Sunday, June 27, 2010

My First Canned Strawberry Jelly

Well, at least it tastes good and it's pretty. I do have a lot to learn but it wasn't a total disaster. In between having to paint the last of the indoor window frames (of my house, not my chicken's-to-be house) this weekend, I made my first canned homemade jelly. I could have taken the easy route and bought commercial pectin (which makes it gel) but I wanted to do it all from scratch and make it myself. Pectin naturally occurs in apples and crab apples and under ripe apples have the highest concentration of pectin. The riper the apple gets, the less it has. Basically, the process sounds easy - cut your apples up, almost cover them with water, boil until it's something like apple sauce and strain through a cheese cloth and the liquid should be pectin. Well, at least mine looked the part. So, I bought fresh pesticide-free strawberries from local farmers at the farmer's market, organic cane sugar and a little fresh lemon juice from lemons also purchased at the farmer's market. Being that it's summer, the farmer's market didn't have any apples, but I had a few from the organic co-op from when I was down in San Diego. I mashed the berries, mixed in the sugar and lemon and after it came to a boil mixed in the pectin impostor. At the designated time, I poured the soupy red mixture into my canning jars and boiled them for 15 minutes. "Pop, pop, pop", they all made a good seal while cooling. This morning I put some on my homemade wheat bread for breakfast. Well, it didn't exactly gel. But, despite the fact that it's rather runny, it has a fantastic taste, is the perfect color and I realized that I got 8 half pints of organic homemade jelly for about $1.20 a jar! So, this will do me just fine until I learn how to make pectin correctly. I'm glad to say I'm even enjoying my mistakes! I thoroughly enjoyed my wheat toast, runny strawberry jelly with dark french roast.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Doldrums in the Desert

Not the kind of doldrums you get along the equator on a boat - but the same effect as if you were sailing across it.  Dead still at a standstill.  The wind is howling here and before the wind came up, the sun was too hot.  I've been waiting all week to get the final coat of paint on the coop and put together the entrance door and mount it.  I tried getting out today to paint as soon as I got home from my ritual "half day Friday" and was fired up.  About 5 minutes into painting I noticed the paint in the tray was starting to curdle due to the heat.  Okay, I said, there must be some pieces of wood I have to cut?  I cut a while and then convinced myself I could probably paint the trim pieces.  I laid them out, and started brushing them and the wind was swirling dirt and debris all in and around.  I threw a little childhood tantrum no one could see, kicked some sand and admitted defeat for the day.  So, I'm at a standstill.  These are the days that try me the hardest.  I read a great blog entry a couple days ago by Jenna Woginrich where she described my and others' condition flawlessly as "Barnheart".  Although written with humor, there is a strong seriousness in her entry.  She describes Barnheart as:

"It’s a dreamer’s disease: a mix of hope, determination, and grit. Specifically targeted at those of us who wish to god we were outside with our flocks, feed bags, or harnesses and instead are sitting in front of computer screens. When a severe attack hits, it’s all you can do to sit still. The room gets smaller, your mind wanders, and you are overcome with the desire to be tagging cattle ears or feeding pigs instead of taking conference calls. People at the water cooler will stare if you say these things aloud. If this happens, just segue into sports and you’ll be fine."

So, I often get through my week waiting for my weekend projects such as painting the chicken coop, canning, reading up on homesteading and tending to my barely surviving desert garden.  When I get to my long awaited enterprise and I can't proceed,  I'm left with an uncomfortable stillness, void and space.  No, it's not chronic anxiety or depression - I'm a professional psychotherapist and know what that is - instead, it's the deep yearning and passion that won't stop touting its message.  That's okay - I listen to the message, but it's the days I'm prevented from feeling a bit closer to my future through my hands-on engagements when it gets unbearable. 

Today, I was driving home from work midday along a neighborhood road doing the speed limit.   A couple of young men in a truck were behind me and tailgating.  That in itself wasn't bothering me as I would be home in a few minutes.  Suddenly, a covey of Quail were crossing the road and I braked and turned toward the shoulder so I wouldn't hit them.  The men were incensed - waving their arms out their window, yelling, flipping me off and as they drove by me to pass yelled loud obscenities.  I just sank.  I really long to live in a small town where there is accountability, and therefore community.  I thought the High Desert would be a tight community, but people stay to themselves and at almost 10,000 people, there is really no accountability or closeness.  Too big for me.  Another stab in the heart and Barnheart got greater. 

