Saturday, April 25, 2015

Green and Thrifty




Green and thrifty food: So I worked ALL WEEK this week. What is that about, the working full time? Can't be good for you. This week's green and thrifties are mostly things I haven't done. I didn't buy anything except food, because I didn't have time! The children haven't bought lunch at school, because on Sunday I baked a huge batch of vegemite and cheese scrolls. I haven't bought dinner this week, although I must say it was tempting, but instead I put the child labour force to work. Each night at least one of the girls has contributed something to making dinner. Also, The Girl baked cookies, I popped lots of popcorn, and one night I even organised the girls to make their snacks for the next day (that was peak organisation, after which we have degenerated back to our usual morning chaos).

I picked figs from a friend's fig tree last week and made masses of fig jam.

When visiting another friend for dinner last weekend I noticed her kitchen bench was covered with basil and bowls of green tomatoes. "Frost?" I wailed. And yes, frost was forecast, so I scurried home after dinner and picked the last of the basil and tomatoes by torch light. I have dried the basil and have plans to make green tomato relish this weekend.

This week we have eaten broccoli, apples, tomatoes, lemons, Chilean guavas, parsley, basil and lettuce from the garden.

Someone brought a heap of home-grown chillies into work to give away, so I brought some home. This weekend I am going to make Sweet Chilli Sauce.

Green and thrifty entertainment: walking the dog through drifts of autumn leaves. Benson-the-wonder-puppy loves acorns. Why? I do not know. He is very choosy though. Of the hundred thousand acorns in the park, he only wants one. The best one. It takes quite some time to choose the best acorn. It is reminiscent of taking toddlers to the park. Just as well really, as it gives me a chance to catch my breath in the middle of a Very Brisk Walk. Benson keeps the pace up. Especially if there is a Cat.

Last night we were going to have a movie night, but we couldn't agree on which movie to watch, so we played a board game instead. We are so hilarious. We crack ourselves up. Hanging out and being silly together is so much fun. We should do this more often.

Green and thrifty craft: I have crocheted several more squares for our winter warmer afghan rug. My mum sent some more in the post. Thanks Mum! Only thirty one squares to go!

Green and thrifty decorating: Today's photo - the area outside the back door gets messy very regularly, so I have to keep finding new ways to make it look nice. One of the most effective ways I have found to prevent mess is to put a piece of furniture in the space where people (me) dump stuff. This time I hauled a wooden wood box out from under the house. My neighbour gave it to me when she moved, but it recently occurred to me that a wood box at the back door would be more useful than one under the house next to the wood pile. Now IF we keep the wood box full we will be able to light the fire without going out in the rain. The little cane chair was a hand-me-down when the children were young, and the geraniums are the cuttings I picked from over the fences of people's front gardens on my walks in November. I am very pleased with how they are coming along. Free plants are the best. The white pot which is housing the white geranium is from my friend Cindy's op-shop pile when she was moving house. I rescued it as a potential Useful Pot to keep chicken feed in, but until I have chickens, I will use it to keep geraniums in.

The red geranium is in a pot sitting in an old iron frying pan which I found inside the old wood box.. I am quite liking it as a garden accessory.

Tell me about your green and thrifty week.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Wombling



Who remembers The Wombles? I constantly borrowed these books from the library when I was a child. Cute furry creatures in burrows who lived on what careless humans threw away? Irresistible! My favourite feature of the books were the lists of the things that the Wombles found on their collecting expeditions, which they popped into collecting bags and took back to the burrow, where the wonderfully taciturn and practical Tobermory stacked them all on shelves in his workshop and made them into whatever the Wombles needed. Lists, DIY, making-do-and mending... so many of my favourite things all in one book!

Essentially, the Wombles were 'making good use of the things that we find, things that the everyday folks leave behind'. In other words, they were a freeganist, dumpster-diving salvage society. I think that what drew me to them as a child was partly this idea of living on the fringes, in the spaces between the uncompromising and very boring structures of society. These were creatures who lived on what fell through the gaps, and lived a rip-roaring life of fun and adventures right under the noses of the unseeing humans above, who went about their lives not realising what was going on just below.

