Friday, March 28, 2008

The Victory Garden Mentality

During the depression, my grandparents set traps for pigeons on the window ledges of their NY apartment.  During the Second World War, their purchases of butter, eggs, sugar, meat and etc. were severely limited. Some of their ration coupons have been passed down to me. My stepmother was a very young girl growing up in Italy during that war. She used to go out at night to steal food and remembers being shot at.

Millions starved to death in China, Russia and across Europe. I've read about Japanese subsisting on not much more than acorns. I've traveled in Zimbabwe and Haiti, and seen true hunger first-hand.

During the First World War, Herbert Hoover's slogan was "Food will Win the War". Americans were urged to conserve and produce. Victory Gardens were planted in vacant lots, on rooftops, in road medians. 

With our country at war and with inflation, taxes, food and fuel prices going nowhere but up, the concept of a Victory Garden may become frighteningly valid again in the near future. Wars almost always have huge impacts on food production, processing and distribution. May as well get a head start. Don't wait until the boat sinks to learn to swim. 

Your home's landscaping can be edible. Even a small yard has enough room for a few fruit trees and a little garden. Persimmon trees are productive as well as ornamental. Blueberries make attractive hedges. Space-wise, tomatoes and beans are probably the most bang for the buck. Along a fence they'll take up even less space by growing vertically as well as horizontally. A couple pots on an apartment balcony are better than nothing. 

A half dozen hens will keep a family of four supplied with plenty of eggs and an occasional chicken dinner. They're surprisingly easy and satisfying to keep, won't disturb your neighbors if there's not a rooster with them, and they'll consume your kitchen scraps and leftovers. Contrary to uninformed popular opinion, they don't stink if they aren't crowded. (How do you think you'd smell if you lived, ate and crapped in a crowded cage?) If you keep them in a portable bottomless pen - called an "ark" or "tractor" - they'll do the tilling, fertilizing and bug control in your garden for you. What's not to like about amusing mobile lawn ornaments that turn garbage and bugs into eggs, meat and fertilizer?

Build a chicken tractor. Plant at least some open-pollinated heirloom beans and tomatoes. (If you don't understand what I just said, Google is your friend.) Save the best seeds from your best plants to plant next year. Learn to identify both harmful bugs and beneficial bugs. Learn to eat eat your weeds - some of the ones you'll be pulling are healthier and tastier than any lettuce you can grow. Educate yourself. Enjoy the fresh air. Improve your physical and psychological health and perhaps discover an absorbing hobby.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Gathering Protein with Mask, Fins, Snorkel and Pole Spear

I've been snorkeling in Barbados. I'm not on vacation, I'm being paid to be here. (Sorry, can't help rubbing it in a little.) It occurred to me that these are tools often overlooked by foragers. 

In various places, I've collected and eaten quite a few species of fish as well as lobsters, clams, octopi, mussels, scallops, limpets, snails, sea urchins, turtles, seaweeds and other aquatic plants.

One could keep oneself fed reasonably well almost anywhere there's water warm enough to swim in with just a mask, snorkel, fins and a pole spear. Fringe benefits: Snorkeling'll entertain you and clean you up.

Thoughts on Tents

First the obvious: The main purpose of a tent is to keep precipitation off you and your stuff. After that, they can be divided into two types: Bug season and cold season. A tent suitable for one tends to be an abomination for the other.

For bug-season camping, I've settled on hammocks with mosquito netting and rain flies. Ultra-light, no worries about uneven or rocky ground, fast up and fast down. What's not to like? Only that the air circulating underneath makes them chilly in any season but summer. I used to use a Hennessy, and for the last couple years I've been using a Clark. 

For cold weather, after owning and using all kinds of modern high-tech designs and materials, I've settled on traditional canvas tents with fires or stoves inside. The mental image most people have of winter camping is that of crawling into a dark, dank nylon dome, trying to clean up the snow and mud from your boots, shivering all night, then waking up to a melting, dripping layer of frost on the ceiling. And that's an accurate image with nylon tents. They'd be very pleasantly surprised if they experienced a floorless canvas tent warmed by a portable woodstove. There's room to stand and stretch, even to hang drying clothes. In below-zero weather they're as warm as any house, with hot water for washing up and making tea, and no worries about spilling it. 

Tipi: If you're going to actually live in a tent in one place for an extended period, nothing beats the ambiance and comfort of a proper tipi. By "proper", I mean with an interior liner and a buried pipe to bring outside air to the fire. No guy lines to trip on, lots of head room, and a "wilderness TV" (fire) at the focal point. I have very fond memories of staying in one at a western ski area. Fatal flaw: It takes a pickup truck to transport one, and several people several frustrating hours to pitch it. 

Wall tents: Probably the most practical shelter for extended camping in one place. The floor space is all useable, there's plenty of headroom, and vertical doors keep out precipitation. The sides can be rolled up in hot weather. Disadvantages: Large footprint, guylines to trip on, up to seven long poles required, and they take a while to pitch. 

Very few modern people actually live in the woods. We're weekend campers. Even on extended trips, we're rarely in one place for more than a night or two. I don't enjoy making and breaking camp, so the ability to do it quickly has become perhaps the most important factor in how much I enjoy my outdoor time. Wedge and pyramid tents are appealing for that reason. 

Wedges: The archetypal tent, and maybe the best all-around. Goes up quickly with only two or three poles. Small footprint, no guy lines to trip over. Vertical doors keep out precipitation, and they can be tied open for ventilation, or to the poles for security in adverse weather. One side can be opened like a lean-to in good weather. Disadvantage: Not all the floor space is usable. Guylines halfway up the sides to pull them out can minimize that, but then of course you increase the tent's footprint and give yourself guylines to trip over. 

Pyramids: Probably the easiest tent of all to pitch - four pegs and a pole. Unfortunately, once you've set it up, you've seen it's best feature. Still, the fast set-up counts for a lot. If I could only have one tent, this would be it. A lantern hanging in the peak makes it a cozy place. The door can be opened wide to face a fire. Disadvantages: Very limited headroom, a pole in the middle of the living space, a slanted door that lets in weather, and not all the floor space is usable (although once again, guylines part way up the sides to pull them out can minimize that fault). 

Half-pyramids: Slightly more difficult to pitch, but with a vertical door. They don't accommodate stoves well, but reflect the heat of an outside fire nicely.

Best material: Egyptian cotton treated to resist mildew and flames is far and away the best tent material. Weight that compares with nylon, no condensation problems, and a translucent quality that lets the sun and moon in. Unfortunately, there's only one place I'm aware of that even has Egyptian cotton, and it's not easy to get a tent out of the guy. ( If you get a chance to chat him up, it'll be an eduation.)

Cotton canvas treated to resist mildew and flames is a good second choice. The treatment adds a couple ounces per square yard of weight, but I think the increase in safety and durability makes it worth it. Cotton canvas is about twice as heavy and not as bright as Egyptian cotton, but half the cost. Not all canvas is created equal, though.
Whatever else you do, buy quality and only cry once.

Monday, March 10, 2008

So we wanted to see if the new dog would pull a sled...

Harness dog, put kid in sled, walk fifty yards away, call dog:

Here they come:

There they go: