Monday, March 31, 2008

Here Come's the Sun

It has been neither a long nor lonely winter. Yet, spring rushes in a burst of strawberries and daffodils, asparagus and tulips. It is time to bid goodbye to the dark days of winter and with them, the Dark Days Eat Local Challenge.

Of all the challenges I've participated in, to date, this one has affected me the most. I undertook the challenge with an earnest intent to eat locally grown produce through out winter. I soon realized that eating local goes beyond produce and beyond the farmers' market - though that is the best place to start. Like a detective, I kept my eyes open for local sources for other food stuffs. While hiking in a mystical manzanita forest near my parents' home, I came across an ancient mill, powered by a two hundred year old water wheel, that ground a variety of wheat and corn flour. At the recommendation of another dark day-er, I lurked through the aisles of the independent health food store and uncovered additional flours and baking additives that are locally milled and processed. I began to make more and more of our food from scratch and developed an adventurous streak in the kitchen.

On this, the last week of the challenge, I intended to go out with a bang but it was my oven that went out instead. Waiting for the repair man, we've feasted on frozen food - not the Lean Cuisines of years past but frozen portions from meals I cooked throughout winter: sweet potato gnocchi, pumpkin soup, winter squash risotto and slow cooker vindaloo (inspired by a fellow dark day-er). We've also dined on our share of local salads and omelets, from local pastured eggs from the buying club I host, stuffed with local cheese, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and asparagus, and quesadillas made from buying club cheese and locally made tortillas and paired with homemade Spanish rice.

Even as I welcome spring, laden with her peas, fava beans and rhubarb, I will miss those dark days. I will miss Not-So-Urban-Hennery's thoughtful recaps of each participant's meals. I will miss checking out the other dark-dayers blogs, like a peeping tom peering in through a foggy window to discern what delights they are cooking this week. I won't, however, miss the surprise of a new recipe that is truly seasonal, the sample of an untried fruit or vegetable from the farmers' market, or the joy of an undiscovered local food source. I will still be experiencing all of those things. The challenge lasted only a season. Its impact will last indefinitely.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Kindly Hand Me My Cape . . .

I leisurely cruised the blogosphere this morning, making a quick pit stop at all of my favorite blogs and checking in on the green news. Some people were talking about Earth Hour, others about the joys of the farmers' markets and still others about socializing in the green scene. All interesting, thought provoking stuff.

Then I hit Crunchy Chicken's blog. She had a post up about her project to provide teenage girls in Africa with reusable menstrual pads - a grassroots effort that she has dubbed Goods 4 Girls. I'll admit that, while I am aware of this campaign, I have not been involved in it or even donated to it . . . yet. Crunchy ended her post by begging for help. The demand for her "goods for girls" has far outstripped her supply such that she needs help spreading the word and gathering more donations. That she is pleading for help got my attention. This is a woman who appears to easily juggle working outside the home, two young children, a husband fighting an incurable form of cancer, while churning out insightful, entertaining daily posts, orchestrating Internet-wide environmental challenges and creating an organization designed to help girls half way around the world. This is not a woman who asks for help and, if she is asking for my help (and yours), you bet I'm going to give it to her.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote that the "cure" to global warming "involved reaching down into ourselves and pulling out a new kind of person." (Animal Vegetable Miracle, p. 345). I've wondered for some time what Ms. Kingsolver meant by that and what kind of person we would need to pull out. I'm thinking it needs to be someone like Crunchy. A doer. Someone who sees a problem and sets about trying to fix it. Someone who doesn't stop to doubt what impact they might have or whether it will be too hard or too tiring or take too long. Someone who will take a risk and speak up. Someone who lives according to their ideals. A twenty-first century super hero.

We don't all have to go out and start a foundation to help African teens. But let's not let Crunchy take all the glory! As far as I can tell, she is not gifted with great wealth, access to the Oval Office, the I.Q. of Einstein (though her graphics do show a touch of genius), or even x-ray vision. There is no reason that we cannot, like Crunchy and other green super heroes, get off the couch and write a letter to the editor about a city's ban on recycling or ask for filtered water at work or advocate a no idling zone at our kids' schools. Even packing a waste free lunch, biking to errands, being the only person on your block to rip out their grass, or convincing a reluctant spouse to turn down the hot water heater are heroic actions. Are we up to the challenge? Can we pull out that new kind of person Ms. Kingsolver envisioned?

Kindly hand me my cape. There's a phone booth with my name on it and carbon emissions to be saved.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Conveniently Simple

You read the news: collapsing ice shelves, retreating glaciers, drugs in the drinking water, and plastic oceans. You want to live greener but you work, your spouse works, the kids are in school and have softball on the weekends and you try to cram quality time in whenever you can. Internet searches for environmentally friendly changes turn up people making their own butter, trekking to ancient water wheeled mills for local flour, and eating food grown within 100 feet of their homes. Sure, it sounds interesting but with what time? Eco-bloggers blame the decay of our planet on the conveniences that allow you to make it through the day - the short cut to dinner, the cleaner house quicker, the fast packed lunchbox. Can you eschew these conveniences and still get to work on time? Is the "simple life" out of reach?

I don't think so. A simpler life is accessible to everyone and what follows are a few changes that are, in my opinion, conveniently simple. All of the following will help the environment, most will help your checking account balance and a fair amount will also leave you with more time. Hopefully, readers will add their own ideas to this list.

  • Use Dr. Bronner's soap to avoid 1,4 Dioxane, which is a known carcinogen and appears in most dish soaps including "environmentally friendly" ones.
  • Run the dishwasher only when full. Turn off the drying cycle and let dishes air dry.
  • Turn down the settings on your fridge and freezer and keep both full for more efficient usage.
  • Buy bulk packages of yogurt, crackers, and such and, repackage them in reusable containers for lunches and snacks on the go.
  • Swap out juice boxes and water bottles for reusable bottles, like Sigg or Kleen Kanteen.
  • Switch to rags or dishtowels in lieu of paper towels; cloth napkins in lieu of paper. Our used towels and napkins go in the hamper with the rest of the laundry and I haven't noticed an appreciable difference in the amount of laundry I do.
  • Whenever you home cook, double your patch. Freeze leftovers in single meal sized portions. Now you have a frozen dinner that is healthier, better tasting, has no packaging and costs less than a Lean Cuisine.
  • Look into a CSA (community supported agriculture) or buying club for delicious, sustainable food delivered to a home near you. This is even easier than supermarket shopping because you can leave the kids in the car while you grab your box of goodness from a neighbor's front porch. ;-)
  • Make your coffee at home. Kicking the Starbucks habit obviates the need to carry a reusable mug, saves some dough and allows you to control (1) the type of coffee (look for shade grown, fair trade and/or organic; all three is best), (2) the filter used (go for a reusable filter is best or ones made with recycled paper), and (3) disposal of filter and grounds (compost!). With a programmable coffee maker, you'll save time (and gas) by not hitting Starbucks and have your cup of joe waiting when you get up in the morning.


