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Kensho Homestead Practicals

The Pup and the Chick

A photo of Mishelle ShepardOur pup Papi hated lettuce, until we started feeding it to the chicks. Suddenly, it seems to be among his favorite snacks, when he can steal it from them. In the kitchen he still doesn’t like it. This makes me consider once again the nature of our natures, and I’m reminded of the parable about the frog and the scorpion.

I’ve always hated this tale, because while I feel I’m perpetually playing the frog, others mistake me often for the scorpion. Being convinced that I am the frog is not because I have delusions that we are not all self-interested beings. I know, for better or worse, it is what has allowed us to thrive – the dog, as much as the frog, or the man, or the plant. I know I’m the frog because I have always been gullible, the scurvy of the optimist.  I’ve always been over-ready to allow words or appearances to supersede actions and sometimes even common sense. I think I’m not the only one.

Black lab puppy in the chicken house

So, I’ve decided to update the frog and scorpion tale to suit my own life better. The frog will be a chick and the scorpion, a black lab pup. Instead of a trip across the river, the sweet and friendly lab pup begs the chick to play his provocative but seemingly innocent chasing game through the meadow. At long last his charming pants convince them it’s a beautiful day and he clearly means no harm.

That black lab, just look at that face, how could he possibly be the scorpion? Has he not so far obeyed orders, sometimes under great pressure to indulge his instincts? But just the flap of a wing and he is on high alert. It’s so very lucky for those chicks that he is well-supervised now, under constant surveillance. If only they knew, those poor little chicks, how their natural moves provoke him. He cannot help that at all. Any more than they can. He’s still playing the patient watch dog, for now.  I know he is surely not capable of strategically planning his next move, but just you wait, one of these times that seemingly innocent little flap will provoke a tragic end to their already shortly numbered days in the meadow.

The moral of my new twist to the story? A seemingly careless little misstep or two made out of innocence or ignorance are still missteps with fatal potential.

Nevermind: Temptations Are Way Too Tempting


I spent the week in New York City with my sisters and now must recant the bulk of what I professed last post. To resist the overwhelming and constant temptations of city life would require a morale of steel, the stoicism of a soldier, an empty wallet and zero credit. It’s no wonder why so many folks in this country are fantastically fat and/or desperately in debt – the pressure to consume is absolutely overwhelming.

Manhattan is a vast bazaar of offerings, each neighborhood serving a different population or persona, with nothing and no one overlooked. There is a zoo of products and services at every price point. The array of restaurants is spectacular, the fashion ubiquitous, the salons irresistible, the bars buzzing. Anything you desire at pretty much any hour. Not even Superwoman could resist against such an all-encompassing force.

And Superwoman has never even played near my orbit. My statement last week to value time over money is shot pretty much instantaneously upon arrival. Every day was like a safari through the endless world of consumable goods – one day as determined as a mouse in a maze for the ideal shoulder bag, the next day a treasure hunter for discounted boots – the perfect pair finally found at half-price, a mere $350.

My youngest sister is a diva in the Manhattan design world, and so she keeps abreast of it all, in knowledge and presentation. They (her and her not-so-handy hubby) are vegans, are mindful of the planet, even experimenting this year with seedlings to be transplanted into a plot in their community garden. It is an applaudable effort and attitude but has hopelessly little hope of success. I think of the constraints already chaining up all their waking hours – the social life, the family obligations, not to mention the extracurricular career commitments and daily commutes. No wonder they watch ridiculous reality shows, what brain or body power could possibly be left for anything else after all that pressure – to produce, to perform, to consume?

Nothing haunts me more than hypocrisy, especially my own, so thankfully I’ve long ago realized I’ve got to be pretty far outside the mainstream to resist the pull of getting repeatedly sucked into it. While ecology might be trendy, its trendiness is antithetical to the movement itself, because consumption cannot be at the core of a sustainable society. New products for vegans and diabetics and celiac sufferers and vitamin water and aroma therapy and elliptical machines – the message is very clear, get healthy, get green, but don’t stop shopping! I know urban homesteading is getting a huge following fast, but wow, I have to really admire those folks, because there is so very much working against them in the city.

Now I’m back to square one on my conservation question: How to create a sustainable society when there is no hope at all we will ever choose time over money in this country. Consumption is as deeply engrained in us as corn. (Hehe, sorry, pun intended.) For some strange reason I heard the same phrase repeated several times last week in the city: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

I’m home again at last, far out of the way. Thank heavens one long walk in the woods is as easy and reliable as tapping the refresh key.

Live Well: The Value of Time Over Money

A photo of Mishelle ShepardThe most obvious approach there is to the conservation issue I posed last week is: Start valuing time over money. To me, the value of time over money is a no-brainer. I wish I could say I thought it up all on my own, but I never think anything up all on my own. Because I have an abundance of time, I read abundantly. I’ve also traveled a bit, but you don’t have to travel far to see that generally speaking Americans seem less happy than they should considering our relative prosperity.

