Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wild Raspberries

The backs of my hands and the insides of my arms up way past the elbow are currently rough to the touch.  Look closely, and you can see the faint red cross-hatching left from my forays into a patch of black raspberries behind our new-to-us house.

I keep finding myself running my hands lightly over my raspberry scars.  It may sound odd, but they're a source of no small satisfaction to me.  They don't hurt much, and they remind me of something that is becoming precious to me: a connection not just with the land our house sits on, but with being alive and in my body in a way that last year, living downtown in a small city, I was not.

The house, the land, the land-love, and the plastic fast... and now this, my raspberry scars, are all connected.  Let me tell you how.

Last year, we bought this house, a hundred and fifty (or so--the records are lost) former farmhouse on a little less than an acre of land.  The house is long on "character"--floors that slope gently or not-so-gently, a 1970's era kitchen, and funky 1950's tile (made, ironically enough, from plastic) in the bathroom, as well as a wonderful curving staircase, dormer windows, and a slate roof.  There's a busy, noisy highway out front--not a selling point, but probably the reason we were able to afford the house to begin with--and acres and acres of woods out back.

We love this house.  For the first time since I was a girl in the house I grew up in, I feel at home.

And last summer, when we were waiting for the closing and our move-in date, we would sometimes come and visit the house, walk in the woods, and dream.  And on one of those visits, we found a tiny handful of black raspberries on the very bush I'm picking from now.

Before we even moved into our house, it was feeding us.

Moving into a house again that had woods behind it has reminded me of how much I care about woods, the land, the planet.  Hiking the paths in those woods, last year and this year, took a concern for the earth that was sometimes a thing of my brain more than my body, and made it alive and visceral for me in new ways.  It made me feel, in my body, my love and my concern for this earth of ours... And though I have been making slow alterations in how I live my life for many years now, trying to live more ecologically, connecting again to a piece of land has given those changes a sense of urgency that's hard to explain.

The land feeds us; we honor the land; we change to live in greater balance with the land.  It's all connected.

I should also say that in the month since we began our plastic fast, I've noticed a deepening concern for all sorts of environmental change.  It's not just plastic: I find myself wanting to be aware of energy consumption overall, of food miles and what kinds of chemicals and resources are being used to grow my food, and of the eco-friendly habits of thrift and husbandry that our grandparents lived by daily.

I can hear my grandfather's voice, these days, in my inner ear.  "Turn the lights off!  We don't own Central Maine Powah!"  And if my concern is less for my electric bill than for my carbon footprint, still, Right Use of Resources ideas are becoming part of what I'm alive to, too.

And then there are the raspberries.

When we moved in, our neighbor--a magnificent gardner, who kept up the perennial beds here after the old man who planted them had died--counseled us to uproot the raspberries that had invaded here and there around the yard.  Having eaten the fruit of that Other World, however, we resisted.  And this year, for whatever reason, there has been such a heavy crop of black raspberries that it is all I can do to keep up with them.

Twice a day, I go out to the yard to pick berries.  Morning and evening, I pick about a pint of berries each time I venture out.  Thus far, I have put up eight jars of jam and made an enormous black raspberry cobbler, that we've been eating for desserts all week.  I've got about enough picked again at this point to either freeze a batch, or can them in syrup, or perhaps make jam again.

In another few days, perhaps I will bake a pie, or some muffins.

I have all these cravings, not just to eat the berries, but not to eat commercially-produced foods; not just to enjoy them now, but to eat primarily the foods that are in season or that I have put up myself, when winter rolls around again.

I did not set out to become a localvore, but simply to reduce my use of plastics.  But all of this is part of a spiritual practice for me, and I've heard it said, follow the Light you've been given, and more will be given you.  Following any spiritual discipline gladly and freely tends to lead to more openings, more Light, and I think that's happening.

And there are my teachers: the black raspberries... and the spiders lurking in the bushes, the birds quarreling with me for picking the sweet berries they wanted themselves, my dogs with their open, smiling mouths as I pick the fruit, the sweat on my forehead and the scratches on my arms.