  • For kids, trade clothes with friends, playgroup members or relatives. Used clothes have no carbon footprint!
  • Wash clothes in cold water and use half the detergent called for.
  • Only do full loads of laundry.
  • Wash your clothes less. Are you jeans dirty after an evening out at a restaurant? Do your kids need to have their pj's washed every day or will once a week suffice? Lowering your clean clothes standard saves time, money and energy.
  • Have less stuff. This takes more time initially but, clean out your closets, your dresser drawers, your desk drawers and sell items on Craigslist, freecycle them, or donate them to a local charity. The more stuff you own, the more time and money you need to spend organizing it, cleaning it, storing it. Just get rid of it (and don't buy more). I promise you won't miss it.

  • Unplug the TV, DVD player and computer when not in use. We keep our TiVo directly plugged in so it still records but switch everything else off via a power strip.
  • Use less light (after switching to CFLs). We have one CFL light bulb on at night in our family room. We adjusted quickly to the dimmer lighting and, when guests come over and turn on the overhead lights, feel somewhat blinded.
  • Don't renew magazine subscriptions. You can get the same information on the Internet and will reduce paper waste. Also, if you're like me, I felt compelled to read a magazine that I might otherwise not when it landed in my mailbox. Reading it took time as did moving it from pile to pile before I actually found the time to flip through it.
  • Turn off the TV. Not completely. But maybe one night a week or one hour less a night. Life Less Plastic recently divulged that Americans watch 4 hours and 35 minutes a day of television. Holy American Idol! That's a lot of winding down - and a lot of found time in an otherwise hectic day.
  • Read a book. Animal Vegetable Miracle is a beautifully written, accessible and low stress memoir about a dual income family's attempt to eat locally. Reserve it from your local library or buy it used at Abe's Books. Other great reads are Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic and Your Money or Your Life.

  • Adjust your sprinklers for rain and slowly reduce the amount of time they are on. Less water often makes plants grow deeper roots, which is healthier for them and your water bill.
  • Compost. Many counties offer subsidized compost bins. I got a $200 Smith & Hawken compost bin for thirty bucks. I keep a covered bowl under the kitchen sink and toss my produce scraps and egg shells in it. It is more a change of habit than a time suck. Further, I am the world's laziest composter - I dump the stuff in but never take the time to "turn" the compost or even cover it up with brown leaves. I know gardeners everywhere are cringing over that. Even so, I've diverted tons of food scraps from the landfill and reduced our garbage output so much so that, after we began composting, we were able to go from two trashcans a week to one at a monthly savings of $10 on our garbage bill.
  • If you take care of your yard yourself, use a reel mower and leave the grass to decay on your lawn. This is called grasscycling and is great for the environment and your lawn. Also, be lazy and let leaves decompose where they fall. This is nature's way of maintaining a balance, providing habitat to wildlife and freeing up your time.
Finally, one of the most important things about going green is getting over the idea that a simple life means hauling buckets of greywater, being cold, and wearing pleated pants that come up to your arm pits. Okay, you may eventually do some of those things but please, God, not the pants! For now, though, find a hobby that is related to living more meaningfully and that you can introduce to your kids if you have them and start small, very small.
When I began my green evolution, I read a number of articles about the huge percentage of emissions associated with our industrial food chain. I was inspired to go to the farmers' market occasionally - one or twice a month. The food was so good, the music rockin', the people so nice, though, that I began to go regularly, bringing my husband and the kids along for the adventure. And then I started cooking all that wonderful food, trying new recipes, attempting my own versions of store bought favorites. A year later, I find myself eating almost entirely outside of the industrial food system. It occurred almost unconsciously. Certainly, this takes more time than eating take out, prepackaged meals or even home-cooked from Whole Foods produce. I don't even notice the time. It is not drudgery or even effort at this point. This is now how I unwind and one way I connect with my kids. But this is me. You are different.
Michael Pollan wrote, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, that as alternative food systems develop, we'll see many different ways of eating sustainably. The same can be said for living more ecologically. We all need to find our own road to a better life.
If you enjoy gardening, plant an herb pot or clear a small space to plant a mini vegetable garden with the kids. You'll end up with more time outdoors, some exercise, habitat for wildlife in your own yard, and children who are likely more willing to "eat their vegetables."
If nature rings your bell, opt for a vacation at a state park instead of an exotic locale or amusement park. You'll reconnect with your family without the distraction of the electronic world, slash your travel emissions and give your children the gift of a wild place in their hearts.
If you seek exercise, walk or bike to errands - even if it's only once a week. The whole family can walk or bike to a park, a restaurant, or to get a frozen yogurt. Or you can bike to the grocery store to get a little solitude.
Living lighter means different things to different people. We all live in different places, have different circumstances and make what changes work for us. The only sure thing is that the simple life is conveniently addictive. Once you start living it, you'll never go back. Your former life will seem both too much and not enough.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Murder at Midnight

All February, I busily tucked seeds and seedlings in the ground here and there: shelling peas under the bedroom window with a tomato cage accommodatingly placed so, when the tiny seedlings burst through the soft soil, they can reach and roam at their leisure. Radish seedlings pushing their little faces toward the sun only days after we planted their earlier-seed selves. Farmers' market lettuce seedlings - purple and green bouquets of lacy leaves - slipped in, while their older siblings, bolt and move to the compost heap.

This March has been unusually warm and dry. I can recall only one storm so far and, even as I lament the dire need for rain, I'm shuffle through my seed packets, plucking out sunflowers, pumpkins and runner beans - which my local gardening book promises I can (and should) plant now.

Yesterday, while out sprinkling my babies with shower warm up water, I bent over to examine some stubs around the cages meant for crawling peas. My seedlings had been shorn down to the dirt. Clutching my heart and raising a hand to my forehead (for affect), I had a flashback to last summer. Before I'd been bitten by the vegetable garden bug, I was all about the flowers, particularly sunflowers. I had yanked out some low maintenance shrubbery, added compost and weeded the soil along my back fence. Then, I gingerly buried two packets worth of Mammoth sunflower seeds in a row, speckled with several adolescent sunflowers purchased from my local nursery. I envisioned a line of shaggy, seeded heads come fall. What I got, though, were tiny seedlings, slayed bite by bite by some slimy slugs.

The pea seed evidence was in. Murder had been done last midnight. A verdict was reached. It was time for slug soup.

1 Tablespoon yeast
3 cups warm water
3 Tablespoons sugar

Dissolve yeast in water, then mix in sugar. Let mixture sit a bit until foamy. Leave outside in shallow containers (like plastic lids) for the snails and slugs to enjoy their last meal.

I know what you are thinking.

You are right. You can do the same thing with beer but, honestly, who wants to waste a perfectly good bottle on those voracious little critters.

