Category Archives: back to the future

Reskilling: Why it Matters

If you’re unfamiliar with the term reskilling, perhaps it has a Small-is-Beautiful, DIY, hippie commune, neo-Luddite, back-to-the-land vibe. What you may not know is that reskilling is bedrock for the Transition Movement founded by Rob Hopkins which holds that: “… in a carbon constrained and localized world, communities will have to provide for many of their basic needs which means possessing the skills to do so.”

Of course, basic needs are open to wide interpretation. For some of us, it means fast, reliable Wi-Fi. Some of my most adored people would put shampoo, conditioner and a hot comb on their list of essentials, right up there with waterproof eyeliner (mine!). I kid, but seriously, we are so used to enjoying potable water, hot showers and plug in everything, we don’t think twice about what it takes to produce them, or what happens if they for any reason become unavailable.

I think of reskilling as a way of reclaiming the know-how that previous generations – parents, grandparents, trusted elders — passed down to us, along with values like thrift, making-do, cooperation. If even some of us embrace down-shifting, cutting back on our demands for generated power, it just might give the earth a chance to recover from decades of over-extraction.

A lot of people have been energized by recent events and in my area, weekly demonstrations along the motorcade route to/from the so-called ‘winter White House’ were a thing, along with Town Hall Meetings, and steady pressure on one’s Members of Congress when s/he doesn’t speak for you. All good, all the time. But I believe quieter forms of resistance to consumerism and the damage it is doing, belong in the mix. Reskilling IS Resistance.

So, could you make fire if you had to? Milk a cow? Forage for wild food? Sharpen tools without electricity? How about capture wild yeast to make bread? Mend or repair clothing? Could you distinguish between edible or poisonous mushrooms, or navigate using a simple compass? If these sound like Boy Scout badges, bingo! The point is, there are as many ways to reskill as there are people willing to teach what they know. But don’t take my word for it.

Check out the Firefly Gathering (thank you, Dylan Ryal-Hamilton), in Asheville, NC which begins June 29 and goes for four days. Everything from Archery and Blacksmithing Basics to Zen and the Art of Wood Splitting, over 100 classes and still growing at this writing, are being offered. No one is saying this specifically in the FAQ’s but it seems obvious to me that people go there eager to teach, AND learn. I am excited about experiencing  this event first hand…maybe next year.

More reading on this topic here:

What Is Reskilling Anyway?

Green Hand Initiative. Blogger Clifford Dean Scholz has a stunning article on Navigation.

http://www.skills-for-life.org/

http://greenhandsreskilling.weebly.com/

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Going Sour for Good

I stumbled upon Sandor Ellix Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health bookstore last November, and because I’m feeling greater kinship with all things wild these days as well as the D-I-Y culture of Whole Earth Catalog*, I snagged two copies.  One as a house gift for friends we were visiting when we left our yoga retreat, and one for us.

My spouse adores fermented foods.  We are never without plain yogurt and sour pickles in our larder (Bubbies or Batampte), and often I’ll catch him drinking the last bit of brine from a soon-to-be empty jar.  I used to tease him that he was embalming himself from the inside out, but his energy and stamina at age 80 are, as they say, proof of the pudding. Our Florida grandsons have picked up on Papa’s pickle habit and that makes me feel better about their otherwise almost vegetable-free diets.

One of my new women friends — a sister spoken word performer in Women Aloud — is an avid maker of pickles and every time we meet to share monologues and work on our next show, she brings everyone a jar of her latest batch. So, something wild is in the air, right in our own homes, and I believe ready to be domesticated for our own good.  In case you haven’t been following your Dr. Oz updates, probiotics (available in all fermented foods, yes, even wine) are hot. Anyway, with Sandor Katz’s wonderful book in hand, we decided to launch ourselves into sauerkraut production. If you like a laid-back prose style, e.g. “I never measure the salt, I just shake some on after I chop up each quarter cabbage,” he is your man.  Here’s our annotated recipe from Wild Fermentation:

First, you steal two cabbages…bada-bing.