It is fascinating (and terrifying) to contemplate our growth-obsessed society, and the sheer volume of stuff that is produced every day. I mean, it is almost impossible to imagine where it all goes. Baby clothes, for example. How is it that there is still a market for new baby clothes? New babies outgrow their first clothes in about two months. Every time I have had a new baby I have been given bags of hand-me-down baby clothes, and after every baby I've given bags of clothes away that are hardly worn. If there was a moratorium on the manufacture of new baby clothes tomorrow there would be enough to go round for years to come. But people buy new baby clothes all the time. Where does the old stuff go? (I have just thought of the answer - clearly the Wombles snaffle it for the baby Wombles..)

The dominant paradigm of our society is buying and selling, and any transaction that does not result in outright ownership is seen as a poor cousin. But just think of the possibilities beyond a culture where owning stuff is important. Rent, barter, trade, lending, borrowing, sharing, foraging, re-using, creating, up-cycling.  Most of these are fairly unattractive concepts to the average middle-class consumer.

But just imagine the possibilities for an alternative economy. Most of us here on the interweb are reasonably well-endowed with worldly goods. What if we were to open up our hearts and lives and call our family and ten of our best friends and say, 'Everything I have is yours! Let's share stuff!' Actually, I imagine many of us do that already, especially among family. I have four or five friends who I count as family and we all freely borrow, lend and share all our stuff, but I think I will expand that network. Because I want more friends who are like family:) And sometimes the best way for friends to become like family is to ask them for help. Most people (especially those who are already friends) LOVE to help when you are in trouble, and are honoured to be asked. And then you help right back, and suddenly you have a mutually dependent relationship, and every time you are there with emotional support, practical help, garden produce or the lending of 'stuff' for a friend, and they are there for you, then that relationship becomes stronger and more vital..

Then there is all that excess stuff that floats around the universe, unwanted and unloved because most folks prefer new stuff from Target. I must say, I am getting more and more intrigued by the possibilities of all the lovely old, beautiful, well-made objects out there, sitting around in junk shops, at car-boot sales, on gumtree and at school fairs.

Here is my latest:

1950s Fowler Ware electric jug


My stainless steel kettle was leaking from the spout after all the hard work it has had to do over the years. I was pretty sure it could be fixed, but hadn't gotten around to sorting it when the switch started to malfunction. Not wanting to burn the house down I started looking for a 'new' kettle and found this in my favourite second-hand homewares shop (Tassie Old Wares on Hobart Rd for all you locals). Last time The Man was home he kindly made sure that the cord was safe and put a new plug on for me. Its only drawback is that you have to fill it up above the element otherwise the element blows up. So each time you have to boil half a jug of water. Two options occurred to me - invite six friends over every time I have a cup of tea, OR fill up the thermos with all that boiling water. I went with option two, although option one is also attractive. Now I have several cups of tea a day without even boiling the jug, so I think that on the whole I am using less electricity. And it is blue. And so beautiful. And now I can see why these were called 'electric jugs' when they were invented, because they are clearly an actual jug, with electricity and a lid attached.

And as for wombling, I have already started. The other day Posy and I were walking the dog, and someone had left a charming chair at the end of their driveway with a 'Please take me, I'm free' sign on it. Now I hear this is a common practice in other localities, but not so much in our conservative town. So what could I do but encourage such initiative? I handed the dog-lead to Posy and carried the chair home. Posy has declared she is never walking the dog with me again. And the chair needs repainting, and recovering, and I have to admit that there have been other times in my life when I have brought chairs home from op-shops and such places and not renovated them... and finally given them away again, but then that is how the great chair re-cycle of life goes anyway, isn't it?





So please do tell me about your own wombling adventures and your ideas for living in an economy based on fun and sharing rather than buying and selling..

PS Between finishing this post and taking photos for it I came upon this lovely man who is actually doing it - he is living the life of a Womble. What an extraordinary and wonderful human being. I want to be just like him when I grow up..









Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Easy Peasy Passata




For the past several weeks I have been madly experimenting with different passata recipes to determine which one would become my go to recipe to fill the forty passata jars I have collected over the year. It is only over the last couple of years that I have been cooking with passata, but now I use it instead of tins of tomatoes - so much easier to pour a tomato sauce straight into whatever I am cooking than faff about chopping up the tomatoes.

