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Snowflakery

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, recounts a humorous wintertime interaction…

Most winters gave us something of a white Christmas and almost certainly a white New Year’s, but there was one year in my boyhood we had neither. It was cold enough to have snow. The frozen mud of tire tracks along the edge of the roads curled up like crispy corduroy trousers. The pond was rock solid ice and most of the river was skate worthy. There just hadn’t been anything falling from the sky. It was a hard, cold winter. Dougy Cramshaw was disgusted. Every morning he leapt from his twisted blankets and comforter, ran to the window and gazed out onto the valley below, where the only white he saw was the long hard white concrete of the New York State Thruway, its cars and trucks speeding by without concern for slippery conditions. Dougy was utterly disastisfied!

Then it occurred to him that the inside of his mother’s freezer section of the refrigerator was encrusted with snow-like frost. So, he carefully scraped away at it with a large spoon and packed a tin cup full of the stuff. He then bundled up and ran outside. Hands freezing, he formed a snowball – the first of the season. Now he went looking for a target. Although he had put his cloth mittens back on, holding this chunk of frozen frost moistened his hands and in turn slickened the ball of intended winter fun. As he crossed over the top of Mountain Avenue, he spotted Ian Keppler, a notorious bully in the village. Ordinarily, Doug would have run in fear, but he was empowered beyond reason with his secret premature snowball.

Doug shouted at Ian, “Hey you, don’t you chase me, I got a snowball!”

Ian took the bait and charged toward Dougy shouting, “You ain’t got no snowball!”

Little Dougy then illustrated that tossing a hard as rock frost ball makes for a very accurate throw. The ball clobbered Ian in the chest and he landed on his backside. The frost ball bounced off of him and then struck a tree and took off some bark! Dougy turned and ran down Second Street with Ian Keppler hot on his heels. Keppler caught him and tossed him down and was about to pound him, when he realized they had landed in front of Cousin Buzzy’s house. Buzz was on the front porch messing with an old generator that uncle Mal had given him. He looked up and saw Kepler hunkered down on top of a trapped Dougy. Buzz called out, “What’s this about?”

Keppler shouted back, “He hit me with a snowball!”

Buzz glanced up at the sky and said to Keppler, “Now how did he do that? There ain’t no snow.”

Keppler stammered and as Buzz got up and stepped over the heap of generator parts Kepler said, “I don’t know how he did it, but he did it!”

Buzz walked down to them and ordered Keppler off of Dougy. The bully obeyed reluctantly as Buzz carried with him an air of uncertain danger. Buzzy said to Doug, “You OK?”

Dougy said that he was just fine and then Buzzy turned on Kepler and said, “Now go away!”

Kepler went back up over the top of Mountain Avenue and Dougy got up and explained to Buzzy that he had indeed attacked Kepler with a Frozen Snow Frost Ball, made from his mother’s freezer. And Buzzy so admired little Doug’s ingenuity that he said there and then, “Well Cramshaw, I think you just invented Snowflakery!”

The Traveler and The Cook: Rockland Lake’s Epic Ice Operation

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, keeps it local while taking us back in time to an incredible business operation right here in our backyard. Plus she provides a recipe for the most delicious wintertime treat (historical context included!)…

Travel doesn’t have to be only about far away destinations. There are plenty of places worth visiting close to home. Day trips or even outings that are just a few hours long offer refreshing departure from our routines and open doors to something new and surprising. The travel package becomes even more exciting if a little time travel is part of the deal.

Our local time traveling took place in the Rockland Lake State Park area, at the foot of Hook Mountain. Rockland Lake is a 256-acre spring-fed lake. The trail around the large lake is a popular destination for joggers, bikers, roller skaters, or those who enjoy a relaxing walk. When we think of the lake, we think of recreation; a family picnic, a walk or a boating excursion. It is hard to imagine that, in the past, the area was home to a major business operation, an industry belonging to times long gone.

