Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Living Green, Living Local

Even though my family is Canadian, we're finding it hard not to get caught up in the current moment of American politics. We have been witness to some amazing history in the making. While watching the inauguration, I found myself, for the first time, actually considering how I might be interested in meeting a president of the United States and as I watched Barack Obama take the oath of office with an unprecedented number of people watching, my eyes weren't exactly as dry as the Sahara. However, it was his eighteen minute, non-stop speech that impressed me the most and there were a couple of particular items that had me searching for a written copy of his speech.

But first, come back with me to last summer. We are anxiously trying to sell our current house in a market that is showing beginning signs of weakness. We are desperate to begin making plans for a rural life and our country home, but too afraid to itemize details any further than in our thoughts, for fear that if said out loud, they won't come true. Then came along a book that squashed that idea and had us, well...less my husband and more myself, completely trapped in a country life romanticized to the hilt. I stumbled across a book, an audio book actually, that had me looking forward to my daily two hours of commuting with more excitement than I ever thought possible. This book not only opened me up to the life of a family living in the country and growing as much of their own food as possible but "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" opened my eyes to a whole other slew of issues from animal husbandry, (whoever knew turkeys were so stupid? no offense!) the impact of not buying local on our environment, (why do we need to eat fruit that has traveled thousands of miles to reach our supermarket?) and the politics involving such things as seed production, which is copyrighted by a handful of American conglomerates (we no longer 'own' our own food and that's down right scary), and so called American tied aid which puts most of the money back into America's pockets rather than aiding those in need (like tsunami victims), and those are just a few of the things I learned. If I've piqued your interest or curiosity, I suggest you pick up a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's book...if you can handle the truth!

Jump back to today, and the item that displays the most impact on my way of thinking or rather 'shopping', is food mileage. No longer am I solely concerned with what I eat but I also want to know how many miles my food has racked up before it reached my local grocery store. A few months ago, while apples in this area where in prime season, my local, 'large-chain' grocery store had at least 8 different varieties...and none of them were from North America, let alone from one of the numerous orchards within a 100km radius. These days, having jumped on the 'localvore' bandwagon, I not only ask myself how much an item costs but how much it costs the earth.

For that reason, it really struck a chord with me when I heard President Obama say, "each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet." I truly believe that there will soon be a time when our current energy practices will no longer be an option. Fuel costs, while low at the moment, will not remain that way, and the price of food will certainly reflect this, as we've already seen. No longer will we be able to rack up super saver miles on food transported around the globe. I'm not so sure that someday, children won't once again be thrilled to receive an orange in their Christmas stocking, as I'm sure they were long ago in this old house.

Obama also said, "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories." We don't have much of a choice do we? It's only a matter of time before we go through another paradigm shift, if we haven't begun already. The industrial age is leaving us whether we like to admit it or not and while solar and wind power seems to be cost prohibitive for most of us, I do hope that will change soon. The unreliability alone of hydro wires in a winter storm is enough to turn me off. 12 hours with no sump pump while 30cm of snow was slowly melting and seeping into the ground was enough for me to tell my husband "we need to get off the grid" I don't know when that day will come for us, but it's certainly a goal we're working towards.

President Obama challenged not only his fellow citizens but I believe the world, to progress, to move forward, to learn from our mistakes and most importantly be bold enough to step out on that ice flow and see where it takes could lead to Eden..we just need to take the first step.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Old Fashioned Country Winters

We've been in a deep freeze now for over a week. The lower the mercury drops the fewer signs of life I see. The squirrels are holed up in various locales. One has chewed a hole in the side of the garage and one has been seen performing a disappearing act under the front porch; possibly the same who makes a bit of nightly noise in the attic. It's been weeks since we've heard the coyotes howling at night or the surrounding dogs baying to each other from farm to farm like a childhood game of telephone. One can sense that life has stopped, frozen in time, waiting for a gasp of warm air to set everything back on course again.