Passata recipes. There are many. Some of them involve roasting the tomatoes with onion and garlic before making them into sauce, and some require a number of ingredients which transforms the passata into a pasta sauce ready to pour onto pasta. All of the variations were delicious. But I what I wanted was passata in its simplest form - tomatoes and salt. The ultimate versatile kitchen ingredient for when you don't have fresh tomatoes. I use it in curries, in chilli, in soups and stews as well as Italian pasta dishes. I wanted simple, generic, and also easy. So in the end I went with what appears to be the traditional Italian basic recipe, then changed the method to suit my circumstances - that is, I am someone who doesn't own a mouli or Kitchen Aid or any other appliance that separates the skin and seeds from the body of the sauce. But what is all that about anyway? Surely the skin and the seeds are good for you? And who wants that kind of mess all over the kitchen? Not me.

So what follows is the easiest method I could invent for making the simplest passata recipe I could find. Ridiculously easy. Really, compared to all the measuring and chopping that goes in to relish or salsa making, this is such a doddle. If you try it, let me know how you go:)


Easy Peasy Passata

1. Wash your tomatoes.

2. Chop them very roughly (in half will do) and throw them in your largest pot (mine is a 9l/2.3 gallon pot). Add two tablespoons of salt (more or less depending on pot size).



3. Bring to the boil.

4. Boil for an hour. Or less if you are using a smaller pot. When the heavenly aroma of well-cooked tomato wafts through your kitchen, then it will be done. Timing really isn't critical though. It will still be watery, it will always be a thin sauce, unless you want to cook it down for hours, but then you don't get much sauce..



5. Whiz up with the stick blender.

6. Put 1/4 tsp citric acid and a couple of basil leaves (optional) into the bottom of sterilised jars. Citric acid is a white crystalline powder that is also handy for cleaning and making cheese. In this case it is providing extra acidity to your sauce which will keep it safe from nasty bacteria. It doesn't affect the taste. 1/4 teaspoon is enough to acidify up to a litre (2 pints) of sauce.



7. Pour in the passata.



8. Water bath can for an hour. I use my friend Jane's vacola outfit. It is basically a large kettle which plugs in at the wall to heat up water, with the jars inside, for an hour. You can also do this in a large pan. Put a kitchen towel on the bottom to keep the jars off the base. Fill with cold water, making sure it covers the lids of the jars. Heat very slowly (a large pot will take about 30 mins to boil), then simmer for 30 mins, turn off heat and leave the jars in the water until cool.



9. Hmm, no, I think we were done at 8.


Do you make passata? Let me know your secret recipe:)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Green and Thrifty


Dried greengages, pears, feijoas, basil and zucchini slices.


More of the same, really. Drying pears, apples, feijoas and basil. Making pesto. And finally, making more passata. I have had terrible trouble tracking down sources of local tomatoes. They have been ripening very slowly now that the weather is getting colder, and the month of March, which is usually very warm.. wasn't. My very helpful friend Cindy turned up today triumphantly bearing several kilograms of perfect ripe tomatoes - grown by some lovely ladies at Evandale, fifteen minutes drive out of town. So today I have made eight more jars of passata, and will have enough to do at least four more in the morning.. another friend passed on the news yesterday that there is an old man a few streets away who is selling sauce tomatoes from his garden, so Benson-the-Wonder-Tomato-Sensing-Hound and I will have to go on a tomato-hunting mission together in order to fill up the last of the forty empty passata bottles I prepared earlier.. the next post will feature the final winning passata recipe from my weeks of experimentation.




I have been industriously crocheting more squares for my afghan blanket. When my mum was here a couple of weeks ago she reminded me how to make them, and wrote out the instructions, and I have been very, very good, crocheting at least one a day. According to Posy's calculations we need about forty more squares. The truly green and thrifty part of this project is that most of the wool I have used is from the op shop, much of it from giant, ugly hand-spun wool jumpers (sweaters, jerseys, pull-overs for the international audience), the ones which make you look like a wombat when you wear them, which I unknitted and wound into balls. The rest is lovely Australian alpaca given to me for Christmas by my nice mum.. Mum also donated a vest which my grandma knitted for my dad many years ago. She unravelled that and wound it into balls as well. The weather is rapidly getting cooler, so we will need a cosy couch blanket sooner rather than later.. Meanwhile The Girl is branching out on her own and has started using up some of the coloured wool from our stash, so we should be toasty warm this winter.