The economy of the Village of Rockland Lake (the village no longer exists, only a few houses remain on the east shore of the lake) was driven through a good part of the 19th century by the lake itself. The frozen water of the lake was a valuable commodity in the pre-refrigeration era. In 1831 the Knickerbocker Ice Company formed. Rockland Lake was known as “the icehouse of New York City”.

Blocks of ice harvested from the lake were transported to New York City and far beyond. The harvesting usually started in January when the ice was thick enough. First, blades pulled by horses “drew” a grid into the ice. Then, workers with machinery pulled large blocks of ice out of the lake. The ice was stored in a nearby icehouse. The double-walled building insulated with sawdust assured that the ice lasted, amazingly, until the summer! The ice was needed most in the summer and that is when it also fetched the highest price. The ice was used to preserve food and for sought after cold drinks, which were the new thing.

A lucrative industry developed here not only because of the purity of the water, but also because of the location of the lake. The lake is a half a mile from the Hudson River, at an elevation of 150 feet above the river. The proximity and access to the Hudson assured that the ice could be relatively easily shipped. The ice was transported down the mountainside to the river on inclined gravity-driven railroad cars, then shipped on barges to New York City. Some of the ice was put to use in the Meat Packing District, some was distributed throughout the city by special ice wagons, and – as unbelievable as it sounds – part of the harvest was shipped to faraway destinations in Asia!

Ice harvesting deeply impacted the local economy. It provided jobs for farmers in the wintertime, and by the 1850s the Knickerbocker Ice Company employed about 3,000 people. After buying out a competitor, in 1869 the Knickerbocker Ice Company became one of the largest companies in the world. But, its decline was inevitable. Outcompeted by commercial refrigeration, the company closed in 1924.

After a winter walk around the lake and a cool experience viewing the remains of old ice-harvest-related structures, we wanted to treat ourselves with a hot drink. We went for the kind that the inhabitants of our region might have drank in the 19th century. Digging into the culinary history of the region, we have learned that frothed spiced hot chocolate was a drink popular in the Hudson Valley area as early as the end of the 17thcentury. Cacao was a commodity shipped from Curacao in Lesser Antilles, sometimes in exchange for dairy, wheat, and preserved meats from the Hudson Valley!

Times certainly change; industries come and go, but a cup of hot chocolate remains a delicious treat.

 

Rockland Lake ice operation

Painting by Andrew Fisher Bunner ca. 1890 (Image source)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hot chocolate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiced Hot Chocolate

The difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate is that the former is made with cocoa powder while the latter uses chocolate. As opposed to cacao, chocolate contains cocoa butter, which makes hot chocolate more rich and creamy.

2 cups whole milk
¼ cup sugar
½ cup chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, over a medium heat, bring milk to simmer. Make sure not to bring the milk to boil. Whisk in sugar and spices. Add chopped chocolate and vanilla extract. Gently whisk until all chocolate melts. If you prefer your chocolate with lot of froth, use a hand-held frother to aerate the hot drink.

Pour into mugs and enjoy!

 

The Foraging Life: Off-season Training

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden ruminates on the foraging life and gives some suggestions for off-season activities…

As a forager, I never received any formalized training. I learned my craft by trial and error. In the beginning, it was more error than trial. But gradually it all started to make sense. Today, the inexperienced forager has a distinct advantage, in that there are now many more practitioners of the ancient skills. These folks now pass on their knowledge through teaching, workshops, social media, blogs and books.

When I started out, books on wild foods contained scant information, much of which was misguided or just plain wrong. Today, there are numerous experienced and well informed foragers who are making the most of the media platforms available. It is now far easier to learn to forage. I encourage you to take a book out of your local library during these winter months and read-up on foraging! You can prepare yourself well for springtime explorations by starting now…

When I first learned to cook (regular food), I knew how to boil an egg, make cheese on toast, and when I was feeling adventurous, how to prepare spaghetti. As I discovered other foods, like rice and canned beans, I began to expand my culinary horizons. Today, I use a wide range of ingredients and cook in several styles.

