Sunday, September 6, 2009

Urban bounty

It's amazing what you can find if you know what you can look for.

In the middle of August I went blackberry picking in the woods by our apartment. During that same trip I noticed some elder trees. Elderberries, however, don't ripen until...well, about now (September).

Today we went foraging for elderberries--the goal being to get enough to make a decent batch of jelly. And it is truly astounding, how common elders are, and how bountiful they are, if you know how to look for them.

They tend to grow in clusters--where you find one, you'll likely find another one or two. It can be a bit of a trek to find one, but once you find one, if it's a good one, you'll be pleasantly rewarded with handfuls upon handfuls of dark purplish berries, ideal for making jams, jellies, syrups. The fruits can lie beyond the reach of a mortal arm--however, the tree is quite flexible and, if you have a partner on hand, it is possible to bend it to your will. Literally.

We managed to collect about 2 kg of them, from perhaps a dozen bushes. And no, we didn't strip any of the bushes clean, either--I make it a point to leave behind what I call a "bird tithe", so that the birds can also partake--and propagate the plants. We left at least 1/2 of each bunch on the trees.

We also came upon plenty of rowan bushes, which are actually more commonplace than elder trees in this area. Although you can make rowan jelly, my boyfriend (who is actually the preserve-'spert between us) wasn't quite certain about the taste, and furthermore I wasn't quite certain of their ripeness. There were also three enormous chestnut trees, filled to nearly-bursting with unripened burrs, and I know of at least two walnut trees in the neighborhood.

This all makes me a bit sad, really--to live in the midst of all this bounty, and not see a single soul (other than my boyfriend) partaking of it, to realize how divorced people are from what food actually is: we met up with another couple who were curious as to what we were doing (admittedly, walking around with a bucket is kind of strange). You would have thought we were sharing the secrets of the dead when we explained that elder trees were everywhere in these woods. Which was, perhaps, somewhat of an exaggeration--but not by much.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ladies only

"Being in tune with your body" these days has the connotation of sending little scrubbing-bubble cartoons through your body and getting the inside and outside completely "clean". I won't deny that a few days' fasting or near-fasting makes you feel damn good, and hypes your brain up to almost-supernatural speeds (hey, you try writing a grant in a week), but frankly I think there's some point at which you're only deluding yourself. Alas, that point happens only after you've sent in your $39.95 for the acai/apple cider vinegar/green tea pills.

But apparently there is another type of "being in tune with your body" that actually works, unlike the promises of less-than-slick adverts in Parade. The Fertility Awareness Method of birth control requires that a women recognize the biological markers of fertility, and abstain or engage in sexual activity during and a few days after.

I've never really liked the idea of hormonal birth control, but that's mainly due to the fact that I am gifted (or cursed?) with a liver that might as well not exist, for all that it fails to metabolize. The pill is certainly one of the most reliable methods of birth control, but frankly the slight increase in strokes, which is minimal to begin with, makes me nervous about taking them (I am quite aware that the statistics say my chances are minimal--but still, this is a stroke we're talking about, something that could damage you for the rest of your life in a very real way, that I don't want the odds improving, as it were). Furthermore, seven days every four weeks seems rather excessive to me--I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I do not follow the average twenty-eight day cycle. I have yet to meet a woman who did, for that matter.

The main difference between FAM and the Family Planning method (sanctified by the Catholic Church) is that FAM doesn't require you to count days and divide by two and add three before get the picture. Besides, FPM assumes that you are absolutely regular, and that is something almost no woman is.

What FAM requires is that you know your body. Inside and out, literally: keeping track of the state of one's basal body temperature, vaginal secretions, and cervical position. All of these change when you are ovulating, and if you really, carefully, listen to your body, it is a simple matter to figure out when you are most likely to be ovulating.

All the same, I can't see it catching on. For starters, while "being in tune with your body" sounds great as a catchphrase for gluten-free diets, it gets robbed of the holistic-touchy-feely aspect once you start measuring basal body temperatures to the tenth of a degree. Yet this kind of scientific probing is, oddly, what enables things like perfectly natural birth control to be effective.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pet peeve of thrift stores

My boyfriend loves crystal glassware. Unfortunately, he doesn't love the price tag it usually comes with. So every time I hit town, I stop by the thrift stores to see if they have any lovely pieces that I can take home.

