Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Storm Cookery

A pot o beans

I admit it, this is one of those contrived blogposts, and you know, I think we've all learned something here. 

But there really was a big winter storm here in Olympia last week. I blathered in truly blogallistic style elsewhere, but here, I want to real it back in. Like, how to feed the 'stead after icy branches bring down the electric grid. There are those in the secret backroom of the Chamber of Commerce who scream for the pre-emptive beheading of all those trees who would terrorize Americans by attacking the consumerist infrastructure, but wiser heads prevail. Meanwhile, I just adapt.

Fortunately, I have a primitive fireplace. No wood stove, not even an insert; there was a grate once, but I threw it out. Just the flueless firebox (within a magnificent heatilator, to be sure). Wood goes in, heat flows out(and not all of it up the chimney). 

And when the wires go down and the stove strikes in sympathy (or sometimes, when I just feel like it), I cook in that there fireplace. 

Step one: burn through a half dozen logs, heat up the big chunk of heat-sucking concrete underneath, and get a nice batch of coals going. Put a couple of bricks in one side of the fireplace, to support the grill later on; I start herding logs to the left, and coals to the right, where they can give me nice steady heat. Flames are good for cooking marshmellows or quick sterilization of the sausage that the dog licked, but that's about it.

When there's a solid layer of ember reaching nearly up to the top of the bricks, put on the grill. Not that you have to grill anything. This time, I heated up soup one time, and beans another, in a heavy aluminum pot. As long as you are willing to stir it often enough, half the pan can sit on the brick while the rest is over the fire. That way, there's space to grill something, because you know you want to, and anyway, the electricity's out, so you may as well use some of that stuff in your no-longer-freezer. 

Foil is your friend as well. Packets of just about anything can be heated or cooked in foil, then tucked into whatever space you have left, off the grill and even in the coals or ash. I'm not much into skewery, but if you are tight on space or cooking stuff on sticks is your thing, there's the whole yakitori/kebab world of food waiting to be held over the fire.

Whatever techniques the fireplace chef brings to bear, vigilance is a must. A bed of coals is not uniformly hot, so pots must be stirred and packets or grillables rotated and flipped to avoid ending up with a half-charred half-raw abomination. And because the fire is more a distraction than a source of light, a good flashlight is key to keeping watch, because trying to eye golden brown perfection in a hot sooty cave is not as easy as you imagine.

On the invisible handle is an even more invisible hand-print.

Then there's the issue of injury. It's effing hot in there. Making espresso in one of those little Italian rigs last week, I grabbed the plastic handle which, as I predicted, would not conduct heat from the metal pot, but which, as I was stupid enough to forget, can still get hot when it's sitting near a fire. The burn was not too bad, but it took most of the day for me to finally be rid of the melted plastic stuck to my palm. Oven mitts help, but you still have to move quickly lest they burst into flame. So yeah, hot, flamey,...be careful.

Otherwise, it's just a matter of managing several flows. The flow of air through the fire side, keeping flames licking wood and birthing coals. The flow of coals from fire side to cook side, replenishing those that burn out (half-cooked meals suck). The flow of which food first, of flipping, of stirring. The flow of kindling to blaze to embers to slumber.

It was less than 48 hours without power, but we ate hot food, and we ate not badly, considering my limited talent. Basics like black beans, potatoes, and canned soup, but also impromptu pie (spiced apples wrapped in pie crust and grilled on foil). Grilled brats and skewered veggie sausage. And of course, marshmellows. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

There Used to be an 'Awa Patch Here

This is where I gardened for years. Before this glaring repair of the big wall that holds up Iolani Avenue wiped it out. In fact, that darker part behind the Mini, you see that? That's the old new wall, that went up years after I first started building terraces and composting, and in a minute I'll tell you something about what's on it.

But in the meantime, imagine it back in the 90's, gardens where there is now an impervious apron, and at the end of that, a big old mango, recently rejuvenated by some nut climbing around with a big Swedish chainsaw. The same guy planted a hala tree that grew fast and huge, but that's gone now, along with the bananas and cane clumps, ti-leaf. Kalo and `uala in the sun, mulched by maia, ko, and ki.

