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Author: Mari

Ways to Support Racial Justice in Food and Farming

As the outrage over police brutality towards Black Americans, and the discrimination and inequities facing the U.S. Black populations, has washed over this country over the last weeks, we’ve been forced to examine the system that has led to this and our own part in it.

Each of us needs to find that piece of the collective work of undoing and re-doing, breaking the old and mending what’s broken, that is ours to do.

From listening, to learning, to standing at the front lines of protest, to donating to bail funds, to working on Black voter suppression, to writing and media, and (for those of us who are white) the often very uncomfortable homework of confronting our complicity in systemic racism, our obliviousness about our own unearned advantages, and the harm caused by our well-intended micro-aggressions.

Each of us has a piece of the collective work that’s ours to do.

Since I work in farm organizing, write about local food, and most days — including on these days of grief and anger since George Floyd’s death — have my hands deep in garden soil, it seems that one of the pieces that’s mine to work on is advocating for social justice and racial equity in food, farming and gardening.

 

* * *

 

Here’s one uncomfortable truth that reveals my own privilege right off the bat: those words — food, farming, and gardening — are words that I tend to associate with good and happy things. But the story of agriculture and food in this country is, from its beginnings, a story of trauma, violence, and injustice. The very foundation of U.S. wealth was grown on stolen land by stolen people. Native peoples’ land was taken away from them; enslaved African men, women and children were forced to work in farm fields. Long after emancipation, Black Americans were systematically excluded from access to land or robbed of their lands.

The end result, as Gosia Wozniacka writes, is that “Ninety-six percent of farmland owners are white and 95 percent of U.S. producers — about 3.2 million — are white, while there are only 45,500 Black farmers. It’s a far cry from the 950,000 who worked the land in 1920.”

Look at those numbers: land ownership among Black Americans is 1/20 of what it was 100 years ago. Yet even though Black Americans don’t tend to own farm land, they do farm work. The majority of farm workers are Black and Latino; they tend to be poorly paid, treated as invisible and, ironically, are often themselves food insecure, even as they grow food for the rest of America.

And then there’s the inequitable access to healthy, nourishing foods: grocery stores offering higher-quality, healthier food options tend to be located in predominantly White communities. To mention just one aspect.

So, given that history, how do we rise up for racial justice as food lovers, farm lovers, gardeners, farmers, urban homesteaders?

What Black food and agricultural leaders are telling us to do is to first listen. Then do our homework and understand some of that history, why things are the way they are. And thirdly, support Black farmers and other Black leaders in food and agriculture.

 

food sovereignty action steps

Sooner or later, as you dig into this, you’re going to come across Leah Penniman, the farmer at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York and the author of Farming While Black. In March, I got the opportunity to participate in a brilliant and eye-opening workshop led by Penniman about ending racism in the food system. The Soul Fire Farm website has a document with about 200 food sovereignty action steps for supporting racial justice in the food and farming system. It’s a powerful document and a great place to start. Some powerful action steps from that document include:

  • Uplift Black and Brown expertise, both ancestral and current.
  • Enact reparations to POC-led projects
  • For white people: “Rather than trying to “outreach” to people of color and convince them to join your initiative, find out about existing community work that is led by people directly impacted by racism and see how you can engage.”

Also, if you’re a white farmer, check out National Young Farmers Coalition’s A Racial Equity Toolkit for farmers.

 

 

Support Black Farmers in your area

If the history of farming in this country is a wound, many Black farmers have found that farming itself can be a salve for that wound. That food sovereignty itself — being able to work with the land and grow food, against all odds — is healing.

Look at Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm, Ayanna Jones of Sankofa Village Community Garden, Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, Ron Finley “The Gangsta Gardener,” and the many urban farmers that have made Detroit famous for its urban farming: they’ve reclaimed land and, when in urban areas, made their neighborhoods healthier and safer places to live, reviving a sense of community and cooperation.

But there’s more. As Tanya Fields, the founder of Libertad Urban Farm in Bronx, New York, says:

“For us to come in and reclaim these spaces and say that we have right to have access to this land so that we can have some sort of sovereignty and autonomy, even if it’s just a handful of peppers we grew that day, couple of strawberries… The ability to say, “I grew some of my food” and say, “I have some control over what went into my body, and I made the decision as to what that was going to be” — that is radical, that is necessary.”

How to find and support Black-owned farms in your area? Check out Shoppe Black’s list of Black-owned farms and food gardens.

 

 

Support organizations fighting for racial justice in the food system

For more organizations and individuals fighting for racial justice in the food system, see here and here.

 

Support Farm Workers

As Simran Sethi writes, the Covid-19 crisis has made all too evident that farm workers and migrant laborers — a majority Black and Hispanic population — are people whom “we treat as invisible when [the system] is working and only notice when it’s not.”

How to advocate for those who feed us? Head over here to read the rest of Sethi’s thorough and powerful article on empathy towards farm workers could transform our food system.

 

Eat a “Social justice Diet”

We’ve been famously called to “vote with our fork” but, most of the time, it’s been about promoting good land stewardship by going for organic, or local, or vegan, or whatever the case may be. Too often we have omitted racial justice in the food system as something that we can move the dial on with our individual choices.

Here are some ideas.

  • Support initiatives that enable Black & Indigenous people to eat culturally appropriate, nourishing, traditional foods. One of my favorite examples is the Cafe Ohlone, mak-‘amham, in Berkeley, CA. mak-‘amham means “our food” in the Chochenyo Ohlone language and the cafe serves only traditional Ohlone foods, made with ingredients indigenous to California.
  • Ask questions about where your food came from and how it was grown. To shift policy, we need to become a food-literate society again — a society where people invest in food, take the time to prepare it and eat it, and care about the land it was grown on and the people who grew it.
  • Buy regionally and eat seasonally. It’s what Ray Levy-Uyeda calls a “social justice diet”: “If consumers and voters understand the environmental implications of what they’re purchasing and which businesses they’re supporting through their consumption, then food policy at the federal level might look different.” The industrial food system, supported by billions of dollars of federal subsidies, is a juggernaut that is degrading both human health and environmental health. Every time you buy fresh directly from a local small family farm, you are taking a little power away from that system. You have that power. Use it.

