Archive for the ‘lifestyle’ Category

Lessons from our first winter

Winter has arrived here on Vancouver Island. Even Vancouver got a dusting of snow, but around our place – which is about 300 feet above sea level – we got a nice big dump of snow. It’s rather unusual for this part of the country to get snow so early, and the temperatures have also been unseasonally cold. We’d been thinking about this for a while, how we would prepare and cope with winter in the country, but it all happened upon us rather unexpectedly and we’ve had a few hiccups already.

It all started rather blissfully. On Friday evening I went to bed with a dusting of snow already on the ground and we woke to a winter wonderland. the photo at the top is the view from our deck, which is pretty much the same view from our bedroom window. That morning I drank my usual cup of tea, but this time I was perched on the dresser staring out the window at the magic around us…I couldn’t get enough of how amazing it all looked, and counted my blessings for the umpteenth time since moving here.

But the blissful moment was interrupted by discovering that the pigs had escaped and were getting into the garbage cans. Husband and I put on our snow gear. After I dug it all out of storage and dusted off the cobwebs, that is. A mouse had built a cozy little nest in one of Daughter’s snow boots; note to self – don’t store boots in the garage! It was actually a very enjoyable task to go out and repair the electric fence around the pig paddock. Since they were due to leave us the next day we took the whole thing apart and rigged up a much smaller paddock that linked to the “livestock chute” Husband had fabricated from various materials (that’s it sinking under the snow in the foreground of the above photo). Then the kids got themselves bundled up and we searched the property for a suitable hill. It was very cool being able to toboggan on our own property! The dog was having a blast running around in the snow. Later we went inside and I made a yummy homemade soup and all was right with the winter world.

Things started going wrong the next day. As you may recall, the pigs were supposed to be long gone before this kind of weather hit and we couldn’t get another appointment until this past Sunday. That morning the processing guy called to say the livestock hauler couldn’t get his trailer to the processor’s facility so everybody was rescheduled for the following weekend. I’ve been worried about the pigs as they only have a 3-sided shelter and I honestly don’t know if they can handle this sort of cold. Some of the books say you should build a winter shelter for them, others say they are hardy and will handle a bit of cold (and this from a guy who lived in Virginia where the temps went down to minus 28 C!). So far they don’t show any signs of distress, but at this point there’s not much to do except keep them fed and watered and hope that next weekend’s appointment goes as planned. Meanwhile it’s about – 10 C here; thank goodness they have each other to snuggle up against.

Our big concern when thinking about the approaching winter was losing power. We were told by the neighbours that it’s a given, and we did experience several power outages in the summer though they all resolved themselves within minutes. The issue was heat since our propane-powered central heating (forced air) system relies on electricity to run the fan. We’d talked about getting a wood stove or a gas stove hooked up to our propane tank, but this place is so small and already crowded I just don’t know where we’d put it. Husband argued that, for the same price, we could get a kick-ass generator that would not only give us power for heat in case of an outage, but power for the stove and our computers, etc. Kind of hard to argue with that logic. Well yesterday in the midst of this cold-spell the heater breaks down. We still have power, but no heat (the fan motor has died). Hopefully tomorrow we’ll get someone out to fix it, but in the meantime it’s rather chilly in here! We’ve all got extra wool blankets on the beds, I’m bundled up and drinking hot tea, but this is not something I’ll want to go through regularly. I guess we’ll be shopping for generators this week (when everybody else is, too; oh the joys of being a procrastinator!).

On the water front, we assumed the pump house and well head were already weather-proofed as it’s not like nobody was living here before us. However it appears that the only thing keeping the pump from freezing was a light bulb in the pump house, which blew out back in the summer and never got replaced. So today we lost our water. Husband put a space heater in the pump house, which appeared to fix the problem for a while, but then later on we lost our water again. So looks like we’ll be calling a guy in tomorrow for that, too!

