What A Cow Taught Us About Free Range Learning

Isabelle. (Photo by Claire Weldon)

Isabelle. (Photo by Claire Weldon)

Look closely at any one thing long enough and you start to see how much more there is to know, stretching your mind (and often your heart) well beyond the supposed “right” answers. You also may notice the way this one thing interconnects with everything else. A cow helped us see that.

Years ago we were only raising chickens and honeybees on our small farm. My daughter researched, did the numbers, and convinced us that keeping a cow would not only provide an amazing learning experience but would be an excellent way to supply our own milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese. That’s why Isabelle, a gentle Guernsey, entered our lives. And every single day since my daughter has worked hard to care for her, without fail.

Isabelle taught us more than we could have imagined about thinking for ourselves, about tenderly raising animals, and much more. When it was time for college, my daughter wrote her entrance essay about this and was awarded an amazing scholarship.

Today Isabelle is 16 years old. She continues to teach us, our vet, and a community of people who participate in a family cow forum. To celebrate her birthday, I’ll be bringing her extra carrots and apples. I invite you to celebrate too by reading about Isabelle’s life on our farm

family cow, homestead dairy,

Isabelle (Photos by Claire Weldon)

On Being A Frugal Geek

cheap geek, materialism, frugal living, cheap interests, cheap homeschooling, There are plenty of assumptions about what geeks do. We own the most advanced technology. We see the latest movies, watch the newest series on subscription channels, play the most recently released video games. wouldn’t miss Maker Faire. If we collect anything, it’s probably awesomely obscure and sure to gain in value. All these things cost money.

I tend to geek out over less expensive interests. Outsider art, foreign films, poetry, recent neuroscience findings, nonviolence, mindfulness practices, the new acquisition section of the library—that sort of thing.

Still, stark economic realities have made penny pinching essential. Long ago I assumed I could afford more geeky indulgences once I got past pricey milestones like college, marriage, and new babies. Didn’t happen. Turns out sick kids, unemployment, and falling down houses are also expensive.

Instead, I’ve geeked out on frugality itself. I garden, preserve food, make homemade cheese, sew, repurpose, and concoct herbal remedies that look so vile my household prefers to stay healthy. I’ve advanced my career with little more than a not-so-new computer, a love of research, and library privileges. My kids have been dragged to every free concert and science program available, and know area nature preserves like their own backyard. They’ve become Makers almost entirely out of necessity, turning junk and other dirt cheap materials into marvels. Because every one of us goes deep into passions like forensics, turbocharger modifications, bagpipe playing, arachnid study, and advanced plasma welding techniques our dinner table conversations are strangely fascinating. We’re geeks all right, just frugal geeks. Maybe you are too. Mainstream assumptions about geeks don’t define us. GeekMom, where I’m a senior editor, agrees. As explained on the “about” page:

Being a geek is a state of mind, and that state of mind leads us to intensely explore our interests and approach the world with endless curiosity. When we want to get involved in something cool, we get really involved. In other words, we get geeky about it.

I know the research shows that frugal living benefits kids while materialism doesn’t. And I believe that living simply is good for the planet. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like a few geek frills, some day. More movies, newer gadgets, and the bucks to finally get to Maker Faire. While I’m dreaming, I’d like an invisible bike helmet too.

How does living frugally affect your geeky or not-so-geeky passions?

child

The Boy With No Toys

why toys are bad for kids, overstimulated kids,

Image courtesy of eyeofboa.deviantart.com

Before he was born, his mother decided her son would have no toys. Abandoned by the father, she was already a single parent. She made a living cleaning for other people. Most days she took the bus to affluent streets where children never seemed to play outside. As she vacuumed and scrubbed beautiful homes overfilled with possessions she paid close attention to what children did all day. Often they were gone at lessons, after school programs, or playdates. When they were home they usually sat staring at screens. Toys in their carefully decorated rooms appeared to be tossed around as if the small owners had no idea how to play, only how to root restlessly for entertainment.

She thought about it, talked to the oldest people she knew, and read everything she could. Then she informed anyone who cared to listen that her child would not have toys. Not a single purchased plaything.

