Category Archives: permaculture

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

The End of the Known World?

Tipping point:  “The moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”

Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, tipping point, like the Chinese characters for crisis that combine danger and opportunity, describes where we are as a species. On the one hand, our climate is approaching a point of no return where it tips from ‘change’ — which is already evident, particularly in South Florida where I live — to ‘chaos’ about which we can only offer educated guesses, none of them good.  On the other hand, we have unprecedented opportunities to reverse the damage caused by capitalism gone rogue, and see the fruits of our effort in our lifetime, and/or in the lives of our children and theirs.

boiling-waterDon’t expect to find guidance in political promises that continue to insist we can have infinite growth on a finite planet. Generally, scientific papers do a better job in framing the problem than in pointing to solutions.  For some — my spouse and I, for example — the thing we can do is right under our feet: soil to be healed, food to be grown, and forests to be started.  We are enrolled in an introductory permaculture course this month at the renowned Mounts Botanical Garden, about which more later.

In Soil Not Oil, physicist/environmental activist/author, Vandana Shiva, builds a clear relationship between healthy soil and our survival as a species.  Could it really be that simple?   “Every step in building a living agriculture sustained by a living soil is a step toward both mitigating and adapting to climate change,” she writes.   James Hansen makes a similar urgent argument for sequestering carbon in the soil.  And Rodale Institute’s White Paper on regenerative agriculture points out:

Excess carbon in the atmosphere is surely toxic to life, but we are, after all, carbon-based life forms, and returning stable carbon to the soil is a tonic that can support ecological abundance.

What if we reject options like geothermal engineering or methods of extracting fuels from photosynthesis or seawater for the risky business they are.  What if enough of us put our attention on reclaiming land to plant trees and grow food? Where’s the downside?

As the documentary, Growing Cities, points out, Americans have reverted to this simple idea in times of crisis.  The Victory Gardens of World War II come to mind, and Michelle Obama’s anti-0besity campaign that includes a vegetable plot on the grounds of The White House.  Then, when ‘happy days are here again,’ we ‘forget’ how powerful these choices make us and surrender to the ease of supermarket shopping and Big Ag dominated food system.  The good news: skills may lie dormant, but they don’t go away.

One of the projects of Transition Totnes, the UK’s first Transition Town,  was to interview elders about their life experiences of an earlier, slower time.  People who grew up during the Depression and World War II are an ever-shrinking group now, but there are plenty of 70- and 80-somethings with good memories of growing up on a farm or living in small towns where everyone knew each other by name and often worked together in some common enterprise.

I am thinking about the series of interviews FAU professor and performance artist, Sherryl Muriente, conducted with elders in the Italian town of Artena, subject Regeneration City, a documentary about The International Society of Biourbanism summer school in July 2013.  She uncovered among the nonnas of Artena a tradition of bread baking that had all but disappeared, and was able to revive it in an inspiring local festival.  (A second screening of the film was held in Lake Worth last weekend.) This could be a great project for any Transition Town in the making, and, nonna that I am, feel ready to work both ends of the interview.

Degrowth is far from a popular idea in my circles (yet), but it could be that better days are ahead if we can let go of the world we’ve been conditioned to accept and open ourselves to the one that is possible, and possibly superior, to this one. Samuel Alexander, founder of The Simplicity Collective, thinks so.  He makes a persuasive case for a degrowth economy, one that achieves a steady state within the Earth’s biophysical limits:  “Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”, turning our energy crises into an opportunity for civilisational renewal.”  This is also at the heart of Transition’s energy descent philosophy.

Self-identified ‘degrowth activist,’ Charles Eisenstein is eloquent on the subject. From The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible: “When any of us meet someone who rejects dominant norms and values, we feel a little less crazy for doing the same. Any act of rebellion or non-participation, even on a very small-scale, is therefore a political act.”

 

 

A Four-Year Degree for Everyone?

The unresolved student loan crisis and the plight of debt-strapped graduates flipping burgers will keep this debate on the front burner for some time to come. But if you, too, have anecdotes about the taxi cab-driving Ph.D, or the electrician with a vacation home in the Bahamas, you know it’s not necessarily news, just more politicized –isn’t everything?

Google the question, or some version of it, and you’re likely to find plenty of opinions along the lines of former William Bennett’s (Reagan’s education secretary) “the broken promise of higher education,” the tagline of the book he’s currently promoting. Even Michael Bloomberg cautions students with so-so grades and large tuition bills to skip college and learn a trade like plumbing that can’t be outsourced or automated.

