Archive for the ‘community’ Category

Bring on the Smaller World

I’ve recently finished reading  Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. The author, Jeff Rubin, is a former Chief Economist at a major Canadian bank and an expert in the global economics of oil. In his book, he provides convincing evidence that the price of oil (and therefore gasoline, diesel, etc) is going to continue to climb over the next few years because of growing demand and decreasing supply. Now I’ve heard of peak oil and I’ve read everything from “technology will save us” to “get ready for the Apocolypse” but my own position had been somewhat undecided. Until now. In this article I will bring up some of the points raised in the book, and add my own musings on what this may all mean.

I really liked the way Rubin explained the problem, simply and clearly, in a way that is easy to follow and very thorough. He deals with the usual criticisms of peak oil and dismisses them with facts – not from the musings of obscure academic journals, but basic statistics from sources well-recognized by any reader. By the end of the first half of the book, I’m convinced that oil is going to continue its upward climb. And it is going to significantly change the way we live.

Despite what some Internet sources will have you believe, Rubin argues that these changes aren’t going to happen overnight; it’s not going to be like the disaster movies where one day a resource just disappears and everybody goes Mad Max trying to secure enough for themselves and their families.  Oil prices flow through a predictable cycle of ups and downs (though with an ever-increasing upward trend), so we will have time to adjust to the rising prices of oil – not time enough some may argue, but enough that one isn’t going to go to sleep with gas at $1.20/L and wake up to $5.00/L. Think about how quickly the Big Box store appeared in cities and towns everywhere – they weren’t deposited there by a freak storm, but to many of us it did seem like it all happened rather fast. That’s the sort of speed we’re talking about here.

Rubin’s first predication is that manufacturing will return to North America and become an increasingly local industry. It’s hard to argue with the logic behind this: at some critical price for fuel, the low wages and manufacturing costs of overseas plants will no longer be enough to provide an economic advantage due to the great distances over which these products must be shipped. (Just one example of the ridiculous extent to which cheap oil has shaped things: in my home province of BC we harvest wood, which is then shipped to China and other countries to be milled and processed, and then shipped back to Canada for export). I can imagine many out-of-work tradespeople who will welcome this new world – although I do hope we can rebuild our industries with a great deal more concern and respect for the environment than we had in the former glory days.

Another prediction made in the book is an end to the suburbs. The current version of “suburb” leaves a lot to be desired, and I might not be the only one to cheer the end of its current incarnation. Suburbs are a product of cheap fuel that people are all too willing to burn in exchange for perfect lawns, air-conditioning oversized houses, and hour-plus commutes in the private vehicle. Not to mention conformity to homeowner association rules that outlaw backyard poultry and hanging laundry as garish descents into peasantry that will lower property values (do members of these associations get how snobbish and elitist such rules are?). At a certain price for gas, people will not only shun the suburbs as a bedroom community, but my guess is that such real estate will be hard to even give away.  We in Canada may witness scenes like those from the US showing entire housing developments abandoned mid-construction.

On the bright side, however, not all suburbs will become ghost towns. Those whose municipal councils can look ahead to a new future will be successful in turning their bedroom communities into thriving, self-contained villages where the residents can work, play, and buy what they need locally. I’ve often thought that, while large cities have their wonders and treasures, there is something lost when human beings live in groups of such high numbers. We aren’t designed to do so, and it seems to lead to the “elevator syndrome” where people stand in close proximity without ever looking at or talking to each other. In smaller communities you know your neighbour. Sure, you may have only one pet food store to choose from – but because of that they know you on a first name basis, and will front you the $5 for kibble when you realize you left your wallet at home. And if someone passes by Old Lady Smith lying on the sidewalk they’ll immediately know that she’s suffered another seizure and the ambulance will be sent for, rather than assuming she’s some old homeless drunk/addict sleeping off a hangover. I hope what we’ll end up with is all the health and value of a small community but – thanks to the Internet* – with a global awareness. Think “Middle Ages”, but without the isolation and lack of information-sharing that kept people ignorant.

