Thursday, December 31, 2009

Solstice and Another Year Ending

Uh. Well, Winter Break is almost over. Jules goes back in one week and that means the slothful gluttony of sleeping in has to come to a close. It has been rather enjoyable though.

Holidays are always a bit odd for us. We are not really on the Jesus-Was-The-Son-of-God side nor are we positioned on the mass consumerism side. As a result, we do not do Christmas. It isn't that we are opposed to Christmas; it just doesn't fit our family. There are Christmases with the grandparents which contain all the presents, sparkling trees, and fan fare for the Barracuda. But, for us, we are a Solstice family. I grew up in a small mill town with three Jewish families. Having now identified ourselves as a "Solstice Family" I completely understand what it must have been like for those children to have been in a "Jewish Family."

So let me explain just what all it means to be a Solstice Family. Solstice refers to the position of the planet as it orbits around the sun. There are two solstice days of the year and two equinox days. These are the days which mark the official changes of the season. Summer Solstice is when summer officially starts; it is the longest day of the year. Autumnal equinox is when autumn officially starts. Vernal equinox when spring officially starts. You get the idea. Basically it is when the Earth has moved another quarter around the Sun and the year is progressing. So the Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year and the last quarter of the Earth's journey.

In holiday terms, we celebrate the Earth resting after a long hard year. It is a quiet time for us to appreciate all that has come and gone, all that we have accomplished, and all the work which has been done well. We feast, enjoy each other, and celebrate the time as a family. Jules is off of work and we can see him during the day. We can sleep in, hunker down in front of a fire, and snuggle up together. There is no discussion of God or creation myth, though they are not specifically excluded. We just tend to focus our celebration more on taking a break from a hard year of work, and the recognition that another is to come. It is more the concept of how grateful we are for all that we have and can share with each other.

Over our Solstice, the Barracuda wakes up exceptionally early and comes to snuggle in bed with us. He will crawl in under the covers and snuggle for about a half hour before going to play computer games in his room. I secretly love this. Pretty soon he will be far too big to climb into bed with us, so for now I relishing our little man. Jules and I sleep in till an obnoxious hour and then we walk down to coffee. Nights we make a fire, play card games together, and enjoy our dinner talking all about the fun things we can do together the next day. It is a wonderful reconnection for our family.

There are no trees for us; no decorations, no Santa, elves, or North Pole. Suprisingly, there are also very few presents. The family gets one large gift for all of us to share. The gift is intended to bring us closer together and gives us a year to grow on. Last year, we received Guadalupe and she has been quite a wonderful contribution to our household (even if sometimes I consider turning her into a very nice, furry pillow). She has been quite the lesson in patience, responsibility, and companionship for the Barracuda. She will also rip the face off of anyone who might hurt my boy and that makes a mommy sleep a little better at night. As you can see from the picture, she isn't spoiled at all.

This year, we gifted ourselves with music. The Barracuda has always had a thing for music. Somehow it is just in his blood. He didn't get it from Jules or I, but we very much enjoy trying to foster this love in multiple ways. Jules received a much anticipated banjo, I promised myself more time to play my neglected guitar, and the Barracuda got his very first guitar. The Barracuda has been perfecting rhythm with a bongo style drum. He can play along as I play my guitar and can find the rhythm in songs from our Ipod. We figured this year he can begin to learn strum patterns and possibly the fingerings for chords. As a family we can begin creating music together.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


So what does our family do without television? We build an 8 foot catapult and launch miscellaneous objects (basketballs, baseballs, the Barracuda's shoe) over our side fence and into the neighbor's yard.

Uh, was really cool!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Rainwater Usage: Washing Clothes

More and more, I'm realizing that this whole urban homesteading thing is a trade off. You can't always use the route which takes less energy without completely encumbering your life. You can't always take the most environmentally friendly option without taking so much time that the work becomes infeasible. In such instances I am forced by sheer practicality to do a trade off.

The major trade off in our house is with laundry. Starting in about March, we can dry our clothes outside on the fabulous umbrella stand drying line. The whole family likes the therapeutic slowness of both hanging the clothes up and then taking them down. It is a process which cannot be done quickly and forces you to enjoy the warm breeze in the sun. Something about drying clothes this way just oozes summer. The trade off comes in that without the rain, the barrels we have are used to water our veggies and not wash our clothes. No rain means the clothes will dry outside, but there is no excess of water for all the other tasks of our household. Though there is physically enough water which falls from the sky during the rainy season for us to stockpile for the summer, we would have to have barrels all over our yard in order to store it all. So, once it hits about October and the excessive rains set in on goes the dryer. A major bummer. (Though I'm looking into year round drying outdoors. We will see.)