Will (name changed) and his mother live in a small mobile home park. By most standards they are poor. Their income is well below the poverty line. They don’t have a TV or computer (although Will uses the computer at the library and watches the occasional TV program at babysitters’ homes). But their lives are rich in what matters. Together Will and his mom grow food on several shares of a community garden, bartering when they have extra produce. They make all their meals from scratch. These routines activate a whole array of learning opportunities for Will, quite naturally.

They are close to most of their neighbors in proximity as well as in friendliness. While his mother is working Will is cared for by several different seniors in their trailer park. He not only likes to help his mother garden, cook, and take care of their small home but he also likes to take part in helping his neighbors with small tasks. He carries groceries for certain ladies, helps an older gentleman with a birdhouse building hobby, and sometimes gets to assist another neighbor in automotive repairs.  He gets a lot out of these meaningful tasks.  Children long to take on real responsibility and make useful contributions. Giving them these opportunities promotes their development in important ways.

Sounds nice. But what about play?

natural play best for kids, free play, no toys,

Image courtesy of karenelrick.deviantart.com

When Will was a baby his mother made all sorts of toys. Most took no time at all. Food containers became stacking toys, a small water bottle with beans inside became a rattle, a sock stuffed with drier fuzz and tied in knots became a soft animal.

Will is now six years old. He plays as any child naturally does. He makes up games and turns all sorts of objects into toys. His mother saves money by not owning a car, so Will has commandeered a large portion of the shed that would normally be used as a garage. Mostly he uses it to stockpile his own resources. He has scrap wood, a few tools, and cans of nails. He likes to straighten bent nails for future projects, working carefully now that he recently discovered what smacking his fingers with a hammer feels like. Recently he found a discarded lawn mower tire, so he’s looking for three more tires to make a go-cart. In the evenings he likes to draw elaborate pictures of this upcoming project. He particularly enjoys playing in the soft dirt along the side of the shed where “robot men” he makes out of kitchen utensils use their potato peeler and wisk limbs to churn through the soil, leaving tracks as they clink. When he visits friends he happily plays with their toys, although he doesn’t always “get” that certain TV or movie-themed toys are limited to the plot-related storylines. So far he seems to have no urge to possess the same toys.

What about birthdays and holidays? Will’s mother does give him gifts. But she limits her gifts to useful items—crayons, clothes, tools, a compass. Each weekend her folk band practices at their mobile home. Will quickly mastered the harmonica and begged for time on the fiddle, so her big gift to him this year was a used child-sized fiddle. She urges the other adults in his life to gift him with experiences—a trip to the beach, a day of horseback riding, a visit to a museum. Out-of-town relatives now renew a children’s magazine subscription and send him regular snail mail letters, both of which are helping him learn to read with very little prompting.

natural child development,

Image courtesy of nadiaaaaaaaa.deviantart.com

Will’s childhood has a lot in common with the way children have learned and grown throughout history. As historian Howard Chudacoff notes in Children at Play: An American History, play is vital to development. It’s has everything to do with autonomy, exploration, imagination, and fun. It has very little to do with purchased playthings. In fact, structured programs and commercial toys actually tend to co-opt play.

Studies with rodents show those raised in enriched environments (toys and changing items in cage) have enhanced brain development compared to rats raised in a standard environment (plain cage, unchanging). We’ve misinterpreted these results. Rats don’t naturally live in boring, unchanging cages. They live in nature, which is by definition a challenging often constantly changing environment. In nature rats have far more complex lives than they ever might in a cage. Such an interesting life IS an enriched environment. It’s the same for children.

Sure there are devices that will “read” to a child. These are not more enriching than being read to by a responsive adult. And there are all sorts of adult-designed games. They’re not more fun or enticing than games kids make up on their own or with friends.

In fact, the overstimulation of blinking, beeping, passive entertainment isn’t beneficial for children. Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote in Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence that the overload of television, electronics, and too many toys dooms children to limited sensory awareness. Their brains and nervous systems accommodate intense bursts of sound, light, and color during their earliest years. Rather than developing the subtle awareness fostered by time spent in nature, in conversation, and in play they instead are wired to expect overstimulation. Without they’re bored.