I'm alive when I pick wild raspberries.  I'm smiling, I'm physical, and I'm real.  It is not just the fruit as I eat it that is the reward, but the whole process of being outside, a little uncomfortable but looking forward to the results of my work.

People who buy fruit in little plastic coffins, refrigerated in a big box grocery store not only pay an incredible amount of money--each of my forays into the berry patch would cost me $8.00 in a grocery store--but they bring home nothing but the berries.  No dodging of thorns, no sun-squint or sweat or interaction with the earth.  It is as if they bring home only the ghost of their food.

We've done so much, we humans, to make our lives convenient, painless, and easy.  But it turns out, take away the effort, take away the sweat and the thorns and the mosquitoes altogether, and you may lose something you didn't even know was there.

I'm not saying that I like scratches on my arms for their own sake.  But I think that a willingness to sweat, to get dirty, to plan ahead and not count on fresh strawberries in January are going to be part of what we have to do to live kindly toward the earth.  And it turns out, this kind of living is not without rewards.  No kidding--a life lived hermetically sealed in plastic is not as joyful as one with thorns alongside the sweets.

None of the concerns I am writing about, from thrift to time spent outside, are totally new or totally alien to me.  But living them, together with an effort to be true to the leading I have had, that plastic use is not treating the planet as though She mattered, is weaving together all these concerns in a way that is very nearly as satisfying as the time I am spending harvesting our wild raspberries.

I am eager to see where this practice is going to lead.

Black Raspberries in Fruit by Ken Golding, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Clamshell berry package, Talkin' Trash, Montgomery County Maryland recycling blog.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Catsup, Ketchup, Cat's Sup.

OK, more like Peter's actually.

Peter is the real catsup fan in the house.  I like it on the really skinny, bad-for-you kind of french fries that I shouldn't be eating anyway, but Peter likes it on lots of things.

And we ran out of our last pre-plastic fast bottle a week before last--just at the start of cookout season.  What fun is a portobello burger with no catsup?  Alas, I am no longer able to find it locally in a glass container.

Happily, there are lots of recipes online.  Here's the one I used... though I chose it mostly from convenience, because it used (or I felt comfortable substituting) ingredients I already had on hand.  It was very easy to make, and I understand that some cooks, who really like to save money, make an even simpler version than this, with nothing but tomato, water, vinegar, salt and sugar.

Cat's Catsup

1 can of tomato paste (I chose organic)
1/4 cup apple juice
1/4 cup sugar
1 T. molasses
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. good quality curry powder
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. cloves
2 T. vinegar

Mix together ingredients.  Adjust liquid and/or vinegar as needed for your preferred taste/consistency.


And for my next trick?  I'm thinking of trying to make some black raspberry jam.  Not that it will save plastic, exactly, but there's this one bush that's producing cup after cup of them.  And preserving and eating food from our own back yard... well, I certainly can't complain about the food miles!

Photo credit: Yohan euan 04, at "Ketchup"  at World News

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Week Three Plastic Tally and the Problem of Stealth Plastic

Did you miss us?  My last day of school was yesterday; Peter's was two days before that.  Every year, it's the same thing: achingly hard work to begin and end the school year, and achingly hard work to end it.  And every year, I forget just how hard it's going to be.

Maybe that's for the best.  I don't know.

In any case, tired or not, we did our weekly weigh-in and photograph on Sunday, as usual.  This week was a bit discouraging: 14 oz.  That's because we did a bit more unpacking--we moved last summer, but (did I mention the part where teaching school is a lot of work?) we're still emptying out and breaking down boxes, especially of the last minute stuff.

One box of last minute stuff contained a very old pair of my flip-flops.  Needless to say, I am not in the market to buy more of them, so I was very happy to find these... until I tried to put them on.  The plastic, brittle with age, simply snapped, and 8 oz. of non-recyclable plastic joined the pile for this week.

Other items of note this week: if you look closely, you can see the brown rectangle of a plastic frame from the lid on a half-gallon of ice cream.

Why do they feel the need to package ice cream in so much plastic these days?  Half the brands have plastic film that goes over the ice cream; the other half seem to have these stupid little plastic rims for removable lids.  We'll be looking for ice cream that does not come in plastic packaging... though, meanwhile, we had some left over from before the beginning of our Plastic fast this June, and we finished it off this week.