You've probably encountered this: a beautiful bowl/vase/plate/cup at the thrift store, just waiting for you to buy it. Snatch it up, pay for it, trundle it home--only to find that the stupid little price sticker is practically cemented on. You pick at it, trying to remove the gunk, and then you end up with a little rectangle of gunk, and what's worse, it can't be washed off without scratching your find.

Vegetable oil is your friend in this case--"Fear not! You will never again have to live with a little black patch of sticker-gunk again!". A little dribble directly on top of the sticker, then rub it in with your fingers. Peel back an edge, and from then on the sticker should come off easily, though slowly.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Keep your cats inside

The other day, my boyfriend and I were standing in our kitchen, which overlooks a grassy spread that people often use as a shortcut. We heard a most distressed eeping noise, and when we looked down, we saw that one of our neighbor's cats had caught a bird. It disappeared with the bird by the time we made it down the stairs, thank goodness, because otherwise my boyfriend would have been stuck with the task of snapping the bird's neck (something he knows how to do, but really would rather not do it).

In the Netherlands, there are no natural predators (minus birds). The last wolf was shot in the 1890s, and you have to go all the way to Maastricht before you start to encounter lynx. So hunting plays a huge role in maintaining stable and healthy populations of just about everything. One of my colleagues tells me that, unless you trap muskrats regularly, they'll tunnel through and damage the dikes. (Ironically enough, there is no real "gun culture" here, perhaps because gun laws are so strict.)

However, there are many, many different species of songbirds (and waterfowl, and birds of prey, and gulls), many of which nest on the ground--not to mention small animals like hare and rabbits. Needless to say, where it's normal to let your cat outside, there's a dearth in these animals.

"But it's only natural for the cat to go out!" some people say, as they defend letting their cat out. Look, I completely understand letting your cat out if you're on a farm and need mousers to keep the rats out of the barn. But no cat needs to be outside. My cats are happy as clams sitting on our balcony, sunning themselves and chewing on the cucumber vine.

Consider that, on average, a cat has the intelligence of a three-year-old child (and some have less, *cough* Shadow). You wouldn't let a three-year-old run around by himself, would you? Yes, they might be smart enough to avoid cars and dogs--but will they be smart enough to not eat mouse poop (which contains parasites), stay away from rat poison, not drink antifreeze (some human children will do this, for Chrissakes, never mind cats), differentiate between a dove and a hawk that can kill them, and not get lost? There's a reason why the average life of a feral cat is 5 years, while an indoor-only housecat lives three times that.

"But I can't keep my cat inside!" If you can't outsmart a cat and keep it inside, then you've got no business owning a cat.

"But if I don't let it out, he'll scratch/pee/poop all over!" It's called training. And believe it or not, it can be done with cats. My own cats are very well-behaved. They know their names. They know the signal that I want them to come to me. They sit still when it's time to clip their claws. And they don't scratch the antique furniture. I don't really know anything about training a cat, so if I can do it, you can figure it out, too.

The point is, letting cats run around outside is basically a sentence of genocide for all the wildlife that lives in your area--even if you don't see it (and believe me, that's kind of the point of most creatures, not to be seen)--and a death sentence for your cat. So please, keep your cats inside.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Inconvenience Yourself

We're pretty self-sufficient, as much as you can be while living in an apartment. In fact, we do just about everything on this checklist that are supposed to save you a few bucks, except for the thing with the air conditioner. The additional benefit which is almost never touted is that most of these practices are pretty green, too.

And really, it's not all that inconvenient to make your own cleaners, cook your own meals, clean your own house--this has the added benefit of turning you into an anti-clutter freak and keeping hoards of stuff from building up--repair your own clothes, etc etc etc. I suppose you could consider the convenience of buying all of these goods and services worth it if the time saved amounted to enjoying your life more. But really, what are we doing with the time saved? Odds are, you're watching more TV (I've been sleeping this week).