Of course all this happens while I’m out of town for two days with Daughter, and Husband is home with Son, both of whom are sick with colds. In true Kid Fashion, Son recovered almost immediately and has been bouncing off the walls while Husband has had to tend to an electric fence malfunction (the pigs rooted up the power line – that’s what happens when you move the paddock in deep snow and forget where the line is buried!), the pump issue, take apart the heater, and try to cook for himself and Son…On the way home from the ferry terminal I get a pleading text message asking us to bring pizza and lots of water. We have water for drinking and cooking now, but not for flushing the toilet – now who’s crazy for stocking up on family cloth, huh??

Amidst all the craziness I have to laugh and love it all. A bunch of suburbanites spending their first real winter out in the country – lots to learn! But we will learn and figure it out, and in the meantime it’s hard to complain with all that frozen beauty out there.

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In Search of Homemade Bread

For many years now I have been trying to provide my family with homemade bread. The stuff from the grocery store is full of preservatives and highly processed ingredients, and wholesome artisan bread is too expensive for the amount we go through each week. Years ago I purchased a breadmaking machine and enjoyed using that for some time. The down side was that it took 3.5 to 4 hours to make a small loaf of bread. Theoretically I’d set it up at night before going to bed, but that didn’t always work out as planned. I’d be too tired and forget. Or, I’d get woken up in the early morning hours by the grinding noise of the breadmaker (life in a small home). Several months ago my breadmaker finally broke when I attempted to make spelt bread. The recipe I was using was obviously faulty and the resulting dough was more like cement. It was so hard to churn that the metal spokes that turned the rotor of the bread machine actually tore off! I decided it was time to try my hand at making it myself.

My next venture was into the Five Minutes a Day breadmaking made popular by the authors’ two books. I tried a basic recipe of theirs from an article in Mother Earth News and decided this was the answer I needed, so I ordered the two books and went out to buy loaf pans. At first I was really happy with the technique: it was easy to mix up a big batch and it didn’t take too long to make bread. I assumed I’d get better with practice, and so tolerated the frequent mistakes. But it didn’t seem to get any easier and eventually the list of “cons” outweighed the “pros”. My kids complained that the bread “tasted funny” and refused to eat it. Even I grew tired of the yeasty smell and taste. The whole schtick behind these books is you get that “sourdough” type flavour with this technique. I like sourdough bread, but not in every loaf I make, and I found the flavour overwhelming in these recipes. I eventually found out that I could cut the yeast way down, which went a long way to getting rid of the taste, but then it also took a lot longer to make the initial batch of bread. Then there was the fact that I didn’t have enough room in my fridge to store the dough (which you make in large batches). I also could not get consistent loaves no matter how often I practiced. One day the loaf would have a good “crumb” (the texture of the inside of the loaf) and the next it would be gooey, hard, or unevenly cooked. The crusts were never soft, even in the soft-crust recipes, and the loaves cooked unevenly. This latter issue is definitely a problem with my ancient oven, but that’s what I’m stuck with right now. I got tired of the kids rejecting my loaves, and of wasting so much good organic flour (the pigs enjoyed it all very much, of course). I stopped trying and we went back to cheap, store-bought bread.

After taking a suitable break from my Five Minutes a Day failure, I felt ready to try my hand at real, old-fashioned breadmaking. The kind where you actually knead the dough. In all my years of making bread I’d never actually done this before, and felt it was time to give it a try. I surfed through YouTube to get some ideas and inspiration. It felt a lot like Googling “gardening” – way too much information and everybody seems to do it differently. I found it rather confusing and overwhelming. One person swore by using a yeast “sponge” rather than proofing yeast, others claim that yeast won’t work without sugar and yet they proof their yeast with just water. Rising times seemed to vary considerably, and when it came to whole grain breads some people didn’t use gluten, which I’ve been told is essential to get any rise from these heavier flours. There were those who knead by hand and those who knead with a mixer (I have a KitchenAid with Dough Hook, but have yet to try it on bread). I decided to start simple.