So, it's a day of desert doldrums.  I'll take in what I can and listen to the emotional messages and hopefully use them to propel me forward toward my dream.  Although a day of frustration and discontent, I feel every discomfort is a message to be used towards growth.  My dream will come true.  And, it's days like this that solidify my quest.  Hopefully, tomorrow I'll get the chicken coop painted.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dangers of Commercial Dog Food

About 7 years ago when I lived in San Diego, a neighbor woman and I would sometimes walk our dogs together at night.  She was older and I strangely and specifically remember her telling me that when she grew up on her family farm as a child, dogs lived considerably longer than they do now and they were fed table scraps.  Commercial dog food was not even a consideration for this woman's family.  A little less than a year ago, I lost my beloved Pug Carlisle to liver cancer and he was just shy of being 8 years old.  I'm convinced that I unknowingly helped to slowly kill him by feeding him commercial dog food.

How did we become convinced that we need to feed or dogs this stuff anyway?  For centuries they have done fine without it.  The household dog's nutritional needs have changed very little over time and they share a 99% genetic likeness to the wolf which eats a raw and varied diet. 

First off, most commercial dog foods are made of waste from animals that are not able to be sold for human consumption.  "Meat by-products" include bones, blood, ligaments, intestines, udders, lungs, hair, tails, spinal cords, feet and any tumors, cancers or disease that were present.  Also included are the "4 D's".  4D stands for animals which were dead, dying, diseased and disabled prior to reaching the rendering plant.  This "waste" is then heated up to extremely high temperatures, the fat is skimmed off and the product is compressed into the tidy little kibbles you find in the bag.  Not only is the initial raw product not healthy, but what nutrition was present largely degrades due to the high temperature in which it is processed.  Antibiotics and growth hormones are not destroyed in the heating process.

Even if you are purchasing a higher quality dog food that does not include meat by-products, it is still not healthy as it is heated to the same temperature and ingredients that have been known to be toxic to humans do not have to be labeled for dog food.  You still end up with a highly processed, nutrient deprived food.

The best rule of thumb is to look at what an animal eats in nature and attempt to simulate that style.  A wolf, being the closest relative to a dog, eats a raw and highly varied diet.  Just as a chicken eating scraps gives a brighter yoke to an egg because of a varied and superior diet compared to the routine diet of an industrial egg laying factory farm, a dog will acquire more nutrients if given a varied diet.  By feeding a dog the same thing over and over for it's entire life, you deprive him/her of what nature intended and I think the consequence will only be poor health down the road. 

So, what should you feed?  Well, first off all, my belief is to rid ourselves of this false conception that our dogs need to eat the prepackaged "dog food" in pretty little bags.  Dog food companies are almost all owned by large corporations and since approximately 50% of animals which go to slaughter for humans can't be utilized, it was a perfect opportunity for business and we have bought it hook, line and sinker.  Ideally, a raw diet is best for dogs and basically they are omnivores.  Many folks are not comfortable with raw, and that's fine.  What about good ol' fashioned table scraps?  If it's good enough for us, why on earth isn't it good enough for them?  I prepare my dogs' food - a few day's worth at a time.  Currently they get grass fed, organic free range ground lamb from a neighbor, brown rice, whatever leftover bread I have, and often some veggies that are about to go bad.  And, they always get the leftovers.  Every meal, whatever is not eaten is put in a tupperware and they get it the next meal.  Nothing goes to waste, they love their food soooo much more and I'm confident they are healthier and it feels good not to be supporting the dog food and factory farming industry.  They are our best friends, right?  Since they don't have a choice, let's make the best choice for them.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Henhouse #3

It was a good weekend for the chicken coop!  We got all the siding up and the windows and doors cut out (people door and chicken door).  The inside is a dirt floor and it has a cinder block foundation so when the deep litter method is used, it won't rot out any wood.  also, chicken wire will be across the whole floor to prevent any critters from burrowing in.  Next, the outside has to be painted, and then the windows made functional.  Each window will swing open with hinges so they can be closed if need be in case of high wind, rain, etc.  The roof will go on last.  But, it's coming along!!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Straw Bale Gardening!

