Friday, May 13, 2016

#AtoZ Challenge Reflections

It's been a couple a weeks since I've completed my very first A to Z Blogging Challenge. Can we get a HUGE sigh of a relief? Anyone who knows me and my writing challenges (*cough*nanowrimo*cough*) will know that it takes a lot of the effort and will for me to sit down and stick to a writing project for as long as it takes to complete it (one of the joys of being an adult with ADD)- and let's face it: I was clinging to the edge with my fingertips on this one. 

Now that I've had a breather and a break from writing constantly, I feel up to actually coming back and writing some reflections about my experience.

Firstly... writing is hard. But go me, I guess, for not folding under the pressure. And was there pressure? Yeah, a bit. I didn't want to disappoint myself on yet another failed writing challenge, so I really pushed myself to make it happen. I won that round, so it's all good!

Secondly... I learned a lot. Did anyone else? I know some of my posts were basically fluff, meant to fill space or show pretty pictures, with little meaningful content, but I do genuinely hope I helped someone, somewhere, learn something new. I find lately that my drive to educate others is growing, and it pleases me to no end when my readers comment and interact- it tells me that I'm on the right track to something good. 
Thirdly... this is a rubbish way of counting experiences, isn't it?... Thirdly, the format was strangely appealing. I have ADD after all- a little structure rarely goes amiss in this sort of thing. It allowed me to figure out topics ahead of time, and gave me an outline on which to build, however minimalist. It has even provided me an opening for the next level- perhaps I'll take these blogs and turn them into a book. November is on it way, and it would be a good NaNoWriMo project.

Sometimes I feel like blogging is a huge game of Marco Polo: you sort of splash around blindly and hope you're getting close to your target. Kinda like life too, actually. (Insert awkward laugh.)

Would I do this again? Oh, probably. I can't say "oh yes, definitely", because every year is different, but I would certainly try if I felt it was right for that year. I suppose the hard part would be coming up with new topics for each letter!

Overall, I think I benefited. Learning, and teaching, are never bad things.

Live, Learn and Love, my friends. See you next time.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Z is for Zero Waste- #AtoZ Challenge

Oh my goodness! It's the final post of the A to Z Challenge! April raced by, and I somehow managed to stick with it. I find the hopeful setting of a goal a good way to wrap up many things in life, so that's what today's blog is: the setting of a goal. 

Z is for Zero Waste.

Zero Waste is pretty much what it sounds like: living a lifestyle that produces no trash. This is a growing movement in a society in which consumerism has reached shocking levels. What with landfills, trash on our beaches, and fish and animals eating plastic and dying, our throw away mentality is damaging the environment and everything in it. While these are all issues to talk about in their own right, I'm not going to do that today. I'm just going to talk about me.

I thought it was finally time I addressed our own waste issue. For a two person household, we produce about 1 bag of trash per week, and that's already with the slight reduction that composting our food scraps provides us. I also reuse glass bottles and jars and their lids,  some plastic items such as take away containers, old ice cream tubs, a few of the sturdier meat trays, etc, and even some of the plastic milk jugs get reused as scoops or self watering plant pots.

So what are were actually throwing away?

Some of the trash is paper products, which I'm ashamed to admit I don't monitor as well I should. Most paper products like tissues, paper towels, news papers and cardboard can be composted, or at very least, used in the garden as weed matting. We get a lot of catalogs for the shops too, but those I am afraid to use in the garden, as I do not know what the inks will do to the soil- they get tossed in the recycle bin instead, as does anything else I have no current use for. I also got ride of a lot of plastic waste by switching from tampons to cloth pads- it was a bit of an adjustment, but I feel good about it- it's better for my body, and I'm no longer spending money on those items, nor am I creating more waste from the packaging.

Some of it is random stuff, like the stickers off of apples (we hate those!), or bones from a roast dinner which got tossed (those should actually be collected and then frozen for later use in bone broth... one more thing to concentrate on, for sure).