There’s so much work to be done in this realm. We don’t yet have a social justice food system, but we have to start asking: what would that look like? As my friend, food writer and butcher Meredith Leigh writes, it has to start with confronting the uncomfortable:

“We force ourselves to become accountable to the inequities that we don’t have answers for, the fact that the farm to table movement springs first and foremost from an environmentalism that did not fully include social justice. And when we begin to deal with that, we realize all the other conversations that we have been ignoring because we have had the privilege or the permission to do so.”

How to Get Started with Making Cheese

This week, I made my first-ever Parmesan cheese.

Even as I try to eat an increasingly local diet, Parmesan will probably stay on the list of the almost-sacred imported foods we’ll keep eating at my house, along with chocolate and olive oil.

But now that we’re all playing this game of “let’s see how long we can avoid going to the store,” I figured it was time to learn to make my own Parmesan. Watching the Salt Fat Acid Heat episode on Italian cuisine was an added inspiration.

I made a small wheel and it looks beautiful.

Of course — and it was hard to break the news to my family — Parmesan needs a minimum of 8 months to ripen before you eat it. So it’s not exactly a pandemic self-reliance food that will feed us tomorrow… (Although we’ll probably enjoy it very much when we pull it out next winter.)

But there are several quick and easy, instantly rewarding cheeses we can all make at home. Lemon ricotta is my go-to beginner’s cheese that’s very forgiving and almost invariably tastes amazing. Yogurt cheese is also super easy. Feta and mozzarella are good intermediate cheeses to try.

But there’s another reason, besides time, that I think any beginning cheesemaker should start with these, and not go straight to hard cheeses like Gouda or Cheddar, or “stinky cheeses” like Gorgonzola.

 

In my cheese-making classes, I like to repeat the good advice of my own first cheese-making teacher, Ruby Blume:

First learn how to make the easy beginner’s cheeses, and succeed in each of them about five times before moving on to hard cheeses. The reason is this: having a basic familiarity and ease with the fundamental processes of making cheese makes the entire process so much less stressful. The basic steps of cheese-making — heating up milk, adding cultures and rennet, cutting, cooking and draining the curds — are more or less the same in making any cheese. The more you do them, the easier they get.

Making hard cheese involves the same steps, but many, many more of them, and so it usually takes the better part of a day, if not more. If cutting up curds, or catching whey and curds in a colander without something spilling over is something you’ve never done before, it’s pretty stressful to try it when you’re already several hours into the process and still have several hours to go. Learn these basic steps with the easy cheeses until they become routine, you do them with confidence, you know exactly what tools you’re going to need… and then you can actually enjoy the process.

Because it IS really fun. You get to feel like a magician, or alchemist, watching milk go through all these transformations and achieve different textures, from shiny Jell-O like cubes to spongy, bouncy cottage-cheese like crumbs to the rubbery, yellow salted shreds after cheddaring (yes, “cheddaring” is a verb).

Most of the basic equipment required for making cheese you probably already have in your kitchen: pots, bowls, colanders, spatulas. The only other tool I consider essential is a dairy thermometer (I’ve used this floating one for years). If your recipe calls for a cheese press, you don’t need to buy one — I have a DIY wooden cheese press and it works great (instructions here).

If you’re a complete beginner, start with this basic lemon ricotta recipe. Here are some other ideas.  Check out the resources below and get inspired!

 

Cheesemaking resources:

These 3 are my go-to resources for supplies and recipes:

The Cheesemaker

Cultures for Health

New England Cheesemaking Supply Co.

 

And this is my go-to cheesemaking book:

Home Dairy with Ashley English, by Asheville local Ashley English

DIY Natural Household Cleaners

I’m probably not the only one who’s become much more conscious about cleaning my home these days.

But what to do when you run out of basic household cleaners, and are trying to avoid going to the store?

DIY eco-friendly household cleaners to the rescue!

I’ve been making my own all-purpose cleaning spray for almost a decade, and occasionally make a batch of laundry soap. But this week, out of necessity, I added a new project to my repertoire: homemade dishwasher tablets. My daughter and I made them together, and I must say they make for a great homeschooling project. We were both giddy watching our mixture bubble up and become a marshmallow-like foam — and with the most heavenly citrus scent imaginable (and you know how I love citrus).

Even though I’ve always avoided toxic commercial cleaners with unpronounceable ingredients lists, I’ve noticed that even the “eco-friendly” options in stores tend to get sustainability ratings of orange and yellow, as opposed to green. I’ve never felt great about using them. If you make your own cleaning products, you always know exactly what ingredients have been used. The ingredients are household items that you might already have at hand, such as vinegar and baking soda.

Check out the recipes below!

 

 

ALL-PURPOSE CLEANING SPRAY

I use this all-purpose spray on most surfaces. It’s effective, incredibly easy to make, and so nice-smelling that I probably clean up more than I otherwise would… Give it a try!

Get a 32 oz (about 1 liter) plastic spray bottle and fill it with 2 cups of water. Add:

  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • 1 tsp Dr. Bronner’s liquid pure castile soap
  • ¾ cup hydrogen peroxide
  • 20 drops tea tree oil
  • 20 drops essential oil (lavender or peppermint are my favorites)

 

CITRUS-SCENTED DISHWASHER TABS

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup baking soda
  • 1/3 cup Epsom salt
  • ½ cup citric acid
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 30 drops of citrus essential oil (this is what I used)
  • silicone ice cube tray

Instructions:

  1. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Squeeze the lemon juice into a cup and add the essential oil. Add the lemon juice and essential oil mix to the dry ingredients. Do this one drop at a time, because the mixture will foam up. Mix well until the mixture feels like grainy wet sand.
  2. Scoop the mix into silicone ice cube trays and let dry at least 48 hours. Store in a glass jar or other airtight container.
  3. Use one tab per dishwasher load.