A lot of the light little bags are left over from before the fast, too... though some are a category of plastic I'm starting to think of as "stealth plastic"--where someone packages a snack food in paper or something meant to look like paper, generally in keeping with some implication that the food is "all natural" or old fashioned somehow.

The packaging turns out to be a cheat, is the bottom line.  I've seen cheese packaged in plastic that had been printed to look like waxed paper, for instance!  More commonly, once you get inside the paper package, there's a shiny silver mylar wrapper.  It's not foil--it's plastic.


I've taken to peeling away the paper on these, and adding them to the pile.  Needless to say, I find this quite annoying, and I avoid such products whenever I find them.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week 2 Plastic Tally: 6 oz, Divide by Two

So I was expecting a horrible result for the plastic weigh-in this week, partly because my husband Peter has joined me in the no-plastics challenge, and he bought bookshelves this week... that had been padded, in their boxes, with styrofoam.

It is amazing how much volume plastic has for its mass, though.  Our combined total for the week was still 6 oz.

And, to make the definitions clearer:
Last week, I was not counting Peter as a full partner in this challenge--though he has modified his habits some, too.  Last week, I did count whatever plastic packaging I used and discarded cooking for both of us, but I did not have Peter save anything he created on his own.

We are now defining our plastic waste as our household waste, generated by the two of us--the ugly pile you see in the photograph is at least the product of two American consumers rather than one.

We are neither of us, however, trying to count indirect plastic.  For instance, when the local deli cut me off a half pound of cheddar cheese and wrapped it in waxed paper for me, I did not estimate how much plastic wrapper around their ten pound block of cheese had originally wrapped the share I took home.  Nor are we counting plastic generated at our workplaces--two public schools.

We are, however, making inquiries about ways we can, just maybe, get our schools to reform a little bit next year, in terms of their plastics use.

Peter is better at this than I am.  I get very shy when it is time to ask an institution to change anything at all.  Peter?  Bold as brass.

On the other hand, I am finding that one reform leads to another, and it is already feeling very natural to simply waft down the potato chips aisle, for instance, thinking, "Nope--nothing here I can have, and nothing here I need."  And I'm finding a real pleasure in figuring out little local places I can get produce, free of plastic packaging.  We're eating more seasonally and more locally, and I'm discovering that it's more fun.

Only eight more days of school left.  Then I can really take stock, and see what lifestyle reforms we can put in place during the long, fertile days of summer.

See you next week!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Local Food and Mysteries Solved

This week, I thinned out the volunteer saplings that had sprouted up amid the groundcover around the stump of an old white pine. We would never have taken down that pine tree ourselves, but by the time we bought the house, the damage had been done.

The downside to that has been a loss of a wonderful visual screen between the lawn and our busy street.

The upside is planting a mini-orchard of semi-dwarf apples along the front of the property, to eventually serve the same role... and maybe provide us with some truly local produce. (Zero food-miles is a pretty environmentally nice number.)

But what to do with the island of groundcover in the middle of it all has been something of a question. I don't much feel like trying to eliminate the old tree roots--that was an enormous tree. I've thought about planting some rosa rugosa to grow over the old stump, and eventually fill up the island. But in the meantime, the volunteer saplings kept growing: a clump of swamp maples, and something I could not identify.

Yesterday, I thinned out the saplings to just the biggest of the maples and the tallest and healthiest looking of the unidentifiable trees. Today I finally I.D.'ed the mystery sapling: it is an American elder, an elderberry tree.

In some ways, this is ideal. I had only kept the saplings around as backup insurance, in case the apple trees do not flourish, so I'll have something started in that spot. But now I know it's an elderberry, I'll probably take out the swamp maple, but let the elder remain.

The elderberry is considered either a tall bush or a small tree, likely to grow to not much higher than the semi-dwarf trees around it. And, like the apples, it produces food: elderberries are edible when cooked, and can be made into jellies or wine. How cool is that?

They're messy trees, but this one is surrounded by a girdle of mixed groundcover plants.