The transformation to smaller hubs will provide greater diversity in our products and foods. A piece of Ikea furniture is the same whether bought at a Vancouver store or one in Ottawa. But perhaps in the near future one will live in a community with a characteristic style of furniture, hand-crafted by local artisans from locally harvested or salvaged wood. Rather than travelling to a foreign country, one may only need to visit a neighbouring town to find a different style, using different woods and with a different flair for utility. On our small-ish Island we have many unique microclimates that are capable of specializing in different plant foods, and I can foresee a local economy where seafood from the West Coast is traded for fruits and honey from the Valley, for example.

It is these aspects of the post-peak oil world that really appeal to me, probably because I live in an area where community spirit is already high, where local food and art flourishes, and where self-sufficiency has been a goal for some time. I love that I can grow my own food, and that what I can’t grow myself can be obtained from my neighbours. Sea salt, tea, honey, flour, milk, and eggs are just some of the foodstuffs we buy locally. Local food will become much more desirable when the cost of food transportation breaks the bottom line. And I will join in the chorus of Hallelujah’s to witness the slow death of industrial farming and its oil-hungry monocropping culture of maximum yield at all cost. I will similarly raise a cheer for the passage into extinction of cheap, plastic, useless crap that falls apart quickly and is not worth repairing.

Rubin’s book doesn’t paint it all as a rosy picture, however. He notes that millions of people will suffer as we make the transition from global to local economies. There will be a Grand Reshuffling, and it will hurt many. Those in the developing world who have been robbed of their farming traditions and cultural stores of knowledge by foreign “aid” that has rendered them dependent on crops that don’t grow locally without huge inputs of fuel-dependent resources (see Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved), are particularly going to suffer. I also wonder about the future of the MegaTropolis. Places like New York and Tokyo with their populations of millions living in concrete jungles and not enough green space to grow food. I imagine we’ll see some great historic reversal where, instead of peasants fleeing to the cities, cities will be abandoned as flocks of people move out to the country. Not such a bad idea from where I sit, though there is much culturally to admire and cherish when it comes to the world’s great cities. Some places will have a hard time of this, but countries like Canada, where we have vast tracts of uninhabited land, will likely do well.

There’s no doubt that the transition to a world without cheap oil (for there will always be oil, it will just be too expensive for most of its current uses) will be a difficult one for many. Each of us must look to our own situation to determine how much we have placed ourselves at risk, and what we should do about it in the few years we have left before driving a car moves from necessity to expensive luxury. Are you able to grow at least some of your own food, with enough extra to barter for other necessities? Are you a slave to your mortgage? Can you weather significant increases in interest rates, can you survive on far less an income than you currently enjoy? Has your municipal or district council put forward resolutions to increase self-sustainability and decrease dependence on cheap oil? What are the transportation options in your community? All of us must think about these things as the price of oil continues its inexorable climb upwards. Because one thing seems certain: cheap oil is soon to be a thing of the past.


it is reasonable to argue that peak oil would affect electricity as well as the manufacture of computer devices, and that the Internet may become as outpriced as driving a vehicle; I would not hesitate in giving up pretty much every other oil-based system we rely on if it meant keeping the Internet and I’m certain many other people assign the same importance to it, especially in a world where old skills will need to be relearned, so I remain optimistic that the Internet is here to stay



Connecting with Home

[cross-posted to my other blog]

I’ve been on quite a reading kick lately, devouring books over my morning tea – which I enjoy out on the deck during these lovely summer days – and in bed after the kids have gone to sleep. My tastes are varied but from the initially random selection of books a theme has emerged. I have found a new interest…dare I say it may become a passion? I’m finding myself drawn to stories and books about my home and native province, British Columbia.

