The Geography of Nowhere: Country Living

In his 1993 book  “The Geography of Nowhere”, James Howard Kunstler explores how America became so ugly. Not politically and spiritually, just visually….ugly. I have read some of his other books such as “The Long Emergency” where he talks about peak oil and global warming, but this one is more about our public spaces and how they have been ruined by cars and suburban sprawl. He also blames modernist architecture, which is indeed awful. There is a lot about the American emphasis on freedom and individual, which led people to neglect public spaces in favor of their own homes.  Also he blames the ideal of “country living”, which made people flee the cities for the country, which they then ruined by turning it into the suburbs.

DSC02900.jpg

I was feeling quite smug while reading most it, thinking yes, I hate the suburbs, I live in the country, until I got to that last part. How can loving the idea of “the country” ruin the the country? This was something I had truly never thought of.  It reminded me of this thoughtful post about how cultivating our anti-consumerist image just enhances our materialism.

DSC02932.jpg

Kunstler argues “America reinvented (Eden)… called it Suburbia, and put it up for sale” (600).   And that “The people who lived there would not draw their livelihoods from it, either from farming or business. Rather, it was strictly a place of habitation and pleasure”(700). And “It was an artificial way of life in an inorganic community that pretended above all other virtues to be natural” (920).

Hmmm.

DSC02907.jpg

What he hates most of all is our dependence on cars.  Not just because they are polluting our air and draining natural resources, but because they destroy society.  All our “public works” are roads.  We are slaves to our vehicles because we can’t do anything without them and take up an extraordinary amount of our time and money.  Being able to drive all over has caused us to develop rural land that never should have been developed beyond farmland.

DSC02930.jpg

Interestingly, the road I live on was indeed developed in the late 19th century, long before cars. There is a small cattle farm across the street from us that used to own our property. The cottage that existed here when we bought it was built almost a hundred years ago. Less than a mile down the road is an intersection with a little convenience store, a church, and a plumbing business. There is a church another mile down the road built in 1789. So this whole area was built for a car free society, and in just a few generations, getting around by anything other than car has become impossible.

DSC02903.jpg

I have a daughter in public school. I drive her there every morning because her bus ride would be an hour and ten minutes but the drive is only ten minutes. I am not going to put her on the bus for an extra hour to save resources, even though I understand that is wasteful as the bus drives right by out house every morning. I could homeschool, but that is not the cards for me right now (my husband is considerably more “mainstream” than I am), and also we would still be going out during the day.

Now here we are, isolated by our freedom. When you can “just drive somewhere” there suddenly becomes no alternative. The road in front of my house has a 45 mph speed limit and no sidewalks. The corner convenience store has devolved into a creepy place no one wants to go, because any respectable person would drive to the grocery store five miles away or the Walmart a few miles past that.

DSC02929.jpg

Old fashioned, sustainable country living does not mean having a beautiful view from your front porch and also driving twenty minutes to get anywhere. It means making your land your job, and basically never leaving. It means if you can’t walk there or ride your horse there, you don’t go. Luckily you live with extended family to keep you company. The corner stores and churches are all you have. It means you are not relying on trucked in animal feed or fertilizer, but are grazing animals, growing hay, fertilizing with manure. I don’t think many of us are ready for that, or capable of that.

DSC02935 (1).jpg

So yes, I am basically living on a large suburban lot. I take my kids to school, church, soccer, and ballet. I, myself go to the grocery store and library once a week, Costco once a month, rarely the post office or bank. Even though I am home all the time, I drive every day because of my kids. If I didn’t have kids, would probably have (horrors) a job that I drove to. I see now that moving out here is contributing to the problem of a spread out society that is completely fuel dependent.

I’m not sure what I can do about it though. Moving, besides being completely out of the question, would fix nothing because someone else would buy this property and subdivide it, compounding the problem. I would move….where? Into town? The schools are terrible, so I would be driving them to a private school even farther away. There is no walkable grocery store in town either. A seasonal farmers market and a fancy butcher, but no way to get pantry goods. I would still be car dependent.