To satisfy our natural drive for abundance, we have become addicted to consumption in this country, and it’s killing our bodies and our environment. People who love their work or lead more complete lives don’t seem to have the same need to fill the voids in their lives with food and things. When you value time over money, the way you fill your time changes dramatically for the better.

When I made a conscious decision to stop working so hard at work I didn’t value, something incredible, but expected, happened – "treating myself," which invariably came in the form of buying something, felt completely unnecessary. Suddenly I realized it is the time itself that is the treat. I don’t need to consciously and painstakingly “conserve,” because with the surplus time I no longer need the quick shopping fix or fancy night out to feel rewarded. To quote again from MOTHER EARTH NEWS and GRIT Publisher Bryan Welch's article about creating a sustainable society I mentioned last time, “If we are to lead creative, innovative and beautiful lives, we need some surplus time and energy.” Most Americans are just too damn tired to lead such lives!

Americans typically don’t like their work, but more than any other culture I’ve seen, we define ourselves through our work. “What do you do?” is among the first questions asked in a conversation among Americans. I’ve spent long and pleasant evenings with new acquaintances in other countries where that question is never asked, by anyone, unless there’s another American there. Why? We are our work. Being over-worked is a badge of achievement in this country. Why are we so willing to “trade our hours for a handful of dimes” sang Jim Morrison like 40 years ago, but we are still doing it today, and no better off for it.

Maybe it’s not the same for everyone, but an entire afternoon with no obligations at all makes me feel like an aristocrat. I know it requires a different look at what defines luxury, one that marketers avoid for the simple reason that it doesn’t sell anything. Money to burn might feel equally good, I wouldn’t know, but I’m very certain the path to making that money is totally over-rated.

How the Conservation Movement is Flawed

A photo of Mishelle ShepardThe very premise behind the conservation movement is grossly flawed. Society has been trying to force restraint and discipline over our lives since abundance first arrived on our horizon, but as a whole, we’re very resistant to that sort of manipulation. We wouldn’t have to push such restrictions on ourselves through religions or laws or social mores if we were already predestined toward moderation. We tend to very easily forget that conservation today most likely equals surpluses tomorrow.

So why on earth would the conservation movement make its platform, well, conservation? It was doomed from the beginning. We no longer think of the word conservation as synonymous with protection and preservation, we view it closer to quotas, controls, restrictions. The conservation movement may not have caused such connotations, but it sure ain’t helping. Rationing means war, at least it once did, and now not even for war and recession have we been proven that willing to conserve.

We are a species who has survived and thrived because we are drawn to abundance, not preprogrammed to conserve. During periods of lean times we have been forced to learn the hard way, repeatedly, but it never really sticks. The next year, or decade, or generation, we have completely forgotten about that hardship again, and we are once again absorbed in our visions of abundance.

In society we honor and reward the man who earns so much he can’t possibly ever spend it all over the man who may work equally hard but at a fraction of the wages, even if we know the rich man to be lacking in character. Why is that? We always reward abundance – abundance in beauty, skill, achievement, talent, even formerly in obesity, back when that was a sign of material abundance. Now that obesity is usually a sign of malnutrition, we don’t value it anymore. In this country an abundance of garbage doesn’t bother us at all, because it’s still an abundance. So until there is a lack of space that makes the abundance of garbage excessively unpleasant, we are very unlikely to do anything about it.

When reality has stepped in and shown us a real truth about human nature – an unpleasant sort of truth along the lines of prostitutes, abortions, and drugs will always exist, until the end of time, no matter what we do to try to change that – you sometimes wish folks would start working with human nature instead of against it. So here is another unpleasant truth: We will never embrace conservation as a concept, because it’s just not attractive. As Bryan Welch writes in his recent article for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Creating a Sustainable Society: Four Questions We Should Ask, “Austerity is a drag. Most people know that - and resist it.”

There is a very simple formula to change all this. I’ll bet you can guess it. Try right now in the comments section and I’ll tell ya if you’re right next week!

Food and Sex: Science Versus Mother Nature

A photo of Mishelle ShepardWhen it comes to food and sex, we’ve allowed science to trump common sense. We’ve let this happen even while we know science has been at times savior, at other times profiteering fear-monger – think the birth control pill versus artificial aphrodisiacs, or any of the numerous “facts about nutrition” that change every year – from low-fat to good fat, or oat bran to Omega-3s, not to mention trans-fats and genetically modified crops.