There is no surer way of being in tune with each season than when you live in the country. Winter brings its own uniqueness to the seasonal equation. Living in the country, at this time of year, has made me realize, more than ever, how fragile life is. What or who will survive these frozen days? Mailboxes don't survive the breakneck speed of passing snowploughs, (even temporary ones painted in road hazard orange), plants surrender to fathomless temperatures, unkind taps can no longer resist a career change and become an icemaker (ka-ching!). I hear of tragic accidents involving snowmobilers, stranded motorists or the dangers of thin ice. I realize that the peacefulness and beauty of the country can hide dangers that are at times transparent.

And so, I've been forced to take a new view of my own safety. Morning rush hour and vanity be damned, I wear a thick pair of socks over my work dress socks. A toque is donned each morning even if it means the warmer the hat, the worse the hat head. Extra boots, and a safety kit are stored in the trunk and as I get into the car each morning, I bow to my husband's gift giving practicality, and sink into the electric warmer covering my seat. And yes, I know, we've all been told that you should keep your gas tank more than half full so it will add weight to your rear end. Well, let me add to that (no pun intended) a piece of advice. When the temperature drops to -20C there is a chance your fuel door could freeze. God forbid it should happen when you have less than few litres left in your tank, and you have two children to pick up from school, more than 60km away. Trust me on this one, it isn't the best time to discover what your odds are.

So while our hearts are always heavy to hear of the passing of human life, it stings me even more during these icebound days to think of Hades, building up his ranks in the underworld, while the rest of us are left like Demeter grieving for our Persephone. I have no desire to reach her stratum just yet. I'll endure these numbing days, thankful to be alive.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Magic Kingdom

With all the snowbirds snuggled in their hammocks under palm trees, or the throngs of race fans getting ready to inhale some CO2 in Daytona, it must be getting fairly crowded in Florida. Maybe the mortgage crisis in the U.S. has forced residents to relocate to the near north. I'm not quite certain of the exact reason but it seems these days Mickey has found a new place to reside...under our kitchen sink.

I stand corrected. Mickey and all his friends have relocated to this old farmhouse. I don't know how many friends he actually has, so I may not be exaggerating and quite honestly, I don't want to think about how many there are that we can't see. Up until now, I haven't wanted to see the ones we have known about, aka trapped, which to date totals four or five, we're not sure. You see there was a little cannibalism incident of which, thankfully, only my husband witnessed the um, uh..sorry...the remains of, and since we caught sight of one more after that, we can't be certain that he was the offender or if the real offender perhaps suffered from food poisoning, so to speak.

It was our younger cat, Whiskers, who first tipped us off to the squatters under the sink. Her sudden departure from lounging all day in my reading nook to staring incessantly under the stove had us a little concerned. "She probably sees a bug" my husband offered up, perhaps a little too quickly I think now when I hit the rewind button. "Well, we still have mosquitoes and flies in January so you just may be right" I proffered in return. Whoever said denial can't help a girl sleep? I slept well that night and the next morning I wasn't the least bit upset not to have received my usual 4am wake up call from two cats anxious to be served their breakfast. It wasn't out of any concern for my beauty sleep however that I had been abandoned, for it appeared Whiskers had spent the night on rat patrol.

Later that morning, my husband called me at work while on his way to the hardware store to buy traps and rat poison, wanting to fill me in on horror stories he had discovered online about rats that dig tunnels through your basement, giving me details on the very large size of traps needed to catch just such rats. "Just get rid of them" was all I could muster in return. I came home to find a few boxes of 'mouse treat' ready to go into action that night. 'Mouse treat?' I thought to myself. Surely the manufacturer could have come up with something more original than that? I came up with my own slogan.."Rat Treat so they'll Retreat". Apparently the retreat part takes a little time, so the hunt began, each morning 'catching' one more than the day before, except for, of course, the one day when there was only a partial bit more than the day before. We were instructed to leave more poison out each day until it was no longer being consumed. I'm sure you've already reached the same conclusion we did, they were hungry and the treats were devoured voraciously. After a few days, the treat dish finally remained full and the trap empty.