DSC02901.jpg

I understand and somewhat agree with Kuntzler that cars have basically ruined our way of life. But there is no going back. He sees this as as well, and the book is not a call to action by individuals, but more a critique of society in general.  He proposes land use agreements (where counties buy development rights from land owners…the farm across the street from us has such an arrangement) and smarter urban zoning as potential cures to American ugliness.  But I don’t think much will change until our current way of life become impossible or unaffordable.  One day maybe gas will become insanely expensive and the church on the corner will have its own little school. I will be able to ride my horse and cart into town to go pick up a twenty pound bag of flour and go to the library. But for now, I am just another suburban housewife, driving around.

 


Growing Crunchy Lettuce

My husband is the worlds pickiest adult eater. He does not eat any type of lettuce other than romaine or iceberg, so that is all we grow. And let me tell you, it is not easy to get crispy “grocery store” lettuce. This may be something you just buy. But there are 1000 seeds in most lettuce packets, which cost about four dollars, so it is certainly worth the trouble if you can get it right.

Here is how I do it.

1. Choose the right variety.

All those beautiful spring mixes and leaf lettuces, in different shades of purple and green? They are lovely, but they will never be crunchy. They are a whole different animal. For crunch, pick a romaine, iceberg, or butter crunch.  Right now I am growing “Paris” romaine and “Igloo” iceberg.

And think of when you want them, and how many. You do not want dozens maturing at once (unless there is a large Caesar salad party planned, in which case you are under a lot of pressure). Start a few seeds every week or two.

2. Start seeds indoors.

I prefer to start all seeds in seed trays if they are ones that will transplant well. The seeds are very tiny and they come up quickly in the fine seed starting mix, much easier than they would in heavier garden soil. There is no thinning or going out to the garden to keep the soil moist until they germinate. Starting them inside just keeps things more in your control.

I start them inside, on a heat mat. Once they have germinated, I move them outside almost immediately. I am not paying to run a grow light for lettuce. Also this way they get plenty of sun and harden off naturally.

(If you have fine soil that makes a nice seedbed, and can grow lettuce all through the summer and therefore can plant it when the soil is warm, then you might as well direct sow.  But we have heavy soil and weather that heats up quickly once summer hits.)

3. Plant them in the right spot.

Lettuce prefers sun but cool weather, so I am only able to grow it in the spring and fall.

Give each lettuce plant at least one square foot.  (Bring a ruler to the garden, it is hard to judge.)  Since they are relatively quick to mature and the whole plant is pulled at the end, they are a nice crop to fill in empty spaces that will be taken up later.

They like plenty of water. They are watered with the drip line and I also water them with the watering can whenever I have it out. There is no crunch without water!

4. Wait for maturity

After a few days of settling in, your transplants will start to grow. New leaves will appear almost daily. They will look soft, floppy, and you will be sad. Don’t be sad! They are not what you will eat, anymore than you would eat the green branches of a tomato plant. Be patient.

DSC02863.jpg

(Still babies!)

60 to 90 days later (check your seed packet), it will be time. There will be a true “heart” in the center of the plant. It should be firm when you squeeze it.

DSC02867.jpg

(See the distinctive heart in the center?  This one is ready.)

DSC02866.jpg

(This one too, an iceberg with a firm round heart.)

5. Harvest correctly.

It must be done in the morning, while it is still dewy. Pull the whole lettuce plant.

There will be a lot of extra leaves on the outside that you don’t want.  Only the heart is crunchy.  No one in my family eats the softer, greener leaves.  Not even thechickens.  I so I compost them, and save only the heart.

DSC02861.jpg

(Yucky stuff on the left, heart on the right.  The lighting is weird because I did this at five in the morning!)

The hearts go right in the fridge, in a ziplock bag with a few holes poked in it.  You just saved yourself a whole dollar. (…)

I am not going to tell you that you will be amazed by the taste and quality. It tastes pretty much like lettuce from the store, just very fresh. And that, my friends, is a victory.