I'm feeling pretty happy about this discovery, needless to say.

Meanwhile, Peter and I have been managing to eat more locally already, though less spectacularly. One way of dealing with the problem of produce bags has been to buy local vegetables from small local stores, and often, these aren't wrapped in plastic. We've been eating a lot of asparagus, which the Valley is known for this time of year. Also on the menu have been local strawberries, and organic (non-local) fresh broccoli and lettuce. It has all been quite tasty.

Oh! And I've solved the cheese problem--at least partly. One food that's hard to come by without a plastic wrapper is cheese. The answer to that turns out to be our local deli counter, where I can ask them to slice off a one pound chunk of cheddar cheese, of the sort they normally slice thin for sandwiches. While it is true that it comes in a long, five to ten pound block that's wrapped in plastic before it gets to them, it's also true that they will wrap it for me in paper if I request it, and that the result is less plastic than if I bought the same cheese from the grocery store, ready-wrapped for my convenience.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Week 1 Plastic Tally

OK, so it is actually a little less than a full week; I began collecting my plastic on June 1st. However, I want to have a regular weigh-in day, and Sunday will probably work out best, so here we are.

The grand total for Week 1: 6 oz. of plastic.

I was really quite discouraged at the amount of plastic I'd accumulated in the (plastic! But not new plastic) bin for this week, until I weighed it out. Actually, I still feel apologetic, and feel the need to point out that a lot of the items in this week's collection, things like the yogurt container and hand sanitizer bottle, are from purchases from weeks or even months back. Hand sanitizer, like liquid soap generally, is something I'll be avoiding in future: I've swapped over exclusively to bar soap and powdered, which comes in cardboard (though with a little plastic measuring cup, unfortunately), with the possible exception of dishwashing detergent. Though my friend Hystery tells me borax works for washing dishes, so we'll see.

Among the pieces of plastic waste here is packing material from the scale I bought for measuring plastic waste. Guess what the scale is mostly made of? That's right...


I'm wary of the temptation to deal with this challenge, as all others, in that good old fashioned American way, by buying more stuff. I did consider alternatives to having our own scale. After all, my husband teaches science--Peter has access to all kinds of fancy measuring equipment at school. But I was hesitant to add yet another job to his already busy life. He's pretty indulgent of my quirks and passions, and, though he shares my concern for the impact of plastic on the planet, it's different for him--he's not "under a concern" as the Quaker phrase is, feeling a kind of bone-deep urgency to change our way of life.

The whole question of how spouses of people trying to follow an inconvenient cope is an interesting one. I know I've met a number of Quakers who are war tax resisters, and that's pretty tough on a spouse who doesn't feel the same intensity in their witness. Resisters' husbands and wives also face the possibility of losing their home--or the certainty of never owning one--and the impossibility of getting loans or credit, among other things. Hard to do that if you don't fully share a leading.

And then I think about people like No-Impact Man, and his wife and child, who didn't sign up for a radical witness, but had it chosen for them. That is asking an awful lot.

Not that Peter is making a fuss. He's putting aside a number of his own favorite foods and beverages, until we find plastic-free alternatives he can use. He's giving up his favorite soda, and the yogurt is really his love, not mine; I cook with it, but it's a daily indulgence for him.

Eventually, we'll get him a yogurt maker and maybe a seltzer maker, too, and have a try at recreating that favorite soda recipe of his.

All of which will also involve... plastic.

Again, I feel odd about buying tools and toys to help us beat back our habits of consumption. But everything this week has been about balancing one need or urgency against another. Nothing has felt simple.

Maybe that is why this process isn't feeling especially satisfying just yet, or like it has gotten me any closer to that Spirit that was the impetus for trying it.

Then again, maybe the answer to that is in staying up too late, wasting too much time on trivial Web surfing and computer games. There is more than one kind of plastic in my life capable of being a barrier between me and the Spirit of Life.

In any case, there you have it: Week 1. If my consumption were to hold steady at this level for a year, I'd finish the year with less than 20 lbs. of plastic waste--less than a quarter of the American average. But I doubt it will be that simple.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Environmental Mindfulness

Day Two of the No Plastics Project, and so far I'm noticing how much I have not been noticing.