Most of it, though, is plastic. Our meat comes wrapped in cling film, on plastic or Styrofoam trays. Cheese is wrapped in plastic, and frozen veg come in plastic bags. Even some fresh veg comes in plastic bags! Carrots for example, are often bagged up, and onions come in a plastic mesh bag, which gets little red bits of plastic everywhere when you cut it open to get the onions out. Potatoes are bagged up in plastic, whether they're prepacked or selected by yours truly. My husband buys bread in bags, and though we recycle them to store other things (meat for the freezer, the block of opened cheese, his work lunches, etc) they still, ultimately, end up in the trash. Even toiletries, like Q-tips, have plastic sticks!

Even as I write this, listing off all the stuff that ends up trashed in this house is rapidly becoming an embarrassing business. Someone who is as interested in permaculture and sustainability as I am should be more careful about her trash output, right?

My goal for the rest of 2016 and onwards is to do my very best to be as zero waste as possible. I will fully admit that this will not be an easy goal to achieve. It will likely be expensive as well, even with my tendency to buy cheap, recycle and reuse

Here are some steps I promise to take in the next few months:

Buy loose fruit and veg. Nothing in plastic bags anymore. I intend to whip up some lightweight produce bags on the sewing machine, so that I can carry things like potatoes (which are dirty) and onions (which we buy a lot of anyway, and which shed their skins) to keep our cloth shopping bags (oh yes, we've been using those for years now) clean.

Make more from scratch. Maybe I can convince my spouse to let me bake him his bread for sandwiches. Perhaps I take the step to make our own treats (like biscuits) or crackers. Little things like that. For instance, I make our own home made mayo, so we have cut out the store bought glass jars, the metal lids, as well as the subpar mayo with questionable ingredients to boot.

Find alternatives. That's going to be the hard part. I could buy milk in glass bottles- it's more expensive though. I could buy meat from local butchers and ask them to place it in containers I brought from home- also expensive (and the stores aren't making it easier- everything is wrapped in plastic these days. They're even phasing out the butchery departments!) On the flip side, I can buy in bulk, which tends to be a little less expensive, but again, there's the bagging issue.

There are things I am interested in doing right now though. For instance, I'm intrigued by the idea of creating waxed cloths to wrap foods in, for the fridge and freezer. I'm also excited to sew up produce bags for us- it'll give me more experience with my new sewing machine. I think it will help to know how previous generations did it too, before the rise of plastic wrapped everything.

Even knowing what I want, though, there is still much for me to think about in the coming months as I get going on my zero waste journey. I want folks to know that every little change might help in the long run, so if you want to join me and start your own zero waste journey, I would love to hear your story.

Thank you for following my blogs on this Challenge, and I hope you hang around and keep reading as I keep writing.

Live. Learn. Love.


Friday, April 29, 2016

Y is for Yarn- #AtoZChallenege

For the last several years I have been teaching myself many crafts. Among those crafts are crochet and knitting, which of course use yarn. I thought I'd shake things up though, so instead of just researching and spouting textbook information from the internet on a subject I am not overly familiar with (as I only use yarn, I don't produce it!), I thought I'd conduct an interview with a couple friends who either raise fiber animals, spin and dye yarn (or all three!) "Y is for Yarn" will give you an inside look at the "cottage industry" of hand spun fiber craft.

I would like to thank Lindsey Auman at Happy Valley Homestead for sharing her time with me to provide this interview. She lives in Pennsylvania, where she sells her yarn and yarn projects, soaps, animals, and eggs. I've known her since 2011- she is like a sister to me! Check out her page, and see what she has to offer, especially if you live in the US.

I'd also like to thank my friend Dianne Anderson for offering her experience as well. She is a local Tasmanian friend who spins fiber as a hobby, gardens, dances and crafts, and does it all for the love of it!

Baby angora bunnies. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Auman
1. Do you have, or have you raised, animals for fiber?

