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!

Fall Garden Checklist

When the harvest season winds down and the abundance of the late summer and early fall has been brought in, it’s the time to put the garden to bed. Here’s how to prepare your garden for the winter and for optimal vigor in the spring.

Harvest the last of…

  • basil for pesto
  • herbs for herbal teas
  • tomatoes, okra, sweet potatoes, squashes and pumpkins

 

Clear and Cut back

  • Clean up any remaining dead plant matter and compost it, unless it is diseased.
  • Cut back herbs and perennial vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb. It helps them to grow with new vigor in the spring.
  • Cut runners from strawberries, and top-dress them with compost.
  • Cut old fruiting canes of raspberry and blackberry.

 

Amend and cover the soil

  • Dig in amendments such as compost, manure, bone meal, kelp, or rock dust. They will have all winter to break down and enrich your soil.
  • Rake leaves and mulch garden beds with them. A thick layer of mulch helps to regulate the soil temperature, protects your crops from freezing, and adds organic matter into the soil.
  • Alternatively, leave the leaves where they are – it’s free fertilizer for your lawn, and an all-around good thing to do.

 

Cover crop

  • Plant a winter-hardy cover crop such as rye, vetch or Austrian winter pea. Cover crops help to prevent erosion, as all those tiny roots hold the soil in place; they aerate the soil and break up compacted lumps; they increase the level of organic matter in the soil. A leguminous cover crop such as vetch or peas adds nitrogen to the soil. Grasses, such as rye, improves the structure of compacted soil.

 

 

Protect your plants

  • Take cold-sensitive house plants and potted tropical plants indoors
  • Protect young trees and shrubs from deer, rabbits etc.
  • Prepare to protect overwintering vegetables with row covers. Mulch all the frost-sensitive plants with straw or leaves to protect them from frost.

 

Plant

We get to plant some, too, in the fall! Fall is the time to plant:

  • Garlic, shallots, and leeks (mulch generously to cover them well)
  • Flower bulbs (daffodil, crocus, tulip etc.) that will surprise you with their color in the spring

 

With these simple measures, your garden will wake up with the return of the spring, rested under cozy blankets of organic matter and replenished by amendments and cover crops.

Local Meal Ideas

“Eat Local” is a slogan many of us are ready to stand behind. Local food is cool on a hot planet: we know that freshly harvested food is more nutritious, eating local supports local farmers and growers, and there’s no fossil fuels wasted on insanely long shipping distances.

Yet, in practice, many of us still feel quite dependent on imported grocery store foods. Several decades of supermarket shopping culture have narrowed down most people’s cooking repertoire to meals that involve opening cans and cardboard boxes.

So what kinds of meals can you whip up with all-local ingredients? Without those pre-packaged and processed items?

Now that I’ve been eating a local-foods-only diet for almost a month, I have some delicious answers for you. In fact, I put together a list of some of our best meals during this locavore month — with links to recipes!

Here’s the simplest way to put it: A local diet = a whole foods diet. Be prepared to spend a little bit more time in the kitchen, but also to be rewarded by real food, real nutrition, and flavors you just can’t pull out of a box.

In an earlier post, I talked about how I prepared for my “locavore month” and researched local food producers. That gave me a sense of the “pantry” I could draw on for the next month. Figuring out how to combine those ingredients into satisfying, nourishing meals is a creative process and one of my favorite parts, honestly.

 

 

10 ALL-LOCAL Meal Ideas

These meal ideas work if you live in a temperate zone in late summer/early fall, at the peak of the harvest season.

1. Butternut squash lasagna with homemade ricotta (recipe in this book)

2. Neighborhood tart with local mushrooms (I used shiitake) and goat cheese

3. Vegetarian Southern brunch with cheesy grits, scrambled eggs, greens, and biscuits with local goat cheese spread

4. Our favorite carrot tomato soup with homemade bread…

5. Homemade pasta (my daughter and I have a pretty good pasta-rolling routine down at this point). Recipe in this book.

6. Pumpkin ravioli with sage walnut pumpkin butter

7. Blueberry acorn pancakes with Acornucopia acorn flour

8. Eggs in a Nest (from Animal Vegetable Miracle)

This is the easiest local food meal to source ingredients for: just eggs and veggies that are available much of the year: onion, carrot, Swiss chard, and tomato (dried tomatoes is actually what the recipe calls for). Minimal spices, minimal hassle, satisfying flavors. Enjoy with a local grain, or even mashed potatoes.