Foraged foods were much the same, in that I started out knowing and using only one or two plants, but gradually, I introduced new wild ingredients to my culinary portfolio, until I became a proficient wild foods chef. Again, I always encourage folks to take advantage of the increased time we spend indoors this season by practicing expanding their cooking repertoire!

I look forward to passing on some of the knowledge I’ve gained in these areas to the campers at The Nature Place Day Camp this summer, as I do every summer.

foragingforaging with basket

gathering sorrelblack walnuts

Ed’s Corner

It’s another gray morning as I look out my kitchen window today. Gray skies and even mostly gray bark on the trees as I gaze over the woodland behind my house. What, you say, is wrong with me? Don’t I know that tree bark is brown? Remember how the brown crayons in school were brought out to color the bark of trees we had drawn? It’s taken for granted that all tree bark is brown. Just ask anyone and they’ll tell you its so, but If you go right up to a tree, the bark appears gray, or some shade of gray, not usually brown.

This is the time of year when sunrises and sunsets can be most beautiful. There are no leaves to get in the way of the view. Very recently, I was in Helen Hayes Hospital in Haverstraw. It sits on top of a big hill, and views of the the Hudson River and nearby mountains were grand. I woke up just as the sun was rising and the sunrise over the Hudson was just spectacular, in a quiet way. I wanted to run around to every patient, nurse and doctor and tell them to look out a window.

That probably was the best medicine of the day.

 

Can you spy the creature who’s ability to camouflage relies on the grayness of a winter day?

 

 

The Traveler and the Cook: Christmas Market In Vienna

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about the nostalgia she feels around the holidays, particularly for the joys of the ‘holiday market’…

The holiday season is a time when we seem to be especially prone to nostalgia for childhood, for the magical time of hope and anticipation that brought light into the darkest part of the year. Nostalgia magnifies moments from childhood and leads to reminiscing about positive experiences. I miss the Christmas seasons of my childhood. No matter who hard I try to recreate the feeling of ‘Christmas’ every year, the holiday never seems to be the same as it was when I was a kid.Adults, do you remember snow globes? Those heavy glass (or plastic) spheres with a winter scene? When they are shaken, snow starts quietly coming down on the town or the landscape encased in the glass. Did you ever hold one as a child and feel mesmerized by the miniature world where snow was just one shake away? I always imagined myself being part of the scene. As the soft snow slowly came down inside of the glass-covered world, I was transported into the kingdom of imagination and dreams. How delightful! But seeing a snow globe as an adult, it seems more tacky than enchanting. I had to remember all the magic it brings, when my daughter asked for one few years ago.

As a child, I loved the Christmas market. I remember a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts warming my hands and the aroma of roasting chestnuts filling the town square. Enjoying the spirit of the holiday in a market is a nice way to spend a weekend day with children. For those who happened to be in Central Europe during the holiday season, Vienna is an excellent choice. Although I never went to a Christmas market in Vienna as a child, I had been to many others that provided a similar experience.

Vienna’s famous Christmas markets were likely the first place where snow globes were sold (and are still sold). Like many other inventions, the first snow globe was an unintended byproduct of a quest for something else – in this case, for a surgical lamp. The snow globe (Schneekugel) was patented at the end of the 19th century by Erwin Perzy, an Austrian surgical instruments mechanic. The hand-painted, manually assembled glass globes encasing a miniature St. Stephens Cathedral were a hit. The Perzy family continues to make a variety of snow globes to this day, and the family business still operates in the same house in Vienna.

Of course, there is no Christmas market without food and holiday treats. In a Christmas market in Vienna, this means stalls with grilled sausage, pretzels, sandwiches, roasted chestnuts and almonds, potato wedges, donut-like sweets (Krapfen), apples covered in red sugar glazing, cotton candy, and marzipan. Some stalls sell nothing but gingerbread decorated with colored frosting; hearts and stars with inscriptions of Christmas wishes.