L: "I raise English and satin Angora rabbits and Shetland sheep. English Angoras produce more fiber, but require much more maintenance than the satin Angoras. Satins produce less fiber, but have more halo an incredible sheen and more intense color. Shetland sheep are small, perfect for a homestead and come in many color and wool varieties. Browns, whites, blacks and everything in between. Their fleeces also come in several varieties, from a shorter, finer and softer single coated variety to a fleece with soft and longer coarser wool in the same fleece to longer, shaggier fleeces. Each fleece style has it's purposes. Single coated soft fleeces can be used for next to skin garments. A variegated fleece is used based on the portions... Typically the coarser hindquarter wool is used for outer garments and socks while the softer wool, closer to the neck can be used for next to skin garments. The shaggier fleeces can be used for outerwear and socks or can be dehaired, by separating the outer guard hairs from the inner, softer wool and spun separately for softer and coarser, longer wearing yarns."D: "No I haven't, although I've spent time with people who do, and learned a bit from them."

This video recorded by Lindsey Auman demonstrates spinning yarn directly off an angora bunny. It is such a peaceful scene!

2. How do you process the fiber so that you can make yarn?

L: "Fiber prep depends on type and personal preference. Any fiber can be spun "raw" without any real prep. Angora, from Angora rabbits, is the most commonly spun straight from the animal without any prep work. It can be spun "in the cloud", prepped similar to other fibers or even straight off of the rabbit. Other fibers, such as wool and alpaca fiber are usually skirted (undesirable sections removed, typically around the hind end and legs), VM (vegetable matter, such as hay or sticks) is picked out as much as possible, and then the fleeces are washed based on the type. Alpaca, llama and Angora goat (called mohair) can all be washed with a lower temperature of water and a mild detergent. Sheep wool is usually washed in hotter water with more detergent to help remove the lanolin. Fleeces tend to require several washes before finally rinsing clean. After drying, you can pick the locks apart by hand, and card (with a drum carder or hand cards) or comb the fleece before spinning." 
D: "It depends on the type of fibre, and how clean it is. Most fibres need some sort of processing, even if it's just a flick of a brush/comb for the most clean...most however require picking, washing, carding or combing, and also if you choose to; dyeing. Washing can involve several stages and a lot of time with fibres like wool, as they may require scouring to reduce the lanolin, and careful temperature treatment so that they don't felt.Whilst each fibre has it's rule of thumb...there is also an element of experimentation for the best way to handle each individual fleece/fibre as it presents. Preparation can vary from minutes to days (even weeks) depending on the project and fibre."

A combination of black English and black satin angora wool,
single strand. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Auman
3. What are your favorite fibers to work with?

L: "
My personal favorite fibers are actually Angora rabbit and Shetland wool. Perhaps I am slightly biased, or perhaps I kept the animals due to my love of their fibers."

D: "Clean, short to medium staple fibres. I'll spin practically anything! I do love soft and smooth fibres like merino, alpaca and flax. I love silk as a fibre, but not so much to spin as I have found it hard to draft in the past...I'm hoping this time around, putting more time into preparation will make it more enjoyable to spin."

Left: English dyed with green, plied with moorit Shetland.
Right: Black satin plied with electric pink merino.
Center: Teal merino and white English, being plied.
Photo courtesy of Lindsey Auman
4. What special properties do your favorite fibers offer?

L: "Angora rabbit is incredibly soft, water and stain resistant, has a stunning halo and has amazing insulation properties. In fact, it's so warm that most people recommend using only 10-15% in a blended yarn, or making small projects. An Angora sweater would be too warm for most every day purposes! Shetland wool, in particular, is my favorite, because of its ease in spinning. It's soft enough to wear next to your skin, yet durable enough for wear and tear. It is warm, and has "memory", which means that it won't stretch loose like the alpaca and Angora will." 

D: "They're all unique. Wool has great thermal properties, as does silk. Alpaca has lovely drape (like silk), whereas different breeds of wool, have varying structure and "spring". The beauty of natural fibres is that they breathe, so are generally nicer to wear than synthetics. They also can be composted, rather than polluting the environment at end of life."

