Monday, August 28, 2006


A little Monday morning randomness
Sweetest thing e5 said this weekend:
"When Amelia learns to talk, I'm gonna jump up and down!"

And the next day, the sweetness was cancelled out by this:
"When Amelia can talk, I can tell her to get me something to eat and something to drink!"

Web site that for some reason makes me laugh until my eyes are watering every single time I read it:
Weight Watchers, circa 1974
Pick a card, any card, and click on it...

New favorite time-management method:
The Pickle Jar Theory

Current favorite gardening book:
Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman

Most amusing and confusing parental moment:
My daughter's favorite way to communicate is to grab your finger, lead you to what she wants, and put your hand on it. At one point yesterday, she grabbed my finger, led me through the kitchen and into the library, did an about-face and continued walking (leaving me lurching to turn around), led me back through the kitchen into the living room, and then dropped my finger and wandered off to play. I guess indecisiveness is genetic.

Proudest parental moment:
E5 didn't cry or complain when they wouldn't let him ride on the "big" kiddie coaster at King's Island, despite waiting all the way through the line. (He was like three millimeters too short.) Everyone on the coaster booed when they turned us away. He rode every ride they'd let him. Thanks to my employer for the free tickets...

Lamest thing at Paramount's King's Island:
Paramount has turned the entire theme park into a tribute to marketing. All the rides in the children's area were themed after Nickelodeon TV shows (including the Nick-O-Round). The bigger rides had televisions along the way, showing clips from Paramount movies, ads for Paramount TV shows, Paramount music videos... And if that weren't atrocious enough, the TV screens had advertisements hanging under them. So basically, the ads had ads. (Thankfully, Cedar Fair has agreed to purchase King's Island. They know how to run an amusement park!)

Most pathetic thing you'll find on our homestead:
Our "nice" car has a busted tail light, a side mirror held on with duct tape, and a bumper held on with duct tape. We still owe money on this car. Geniuses we are not.

Dumbest thing I've done in the past 24 hours:
I unthinkingly drank three large glasses of Mountain Dew when we went out to dinner last night. I don't drink much caffiene, so that kept me going well into the night. Curse you, free refills! (See how I shifted the blame? See that?)

Strangest thing happening right now:
The sun theoretically came up several hours ago, but the sky is so dark and foggy and gloomy that cars are still using their headlights. Lightening is flickering and thunder is rumbling in the distance. Surprisingly (until I think it through), the brief power outage we just experienced didn't affect my computer or internet connection. (I'm on dial-up, on a battery-powered laptop. The monitor went off, but when the power came back up, everything was just as I had left it.)

Site that makes me feel like maybe I'm not totally insane:
Peak Oil Blues

Most life-changing web site:
(It's been like that for years and years. I don't know why.)

Thing I really wish I could be doing right now:

Thing I really should be doing right now:

Thing I am doing right now:

Aren't you glad you're here to witness it?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Is "cultivating wildlife" an oxymoron?

Mother Nature is persistent, I'll give her that.

Our previous house was in a neighborhood that liked to think of itself as slightly upscale. Everybody loved their emerald green lawns. The previous owners of the house we lived in were no exception. They kept everything neat and trim and weed free. I put fertilizer/weed killer stuff on the grass once, and decided it was silly. After that, I didn't really put much into lawn care. Call it lazy, cheap, or eco-friendly. I wasn't a good neighbor to the two different guys who ran lawn care services on my street. I swear, one next-door neighbor wouldn't even wave to me because I didn't take proper care of my grass. In fact, you can pick out our old house from satellite images, just based on grass color:

Without a TruGreen ChemLawn to admire, we had to turn our attention elsewhere. Mother Nature was happy to oblige, little by little.

We first started watching the birds. There were the usual suspects: sparrows and finches, starlings and grackles. A robin made a nest under our raised deck several years in a row. We could see the eggs and later the hatchlings through the cracks of the floorboards. Then we started seeing the distinctive black, white, and red flashes of woodpeckers. The kids loved spotting the ruby-throated hummingbirds at the window feeder.

In the winter, we'd watch several species of hawks hunting, and we'd be amused as large groups of small birds would band together to chase them off.

A family of possums took up residence under our front step, and we didn't even realize it until they had already moved out. (I'll never forgive them for eating my entire peach crop one day in broad daylight though. They were fond of decapitating roses too, for some reason.)