For the sake of childhood nostalgia, I had to have a Schaumbecher which is an ice cream cone topped with marshmallow cream dipped in chocolate when I last visited a market. As children, we called them ‘winter ice cream’. It was nice to taste one again, although as a child, I had not been a big fan because they failed to deliver the taste of real ice cream.

Possibly more than by food, children at a market in Vienna will be enchanted by old-world wooden toys like pine cone animals, wooden birds, porcelain bells, and especially wooden figures that jump or fly (without batteries) when a string is pulled. And don’t expect to meet Santa in Vienna. In Austria and the Central European region, Christmas gifts are brought by the Christkind (Christ-child or Little Jesus).

In Central Europe, there is no Christmas without what the Austrians call vanilla kipferl (vanilla crescents). We decided to make a batch with my daughter recently. As we were baking, suddenly the wise-woman-persona of my nine-year-old daughter came to life and spoke, “You know, it is the small things that matter in life, like baking cookies or being with your family.” After my initial shock, I had to acknowledge that she was perfectly right. I hope she feels the wonder of the holiday, and one day she will yearn for the magic of her childhood Christmases.

Vanilla Kipferl or Vanilla Crescents Recipe

These are typical Austro-Hungarian Christmas cookies. In Austria, they are usually made with almonds, whereas in Hungary, ground walnuts are preferred.

Vanilla sugar is available at European grocery stores, or you can made your own by burying a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar. Let it sit for about two weeks until the vanilla releases its flavor into the sugar. Nicely packaged home-made vanilla sugar also makes a good gift!

2 cups flour
1 cup finely ground almonds or walnuts
2 sticks unsalted butter
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar (for the dough)
1 egg yolk
½ vanilla sugar (to coat the bake cookies)

Beat the butter until smooth. Gradually work in the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla sugar. Add the egg yolk. Stir in the flour and the ground almond or nuts. Make a stiff dough. Divide the dough into two parts and form two large rolls. Refrigerate the dough for about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 35 degrees F. To form the crescents, cut about two teaspoons of dough. Gently roll the dough to form a rope with tapered end. Form the rope into a crescent. Put the cookie on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough. This batch will make about 50 crescents. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until the cookies are light golden around the edges. Cool the cookies on the sheet for about two minutes. Roll each cookie in the vanilla sugar to coat. Enjoy!

Emergency Sandwiches

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, ponders our recent storm and finds the bright side of a darkened home…

We were already getting ready for the spring when a late season snowstorm struck. First, there was light snow for hours with little accumulation. Then, suddenly, the snow started coming down fast. In just a couple of hours, our backyard turned into a winter wonderland. It was a beautiful sight. The trees frosted with freshly fallen snow looked majestic. Then there was more snow, and still more. Under the weight of the heavy, wet snow, the branches bowed and came closed to the earth; then, some gave up and met the ground. Large branches, one after another, were coming down. Then a large tree fell. The old mulberry tree was suddenly gone and, with it, the prospect of an early summer day mulberry feast. We will miss that tree, and so will the birds and deer passing through our backyard.

Like many others, we lost power. We were in the dark for two days and two nights. Considering all that can go wrong in extreme weather, we were just fine. No one was hurt, there was no damage to the house. We were a little uncomfortable, but safe. A room temperature of 50 F is not desirable, but again it is not a tragedy either.

The first night without electricity was even fun. The children were running around with flashlights preparing extra blankets for the night. They built a hideout under the table and moved in, flashlights and all. The house suddenly seemed to them much more interested and exiting. It felt like a campground. No screens, or devices, not even books. The goodnight story was told, not read.  My son promptly suggested that we should have a night without electricity every week. Well–a night without lights and devices, but with the heating and the refrigerator running.

The second night without power was harder. The novelty of the situation had worn off, and the house no longer felt cozy. It was cold. We fantasized about our old house and its wood burning stove that had, in similar situations, provided not only comforting heat, but also light entering the room through its glass door. It had even provided a surface for cooking. And now here we were with no heat, no lights, no internet service, no power to operate appliances and gadgets.