Mulberry silk cocoon sheet, hand painted landscape dye.
Photo courtesy of Dianne Anderson
5. What means do you use to spin fiber into yarn?

L: "
What means? Hmm. Personally, I spin with a double treadle spinning wheel. There are many, many types of wheels, from great big wheels to compact wheels and even electric wheels. Some have specific tasks that they are designed for, but most choose a wheel based on personal preference. There are also drop spindles, which are portable, but not as fast production as the wheels. The drop spindles were invented before wheels." 

D: "I use single and double drive spinning wheels, as well as a drop spindle. Each method and wheel produces different weights of yarn and some suit particular fibres better than others."

Bendigo Woolen Mills pure wool
laps and Kemp semi worsted 2 ply.

Photo courtesy of Dianne Anderson
6. What is plying and what benefit does it provide?

L: "Plying is when you spin yarn back on itself. Say you make a two ply yarn... you would spin both of them in one direction, and then ply them together by twisting them together in the opposite direction. This helps it "catch" and stay together, increasing the strength of the finished yarn. Some yarns can be spun as singles, but I don't have experience with spinning or using them.Different techniques in plying can create different designs in your yarn. Bouccle yarn, coil yarns, etc all produce different yarns." 
D: "Plying is spinning two yarn singles together (or more) It provides greater strength to the yarn, and if you ply different fibres or colours it can create unique effects."

7. Do you dye the yarns you make, and if so, what do you dye them with?

L: "Dyeing... I do dye some of mine. It depends on what look I'm going for. I use professional acid dyes, but there are lots of natural dyes that can be used." 
D: "Sometimes. It's a rabbit hole I've only just entered. To start with I am mostly playing with food acid solar dyes. I plan to get into some natural (non mordant) dyeing soon, and once I am set up, I will probably do more conventional mordanted dyeing."

Bendigo woolen mills alpaca
fill, semi worsted spin 2 ply. Photo courtesy
of Dianne Anderson
8. What is your favorite use for your hand made yarn?

L: "I don't really have a favorite item to make, to be honest. I have made many, many hats, for myself, my children, family, friends and custom orders as well as some for retail sale. They can be pretty easy and thoughtless, which is nice for my attention span. I enjoy weaving as well as knitting, but Angora halo shows up better in knitted projects than it does in woven projects, so what I do depends on the fiber and overall product look I'm after."
D: "LOL I have a reputation for never finishing a project. I'm not really much of a knitter or crocheter, although I can do both. I have great plans, but so far have only finished ...none of them.
I also have a loom, that I plan to get around to one of these days. For now, I just love to spin, and tend to pass the spun yarn to my mum, who is a knitter and more likely to make stuff than I am."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

X is for Xenophobia- #AtoZ Challenge

Today's blog is going to be short and sweet. It's going to point out world problems, it's going to appeal for humanity, and then it'll be over- but hopefully it plants a seed in other minds and proliferates. Spread the word. The message is important.

X is for Xenophobia. What does xenophobia mean?

Dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries.
 Wikipedia has an expanded explanation:
Xenophobia is the fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange. Xenophobia can manifest itself in many ways involving the relations and perceptions of an ingroup towards an outgroup, including a fear of losing identity, suspicion of its activities, aggression, and desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity. Xenophobia can also be exhibited in the form of an "uncritical exaltation of another culture" in which a culture is ascribed "an unreal, stereotyped and exotic quality"
Sounds painfully familiar, doesn't it? It doesn't seem matter if you're a refugee forced to flee your home, a gay or trans person, a woman, or just someone with a skin color that is considered something other than "white", or a body feature considered other than "normal" (whatever THAT is!) There will always be someone telling you to "go home", someone shouting that you're an abomination, someone threatening to kill you, someone wanting to build a wall to "keep you out", someone trying to abuse you mentally, physically.

I could go on for days about all the unbelievable excrement I see people pour forth, venting their racist, homophobic, bigoted, bullying and misogynistic hatred... but what is the point? I wouldn't be much better than them, then, would I?