On two terraces heading up from the mango, more than a dozen `awa plants went from cuttings in pots to being old enough to go to first grade if their roots weren't so deep and happy in the Puowaina cinder, so well moist cheap city water. 'Awa is kava is yanqona is Piper methysticum, a relative of black pepper whose roots are pounded and mixed with water to make a drink that relaxes without dulling the senses. It has practical and ritual uses: for relaxing muscles tired from digging and stacking stone, for sharing over stories with the Tongan and Fijian guys at the garden, and once for presentation of an entire plant to an elder anthropologist being honored by the Rotuman community. 

I go on, because the 'awa patch was something I was proud of. In soil that had begun as parched and lifeless cinder, compost and a soaker hose gave it a black and worm-rich foothold on terraces that would have fit right in at many of the archaeological sites I'd worked in. Having a garden with `awa and all its Polynesian companions in the middle of Honolulu was satisfying, it felt like a place of refuge (if not a real pu`uhonua) from the concrete jungle. Growing the plants for years--not only resisting the urge for an early harvest, but somehow managing not to get ripped off--was an accomplishment, and yielded some fine quality root, not to mention cuttings that became many more plants. 

The 'awa was just part of the garden, though. Eventually, I had maybe a thousand square feet of space, lush with descendants of the plants Polynesians thought enough of to transport across the Pacific in canoes. It was a lab, testing varieties (60+ going at any given time), experimenting with planting schemes and horticultural techniques gleaned from the many published and archival accounts of traditional gardening in the islands. It was, as I said, an island of peace and green in the midst of a large hot city, a place I took my daughter to play while I worked, and to share meals of mangoes, bananas, and cook-out chicken. It was, by the time I'd gardened there for a decade and had to leave, a place that had transformed from barren to brimming with life.
When I started, in 1991, the big wall had partially collapsed. It had been built decades earlier from the local stone, part of Puowaina (aka Punchbowl), which was beautiful and interesting, but also pretty weak and crumbly, not suited to holding up a heavily used road. The community garden there was officially closed, but an old local Chinese woman still slipped in and tended her plot, inviting me to do the same. So I took rubble from the big wall and made terraces in the hilly northwest corner. 

After a couple of years, the city fixed the collapsed part of the wall, replacing the cut Puowaina rock with massive boulders. It happened while I was away doing fieldwork somewhere, and they did a little damage, but I rebuilt and replanted. The garden officially re-opened, and I struck a deal with the city that I would keep my large, irregular plot, and they could carved it up when I left. In the meantime, I enjoyed a run as the 'president' of the garden, having the occasional meeting in which we'd all share food and maybe resolve one of the inevitable minor disputes and agree that we were autonomous from the city, all of whose other community gardens were sad little grids, none of the terraced hills or Chinese havens or Korean restaurant feeders or Tongan subsistence plots that made our place special. We broke the rules against big plots, against bananas and trees, against fires, and so on, and were very happy.

Last time I visited was at least 4 or 5 years ago, and of course it didn't seem the same. The `awa was gone, replaced by spindly cassava, one of the terraces pulled down in the process. One of my old banana clumps clung to life, having eaten all the compost and not been fed again. It was sad, but still better than when I'd first peered over the wall.
I don't know exactly when they fixed the wall again. The satellite view claims to be from 2011, and the concrete looks fresh. The devastation is clear. Gone is the mango; only a common mango, but it had been the anchor for the terraces, the shade for young plants and the girl I trained to recognize and track down the thunk of a ripe one dropping the mulch. Gone is the hala, whose roots were a playground, whose leaves grew long and clear and would have been excellent for weaving. Gone are the terraces: the lower garden, the plant nursery, the cookout and play area, the highest one (above which was 'natural' ground with native plants). Gone is the topsoil that took years to grow. 

What remains? Maybe a bit of terrace, perhaps the stone adze I found and built into the first terrace, and probably some artifact dropped by me or my kid. Some tenacious root or shoot, I hope, propagating itself as an act of defiance against the machines and concrete. One thing I am pretty sure is still there is on the old new wall. I carved some petroglyphs into it, something I'd never have done on a natural boulder, where spirits may still live and take offense, but which seemed alright adornment for roadkill rock. There was a giant lizard head, it's forked tongue licking it's eye the way they do. Also, an owl, a recognition of the animal associated with that place. Maybe some other stuff, too. Someday I'll check. If I live long enough, I'll come back when I am 80 and the petroglyphs are old enough to be recorded as historic.