Straw bale gardening is a great way to garden for those not having much space, poor soil, or grub or gopher problems.  It's almost like container gardening, but you get to compost the container when finished and it's a pretty easy process!  You can get one, probably two years from your bale(s).  First, get your bale(s) of straw - make it wheat or oat straw and stay away from hay as it has too many seeds and you'll have weed problems.  For about 10 days, water your bale(s) daily and keep them very wet as you're wanting to start a composting process.  It's also good to add an organic fertilizer to speed up the composting process.  Many people use ammonium nitrate, but I know organic gardeners will want to find an organic substitute.  If you're not worried about being organic, then ammonium nitrate is the best thing to use during this 10 day stage of preparing the bale(s).  Composting won't really kick in for a while down the road, but you don't want to wait too long and introduce new plants to a hot compost mix.  Next, separate the straw where you want to plant your plants, add composting soil in these places to create a top dressing, and make your garden!  You can plant just about anything in your straw bale garden - annual vegetables, herbs, and flowers and get quite creative.  Tomatoes are good but best to let them hang and grow over the sides as staking can be difficult in the bale.  Corn and okra are not a good idea either as they are a bit top heavy for the bale.  About every week or two it's a good idea to supplement the bale(s) some organic feed or worm tea.  After a year or two when it's time for a new bale, the old bale makes wonderful compost - nothing goes to waste here.  Straw bales aren't very expensive and are sometimes found on Craigslist for free.  By the time you added up the costs of a container and bought soil, the straw bale is definitely cheaper and there is no waste.  Happy gardening!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The "Deep Litter Method" for Chickens - Easy, Healthy, Sustainable

The "deep litter method" (DLM) is a method that was used in chicken coops by families, farms and breeders for decades and decades.  It's an age-old wisdom and is nature's finest sanitary process. There's a couple of generations in between this more traditional form of keeping a coop and the modern industrialized method which is less humane and effective.  Our birds, people and the environment all benefit by using the deep litter method.  

The modern industrialized method of keeping a coop involves the use of chemicals for sanitation and frequent "cleaning".  Bedding is changed out often, and coops are sprayed down to kill germs.  This is not only time consuming, but actually less clean.

The deep litter method involves using a deep layer (6 to 12 inches) of bedding (pine shavings are most popular)  inside the coop which will become a "living entity" unto itself.  After about 3 months of your flock using this same litter, a very slow burning form of composting will begin taking place inside the coop.  Birds will deposit their droppings in the bedding and then it needs to be turned.  You can turn the bedding yourself, but it's easier and more fun for the birds if you throw some treats in there for them and watch them eagerly hunt and scratch for it while turning it for you (and them).  The droppings then fall toward the bottom and in combination with the bedding, a slow composting begins.  In essence, it works on the same principle as your backyard composter - the pine bedding is the "brown layer" and the bird droppings are the "green layer".  Turning is done by the birds.  Because the bedding is absorbent and composting is taking place, your coop will not smell.  If you ever smell ammonia, it means you don't have enough ventilation (or water is leaking in coop) or you need more bedding added.  You will only need to replace and deep clean once or twice a year!  If you clean it more frequently, ironically, it will be less "clean" as you will interrupt the composting process.  When cleaning is done in the coop, make sure you don't remove all of the old bedding.  You want to leave a layer that is actively at work so when you add the fresh bedding, the process will start working quicker. 

A second benefit of the DLM is you can take everything you shoveled out of your coop when you decide to clean it or if it gets too high and use it as compost.  Remove the old bedding from the coop when time and make a compost pile out of it in the yard for any fresh droppings that are not fully composted (chicken manure has a high nitrogen concentration and can easily burn plants if not composted).  Many people like to clean out in Spring so they can use this wonderful compost for their Spring and Summer gardens.

A third benefit to the DLM is that it's better for the birds' health.  Since their litter is essentially alive while composting, the birds have a constant source of vitamin B12 which is created through bacterial fermentation.  So, when you throw down their treats and they are turning their litter, they are also ingesting a lot of B12.  Studies done in the 1940's showed that many chickens on an incomplete diet living in a deep litter coop remained just as healthy as birds eating a complete diet in a non deep litter coop.  Also, with the DLM, chicks and chickens will be exposed to very low levels of Coccidiosis which helps build their immune system resistance to this disease.