Science is modern, America loves modern, and therefore science has ruled hands down. The rigors of science require extreme discipline, and we have long been proud of our abilities in that department. Discipline over pleasure is our long-standing mantra. Sacrificing pleasure is one of the foundations of American society – Puritan ideals, Protestant work ethic, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Prohibition – like everything else, we took even Christianity to extremes. Our influential American ancestors applied those principles and then used science to go even further – Kellogg, Rockefeller, Roosevelt bought into the superiority of science hook, line and sinker, especially when it came to such animalistic indulgences as food and sex. They went so far as to say meat caused masturbation, therefore we must eliminate meat. “The decline of a nation commences when gourmandizing begins,” according to Kellogg.

I consider myself a loyal gourmand, even here on the homestead. As I have said before, sacrifice has never been my forté. I am, you might say, très français, in all my appetites. People look at this lifestyle as some great sacrifice we’re making, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Going back to basics means more pleasure, not less. Time to garden, cook, read, entertain, be creative. No high-traffic commute, no 60-hour work week, no noise or air pollution. And we all know that less stress means more sex and better health for all species. Even on its worst days this lifestyle is definitely less stressful.

Of course, the tides of science are beginning to turn. Science is finally beginning to prove what many of us have known all along from good old-fashioned common sense: The Western diet and the Western lifestyle are directly linked to the Western diseases. Now the famed Dr. Oz claims an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away.

For all of its triumphs, science is often wrong. It believed it was doing the world a favor in creating the pesticides and herbicides required for monoculture farming practices, or pharmaceuticals that cause more side-effects than ailments they cure, or the hydrogen bomb.

The stern rigors of science or the passionate chaos of nature – when it comes to food and sex, I’ll second-guess science over Mother every time.

Garden Envy

A photo of Mishelle ShepardI want it big. I want it beautiful. I want it NOW! I am not by nature a competitive person, or particularly greedy or selfish, at least I like to think so. But I am already beyond impatient to have the garden of my dreams: voluptuous veggies that make your mouth water at first sight, luscious herbs whose aroma penetrates the entire room, exotic flowers whose beauty could make you weep. A magical place somewhere between my two favorite childhood books: The Secret Garden, and Where the Wild Things Are. Why is it those things you most desire take the longest to realize?

In the South it’s already time to order seeds and pre-plan the spring garden. We’re not even a year here yet, and at the beginning I promised I would cut myself some slack regarding my inevitable crop failures. I said I’d be happy with whatever I managed to get, I am laughably inexperienced, after all. I gaze at the neighbors’ perfectly manicured and vole-free, rabbit-proof garden plot producing an ample surplus of my own failures: winter squash and green beans galore, pecks of perfect peppers. They have all been gardeners for decades, obviously I cannot compare my own measly efforts to theirs, but of course, I do. They are happy to offer advice, but it’s hard sometimes to listen when you are so eager to just DO.

Handy hubby must realize to what degree I am in way over my head. For reasons I am not entirely sure, he seems enthusiastic to help me along. Is it his love for fresh veggies or for me that has him losing sleep over greenhouse designs and irrigation systems? Or maybe he is afraid the famous Southern expression might otherwise apply to us: When Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

I would ask him, but what if by asking, he starts to question that himself, and that line of questioning then leads him to the realization he would rather spend the time, money and effort on his future workshop. So, I’ll quietly and quite gladly take whatever help I can get. Maybe I’ll even slow down this time, learn to ask more, and maybe even try again to listen to the voices of experience.

A Rolling Stone

A photo of Mishelle ShepardFrom Erasmus to Mythbusters and in between through scores of lyrics and pop references, the proverb “a rolling stone gathers no moss” exists in dozens of languages – but people, times, and cultures make its interpretation a real challenge.

In a literal sense, Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters confirmed it is, in fact, exactly true that after six months of rolling stones they did indeed stay free of moss. 

But in a figurative sense, is moss desirable, or undesirable?  As a child I used to collect moss in the woods behind our house and make a moss garden tenderly displayed on a fallen tree limb.  After that though, I mostly stopped noticing the moss.  After leaving for college, I became the rolling stone.  Since 2001 I have moved 11 times and in the previous decade that number was significantly higher.  It sounds alarming to me now, but I know loads of people who have moved almost as much.

Like our culture, I see that gathering moss slows you down, and our culture has little room for slow.  To our modern cultures of the West mobile people are agile, adaptable, go-getters.  But to the ancient cultures of the Far East it was believed that nomads avoided responsibilities and did not acquire real bonds, wealth, or wisdom.  Maybe both are wrong, and both are right.

Mosses started fascinating me again since moving to the country.  I am continually marveling at the depth of their colors, the incredible variety of textures, the continual changes through light and season, and especially their sturdy delicacy.  If there is Yin and Yang in this proverb, then the Yin is the moss, and the Yang is the rock, and as all things Yin and Yang, they transform each other.

I suppose that means there is a time for collecting moss, and a time for shaking it free. While it sounds hokey to say like the rock and the moss, the Yin and the Yang, life is all about balance, well, I think a wee bit of hokey might help this pokey world go ’round.

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