Likewise, this time of year (the rainy season) there is plenty of water to use. We can wash all our clothes with rainwater. The task of carrying five gallon buckets of water through the house might sound to some like a completely cumbersome idea. I quite like it however; it is much cheaper than a gym membership.

Much like with the toilet, I had no frame of reference as to how much water our washing machine used. You just pull out the little knob, close the lid, and it does its thing. I will preface this by saying, we don't have an energy efficient washer and it definitely isn't a water efficient model. It is an older top loader. The capacity isn't teensy, but it isn't like some of the newer ones that can wash 7 pairs of jeans at once. We get about 2 giant Jules sized pairs and a few other things. It is just a standard household washer.

At this point in the rainy season, our rain barrels have been cleaned and the bleach water has completely cycled through. When you fill a bucket, it is completely clear, non-bleachy smelling water. So I figured I'd try it for clothes.

I turn all the knobs as if I was going to do a standard load, put the clothes in, and pull out the knob for the basin to begin filling with water. I then quickly push the knob back in. At this point, the washer is now ready to fill with water. Normally it would be filling itself, but I now manually fill it. (This will not work if you have a front loading washer. There is no way to manually fill your washer as the whole water sensor and fill system is different and computerized.) I thought maybe a five gallon bucket of water, maybe two. Well, no. Our standard household washer takes almost 4 full five gallon buckets of water to fill. That's almost 20 gallons a wash. Holy Crapoly! That is 100 gallons a week on a busy week. It is at least 50 every single week. To be able to easily mitigate that much water usage seems a no-brainer.

I fill the washer up to just under where it would normally stop filling itself. The detergent goes in and I pull out the knob. Usually the washer fills itself for only a second or two more before the water sensor kicks telling the washer it is full enough and the cycle starts. For the most part it is almost exactly the same as when I did it before. This way is only slightly more labor intensive, but I have a feeling it is going to kill the water bill a tad.

Let me add a little bit here about washing machines. Many companies are phasing out top loader machines. They are seen as outdated and not as swanky. Not only that, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to make a top loading machine water efficient. (The water efficiency doesn't matter as much to us since we aren't using any city water.) However, you can make them energy efficient and there are a few companies still doing that. Many of these top loaders are available for tax incentives and rebates through state and federal programs. So, if you are like us and do not want to drop the cash (or household remodel) necessary to hook up a water barrel cistern/system but still want to be energy efficient, a top loader is where it is at.

One thing is for sure, washing clothes this way is definitely helping my biceps.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Baby, It's Cold Outside

When I woke up this morning it was 12 degrees outside. It is now a balmy and positively smoldering 18 degrees. We are not projected to get above freezing today and haven't broken freezing all week. Supposedly, by Friday we are going to be skyrocketing up to a high of 37 degrees. Whoo Dolly! Break out the shorts!

When I went out to get water for the dishes yesterday, the nozzles wouldn't turn. It took me a second before the realization occurred that I shouldn't force them. It appears that all five of our 55 gallon drums are frozen solid. Complete ice boulders. When Jules and I first discussed attempting to pull off of city water for the majority of our household, this concept came up. However, it was dismissed because how on earth could our temperate zone get cold enough, long enough, without any rain/snow/freezing rain to cause a 55 gallon drum of water to freeze tight? We would be using them; water would be cycling. We don't get snow here, and even when we do, it isn't like it is that cold. Well, this year it is. Last year we had 3 weeks of completely snowed in. We're talking feet. Our city completely shut down. Even though we were going stir crazy (we were saved by a crazed break for the grocery store to pick up formula for the neighbors) we still had water.

It appears one of the drawbacks of having the barrels raised on a stand is that the frigid air can circulate around them, causing a complete lack of insulation. If they were placed directly on the ground, the dirt could keep the bottoms slightly warmer and possibly keep the lower portion of the barrel able to still freely flow. With some circulation you might be able to prevent the complete lock up of the system.

Luckily our auxiliary barrels get sun for about 6 hours a day. They have managed to thaw out in the centers enough for me to cycle some water and keep them running. It isn't as though the water doesn't come out of the tap, but in January we are going to attempt an even further removal from city water. We hadn't planned on the concept of having 85 percent of our water unattainable due to being frozen. If it thaws at all this next week, I'm going to attempt to acquire three more auxiliary barrels and fill them as fast as possible. This will put our total count at 12. Next year we might try to figure out a way to have them slow drip, however that might actually work out for the worst. If the water forms icicles and expands in the spigot, it could bust clean. We would have no way to fix the barrels or drain them. When the weather warmed the foundation of the house probably couldn't take that much water all at once.