DSC02879.jpg

 


Spring Wreath Conundrum

The hardest part of saving money is that I continue to want things.  All the time. This time, it was a wreath for above the fireplace. Specifically, this one, from Frontgate:

Unknown.jpeg

It is $149 for the thirty inch version. Of course I wanted the big version, we have ten foot ceilings and the proportions would be right. I was feeling very snobby about artificial flowers and figured an arrangement of dried herbs and flowers would be tasteful.

So I asked for it for Mother’s Day, and was told to go ahead and order it. I just could not actually bring myself to do it. It was too silly.  And then I learned that it would only last a year, or two if I were lucky.  Nope.  Not paying what amounts to over $10/month for a stupid wreath. I continued to stare at my mantel, which really needed a focal point.  Poor me.  We have a lot of beautiful, original art that Matt’s grandmother painted, but he did not want to hang a picture above it because it would require drilling into the stone.

Then, in my basement of horrors, I found this thing that I made probably six years ago. I’m sure at the time I thought it was beautiful. It is only 22 inches is diameter, but there is was, unused. I had even been wanting some more red accents in the house.

DSC02848.jpg

It takes a special kind of skill to take a blurry photo of a stationary object.

So I took off the ribbons and flowers, and put them up with my wrapping paper to decorate presents.  I wired on dried cornflowers that were hanging in the mudroom. The old me would have run to the craft store for more tasteful fake flowers, but instead I pulled apart what I had and added tiny sprigs here and there.

DSC02859.jpg

So it is done. It is small, and hardly noticeable because the flowers on it are so tiny.  No one has hung up a hook in the stone yet, and I am not going to ask.  So there is sits.

In the summer I will have statice and celosia from the garden, which both dry very well and will add a lot of life and color.  My sage is getting big, and I think that might look pretty too.  And in the late autumn I can just rip off the old dried flowers and start wiring on holly and ivy.  One less thing purchased, one less thing in the basement, and all throughout garden season I can have bundles of things drying in the mudroom.

DSC02852.jpg

Very…shall we say… subtle.  But it is free, and good enough.  And instead of feeling yucky about spending a bunch of money on something stupid and disposable, I feel good about using what I have.  Happy Mother’s Day to me!

DSC02847.jpg


Italian Braided Bread

DSC02717.jpg

This is another one of our most frequently made breads, French Rolls for Sandwiches being the other.  It is great sliced with butter or served alongside pasta the night you make it, and leftovers make good french toast or regular toast.

It is adapted and simplified from a King Arthur recipe called Scali Bread, but I have changed it so much I’m not sure it qualifies as Scali bread anymore.

As always, start with the lesser amount of water and add more if needed.  And use the dough cycle on your bread machine if you have one.

For the dry milk powder, I order this from King Arthur, but some is available at grocery stores. It is worth placing an order from them though. You can get a whole pound of red star instant yeast for under $7, which will easily fit in a one quart mason jar and live happily in the freezer. I also like their sparkling sugar, cinnamon, and parchment sheets, which lay flat and can be reused two or three times.

You will need:

-3 cups bread flour

-1 cup to 1 1/3 cup of water

-2 T olive oil

-2 T. Dry milk powder

-1 1/4 t. salt

-1 t. sugar

-2 1/4 t. yeast (Red star instant)

-(an egg and sesame seeds for topping the dough)

Directions:

  1.  Add all ingredients to a bowl or bread machine bucket, and knead until very smooth.  Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk.
  2. Divide risen dough into three equal pieces and roll gently into 10 inch logs.  Allow them to rest, covered in greased plastic wrap, about 15 minutes or so.  This will make them easier to work with.
  3. Pull them out a bit longer, to about 15 inches long.  Then begin your braid.  Sometimes it is easier to start in the middle and flip it around.  Tuck the ends under.
  4. Place the loaf on a baking sheet either prepared with parchment or sprayed with cooking spray.  Brush the loaf with the beaten egg.  Sprinkle sesame seeds on top, pressing to help them stick.
  5. Cover the loaf with greased plastic wrap and allow to rise.  (Preheat your oven to 425 at this time) Check after 30 minutes, because if it over-rises the braid pattern will be ruined.
  6. Bake in 425 degree oven 25-30 minutes.  It will look very golden because of the egg wash, which can be deceptive.  You may want to check with a thermometer before taking it out.  (It should be about 195-200 degrees inside.)
  7. Cool on a wire rack.