Now almost a week later, it's pretty easy to say Whiskers is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Her routine is still off kilter. She wanders through the kitchen sniffing along the cupboards hoping for a chance to catch another whiff of fresh game. She leaves her toy mouse under the kitchen mat, perhaps hoping to entice another little cheese lover to come out of hiding or just maybe she thinks Mickey is in need of a new friend.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Best Things in Life are Free

All year I dream of January, that time when everything seems simple and fresh. A time when I clear the clutter of decorations adorning every room, (enough red and green please), and rid the cupboards of the final remnants of Christmas goodies. In return, I enjoy the outdoors more, cook simple meals and feeling well rested and organized I try to focus my 'almost ready for bi-focal' eyes on the new year. Rather than making any new year's resolutions, this year I have a mental list of things to do, which we may, or more likely, may not accomplish.

I have two lists running through my mind daily. There is the list of things that will need to be done this year and the much longer list of things I would really love to do. However, current calculations tell me the list of must do items may soon exceed the wish list and in fact, my practical husband would probably say it already does.

Yes, we do need to get ready for next year's winter, totally unprepared were we to hear how loud the wind howls as it passes through our house. It really gathers steam as it wraps around the kitchen and races up the stairs into our bathroom before escaping through the one inch gap over an improperly installed window. Adding missing screens to some of our windows will, also, provide comfort on those days when a beautiful warm breeze strolls down our road but the no vacancy sign has been hung at the fly motel aka the kitchen. Not to mention, they would make life easier for our daughter, who has a high sensitivity to mosquitoes and an even higher sensitivity to the sight of any bug in general. (We'll make a country girl of her yet, but I'll save that for another post.)

But does anyone, in their right mind, want to dream about abating the wind and flies? I save my dreaming for the second list. Dreaming is free, so you may as well dream big or go home. When I dream about my vegetable garden, I'll have so many different vegetables and herbs that we'll be putting canned tomatoes in the Christmas gift baskets we make for our family and friends for the next five years. Thankfully, I have finally come to realize that dreaming big doesn't mean you have to act big. It's taken me almost forty years but I realize that I can easily overwhelm myself with my dreams. Just ask my parents. They were witness to the first house I bought on my own and the havoc that ensued. They helped me renovate after I had completely gutted it only to run into financing trouble to reconstruct. There were a few tears, on more than one occasion, before everything was sorted out, but I own a beautiful house on a river (that someone else hopefully enjoys living in) and more importantly, we're still on speaking terms. So while I have come to an understanding of my limits, I still enjoy the reverie of large vasts of perennial gardens with a tiered stream running through it, I just omit the part about it being the year 2024 and the fact that I'm retired.

Of course, it helps to be able to have a dream or two that can come to fruition easily. A little instant gratification or something close to it can help get you over the hump while you wait for those grander illusions to come true. The pond in our backyard effortlessly helps with that. With a little time spent by my husband and neighbour keeping it clear of snow, everyone has enjoyed countless hours skating and playing hockey. In the last week alone, our 3 year old neighbour has gone from barely being able to stand on his skates to almost skating on his own. He's almost as determined as the red squirrel who keeps trying to invade our sun room. Without a doubt, when my husband viewed our property for the first time, the main selling feature was the pond and over the last few weeks he has been able to enjoy it for all it's worth...immeasurable.

My husband's long time friend from his public school days came to visit us over the holidays, to play a little pickup hockey on the pond, of course. He noted in a card to us, how after helping us move, he realized just how much stuff we have and that we probably didn't really need any 'thing'. How right I thought to myself as I pictured the garage and workshop overflowing with items that we really should divest ourselves of. As a gesture of real Christmas giving, he offered his labour free of charge for whatever projects we do decide to progress with this summer, in his words "there is lots to do". A gift of time, it was the best thing we received this year.