Actually, homemade sauerkraut really begins with a quest for a good, old-fashioned stoneware crock like this one my spouse found at the local Good Will Thrift Boutique, first time lucky. Finely shredded cabbage — thanks to the new Cutco knife (if you have a college-bound grandson, the brand needs no explanation) — kosher salt and about an hour of your time. You pack the crock with shredded cabbage in layers, green and red if you like, sprinkling about a tablespoon of salt on each layer. Press down firmly with a potato masher or your fists. After all the cabbage is used up, insert an inverted clean plate into the opening. It should be sized to leave just enough space around the circumference so you can see some cabbage. We used a butter plate about 6 inches diameter. On top of the inverted plate, place a clean gSauerkraut 1lass or ceramic bowl, then pile on whatever clean weights you can find: several large cans of tomatoes is what we used.  Cover the whole thing with a clean kitchen towel to keep dust out and walk away. Needless to say, everything that touches the kraut-in-progress should be clean, but sterilization is unnecessary. Unless you keep your home on the cool side, the ambient temperature should be sufficient to cause the weighted cabbage to exude some natural brine which rises to the level of the plate. If not, slowly add about a cup of salt water until it does. Lift the cloth and give it a sniff every day until you see some liquid rising and it gives off a slight sour fragrance.  If it gets dry, repeat the addition of some salt water. In about a week, you will likely be able to scoop out enough of young sauerkraut to enjoy with your pan-grilled dogs or Reuben. Always wash the plate before you replace it into the crock and clean off any weights that may come in contact with the cabbage. We kept watch over our developing kraut as one might a sleeping child or beloved pet. A little more than a week along, some scum came to the surface of the brine, normal, said the directions, so we didn’t panic. We removed it carefully, scraping with a flexible spatula works.  At this point, you can repack and let the fermentation process continue for a more sour taste.

We decided our kraut was just the way we like it: slightly crunchy like cole slaw and with a delicious but not overpowering tang.  So we decanted it into several clean jars and refrigerated it.  Some for us, some for friends.  You could, according to Katz, let your sauerkraut continue to ferment for as long as you wish, assuming you are willing to repeat the steps.  You simply take what you want to use for a meal any time during, repack the crock (as above) and let sauerkraut and dogit do its thing. Eventually, the sauerkraut will compress down into something closer to the product you can find in the supermarket deli section. After it is to full strength, it can keep for a long time, which is probably why frugal societies that ‘put up’ foods in a way that preserved their nutrients for later consumption, were so keen on these fermenting techniques. The Korean staple, Kimchi, is close cousin to this European concoction, and other Asian cuisines include fermented fish products in many favorite recipes.  Our homemade sauerkraut went on this dog, with a generous helping of Grey’s Poupon mustard and Nancy’s jalapeño pickles.  Are you salivating yet?

If you enjoy preparing food, let me warn you that these adventures in the art of fermentation could be habit-forming.  As we completed this morning’s project and stored our crock for next time, I had a strong intuition that our kitchen was probably humming with live culture.  What better time to  capture what was in the air with a batch of sourdough starter? I fell in love with sourdough thanks to my mother who acquired a hand-me-down batch from a friend in Alberta Province, and kept it going for over 20 years.  She fed it weekly, and baked biscuits, rolls and bread of unparalleled flavor and texture for family, friends and neighbors. Once, she even smuggled a cup of starter through customs in her cosmetics bag. There is also something that appeals to me deeply about being part of an ancient tradition, the idea that one needs to feed ‘Mother’ every time you take some for a recipe.  A permaculture vibe: regenerative, rather than merely sustainable. I haven’t had much success with earlier attempts at sourdough starter, but that’s before my kitchen went wild.

Here is a link to a free pdf copy of Sandor Ellix Katz’s book: Wild Fermentation: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation although I encourage you to look for it at your usual book sources, help keep a roof over his head, and his fermentation workshops full.  He is also the author of This Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved and his http://www.wildfermentation.com/, also looks amazing.