DIY Laundry soap

Ingredients:

  • 1 bar (4.5 oz.) bar soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s or Fels-Naphtha
  • 14 oz. borax
  • 14 oz. Arm & Hammer washing soda

Instructions:

Grate the bar soap with a cheese grater. Add the borax and the washing soda and mix well. Store in a glass jar or other airtight container.

 

Happy cleaning!!

For the new gardener

Dear new gardener,

If you’re planting your first edible garden this spring — first of all, thank you for taking this step. You’re taking responsibility for your needs and for your family’s needs. You’re taking responsibility for your food and how it’s grown, and that’s incredibly powerful in today’s world.

And you’re not alone. You’re joining hands with others who are also stepping up to become stewards of our degraded lands and our broken food system. People everywhere are picking up shovels and starting new gardens, or expanding existing ones. I see this on my daily walks in my neighborhood: people out in their yards, new raised bed boxes where there weren’t any before, vegetable seeds being sold out in stores (when was the last time that happened?). It’s one of the more life-affirming and empowering responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

So first of all, thank you for being a part of this movement.

 

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

— Audrey Hepburn

 

At the same time, starting out gardening can feel overwhelming. “Where do I start? There’s so much information out there and so much I don’t know. I can’t tell a cucumber seedling from a pepper seedling. I don’t know the Latin names of vegetables.”

I know all too well how that feels. I wasn’t always a gardener. I didn’t always know how to do this.

I now grow food on a third-acre lot. But this is where I started, about 10 years ago:

 

And because I remember being a new gardener, I know that gardening absolutely can be learned.

If you want practical tips, like finding planting calendars or choosing vegetables that grow fast or provide maximum calories, scroll to the bottom of this post. But what I want to offer first is some advice about the beginning gardener’s mindset. For along with good compost and non-GMO seeds, you also need some patience, self-compassion, and a good dose of humor.

 

It takes time, and that’s okay.

When I planted the first garden of my adult life — patio containers for some salad greens and herbs — I read in one of my gardening books that gardening involves a steep learning curve. To be precise, it said, it takes 10 years to learn how to garden. You can’t speed-date nature. You learn simply by experience, by making mistakes. There will always be a new unexpected challenge each year: a summer of nothing but rain, late frosts, a new pest, a new crop.

I remember despairing. Ten years! That’s too long! (Patience was not one of my virtues then and still isn’t.) I felt embarrassed about all that I didn’t know, I felt that I should be further along, and yes, I was wondering about all those Latin names.

But now that I’ve been gardening almost a decade, I can say that confidence in gardening really comes simply from doing it over and over again, year after year. You make mistakes and learn from them. But. It. Is. All. Worth. It. That feeling when you make your first meal entirely from homegrown ingredients, or grow your first perfect artichoke or braid of garlic — you can’t buy that in a grocery store produce aisle. In fact, a lot of the food you will go on to grow will also be food that you simply cannot buy in a grocery store.

Whether this is your Year 1 of gardening, or Year 10, there’s only one way to become a better gardener: to garden today, and the next day, and the day after that.

 

Start small.

You don’t need to have a lot of land to garden. You don’t need to own land to garden. And no, you don’t need to plant a jaw-dropping food forest your first year.

Start with some potted herbs, or salad greens on the windowsill. If you do have a backyard, build a couple of 4×8 raised bed boxes and start with that. The following year, you can add some blueberries in half wine barrel containers and try your hand at double-digging or sheet mulching.

As one of my permaculture teachers, Marisha Auerbach, puts it: Start small, and then roll over the edges. If you take on too much all at once, you’ll only become discouraged if you can’t maintain it all, and you might give up. Take on what you can manage, and then expand.

 

invest in good soil.

To grow healthy, nutrient-dense, delicious vegetables and fruits, you need good soil. This is the one part where I wouldn’t recommend skimping.

You can build good soil on a low budget over time; my two favorite ways of building good garden soil are sheet mulching and no-till gardening. But both of these take time. If you want to fast-forward things, invest in a bulk order of compost (by the cubic yard) from the best source you can find locally, and mix the compost with your existing soil to fill up raised bed frames or to establish beds. Start a home compost pile to grow your own soil fertility going forward.

 

Grow foods you actually like to eat.

If you don’t like kohlrabi, don’t grow kohlrabi. If pesto on a summer day is what makes you happy, plant as much basil as you can fit in. You get my point.

 

You don’t have to know everything.

You don’t have to read every gardening book on the planet. Find your 2-4 go-to resources that are like a couple of good friends you can turn to. (See my suggestions below.)

If a specific problem comes up, you can always find help on Google or Youtube.

Don’t fret about all that you don’t know yet. It will come. If you fall in love with gardening the way most people do, you will find yourself gravitating towards your garden beds, checking on the seedlings. You don’t need to memorize the Latin names of the different vegetable families. Over time, you’ll start to notice that turnip seedlings look exactly like broccoli and kale seedlings, and beets and Swiss chard look similar too, and so do carrots and Queen Anne’s lace. Over time, the family tree of plants will become familiar to you because the characters in it pop out of the soil every year to greet you, like old friends.

 

Dear new gardener,

We don’t know what lies ahead. But I’m willing to wager that 5 years or 15 years from now, you will not regret learning how to garden. Enjoy this time of apprenticing and growing. Put your hands in the dirt, be curious, and have fun.

And now…

 

My top resources for the brand new gardener

Online trainings and inspiration:

My go-to gardening books:

Other resources:

Staying Grounded in a Pandemic

If you’re going to name your website “Grounded Life,” you’d better embrace it when life gets, well, really grounded. Not just in the sense of earthy, rooted, close-to-the-ground, and balanced… but in terms of halted, unable to take flight or, as the dictionary puts it “not allowed to participate in social or recreational activities.”