If I, the writer behind Living and Learning, could stress one thing to my readers- it would be this:

We are all human

The world- life in general- is terrible and frightening enough already. Why must we fear each other? Why must we torture each other with ridiculous stereotypes, accusations and outright lies? We are all having a hard time- let's not make it worse.

Please. Stop. Look each other in the eye, look past the differences to really see the other person, and say: "You are human, and so am I."

And then share a cup of tea or something.

Live. Learn.
Most of all: LOVE

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

W is for Wine- #AtoZ Challenge

W starts off many words- winter, water, waste, wily, weather, etc. It also starts the word (hah) "wine". Because you can't turn down a good glass of wine! 

Long story short: my family history is steeped in wine and wine making. My great grandfather was even fined for making and selling wine during the Prohibition era. The story about wine running down the as the men smashed the wine barrels is well remembered. My family owns 10 acres of heritage dry farmed vineyard in Mendocino County, California (if you're curious, check out The Zeni Ranch for more information).

So, true to family tradition, I've started trying to make my own wine. This is made easier by the fact that I have a grapevine in my yard. I know I've talked about it before, in my "How to Prune a Grapevine" blog post, posted some years ago now. This vine is 25+ years old, and was severely neglected when I moved it and started tending to it. It's now a very productive plant.

Wine making is an ongoing process, but I've decided to share my notes so far. They are my observations at the time of working with the wine.

Day 1, March 27

4kg Campbell Pink, plus 1.8kg Walkden Blue
My single grapevine produced 4kg of fruit this year. I have a mystery variety, so I'm calling it the "Campbell Pink", as it was inherited from my spouse's family. I was given about 1.8kg of a dark grape (I'm calling that lot "Walkden Blue", as it's also a mystery grape), to blend with mine, because I want the color from their skins to create a much pinker wine than mine do on their own.

I've pulled the berries off the stems (by hand) and crushed them in a 4+ liter stainless steel pot (a long handled potato masher is your friend), and they'll ferment for a couple weeks on natural yeast, while I see about getting a proper carboy and an air lock for them.

Day 3

Both varieties crushed together
I've punched the cap down. The cap is the crushed fruit that floats to the top on the bubbles of the fermenting juice; punching it down keeps it below the surface,which aerates the mixture and prevents the growth of mold and nasties on the surface- or so I was taught, anyway.

As you can see, the dark "blue" grapes are really making the color pop- the ones I grow do not have such a pink color to them on their own, even when fermented on the skins. The smell is fantastic. Whatever variety of grape that I have, it's extremely fragrant. I have a bit of a fruit fly problem, so instead of just using the lid, which clearly they can get under, I put a cloth serviette over the top and then the lid. Hoping they can't get in under that.

Day 4

Showing off the "cap"- the crushed fruit that floats to the top
Needed a fruit fly prevention method: made one with a cloth napkin over the pot, and on top of that goes the lid. I also wanted to show you what I meant by the "cap" (see photo): I pushed the spoon in to show how it has all floated to the top in the hours since I last "punched it down" (this morning).

Punched the cap down. The color is even more purple than it was last time, I reckon. I love the color. I grabbed a measuring spoon and had a sample or two of the juice. It's like... like fizzy, slightly fermented grape juice. Like, it would probably make an excellent "grown up" grape soda.

Very pretty color!
What I can't be sure of is whether or not the sugar content is correct. I don't have a refractometer, so I couldn't measure the amount of sugar in the grapes before I harvested them, so it's a guessing game on how much sugar the wild yeast is working with. I am not sure if I will need to add more or what. It still tasted mildly sweet, but it has also only been four days fermenting.

Day 8

I'm pressing my wine today. It still has some fermenting left to do, but it was advised in my reading to press at day 8 or so, to prevent off flavors from developing in the wine as the fruit starts to decay. A sample determined that it's a nice fruity wine, still with a little bit of tingle to the finish. I would almost bottle it as is and see if it creates a fizzy wine, but I'll let it finish it's thing. It's much better than last years batch, that's for certain.
The most gorgeous looking wine I've ever made so far.