Dreams, skating ponds and friendship. The best things in life really are free.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

City Mouse becomes a Country Mouse

Take a city girl, put her in a 150 year old Gothic Revival farmhouse in need of much love and care, surround them with farmers fields, old wood forests, and 'secure in their ways' country folk and see what changes happen, to her and her house, over the next twelve months.

Following my yearning to fulfill a childhood dream and a wish for my husband to return to his childhood, we have done what many people talk about but few actually go forward with...we have 'moved to the country'. With two children and two cats in tow and our luggage packed with big dreams and even bigger plans will we be able to make the life for ourselves that we have dreamed about together since our first date?

On a cold, wet spring day, we fell in love with a yellow board and batten house built in the Gothic Revival style. We were welcomed by an entrancing fire in the kitchen was lust at the first sight of such a luxury! A rambling house with several additions, more fireplaces and a second floor reserved solely for the master bedroom and bath. We ambled greedily along the perimeter of the two and half acre property falling in love instantly with the large pond, (visions of winter skating parties danced in our heads). We admired the giant pine trees and the adorable bridge over the creek, painted in the same rustic yellow as the house, and then the room. Oh, the room! We would have space for vegetable gardens, for raising chickens, for playing fetch with a dog, for a barn raising to house our future goats and and perhaps even a cow, for growing our own Christmas trees, and some back pocket bribery for our two nine year old children...building a tree house. We knew instantly this was our dream property. We also knew every room in the house and even the house itself would need a fresh coat of paint but isn't that true of any house? A little elbow grease and our own furnishings and we would be ready to start gardening. Or so we thought. Entering the empty house on the eve of Labour Day weekend, my stomach churned at the water stains under the bay window, the neglected hardwood floors and the dirt left behind by someone who sadly never learned how to clean. My heart sank even further, how could I have slowly walked through this house several times, even photographing every room for posterity and parental approval and not have noticed the ugliest kitchen counter this side of the Atlantic or that every single light fixture of this old abode was less than five years old and that all the original and surely beautiful baseboards were replaced with modern, factory manufactured, pseudo colonial trim. The most damaging piece of evidence, that proved the character and the history of this home had long been neglected and shown a disrespect no home of this era deserves, was the addition of a bay window to the front of the house. (Please note a brown bay window, the other 18 windows are white.) For those not familiar with the Gothic Revival style symmetry is a key element. An entry door in the middle of the front facade is flanked by a double hung window on each side. Let the dilemmas of how to fix that problem and many more and the ever growing list of fix-it jobs begin.

Since moving day some quick fixes have improved the state of the house but for every little job that gets scratched off the top of the list, five more are added to the bottom. We can clearly see why the previous owners had high heating bills. The cold air easily seeps in through windows, improperly installed with a half inch gap between the window and the house, or the lack of weather stripping around any of the outside doors. We have stopped shaking our heads at the number of jobs on this house that just simply were not done right. In fact, if we listen closely, we can often hear the house breathing a huge sigh of relief. Finally! Someone is here to love me again!

So if you're interested in watching a city girl adapt to the country and how she learns about everything that comes along with a rural life or watching a couple slowly renovate a long unloved farm house then you've come to the right place. I can't promise it will always be exciting but it will be an adventure. After four months, I have already been stung by a bee on the underside of my tongue, just as I was about to serve dinner to a dozen guests and the corn on the cob was on the stove. As the boiling intensified so it seemed did the pain in my mouth. I have bailed bucket after bucket of water from a basement that seemed to snuggle closer and closer to the pond in the backyard, the longer the power was off. And, I have witnessed how one little red squirrel can work so hard each day under the ancient pines and how devastatingly easy that same squirrel can shred a box spring stored in the sun room. (He had my admiration until he entered my domain.) I don't dare ask what is in store for us next, for it will happen without my prompting no doubt, so why test the fates any more than necessary. And just think, you can ride along, whispering all the while....I told you so.