9. Local Grain/Sweet potato/potato/squash + local protein + greens/salad/sauerkraut

…and what’s for dessert?

10. Basil blackberry apple crumble, again from Animal Vegetable Miracle

 

As you can see, there’s no deprivation going on here. Eating local means eating well — all it takes is some advance planning and a willingness to experiment.

If you try out any of these recipes, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what you’re cooking!

Quick & Easy Ricotta Cheese

Blessed are the Cheesemakers! I don’t know which motivates me more to make cheese: the promise of the satisfying flavors at the end, or the process itself. The sweet smell of milk being heated and the way the cheese curds get transformed before my eyes makes me squeal inwardly with glee. Shiny white blobs of curd draining in my colander make me feel like an alchemist that has just figured out the formula for making gold.

A basic repertoire of easy cheeses also means that, with a source of local milk, I can always keep cheeses on my plate during this local food month.

Ricotta, I think, should be everyone’s first cheese you try to make. It’s an easy and a relatively quick affair: the preparation takes no more than 30 minutes and an additional 1-3 hours of draining, depending on how firm you like your ricotta. All you need is milk (I always use whole milk), lemon juice or vinegar, a dairy thermometer, strainer or colander, and cheesecloth.

 

Ricotta Cheese

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon whole milk
  • ¼-½ cup lemon juice (can be freshly squeezed)
  • Instead of lemon juice, you can also use ¼ cup vinegar, 1 tsp citric acid dissolved in ¼ cup water, or buttermilk (1 quart per 1 gallon of milk)

Heat milk to 175 F degrees. Add lemon juice and stir. The cheese will curdle within 5 minutes. Pour into a strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth, tie the corners of the cloth together securely, and hang the cheese to drain until it is the consistency you like. I use hooks attach to the door handles of kitchen cupboard doors, but feel free to improvise. When the cheese is ready, take it out of the cheesecloth. At this point, you can flavor it as you wish. I make an herb spread by mixing in some minced fresh herbs, minced garlic, and salt to taste.

Wondering what to do with the whey that collects as the cheese drains? You can use it, for example, instead of milk in pancakes or baking. I also give it to the chickens for extra calcium.

How to Prepare for a Locavore Month

Does the idea of “local food” and “slow food” resonate with you? Are you curious to see what it would be like to eat only from your own region’s farmers and producers for a period of time?

This month, I’m committing to one month of eating only from my bioregion (the Asheville area in Western North Carolina). In this post, I share what I learned while preparing for this local food challenge in case it’s useful for others doing something similar.

Here, in a nutshell, are the steps that helped me to prepare for my Locavore Month:

 

Why: Get clear on your motivations for committing to local foods.

How: decide some parameters for your experiment.

Research: What do I eat, what’s available locally, who’s growing/making it?

Develop some good old-fashioned kitchen skills before starting.

Make preparations.

Why

If you’re not clear on your motivations for undertaking a local foods experiment, it’s going to be hard to stick to it. The first mango smoothie or bag of processed chips that comes your way is going to be hard to turn down if you treat this as just another fad diet.

There are profound reasons for taking a stand in defense of local foods. The current industrial food system and our imported, processed-food diets are causing visible, real damage — in terms of public health, the environment, and adding to the fossil-fuel dependency of our lifestyles. Local foods, in contrast, come from family farms whose growing practices we can check. Investing in them strengthens the local economy. Because these foods are freshly harvested, they are so much more superior in flavor and nutrition than the plastic-wrapped items that have been sitting on supermarket shelves for who knows how long.

Does one person’s commitment to shift to local foods change the system? No, it doesn’t. But it’s more than a symbolic gesture.