So, for now, we will hunker down with our fire and slowly circulate any water we can. I will say, though, learning to live with the seasons puts you so much closer to what is actually going on around you. There is no denying just how cold it is outside (that would be hard to miss regardless). However, the time frame of the cold has a different perspective for me now. Before, it was just the flip of a household switch. We'd go to bed in a warm house, wake up in a warm house, and only experience the cold when going to and from the car. To realize that in almost 168 hours the temperature hasn't been above 32 degrees is a concept which would have been foreign to me before now. Nature now impacts my life daily, time has a new feeling, and I'm experiencing the world through a new perspective.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Leaves a fallin'

Having a large tree in our front yard means a few great things. The main one this time of year is leaves. We are rolling in leaves. There are leaves in our compost bin. There are leaves in our street. There are leaves keeping our strawberries warm at night. There are leaves in our fallow garden beds. There are leaves and leaves and leaves.

Before our urban homesteading, I never really thought much about how much you can do with a large pile of leaves. They are an amazing resource that is so often overlooked as a nuisance. In our household, leaves are a family affair. We all don hats, gloves, and sweaters to go out and manhandle the leaves into appropriate places. They fall for a good month or more, so there are many to go around.

Our non-food waste compost bin gets them first. The Barracuda scours the yard for any large sticks, dog toys, or other items which might not get along very well with the lawn mover. Jules then plows over them with the mower cutting them into little bits. The leaf bits are layered into the bin with about an 18 inch layer of leaves, six inches of dirt, 18 inches leaves, six inches dirt, etc. In the spring when it comes time to do planting the compost will be ready.

The next place for our leaves is into the wheelbarrow to dump on the strawberry patch. Strawberries can't handle much by way of cold. They begin to harden themselves off when shorter days begin and after a few colder nights, but sometimes nitrogen depletion can cause them to weaken instead. After one or two nights below freezing, covering strawberries with some form or mulch or row cover can greatly improve their chances of spring production and an injury free winter. They gained the name strawberries because straw has always been the preferred mulch. Our household is a bit low on straw, but oh do we have leaves! So wheel barrow after wheel barrow of leaves get dumped onto the strawberry patch to provide a nice blanket from our icy, cold nights. The Barracuda is partial to helping spread them out.

The compost bin and strawberry patch take care of most all the early blustery days. However, now that we are into December, most of the leaves have fallen causing both strawberries and compost to be quite full. The last place the leaves go is into the raised beds to condition the soils for next years planting. Though there isn't much by way of nutritional benefits to leaf mold, it causes great water retention in the soils. Being able to retain more water, gives our plants an added benefit over the summers when no rain falls. Secondly, leaf mold provides a wondrous place for micro-bacteria, fungi, and earthworms within the soils. So, though it does not directly provide much to the plants, indirectly the benefits are numerous.

Our raised beds get a layer of leaves, and then a small layer of dirt over the top to keep them down. Just before the snow kicks in, thick black tarping from the hardware store will be nailed down over the whole bed to keep the weeds, various critters, and Guadalupe out. It will also help keep in the heat to allow everything to cook down nicely.

The Barracuda's favorite part of this whole "yard work" thing is being able to stomp the leaves down before the dirt goes on top. Stomping, or even standing, in any of the raised beds usually elicits me screaming out the kitchen window something to the effect of, "What are you doing?!?" or "Get out of there!" When it comes to the leaf mold, I encourage it. The Barracuda is heavy enough to crunch up the leaves and compact them enough to keep the wind away, but far lighter than Jules or me.

Throughout the process of our leaf dispersal, Guadalupe supervises. She is quite fold of wrestling with the Barracuda and loves it when he throws piles of leaves at her. She wiggles about in them, tosses them with her nose, and they cause her to sneeze. Another favorite activity is gnawing at any fallen sticks which the Barracuda has piled up and then trotting around with a stick placed in her mouth quite proud of herself to be in the front yard. In general, she has a grand time.

The Barracuda is right there with her when it comes to enjoyment. Many breaks are taken to run around with each other, throw leaves about, and play competitive games with how fast we can rake or how large a pile we can make. After all, all work and no play means that he doesn't want to come out and help. Currently, doing yard work is merely part of being a member of our family. It is expected for him to come and help.

So far, he hasn't figured out yet that this is work. Hopefully we can keep that up a couple more years.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


So what does our family do without television? We make atlatls (ancient dart throwers) and fletch three foot long darts so we can practice killing pizza boxes in our backyard.

Jules can fling a dart upwards of 80 yards.