I was born and raised in Vancouver and spent all but a few short years living there. While I traveled somewhat around the province while growing up nothing really stuck with me in terms of places or names. It wasn’t until I moved back here with my new family and we took our first camping trips together that I began to really learn the geography of BC. We explored the Okanagan north and south, and traveled through Cariboo country on our way to visit the mother-in-law. When we began house-hunting on Vancouver Island I learned the major place names and regions. Slowly I’m getting a feel for southern BC, getting to know it. And as I’ve gotten to know it I’ve become more curious about it: the geography and natural history in particular.

One of the books I picked up recently was In Search of Ancient British Columbia, Volume I.

I was riveted – especially the parts about Vancouver Island. As I read through the book I thought about the concept of the Staycation, made popular when gasoline prices shot up a while back. The idea is to explore one’s own backyard, one’s home region. I couldn’t ask to be in a better part of the world for that. BC is vast and filled with wilderness; with so many different bioregions it’s like visiting a different part of the world each trip. There are so many wonderful places (many I learned about in the aforementioned book) that I began to feel I could spend my whole life just choosing camping spots in BC and never run out of amazing experiences. While I value the experience of traveling abroad, it’s not something practical for our family as more than a once-or-twice in a lifetime opportunity. Meanwhile, our lifestyle lends itself to short, impromptu trips during the week when the rest of the world is working or during the “shoulder season” when families are still tied to their schools. Perfect for a staycation.

The next book I picked up was a history of Burrard Inlet. I grew up in an old one-story house up on the hills of West Vancouver, with a to-die-for view of the western half of the inlet (something modest families could afford back in the sixties), so the book was particularly interesting and meaningful to me. I began to see that while all the books I had picked up from the library were interesting in their own right (the story of Emilie du Chatelet, a female scientist before there were such things and Voltaire’s long-time mistress, was wonderful) there was something different about the books on BC. Their meaning went deeper for me because this place was home. And I began to think about that concept more.

My current book is called Writing the West Coast: In Love with Place. I wasn’t sure I would like it, but I felt drawn to it all the same. Most of my reading had been technical in nature and here I was going to take a side trip to the more abstract world of creative writing. I’m only partway through the book, but it has taken the kindling feelings from the first few books and stoked them into a burning fire. The stories are about the concept of Home, about belonging, and the role of a place’s natural surroundings in finding that connection. I read with great interest an essay by a young woman, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. She wrote of her home on the west coast of Vancouver Island and how she felt connected to it through her culture and its history. I had just recently learned some of that history in the previous books I’d read and was really touched by her writing. In fact, the best way to describe it is I was envious. To have a sense of place like that, to be able to feel connection through elders and ancestors, through stories and legends and to know that your people had lived and sustained themselves there for thousands of years…that must be something really special. It was the role of Nature and the natural surroundings of the places in these stories that really resonated with me, because I too feel this deep sense of connection when I’m out in Nature. Not being much of a writer I haven’t been able to find voice to this feeling, not in a way that does it justice. These stories are giving me words.

And in reading I’m feeling the stirrings of something deep within me. Perhaps it is my stage of life, who knows. But I’m feeling an urge to explore this place, and to find new ways to connect with my surroundings. Besides a strong desire to start heading off on small camping trips again, something else has started bouncing around in my head and it won’t go away: kayaking.

I don’t know why it has suddenly been buzzing around in my head, but I’ve been thinking that I’d like to learn to kayak. There’s something about being so close to the water that appeals to me. Then I began reading of the tours offered by our local kayaking outfitters, and I pestered my Dad and Stepmum with questions about their sea kayaking trip around Haida Gwaii some years ago. I was excited by their stories of wildlife encounters, even just paddling over a shallow section of reef studded with a rainbow of sea stars, rays, fish, and other creatures. Of camping on sandy beaches in isolated island coves with nobody else for miles around. The solitude, the quiet, the closeness to nature. This is something that really, really appeals to me. And what a way to find that connection to Home that I am suddenly seeking with such intensity.

the Elk line

When we moved here we were told by the neighbours to be on the lookout for Elk. Apparently the local herd wanders through this part of their territory every few weeks this time of year and we were eager to take a look. Indoors, that is. We were told the herd matriarch is not afraid of anything.