When we found our lovely puppy Benson at the RSPCA in November, I discovered that just outside the front gates at the RSPCA is an area where trucks from local mills and businesses that create timber off-cuts can dump them for people to pick up for free firewood. Brilliant! So last week when I did my weekly shopping in the neighbourhood I popped two big tubs in the back of the car and filled them up with free kindling. Goody. Reducing municipal waste and lighting my fire for free. Two excellent outcomes.

Last thrifty experiment for the week - I have finally, after years of experimentation, worked out how to make perfect naan bread. I already do a quite nice butter chicken, so now our favourite take-away is all home-made. Even better, two out of the three girls can also make brilliant butter chicken, and cook the naan bread, so all they have to master is the dough.. recipes to follow.. when I remember to take some photos (here is a peculiar fact. Even though my girls are excellent bakers, and love playing with dough, they are not keen on making it. I love making and kneading dough. Clearly we were made for each other).




Not Thrifty - Note to Self - do not buy bags of Easter eggs weeks early when they are on sale, as you know you will only eat them then have to go and buy more..




Monday, April 6, 2015

Gifting..




Are you tired of seeing pictures of more food to be preserved? I think for the first year ever I am still quite enthusiastic about finding things to do with what is in my garden. The squirrel instinct has kicked in and I am clearly preparing for a long, hard winter.

But most of this isn't even from my garden. We had Easter Sunday lunch with friends, who are about to go on holiday, and after the traditional Easter egg hunt we were all sent into the vegie garden to pick everything that is left. I came home with more greengages, cherry tomatoes galore, and a bunch of feijoas, which are destined, you guessed it, for the dryer. Sour-sweet and delicious sliced in rounds and dried, they make an exotic addition to winter muesli. And that reminds me, there is a feijoa tree in a local park which I must go and investigate for foraging purposes..

This time of year is birthday season at our house and in the extended family. Now, I knew that when I started Not Buying New Stuff, that gifts would be the hardest. Mainly because forward planning is just not my thing. It takes some prior thought to find the right thing for that special person in an op-shop or antique store or craft market, and then there is, heaven help us, the option of making things myself, which takes massive forward planning, plus skills and imagination. Aaargh!

Judith Levine in her year of Not Buying It, also found gift-giving very tricky. In analysing the social politics of gifting she concluded that The Gift indicates a sacrifice of something that we value, to show that we value the person we are gifting to. In our society we value money more than anything, so expensive gifts indicate a) the amount that we value the receiver of the gift, but also b) the status of our own place in the wealth hierarchy.

Of course, time is also a valuable commodity in our society, so gifts that have had a lot of time put into them are also often valued, especially if skill and taste and expensive materials are added, such as all the beautiful things we saw at the local craft fair we went to last weekend..

So I have been thinking about all these things as the birthday season has been coming up. In our extended family we are not ostentatious gift-buyers, thankfully. The gift is definitely a symbol - I love you and care about you, and appreciate you, here is a little something which represents that fact - this is the subtext to our family giving. So I have never felt the need to go overboard with gifts. However, in my usual haphazard way I generally remember a week beforehand that I need to buy a birthday present, and race around the shops like a crazy person with a half-hour to spare hunting for the 'perfect' gift, then I get the children to wrap it and make a birthday card, and then it sits on the hall table for three weeks because posting it is apparently impossible. The same goes for children's birthday presents, except usually I manage to at least give them their presents on the actual day..

This last few weeks have been more than normally busy and a bunch of family birthdays took me by surprise. Luckily we did spend a Saturday morning at a local craft fair recently, which was fabulous, and we bought a few presents there, but Posy and I had to spend an afternoon in town last week, running around the shops as usual, buying last minute gifts, and also locally made Easter bunnies and bilbies. Actually, despite my shopping-phobia, we did have fun. We stuck to local businesses and the Oxfam Fair Trade Gift Shop, and what we bought was well-made and useful for the people we were buying for, and hardly anything was Made in China, BUT this still isn't the gift-giving experience I wanted in my new simple life of living with less. It also doesn't feel particularly respectful or meaningful to the people I love and who I am giving gifts to.

Here are some examples of the meaningful type of gifts I am aspiring to:

For Christmas my mum gave me a heap of granny squares she had crocheted for the afghan rug I am (slowly) making, and she added some balls of beautiful Australian alpaca wool, you know, just in case I make some more squares myself soon...

For her birthday my mum gave The Girl a dish which had belonged to my grandmother, along with a note explaining where it was from, and what Grandma had used it for.