I've never seen WALL-E, but it's extremely tempting to make a comparison between the space-blobs in the movie and the current helplessness of people in general: the degree of our dependence on technology has infantilized us to the point where we're completely divorced from our "natural state". The optimist in me says this can't possibly be for real, but I begin to despair when I consider that many people apparently don't know how to put a button back on.

Friday, July 17, 2009

My favorite weed

Around here, blackberry bushes run rampant. They're everywhere that's even remotely neglected: a little patch of grass next to the train tracks, and certainly all over the woods (which, despite this being the Netherlands, there are actually lots of, just in patches).

They've got a little ways to go, about three more weeks, before the berries will be ready for the picking. I've got my bucket already.

For those of us into natural food, or free food, it really doesn't get any better than this. Just walk into the woods with a bucket, and a few hours later, you've got enough jam to last you until the next season. Spring for a little winemaker's yeast, and you can easily pick enough to make enough wine to sip over Christmas.

The one thing you do want to be aware of when you're picking your own produce from the wild is where you're picking from. The side of the road? Probably not so hot. And certainly, by all means, stay as far away from golf courses as you can get. You want to step around places that are heavily treated with pesticides and herbicides, or exposed to industrial waste.

It used to be that foraging for good eats was our main source of food. These days, we're lucky enough to be able to go to stores and pick out what we want. It always surprises me that, whenever I do go out berry-picking, I never see anybody else picking them--given what blackberries cost and the notorious Dutch stinginess (which I've yet to encounter), surprises me. It makes me wonder how it is that we're so far divorced from what real food looks like that we can't recognize it when it's growing in front of us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why the little things matter, or the paradox of green

Who hasn't bought a cup of coffee on their way to somewhere, only to feel a little twinge of guilt when it comes time to toss the cup? Of course, some people do bring their own coffee mugs--but I don't buy coffee nearly often enough to justify lugging a thermos around. It's a rare morning that I need an extra boost.

OK, so it's one little cup. Big deal. Right?

One little cup.

It matters because nobody makes one little cup at a time. Companies buy huge stacks of (hopefully recycled) paper and roll, glue, and print hundreds of thousands of these at a time. You'd have to swear off paper cups for the rest of your life in order to make any sort of dent in their profits--and they probably wouldn't even notice.

This is why everybody has to do something to help the cause, whatever that may be. One vegetarian meal a week. Bringing your own mug to Starbucks--if there's still one around. Buying something organic once a week.

But the paradox is--the easier you make it for people to go green, the harder it is for society as a whole to become green. Someone may decide that once a week, they'll have a vegetarian meal. Which is a great start--I'm not questioning that. But what if they decide, too, that that's the end?

We make a big deal of little changes--it's hard for people to change dramatically, if you make them feel guilty about it they'll just turn away. This is true. But we also have to realize that when it comes to environmental impact, scale matters. One person committing himself to an lacto-ovo vegetarian lifestyle removes meat from fourteen meals a week (assuming that two meals a day have some kind of dead animal tissue in it). It would take fourteen people to commit themselves to one vegetarian meal a week to make that same impact. Has anybody done the math to see just how many partial-vegetarians it would take to equal the effect of one vegetarian? Because I'm almost certain that the number is higher than we would like to think it is...

Little things matter, but do they also make it more difficult for society as a whole to become more green? We'd have to slash emssions by 80% to keep the atmosphere below 450 ppb CO2. I'm sorry, but you're not slashing emissions 80% by turning your lights off, or even by hypermiling your car (unless you're insanely good at it). Yet we keep hearing that such things are enough, that if enough people could do just that one thing, it'll be okay.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Simple, Green, Food

Don't eat factory-farmed meat. Wait--free-range food isn't what it's cracked up to be, either. Buy organic--or not. Local is greener. Except when it isn't.

To green, or not to green, that is the question--and how. Take any statement that sounds good and someone somewhere will prove it false (like I do, with GMOs). The fact that nobody has a clear environmental agenda only adds to this dilemma. It doesn't help that sometimes what's clear from an environmental point of view clashes with the morals of the matter. For instance, organically raised beef is better for the environment--at least, until you consider the massive increase in acreage involved.

But fear not, gentle readers! I offer you one key to all of your greening dilemmas--at least, when it comes to food:

Don't eat what you wouldn't kill.