Oh, you weren't thinking that? Well, you are also right in that you can hand pick them. I've spent many an hour out in my garden, in the dead of night, under the glow of a single flashlight, harvesting snails and slugs. I do need to sleep though and, with my infestation of tiny slugs, I could spend a week's worth of full nights hand picking and only then make a dent in the population. More importantly, I'm a bit squeamish about all that picking and stomping and, truth be told, kind of sad to have a violent hand in the creatures' demise. Look at that picture. There is something cute about a snail or slug - when it isn't mowing through my 100 foot produce.

Besides, drowning in a frothy little blend of locally processed yeast and organic, fair trade sugar seems a sweeter way to go - and I can dispatch 30 to 50 of those crawlies a night. Will my seedlings survive this year to grow into the garden I've dreamed of? Will Slug Soup save the day? Do you know of a kinder, more efficient way to rid my vegetable gardens of its hungry residents? Who will actually be murdered at midnight - the plants or the slugs?

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Piece of Apple

The clock flashes 5:04. There is it again - the noise that awoke me. The window shakes, rain hammers against the window and wind sears the darkness. A selfish thrill surges through me. Today is the farmers' market! The half flat of organic strawberries that I bought on Wednesday are gone. Long gone. I've been hankering to hit the Saturday market ever since I bite into that last scarlet berry. Unfortunately, my husband is out of town which leaves me with two banshees spirited boys and a busy marketplace. This rain will hurt the farmers' business, I think guiltily, but it will keep the crowds away and allow me to manage both my dynamic duo and spring's load of fresh produce.

By eight o'clock, last night's rain storm is a distant memory though cottony clouds still speckle the sky. By ten o'clock, we've arrived to an overflowing parking lot. As we clamber out of the car, the bass of the folk band thrums through the vendors, produce and people - too many people. I assign each boy a canvas bag, more as a diversionary tactic though I could use some real help.

"Where is the honey lady," demands my three year old, swinging the green bag over his shoulder and scanning the umbrellas like a pro.

"She's here," confirms my oldest, shading his eyes. "I want a blue honey stick," he announces dragging his bag across the asphalt.

Our first stop, much to the boys' chagrin, is not the honey lady but Mike, the cheese guy. Nonplussed, my littlest samples the Veggie Jack while Mike and I make small talk. I buy a few ounces of Smoked Jack and Firehouse Cheddar. The elderly farmer who grows peas coast-side is also here but sadly offering only dried beans and Brussels sprouts this week. We get four pounds of cranberry and white beans for ten dollars. "Ten dollars," I gape but he assures me it is the right price and again apologizes for the lack of peas. "In a few weeks ma'am," he promises. I divvy the beans up amongst the boys' bags and my oldest, who could live on a diet of beans and ketchup, delivers a heartfelt thank you.

The big guy spots Auntie M arranging her navel oranges. He takes off with his younger brother behind him, canvas bags flapping at their sides. Of course, Auntie M welcomes them with a slice of her carefully stored Fuji apples. While I fill our produce bag with her apples and citrus, she doles out raisins and almonds. We thank her - or I thank her - the boys' mouths are too full to talk and move on.

Rodriguez Farms is here, I note, spotting their clean red tent with the farm name neatly printed across the awning. This is their first appearance at the weekly farmers' market which means strawberries are not only available but overflowing. I recognize my friend, Kristina, on a return trip for more strawberries. "We already ate two baskets," she confides "and we haven't even gotten to the car yet." She buys another three pack as her toddlers squirm in the shaded double stroller. While we talk, Mr. Rodriguez plies my boys with samples. By the time they've gone through four large berries, I start to feel guilty. These boys will eat every last berry if I don't intervene, I think, and wave good-bye to my friend. I ask for a half flat and, because I cannot manage the unwieldy half flat and the unwieldy boys, we return to the car to lighten our load.

I don't often buy baked goods at the farmers' market. Well, occasionally, I can't resist the fresh baked flan but, in general it's all about the produce. Today, though, a plate of cookie samples signals through the increasing crowd to my boys and they end up in front of it trying two of each variety. We settle on their favorite and I buy four. "Cookies are in season!" the oldest shouts, waving his gnawed treat in the air. He is quickly joined by my little guy. "Yeah, it's cookie season, it's cookie season." Their dance takes us past some beautiful looking tomatoes and heirloom tomato plants. I grab a couple of the tomatoes and adopt Big Rainbow, a handsome looking seedling that needs a home.

The green umbrella for Nunez Organic Farms is our next stop and the teen manning the stall waves some baby carrots at my boys, beckoning them to try her produce. They oblige, alternatively nibbling on the carrots and fighting over whether to get the golden Swiss Chard or the "rainbow" Swiss Chard. The latter carries the day as do a few artichokes and some carrots.

Rounding the corner, I see our source for pastured eggs - an unassuming blue ice chest tucked amongst buckets of flowers. Weighed down by the full bags billowing out from my shoulders, I deem it impossible to navigate the customers and flowers to get to the gloved farmer in the back of the stall. I send my five year old back to pay for the eggs. He comes back with two quarters which we decide he can hold on to for honey sticks.

We pass the nut farmer - a sweet, older man with a thick accent. The boys are delighted and wonder aloud whether M&Ms are in season. Neither the farmer nor I have a clue what they are talking about until they point out the chocolate candies on his hat. He laughs and offers them chocolate covered pistachios which my oldest pronounces better than M&Ms. We buy a bag of plain pistachios which the little guy snatches and stuffs into his bag.

We stop to purchase lettuce, asparagus and radishes from another organic farmer who hands the boys some snap peas. Next stop, the honey lady! While I select a large jar of honey, the boys divide the quarters and each select a fluorescent purple honey stick. Grape flavor? They wait until the nose-ringed vendor finishes with another customer and then give her their quarters. She laughingly thanks them and gives them a second stick for free - "to take home" she smiles.

Sticky-faced, we meander back to the car. I load the bags in the front and my oldest begs for one of Auntie M's apples. After buckling them in, I hand back two green and red swirled apples and turn on the ignition. As the market fades behind us, I ask the boys what their favorite treat was. Predictably, the littlest pronounces honey sticks the winner. The big guy stops munching and is silent for a moment. "Auntie M's crunchy apple." The sound of eating resumes and we head home.

So how was it managing a crowded market with two boisterous boys, a half flat of strawberries, and five bursting canvas bags? Piece of cake. Or more aptly, piece of apple, a handful of raisins and almonds, some snap peas, four or five strawberries, some baby carrots, cookie samples, a chunk of Veggie Jack, chocolate covered nuts and four honey sticks.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Risky Business

Before I began eating locally - and therefore seasonally - we ate quite a bit of convenience food: Thai take out, Whole Foods packaged Indian food, alphabet shaped french fries and frozen pizza. Nonetheless, I considered myself a fair cook. I could stir up a pot of pasta and top it off with a six dollar jar of spaghetti sauce. When pressed, I could make a savory tofu and veggie stir fry. For the most part, though, my cooking never ventured into fancier fare. I never veered from the dictates of a recipe without an hour's sojourn on the Internet to find a universally accepted replacement. Those days are over.