Here we are, all of us, living a grounded life.

I am definitely “grounded” in the sense that I’m now, as of last week, a home-schooling homesteader who does indeed #stayhome as per government orders. I’m also grounded in the sense that travel plans in the near future that would have allowed me to see my loved ones are now likely going to be cancelled.

But I confess I’ve been less grounded in the sense that originally inspired “Grounded Life”:

grounded |ˈɡroundid|

adjective

      1. balanced, sensible, down-to-earth
      2. rooted, established
      3. aware, knowledgeable, present in one’s life

And I know I’m not alone in this.

In just a couple of months, the unfolding global Covid-19 pandemic has altered modern society in ways that most of us could never have imagined. Never before in our lifetime has a pandemic of this scale swept across the planet. In most countries in the affluent North, people have not experienced the emergency measures that are now being put in place: entire countries and states shutting down, planes grounded (there we go again), factories and schools and workplaces closed, restaurants and bars and gathering places empty. Our most basic familiar routines have been interrupted, above all the one that usually brings us the most comfort: the way we come together and interact with other people.

If you find yourself struggling, it’s really just proof that you’re a human being with a head and a heart. We’ve moved into a new era where many of the old rules of how things are supposed to be no longer apply, and uncertainty, grief, anxiety, anger, denial, or depression are all pretty normal responses to the situation.

As Scott Berinato writes, what many of us are experiencing is “anticipatory grief” —

“that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain… There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”

Below are some tools I’ve found helpful for staying calm and balanced during this time. They are not practices I have myself already effortlessly mastered; I have honestly speaking been quite shaken. But I take notice when something quiets down that shakenness and stress, or makes me smile, or reminds me to breathe deeply. And I share those simple tools here. Take what’s useful to you and leave the rest.

 

Practice EXCELLENT Self-Care

We might be in this for the long haul. Your best protection against the virus — and helping us all to flatten the curve — is taking excellent care of your physical and mental health, today. Move your body every day (there are so many free resources out there now; I’ve used the Down Dog yoga app, which is free until April 1st). Eat a varied diet, including fresh and nutrient-dense foods. Boost your immunity with foods like citrus that are high in vitamin C, garlic, turmeric, green leafy vegetables, fermented foods, nuts and seeds, and berries. Protect your sleep hours like a mother tigress. If you’re an introvert like me, you also want to find ways to take some time for yourself, in solitude, even if you’re self-quarantining with family or roommates. Connect with a loved one every day through phone calls, video calls, virtual coffee dates, or emails. Pamper yourself, whether it’s a soothing lavender bath or a family nap on a rainy afternoon.

 

Spend time outdoors, moving your body, every day

This one is a non-negotiable for me. Spend time outdoors every day, and spend time in nature every day if you can. When I’ve spent too much time staring at news and feel out of sorts, the best remedy is a walk in the woods (which we’re still able to do, thankfully), or putting my hands in the dirt in the garden. During that second week of March when the scale of the epidemic in Europe and the U.S. began to get clear, my husband and I completed our garden extension project at record speed simply because being out in the sun and double-digging new garden beds was the one thing that made us feel better.

 

Ration news and social media use

This one can make an enormous difference for your mental health. Yes, it’s important to follow the updates of local health officials and be informed about what’s happening at the national and global level. But no, you don’t need to know the case count at every moment (most of them are not accurate anyway because we’re not testing everyone). I’ve set myself on a schedule where I check the news three times a day — morning, afternoon and evening — but try to focus on my daily life and the things I do have control over the rest of the time.

 

Have routines, but also do something special every day

Like millions of other parents, my husband and I are now home-schooling our daughter. In part to maintain a sense of normalcy and structure for her when so many things are decidedly not normal, we’ve established a daily rhythm that we try to stick to.

At the same time, weeks and weeks of the same routine while quarantining at home would drive anybody mad. I was also raised in a family that loves to plan events and outings and turn anything into a special occasion. So we’ve been trying to do something special or different every day, to shake things up a bit. Whether it’s a hike to see waterfalls or a dance party or a special dish we prepare, it makes the day stand out from all the other days and keeps boredom at bay.

 

Give/Care/Contribute, in whatever way you can

Plugging in and contributing, feeling that you’re helping others, is one of the best ways to combat the feeling of isolation that comes from social distancing. Here are some ideas.

  • Join the effort of sewing face masks for health care workers
  • Donate money, food, or supplies to local food banks or other organizations working with vulnerable communities
  • Find your local Mutual Aid organization. Bernie Sanders just gave a shout-out to Mutual Aid today! Here in Western North Carolina, Co-operate WNC (which I work for) is coordinating a regional Covid-19 community response, including training neighborhood organizers to help connect needs and resources at a neighborhood level.
  • Find another way to help the elderly or the vulnerable in your community, such as shopping for groceries and medicine for them.
  • Brighten someone’s day who’s lonelier than you.
  • Grow vegetable seedlings for the “Covid gardens” that are popping up in everybody’s back yard this spring.

 

Slow down

We’re a society of busyness addicts. Remember how we’ve always complained how busy we are and how much work we have? Well, you know what? Life has finally slowed down for many of us. Social engagements have been cancelled and workplaces have shut down or sent us home to work in our sweatpants. Take the silver lining and allow yourself, for once, to just take things a bit more slowly. It will feel odd at first because we’re so accustomed to being productivity machines that are “on” at all hours. But really: we are in a pandemic and you really, really can just slow down for a while.

 

Eat As Well as You’re Able To

There’s nothing quite like foods you love to drive away the quarantine blues.

The time might come when we will have to subsist on the bulk rice and beans we all have stored in the cupboards. But as of now, grocery stores are still open, and your local farmers are figuring out creative ways to still get fresh, local food to you (here’s how our awesome local farm organization, ASAP, has organized an interim farmers’ market). And for once, we have a lot of time to cook!