Eating locally concretely reduces our dependence on the industrial processed-food system and tethers us, instead, more deeply to our own region’s food system and the people who are involved in it. It teaches us that we can eat — and eat well — even without the supermarkets, the 18-wheeler trucks, and the pesticide-laden fields somewhere far away. That experience is a rare one in the modern world, and really powerful. And the more people get a taste of that, the stronger the local food and slow food movements are going to grow.

 

How

Next, decide some parameters for your local food experiment:

  • What’s “local” to you? Where do you draw the line? Some people commit to a 100-Mile Diet. Even eating foods produced in one’s own state makes an enormous difference compared to the average American diet.
  • How hard-core do you want to be? For example, where I live we have a local cracker company, a hummus company, and a chocolate factory. But the raw ingredients they use — the flour, the chickpeas, and the cacao beans, respectively — come from elsewhere. Do they still count as local food? Decide what’s reasonable for you.
  • Who lives with you, and are they going to participate?
  • The timing of your local food experiment is important. I recommend choosing a time when the availability of local foods in your area is at its height. For example, in the northern hemisphere, July, August, or September are going to be much more flavorful and abundant than January, February, or March.
  • I recommend following Barbara Kingsolver’s advice to choose one loophole item — “one luxury item each in limited quantities, on the condition we’d learn how to purchase it through a channel most beneficial to the grower and the land where it grows.” Think coffee, spices, coconut or olive oil — whatever it is that you’d be miserable without. Being miserable is not the point. (My “loophole item,” by the way, is black tea.)

The focus of a locavore month should not be: “What do I have to give up?” but rather, “What do I get to eat?” This is your opportunity to eat fresh, to try your region’s specialties, to try the recipe you’ve always wanted to make. Take the time to cook and eat slowly. Share your local meals with friends.

 

Research

Planning a month of local eating teaches you so much, both about what you eat, and what is available locally.

First write down all the food groups, food items, beverages etc. you normally consume.

Then do some detective work. What farms and  food producers are in my area? What do they have on offer? Which food group needs can I meet locally?

Farmers’ markets are the tastiest way to familiarize yourself with the local farms and food producers and their offerings. Try samples. Talk to people. Only then talk to Google.

Develop Some good old-fashioned Kitchen Skills

A locavore diet is a whole foods diet.

What that means is, if you’re mostly dependent on the supermarket and processed foods for your sustenance, there’s a bit of a learning curve involved. I’d recommend first spending some time learning to cook foods you love from scratch.

Gradually develop more local food sourcing routines. Learn to plan your menus around what is seasonally available. Get to know your local farmers’ markets, u-pick farms and farm stands. (Contrary to common misconceptions, produce sourced this way is often cheaper than supermarket produce.)

Pro tip: Plant a vegetable garden! Even just a container of salad greens. That way you’ll always have something über-local at your doorstep.

Make friends with people who are gardeners. Once they find out you are restricting yourself to local foods, unexpected loads of green beans, zucchini and freshly picked pears might just land in your lap.

Lastly, here are some good old kitchen skills that will make local eating easier (this is a great resource for recipes and tutorials):

  • Learn to bake bread.
  • Learn to make yogurt and cheese (that way, if you have a source of local milk, you’re guaranteed a supply of yogurt and cheese as well.
  • Learn to make your treats and condiments (e.g. ketchup, crackers, and stock) yourself.
  • Get in the habit of preserving local produce during bumper crop months: freeze berries in July, can tomatoes in August, make applesauce in September.
  • Learn to identify and forage some local wild edibles, mushrooms, and nuts.

 

Make preparations

Alright. The start date of your locavore month (or week, or year) is near and you feel ready. Here’s what to do in the days leading up to the start of your experiment:

  • stock up the pantry and the fridge with local staples (here in the Asheville area, I’ve been able to source flour, rice, nut oils, corn meal and grits, sauerkraut, salsa, local dairy, local grassfed meat and pastured eggs, sustainably farmed trout, and lots of cheese)
  • make broth with local ingredients and freeze to use later
  • make herbal teas from local herbs and wildflowers like mint, red clover, lemon balm, tulsi etc.
  • preserve local produce that’s at its peak to use later on
  • Lastly, savor some local food inspiration:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon

The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila

Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food by Gary Nabhan