Cooking with the seasons is not for stiffs or cowards. Rigidly following recipes will get you nowhere as most available recipes are not seasonal - even if they claim otherwise. Substitutions must be made willy nilly - depending on what is in the fridge, the pantry, the garden. After a few months of cooking this way, recipes become vague suggestions for a "type" of meal. Fear of change evaporates as virtually every visit to the farmers' market or your CSA box ushers in or out some different produce. To cook seasonally is risky business.

Because I also undertook to write about our meals, in joining the Dark Days Eat Local Challenge, I couldn't cook the same thing all winter long. It had nothing to do with "appetite fatigue" and everything to do with pride. My little local salads were quickly trampled by the galettes, homemade pasta, and canapes of the dauntless Dark Day-ers.

Not to be outdone, I tackled more complex menus. By the time winter dissolved in a burst of Northern California asparagus and strawberries, I had became fearless. There is nothing (vegetarian) I won't make, nothing I won't try. I laugh in the face of processed food. I scoff at fast food joints and furiously take notes at better restaurants. I bake tarts with homemade butter, whip meringue cookies into the likeness of store bought ones, make my own tortillas and Spanish rice to avoid a trip to the taqueria and outdeliver the pizza man. I am a daredevil in the kitchen.

That is why I didn't think twice when I remembered a most memorable sweet potato gnocchi from my favorite vegan eatery. I surfed the Internet for ideas on how to put together gnocchi. Apparently, you can make this stuff from scratch instead of buying it shrink wrapped at Trader Joe's. Better yet, it is pretty simple to make and much tastier.

Using farmers' market sweet potatoes, slow sieved local ricotta, non-local Parmesan cheese, locally milled gluten free flours, fair trade organic brown sugar, and fair trade nutmeg, I assembled the gnocchi. After popping the little dumplings in boiling water until they bobbed to the surface, I caramelized them in a local butter and sage sauce and served them with farmers' market artichokes and asparagus roasted with local olive oil, salt and pepper.

Without risk, there is no reward . . . or at least no gnocchi.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Foothold

I make my home among the rows of houses and shops choking Silicon Valley's edge. On the other side of the freeway, an emptying reservoir and yawning manzanitas crawl over the undeveloped hills to the ocean. On this side, the homes - tight little 1940's bungalows interspersed with towering McMansions that eat up entire lots, leaving no room for a yard, back or front - line up like soldiers along straight sidewalk-lined streets. The green grass of our parks stretch around wood-chipped play grounds and encircle open sand boxes. Any oak showing the slightest sign of disease is efficiently hacked down and a shiny play structure or water feature erected in its place. Wildflowers and weeds are trimmed back or sprayed. The occasional sparrow perches amongst the "topped" park trees and my boys can sometimes search out a lonely spider. This is our outdoors.

Last summer, tucked in my snug neighborhood, I read Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. I struggled to turn each page, to read another sentence, and, as I pushed through each chapter, I felt more suffocated, more heartbroken and more scared for my boys, for their generation. We've created a generation of plugged in children, who are strangers to outdoor living, to unfettered wilderness and unstructured time in it. How likely would my boys be to wander off into the woods unsupervised, to build a fort there, to dam a creek, to unearth polliwogs, to truly interact with nature as the author insisted they must?

I looked around my own neighborhood - at our clean schools, mowed lawns, lack of climbing trees - and wondered how to expose my children to nature at her finest, or even at her lowest. The author urged that even those of us in more urban environments can look to empty lots (there is no such thing on the San Francisco Peninsula) or unmanicured corners of parks to explore nature through the seasons, to investigate the small creatures living there.

Determinedly, we set out in search of local wild places. We uncovered a few forgotten hikes amongst the tightly knit homes of the Bay Area - a few walks where wild flowers still spotted an otherwise barren hill and calls of birds could be heard. For the most part, though, those hikes were too demanding for preschoolers and our passage through them too fleeting. Still, we marveled that such places could still exist and treasured them for what they were - a touch of the natural in our otherwise unnatural life.

We offered nature a corner of our tiny yard, leaving weeds to roam, fallen leaves to disintegrate and one morning we discovered a newt hiding in the debris. We set out bird feeders, a bird bath, and plants that would feed and provide habitat. Again, success. Birds appeared from Lord knows where and our yard is now a teeming haven for pecking, digging and nesting. A sole toad made his home in our undisturbed cover crop and dragonflies hover overhead.

Still, though, I yearned for the idyllic vision of my boys splashing in a creek, catching frogs, crossing by way of a log bridge, discovering hiding places amongst overgrown trees. Visiting my family in the country, we caught glimpses of this dream but they lasted only for a few days. Until last week.

The boys and I met a friend at a local park one city over. We'd visited this park many times. The playground is enclosed to prevent escapees and the slides and tunnels are shaded by tall trees. While my friend and I chatted, I noticed some children entering the playground, barefoot, mud weighing down their pants. They must have been playing in the creek, my friend noted. The what?!?

It turns out, all this time, nature has held out, struggled along in a polluted little creek bed tucked in a ravine behind a favorite local park. We returned the next day and hiked down to the tiny stream. My oldest crossed a rock dam and fell into the water, losing his shoe. I laughingly retrieved it and received a splash from the little guy for my efforts. The boys collected a stick, a piece of floating bark, and an oak apple. They dared each other to wade in further, around the corner, past this rock and then that. They discovered water bugs, tip-toeing across the water, and searched for frogs, picking up the rubber band and empty beer can buried in the creek bed. Soaked with the city's dirty water, we then climbed up through a forgotten enclave of trees. We kept our shoes on to avoid cuts from the broken glass strewn across the path. The big boy discovered a hollowed out tree trunk. Perhaps an owl lives there, he wondered. When I lifted him to peek inside, he asked what the yellow thing was. I peered over the edge - trash inside a hallowed tree. My heart sank - just a little.

It is hard to stay down with robins skittering on the path ahead, the sound of a stream bubbling over small boulders, children racing ahead giggling. We crossed the creek again - this time over a rock dam and headed to the car, my pockets bulging with plastic wrappers and bottle caps. Here was nature, plugged with litter and invasive plants, but here she was nonetheless! We embraced her for all her sordid, resistant beauty and for her gift of an hour of childhood.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Link in the Chain

I push my shopping cart through Whole Foods, passing produce, bottles, jars and cans, and plastic clamshells. I veer over to the bulk aisle and pull out my washed Ziplock bags. I need fair trade chocolate chips (who doesn't!), rolled oats, organic cashews and, hmm, that's it.

I meander through the refrigerated aisles, overlooking stacks of egg cartons, juice and milk, and pluck a large carton of organic, local yogurt off the shelf. Even though most eco-bloggers claim it's a piece of cake, I haven't yet mastered the art of making yogurt. I'll try it again this weekend. I need nutmeg and search out some of the organic, fair trade variety. My husband is almost out of coffee and Whole Foods carries, in bulk, the holy trinity of that beverage: shade grown, fair trade, and organic.