Salamanders would turn up in the garden, and I'd have to stop for toads while cutting the grass. A northern water snake took up residence in the weeds down by the creek to feast on the abundant minnows, and peacefully co-existed with a chipmunk or two among the rocks.

A family of mallards were weekly visitors to our back yard one spring, and daily visitors the next. The ducklings would battle the squirrels for whatever dropped from the feeders.

We even had a visit from a frighteningly large fishing spider. (Yes, it does eat small fish.)

Moving from fauna to flora, I never did defeat my arch-nemesis, the invasive Asian honeysuckle shrub. It would grow 10 feet in two months, and every time I'd cut it down, it would grow back twice as many shoots, in hydra-like fashion. It didn't even smell nice in bloom.

But I did put in tons of plants and trees, and we found a few welcome party-crashers too. Wild strawberries took up residence, and though they were tasteless, they were still pretty cool. Jewelweed took over a rocky swale that had previously been religiously sprayed down with Round-Up. It did a good job of screening the beer cans and plastic bottles that would inevitably collect after heavy rains, and might have cut down on erosion a tiny bit. I'd still clean up the trash of course, but at least it irritated me for a smaller window of time. And speaking of irritating, I once accidentally pulled some stinging nettle by hand, and boy, it's first name isn't "stinging" by accident. Fortunately, a quick search online let me know that jewelweed was an excellent antidote. It was like magic. I've put a lot more faith in herbal remedies ever since.

All this was helped along by the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. They had so many suggestions, projects, and ideas, many of which didn't take much in the way of time, money, or effort.

Obviously, we can't take credit for all of it. The green belt and the stream behind our house certainly helped. But still, not bad for four years on a third of an acre in the 'burbs, surrounded by chemically dependent lawns.

This place was in a little better shape ecologically, with a large population of frogs, toads, birds, and butterflies, and a diverse array of weeds. I can't wait to see what it looks like in four more years...

Or forty...

Friday, August 18, 2006


If you know much about farming, homesteading, self-sufficiency, raising livestock, or many other things, you can probably tell that I'm a total novice. Sometimes I try to make it sound like I know what I'm talking about, but I don't. Those who can, do. Those who can't teach. Those who can't even teach write blogs. (Great, now I've insulted not only myself, but every single person reading this...)

Most of what I know comes from reading. The good thing about books is that it's hard to get published. Not just anybody can crank out a manuscript, get somebody to print it, and have it distributed widely enough to get it on my radar. But books have their limits.

So another way I've been learning lately is by seeing how others do it. Last weekend we toured a small poultry and egg farm. The had about 400 chickens of various breeds, if I remember right, and they used several different methods for keeping them, from pens in a barn to a traditional coop to moveable pens. Today I went on a tour of several pasture-based dairy farms. I saw three different operations ranging in size from 60 acres to 700 acres. None were capital-O Organic, but a couple were working on getting certified.

Both the poultry farm and the dairy tour were a bit too crowded for my anti-social tastes. The tour today filled two buses and a couple vans. About 60 percent of the attendees were Mennonites, and I was one of a very small percentage of non-dairy farmers on the tour. But I did get to talk with an organic dairy, beef, and chicken farmer, a couple of feedlot farmers, some grass-based cattle farmers, and a Mennonite farmer, among others. Lots of opinions and lots of ideas.

Many of the people were asking questions about milk production, organic co-op pricing, the requirements for becoming Certified Organic, feed rates and costs, and they were carefully studying the milking equipment and feeders in the various milking parlors. In other words, business.

We're not going into the dairy business, or really any business. The goats should at least pay for themselves, but we're not doing it to pay the mortgage.

I was more interested in the phyical layout of the farms, the shortcuts to keep from spending a fortune, and the creative solutions to common problems. One guy used asphalt covered with manure and straw for his winter dry lot instead of the more common concrete slab sprayed clean. When asked how he could do calving without any lights or electricity, he said, "I just get up at sunrise and go see what I've got." One farmer made a crude "sidewalk" from the milking parlor to the pasture by digging a trench, filling it with quick-crete, and covering it with dirt. This kept the cows from getting ankle deep in mud walking on the ever-sinking gravel. Rather than continuing to spend $500 in gravel every nine months, he spent a few hours and $400 one time and it should last for years. And they didn't even have to train the cows to walk on it. They figured it out on their own, pretty much immediately.

