February 22, 2014

Heike Noller: Grounded, but not for long

Heike, Vee, Me and Hannah, about a year ago.

Heike, Vee, Me and Hannah, about a year ago.

Fate has an odd sense of humor.

Last winter, Hannah and I rode our bikes from Oregon down to the tip of California, took a left and headed into the deserts of the Southwest. In all those weeks, we saw maybe a dozen touring cyclists, most of them male. Then, in the remote mountains of west Texas about 200 miles east of El Paso, we happened to stay with a host in an unlikely community comprised of employees and researchers at McDonald Observatory. You know you’re in the middle of nowhere when you come across one of the world’s largest telescopes – it’s so far from city lights that you can see just about any star you care to aim it at. An hour after we rolled in, Vee, a lady cyclist traveling solo from the East coast, joined us.

Our host, John – a bit of a mad scientist – was an engineer up at the ‘scope. He and his family took us on a tour of the observatory before the sun slipped behind the horizon. The tour was interrupted two or three times by John’s cell phone – the calls came from a German woman none of us had met yet. She was another cyclist, coming here from the opposite direction, and apparently she had very spotty reception. John was hilariously indifferent to the whole situation.

“Why does everyone have to call ahead? Just come if you need to, and if you don’t – don’t!” His frizzy mop of curls shook for emphasis.

We all gave up on Heike at about 10 at night and Hannah and I settled into our sleeping bags in John’s living room. Glad to be out of reach of javelinas and coyotes, we let the wind lull us to sleep.

As I recall it, Heike blew in the door with a gust of wild night air. She stepped inside with one word:

“Wow!” The first “w” came out as a “v”.

We mumbled a greeting and rolled over, aware that she had ridden at least 80 miles that day, the last dozen or so uphill, in a headwind. In her situation, I would have been glad to sneak in quietly, consume a jar of peanut butter, and pass out on the floor for twelve hours.

But Heike, it turned out, is made of sturdier stuff than you or I. The next morning, she was up before Vee, Hannah and me, drinking coffee in the kitchen with John and his wife. In the light of day, she was tall, blonde, tan and completely easygoing. We swapped stories, the currency of cycle tourists – about the pavement and the wind, locals and other wildlife, saddle sores. Heike told us about Key West, (“Vest”), her favorite place in all of America, from where she’d cycled across the South to Big Bend National Park, Texas. From the way she described the entire thing, it was all one big party. In Big Bend, she’d waded across the river to Mexico – apparently they don’t bother with border controls down there, not in the middle of a desert so vast and uninhabited.

The conversation turned to footwear. Heike had on a pair of Keens, sport sandals that can be purchased with clips to hook into your bicycle pedals. She gushed about how she could wear them anywhere, from the bike to town to hiking trails.

“Sometimes rocks get in zem,” she said. “I say, free foot massage, ja?” We all laughed. She was serious.

We parted ways with Heike and Vee that morning but kept their bold energy, their trust in the fates that guided them, with us. We adopted a new motto, too. When I complained of the insects bombarding my face in Florida, Hannah said “free protein, ja!” When we got rained out of our tent, I reminded Hannah – “free shower, ja!” It wasn’t just Heike speaking through us – my mother, who is also German, often reminds me that any given hardship will serve to put hair on my chest. How about an unexpected ride on the freeway with large trucks traveling inches from you at eight times the speed: “Free chest hair?” Ja!

Hannah and I made our way home to Oregon this spring. Heike wrapped up her tour and settled in Denver, where she earned her EMT license, became a ski instructor and a caregiver, and got into rock climbing. I watched her life unfold as she told it though Facebook, inspired by each new adventure.

Then, this November, I logged in to see some very disturbing news. Heike had fallen from 250 feet up a rock face while climbing, free falling the last 40 feet. She’d broken twelve ribs, her sternum, her back, and both feet. Her left foot was so damaged that the hospital decided to amputate just below her left knee several days later.

Heike fell out of the sky in West Texas and brightened our journey; she fell from a cliff in Denver and paid a high cost for her life of adventure. Watching her recovery take place through the photos and updates she posts, I have been torn between gratitude that she survived (I’m starting to feel as though nothing could kill her) and wishing that there was something I could do. I didn’t realize it until now, but this woman I had become something of a hero to me. Her positivity had carried me through that long bike ride and in the trying months that followed.