Day 9
The wine is fermenting happily in its glass bottles (see photo). And that glass is what I'm drinking. It was left over, I kept it in the fridge overnight, and it's delicious chilled. The party balloons? They're my super cheap fermentation locks. I poked a hole in the tops and stuck them over the mouth of the bottles. The wine is still fermenting, even without the skins, so it's filling them up with gas. LOVE that color!

Day 21

Still creating bubbles, but it's fermenting much less vigorously now. The sediment is mostly settled out, and the clarity is improving. The color continues to amaze. Tasted it- it's not bad. Stronger than it was when I pressed it, but still pretty good.

Day 32, April 30

The sediment has settled out a lot, and now rests on the bottom of the bottles. Because leaving it on the sediment too long can result in bitter flavors, I racked the wine today. "Racking" is the process of moving the wine from the first fermentation vessel to a second clean vessel, in order to remove the sediment and let it continue to settle.

I used a 1 meter plastic hose, and siphoned the wine from the bottles to a large container, washed the bottles out thoroughly, then refilled them. A sample taste decided that it was a light, refreshing and fruity flavor, with a slight effervescence still. The color continues to be stunning. I will let it age for a few months and track it's flavor progress.

This is as current as my notes can be right now. It's taken just over a month to reach this point, and it's not completely finished yet. So, call this post "W is for Wine: Part 1", and I'll post "Part 2" when it's ready for drinking, in a few months. 

I'll see you tomorrow! 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

V is for Variety- #AtoZChallenge

V is for Variety. Just thought I'd come right out and say it because, as the saying goes, "variety is the spice of life". With that in mind, I thought I'd apply it to a subject that concerns me greatly: the lack of seed variety.

The seed varieties we have been using to grow our food for generations have been dwindling drastically. There's a really popular graphic out there that demonstrates the problem, courtesy of National Geographic. Here it is below:

According to this image, in just 70 years (1903 to 1983), our hundreds of varieties of fruit and veg have fallen into mere double digits. Shocking, isn't it? They reckon that our food variety has been reduced by about 93%. Where did all the varieties go?

Mostly they have disappeared because many heirloom vegetables are not designed for traveling. This means you can't load them up onto a truck and drive them hundreds or thousands of miles to the grocery stores and have them survive intact. They're really only good for local trade, which is excellent if you are growing them for yourself, your neighbors, or the village market- it's not so good when the supermarket chains demand a certain "quality" of the produce.

As any gardener who has been forced to buy the tough, dry, and flavorless tomatoes at the supermarket will know, though, heirloom vegetables and fruit have the advantage of being far superior in quality when it comes to taste and texture, never mind coming in a stunning variety of colors, shapes, sizes and even have interesting names to boot. They create plants that are healthier and more disease resistant, and they can grow in very specific climates too, giving them an advantage over other similar varieties. This genetic diversity ensures that people can grow food almost anywhere- which is a good place to start when you are trying to feed people.

So how can we bring back variety into our seed stocks? I say look for the old gardeners- the ones who've been around the plot a few times, who may have been collecting their or seeds for years. A good example is the Blackman's Bay Cabbage seed I was given- it was a variety that was thought lost, and was bred to like Tasmania's cool temperate climate- so when they rediscovered it in someone's garden, they collected the seed and share it around. If you don't have an old gardener handy, try to buy the heirlooms when you go seed or plant shopping instead. There are loads of good companies to choose from, including these Tasmanian based companies:

Southern Harvest
Rangeview Seeds
Phoenix Seeds

Inspirations SeedsCornucopia Seeds

When you are successful with an heirloom variety, save the seeds- generally, pick the seeds from the first, the last, and the nicest looking fruit you grow. Then save the seed accordingly, and see that you share it around to all who are interested in growing it. If there's a local seed bank in your community, be sure to send seeds to it as well. 

Bring back the variety!

Anyway... you lot keep on living and learning. I'll see you tomorrow, with a glass of wine in hand.