A friend of mine gave his wife a cake every month for a year - he ordered the cakes from another friend of ours who is a fabulous baker.

Last year a friend knitted me a cowl from lovely soft angora wool left over from a another project she had knitted.

A couple of years ago, for Christmas, The Girl made an origami flower ball for me out of pages from an old book.


It's one of my favourite presents, ever.

Another one of my favourites is the little decorated box Posy gave me for Mother's Day last year. She filled it with plastic jewels, and I can exchange each jewel for a cup of tea, lovingly made by her and brought to me, generally in bed on a weekend morning. She may be regretting filling the box quite so full..


A couple of weeks ago I put out a call for help for good gifts that don't involve Buying New Stuff, and I had a lot of votes for giving experiences. I really like that idea, but most experience gifts are now outside my budget range. I am now the person who gives humble gifts.

Somewhere, recently on the internet, I was reading a blog written by a young man. He had written a post featuring his bucket list, and it included the intention - Give humble gifts. That thought has been going around and around in my head - although unfortunately I can't remember where I found it.

Humble gifts. It is a hard thing to do. Humble gifts reflect on the giver... but just think about the pressure lifted from our lives, wallets and the planet if we could happily give and receive humble gifts. One woman on a forum that I read recently said that she gave her home made jam as gifts. Just jam. That's it. To everyone. She hoped everyone liked jam...

I love gifts of jam. Another friend gave me home made chutney for my birthday last year. I loved that. I tried to have a gift-free birthday party last year, but everyone, everyone brought a gift anyway. This year I might get people to bring food for the party, so maybe they will feel better about not bringing a present then.

Because here is the thing. We can love each other and appreciate each other without exchanging Stuff. We all have enough already. I don't know about you, but I already have all the doodads I will ever need. But I can always use another jar of jam. Or chutney. So last time a friend had a birthday, I gave her jam. It felt awkward because usually I buy her a nice doodad from a lovely and tasteful doodad shop. This year, home made plum jam, and plum pancake syrup.  Maybe next year limoncello.

So this is me in the centre of my Swamp of Doubt about being a social outcast, having idealistic intentions to make gifts meaningful, but realistically falling back on jam. Which is meaningful in a small way. And at least not Made in China, and mercifully not ever requiring dusting..

And what was lovely about our Easter garden bonanza, is knowing that I have friends who share my values - that food is precious, especially food we have grown ourselves, and that gifts of cherry tomatoes, feijoas and greengages from a friend's garden are significant, meaningful and wonderfully useful all at once..















Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Living Better With...Alcohol



Kay brought along a very large bag of nashis, and some beans from her garden to share, to which I said 'Yes please'. I have been steadily working through these as I slice them into the dehydrator. More school snacks for the children. Thanks Kay.



Yet again, a magnificent evening at our Living Better With Less group. Because what could possibly be bad about sitting around a big old wooden table passing around bottles of home made wine and liqueurs to try? Nothing, that's what..

First, Kay brought along a bottle of her two-year-old sloe berry wine for us to sample. Oh my goodness, it is so rich and smooth - almost like a port. Apparently the hardest part about making this wine is leaving it for two years before drinking it. But so worth it.

Unfortunately, Kay's computer died recently, taking the sloe berry wine recipe with it. But luckily, Kay gave Brad the recipe some time ago, and Brad thinks he can find it to share with us, DON'T YOU BRAD? This is why recipe sharing is so very important, people. It protects us from the triumph that is technology... Fortunately, sloe berry season isn't until June, so that gives Brad a little time to rifle through his recipes. At which time I faithfully promise to make the wine and record every step and publish the recipe to the world, because this is one we don't want to lose.

Next, Katherine has been busily experimenting with liqueurs. First, limoncello. Again, slow food, but happily, we don't have to wait two years for this one. Traditionally, limoncello is steeped for eighty days, and every Italian family has a different recipe. What I love about Tasmania is that its foodie culture is not elitist, and practically everyone has a lemon tree in the back yard and knows how to use it. At one of The Boy's first soccer games, when he was about six (the club he played for had The Italian Club as its headquarters), in between cheering for the herd of excited little boys charging up and down the field, the parents were waging a hotly contested argument about how to make the best limoncello.

But that argument has finally been put to rest. We know now that Katherine makes the best limoncello.