The only time I saw Heike’s good spirits waver was when she learned that she would be discharged from rehabilitation at the end of January with nowhere to go from there. Her healing is not completed and it will be another two months until she gets a prosthetic for her leg thanks to some insurance complications.

Luckily, some friends seem to have found Heike a place to stay in Denver, and they’ve started a fundraising campaign to support her until she’s able to function as a whole person again. Needless to say, Hannah and I are chipping in what we can. I want to see Heike strap on her Keens, hop on her bike and do a victory lap around the world. I know that when she’s better she’ll find the “free foot massage” even in this situation. Who knows how many lives she’ll touch, how many perspectives will be altered, when she does.

Heike’s supporters are just $530 away from raising the $3000 she needs. Let’s make it happen! Here’s the link to the fundraiser: http://www.crowdrise.com/helpheikeheal/fundraiser/paradoxsports1

January 29, 2014

American Dream, Human Scale: Announcing Tuula and Hannah’s Tiny House Project!

Tuula and Hannah

Living out of bicycle bags for six months taught us just how little it takes to live comfortably!

Hannah and I have always been people who try to live by our beliefs. We believe in eating fresh, whole foods; we have spent several summers working on farms. We believe that a car-free world is possible; we bicycled across the country last winter to prove it. We believe in love, joy and laughter; every day is a choice between just muddling through or finding positivity and creativity in the most mundane of tasks.

We relocated to Ashland this fall because we knew that Southern Oregon holds a community of people who care about how they live their lives. We immediately found great jobs and our “niche” here – a good sign. I work at the Ashland Food Coop, helping customers solve their grocery conundrums. Hannah bakes at La Baguette, where music — her life blood — flows like flour from the sack.

Spending half of the year 2013 on bicycle saddles, camping or staying with strangers almost the entire time, taught us a lot of things: That there’s nothing we can’t accomplish if we put our heads together, that people everywhere are helpful and extremely generous, and that our basic needs are pretty, well, basic.

We love our country but are chagrined that the standard American home goes beyond the necessary to the point of wastefulness. Not only that, but good housing is no longer affordable to young people with entry-level jobs, even in a small town like Ashland.

When it comes down to it, we want quality over quantity, in our lives and in our living space. We want to inhabit a place that we shaped ourselves, showing others that decreasing their footprint on the planet can also increase their happiness. Lucky for us, the folks who are part of the Tiny House movement already share these ideas.

I don’t like the term “tiny house” because it implies that the living space is less than what might be preferred. “Efficiency house” would be more descriptive, but it sounds a little bleak. If I had started this movement, I would have gone with something like “human-scale homes”, but I didn’t start it. Really, it’s been how most people – excluding the very rich -  lived for eons, until the last few decades in America when floor plans bubbled along with the economy and spread out with the suburbs over our wild and farmlands.

A tiny house is usually under 300 square feet and is often built on wheels or skids. Many incorporate recycled materials, solar panels and composting toilets — these assist the owner in going off-grid and keep the home’s footprint very small. Tiny houses are popping up everywhere, from the Tiny House Hotel in Portland to survival shelters in the Texas desert. They’re not just a counter-culture thing, either. Average, middle-class people are realizing that they can live richly without going into deep debt with a a mortgage or throwing money away toward rent.

For the last couple of months, Hannah and I have been abuzz with ideas for getting this project off the ground. The house we live in now is being foreclosed on and we’ll probably have to move out by the summer, so the timing seems perfect. Hannah has been drawing up plans for our tiny house and pricing out materials. I’m fantasizing about putting in the garden. We’re both scouting for a perfect piece of land. We can’t buy just yet, but our hope is to lease or trade for a year or two on a property near town where we can assemble materials, build, and – eventually – live.

Our human-scale home will be on wheels so that we can eventually move it to our own piece of land. We will build it to run independently of electric or water hookups, and, we hope, it will add to the landscape as a work of functional beauty.

The place to put the house is highest on our priority list right now, and we’re open to creative ideas. Thank you for taking the time to read about our little dream.

Click here to read more about the Tiny House movement. 