And yet, so many people are amused when tiny children are clearly pushed to the limits by a toy too overwhelming for them

The children Will’s mother cleans for, who are kept busy in adult-run programs and spend their spare time with electronic distractions, don’t have Will’s advantages. As he plays and innovates he’s actually promoting the kind of learning that translates to a lifetime of passionate interests. Studies show that children who are free to explore their interests without adult pressure and interference  are more autonomous, eagerly pursuing excellence through healthy engagement rather than heavy-handed adult pressure.

Ask the oldest person you know to share some memories about play from his or her childhood. Chances are you’ll hear about pick-up games, handmade toys, and free time that spun long summer days into marvels of imagination. That’s what Will’s mother wants for her child.

play develops intelligence, benefits of free play, deprive your kids of toys, handmade toys,

Image courtesy of kruzy.deviantart.com

Published in Natural Life Magazine Nov/Dec 2011

Meaning of Life According To A Laundry Wench

 

Laundry Zen

I don’t meditate at an ashram or study ancient tracts.

I do laundry.

I’ve found a certain peace in this mundane task. When my family cries out, “Where are you?” I answer from the laundry room, “I’m looking for the meaning of life.”  (If I’m cooking, I answer, “Saving the world.”)  I used to say this sarcastically.

Sure, sometimes I resent the messy parts of motherhood. I was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. Right now I want to be right where I am, but when I’m gripping a pair of mud-encrusted socks my United Nations career aspirations do provide a stark contrast.

Wisdom gathers slowly. Very gradually I’ve learned that meaning can be encountered in everyday tasks. Even laundering. Gratitude comes to mind first. Conveniences do the real work. Right now my washing machine is purposefully churning away dirt and worse with my homemade laundry soap. Being clean is a luxury I take for granted.  I don’t have to haul and boil water, then scrub clothes with caustic lye soap. Generations before me labored this way. What’s saved is the most precious resource, time. It’s up to me to honor that resource by the way I spend my time elsewhere.

I’ve found that doing for others without expecting notice, let alone acclaim, also deepens my perspective. The simple physical act of sorting and folding causes my thoughts to drift effortlessly to my family.  As our children grow, laundry tasks change.  Booties give way to socks. Diapers to undies. We tuck matching outfits together for one child, clean away evidence of bedwetting for another, soak out menstrual blood for the newest of women. Their hand-me-downs remind us cousins and friends. The fibers themselves hold the bodies we love.

We may loathe inside out shirts and socks wadded into tight fists, but turning them right side out again is a simple gesture of kindness. The cycle of reciprocity may be largely invisible when children are small but my children are old enough to be of real service around our home and farm. Yes, I unfold their shirts but they bring in the eggs, stack firewood, wash the floors, and shovel manure. It’s a good trade off.

Sometimes symbolism pops up as a teacher.  My underwear works its way into a sleeve of my mate’s shirt, asking me how much closeness we have shared recently.  A disregarded sock toy hides behind the laundry basket till missed and appreciated again.  My oldest son, a man now, keeps T-shirts that are too small.  They mark the path behind him as he forges ahead in his quiet, earnest manner.  Sometimes the lint tray is resplendent with fuschia or blue fluff when a new towel graces the drier.  We’ve made clay from this dryer lint which, when cured, looks like artfully molded felt.  I guess meaning is wherever we see it.

Oddly, I was pleased when our drier kept giving out.  The repair guy came to our house so often that the company gave up and exchanged the machine for a new one.  By then I was used to hanging laundry outside. It didn’t take much extra time.  I loved to see the clothes swaying in the wind, them fold them against my belly as my grandmother used to do.  There is a cycle apparent in laundry just as there is in nature.  As clothes wear out in that circle of wear-wash-fold, wear-wash-fold, they remind me of eternity. I try to repurpose old pillowcases and jeans to give them a better shot at that eternity. And I still hang clothes most of the year.