Do we rely on electricity too much? ‘Yes’, is certainly the answer. We can, for sure, implement measures that would lessen our dependence on electrical power. However, to what extent these measures would be possible and practical varies household to household. To eliminate the need for electricity entirely does not seem like a realistic solution at all. We can certainly be better prepared for the next short-term power outage like the one we just had, but there is little we can do as individuals in case of a long-term power outage, which would very likely cause significant distress to the fabric of our society.

While having these scary thoughts, and feeling helpless, I found some comfort in the idea of making a chicken soup to warm us. Luckily, the stove in our kitchen is a gas one, so the burners were working. I just needed a match to light them.

While I was putting up the big pot of chicken soup to simmer for our evening meal, the kids opted for grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. We sliced the bread, prepared the cheese and took out the panini press. Everything was ready to go. Oops! Not the panini press. It needs electricity. It was time to improvise. That day, we made grilled cheese sandwiches in a cast iron skillet on the stove-top. Although emergency-situation meals are often a far cry from their regular selves, these sandwiches actually tasted much better then their panini press relatives. Snowstorm or not, we will surely make them again.

As it often happens, there are tiny crumbs of something good lurking even in unpleasant or difficult situations.

 

Stove-top Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

For 4 sandwiches:

8 slices of bread
1 cup grated cheese (you may need more or less depending on the size of your bread slices)
2-3 tablespoons finely minced onions or green onions
1 clove minced garlic (optional)
some cream cheese or mayo
2-3 tablespoons olive oil for the skillet

Use good-quality stale bread. Soft fresh bread will absorb too much of the oil, resulting in greasy sandwiches. This is a perfect recipe to use up bread that is no longer fresh.

For the cheese: cheddar, jack, Swiss, fontina, or muenster can be used (or a combination of these/whatever cheese your fridge has to offer).

Mix the grated cheese with minced onions and garlic, if using. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese or mayo on all the bread slices. Spread grated cheese mixture on four of the slices. Use the other four slices to cover the sandwiches.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a cast-iron skillet.  Place the sandwiches in the skillet. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip, add more olive oil if needed. Cook until golden.

For a full meal, serve the sandwiches with a salad and an egg sunny-side-up.

Ed’s Corner

The Fifth Season

Well, we all know we have winter, spring, summer and fall, but did you know there
is a fifth season? It’s Sugaring Time. Coming right between winter and spring, it can last for 2 weeks or close to two months.

It’s all dependent on the weather. Cold nights and warmer days are what’s needed for the buckets on our maple trees to fill with the clear, sweet liquid we call ‘sap’. We then boil the sap until it turns into that amber aristocrat of all sweets – maple syrup!

I hope you can make one of the two maple sugaring programs we will be offering this Saturday, February 24th. The purpose of the program is to give you enough information to identify a maple tree, show you how to ‘tap’ it, how to collect the sap, and how to boil it down to maple syrup. Each family will take home a sheet of instructions and your very own spout.

Sugaring is a great family activity – everyone can get involved in some way and the syrup you’ll make will be the best syrup you’ve ever tasted in your life!

Looking forward to seeing you as we celebrate our fifth season.

Pine Resin

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden, points out the many properties and potentials of pine resin…

During the winter months, when most signs of life have disappeared, I make good use of our local evergreens, particularly the ubiquitous White Pine. Besides having vitamin rich needles that make a tasty tea, it drops hundreds of pine cones.  Most of them are usually spattered with droplets of dried Pine resin, which can be scraped off and collected.

Pine resin is a very useful substance to have on hand. To begin with, it is highly flammable, which makes it very useful in fire making, especially when using damp wood. I’ve started a fire in a rain storm using pine cones and birch bark.

The resin can be melted down and used as an adhesive or a water-proofing sealer. By adding different fillers, we can create various media and glues. Hardwood ash, for instance, will make a hard epoxy-like adhesive. The addition of beeswax will create a more malleable medium, similar to tar.