In my home, I’ve made a list of our “feel-good foods” and try to cook as many of those as I can, while limiting trips to the grocery store. We’ve made miso soup and fresh salads from the garden greens and butternut squash lasagna and the most soothing, turmeric-rich pot of dal imaginable. We’ve made French toast with whipped cream for breakfast, and banana bread with coffee for an afternoon treat, and I assure you, the world seems a lot more hopeful after each one of those treats..

 

Know that We’re going to get through this together, and the world after Covid-19 may be a better place

No, we didn’t want change to come in this way. But now that the world as we know it has been radically altered, now that business-as-usual has been stopped on its tracks — what an opportunity to stop, look around, and think of different ways to coexist and care for each other and this planet.

As Nafeez Ahmed writes,

“Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values.”

Everywhere, people are rising to the challenge and practicing solidarity. Every day, we learn about acts of kindness and bravery in the midst of the crisis. People are reaching out to their more vulnerable neighbors, Mutual Aid networks are springing up, people with sewing skills are sewing face masks for hospitals, landlords are pausing rent for their tenants.

Covid-19 has already achieved what climate activists have been wanting to see for a long time: governments and people coming together in a concerted, all-hands-on-deck effort to halt the virus; airline travel reduced, car travel reduced, people staying home and consuming less. Satellite imagery show the clouds of pollution over China, Italy, and now the U.S. are clearing up due to Coronavirus lockdowns. Maybe one outcome of the pandemic will be that we realize we don’t need most of that stuff anyway.

What else is possible?

May you and yours be healthy and safe, and may we emerge stronger together on the other side.

With love,

Mari

Homemade Ginger Beer

DIY bubbly drinks!

Who doesn’t like the refreshing, popping sensation of fizzy drinks? We don’t drink a lot of soda in our house, but we do have a fondness… and a sometimes-addiction… to ginger ale.

Homemade ginger beer is a really easy DIY version — and you can adjust that ginger-y bite to your liking if you experiment a bit. It’s a non-alcoholic, effervescent delight that kids love too.

All you need is ginger, sugar, lemon, water — and time (2-3 weeks). My go-to resource with all fermentation processes is Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, and you can find this recipe there.

Start by making the “ginger bug”: 2 teaspoons grated ginger and 2 teaspoons sugar mixed in 1 cup of water. Leave it in a warm spot and “feed” the mix with the same amount of ginger and sugar once a day until the mixture starts bubbling (within a week). Then you’re ready to make the ginger beer: you add another 2-6 inches of grated ginger (less for milder ginger flavor, more for a real punch) and 1.5 cups of sugar to 2 quarts of water, bring to a boil for 15 minutes, and cool. Then add the ginger bug and the juice of 2 lemons and mix.

Strain and bottle in sealable bottles. I admit that this is one of my favorite parts: getting to line up nice shiny bottles and put caps on them with a bottle capper.

Keep in mind some basic precautions about bottling carbonated drinks. With carbonation, pressure does build up in the bottles, so if you are using glass bottles you’ll want to be safe and minimize the possibility of a bottle exploding. I follow the advice of Sandor Katz’ The Art of Fermentation: brewing the ginger beer inside a box in the closet, keeping track of the timing, and opening a “test” bottle every few days after 2 weeks, and I’ve never had issues.

AAANNDDD with homemade fizzy drinks, you’re not supporting the big soft drink corporations that are sucking dry communities’ groundwater around the world and are responsible for a bulk of the world’s plastic pollution. Just sayin’.

Raising Nature-literate Kids

A is for acorn, B is for bluebell, C is for clover.

My daughter is holding in her hands a “spellbook of lost words.” The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris captures this moment in time when we’re rapidly losing not only knowledge about the natural world, but even the language with which we can talk about it.

“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.”

Here’s why this book exists: In 2007, the editors at Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped 50 nature-related words from this children’s dictionary as “culturally irrelevant.” ‘Acorn,’ ‘buttercup,’ ‘conker,’ ‘chestnut’ and ‘fern’ and ‘lark’ had to go in order to make space for terms such as ‘broadband’ and ‘cut-and-paste.’ The decision has received a lot of criticism. In 2015, Margaret Atwood and 27 other prominent writers, naturalists, and media personalities wrote an open letter to Oxford University Press, pleading that they reinstate the omitted words. A petition on Change.org drew over 214,000 signatures.

The Lost Words, too, is a protest, a petition, but a visually stunning and lyrical one, an ode to all the beautiful creatures and plants whose names are in danger of being forgotten.

Innumerable studies have shown that decline in nature play correlates with a decline in children’s well-being. A 2009 study by Natural England showed that a generation ago, 40% of children regularly played in wild places; now its fewer than 10%. 40% of children never play outdoors. According to some studies, kids spend on average 6-7 hours a day in front of gadgets. Children can name more Pokémon characters than wildlife species.

The numbers are hardly better for the U.S. or many other affluent countries. The heartbreakingly-titled Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv brings together a growing body of research on the so-called nature-deficit disorder among children, and its links to the disturbing rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

• • •

We know children need to play outside more. We know they are not spending enough time in unsupervised play in natural environments. We know they are becoming increasingly disconnected from the most basic knowledge regarding where food comes from, or how things are made, or how to use simple tools to solve problems.

These facts are not up for debate. The question is: what do we do about it?

Parents, grandparents, and caretakers: it’s on us.

Here are 10 things you can do to make nature awareness a daily, ordinary part of a child’s life.

 

#1 Nurture a child’s innate curiosity about the natural world

Little kids are instinctively fascinated by nature’s processes. Tap into that curiosity and give them space to explore: digging for worms and pill bugs in the backyard, observing squirrels and birds, building log cabins out of sticks and creek dams with rocks. Often, all we as caretakers need to provide is the context, the opportunity. The kids will take it from there.