Limoncello

Peel only (no white pith) of 8 lemons
1 litre vodka
1kg sugar
1 litre water

Add lemon peel to vodka and leave to steep in sealed container for four days.

Slowly dissolve sugar in 1 litre of water over a low heat.

Cool, then add to vodka mixture. Leave for ten minutes, then strain through a muslin cloth, bottle, and leave for as long as humanly possible before drinking.. maybe even eighty days..

Makes two and a half litres.



Katherine's next triumph comes from Beshlie Grimes' Making Wines, Liqueurs and Cordials. We all had a good browse through this book whilst sipping on our liqueurs, and it is a really good resource if you are interested in concocting your own beverages - and why wouldn't you be - especially this one - Rose Petal Liqueur. As Katherine said, so many wines and liqueurs are made from things we wouldn't otherwise eat - lemon peel, sloe berries, rose petals.

Now, a rose petal flavoured drink doesn't sound immensely appealing to be honest, but this was wonderful as well, with David claiming that it had a flavour similar to glayva. The rose petals for this liqueur are picked in full bloom, preferably at the end of a hot day. Katherine used a combination of all the roses that were blooming in her garden at one time.

Rose Petal Liqueur

4 1/2 cups (fresh) or 3 cups (dried) rose petals
2 scant cups (400g) superfine/caster sugar
3 1/8 cups (750ml) vodka

Put the rose petals, sugar, and vodka in a sterilised preserving jar. Seal the jar and give it a good shake.

Store it in a cool, dark place for 3 months, giving it a shake once a week to help dissolve the sugar.

Strain the liquid through a piece of fine muslin into a sterilised bottle. The liqueur is now ready for drinking.

- from Beshlie Grimes, Making Wines, Liqueurs and Cordials 

Ok, so the wine and all the liqueurs so far have been divine, and we are all very happy and jolly, when Katherine pulls out a huge jar full of something dark brown with bits floating in it that looks like it has been brewed in a witch's kitchen. It is a lavender liqueur, also from Beshlie Grimes' book, and it is still in the steeping stage. When Katherine takes the lid off we all reel from its very powerful lavender aroma. It smells like something I would cheerfully pop in a spray bottle and use to clean the bathroom or spray on my ironing. It is gorgeous, but doesn't make me want to drink it so much..

However Beshlie Grimes waxes eloquent about this Provencal liqueuer, and she was right about the rose petal one, so maybe we can trust her on this too? At least if you don't like it to drink it will make your house smell divine:) This comes recommended as an addition to champagne for a special occasion - 1 part liqueur to 3 parts champagne.

Lavender Liqueur

50 lavender heads
2 scant cups (400g) superfine/caster sugar
3 1/8 cups (750ml) vodka

Put the lavender heads, sugar and vodka into a large, sterilized preserving jar. Seal the jar and give it a good shake.

Store it in a cool, dark place for 3 months, giving it a shake once a week.

Strain the liquid through a piece of fine muslin. Pour it into sterilized bottles. Although it will be ready for drinking immediately, it will improve with age.

- from Beshlie Grimes, Making Wines, Liqueurs and Cordials 




To finish with, David described the process of brewing beer, and promised to bring some home brew for us to try next month. We WILL remember, David:)

Now, for someone like me who has never made anything more exciting than lemon cordial to drink, this evening was a revelation and took some of the mystery out of making a simple wine, and these liqueurs tasted divine, and are so easy to make. They may solve some of my gift-giving dilemmas this year.

So thank you to all who bravely and generously shared your bounty and your knowledge with us, and do try one of these liqueurs. I am starting with the limoncello.

Cheers!

PS Next month, soap making..


 




Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Walden


I think I mentioned a couple of months ago that I was trying to get through Walden again. Well, I did it! It is actually a marvellous book, but there were so many moments where I felt that Thoreau was peering out of the pages and wagging his finger right at me that I got quite uncomfortable and had to put the book away again for a week or so. And it's not just me who felt the wrath of Thoreau - Emerson, whose land Thoreau built his cabin on, and whose children Thoreau tutored for some years, said at his funeral that Thoreau was the most argumentative man he had ever met.

I can imagine the conversation where Thoreau broaches the idea of borrowing some of Emerson's land to try a social experiment. 'Build a cabin in the woods? Of course you can old boy, take as much land as you like! How about that bit right over by the far side of Walden Pond? Yes, excellent, excellent. Let me know when I can give you a hand to move out. Believe me, I am right behind you in this splendid endeavour..'