In my mind, it essentially amounts to cowardice to do otherwise. Of course, most of us don't raise our own meat. So most of us don't know what it's like to kill something. For most of us, the idea never even crosses our minds, unless we get it vicariously from watching crime shows.

But ask yourself, what would you happily kill for dinner? I'm not talking about survival situations, where you're stuck in a deathscape with no chance of life unless you kill Fluffy (actually, if it gets to that point, Fluffy's probably killed you first). I'm talking about your everyday meals. Could you catch a chicken and lop off its head for lunch on Sunday? Would you butcher a pig so that you can enjoy a hot dog?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer lovin'

It's finally gotten hot in the Netherlands, by which I mean, "I occasionally break a sweat when running around while wearing jeans." Summers in the Netherlands are mild, generally, and so the full power of the following drink is probably lost here. Nevertheless, it is delicious, refreshing, and you can make it as healthy or unhealthy as you'd like.

Basil Lemonade

~ 1 C of basil leaves, chopped fine
Sugar (at least 1/2 C is recommended)
3-4 lemons
Cold water
A refrigerator
A few hours

Mix the chopped basil leaves with the sugar, bruising the leaves.

Squeeze the juice out of the lemons. If you're using one of those citrus juicers that can cut into the rind, make sure you don't cut into the pith.

Mix the sugar/basil mix with the lemon juice. Let it sit for ~10 minutes. This allows the essence of the basil to be captured by the acid of the lemon juice. It goes without saying that you should not let this sit in an aluminum bowl. Use glass or ceramic. A cereal bowl works really well.

Seive the sugar/lemon juice/basil mix into the pitcher. Pour water through the sieve to fill up the pitcher. Chill. Drink.

Makes ~1 qt.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Meet Virginia

Some time ago I heard the astounding statistic that every DAY in Brazil, an area the size of Virginia was being cleared of trees. Virginia is not Texas, to be sure, but it's still an entire state and of course I was outraged and probably wrote a letter to the mayor or something (it was that long ago).

Of course, what I failed to appreciate at that time was that Brazil is big. Very big. You could probably cram two thousand Virginias into it. Although it doesn't ameliorate the budding panic I feel every time I think of a massive tree getting sawn down (I don't mean to be overly sentimental, but it doesn't take a math genius to figure out that if you're cutting down huge trees much faster than they can grow soon you won't have any huge trees, or any trees at all--just ask the Easter Islanders) for the sake of making a cabinet, or someone's slash-and-burn field, it does make the cavalier attitude about the rain forest a little easier to understand: if you're in the jungle, it's massive. During the right seasons, you can stand on one bank of the Amazon, and not see the other side. We see the rainforest as a precious resource. To the folks who live there, it's something that gets in the way of making a living.

Two factors mitigate the difficulty of preservation efforts. First is a vacuum of land use laws concerning the jungle, and second is poverty. According to the latest issue of The Economist, the jungle is taken over on a first-come, first-served basis. Stake your claim, shoot those who contest it, and when you've finished with it, sell to the highest bidder.

The solution seems simple--a bigger carrot. Commercialization of products derived from the rain forest, eco-tourism, and flat-out bribery (technically it's known as "subsidization for not cutting down trees") are all incentives to leave the forest be.

Well, maybe not. Eco-tourism, for instance, requires you to go into the forest with your group of tourists, show them around a bit, and then get them back out. Getting, say, exotic nuts or plants from the forest requires the same thing. Bribery--well, that works. The first two require roads. But it's been shown that roadways into the jungle are potentially more devastating than just cutting down a swath of trees.

But none of this will matter without Brazilian law extending its reach. Carrots are all very well and good, but without a suitable stick, there won't be enough incentive for people to change. Free market theory suggests that this will never work. The government, corrupt as it is (or will be, once enough money is involved) will somehow endeavor to screw it up.

I'm not sure I buy the idea that the best way to go about fixing the economy is necessarily to give people a stake in keeping the environment intact. People are notoriously bad at making decisions that involve delayed gratification (witness the credit crunch) and investment, and that is doubly true when there's no obvious benefit--for them--to keep the trees alive.