The last gift of insight offered by laundry? Humor, a hint that one is on the right path, is often present when I pay attention to ordinary life.  I ‘lost’ something the other day. It wasn’t something I’d go around asking about.  I’d been wearing rayon pants at the time. I laundered them without a thought to my missing item.  I noticed nothing different when I pulled them on at the start of another busy day.  But then in a crowded elevator I saw something white creeping from the inside of my pant leg and, in a moment of ill advised curiosity, pulled it out.  It was my missing pantyliner, adhesive backing now mottled with lint. Apparently it had survived the rigors of laundering and nestled in my pant’s leg the whole day waiting for the right moment to give me the gift of laughter and humility. (I don’t think anyone on the elevator noticed what I was doing, but my snickering was hard to miss.)

Every task has truth to teach, something I hope my children learn from weekly chores.  The other day while my youngest child was washing the kitchen floor he said, “I can see pictures in the tiles that aren’t there from farther away.  It makes a difference how you look at things doesn’t it?”

Yes, yes it does.

Reprinted from The Mother

Confessions of a Subversive Cook

subversive cooking, sustainable household, inventive cooking, creative ingredient substitution,

It’s a family joke that I am unable to follow a recipe. Not a funny joke but completely true.

I can’t help myself. I tweak the kind of flours and fats, ramp up the spices, toss in a few extra ingredients, adjust the methods used. Yes this approach alters a recipe beyond recognition. But my family will admit the end result usually tastes good even if they like to ask, “Okay, now tell us what’s really in here.” That’s because I’ve been known to put chard in popsicles, beets in dip, and beans in brownies.

Sometimes I try, really try, to follow a recipe to the letter. There’s the real joke. Because when I do the results are awful. The casserole is tasteless, the biscuits are scratchy, and the cookies slump into pools of goo. Clearly improvising is the best route for me.

What I really like about improvisation is facing the challenge our great grandparents faced as they ran frugal households. The same challenge accepted by cooks every day all over the world. Very simply, to use everything well while wasting nothing. This is more about necessity than anything else. It means the cook knows what is in the garden, pantry, and refrigerator at all times. She knows a hard frost is coming, so the rutabagas can stay in the ground but the green tomatoes must be picked. She remembers that the potatoes in the pantry are starting to soften and must be used right away. She knows the lentils made two days ago have to be served or frozen.  She finds ways to use carrots going limp and cheese getting dry. She purees leftover soup to make sauce for an entrée and turns yesterday’s roast chicken into today’s enchiladas. In our current economy it’s not a game for many of us. This real life pursuit is more interesting and more rewarding than any competition faced on Top Chef.

I find the creative aspect downright addictive. So tonight, when our dinner guests called to say they were running late I realized I had time to make another dip to serve alongside our homemade salsa. I turned up the music and started pulling out potential leftovers. A few ounces of cream cheese abandoned when the asymmetrical but tasty homemade bagels ran out, a few spoonfuls of leftover canned chile in adobo sauce, a large cooked sweet potato. Probably doesn’t sound like a dip. Except to this recipe heretic.

I warm the cream cheese a little, then mash half the sweet potato with a fork and mix in a bit of the chile in adobo sauce. The texture is awful and the taste is nothing like dip. So I toss it in the blender. Nope, it’s too thick to blend. I add a dollop of sour cream. Blend. Oh, nice orange-y color. Taste? Needs something. I toss in a pinch of dry chipotle powder and a dash of salt. Blend. Taste. Needs more heat so I add a bit more chile in adobo sauce. Blend. Taste. It needs some freshness. I have green tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers but I don’t think I’m aiming for a raw element. Instead I pour off a tiny bit of the liquid from the salsa we canned. Blend. Oooh, it’s good. Still needs something to round off the strong edge. Hmmm. Maybe this sort of spicy will benefit from a little sweetness. I think about putting in applesauce but first try drop of our honey. I give the blender another whirl. Perfect!