I also learned that cows love rye but it doesn't grow well here, that they don't like fescue but they do very well on it, that "friendly-endophyte" fescue costs four times as much as endophyte-free fescue for the same results. And I actually knew what they were talking about, which is scary.

I also learned that not only did the poultry farmers love Golden Comet chickens, but so did two different dairy farmers.

And finally, I got to visit a very interesting market. The tour started and ended at a place called The Old Home Store, which as far as I can tell is the Mennonite equivalent of Sam's Club. It was like a large, very well stocked pantry (in the old sense of the word), and just about everything in it was made within 50 miles of the store. They had produce, candles, home canned soups and vegetables (Tangent: Why is it called canning when it uses jars, not cans?), baking supplies in bulk, canning supplies, local meats (both fresh and dried), homemade jams and jellies and candies, baked goods... No brightly colored logos or fancy labels or giant inflatable product displays... I was fascinated by the spice aisle, because the spices were stored in little plastic tubs, kind of like margarine used to come in (Tangent: Why is the "g" in margarine a soft g when it's clearly not followed by "i" or "e"?). The tubs were much larger than the little spice jars you see at the store, and these were stacked high and deep. They seemed to go on forever.

Not expecting to be wishing for spending cash on the tour, my wallet was rather empty. I don't know if I should have been, but I was surprised that the store took credit cards. I bought a few slightly unusual things, and the little Mennonite brother and sister fought over who got to give me my free sample of snack mix. Some things are universal.

At any rate, I learned a few things, and I probably picked up a few more through osmosis. I was disappointed that I missed the tour of the veggie farm with a focus on sustainability, but there's still an heirloom vegetable research tour coming up. I doubt I'll make it, but you never know.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, most of these are put on by an organization called the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. The one today was by the Ohio Forage and Grassland Council.

So now I have some actual observations to go along with the words I've read. As Yogi Berra may have said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."

Monday, August 14, 2006

Nothing to see here

Remember the other day when I said if anything else broke,
I'd stop making black helicopter jokes? Well...

I made it all up. There's nothing wrong here.
Things are just fine. I haven't seen any black helicopters.
It was just, you know, poetic license. To make it more interesting.

You didn't see annnnnything.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ghost in the machine

Okay, this is getting ridiculous. First, our universal remote died. Just quit working altogether. It's not even a year old. Then my beloved camera started going all wonky. Then my cell phone started randomly "rebooting" itself. Then my laptop decided to lock me out entirely. I've had to make three non-trivial repairs on the tractor in less than a week. The Honda has developed a wicked shimmy at highway speeds. Even the little pedometer that our health insurance company handed out stopped working! This has all been in the span of what, maybe three weeks total?

Now I'm pretty neutral when it comes to technology. Much of it, I could care less about. I don't have an iPod, or a Blackberry, or any number of other gadgets. My cell phone was provided by my employer, and I'd happily do without it. Even so, some technologies just make sense to me. Admittedly, my perspective is undergoing a radical change these days, but I do still have an inner geek.

The first time I used email, I thought, "Wow, this is awesome. I doubt it'll happen, but wouldn't it be cool if everyone had access to this?" The first time I used the world wide web (that phrase sounds so dated, eh?) it was on a text-based "browser" with awful formatting, but I thought, "Wow, this has such enormous potential. Wouldn't it be cool if this were a hundred times bigger?" Not long after that, I created my first web page.

We were early adopters with Tivo, and I find it hard to watch TV without it. The interesting thing about Tivo is that it did something counter-intuitive: It reduced the amount of TV we watch. On those occasions when we do want to zone out, we watch higher quality shows, sans advertising. I learn something useful almost every time I sit down to watch. There are virtually no network shows recorded for us, and channel surfing no longer exists. We went to the video store the other day for the first time in at least a year, and I think my TV watching is near an all-time low.

Even though TV watching is down, it's not gone completely. The universal remote is a nice little gadget. Instead of buttons to turn on and operate various devices (or a passel of separate remotes), this remote has a button for "Watch a DVD". Press it, and the TV comes on, the DVD player comes on, the tuner comes on and switches the input mode to DVD. Press "Watch a Video" and the DVD player goes off, the VCR comes on, the tuner switches to video input, and the TV stays on. (It's smart enough to remember what's on and what's off.) Buttons like "play", "pause", "rewind", etc. get remapped based on what you're doing.