DSC02704.jpg

DSC02708.jpg

DSC02709.jpg

DSC02710.jpg

DSC02712.jpg

DSC02717.jpg

DSC02722.jpg

DSC02723.jpg


Enjoying the Process

When we lived in the old house on this property, we had a dishwasher. That is, until a rodent chewed through some kind of water tube or wire, and then we had a built in dish drying rack.

And suddenly, something that was so easy became a big production. I agonized over whether every spoon was worth the use since I would have to hand wash it. I bought paper plates for the kids. I considered styrofoam coffee cups, but instead just rinsed out my coffee mug and ate my cereal out of it to avoid doing another dish.

But little by little, I realized I did not hate hand washing dishes as much as I thought I did. I enjoyed the smell of the dish soap, the feel of the hot water. I enjoyed getting out a clean towel to dry them, and then putting them away, instead of having them waiting in the dishwasher to be unloaded. They seemed cleaner and shinier. There was a sense of satisfaction when the sink was emptied, and then it got cleaned and dried. And it is hard to hate a task that you do every day. I had learned to enjoy the process.

There are a lot of things in life, especially in the domestic sphere, that are made out to be terrible chores. Such terrible chores, in fact, that either someone is hired to do them or a machine is purchased to do them. Sweeping and shaking out rugs has become vacuuming, and then creepy robot vacuums or cleaning ladies. I vacuum my floors. I never sweep anymore. I have never shaken out an area rug in my life. But I wonder, was it maybe not so terrible a job? Maybe it was something fun to do on a sunny day and made the kids laugh. Maybe after you were done, you rearranged the furniture a bit and felt good about yourself? Maybe not. I don’t know.

Or consider something like heating your home. Most people today use electricity, oil, or gas. We heat almost exclusively with wood, and sometimes it feels like it consumes our life. For example, this weekend we are going to visit my parents and will be returning with a huge trailer full of oak from a tree they just had taken down. We are always on the hunt for more, even though we hav plenty of trees, you can’t just keep cutting them down forever. Then it will need to be split, and dried. Then stacked. Then as winter approaches, some will need to be re-split into small kindling pieces. We will start hoarding newspaper. We gather sticks all year long and put them in the old house to dry. And for all this work, we have not started a single fire yet. Or cleaned one out.

But if I could somehow magically heat my home to 75 degrees all winter for free, I would not. I don’t just enjoy the the heat and the ambiance. I enjoy waking up on a dark and chilly morning, setting the logs just right in the back, watching the kindling catch and adding wood bit by bit. I enjoy polishing the glass after scooping out cold ashes, and then restarting an afternoon fire after the sun has weakened. It’s not just the beauty of the fire itself, it’s also the work that is enjoyable. Even the splitting can be fun. Matt does it with a friend, who brings a big powerful splitter to borrow, and he stays for dinner.

There is paid work of course, which can be rewarding, but that is not the point of it. Then there are hobbies, which generally cost money rather than being productive, but are done for sheer enjoyment. But there are also things in between, that are necessary, and can either be hard and satisfying, or automatic and mindless. Homemaking encompasses so many of these things.

So I will try to stop looking for ways to make my life easier, and instead look for ways that I make my tasks… well, not harder, but more satisfying. Why get a gift already wrapped when you could choose the right paper and ribbon, wrap it neatly, and enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done? Why turn on the air conditioning constantly when you could savor the routine of opening the windows at night, closing them when the day heats up, drawing the curtains against the sun, and reopening after a thunderstorm has cooled things off?

Just now I came back from getting my mail down the long gravel road. My neighbor was across the street, sweeping his driveway. I gave him the silent neighbor wave, while thinking to myself this guy is a nut. Isn’t it going to rain soon? Why does it matter if there are bits of leaves visible to the neighbors on your driveway? He didn’t return my wave. He was under the shade of a tree, admiring his handiwork. I get it my friend. You weren’t sweeping that driveway for me. Just enjoying the process.