A sample tiny house on wheels

A sample tiny house on wheels

January 29, 2014

The Weather

Rain. It falls tick-tocking on dusty asphalt, on hardened ground. Reminds us how much time has gone by since the last one, this clock sound, this heartbeat of the atmosphere. All winter we have told the skies how sorry we are, like children seeking grace from a god they don’t understand. If you give us rain, we’ll never hurt you again.
The night is cold but I am out in it, wanting to be closer to this scant moisture, the teasing hints of a true rainstorm. All day I’ve been watching the sky and the showers skeptically, hopefully. I walked home in it, refusing a friend’s offered ride, wanting to be watered. Now, alone at last, I inhale and taste the aroma of moistened earth. My tongue reaches out to wet my lips. I don’t depend on the weather. Except I do. What else is there?
When work acquaintances offer a minute of their time, what do we discuss? The weather. When I’m on the telephone with Grandma Kay who breathes heavily, understanding nothing, what do I babble aimlessly about, trying not to disclose my grief? The weather. When I call my father after months of silence, needing to know something important but not sure how to jump into the subject, the weather is there. And it’s here too, begging discussion, ready to fill the gaps between love and obligation, between absence and presence.
The rain, such as it was, has quieted now. I hear the distant freeway, a mechanical suburban buzz, my own fingers against keys, and the last drops of water dropping from the rooftop to the neglected yard of this house we live in. We grow rangy and gnarled without the rain, all of us. When it is here, we breathe easier, we take in the sweet smell. It softens us and our world, hugging it in grey pearlescence, hiding the inarguable march of the sun across the sky each day. Tomorrow, likely, it will clear up again. In our biome, and in our hearts, drought is here.

December 6, 2013

Christmas in the Chicken Coop

Molting chicken

The Ashland Food Cooperative (or “the Coop”, either as two syllables or one) is just about the most wonderful place a person could spend their working day. My co-workers are intelligent, caring human beings who take pride in their work. Our customers are kind, gracious and possess some degree of knowledge about where their food really comes from. Sure, there’s the occasional roll-your-eyes moment – like the mom who video conferences with her toddler to ask him which brand of gummy fruits he prefers, or the bearded woman who talked to me for thirty minutes, first about ghee and finally about why sex should wait until marriage, gay or straight – but I really appreciate how most people take the time to think about their options when it comes to things like pizza sauce, coconut oil, or yogurt.
Or eggs. Anytime it’s my turn to stock the egg cooler, I prepare myself for a deluge of first-world problems. Do brown and white eggs taste different? Which is better, cage-free or humanely raised? If it says they’re soy-free, does that mean they’re non-GMO? Then there’s my favorite: Where are all the local eggs?
With my farming background, I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken eggs, but I was wrong. Curious customers had me on Google every night with ovum-related quandaries. Turns out cage-free is not as idyllic as we would imagine, and organic is the only way to know with certainty that GMOs have not made their way inside those fragile shells.
But I did know this before I got the job: All eggs taste the same, no matter the color. Also, under natural circumstances, chickens take a few weeks off in the fall to molt, or grow in a new set of feathers. Like most living things – from apple trees to human beings – they don’t see it necessary to work 365 days out of the year. Responding to changes in daylight and temperature in the late fall to early winter, they take a break. Egg production drops or disappears for two to four months.
In the old days, when farmers kept chickens outdoors, people simply didn’t eat many eggs during molting season. They became a luxury item that only the rich could afford. Mixed with plenty of rum and milk, eggs became the ultimate special holiday beverage – eggnog. In spring, we ate lots of eggs to celebrate the fact that they were once again abundant.
Today, of course, we have technological “solutions” to the egg supply “problem”. Kept indoors in huge poultry barns, chickens’ natural clocks are confused by artificial lights. Farmers can force the molt to happen whenever it’s convenient for them, so they stagger molting to ensure that the entire flock doesn’t stop producing at the same time. They also keep the molting period short – a month or two at the max.
So that’s why “Where are the local eggs?” is my favorite question of the season. We do carry local eggs, from “Poe”tential Farms, located in the Poe Valley near Klamath Falls, Oregon. They keep their chickens outdoors on pasture, and they don’t force molts. Their eggs are fresh, organic and reasonably priced. They’re also a seasonal product – like pumpkins, watermelons, and eggnog-flavored ice cream. When the Christmas music starts playing softly over the Coop speakers, the local eggs take a hike.
Nobody wants to hear my long-winded explanation at the store, so I just say “Sorry, we’re out of stock right now.” Usually, that’s enough to satisfy a customer, but last week a woman huffed and asked, “What, are the chickens just not laying eggs?”
Um, yep. Your natural, happy-to-be-chickens are doing what natural, happy chickens do this time of year. Sorry, that means that you either have to buy the not-so-natural eggs we have available, or go without.