Thoreau's most famous quote of course, is the paragraph where he declares he went to the woods 'to live deliberately, to suck the marrow out of life, to see whether he could front only the essential facts of life'. But what, after all, does this mean?

Thoreau lived in the woods for only two years, and his experiment was to see how simply he could live, and whether living simply could enable him to live the Good Life, which for him, meant plenty of time to be a philosopher, time which in his 'normal' life was being eaten up by social conventions and the necessity of earning a living. His questions were: Can I build a simple shelter which will keep me warm in the winter? And, how simple can it be? Can I feed myself simply and produce enough extra to provide for the simplest necessities of life? And how simple might those necessities be? Can this simple life be satisfying and meaningful enough that I can recommend it as a course of action to others?

The answers to these questions were, 'Yes' and 'Very simple indeed'. For instance, once he was lecturing a poverty stricken labourer about how much less he could work, and how much more time he could spend fishing on Walden Pond if he chose not to 'need' butter, meat, tea and coffee. Which just goes to show I am not quite ready to live at that level of simplicity either! Thoreau himself lived on bread made with rye and cornmeal, dried beans, vegetables and the occasional fish. He drank water from a spring. Of course, he did pop into town every so often to lunch with his mother, and who wouldn't? But the point is - he knew he could live on very little, and for him, the payoff was worth it - the freedom to do whatever he wanted.

And of course he found, as many have found before and since, that the work involved in providing for his simple needs was also a profoundly satisfying part of his day - building a house, fishing, chopping wood, hoeing his beans and stopping to chat with a woodchuck, walking through the woods to town - all of these were as pleasurable a part of his life as his hours of reading and writing.

This revelation of the pleasures of work would have been revolutionary and probably appalling to Thoreau's contemporaries, for whom manual labour was NOT something that ladies and gentlemen undertook under any circumstance. But there is no reason to look back and sneer at the absurdities of the nineteenth century gentry, because the whole of our society is also geared towards avoiding work. Most of the technological advances of the past century have involved harnessing finite and precious fossil fuels so that we can avoid washing our clothes or doing dishes by hand, or even walking anywhere, if we are willing to pay for that privilege.

And most of us are. I flick a switch to wash my clothes, do my dishes, light up the darkness, keep myself warm and cook my toast, among many other tasks. When I want to transport myself from A to B I insert myself into a padded armchair and use million-year-old sunlight to whoosh myself to my destination, which sometimes is the gym where I lift weights to develop a couple of muscles so I don't atrophy away from lack of physical exercise. I tell you this, if Thoreau thought his nineteenth century contemporaries were leading pathetic and meaningless lives, he would be apoplectic observing ours..

The challenge that I took away from Thoreau is this: what are the necessities of my life? How simple could my life become? How much is my heedless life of comfort worth? Would I be willing to forgo some of my comforts for the freedom of providing for some of my own necessities?

I don't work very much at the moment, and am contemplating having to work more to keep body and soul together in the near future. I have to say I do have a very low-stress job working with lovely people, and as I work relief I can choose whether to work or not on a day-to-day basis. But it is intriguing to think of the possibilities of working... differently. I would rather work at home than even in my pleasant job. Well, mostly. If I could lower my outgoings and ramp up my insourcing (have a look at Mimi's great insourcing posts for ideas about how to do everything better at home), grow a lot more food, use less utilities, and buy less stuff, I could work a lot less days, live a very simple life and be a philosopher in my head while preserving pears with my hands. And hang out with the kids and the dog. I would still have to work a bit of course, because the council still don't accept barter arrangements for rates, but hey, did I mention my nice job? And again, like the philosopher Thoreau, I would like to consider a more creative life in my future, and that is also something I could plan while I preserve pears and plant peas and lettuce.

So again, my life is one great big experiment at the moment. I like it. I am amusing myself by thinking of all the most unlikely ideas I can, and then deciding to give them a go. It is such a surprising, joyful experience, living. I cannot believe that anyone is ever bored when we only have a scant threescore-years-and-ten to pack in everything we want to try..

Let's have a little more advice from Thoreau to go on with:

'Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage... if you are restricted in your range by poverty... you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences.  It is life near the bone where it is sweetest... Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.'

from Conclusion in Walden.










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