When technology fails, we realize how reliant we are on it. I didn't realize how much I loved taking pictures until the camera was gone. I'd forgotten how many remotes we used to keep track of. I even missed the silly little pedometer counting my steps.

[A side note about the pedometer: The inusrance company's "wellness" initiative suggested a goal of averaging 10,000 steps per day by the end of six weeks. Without making any changes to my routine, I'm averaging 8,900 over two weeks, and I topped out at over 15,000 the first Saturday. If it wasn't for my desk job, I bet I'd average 12,000 without even trying.]

Low tech has a lot of appeal too. At least the garden won't have to be sent to New York for repairs, and it's hard for a book to suddenly become totally unusable. (Though, strangely, literature is the truest source of deus ex machina.)

The good news... We've got a brand new remote and a brand new camera body, both free of charge. A new pedometer is on the way. The Honda will have to wait for now. The laptop got a new keyboard. (I didn't even know you could do that!) The cell phone seems to be in a better mood most of the time, but frankly, if it dies I won't shed any tears. And I'm sure they'll have a new one in my hand moments later. And the tractor... well... The shards of metal have been surgically removed from it's innards by way of a magnet on the end of a long bendy stick, and everything that needed fixing has been taken care of. It's running better than can be expected for something more than a half century old. I hope the same can be said of me when the time comes.

Hopefully the string of broken things is over. If not, I'm gonna stop making jokes about those black helicopters down the road...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The only thing we have to fear is.... milk?

Between our children, our goats, our donkey, our pond, and our homestead in general, we don't often get invited to visit friends and family. They come visit us.

Everybody loves to come see the animals, and they know our kids are best visited in their own habitat. (I think our little Chaos Girl is banished from Grammy's house after an incident with a potted plant and brand new cream colored carpet.)

They all love coming out here, and I can't blame them.

But there's one consistency with our visitors that just cracks me up. So far, of all the people who have come out here since we acquired the goats, not a single person has taken us up on offers of home-grown dairy goodness. Nobody will even taste the goat milk.

Personally, I don't know if I could tell the difference between the goat's milk and whole organic cow's milk from the store. (I know, "organic" can be a problematic label, but organic milk is definitely superior to regular milk in my view. Well, unless it's from Horizon.) I might be able to differentiate between the two, given a glass of each, but if you blindfolded me and handed me one glass, and asked me whether it was from the store or from a goat, I don't know if I'd get it right every time. My kids both seem to have a preference for the fresh stuff.

But guests fear the goat milk. They are terrified of it. They have no hesitation about walking into a store and buying watered-down milk that came from a smelly, polluting factory farm halfway across the country that houses overcrowded, antibiotic and hormone-laden cows who are probably ankle deep in manure and have never seen the sky or had one bite of grass...

But the milk in the mason jar might taste "goaty."

Of course, if I did pour someone a glass of our milk, I'd be in violation of state laws. The Amish farmer who was busted for giving a glass of milk to an undercover agent lost his court case. But then, even the judge's ruling was inconsistent with the law as written.

Uh oh, I'm starting to sound like one of those crazy people again.

Maybe I'm just a lawless renegade, but if you're thirsty, you can have a glass of milk... if you can overcome the fear.

Low-hanging fruit

Our local paper had an article over the weekend about "standby power". This is the term for electricity consumed by electronics and appliances when they are not in use.

They had another interesting article on the same day about an ice-based air conditioning system that the R&D folks at the nearby Honda plant came up with to cut their energy usage. I guess conservation is coming into vogue again.

But back to the standby power article. Here are a few quotes that I found surprising: the average home, 40 percent of the electricity consumed by small appliances is used while the devices are turned off. Nationally, that standby power equals the electricity generated by 17 power plants.

"As a country, we spend $1 billion (a year) for electricity used by televisions while they are turned off," said Maria Vargas, a spokeswoman for the EPA.

"My rule of thumb is that the cost of standby electricity over the year is equal to what you pay for an average monthly electric bill," said Alan Meier, a scientist specializing in electrical energy research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that standby power consumes about 1,000 kilowatt-hours of energy in a typical home.

If Americans switched just those items to energy-efficient models, the reduced need for electricity would eliminate 25 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — a reduction equal to removing 3 million cars off the road for a year...