The medicinal properties of Pine resin are extensive. It is anti-microbial, an anti-fungal and a pain reliever (especially for arthritis). It can be dissolved in oil to create an infused oil, that can be used in the treatment of chest complaints and cold symptoms.

These amazing trees have many more uses, including as a food.

In the February Thaw

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious happenings in the Ramapo mountains…

There had been an early February thaw long enough that most of the snow had melted off and there was a lot of critter movement. Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, had come out and wandered about, staring at their shadow in the bright winter sunshine. Then they went back into their dens, because seeing their shadow meant winter would last another six weeks. But if it is a long mid-winter thaw, the groundhogs hang out for a few days and poke around for something to eat. Deer mice come out and hurry about looking for food with no fear of snakes, as the snakes don’t travel far from their winter dens. The mice do need to keep a watch out for raccoons, foxes, coyotes, weasels and hawks—but at least not the snakes. Raccoons and skunks take long naps in the cold weather; not quite hibernating, but long enough to make them very hungry when they come out from time to time. Trappers of these animals bait their traps with oil of anisette, which smells like licorice and is a delicious attraction for hungry coons and skunks.

Geoff Masters went walking along beneath one of the terraces of Torne Mountain to ‘freshen’ up a few traps with some lore he carried in an eye-drop bottle. It was a mixture of anisette, tea tree oil, and skunk urine. The coon population was very much on the rise, so he was doing his best to capture and kill as many of them as he could. The fur was worth as much as $15 an animal, and the meat was the secret ingredient for the Ramapo Burgers, cooked up at his cousin’s Burger Shack. It was the second day of a February thaw and it was early, just past sunrise, when Geoff came around a clutch of boulders along the south slope of the ridge, and nearly walked headlong into a man coming from the other direction. They were both startled and they both stepped back and stared for a moment. This man wore a canvas backpack and was carrying a wooden handle with a curious metal hook at the end of it. The man smiled and said something about it being a nice day for a hike. Geoff agreed and they walked past each other.

But Geoff only went a few feet and then hunkered down and waited behind a large egg-shaped boulder. He feared that this man was a trap stealer and that his curious stick with the hook on it was what he used to snap up the traps he stole. So, after a few minutes, Geoff followed back to track the man. But as he came around the place where they first met, he saw that this man had not gone on down the trail, but instead had gone up the cliff side. Geoff followed up the cliff just a bit and then, out above him, he saw the man setting up a little place, and then proceeding to sit down and watch the broken load of rocks, with the sun on his back.

Later, Geoff said to Uncle Mal at the paint shop, “Mal, I spied on this fellow for at least half an hour and all he did was sit and watch those rocks.”

Mal said, “Was he crazy?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “Except for the watching the rocks thing, he seemed sane enough.”

Me and Ricky where listening to the two men talk about this from where we sat on a heap of canvas drop sheets petting Old Mike, the Shop Dog. Ricky said, “Uncle Mal, how could you tell if a fella was crazy?”

Mal said, “By his behavior, by the way he acts.”
“My Gram says, one man’s crazy is another man’s normal.”
Mal looked down at him and said, “Your grandmother talks to trees so I don’t think she’s a good judge of crazy.”

“She says crazy is something only people can be, animals don’t go in for being crazy.”
Geoff laughed at this. He said, “She’s got a point there.”
Ricky looked into Old Mike’s fuzzy, black face and said, “You ain’t much crazy, Mike!”

Mal said, “Yes sir, the old lady’s right about that. Crazy is something we humans take credit for.”
He then looked at Geoff and said, “But I wonder if this here fellow sitting up on those rocks in the thaw ain’t watching for snakes…”

“Snakes?” Geoff said, “Why would a man watch for snakes in February?”
Mal shrugged and said, “I don’t know, but last month the boys found a froze-up black snake down by the river and that don’t seem right either. You think this fellow might have something to do with that?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “I don’t see how the one thing is connected to the other.”
Ricky looked up and said, “My Gram says everything is connected to the other.”
Mal said, “And she’s the woman who talks to trees, boy!”