I found a beginner’s bread recipe in an old copy of Hobby Farm Home I had lying around. I followed the instructions and was very pleased to see things rising as they should, with the correct texture, etc. I was also rather surprised at how little time it took – the first rise was only 1 hour and the second 30 minutes. The bread baked for 30 minutes, so in just over 2 hours I had bread. That’s half the time of machine bread, and the same time as the Five Minutes a Day technique (when you pinch off some ready-made dough you still need to let it rest and rise for 90 minutes before shaping). For a first effort I was pretty pleased with the results. The loaves were on the small side, but the crumb was not bad (could still be fluffier, IMO). It had baked evenly and I had 2 loaves with relatively little effort. Even kneading the dough was not half as hard as I thought it would be.

However, to my surprise the bread still had a yeasty, sour sort of flavour to it and the kids rejected it. I’m not sure what the problem is, but I suspect water may be an issue – we have sulfur in our well water and though I thought I’d used spring water from the store there may have been some well water in the kettle I used to heat the water (I did this meticulously with the Five Minutes recipes but cutting down on the yeast had a much greater effect on taste). I’m going to try the recipe one more time, being careful about the water source and see if that’s the problem. And I may look for recipes that call for less yeast (I use Fleischmann’s, nothing unusual). Otherwise I’m not sure what to do except keep trying recipes until I find one, or a technique, that works for us. Rhonda Jean over at Down to Earth has some great articles about homemade bread so I think I’ll try her recipes next. I’m determined not to be dependent on store-bought bread, especially since my kids eat it by the ton and I want their food to be wholesome and healthy (plus I suspect that they eat so much of it because it contains ingredients that folks crave but that don’t provide much in the way of nutrition). I’ll keep you all posted on my progress.

Busy, but not Stressed

Since consciously adopting a Simpler lifestyle I’ve noticed something. It used to be, in my rat-race world, that being busy = being stressed. The stress was usually related to Time. I lived my life according to schedules whereby certain things needed to be done by a certain time. As the minutes ticked by I’d grow increasingly anxious about the looming deadline. And it seemed as though my whole day went that way.

I had to get out of bed at a certain time, even though I desperately wanted to stay in bed. So there would be this internal dialogue in my mind with one side saying “just a few minutes more!” and the other side saying “you’ll be late!”. Heading to work, traffic jams or missed buses were always potential sources of panic. Various deadlines throughout the day brought their moments of panic, even something as benign as hurrying to finish my lunch. Now relatively speaking none of these things rank high on the Life Stresses list, but I had to wonder about the effect of all these little stresses throughout the day. I can’t see that this was a healthy way to live. We now have a good understanding of how stress affects the body, and being in a constant state of stress is no good for anybody.

In our modern world it seems like everybody is always rushing around. The average middle-class family wakes up needing to get everybody fed, dressed, packed for school/work, and out the door by a certain time. The average job involves deadlines and schedules that must be adhered to, while children are following the sound of bells, class schedules, and taking timed tests. At the end of the day there is the rush to get everybody home, dinner on the table, kids usually have homework, and what little quality time can be spent together ends with a strict bedtime, made necessary by the importance of a smooth – and timely – morning routine. Weekends are reserved for all those things that nobody has time for during the week, such as grocery shopping and running errands, housekeeping and yard work, hobbies and extracurricular activities, social engagements, couple time, etc…Trying to fit all that into 48 hours isn’t my idea of a break.

My husband and I have been making conscious choices over the last couple of years to Simplify our lives. And one of the biggest steps in this was choosing to leave the Rat-Race. Husband had planned to leave his corporate job before they did us a favour and laid him off, and I had made the decision not to return to my former career but instead focus on raising the kids and running the household. Hubby now works from home most of the time, which gives him great flexibility in planning his day. On weeks when he has to commute to the mainland he does need to get up early, but the scenic 95 minute ferry trip through some of the most beautiful coastline in the world does much to relieve the stress of having to make an early ferry. These 48 hour trips away from home give his introverted self a much-needed chance to recharge, and thus fits in well to our family life. As for me, my consulting work does include deadlines but my case-load is small enough that I end up working only a handful of hours each month, and I usually have a long-enough turnaround time that I don’t need to panic.