I think I need to put in some power strips that I can shut off on my way to bed. Seems easy enough... Of course, I'm about ready to throw away all my electronics right now, but that's another post...

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Can I get a do-over? I'll just say that today involved, at various times, shards of metal, gallons of sweat, battery acid, multiple baths for a certain family member, sizzling copper wiring, and at least half a tank of gas wasted, in a series of unrelated disasters.

But I'm gonna write about something else: Cows. Well, and bulls. And other such-like animals.

I've been amusing myself by researching various types of livestock. Lori's reviewing poultry already, so I thought I'd try my hand at cattle.

Now, it's always troubled me that there doesn't seem to be a singular, gender-neutral word for this animal in English. We tend to say "cow" but that's a female. And besides, it's also used for other animals, like whales, elephants, and moose. And even the plural form, cattle, apparently didn't originate as a term specifically for the bovine realm. Can we just come together and agree on one? I mean, we've had many, many centuries to work this out. Let's stop procrastinating. How about "cattlid"? "Bovus"? "Beefulon"? Hmmm. Maybe I'd better leave it up to somebody else...

At any rate, the thing that appeals to me about cattle is that they can be quite a versatile part of a small farm. They can be used for meat, for milk, and for draft power. They are also generally fairly hardy.

(Of course, yaks trump cattle by adding wool, ridability, extreme hardiness, and better grazing efficiency. Oh, and also skiing, and polo. But unfortunately, I haven't seen too many domesticated yaks around this continent.)

Many of the modern breeds of cattle have been bred for a single purpose - either milk or meat. Draft power is mostly lost to the march of Progress. And we're approaching a monoculture in large scale beef and dairy operations, with just a couple breeds dominating.

But some of the heritage breeds can still multi-task quite well. The American Milking Devon arrived in Plymouth with some of the first British settlers, and was prized for it's ability to provide good beef, good dairy products, good draft power, and a decent temperament.

The downside of cattle is that they are fairly large, and fairly inefficient foragers compared to some other livestock. They have to graze quite a bit, and much of what they eat comes out the other end. In other words, they need a fair amount of pasture to sustain them.

We have a bit of pasture, but probably not enough to keep several bovines fed. (And don't get me off on a tangent by bringing up grain feeding... I'll just say that from everything I've read, grass fed cattle produce environmentally and nutritionally superior meat and milk.)

With my head in a self-sufficiency space, it seems like keeping only one animal greatly inhibits production of any more generations. And bringing in hay, or a bull, or whatever else, creates a dependency that I'd rather avoid.

So I started thinking small. One of the smallest all-purpose breeds is the Dexter. These guys weigh in at half the size of many standard breeds, and are efficient grazers as far as cattle are concerned. They can reportedly get by on a half acre of good pasture per animal. (That sounds really low, but what do I know?)

Obviously smaller animals provide less total meat, milk, and draft power per head, but pound for pound, they do as well or better than many larger breeds. And they're a lot less intimidating. Some might even use the word "cute."

Oh, and in case anybody is wondering, (is anybody even still reading?) goats and cattle can coexist on the same pasture quite well, since they prefer different types of plants. Mixing livestock is actually supposed to be a good way to break some soil-borne disease and parasite cycles too.

So are we getting some cattle? Probably not any time soon, unless they are of the visitor variety. But that doesn't stop me from reading up on them. And hey, anything can happen. I mean, I was living in the heart of suburbia only last year.

The photos are borrowed from Rural Heritage. There are at least a dozen other breeds of multipurpose cattle out there, many of which I find very interesting, but you may not, so I won't bore you with endless rambling.

But I will leave you with one very startling photo of a breed called Chianina (which I beleive my wife described as "unnatural"...):

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Thousands and thousands of words...

...or maybe just a few pictures.

My camera is out of commission for a few weeks,
so here are a few favorites from my stash...

Inspired by Madcap Mum's sunset post...
A fine evening on a South Carolina beach.

Inspired by the heat wave...
This was the only cool spot on a very hot day in Colonial Williamsburg.
A shady grape arbor and a cold mug of pale ale does wonders for the heat.

No particular inspiration needed for this one...

"What are you lookin' at??"
As most adolescents might be,
Daphne was a bit self-conscious
about the size of her ears.

An interesting view in downtown Boston

As long as we're feeling reflective in Boston...

That's all for now...