And Ricky said, “She likes the oak trees and says they’re the smartest. Pine are serious and the Birch are silly.”

Mal shook his head and told us to go out and talk to some trees. We did, but I couldn’t help to wonder if he wanted us out of there so they could talk some more about this mysterious stranger, up in the mountain staring at snake dens.

Garbage Can Challenge – February Update

Ayla Dunn Bieber and Daniel Bieber write in collaboration this month, catching us up on their family’s mission to reduce their waste, and sharing some of the critical questions that’ve been on their minds and in their hearts.

As I’m sure we’ve all experienced, sometimes life throws you a curveball. Then you have to put down some of the other balls you’re juggling in order to focus on an important or unexpected challenge. This month was just that for my family. All is OK, but for a while it wasn’t – we were all in crisis-mode, overwhelmed by a family emergency. Naturally, this took our time and attention away from the rest of life, including our garbage challenge. Despite giving myself permission to buy certain ‘easier’ (but more heavily packaged) items, we didn’t exceed our goal tremendously – 3/4 of our garbage can was full instead of the hoped for 1/2.

It was harder than I thought it would be to go back to buying certain things that I had worked hard to give up. I found myself with a new level of anger about just how hard it is to get away from plastic. There’s got to be another way to package food!

Feeling lost in a sea of thought and plastic, I began to wonder: ‘Why is it so challenging to live a zero/low-waste lifestyle’? And ‘How do people do so when life presents a challenging, time-consuming event, or when all of life is an overarching state of crisis (i.e., poverty)’?

These thoughts led me to more thoughts:

What happens when our ideals meet reality? What do we do when stress, busyness, or struggle consume our ability to fully engage in our ideal? How do we compromise what we think is right with what is possible? And, what kind of culture requires that we must give time, money, and energy to be less destructive? What sort of society ask us to choose between dealing with life (a new baby, sick family member, overwork, poverty, illness, etc.) and having the time, money, and resources to be a less destructive consumer (to buy the right package-free products, to grow/make as much as we can, etc.)? I know that when the sh*t hits the fan in my life, I fall back on take-out food, whatever’s easy, and rely on meeting my needs through the fastest, least thought-consuming means of survival.

Being able to spend energy on reducing our household waste is a wonderfully privileged endeavor. It means we’ve had the time (albeit fought-after and fleeting) to think about more than how we’ll eat, live, or get through life to the next day. And what does it say about us (human beings, America) that to live eco-consciously and natural resource-consciously is positioned generally as either the lofty choice of the urban/suburban middle/upper class, or the non-choice of the poor, rural subsistence-farmer?

The truth is that this positioning is somewhat contrived. It is a by-product of the super influx of consumerism that has taken place over the course of just a few decades. In generations past, it was commonplace to re-use goods to the end of their life before disposing of them; and even then, to repair broken things instead of buying new ones; and to shop second-hand goods rather than purchase brand new ones. But as of late, new things–plastic things–have been made so inexpensive, things bought online and shipped from far away have become so cheap, packaged food has become so ubiquitous and is sometimes the only thing found in so-called ‘food deserts’, that suddenly it appears as though there is great effort and expense required in choosing other options. In some instances, that may very well be the case. But in many other situations, those other choices – to re-use something until you can’t re-use it anymore, to wrap a gift in newspaper rather than buy new wrapping paper, to opt-out of using a plastic straw (more on this below), or to take public transportation – still exist and are simpler than our consumer culture would lead us to believe.

So we ask ourselves: how do you catch a curveball while juggling? How do we reach for an ideal when mired in the reality of life? What it all comes down to, we’ve been thinking, is that we each just have to do our best and sometimes we have to temporarily shift our expectations. We’re asking ourselves, what are the simple tactics, the things people have been practicing for generations, that can be chosen even when we don’t feel like they’re making a huge difference. The important thing to keep in the back of our minds, is that every little bit counts.

With love,
Ayla and Daniel