#2 Lead by example

Children pick up on the grownups’ vibes. If you yourself are uncomfortable or distracted in nature — not having a good time and instead compulsively checking your newsfeed — you are wordlessly communicating to a child that the natural world is not fun or worthy of our attention. So reflect on your own relationship to nature, and commit to working on whatever it is that makes you unable or unwilling to relax or get adventurous in it. Probably your best teachers in this will be kids themselves.

#3 Plant a garden

One of the best ways to learn about nature’s cycles is to get one’s hands in the dirt and participate in them. Involve kids in all stages of gardening: preparing the soil, planting seeds, watering, weeding, and harvesting. Give them a little patch of their own to tend. If you have no garden space, a windowsill or balcony container garden works great. Over time, they start to “get it”: they learn to make the connection between soil and sunlight and water on the one hand, and food on our plates, on the other. Gardening also encourages kids to eat fresh produce: often a picky eater who won’t eat vegetables at the dinner table loves to pick snap peas or cherry tomatoes straight off the vine.

 

#4 Make it relevant

Let’s forget about the Oxford Junior Dictionary: What words get used in your home? Does your language reflect an appreciation for the rich variety of life-forms and elements that make up the natural world?

I can say with some certainty that my daughter is not likely to lose the meaning of “acorn” as long as we forage acorns together or have acorn pancakes for breakfast on Sundays. Nor will “otter” disappear from her vocabulary as long as we make regular visits to the WNC Nature Center, where the two otters swimming in their tank is her favorite highlight. She won’t forget the meaning of “hawk” as long as she has the large hawk feather in her treasure basket, along with her rock and sea shell collection, that she will proudly pull out to show visitors.

 

#5 Look into forest and outdoor educational programs

Forest kindergartens, wilderness summer camps and other kids’ nature programs are a wonderful thing if you can take advantage of them. Through outdoor play, children develop their motor skills, engage in creative play, learn to use their five senses, and start to cultivate a lifelong relationship with nature and wildlife. Learn more about forest schools here.

#6 Make outdoor play as inviting as possible

Make the outdoor spaces around your home at least as exciting as the (increasingly addictive and techno-focused) indoor activities. If there’s nothing for them outside except a drab lawn or landscaping they aren’t allowed to touch, no wonder kids don’t want to go outside. Install a rope swing. Set up a sandbox or other area where kids can simply play with soil and rocks. Stop worrying and let them climb trees. Provide really fun outdoor toys (they don’t have to be expensive: think frisbees or balls). Get them biking in the park. True, it’s not true wilderness exposure if you live in urban or suburban areas. But just getting kids to play outside, breathing fresh air, being physically active, is infinitely better than no outdoor time at all. You’re still giving them opportunities for engagement with the natural world.

 

#7 Just dress them properly

Rain gear. Snow gear. Running-under-the-sprinkler gear. You get the point. I grew up playing and walking to school in –30 Celsius weather. It was fine — I simply had warm clothes on. To quote the title of Linda Åkerson McGurk, “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” — only inadequate gear.

 

#8 Dirt is okay

The modern dirt phobia, the overuse of sanitizers and antibacterials, actually weakens our bodies’ own defense systems. Asthma and allergy are lower in farming communities than in urban areas because children who grow up on farms get exposed to a diversity of bacterial species through their interaction with farm animals and farm dirt. These very bacterial and fungal organisms promote a healthy immunological response.

As Maya Sherat-Klein writes in The Dirt Cure,

“It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control or even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health. Research says that bacteria, fungi, parasites, insects, weeds — and living, nutrient-dense soil full of all of those elements — play direct and critical roles in the health of our food, and by extension, the health of our children.”

And those muddy clothes can be thrown in the washer afterwards. Let kids get dirty.

#9 Schedule nature time…

…as something that you do together as a family. Unless you live in a rural area, in the modern world it takes a bit of a commitment to spend time regularly in nature. So plan family activities so that they include that regular dose of “forest bathing.” For our family, a weekend forest hike is a weekly tradition. We meet with friends to go play in the woods or wade by the creek. And in part because of our commitment to eating as locally as possible, we make frequent visits to local farms, orchards, and foraging spots.

 

#10 Read nature-related books together

Head to the library and explore together age-appropriate books on nature. I don’t know any young child that isn’t interested in animals. Let them lead and pick books on subjects they find most fascinating: is it cute puffins or koalas, or dinosaurs, or volcanoes, or slimy sea creatures? It doesn’t matter what the content is: what matters is that you sit down and read together and talk about what you learn. Again, in doing so, the grownup is affirming the child’s sense that this is interesting and worthwhile to learn about.

 

That’s my two cents. Now I’d love to hear from you: What other strategies do you have in your tool belt? What have you found helpful in raising kids to be comfortable in the natural world and engaged in it?

Winter Holidays: The Slow and Simple Edition

Welcome the winter holidays: a season of togetherness, festivity, and warmth — right in the middle of the gloomiest, darkest, coldest time of the year, when we most need a pause and a good dose of cheer.

But too often the cultural and social expectations we layer onto this season actually reduce our ability to enjoy it: witness the stressed-out faces of people with their last-minute gift-shopping lists and packed-full December calendars. Not only that, but the rampant consumerism sparked by those same expectations is blowing up into absurd proportions.

What would a “less is more” version of the winter holidays look like? The slow and simple edition? I see this as a great opportunity to practice being really intentional and ask ourselves: What do I really value? What is it that makes this season magical for me, and can I experience it without buying into all that other people tell me I need to buy into? Can I tweak or change traditions if they no longer serve me? Here’s what I’ve found useful in trying to create a clutter-free, slow, simple holiday time.

 

Simple Decorations

Surely we don’t need yet another reason to bring more plastic into the house. Real winter greens are the loveliest thing on earth: they fill your home with their fragrance, last for a long time, and are fully biodegradeable.

I grew up in Nordic evergreen forests, so the deep forest smell of spruce and pine greens inside the house signal to my brain that I am home.