Chickens may be directly related to the dinosaur, but I’m starting to believe they’re more evolved than us. Sure, we have vacation days and sick leave, but taking a break isn’t actually built into our biological cycles. A chicken’s job is to lay an egg every day, sure. (Amazing fact: A hen is actually born with every egg she will ever lay already lined up inside her reproductive tract, ready to grow, calcify, and make its way toward an omelet or a meringue cookie.) But their bodies, somewhere along the evolutionary line, said – you know, I’m not going to commit to this incredibly physically demanding act every day out of the year. Human ladies, imagine if WE dropped an egg every twenty four hours. The world would be madness.
But at the Co-op, the evidence shows that most of the women – and men, but let’s face it, women do a lot more grocery shopping – are already teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. Maybe we should take a cue from chickens and spend a good quarter of the year changing our wardrobe and preparing for what’s ahead. Then when we encounter a situation where we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we could just scratch our nails in the dirt, shake our feathers, and strut away.

December 1, 2013

Buying the Farm

My windowsill garden

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve wanted to have my own farm since I was a little girl. I planted a peach pit in our back yard near a big Doug fir and dug it up nearly every day to see if it was turning into a tree yet. I baked my own bread and painted my face with blackberry juice.
I didn’t really know about farms then, or where my food came from, really, but eventually I would figure it out. Where I started was with an insatiable love of the outdoors, of things that grow. Although I had no idea what was actually edible out there – and neither did my city-born parents – I pretended it all was anyway. When I grew up to learn that humans were expected to spend most of their lives indoors, I followed along with the plan briefly but soon found myself joyously yanking weeds in the mud of the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm.

I’m 27 years old now. Recently, I received an email from a young woman named Erin. She’s about to graduate from engineering school and was seeking advice on entering the field of sustainable agriculture. She felt that she could make a positive contribution.
I sent a couple of links to apprenticeship programs but she pressed for more information: What path had I taken, she wanted to know. What mistakes had I made, and what experiences were invaluable?
I think what she really wanted to know was, is this really possible? Can an idealistic young person really go into the crusty world of tractors, almanacs, fruit fly breeding cycles, pressure canning, agricultural zoning rules and Carharts and make it as sexy as designing green buildings or a more fuel-efficient car?
There is a huge chasm in agriculture today, but maybe it’s always been there. It’s the difference between our romantic view of cuddling baby lambs, and hosting potlucks in our rustic farmhouses and the reality of growing enough food for the planet’s 7.5 billion people and making it as cheap as possible. Today, the romantic view of farm life has grown to include an expectation that changing the way we grow, distribute and consume food can actually save the planet. So, can it?

I have to admit that I lied a bit in my responses to Erin. I didn’t tell her that no farmer I’ve ever met has actually recommended that I follow in their footsteps, go into debt for a large piece of land, and spend the rest of my life tied down to it. I didn’t tell her that most of the early 20-somethings I met just out of college who, like me, worked a variety of low-paying but highly satisfying farm-related jobs, are now settling down to earn real money and buy their food from the grocery store like everyone else. I failed to mention how incredibly thankless it is to be a farmer, that no matter how much people in your community seem to embrace the idea of buying locally and building regional food security, you will still meet people at the farmer’s market who will fail to understand why your apples are more expensive than those at Safeway. That’s when you smile and try to be nice, and you don’t try to explain that the old expression “he bought the farm” means he died, because when you try to live off the land that’s the only way you do live.

I left these things out because I still believe that the baby goats are worth it, and that, as Alice Waters said, we really do vote for the kind of world we want every time we choose what we eat. Maybe this is why there are still farmers in the world, why there continue to be young farmers even though the average age of a farmer in America is now upwards of 60 years old. The trend of college grads going back to the land may have hit its peak at the height of the recession in 2009, when I graduated from college, but there are still Erins out there, and there are still people like me and Hannah, who just can’t seem to settle for a nine-to-five job under the protective roof of a building in town. There’s a smidgen of boldness and a bit of stupidity there, too – no matter how many farmers we’ve met who barely scrape by, we seem to think we can do better. Maybe, just maybe, we can have it all.