In the meantime, I hope the process of renewal starts again. That somebody will peer over the wall and again feel the surprise and joy of finding a garden in the city. Maybe there's enough rubble for them to build some new terraces. Maybe as they dig, the new gardeners will find that trowel I lost, or a toy my daughter stashed in the hala roots, or a buried organic layer still willing to grow something. Maybe somebody will find a way to make that concrete slab below the wall produce something. 

I hope so.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Furniture Foraging for Ages

Foraged Table and Chairs.

I spent less than $1,000 to furnish a household for a family of four. Not spending money has been a necessity, a sport, and maybe an obsession of mine ever since I was a kid. Populating my various abodes with furniture that is used, found, and home-made has been a major behavior as a result. It's also more environmentally friendly than buying new furniture, and it helps the domestic economy more than purchasing something new from China or Sweden. When Messrs Jackson, Hamilton and Lincoln conspire to ransom themselves for a table, I'm happy having filled a need and the seller is pleased to have 35 bucks in her pocket.

The thrill of a score cannot sustain you for years, though, and furniture foraging requires patience, maybe even Buddhist detachment or archaeological sense of time. If the proverbial rich uncle drops a load of cash on you, I suppose you could hit the estate sales and thrift stores and be furnished in quick order, but let's say it ain't so. 
Like for instance, maybe you live in Olympia, on the frayed southern fringe of Pugetopolis, where yard sale fodder has only been piling up for a couple of generations (am I having a fond memory of Virginia, and it's 400 years of accumulated goods? egad). A place where things from the '70s count as antiques, and yard sales regularly present those free FTD vases as things to be paid for. With the discipline to slog out in all weather and rummage through every corner, you'll eventually find what you want, but you cannot expect to run out one weekend and acquire a house-load--or even an apartment-full--of furniture and housewares that have any sense of cohesiveness. 

Which is fine. Get what you need when you need it, as cheap as you can. Then sit back in your naugahyde chaise and wait til something more perfect reveals itself. Refinish or paint that crappy dresser in the meantime, because chances are you'll be able to sell it for what you paid (more, if you are good at spotting the diamond in the rough, or at turning elbow grease into a fine polish). The game becomes trading up, getting the basely functional placeholder while keeping an eye out for the sublime. This is maybe the one area of my life in which I am a relentless capitalist. Get hold of some abused furniture, fix it up, and sell it in a more profitable market (sometimes all you have to do is take your meatspace find to a major metropolitan craigslist). 

Whether you want to make a quick score or ensconce yourself in the finest outfittery, the greatest potential is in getting stuff for free. The housemates too lazy to take all their stuff. The free thing set out by the road (do I need to tell you that upholstered furniture does not count? in the NW, such stuff is worse than junk, it is a mold bomb, substrate for all manner of malady modalities). Sometimes, what you have to work with don't offer much potential for rescue, and you may be that last person squeezing  use from something headed to the landfill (or, if it's wood, the fireplace), but there is no shame in that. You may take solace in having kept something out of the trash for another year, amortizing its carbon footprint that much further.

Other times, you can turn junk into an antique, hand-me-downs into heirlooms. The profit goes into something more suited to your needs. 

But it ain't all about trading up. Sometimes the trash-to-treasure progression is a closed loop, furniture alchemy wholly within your domicile. This is how nearly two decades of keeping eyes peeled and elbows greased resulted in this all-oak office: desk, swivel chair, book-case and drafting table all of rich mid-century Quercusian glory. Looks like it was born together, but instead cobbled itself from broken homes spanning a quarter of the globe. Or, in the dining room, a table reconstructed from a cannibalized dinette and an intended but ne'er-finished desk-top, paired with mixed 5-dollar chairs rendered magically matching through judicious sawing and some cans of black spray-paint--people think it is a Swedish modern set.

