicking here.

April 17, 2019

We Are Power

I laugh when I hear people accusing others of being "snowflakes". The term is meant to be disparaging, and labels the other as fragile, easily offended, and prone to melting at the slightest contact with an issue. 

Those that sling this term, though, forget that when lots of snowflakes get together, say on a mountain slope, they can become a powerful and destructive force known as an avalanche. 

A large collection of snowflakes moving together can clear their path of any and all obstructions, or in our case, oppressors.

While researching one of my favourite human beings, activist, poet, author, and musician John Trudell, I saw that he expressed similar thoughts when he said,

As individuals we have power and, collectively, we have the same power as the earthquake, the tornado, and the hurricanes. We have that potential. 

Trudell knew about the power of the people, and that our power comes from being a part of Nature. He knew about the power of collective action in fighting back against those that would oppress us, and as a Native American living in the US, he knew a lot about oppression.

He also knew that the forces aligned against his people, would come for the rest of us next.

"See, we are power. They deal in violence and repression, we are power. We are a part of the natural world. All of the things in the natural world are a natural part of the creation and feed off the energy of our sacred mother, Earth.

We are power. 

But they have separated us from our spiritual connection to the Earth, so people feel powerless. We look at the oppressor and we look at the enemy because they have the most guns and the most lies and the most money. People start to feel powerless. 

We are power, we are a natural part of the creation, we were put here on the sacred mother Earth to serve a purpose. And somewhere in the history of people we’ve forgotten what the purpose is. 
The purpose is to honor the earth, the purpose is to protect the earth, the purpose is to live in balance with the earth, the earth is our mother.

And we will never free ourselves as human people, we will never free ourselves as sexual people, we will never free ourselves until we address the issue of how we live in balance with the Earth. 

Because all our resistance and all of our struggle is hollow, it’s false, it’s another one of the oppressor’s hypocrisies. 

If we do not look out for the welfare of the Earth first, because I don’t care who it is, any child who turns on their mother is living in a terrible, terrible confusion. 
The Earth is our mother, we must take care of the Earth."

If we can come together to take care of a burned medieval cathedral, can't we also come together to take care of Mother Earth? What good is a 900 year old architectural wonder if there is no one around to enjoy it?

We have the power to turn things around. If we the people, working collectively, don't do it, no one will. 

Finally, they say that Notre-Dame Cathedral was built to last till the end of the world. Maybe it did.

April 15, 2019

Our Earliest Garden Start Ever

This year's garden got off to an unexpected early start. It began with an enthusiastic and unrelenting knock at our door that didn't stop until we opened it.

As we approached the door we could see the top of a little head popping up at the bottom of the window. It was our next door neighbour's 4 year old, Andre, that I like to call Andre The Giant. 

On this day it was his heart that was giant, not just his enthusiasm. When we opened the door he was standing there with a container loaded with three tiny planters identified with what seeds had been carefully placed in each one. 

"These are for you", he said. "Me and my mom planted them." There was cauliflower, sweet pepper, cherry tomato, supplemented by a large amount of cuteness.

Linda and I don't usually start our garden early. We have never had the indoor space, not to mention a cold frame or greenhouse. All our gardens have been direct sown, and sometimes we buy seedlings from local greenhouses. 

Therefore, our gardening season doesn't usually get started until mid-May. But not this year. 

Thanks to the generosity of little Andre The Giant, and his mom, our garden is off to its earliest start ever. Our excitement is growing over the coming garden season.

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