The doorbell rings, the dogs bark, and our friends come in bringing lively conversation. My improvised dip is there on the table next to the salsa, waiting to be scooped up with blue chips. The colors are an aesthetic delight and the use of leftover ingredients satisfies my frugal heart. But what’s really a pleasure is watching the whole bowl emptied by friends who rave over the taste even after I confess that it’s made out of sweet potato. In a heavenly kitchen somewhere I hope those great grandmothers nod their approval.

*

Subversive Cook is now the title of my next book. I’m slow at work on it. See how you can contribute at subversivecook.com or get in touch with me using this site’s contact form. 

Me, a Radical Homemaker?

radical homemaker, frugal, simplicity, homeschool, farm, peace,

Okay, radical sounds hip. I can live with that. But homemaker?  The last few decades that word has been a synonym for drudgery. Besides, ask my kids who really does the dusting and vacuuming around here. They do.

What’s radical homemaking? Shannon Hayes wrote a wonderful book called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer CultureYes, I thought when I heard the term. Naming something gives it momentum. And the lifestyles of people defining for themselves what The Good Life is all about haven’t gone unnoticed so much as undefined. It doesn’t seem radical in the slightest to many of us who try to live simply, it just makes sense.

Thankfully Shannon pulls the pieces together. As she writes,

…each of us has a calling or right livelihood that enables us to serve the common good, and in finding this calling, we will be most happy. Few, if any spiritual teachings call us to seek the accumulation of money, stuff, power, or other purely selfish interests.  Further, in a life-serving economy, we individually accept responsibility for creating our own joys and pleasures.  We do not rely upon corporate America to sell us these things.  We take personal and collective responsibility for supplying many of our needs.  In taking these steps, we discover that true economic assets, unlike money, are intangible.

There’s nothing new about this. Most of our foremothers and fathers upheld frugality and scorned excess. Throughout history people have been growing and preserving food, making gifts, providing hands-on care for the young and old, repurposing materials, and finding meaning in pleasures that aren’t necessarily linked to spending money.

This sort of lifestyle simmers along quietly and purposefully while consumer culture runs at a full boil, generating heat over every new trend and news flash.

Somehow, in a world bristling with radical homemakers, I’ve been outed as one of the representatives. “A poster child,” claimed the journalist who trekked out to our little farm with her notebook in hand last week. I’m more comfortable interviewing others rather than being interviewed, but I put my trust in her expertise. I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult to talk about trying to place our interests beyond the shallow values of appearance as I sat there wearing a thrift shop shirt that had to be 20 years old. Well, until the photographer showed up. Judging by the anxiety that generated I’m still the product of an appearance-indicates-worth society. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I gave up all hope of looking 20 pounds lighter or remotely put together and kept talking.

And laughing. Her questions struck me funny. In fact, she came right out and asked, “Don’t people treat you as if you’re odd?”

Maybe they do but I always thought that’s because I’m sarcastic and tend to sing songs with made-up lyrics.

I told her about homeschooling and the intrinsic value of meaningful learning. I told her about our local food co-op, about making homemade tinctures and about using things until they wear out.

I tried to explain why I preferred to make sandwich buns over the weekend for a party here rather than buy them. “Was it part of your philosophy?” she asked. “Was it cheaper?”

I haven’t priced such buns at a store, I told her. I ground the grain, used eggs from our chickens, milk from our cow, and honey from our bees, then kneaded the dough and baked them that morning. It cost almost nothing in ingredients and very little in time. Yet it had more to do with deeper choices. But don’t write about the buns, I said, it makes me sound really annoying.

I’m sure I’m annoying (just ask my kids) but also I’m pretty relaxed. I’m comfortable with weeds in the garden (nature doesn’t like bare dirt anyway) and stacks of reading material everywhere. I make homemade pizza all the time but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally succumb to the greasy allure of what my kids call “real pizza” from a little carry out nearby. We don’t have money for things like vacations or video games, we do have time to sit around talking long after dinner is over.

When I was fresh out of college I planned to save the world. I’m beginning to see it’s possible to do so, simply by saving what’s important right in front of us.

*

Postscript: Thankfully I’m a small part of the finished article and the other radical homemaker piece I’ve been interviewed for doesn’t appear until this autumn in the Ladies Home Journal.