*about Stewart Brand, editor of Whole Earth Catalog, not so much.  See George Monbiot’s critique

What We Can Know

Like transplants from elsewhere, we go to Florida’s beautiful, relatively uncrowded beaches in summer to fill our lungs with salt air, press our bare feet into the sand, and look for turtle tracks. It turns out that 2015 has been a record year for turtle nesting in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.  Sure enough, there were plenty of fresh tracks in evidence on a recent Sunday morning, many new nests, and a researcher on dune buggy taking his morning tally.

Preserving life other than our own is for many people an instinctive response, one that affirms our interconnection with and interdependence on all living things, including the Earth itself.  Some years ago on this same stretch of beach, we rescued about 20 turtle hatchlings by keeping hungry seagulls in the air while the young made a dash for the waves. This race that relatively few actually win, apparently also hones the turtles’ survival skills and increases their chance of living into adulthood and reproducing. We were giddy with joy that morning, though none the wiser about the way of turtles, e.g. how do they know which way the water is? Or how is it that their mothers, and some day these newly hatched females grown to adulthood, catch a ride on the Gulf Stream and return to this very beach to lay their eggs? Loggerheads, Leatherbacks and green turtles are (unlike urban trees, alas) protected by law, so evidence that they are thriving is reason for celebration. But more than that, I’m curious about how significant this shift, if indeed it is a lasting one, could be in big picture terms. What might it suggest about the future health of our world if turtles, like bald eagles, any life form for that matter, do well enough to be removed from the endangered list? Or when damage can be reversed as we step back and let nature takes its course. We don’t always know what will work until we see what happens.

You have to be encouraged about the most recent news about bees, too, as well as for ‘a new breed of bee keepers‘ who are swelling the ranks, according to a recent story in the Palm Beach Post’s business section. The newcomers are entering the business as a sideline, drawn by the high demand for honey, but what if they could become part of a citizen movement to preserve and strengthen bee colonies? An associate professor of entomology is quoted as saying that CCD (colony collapse disorder) is “gone or pretty minimal,” which suggests that a turnaround via human intervention is possible. And bees are kind of important to our food security.

Whatever drives us to discovery, anyone of us can only know a small fraction about our world relative to what there is to know, and most of what we discover is through hands-on experience, experimentation and observation. But I believe we are obligated to engage with and learn whatever we can, and in that process come to love the world and want to save it. In that context, here’s a photo of one of our grandsons, an incoming high school senior who aspires to become an aeronautical engineer, Shaw harnesses the winddoing an experiment of his own with wind power on Mousam Lake, Maine. Earlier, he and his youngest brother successfully ‘sailed’ their canoe across this same lake using this same outsize umbrella. When you recall that before the discovery and rapid implementation of fossil fuels, humans explored the known — and unknown — world entirely under sail, perhaps this augers well for the great re-skilling, a back-to-the-future, intergenerational strategy I believe is inevitable for our survival as a species. I am glad to leave speculating on origins and causation to scientists, philosophers and those of religious persuasion. And when we need a little humility to prick our 21st century techno-arrogance bubble, we might channel rock star astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who reminds us that something called Dark Matter is accelerating the expansion of our universe, but we don’t even know what it is. I highly recommend his terrific on-demand StarTalk Radio Show, a combination of Car Talk (a lot of joking and boisterous laughter) with great interviews and razor sharp observations. In the recent edition that included snippets of deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Ariana Huffington, she noted that far from being in opposition, scientists and people of faith are united by a sense of wonder. One cool woman. The show ended with a call for greater scientific literacy for everyone. May it be so, and may it begin in the home, in schools, and the House.

Throwback 70s: My Decade of Change

Naomi Klein [This Changes Everything] writes: “… if we want to live within ecological limits, we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980s.” Who else remembers that place/time? Seemed like a very good life to me.