Now that we’ve settled in Southern Oregon, we’re taking a look around, feeling the soil and watching the weather. We have friends who want to invest here, too, noting the influx of Californians and the popularity of local vineyards. Land isn’t cheap, but it is only getting more expensive. The farmer’s market is a busy place here. Perhaps there’s room for one more pair of crazy young people with a table full of the ripened labors of their love. Once we get it going, I fantasize, we’ll let the local college know that we’re seeking interns. We won’t pay much, but they’ll never be the same once they go for a walk through the fields in the early morning, taste the first ripe tomato of summer, and see a baby goat take its first shaky steps into life.

November 20, 2013

Happy Birthday, Now Toughen Up

The Half-Moon Cabin

The day couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d planned it, and I’d planned almost none of it.

The irony of this was not lost on me as we stumbled through the woods in the darkness, looking for the cozy cabin I’d booked as a surprise for Hannah’s birthday. Please, I thought, don’t let my luck run out here, after a day of spontaneous enjoyment, foiled by the one thing I’d actually thought of doing in advance.

In the splendidly diverse river valleys surrounding Ashland, it would be easy to create – or just happen upon – a fun-filled day for nearly anyone. Hannah’s birthday falls just after the closing of the area’s big natural attractions at the end of October, so Crater Lake and the Oregon Caves were out of the picture. So, like snowbirds, I decided we would go south on Highway 199, which wanders along the Illinois River valley out of Grants Pass, then through the California redwoods to end up at the Pacific Ocean.

Hannah, lover of surprises above all else, had no idea where we would be heading that morning, but did make one request: That we start at La Baguette in Ashland for a meltingly delicious cheese-and-onion stuffed bagel.

Satiated, we packed up our little Toyota, Apollo, and hit the I5 toward Grants Pass. I encouraged Hannah to speak up if she spotted an attraction that tickled her fancy. Although the mini-golf courses and strip malls of the greater Medford area held no appeal, something about the exit sign for the tiny village of Rogue River caused her to crave a second cup of coffee. I veered into the exit at the last minute and then, there we were.

It was a rewarding stop. Things Hannah loves: Trains – check, gorgeous mural complete with a real train headlight on the side of the first building downtown. Pumpkin spice lattes – check, adorable coffee stand in a caboose. Antiques – check, a just-opened retro revival shop on main street.

By the time we got out of there, it was after noon. I took Highway 99 the rest of the way to Grants Pass; on the way we stopped for some fresh strawberries at a farm stand and to buy old postcards at a junk shop.

Not that we didn’t have enough stuff packed with us – food, a change of shoes, Hannah’s mandolin, extra sleeping bag, jugs of water, camera, candles, wine, books, birthday cake, and an unopened present from Hannah’s mom.

I’m not usually the one to handle logistics on these little trips, and so I’d overcompensated by packing a breadth of useful things. Hannah, who prides herself on being prepared for anything, had also brought along a variety of essentials. Turns out, we had prepared for just about everything except the obvious.

As we broke free of Grants Pass’ creeping sprawl on Highway 199, it would have been easy for Hannah to piece together my plans by reading the green signs that announce the upcoming cities, with mileage. However, I’d underestimated the lengths through which she was willing to go in order to preserve the quality of a good surprise. Whenever she spotted a green sign in the distance, she would avert her eyes until I let her know we’d safely passed.

Despite this, she did not miss the signs that pointed toward Deer Creek Winery in Selma, just north of Cave Junction.
“Want to go?” I asked as we approached the intersection, knowing what the answer would be before I asked. Wine tops the list of Things Hannah Loves, right up there with coffee and splitting her own firewood.

We found the tasting room open and Deer Creek’s co-owner, a woman named Catherine, inside and ready to pour. As we sampled award-winning whites and reds, Catherine gave us the lowdown on the area, with two recommendations for the road ahead: Don’t miss the purple water and get your meat at Taylor’s Sausage.

When the tasting was over and it was time to go, I pulled out my wallet but Catherine raised her arms and flopped her hands toward me, the universal symbol for “It’s on the house.”
“Happy birthday,” she said.

Happy birthday, indeed. We wandered down the road a ways to asses the driver’s sobriety, but really to find a bush to squat behind. It was as if we’d been waiting to do this for weeks. This fall, our lives in Ashland have suddenly become so indoor, so civilized. Now, just a few hours and a few samplings of wine later, we were glad to revert to our more primal nature. The schedule, which had never really been formed in the first place, was definitely now discarded.