Yet the other day when we were walking through our property and the dog started going crazy we were still surprised (and delighted) to see an enormous animal some distance away from us. She looked alot like this:

We were pretty sure it was an elk, and it sure took our breath away. She soon decided to get away from our barking (but, sensibly, not-approaching) dog and took off with a bound. There didn’t seem to be any others around and so we continued on our walk.

The next morning I went out with Daughter to a field trip with the local Young Naturalists’ Club. When we came back Husband said that the neighbours had called to warn that the herd was moving nearby. They suggested that we keep the dog, cat, and children indoors for a while. Sadly, Husband did not actually see any of them. But he said the dog was especially nervous and would not leave the area around the house. I thought it was super cool that the neighbours called. How sweet is that?

This female seemed huge compared to the deer we get around here, and represents the largest wild animal I have seen…in the wild, that is. I’m excited about seeing the herd come through. It’s so cool that we have such wonderful wildlife right in our backyard. Just one of the many things I’m loving about life in the country.

Local Egg-Ventures

I know I just recently gushed about all the great local food around here, but I just had to post today because I was so excited…

Today I finally got to check out one of the farms on our street that sells eggs from their driveway (there are two of them). In their driveway was a little shed with a tiny, cube-shaped refrigerator. Inside were a few cartons of eggs, each with a hand-written note giving the price (based on egg size). There was also a little glass bowl into which one puts the money. It’s called the honour system – you just pull up, get your eggs, leave your money, and drive away…how cool is that?

I came away with a dozen large, organically raised, free-range eggs from a farm just down the road…for almost half the price of store-bought ones from non-local, commercial suppliers. I am one happy camper!

Locavore Heaven

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while will know that I have become very interested in eating locally. I want to know where my food comes from, what was used to grow it, and the health of the soil it grew in. I want to know how the food animals were treated, what sort of life they led, and what sort of food they ate. I have not bought pork in almost two years because I cannot stomach the methods used in commercial pork production. In our old place we were fortunate to have access through a family friend to ethically-raised beef at a reasonable price (which we bought by the half-cow), but I could find no such source for pork.

We have been in our new town for almost two weeks. In the rush of trying to get the house in order, finding homes for everything in a place considerably smaller than our last one (which has necessitated storage solutions), and beginning work on the land (with all the tool-buying that entails) there hasn’t been much time to source out local food. Sad to say we’ve been hitting the big box stores and coming home with very little that qualifies as local in my book, let alone “whole”. I knew it was out there, somewhere, but not knowing my way around and having my days filled up with all sorts of errands I figured it would just have to wait a little longer.

Today we had an appointment at the insurance office to go over our home insurance policy (it was put together in a rush to satisfy the mortgage requirements). It was raining pretty hard when we left, and my sweet Husband suggested we go for a drive. He’d already sourced out two places he felt we should visit and so, being the King of Spontaneity (one of the things I love about him), we headed to the highway.

Not five minutes later we hit our first stop, a butcher. This place sells beef, pork, and lamb all from the family farm which has been in operation since 1925. They not only feed their animals a vegetarian diet, they actually have their own feed mill so they know exactly what goes into their animals. The store was chock full of wonderful, fresh meat and their own sausages and cured meats. Best of all, I found items like pig heart, pigs hocks, veal kidney, pig breastbone and other delights for my dog that were well within my raw-dog-food budget (under $2/pound means same price as good kibble). I even bought some lovely pork chops to cook in celebration of finally having a source for local, ethically-raised pork. Husband and I were very happy to find this place, and it’s where I’ll be buying my pork and dog bits from now on (as well as turkey, and beef when we run out of our freezer stash).