I toss dried pasta, local grapeseed oil and two cans of California olives in my cart and head to the check out counter. After loading my selections on the conveyor belt, I make small talk with the tattooed cashier as I swipe my debit card and then retrieve my canvas bag. Ahh, the big grocery shop for the week is over.

Last May, I read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. In it, Pollan explores eating outside the industrial food chain. He spotlights one particularly feisty, "beyond organic" farmer, Joel Salatain, who prophesies an "alternative local food system rising up on the margins". This system would depend not only on a new kind of food producer but also on a new kind of buyer. As I toss my single bag - a week's worth of store bought groceries - over my shoulder and walk to the car, it hits me. That new food economy is here and I am that new kind of buyer.

My friends - after buying from these people for a year, I do consider them friends - at the farmers' market provide all of our produce, honey, juice, dried beans and some of our cheese. I buy my flour direct from an ancient mill in wine country, less than a mile from my parents' home, or from the independent health food store within walking distance of my house. I make my own butter, bread, granola, pasta sauce and jam and recently responded to local mom's post to exchange homemade baked goods, jams and such.

Eating within my foodshed has been a journey. The most recent link in this chain is a buying club for local dairy, eggs, pastured meat, and organic tortilla chips. For several months, the club was hosted at another member's home, one city over. We amassed enough members to have a second drop off site, here at my own home. I'm in charge of book-keeping, recruiting enough members to keep the site viable and coordinating orders. As I write this post, I await delivery and look forward to the first pastured eggs of the season, I despair that some of the cheese is still being made and will not be available until next week and I email members to let them know delivery will be two hours late.

Over the past year, I have uncovered this burgeoning, alternative food system. There are no bar-codes, shopping carts or printed receipts. Instead, there are late night deliveries of fresh milk and eggs, rainy treks for broccoli and lettuce, an antique water wheel grinding wheat, another mom's homemade jam, family dinners and, perhaps most importantly, being on a first name basis with every link in my food chain. What a welcome to the new food economy!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hung Out to Dry

Despite last night's rain, the sun is out and streaming across the sky. Thick white clouds - the kind that remind kids of cotton candy - crowd out the blue in patches. The breeze is up - prime clothes drying weather.

Two years ago, when we replaced the tumble down fence separating our yard from our neighbors, we extended the fence to hide their garbage cans and to give us a long, narrow enclosed side yard. We subsequently tore out the overgrown ornamental bushes and put down flagstone and drought tolerant ground cover. Morning glories now climb the fence and peek over its latticed top. Against the fence, tucked in between stones, raspberry bushes leaf out. On one side of the walk is a high gate to the front yard. On the other side lies my backyard garden. A butterfly bushes stretches from it's winter sleep and a penstemon cradles the bird bath. A large windmill stands at attention, ready to welcome crawling runner beans and lemon cucumbers. Spring's early white butterflies tilt and dance among the blueberry bushes. This is where we strung up my clothesline.

Beyond the garden, two bird feeders sway with repeat visitors. Last week, the eggplant colored berries on the trees shading the lawn's remnants had apparently ripened. Aside from the usual orioles and sparrows, the trees rocked and waved with robins, jays and chickadees gorging on spring. The berries are now but a memory - devoured in just two days.

Inside, once the washer quiets itself, it is drying time. Now that the rains are, for the most part, gone, laundry heads out to the clothesline to dry. This morning, I carry my brimming wicker basket, startling a couple of phoebes pecking around for some bug or other. A squirrel freezes on the fence then leaps to a nearby tree. I set my basket on the flagstone and methodically bend down to retrieve a shirt, a pair of pants, a wash cloth and pin them to the clothesline. The birds decide that I am no threat and return to their tasks. Finches warble to each other over the thistle seed. A jay scolds a squirrel that has come to close. Robins swoop down to search for worms. I can even hear the buzz of bees investigating the strawberry flowers and flowering maple on the garden's edge. The breeze frolics with the clothes, shaking out wrinkles, sending a drying breath against the damp fabric.

My youngest pads around the corner in stockinged feet. I am found. I will also assume that the screen door is wide open - ushering every fly in the county in to sample our farmers' market strawberries. I hand the little guy a dish towel and a clothespin, showing him how to hang the towel over the line and clip it in place. He succeeds and smiles up at me, asking for another. We proceed, working quietly, until the clothesline is full and sags beneath its weight. Each of us take one of the basket's handles and walk back to the house - this time closing the screen door behind us.

Some people may find this method of drying clothes strange, outdated or a waste of time. To me, it is my meditation, my yoga, my 15 minutes a day when nothing but birds and butterflies clamber for attention and only wet towels beckon to be hung out to dry.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Phone Home

One warm winter day, I pushed our reel mower back and forth across the lawn, listening to the birds' chatter and not disturbing a cat that dozed nearby. An elderly gentleman walking along the sidewalk stopped to gape. "Wow!" He gasped. "I didn't know people still used those things." Yes sirree, they do.

In the midst of devouring Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic, a friendly acquaintance stops by to invite you out for some "retail therapy." You make up an excuse and finish reading your book.

A neighbor asks, in wonderment, whether that is Swiss Chard growing in your front yard flower beds. Yup. And that's lettuce in the window boxes and cover crop on our planting strip. Yee haw!

Your son's teacher asks, incredulously, whether you hang your clothes on a clothesline. She confides that the teachers thought your son was making it up but he swore it was the truth. You'd like to respond with something snappy like:

My boy ain't a liar.
Keep using that dryer
Gonna drive the temperatures higher.

Instead you mumble "yes" and vow to remind your five-year old that silence is golden.

Ever feel like you don't quite fit it in? Like the world is spinning around without you? Like you're some sort of extra-terrestrial or eco-freak? I do. Apparently Arduous and Beany do too.

While the masses are coming to terms with concepts like recycling, CFL bulbs and hybrid cars, us eco-freaks have long since plucked the low hanging fruit. Heck, we've moved quite a way up the tree, perched determinedly on a borrowed ladder. You can find us in the kitchen canning home grown fruit or in our front yard planting a victory garden and muttering about Peak Oil and the dwindling food supply. Our families, dressed in thrift store chic, cart around cloth napkins, coffee mugs and broken lunch boxes. We stop in the middle of the street to retrieve an errant plastic bottle cap tossed out of someone's window or dropped from a stroller. Hey, we've read Plastic Ocean! Do you have any idea where that plastic will end up?

Yeah, we do all that stuff and we fervently believe we're doing the right thing. "All that stuff" though leaves us a bit out of touch. I pray more people will wake up to the realities of our changing climate but, truth be told, I'm surrounded by SUVs, disposable Starbucks cups and shopping trips to Neiman's. My greenness is an oddity and I'm not quite sure how to connect - both in terms of convincing others to live more lightly and building relationships not punctuated with "do you really make your own X?"