I posted this on Facebook recently and it resonated with a number of FB friends. That started me thinking more about the 70s and I realized that the “Me” decade, the oil crisis decade, the decade that saw the flowering of feminism, the first Earth Day (April 22) and Jimmy Carter’s solar panels, cardigans, the creation of the Department of Energy and a national energy policy, as well as Kent State, Three Mile Island, and the completion of the world’s tallest buildings, was also a decade when everything did change for me. It began with Father Knows Best and ended with The Brady Bunch.

The SeventiesI sorta missed the 60s by getting married and starting a family, so it wasn’t until the 70s that the Summer of Love and all that it meant caught up with me. Or maybe I’m just a late adopter. A traveling show of the musical, “Hair,” came to my town (Philadelphia), and overnight, it seemed, I wanted the Age of Aquarius and San Francisco with flowers in my Afro more than I wanted cocktails at 6 sharp and membership in The Junior League. In the 1970s, I stopped shaving my legs, went back to school to earn two degrees, and changed life partners. Some standout memories:

1. Flashback, New York City, 1965: I am reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique while recovering in the hospital from the birth of my first child (three days was normal then). In walks my OB/GYN. “Hmmm,” he says, “Isn’t it a little late for that?” (I didn’t much like him, even before that, and No, it wasn’t.)

2. Montclair, NJ, 1973. We’ve returned here after a career misstep that temporarily uprooted us to Pennsylvania, and are now ensconced in a wonderful classic Dutch colonial on a tree-lined street: 5 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, big basement and backyard, separate garage (with mismatched doors), to the tune of $60K. Back in the day, a young couple could afford the $40K mortgage payments, taxes and upkeep, on one modest salary. We have one utilitarian pre-owned car.  We do not suffer from auto-envy or any other kind.

We moved to Montclair for the schools,  family (pillar of the community in-laws), and commuter service to New York City extraordinaire. With one school-age boy and a 4-year-old girl in part-time nursery, I had more energy and time than I knew what to do with. Who knew skipping the beauty salon and shaving razor would free up so much?

One day, The Montclair Times delivered my salvation: news of a generous ‘re-entry’ program for older adults at Montclair State College, formerly a teachers’ college, currently a Ph.D-granting university. I went for an interview the same week and was accepted into the program. I also made a life-long friend while there.

3. MSU was 10 minutes drive from my home. My professors would have been stars anywhere, but the job market for Ph.D’s being what it was, there we all were: on a hilly campus in suburban New Jersey, with a clear night view of the lights of New York City on the horizon.

My earlier education had been undistinguished, so I surprised myself by graduating with honors in 1976. Yet it was without a clear path to future employment while my children still needed a mom around the house. So when the Department of English offered me a teaching fellowship that enabled me to earn an MA gratis, and also provided a small stipend for teaching in the writing lab, I grabbed it. In 18 months, I was able to save enough to purchase a used Volkswagen bug that I drove up to the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont for the summer session in my final year.

4. Community life on Buckingham Road. In the summer months, some of us grew food, mostly New Jersey tomatoes like Rutgers’ Early Girls and Better Boys (an instant nostalgia point for me), and this also nurtured a culture of sharing: in addition to an exceptional tomato harvest, tools, labor (moving heavy furniture, hedge trimming, small repairs), child care, backyard barbecues, car pools and rides, recipes and advice. I didn’t know the political leanings of my neighbors, or care to, and the idea that one only socialized along those lines would have been laughable.  Hello Transition Street before its time?

Both my adult children – the eldest turns 50 this year — are nostalgic for the walkable, bikeable, friendly, green, safe community they grew up in: badminton in the backyard, Frisbee in the parks, neighborhood friends, and best of all, the freedom from constant parental supervision. Maybe it really does take a village.

And I feel nostalgic for the 1970s in a small town on their behalf, and not only because eggs were cheaper and life simpler (and you got to go to sleep-away camp) but because between then and now, the decades of ‘shop until you drop,’ ‘greed is good,’ ‘Made in China,’ and ‘upgrade everything,’ brought us to where we are today.  Is there a way back to the future? Perhaps.

Naomi Klein again: “…if there has ever been a moment to advance a plan to heal the planet that also heals our broken economies and our shattered communities, this is it.”