The next stop was a local cheese shop. It was located in a quaint seaside village less than 15 minutes from home. The owner remarked that she’d had lots of “new faces” in today and I proudly announced “we just moved here!” like a total newbie geek. We sampled a cheese they made themselves from locally sourced milk and came away with a little round of cheese and a couple of natural sodas. She told us about a nearby farm that sells their chickens on-site, and a fish market with its own wharf from which the local fisherman set off and bring back their sustainably-harvested fish and spot prawns. Then she sent us next door to the bakery.

At the bakery the first thing that caught our eye was their bagged flour. All but the white flour was ground in their own stone mill, most from locally grown grains (we’re still trying to figure out why we can’t find locally-grown white flour; even the stuff we used to buy that was milled locally was brought in from the prairie provinces). We learned that we can buy in bulk, too. We came away with a spelt baguette and, I confess, that is the first time I’ve had such a thing. It was truly delicious and has got me thinking I’d like to try baking some spelt bread myself. With baguette in hand, as well as a couple of their lovely cookies, we had the fixings for a delicious lunch.

We also passed a local farm market store on the way home. Not just named so for marketing reasons, we were told by the cheese shop lady that they do, in fact, sell produce and other items from local farms and are “the real thing”. Finally, there are a number of farms a few minutes away that sell eggs, chicken, and produce direct from the farm (on our street alone there are two places that sell eggs from a carton in the driveway – people go on the honour system here, isn’t that awesome?).

And so, one day before the two-week anniversary of our move, I have found a source for my cheese, eggs, and meat. Hurrah! There is far more selection and availability here and all so much closer and more convenient. In fact, as we drove home I wondered why our small town had no less than three large-chain/big box grocery stores. Seems some of the people living here have no idea how lucky they are to have such a thriving local farming and food artisan community all around them.

Good Neighbours: priceless

This is just SO cool. And only someone who has just moved from the city could probably relate to how cool it really is. The rest of you are probably going to read on and say: duh!

Just a few minutes ago, while I was making muffins for lunch, there came a knock at the door. It was Bill, our neighbour across the street. He was sent over by his wife to borrow a tablespoon of yeast.

I was tickled on two levels. First, in all my years I don’t think I have ever experienced this classic neighbourly exchange. “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” is simply not heard much anymore. I mean, not only do many of us never meet our neighbours but in our dual-working family, over-scheduled society it’s not very common to be at home during the day, baking, and have a neighbour home during the day to which one can turn for missing items.

The second reason I was so tickled was that I actually HAD yeast to give her. Two years ago I would not have had yeast, nor most any baking item, to give.

Sigh. I love this country life!

Childhood Spaces

I’m reading The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, and it is making me think about my own childhood and the connections to both Nature and Food that I enjoyed during that time.

I was a child of the ’70s and I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver that spreads across the face of the Coast Mountains, looking over Burrard Inlet and the lights of the city. Our house was on a double-sized lot; my parents bought it from a family friend in her late 60’s who grew up there. Her father had built the split-level bungalow and I always thought it had been a farm. I now understand that it was just a home, and that people in those days just naturally grew their own food and kept animals.

There was a patch of rhubarb that grew every year without us tending to it in any way. My mother made amazing rhubarb pies from that patch. We had some small strawberries in an overgrown garden patch near the back of the property, which delighted us and the neighbour children when they revealed their delicious little red fruits each summer. There was an apple tree with small, tart but juicy apples. A black cherry tree grew in our neighbour’s yard; we were allowed to harvest anything on our side of the fence, which we did by climbing onto the flat roof of our garage (our property was built on a slope, so the back of the garage was almost level with the ground). I’ll never forget the delicious juicy sweet taste of the large, almost-purple cherries. Today we pay $6 a lb for such delights.