Then there's the spotting of things being passed along. As the elders pass, so becomes available their stuff; sounds crass, but any worse than letting grandma's stuff being hauled off by a stranger, maybe in a dumpster? Be a decent person, and karma may reward you with furniture and gear from people you are not even related to. My memory is far from flawless, but I think that this is where most of the couches in my life have come from. 

So too should you pass things along. Nice as it is to pull treasure from the waste-stream, it is nicer still to toss it back into the flow so some kid coming up can catch something too. Sold, bequeathed, or given to friend or stranger, passing along the old chair or shelves keeps them out of the garbage. The energy invested in manufacture is stretched that much further. The good karma keeps flowing, the greenstead gains life.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

To Begin With

To begin with, there was this. Actually, not quite this, since the shot you see here is from 2009. To begin with, there was about a quarter acre with a house, a couple of driveways, and a fenced back yard. 

That was in early 2008, when I moved into this corner of Olympia. Since then, I've been digging, planting, and composting my way toward something a little different. This blog is where I'll try to write what I did before I forget it all. 

There are a lot of blogs like this, with the general theme of "urban homesteading," and I'll admit that this one's title is an oblique nod to that movement. But it's also an uncomfortable sidling away from the word "homestead," which is bandied about with little awareness of its history. In the US, many fine people claimed homesteads, but various homesteading acts were gamed by crooks and robber barons to transfer public lands into corporate hands. Worse yet, homesteading was a primary mechanism by which native people were chased off lands they'd known since time immemorial. In many cases, it was a foregone conclusion that the homestead would fail (you cannot have a viable 160-acre wheat farm), but it was a convenient way to get a piece of earth into the title records and a fenceline. If and when we reverse the polarity and allow citizens to homestead corporate property, then I'm all for it.

But in the meantime, I will greenstead, on a property of my choosing and purchasing. To greenstead is to establish a root-hold for a more environmentally friendly and conscious habitation than what greeted me in 2008. If I have the time and money, the process will include things like solar power and a graywater system, but in the meantime it amounts to simpler and more literally green actions like growing food, planting native species (plus maintaining some habitat for the critters), and tearing out driveway. I'll never end up with a self-sustainable homestead, but I'll leave this place healthier than how I found it.

How I found it to begin with was not all that bad. A typical low-slung late-1970s ranch house. No diesel stench or other contamination indication. No asbestos or lead paint or vinyl siding. A 1600 square foot house adequate for a family or four (and to be honest, a lot more by any other than American standards) with everything powered by electricity. 

Unfortunately, there were also a couple of driveways and a sidewalk. The main drive and the sidewalk were poured concrete, impervious; a good-sized chunk of the property created runoff and could not support crops. The previous owner had exacerbated this by dumping multiple truckloads of crushed gravel along one end of the property, creating a huge driveway for an RV. As I would soon learn, this layer was up to a foot thick and was quite compacted, creating more runoff and dead ground.

In the front yard, which slopes down toward the house from the gravel shoulder of the road, there was weedy grass, which I was glad to see. Maximum sun (other than the shade-zone of the hedge forming the south boundary), a tabula rasa. In back, a half dozen or so alders, a cherry, and a big-leaf maple formed a mature clump of summer shade, beneath which a hastily mulched area was clearly going feral. (Unfortunately, beneath the mulch was plastic sheeting, an ineffective attempt at weed control that has proved to be a pain in the ass.) The entire neighborhood has sandy soil, easy to dig and great for root crops, but also not very rich in organics, and not good at holding moisture. Here and there were scarcely buried fir stumps (and a big maple stump too, now that I think of it), as well as ground that had been stripped of its topsoil, compacted by trucks, and used to dump everything from construction debris to blue aquarium rocks to a Tab can

To begin with, I also had very little knowledge to work with. I've gardened for years, but in tropical and subtropical climes, nothing like the Pacific Northwest. Same goes for my knowledge of the native flora. Fortunately, there are books and websites, and I am used to sniffing out ethnobotanical and gardening info, and I'm willing to experiment and observe. Now, four years later, I may not be an expert, but I've learned a lot. 

So, what began as one of many eclectic directions at Mojourner Truth (whence will come relevant re-postings for readers here) is yet another blogject of its own.