When I lament to my husband that no one else seems to be living more lightly, he kindly tells me that it is because I am the "vanguard." I can't see the changes being made, he assures, because everyone else is behind me. I hope he's right. I do see occasional rays of light - like the public thank you I received on a local mother's club board after drumming up opposition to aerial pesticide spraying in our area. That was awesome.

For the most part, though, I still feel like E.T. - except in the realm of the green blogosphere. Here, I am far from freakish. This world is saturated with eco-nuts, Crunchy Chickens, kooky vegetables, fishy folk and more Little House on the Prairie references than a Laura Ingalls Wilder biography. This world is home and just like that cute little alien, I inhabit one world, but, to stay healthy, I sometimes need to phone home. Thank you, green blogosphere.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

In the Dark

On Saturday March 29th, millions of people around the world will turn off their lights from 8 to 9 p.m. in a symbolic stand against global warming. This event has been dubbed "Earth Hour" and was a resounding success last year when it was introduced in Sydney. This year, it goes global.

If there really were a Church of Climate Change, surely its missionaries would embrace Earth Hour as a tool for bringing light to those in the dark. My own green evolution began with a small, seemingly insignificant step and I suspect that many on this path can trace their "awakening" to something similar. Climate Change missionaries might talk to friends and work associates about the adventure of Earth Hour. They might marvel to neighbors about the possibility of sharing a bottle of wine on a street lit only by stars. They might introduce the concept at their children's schools or on parenting message boards, touting the hour as an opportunity to educate children on pioneer life, astronomy, or our impact on the environment. They might induce restaurants to offer only candlelit dinners that night.

Of course, there is no such thing as the Church of Climate Change. Is there? It doesn't matter. We can reach through the darkness that night and revel in the buzz of human connections rather than electrical ones. On March 29, we can all be in the dark.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Too Cool for School

The March sun reaches down to warm the earth as seedlings peek out and buds stretch from silent trees. The clothesline is full - ghostly shapes swaying in a gust of wind. The backyard bushes, heavy with berries, undulate as finches, sparrows and robins flutter in for lunch. I finally give up on my reminders to wear shoes outside as a battalion of mismatched sandals and sneakers gather in the hallway. The screen door is in a perpetual state of open and flies saunter in to peruse the produce.

It is spring!

Time to pack away the bulky sweaters that overcrowd our dresser drawers. Haul the unused ski clothes - we never made it to the snow this year and it's too late now - back into the attic. I find room for winter coats and rain boots in the back of the closet. Once the cold weather apparel has made its exit, however, it becomes quite apparent that the boys grew a whole bunch since last fall. Their ankles jut out of the pant legs and their shirts stretch tightly across their shoulders. The little guy can inherit his brother's clothes for the most part but, truth be told, my kids need some spring clothes.

So off to Target I go to drop a hundred bucks and then I'll swing by Nordie's and maybe the Gap to complete my kids' spring wardrobe. Gotcha! I don't need to hit the pricey stores for some hip new threads. I'll simply visit my two favorite thrift stores which overflow with like new stylish clothes for the boys and, yes, yours truly.

We avoid clothes with characters on them as well as those with the brand name emblazoned across the chest. We pass on stuff that is stained beyond recognition or covered with school names the kids don't go to. From what's left, we seek out designs either boy likes (Come on! I still get the little guy a couple train or fire truck shirts even though he gets big brother's striped era hand me downs.) and fill a shopping cart full of pants, shirts, shorts, swim trucks, shoes and, heck yeah!, three pairs of brand new socks.

At home, we wash the new duds and tuck them away in the appropriate drawers. As I fold the clothes, I have to laugh at the trendy boutique brands splashed across the tags - Muliberribush, Boden, Tumbelweed, Flapadoodles, Merrel, the Gap.

So what are when you purchase a new wardrobe for under $40 and zero carbon emissions? Too cool for school, my friends. Too cool . . .

Monday, March 10, 2008

Acoustic Version

As part of Elements in Time's Technology Free Day Challenge, I spent Sunday unplugged (mostly) from the electronic noise that saturates our airwaves. Without amplifiers or audio adapters, the music is quite different.

Kicking the Habit:
I don't drink coffee. The Internet, particularly the blogosphere, is my morning cup of joe. I usually make my own breakfast while the kids eat theirs. By the time I am ready to eat, they are done and I am free to mouse around the Internet, stuffing granola and fruit into my mouth. Seeing the monitor blank - like a missed cup of coffee - left me feeling jittery and disconnected. Until I remembered one of the rules set forth in In Defense of Food: "Do All Of Your Eating at a Table. No, a desk is not a table." (192). Eating at the kitchen table transforms simple cereal into a meal. It also invites the kids back to the table to nibble on leftovers, plan our Sunday and try to out-Seuss (e.g., out-rhyme) each other. Heck, it might even count as a family meal.

Doing Instead of Dreaming:
In the world of books and blogs, I devote a fair amount of time to "dreaming of a greener being." With spring hastening to greet us, it is time to turn off the computer and get dirty.

In my continuing effort to defeat the mean green, we (meaning my husband) ripped out half of our front lawn to be replaced by a butterfly garden in the shape of, yup, a butterfly. My boys and I weeded, added compost, and scratched out the butterfly shape in the naked plot. We then tucked our butterfly-attracting and host plants into the soil. The boys arranged some of their homemade stepping stones (more to be made this week) in the middle as the body and my eldest's stone collection at the head for antenna. Finally, we spread seeds for milkweed and such on the interior of the "wings". It looks exactly like a butterfly, doesn't it?

Not so much but it was an adventure for the kids, an improvement over the previous patch of grass, an opportunity to chat with neighbors and passersby, freedom from the electronic concert indoors and exercise for bodies used to sitting at a desk rather than swinging a pick ax. I count it as a victory one way or another.

Green Bean Dreams Unplugged:
As the day waned, we sat with our children and neighbors on the remainder of the lawn and pondered just what the acoustic version sounds like. Our answer: A lone toad singing as the sun goes down. With music like this, who needs to plug in?

Saturday, March 8, 2008


I'm a sucker for the underdog, for the fight against "the man", for revolution. My favorite historical period is, without a doubt, the American Revolution. Favorite quote? George Orwell's statement to the effect that "in a time of universal deceit, the telling of the truth is a revolutionary act." My favorite song from Les Miserables is "Do You Hear the People Sing?" which calls upon the people to rise up.

Revolutionary opportunities for a thirty-something mother of two preschoolers living in suburbia are somewhat limited though. Or so I thought! I just finished reading In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, in which Michael Pollan posits that, in this age of industrial food, "cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts," Well, hand me a tortilla press and color me a revolutionary! We're eating slow food tonight.