I’ve recently been giving thought to the concept of being “busy”. Because even though our life is somewhat unconventional compared to the average middle-class, dual professional, family of four household I still have plenty to do. When I realize I haven’t called my mother all week I think “I’ve been busy”. And it surprised me at first because I never think of myself like that anymore. That’s when I realized that Busy does not have to = Stress. Yes, I have a lot of things to do. My primary job as mum and housewife involves many daily tasks. For example, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen: making meals for my family, cleaning up after making the meals, baking (loving my 5-minute-a-day bread!), doing laundry (which these days involves hanging laundry out to dry), general tidying (which keeps me on my toes, what with two young children and a husband working from home), feeding and watering animals, etc. Then there’s my paid job which, although thankfully part-time, does require a few hours here and there. And my volunteer work which, although scaled back immensely during the months surrounding our move, is gearing up to get going again. There are also errands to run, weekly library trips with the kids, and these days lots of visits to the swimming hole or our friends’ lake (okay, it’s not exactly *their* lake but they live right next to it) which, especially with young kids, involves some amount of packing and preparation unless we want to end up at the drive-through or paying for bottled water at the gas station.

So yeah, I work a full day from the time I get up until the kids are in bed. But here’s the thing: I’m not stressed. Why?

Because my kids don’t go to school, my husband doesn’t head off to work in the morning, and so we all get up pretty much whenever we feel like it (generally speaking we’re all up by 8:30, though it varies a lot). I usually walk the dog (or we bike) then sit down and enjoy my morning cup of milky tea, which I insist on sipping while either catching up on my email or reading my latest book interest (or, as I did this morning, planning my vegetable garden for next year!). I then put together a breakfast made from scratch for the kids, clean up whatever Husband didn’t get to the night before, then hit the laundry basket (as we are on septic it is better to spread laundry out over the week than to do many loads in one day). As I go about my day I’m constantly picking things up and putting them back in their place in order to maintain some semblance of tidiness. I often bake after breakfast, or I head outside to do some gardening. Soon it’s time to put together some lunch then clean up after that. Afternoons we sometimes go out to run errands or hit the library. If we don’t go out I try to have some sit-down time with the kids to work on projects or play a game. I try to take a rest break mid-afternoon, which usually involves reading for about 15 – 30 minutes (yesterday I went wandering around the property and finally identified a tree that had been puzzling me for some time). Then it’s time to get started on dinner, after which I get to hit the computer for some social networking while Husband washes the dishes. Eventually it’s time for the kids to go to bed, after which Husband and I enjoy some quiet adult time (we like to watch TV series’, marathon style; right now we are on Season 2 of Weeds). Weekends are precious, “do-nothing” days. I let the housework slack a bit, we rarely go anywhere planned except maybe a relaxing dinner with the grandparents or a spontaneous family outing to somewhere free of crowds.

There is definitely a rhythm to my day. But the key thing is that none of my regular activities are time-sensitive down to the level of minutes. Breakfast may be early or late and depends entirely on when we all get up. Lunch is when the kids start getting hungry again, and dinner time often depends on whether we had an afternoon snack. And while there are certain housekeeping duties I like to get done every day, if something doesn’t get completed it’s really no big deal. I’ll just get to it later.

I really like living this way. I have time to stop and smell the roses when the mood hits me, I’m not stressed, life just seems to flow along without too much conscious effort. I don’t think humans are designed to live their lives on tight schedules, and I’m sure our current lifestyle is much better for our health (both physical and emotional). I like being busy, I like having responsibilities. But mostly I like that I can be busy without being stressed.

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.