There are lots of ways to harvest them sustainably: go to places where Christmas trees are sold to collect the trimmings or fallen branches, or look by the curbside. Last year, a neighbor had trimmed a large cedar and left the cut branches on the curb, so we picked them up, carried them home, and “decked the halls:” wreaths and garlands for the porch and arrangements for the inside along with candles and pine cones. (I also think that collecting a branch or two on land that’s not yours is not a huge deal, but obviously you have to make the call yourself.)

For a wreath, I wove this hoop out of vines that I can now re-use and dress differently each year. I love to use the deep greens of cedar and pine as a base, then add the grayish hues of sage, rosemary, or silver-dollar Eucalyptus, and finish with cones, winter berries, and ribbons.

The same theme repeats itself in our Christmas Eve dinner table setting: winter greens, pine cones, and candles.

For the Christmas tree, apart from the tiny LEED lights and some baubles, everything else is natural materials: burlap ribbons, pine cones, dried orange slices with cinnamon sticks, and these wooden ornaments from my native Finland that I love.

 

Simple Gift-giving

When it comes to gift-giving, I stand by this piece by Becoming Minimalist: let’s keep it sane.

  • Even with kids, there is a middle ground between a hard-liner “no presents” policy and piles of plastic made in China that will get tossed or forgotten by next year. I like the four-gift rule: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”
  • Handmade gifts
  • Gifting experiences
  • Gifting consumables: chocolate, nuts, fruit, wine, local specialty treats.
  • Gift donations

Here are some hand-made gifts I like to make and give:

 

Simple traditions

When I was growing up, my family had a lot of Christmas traditions. Christmas Eve always followed the same formula, and that’s what made it feel unlike any other day of the year.

Now that my partner and I get to figure out what our own family’s Christmas looks like, and create our own traditions, we’re leaning towards a slightly more flexible approach.

I’ve been asking the question: what are those moments when we’re fully in the “flow” mode, that feel special and invite us to pause? I’ve come to realize that the cue for that feeling is often something really simple. It may be just lighting a pillar candle and turning on some Christmas music when the late afternoon starts to darken outside. It may be cozying up inside with woolen socks, candles, and hot cocoa when it’s snowing outside. It may be baking gingerbread cookies with my daughter when we both may just end up eating more dough than actual cookies. It’s the smell of evergreens inside the house, beeswax candles burning, winter oranges in a bowl, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom in gingerbread cookies baking in the oven or in the traditional Finnish blackcurrant juice glögi simmering on the stove. It’s sitting down for my annual Solstice reflection ritual on Winter Solstice.

None of that is complicated or costly, nor does it need to be.

I’d love to hear from you: what ways have you discovered to make the most out of the season without adding more unnecessary stress, waste, or consumption?

Climate-beneficial Wardrobe

Everyone is talking about the carbon footprint of food, and the search for the most “climate-friendly” diet sparks lively debates. But clothes, too, are something we choose and need daily. Clothing is an intimate matter. It touches our skin all day long, like only someone very dear to us gets to do. It keeps us warm and protects us from the elements. For that reason alone, it matters where our clothes come from and how they were made. But our wardrobe choices also have a climate impact, whether we think about it or not.

Of course, there are already plenty of garments on the racks of clothing stores labeled “sustainable.” The movement variously called “sustainable fashion” or “ethical fashion” or “slow fashion” has prodded us to ask where our clothes come from, and put pressure on clothing manufacturers to address the massive ecological and ethical issues in the industry.

But the regenerative fiber movement goes further. Instead of minimizing damage in the current processes of clothing production, it boldly insists that our clothes can and should be produced in a way that actually restores degraded ecosystems and soils. The raw materials of natural-fiber clothing—unlike synthetic fabrics, which are essentially fossil-fuel derived—come from the land: from fields where cotton, hemp or flax grow, or from pastures where fiber animals graze. Our clothes come from the ground up. The regenerative fiber movement focuses on what happens at the ground level on these farms.

It’s an innovation of the most old-fashioned sort. Clothing production that has the potential to help slow down climate change is happening, not in the high-tech labs and factories of major textile manufacturers, but at the grassroots level — literally. Where the hoof of a fiber animal meets the soil on the pasture. Where the farmer is monitoring the health of the grasses and forbs and the soil and the animals, and the plants are doing their work transforming sunlight and water and air into things we earthlings enjoy.

It’s simple, really. Degraded, eroding soil — what characterizes most conventionally managed farmland today — is a major source of CO2 emissions. Healthy soils with vibrant plant life, in contrast, draw down and store excess carbon from the atmosphere. One type of farming contributes to climate change, the other one helps to mitigate it.

Regenerative agriculture, also called carbon farming, refers to farming practices that have been shown to rebuild healthy soil, and as a result increase the soil’s ability to draw down and store carbon from the atmosphere. The practices most appropriate for fiber farmers are different types of managed intensive grazing, compost application on pasture, and planting trees on pasture—a practice known as silvopasture.

The products of farms that have implemented these practices are not just “sustainable”; their very production helps to slow down climate change. In the case of fields of hemp or cotton or flax managed in this way, or fiber animals on pastures managed in this way, the end product is, in fact, textiles whose very production helped to pull out carbon from the atmosphere. A climate change solution you can wear, you might say. A “climate-beneficial” wardrobe.

* * *

As I write this, I hold in my hands a skein of wool with the words “Climate-Beneficial” written on the label. Fibershed, a California-based non-profit promoting regional and regenerative fiber systems, rolled out its Climate-Beneficial™ certification program a few years ago to recognize fiber grown in regenerative farming systems. Fibershed supports farmers in transitioning to regenerative farming practices such as managed grazing, conservation tillage, and compost application on pastures, and spearheaded a pilot project to produce a fabric made of regeneratively produced wool.

What does this mean for you?