College is on the radar for two of our grandchildren who are entering their junior year in high school, and on the minds of their parents. One grandson took a workshop in entrepreneurship that enabled him to check out a school on his shortlist. The other took college level math at a local college to earn advance credits, earning an A and family accolades. Do they already feel the pressure of decisions they don’t have the maturity to make? I fear so. It seems to me that age 16 is a little young to be thinking about, let alone training to join, the workforce, especially when it is more than likely they will have several different jobs during their working life. (Young workers hold an average of nine jobs before age 32, according to the Department of Labor.)

I find it troubling that most forecasts about the ‘top jobs for the 21st century’ from U.S. Government sources are based on a paradigm of business as usual, that is, the growth model, plus the changing demographics — by 2050, the population of older Americans will double – that is expected to create demand in certain categories, e.g. the ‘top earner’ ranks of physicians, optometrists and podiatrists. Automation, that eliminated many of the well-paid manufacturing jobs of the past, is about to do the same for the service industry, see Humans Need Not Apply.  And barely factored in at the moment: the business- and life-disrupting impacts of climate change that will call upon some quite different, humanitarian skills sets: resilience, conflict-resolution, communications, and empathy.

Who would want this chillingly Orwellian description of a Department of Labor “real work day” in “future time?”

5:30 a.m. get up/get dressed/exercise

6:30 a.m. make: breakfast, school lunches, grocery list

7:30 a.m. get kids up, dressed, and fed

8:00 a.m. drop off kids and dry cleaning

9:00 a.m. on the job . . . 12 e-mail messages waiting for reply

1:30 p.m. meeting at daycare center (your child is biting!)

2:30 p.m. back on the job . . . 8 voice-mails waiting

5:00 p.m. forward office calls to cell phone

5:30 p.m. pick up child from school aftercare

6:05 p.m. pick up other child, pay late pickup fee at day care

7:00 p.m. make dinner

8:00 p.m. do: dishes, homework, laundry

8:30 p.m. bathe kids

9:00 p.m. read work memos to kids as bedtime story

9:30 p.m. fold laundry/fall asleep

station_road permacultureWe can do better than this for our children and ourselves, and my friend and colleague in Transition already is. This week she wrote that her 18-year-old daughter had completed an online course in permaculture, and had decided to forego the conventional college route of so many of her peers to launch a career in this practice. When she gets her certification, Brennah will be able to practice permaculture in a community that sounds ready to offer her many clients. This choice of career is a natural extension of the family’s long commitment to homeschooling the children, living simply, and growing as much of their own food as possible — a decision they made when they lived in my part of the world, and are carrying forward in their new environment. As part of their self-directed curriculum, the children have already raised and cared for backyard chickens, learned about and foraged for wild edibles, and more recently, added bee-keeping to their repertoire of resilience skills.

I don’t think the family realized when they began just how cutting edge many of these practices would become. Far from a redo of the back to the land movement, permaculture is a highly sophisticated system. The word itself is a combination of permanent and culture, created (and copyrighted) by founder, Bill Mollison, Australian ecologist and university professor. There are many practitioners and definitions, but this one is among the clearest: permaculture is the study of the design of those sustainable or enduring systems that support human society: agricultural and intellectual, traditional and scientific, architectural, financial and legal. It is the study of integrated systems, for the purpose of better design and application of such systems. Rob Hopkins was a permaculture teacher and the Transition movement got its start from a project with his university students.

The permaculture project submitted by Brennah as part of her certification takes a half-acre suburban plot with existing house and adds food-bearing trees and bushes, a kitchen garden, pollinator garden, and grape arbor, all positioned to take advantage of natural contours of the site and optimum growing conditions through the seasons. It will also include a grey water system, and the introduction of forage plant species into the woods behind the main house. Although zoning prohibited any livestock, the clients (who happen to be family members) had their requirements for low-maintenance and year-round yield met by the plan. If this is life’s work for the 21st century, count me in.

Will skilled trades enjoy a renaissance? Will we, as a society, begin to value and reward practical education, skilled manual labor, and crafts more highly in the future? A few pioneering Transitioners seem to think so.

More reads:

Let Your Children Be Farmers

Permaculture education

Geoff Lawton

http://www.permaculture.org/

Florida Permaculture Convergence

Permaculture Broward