At Casa del Beano Verde, we made everything from scratch and even plucked the lettuce straight from our own back yard. Below are my homemade corn tortillas - made with corn meal that I watched an ancient mill grind and served with locally grown beans (soaked all night, slow cooked all day), a locally grown tomato, local cheese through the CSA that I host at my home, chopped homegrown lettuce, local root vegetables roasted in local olive oil, shredded local carrot and local bulk rice. Truly revolting!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Quite a Riot

Do you, uh, riot? The Riot for Austerity was the brainchild of a couple of green moms, determined to show the powers that be that they could live lighter - a whole 90% lighter - than the average American. Why 90%? Because that was the amount by which those of us in the Western World needed to cut our emissions to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The idea gained steam as more and more signed up to slash their emissions by 90%. Today, the 90% Reduction yahoo group boasts over 400 "rioters" who work to reduce their "footprint" in 7 different categories.

I joined the Riot last fall and have been whittling away at my numbers ever since. I have quite a way to go in most categories but here are my (belated) numbers for the month of February:

1) Gasoline: 35% of average. Down from last month and hopefully a downward trend but this is one of the toughest categories at the Green Bean Homestead. We've cut back and consolidated errands and I walk the kids to school and to errands when I can. Hopefully, I can chip away at it with warmer weather.

2) Electricity: 59% of average. Down from last month by a hair. As summer comes and lights are on less, the clothesline is more effective, this number will come down. If you get your energy from renewable sources, you can calculate your electricity usage more favorably. Unfortunately, my utility only offers carbon offsets (we do them) and not wind, hydro or solar power. Yes, we could get solar panels on our home but I'm still dreaming of trading the 'burbs for the country so is not an investment that would make sense.

3) Heating and Cooking Energy: 18% of average. Way up from last month, which was only 6%. Apparently, I need to turn the thermostat down more. ;-)

4) Garbage: 9% of average. Down and should continue to stay in the targeted bottom 10% of waste. This is my favorite category to drop because it's so dang easy! I'm not the only one who thinks so either.

5) Water: 25% of average. Ug! This is up and will only continue to go up now that the rainy season is over. Sure, I can ignore what's left of the lawn but all my baby edibles need water! I haul out the cleaner greywater for watering ornamentals and fruit trees but there is only so much hauling one woman can do. Until I can bribe Mr. Green Bean into building me a fancy greywater recycling system, any ideas for alternatives?

6) Consumer Goods: 22% of average. Holding steady. I splurged and bought some knitting supplies and some hot water bottles for the kids that, frankly, could have waited until next fall as the weather warmed up. I also got some wonderful finds at the local thrift shops but, the beauty of buying at thrift shops is that, under Riot rules at least, it doesn't actually count as shopping!

7) Food: 72% local, 13% bulk, 15% wet/other. Riot aims for 70%, 25% and 5%, respectively. This is a little better than last month and I suspect that we'll eat more locally grown as spring and summer come. All of our produce comes from local sources year round. However, we tend to eat more produce and less other stuff when summers' bounty smacks us upside the head.

If you are interested in seeing how your efforts stack up against the average American, gather your numbers and check out the Riot for Austerity's nifty calculator. It does all the work for you. Now if it would just clean my house and bake my bread. I'm quite a riot, aren't I? ;-)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Long Winter

Last fall, my husband and I made a pledge: we would eat only local, seasonal produce year round, including winter. We wondered whether we could truly survive the dark days of December, January and February. (Veteran locavores, here is where I ask you to smother your guffaws and let this greenhorn tell her story.) I had visions of eating blackbirds and green pumpkins a la Laura Ingalls Wilder or, worse yet, resorting to Whole Foods' jet-setting produce.

As it was almost October, I did not have much time to set aside food for the long winter to come. Nonetheless, I did my best. I spent evenings away from the television or Internet, methodically stirring strawberries and sugar into a thick, honeyed jam that I was forced to taste over and over again. As you might imagine, homemade jam is a different beast than the tamed jars found on supermarket shelves. No, the stuff I made was different and, unfortunately, converted my jam-despising niece into an addict who asked for only one thing for Christmas: my jam. Even though her gift came at a price - a cut into our winter reserves - I did as any good auntie would. I hope she enjoyed it.

I froze two huge batches of pasta sauce, simmered from fall's cornucopia of tomatoes, carrots and onions. I purchased a dehydrator and dried every fruit I could get my hands on as well as some tomatoes. Still, it was nearly November now. I hadn't much fruit left to dry - the season's dwindled strawberries, hearty apples and my mother-in-law's persimmons. I stayed up past midnight making a harvest chutney and had no alternative but to pass the hours in the silent house by reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter as the chutney stewed and bubbled on the stove top. I devoted an entire week to cleaving hulking pumpkins and squash, baking and pureeing them and stuffing the freezer with their coral colored masses. Yes, indeed, preparing for a local winter absorbed several hours of my time and, even then, we only filled our small dishwasher-sized freezer and lined a few garage shelves with canned goods.

As Christmas passed, we saw the farmers' market taper off. Nonetheless, we were the lucky ones. A dozen of the heartiest local farmers still showed up, bundled under umbrellas, indifferent to cold, rain, hurricane force gales. Their fare shifted from the toddler-sized melons and cobbled corn of summer to carefully stored apples, root vegetables, brilliant watermelon radishes, citrus, greens, broccoli, herbs and peppers. They were but a shell of their October-selves.

I stalked the market religiously and carted home my findings. We survived one of the coldest Januaries on record, subsisting on greens and potatoes, spicy cilantro chutney, homemade corn bread with honey butter, homegrown carrots, fresh veggie-loaded salads and jeweled toned root vegetables. One farmer warned me, though, "the apples are running low. I'm not sure how long we'll last." He smiled kindly to blunt the news.

Then we hit February. This would be the true test, I thought. Braving rain, wind and the occasional sunny day, I kept haunting the farmers' market. Every week, there was a new casualty. First the honey lady started coming only every other week. Then, the mandarin man disappeared. Who next? Again, the apple farmer warned me that he was almost out. "Not to worry, miss," he comforted. "Cherries will start up in mid-April." Mid-April? Good God? That was a lifetime away. My winter preparations flashed before my eyes. Had we gnawed through all the dried persimmons? What could I make with the frozen pumpkin? I greedily packed two bags full of the apples and swore I'd ration them out. We'd last through mid-April, dammit! My family would never go hungry, again! Well, I guess we hadn't gone hungry yet, but, we wouldn't, dammit! For extra measure, I stocked up on pastured eggs and then raided the cheese guy.

At home, we eeked through February. We had no choice but to delve into the winter reserves. We choked down some caramelized onion winter squash tart and pumpkin souffle. The local chocolate chip cookies buoyed our spirits as did the purple cauliflower soup, the home made pizza, the lemon bars, the homemade bread and strawberry jam and, oh well, you get the picture. We very nearly almost starved.

At the end of the month, I met with my book club to discuss Animal Vegetable Miracle. One member noted, with interest, how the month of February was called "Hungry Month" by Native Americans. I nodded sagely. "February was not too bad," I assured, "but March . . ." I shook my head for effect. These people needed to understand what was to come. "March," I repeated, "I think that will be the real hungry month." I confided the dire warnings of the farmers. How apples would soon be gone. That mandarins had already disappeared. That I hadn't seen a decent winter squash in, gosh, a couple of weeks. These women needed to know what we were up against if we were to eat local in March in Northern California.