First of all, to be clear, I am not, unlike Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish, even trying to get rid of the plastic that I have in my house, serving in long-term jobs. Though I suspect that plastic does pose health threats to humans, I'm almost fifty years old. I've been surrounded by the stuff most of my life, my reproduction is done, and my concern is focused on the harm done by the production of new plastic, and the disposal of old stuff. I'm fine with using the plastic I already have--in fact, it seems to me that the most ethical thing I can do with existing plastic is hang onto it, take care of it, and keep it in use as long as I can. That goes for the stuff that has contact with food, like Teflon on my pans and plastic food containers, as much as it does for the vinyl siding (I know, I know--I didn't put it on there!) on my house.

My main focus is simple--or at least, it sounds simple: eliminate all single-use plastic from my life; reduce other new plastics as much as I can.

So: no bags of potato chips, and I'll make serious efforts to get produce without plastic (for instance). But I'm going to use up the products I already have packaged in plastic, and I may wind up buying more, if it's stuff I can't find substitutions for but deem I really "need" to live my relatively ordinary middle-class American life.

I'm noticing more and more how much plastic actually (*ahem*) wraps my daily life. Despite trying to reduce my plastic use for months, having committed to doing this publicly, I now see how I am surrounded by plastic: the band aid on my finger, the wrapper around the cardboard boxes of bar soap I use, the velcro band that holds the stalks of broccoli together in the store. Is the band around the asparagus made of rubber, or plastic? The ice cream cone from the stand near my house has no plastic packaging, but the sundaes sold in the same place are sold in styrofoam. I can refuse to eat them, of course, but should I be advocating for a different bowl with the owners of the stand, or refusing to eat there entirely? Where do I begin?

With finding a way to store my waste, among other things. One thing I do not want to do: be a typical consumerist American, and go out and buy myself a new THING--some kind of perfect storage container for the plastic I'm saving and tallying. What are the odds that such a container would be made of plastic, packaged in plastic, or packed in plastic.

Same thing for a scale to weigh my plastic waste, before throwing it away or recycling it. If I go rushing off to buy myself one, even if I find one that isn't made of plastic, how environmentalist is that?

I'm becoming more aware of the thousand small consumerist decisions I make on a daily basis, and of how often I "solve problems" by buying a new, specialized tool for a job that might not even need to be framed the way it is.

There was a time when I laughed at my mother-in-law and other thrifty people for saving, washing, and reusing plastic bags. I blush to admit it, now, but it's true: it struck me as false thrift, as fussy. And as messy! I have seen for sale special drying racks, intended for the environmentalists among us, for doing just this one thing, neatly. As I remember, they were made of wood.

But does that really matter? Rather than buy yet another toy for my kitchen, more stuff on a planet overstuffed with stuff, surely I can tolerate the mess?

I dry my bags by clothes-pinning them to my dish-rack. It does look like a mess. Maybe I have to just get over that. Isn't the insistence on total neatness and total cleanliness really a kind of marketing device for cleaning tools and chemicals? Or maybe not. Our ancestors did without the tools and the toys, but I don't think they especially wanted to live in hippie squalor.

All of this can descend to a kind of navel-gazing and obsession, if I let it. That's the dark side of this attempt.

What's the up side?

Being aware of how long I am using the hot water in the shower.
Thinking a little more about clustering errands when I shop or drive anywhere.
Remembering every time I leave the computer to turn it off.

It's all small stuff. Nothing is revolutionary here. But what I'm trying for is a new way of relating to the things I, as a modern woman, live surrounded by. I think that if I can manage to be mindful of plastic, the stuff that is everywhere, and which we are supposed to buy, use up, and toss away with no thought to the consequences, it may help me to be more mindful of where my food comes from, where my energy goes... maybe even, of how much I substitute being with things for being with people and Spirit.

We'll see. For now, I fall in and out of mindfulness, and in and out of self-consciousness. Hopefully I will find both my balance and an alternative to plastic-packaged deodorant soon.

Beach image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: found at Real Oceans blog.
Bag drier sold through Amazon.com, or, better, check out this link about making your own.