My Daily Endorphins

Pretty much every morning I take the dog out for exercise. We used to run, but recently I’ve traded in my running shoes for a mountain bike. After easing into my riding muscles on the flat Trans Canada Trail that runs past the bottom of our property, I’m now ready for the hilly trails through the 160 acre forest next door. We go out the west gate of our property and head onto the power line trail. This photo shows a section of the trail that I call “our road”, a wide stretch that leads from our gate (where I’m standing to take the photo) to a four-way trail intersection (up where the power pole is in the photo). This stretch of road is therefore only used by us, which is why I call it “our road”.

The power line trail is wide; BC Hydro (our power company) maintains a 20 metre wide cleared area. At first it is surrounded on both sides by a forest of mostly Douglas fir, with thick low-lying vegetation in the undergrowth and open spaces between the bare tree trunks (Douglas firs need sunlight; as they grow they shed their lower branches). I love to look into the woods as I go by; the sunlight is dappled and plays along the tree trunks as I pass.

Farther along the trail, one side opens up to a field with a small road leading to the cemetery. It’s my favorite viewpoint.

The cemetery was established by the local Chinese community and holds the remains of Chinese workers who helped build the railway during the end of the 19th century. Where the few grave markers can still be seen, the daisies have bloomed in abundance.

The cemetery lies on a hill that provides a lovely view of the valley and the mountains beyond.

Invariably, as I’m walking or riding along I develop a deep sense of calm and happiness. For me, being out in Nature is the closest thing I can get to a spiritual experience. I feel myself lightening, as though weights were lifting off me. My mood improves, often to the point of being positively glowing. I’m generally not exerting myself the way I used to when I was running, and yet I feel the same endorphin high. My senses seem to be particularly alive: I hear the birds singing and the wind rustling through the trees and grasses, when I enter the forest trails the cool humidity dances across my skin, I smell earth and greenness and fresh air. I look at the plants, noting how tall they are growing, which are bearing flowers, and seeing the first fruits (huckleberries, salmonberries, and wild strawberries). I use this time to practice being present, letting go of any worries or anxieties that may be distracting me from fully being in the moment. To be honest, it’s hard to hang on to a bad mood when I’m out walking or riding. I can’t help but appreciate how lucky we are to be here, in this time and place, with these quiet and beautiful natural surroundings. I feel in my heart that I have finally found Home.

the Fire Pit

It has been busy around here, as evidenced by my lack of posting. First, I had a major work project that took up most of the last week. Then my in-laws came for a visit. And of course the weather has been really nice and I’ve been outside whenever I can.

I finished a project this week in time for the family visit – a fire pit area with seating so we can roast hot dogs and socialize. The area had been used as a place to put cut logs and also any garbage found around the property as we were land clearing. This wasn’t just pop bottles and plastic wrappers, but many car parts, old strands of rusty barbed wire, roof flashing, car mats, etc. I finally got the stuff sorted and got Husband to haul it off to the dump. Then I cut down a few small maple trees and weed-whacked the heck out of it. Here’s the Before and After:

It’s conveniently close to the house, and the large Maple to the right of the photo provides lovely shade and dappled lighting. We have a couple more large logs to bring over for seating, and I need to level a ring around the firepit and finish it with rocks (the concrete blocks were salvaged from the stuff we dug up during our land clearing).

The only problem, potentially, is that this area is where our septic tank and drainage field are. The fire pit spot was already piled with ashes when we moved here, so someone had used it before. Still, we are going to do some experimental digging around there just to confirm that things are where we think they are. A fire pit on top of your septic tank would not only make inspections unpleasant, but the heat could melt the tank top. It could also melt the drainage pipes. We’re pretty sure that neither of those things are too close to the fire pit, but we’re going to check just to be sure.

I’ll end this post with a photo of some of the first strawberries to ripen. The small raised bed beside the trailer was full of them when we moved here and I have done virtually nothing with them. So I was delighted to see some red ones the other day – they haven’t reached their peak of ripeness but are still sweet and tasty. I don’t think these will last long! Oh, and when I was out walking the dog last night I saw my first ever wild strawberries; very cool!