March 1 was a Saturday. I loyally loaded my canvas bags in the car, counted my cash and headed to the farmers' market. The March sun burst through the meager clouds, teasing us with spring. Sparrows danced through my cover crop and tiny buds peeped out from the maple in our front yard.

When I arrived at the market, I was momentarily confused. It had doubled in size since just last week. I couldn't park next to the stalls but had to walk. Fellow shoppers bustled about, filling bags with produce and baked goods. Something red and shiny winked at me from across the parking lot. Are you kidding me? A tomato! A local tomato! The next stall down hawked organic strawberries, grown right here within my 100 mile radius. The true harbinger of a new food year, though, was the asparagus. If that was here than truly the dark days were over and spring had come. Every other vegetable vendor flaunted neat little bundles of asparagus, standing at attention front and center in their stalls.

I closed my eyes. Sighed. Opened my eyes and made a beeline for those little green soldiers. They were dinner tonight, and probably tomorrow night too.

It appears that we did it. We ate locally through the entire winter. Oh, I know, there will still be some gloomy wet days of March, but, heck, we need the rain and really "Hungry Month", if you can call it that here in the Bay Area, was over - without even a speed bump, a jostle or a missed meal. The "long winter" was over.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Liberate Your Lawn

On my small suburban block, sunken into a valley in the middle of the Bay Area Peninsula, each house is surrounded a neat, flower and leaf-free grassy lawn. Many of the larger, mature street trees have been ousted in favor of petite shrubs that offer no shade and offend no one with dropped leaves or berries. The homes are mostly empty during the day and the silence is punctuated by the bi-weekly visit of gardeners, mowing and blowing for $80 a month.

Our back yards are similarly situated. In most cases, lawn stretches from house to fence post, without even an flowered ripple. Of course, there is the family up the street who paved their entire back yard to put in a basketball court but they seem to be the exception. There are also a few citrus trees, planted in the 1960's and since forgotten, and the occasional rose bush, swiftly pruned back in winter.

Last summer, I saw but one bird in my yard - a drab little sparrow who looked lost and friendless. The flower garden I planted last summer - stretching coneflowers, floppy-headed dahlias, a monstrous butterfly bush and daintily dipping Mexican sage attracted some bees, a single red-breasted humming bird but only a couple of stray butterflies. My oasis proved to be not much of one at all. My yard was still mostly lawn.

Last fall, we carved up our grass-covered sidewalk strip, replacing it with sheet mulch and cover crop seeds. I turned the sprinklers off in October to let nature take its course. The cover crop (beans, peas and such) have grown up, reaching nearly three feet tall, and gaily greet visitors and passerbys alike. I've seen the occasional bird disappear into its beckoning shade and insects teem just above the ground. This weekend, in the silence of the afternoon, an unusual sound emanating from the planting strip, jolted me.

Cccccrrrrooooooaaaak! Ccccccrrrroooooaaaak!

After 12 years on the San Francisco Peninsula, in house after house (some abutting open space), despite years of putting out little "toad abodes", I finally am the proud landlord to a little toad. Some (probably) very cute (I can't find him in all those leaves and he stops croaking whenever I tiptoe near) , voraciously bug-eating toad has taken up residence in our little swath of undisturbed, "weeds". To those of you in more rural areas, this new addition may seem insignificant. In the middle of this sterile suburb, it is nothing short of a miracle.

Where did this creature come from? Where has he been living in the meantime? And, sadly, where will he go when we till the cover crop under to plant pumpkins and beans in the summer? Can I create another equally enticing habitat to move him to?

We had already planned to rip up half of our back lawn to be replaced with edibles. Mr. Toad's discovery has prompted us to also decide to tear up half of our front lawn in favor of a butterfly garden in the shape of a butterfly. How cute is that? I can't claim origination of the ideas as I read about it in Sunflower Houses by Sharon Lovejoy.

If you have not liberated some of your lawn (and your gas-blowing gardeners), consider these reasons to gut your grass:

1) Replacing your grass with anything other than grass will be more aesthetically interesting.

2) Planting edibles instead of grass will provide your family with a hands-on learning experience, superb fruits and vegetables, and a better return on water investment.

3) Substituting xeriscape for your lawn will save you oodles on your water bill and will likely involve some native plant species.

4) Planting a ornamental flower garden will produce beauty, cut flowers for your home and a home for bees and butterflies. If you do this, consider planting milkweed and give the monarch butterfly a chance to escape extinction.

5) Doing anything other than grass will immediately establish you as a trend setter in the neighborhood. Now that my cover crop has grown in, I have received universally positive comments from all of my neighbors (at least to my face).

6) Don't be a statistic. Did you know that grass is America's most irrigated crop. Indeed, the United States "spends more on lawn fertilizer than the rest of the world spends to fertilize food crops." Further, lawns are often maintained by obnoxiously loud gas-powered mowers and blowers that contribute as much as 5% of the nation's total air pollution.

7) Invite Mr. Toad or his friends into your yard. A yard brimming with wildlife is far more interesting, an educational experience for children and adults alike and a balm to our sadness over the shrinking habitat for these wild creatures.

I doubt we'll ever murder the entire expanse of lawn. We do use it to play baseball and Frisbee, set up kiddie pool on the hottest days (don't worry! we reuse the water for our plants). There is no reason, though, not to put in a few trees, some flowers, some veggies and berry bushes. No reason not to liberate your lawn.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

When the Moon Hits Your Eye

Like a big pizza pie
That's family night.

I've read more times than I can count about the importance of family dinners. Researchers cite a meal shared with family as the cure-all for everything from bad grades and asthma attacks to avoidance of drugs and alcohol. Equally important for children is establishing family traditions which bind families together, instill values and create memories. We recently dubbed Friday night, "pizza night" at our home.

We make homemade pizza dough and everyone's hands get dirty. The boys take turns dumping in the locally milled flours we found at our downtown health food store. We mix in our locally processed yeast and local, raw milk from a CSA drop point that will soon be hosted at my home. The dough takes a quick sojourn in the oven while the kids practice shredding (and eating) cheese and stealing olives as quickly as I slice them.

Then comes the fun part - "decorating" the pizza. I spread on last fall's homemade pasta sauce. Despite its months in the freezer, the sauce still tastes of October - the bursting San Marzano tomatoes from my favorite local farm simmered with farmers' market onions and carrots. Next the boys apply less than judicious amounts of shredded local cheese, local goat cheese, home-dried tomatoes from last year's farmers' market, blanched backyard greens and olives that are slightly less than local (302 miles away to be exact).

End result: the culmination of a work week that everyone looks forward to, a cooking lesson for the kids, a meal spent telling stories and ignoring laughed shouts of "poo-poo head" from the youngest, a local meal in the "dark days" of winter and the best damned pizza I've ever eaten. That's amore!


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