There was an old chicken run alongside the garage – at one point I begged my mother to allow us to take some baby chicks home from school, where we had hatched them in an incubator as part of a class project. Mother, wisely figuring that she would end up in charge of the birds once we grew tired of them, said no. There was a shed at the back of the house with an old bird coop attached to it. It is now illegal to keep fowl on one’s property in my old neighbourhood, as it is in almost all urban and suburban areas.

My father was an avid gardener and the front of the yard was full of massive rhododendrons, poppies, and other delights. He kept a huge compost pile, largely fed by grass from our extensive yard. I can remember sticking my hand deep in the middle of the pile and marvelling at how hot it was in there. We built a tree fort next to the garage, from scraps of lumber we salvaged from around the neighbourhood, stealing Dad’s tools from the workshop, even lining it with bits of scrap carpet (which didn’t hold up too well in our wet climate). These days most people don’t have scrap lumber around their yard, children are discouraged from handling tools and nails especially without supervision, and many neighbourhoods have laws banning the construction of treehouses or requiring a permit to do so.

Our yard was an amazing playground, but we were fortunate to have been young in the days when children enjoyed far more freedom of movement than today’s kids do. We roamed the street, playing in whoever’s yard offered the best stage for that day’s games. A small cherry tree next door was perfect for climbing; the house down the street had a neglected tennis court that was perfect for riding bicycles. Someone else had a pile of sand that became the largest sandbox on the block. These days many people don’t know their neighbours; families where both parents work and kids go to after-school care means there are not hordes of kids and adults around in the afternoons, and liability issues lead parents to discourage their children from playing in others’ yards.

The ditches lining the road (no sidewalks back then) were treasure troves of life – I collected frog eggs which I hatched into tadpoles in a small fishbowl. I also found a garter snake that I brought into the house, much to my mother’s dismay. And two blocks away was a ravine with an old wooden bridge. We spent hours there, riding our bicycles to the bridge and daring each other to walk across the rickety-looking beams.

The adults were not with us, though most of the neighbours knew who we were and where we lived, even if they didn’t all know us by name. We remembered them by whether they were friendly to us playing in their yard, and what treats they handed out at Halloween. Homemade treats were prized, a rarity these days. Our parents called us home by standing on the doorstep calling our names. Or sometimes our father would come out and carry us home on his shoulders or back. Few children enjoy such freedoms today.

At my elementary school there were parts of the grounds that were forested and/or undeveloped. I well recall the little creek that flowed alongside the schoolground and how many times half the school would be out there playing along that creek. We had a game called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” where we damned bits of the creek and mixed up the pools with mud to make various batches of “chocolate”. All along the stream kids would be spread out with sticks and rocks, inventing wonderful complex worlds of play. The forested area included trees with root systems that spread thickly above ground, providing wonderful play spots. One provided a cave, another’s long straight above-ground roots were display tables for various wares made of leaves and sticks, their exact identity dependent on whether we were playing “store” or “restaurant”. Large fronds of pine needles were brooms with which we swept clean areas around trees to make room for a game of House. And many a time I wandered off to a more private, overgrown section of the grounds to get down on my hands and knees and pretend I was a forest creature. Due to liability issues few schoolgrounds have natural areas in them; most are built up with ‘safe’ play structures and levelled ground. Rivers and streams are a lawsuit waiting to happen.

The next section of The Last Child in the Woods I will read is about “the Bogeyman”. I have suspected for some time that the main reason parents are so restrictive on their children’s movements – fear of abduction – is a bill of goods we’ve been sold by media who know that such dramatic stories sell newspapers. I wonder how much collective damage we are doing to our children by trying to protect them from something that has less chance of happening than winning the lottery or being struck twice by lightening. Then again, how much of modern children’s restrictions are due to lack of community (not knowing your neighbours) or lack of opportunity (the overscheduled family)?

I’ll let you know when I’ve finished the book. And I’ll talk about what we’re doing with our children to ensure that they enjoy the same freedom to wander and explore the Wild Places that we enjoyed when we were young.