So, with all this said, what a beautiful system!!  Feed all your kitchen scraps to your chickens, they'll do the composting work for you, give you beautiful eggs and you get to use the compost later for your garden all while keeping a cleaner coop and having healthier chickens.  Some good things should just be left alone, huh?  Nature has perfected this cycle.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Medication, Entitlement & Alienation

As a mental health therapist who has worked for years in both a hospital and private practice setting, I have seen firsthand how the dominant medical community has pushed medication as the cure for both physical and emotional ailments.  I worked 8 years in a hospital outpatient clinic with the schizophrenic population who were prescribed medication after medication while treatment teams gathered monthly  pretending these people were getting "better" while ignoring their outbursts, drooling, sleeping in groups or even hospitalizations that occurred that same month.  I guess for many working in the system it was easier than asking for a paradigm shift and having to fight the established norm.  I finally got out of the system more than a year ago.  I tried for 8 years to be a source of change.  Very rarely did those psychiatrists and county case workers ask themselves if even THEY could possibly be "well" and live well in the low grade board and cares they resided, eating the cheap, processed, nutrient deficient foods they ate, and whether one can rise above the lowest common denominator in one's environment when that denominator is often chaos, uncertainty and even fear.  It's a no brainer.  Or, at least it seemed clear as day to me.

Sadly, this approach is not limited to the severely mentally ill.  Just turn your TV on.  How many commercials are pushing a medication for whatever old or newly defined disorder they say you're living with?  What IS dis-ease?  Much, much more than we are being told, but I don't know how many are asking.  As a consequence, I think we are living in an increasingly short sighted, entitled and alienated society.  When you see your doctor, how often does he or she ask about your happiness?  Your values?  If your actions are aligning with your purpose and meaning in life?  If you even FEEL purpose and meaning in your life and how you've come to define that? Rarely does a medical professional approach health from a biological-psychological-sociological-spiritual perspective.  Instead, the body is a machine functioning in a vacuum, and consequently, so too are the emotional and spiritual systems.

My strong belief is that the more we become distanced and estranged from the sources which fuel our lives, the more alienated, diseased and depressed a culture we will become.  How many of us see a vegetable from seed to plate?  An animal from birth to meal?  A home from tree to structure?  A neighbor or friend from child to elder?  A partner or spouse from infatuation through difference to a deep negotiating love?  Instead, our culture largely operates from the premise of stimulation, pleasure and service to self.  And we want things FAST. We want to feel good.  I'm often reminded how Martin Buber at length discoursed on the difference between the "I-it" relationship (how can this thing serve me) and the "I-Thou" relationship (regarding the "other" whether person, or animal or creation as having dignity in itself, and extending respect and creating exchange through relationship with regard).  I'm sad for our culture, but I have hope.  My hope is that we can somehow slow down and see the "Thou" in each other and creation, thereby creating a more intentional relationship serving not just ourselves, but relationship itself.  I hope we can ask the big questions, and enough of us will create strong, supportive communities that will withstand the fads and financing that blow past us.  I hope we can get to know each other, what we eat, and how we live from beginning to end with focus, concern and true regard.  I hope we are willing to work hard for self and other, believe in something past the immediate and discover the internal reward which results.  This is not a philosophy of economics, but an economy of spirituality that can never run dry.  Healing is going to take a lot more than a pill.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Summer in the Desert

Wow, we got slammed today and it's the first week of June.  It reached 100 degrees here in the high desert.  Two weeks ago I was wearing a jacket and it snowed up the mountain.  Unbelievable.  I covered the raised bed garden with shade cloth so felt good about that.  I have heirloom tomatoes, hot peppers, watermelon and bell pepper.  Outside the raised bed I have okra and strawberries and they seem to be doing well.  Planted the okra from seeds and they are quickly growing new leaves.  Summer is tough here.  Everything appears to either die or go away.  It can be lonely.  People go inside, animals find places to cool and the landscape is brown, dry and dusty and waiting for future rain to show itself.  You don't feel much life.  It's hard to keep your energy going as you just slow down.  I try and remember the people who I imagine homesteaded my current home in the 1950's.  They didn't even have electricity or cooling.  They did OK.  So, I get out there and keep working on that chicken coop!  But, it's hard to not imagine the greenery I am going to eventually see in Arkansas.  Green always cools and brings a little relief.  I am trying to grow as much green as I can even though that's working against the nature of this desert space.  It helps buffer the relentless heat of the summer.  I am grateful to be here, though.  Grateful I have my own place and a large area of land and the opportunity to try...