If you can sew or knit your own, you can begin to create your own climate change mitigating wardrobe, at however small a scale. Knitters, crocheters, weavers and spinners can look for yarn and fiber certified as Climate-Beneficial™ on the Fibershed Marketplace. If you sew, you can check about the availability of Fibershed’s Community-Supported Cloth woven out of wool from Lani Estill’s Bare Ranch, the first certified Climate-Beneficial™ fiber farm, and produced as regionally and sustainably as possible.

Even if knitting or sewing is not your forte, there are other ways to stay warm while keeping the climate cool. Some big-name clothing brands—most notably Patagonia and The North Face—have collaborated with Fibershed to create pilot lines of clothing for which the fiber was sourced from regenerative fiber farms.

Here are the beginnings of my own “climate-beneficial” wardrobe so far: an apron dress, a scarf, a hat, and mittens. (I wrote about sewing the apron dress here.)

Apron, hat, scarf, mittens. I know. It’s not exactly enough to keep me clothed year-round. But, first of all, it’s a beginning, and there is power in beginnings, right? Even more importantly, these items of clothing serve as a tangible point of connection for me. When I put them on, I’m not merely putting on some clothes. Because I know where the wool fiber comes from, and that the soil on those pastures is being revitalized through regenerative practices, I put them on and actually, viscerally feel a connection to the pastures, the sheep, and the soil from which they come. Lastly, these handmade items become a handy tool for introducing the concept of regenerative fiber to others. When someone comments on what I’m wearing, I tell them the story of where the wool comes from and what makes it different. Sometimes it elicits a mere “Oh.” But at other times, it sparks an excited conversation about the possibility of farming, of producing what we need, in ways that are not destructive but restorative.

My most recent knitting project was probably the most meaningful one yet. The lustrous, fog-colored fingering-weight yarn for it came from Heartfelt Fiber Farm in Sonoma County, California, for which I had the opportunity to develop a Carbon Farm Plan in 2016. As I was developing the plan, farmer Leslie and I walked the land of her small farm many times and I got to know her animals—the rare, tiny Ouessant sheep, Icelandic sheep, and Cashgora goats—by name.

When I cast on a knitting project with fiber from her land, from a sheep that I know by name, I felt like the fibers that run through my fingers connect me to the soil I sampled and the landscape I mapped and to farmer Leslie’s hard work and dedication. The knowledge that the very production of that fiber helps to build fertile, carbon-sequestering soil and address one of the biggest challenges of our time probably warms me as the knitter and the wearer more than the wool itself.

Energize Your Winter Days with Citrus

Food is medicine. Whether it’s winter blues or the common cold, you can find potent remedies among edible plants that really, really help. You don’t need an advanced degree in herbal medicine; some of the most powerful healing foods are available at the grocery stores and markets. And as the days get shorter and colder, the zesty, bright-colored citrus is your #1 energizer and immunity booster.

Somehow, citrus and winter go together. As early as the 18th century, people in North America and Europe would get to relish the once-a-year Christmas orange. I grew up near the Arctic Circle, so the oranges I knew in my childhood were sad and shriveled Navel oranges that had clearly been harvested too early and sat in shipping containers for too long. We didn’t know any better, of course.

Since then, thankfully, I’ve come to know what it’s like to bite into juicy, sweet, aromatic citrus fruit. (And now I can get them from Florida, which is not too terribly far.)

Here are five ways to tap into the energizing properties of citrus fruits to brighten up your winter days.

 

1. Citrus Essential Oils

Citrus fruits and aromas are known to uplift the mood, ease anxiety, and enhance focus. I love using a citrus essential oil to energize me on winter mornings when I sit down to work. “Lemon is cool and joyful while orange is warm and pampers. And grapefruit boosts energy in an entirely different way,” says aromatherapist Caroline Schroeder. Any blend with bergamot is nice. Or just inhale the smell of an orange — that works too!

 

2. Citrus cleaning products

If you make your own cleaning spray, you can add any of the above essential oils for a clean and bright feel to make clean-up time a treat.

 

3. Citrus-scented body care

I use minimal body care products, but I do use a moisturizer with citrus scent, and I notice I feel strangely happy when I apply it. Why not make those most ordinary moments of the day ones that you look forward to?

4. Fresh eating

Eat them fresh! The vitamin C in citrus supports immunity through the cold season. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron, which also fortifies you against fatigue. Whenever I research mood-boosting food groups, citrus fruits keep coming up… and is it any wonder: just look at those colors!

 

5. Citrus desserts

Last but not least: chocolate and orange. Need I say more? Dark chocolate with orange peel has become my favorite of late — it’s right up there with chocolate and peppermint as a winning wintertime combo. Last year, I became obsessed with the idea of a chocolate and orange flavored dessert for Christmas. After a long search, I found this recipe and it’s what’s on the menu for Christmas Eve at our house this year: The Jaffa Cake Cake from Primrose Bakery.

Image: thehappyfoodie.co.uk

 

Postscript: Citrus Fruit and the Local Diet

I’m a local food advocate. But I don’t only eat local food (at least, not at the moment). As Helena Norberg-Hodge writes, localization “does not mean that people in cold climates are denied oranges or avocados, but that their wheat, rice or milk — in short, their basic food needs — do not travel thousands of miles when they can be produced within a fifty-mile radius.”

Fanatical, all-or-nothing attitudes tend to backfire more than do good. Perfectionism in the local food movement — or in the sustainability movement at large — only discourages people from trying to do anything at all. I say this as a recovering perfectionist. So yes, I’m a local food advocate. And yes, I sometimes eat imported oranges.

Having said that: this fall, I decided to try to grow some citrus myself. So I added a lemon, a Satsuma mandarin, and a limequat — all dwarf-size fruit trees — to our homestead. They grow in containers and can be brought into the sunroom for the winter. We just harvested our first and only Satsuma a couple of weeks ago, and I gave it to my husband who was trying to get over a head cold. So right there, the immune-boosting power of citrus in action — and this time as a homegrown version!