It's a Burl

After finding the car again, we next found ourselves at It’s a Burl, in downtown (okay, it’s pretty much all of) Kerby, Oregon. At the entrance to the outdoor gallery, a giant waterfall of carved burl wood flowed with violet-tinged water. From here, we wandered into a fairy-tale land of gnarled creatures, magical crystals and tree forts that climb into the blue. Among the strange and wonderful sights, resident artists worked away in their shops, wood chips flying like a golden rain. 

All of this tourism had worked up quite an appetite, so we stopped next at Taylor’s Sausage in Cave Junction. The place is to meat what It’s a Burl is to wood carving. Case after case brimmed with leg of lamb, bacon, steaks, jerky, and of course, sausage, and the clientele was as diverse as the meat selection. Here in the Illinois River Valley, marijuana growers mingle with ranchers, fishermen and new-agers drawn to the Oregon Caves and the paranormal happenings at the Oregon Vortex.

Outside Taylor’s Sausage, the town reflected the diversity of its residents. Next door is a small natural foods store that sells local produce and organic seeds. Next to that, a vintage clothing boutique. Although it was nearly 4 o’clock, Hannah and I had to duck in to try on some leather jackets and bowler hats.

Back in the car, I decided it was time to get serious. Our hosts had given explicit instructions not to arrive after dark. I had dutifully printed out the directions they sent, taking heed that my cell phone service would disappear once I crossed over the California border and entered the coastal range west of Cave Junction.

Once we reached Gasquet, I handed the printed sheet of paper to Hannah and instructed her to navigate. The first thing she told me to do was turn around and head back up the highway – we’d passed the turnoff ten miles earlier.

Near a sign for a roadside inn that reads “Food, Booze, and Snooze” (really, what else do you need?) we turned up a steep gravel road, flanked with towering Douglas fir and golden-leafed maples. Hannah told me when to keep left or keep right, reset the odometer, look for a yellow gate, etc.

We might have arrived a bit sooner had she not kept seeing mushrooms.
“PULL OVER!” the birthday princess would explain, and I would oblige, watching her run twenty feet back to snatch some unsuspecting fungus from the road’s crumbling shoulder. “Look at this thing! Can we eat it?”
I promised we’d pull out the mushroom book and identify all mushrooms once we got there, but please, could we just make it before it’s totally pitch dark?

Finally, we reached the red bridge. The directions stated that if we drove an SUV we could easily ford the stream below. Or, we could take the narrow red bridge.

I swung Apollo’s nose around and attempted to line us up exactly with the bridge’s skinny width. The old tires spun on the slick metal approach, and it didn’t look like the mirrors would clear the rails anyway. Not only is our car not an SUV, but the mirrors don’t fold in for crossing narrow country bridges in poor visibility conditions. Of all things.

“Well,” I say, trying to still sound cheerful and in control, “We’ll just walk up there!” The directions say it’s only three-quarters of a mile to the “village”.
“What is this place?” asks Hannah, for the first time breaking her commitment to the complete and total surprise factor.
“No time for questions,” I say. “It’s getting dark.”

And that’s when it hit me. The one thing I failed to plan for?
This.
The one thing we forgot? Flashlights.
No problem, we keep a flashlight in the car. Hannah digs it out, her hands working a bit frantically, but when she hits the button, nothing happens. Battery’s dead.

Now my sense of urgency is at its height. Fun time is over. As I change into my hiking shoes, Hannah throws her duffel bag over her shoulder, glass-enclosed candles and hardcover books inside. She also grabs her mandolin case and the bag containing our snacks and a bottle of wine.

“Okay, that’s it,” I say. “No more stuff.”
“Right,” says Hannah, tucking the oversized birthday present from her mom under her arm.
“Leave. The present. Here.” I growl, but to no avail. She’s already set her mushrooms carefully on top of the car and started across the bridge.

As we climb up the steep hill, darkness settling around us like a damp and chilly blanket, I’m amazed at this woman’s total and complete trust in me. The directions I’d handed her in the car were just that – none of the pictures of the charming woodland eco-village I’d checked out online. For all Hannah knew, I was about to pull a tent out of my backpack and pitch it here among the firs. Happy birthday, now toughen up. It’ll be cold cereal for breakfast.

Gradually, we made out a faint glow at the top of the hill, and came upon a small A-frame structure alongside the driveway with a solar lantern stuck out front. Dimly, I remembered this as one of the possible cabins I could have rented through the website. But I’d opted for a different, slightly bigger one, with a wood stove. Also, although I was familiar with the concept of “off the grid”, I had been under the impression that there would be more to this place than just a cabin. People, for example.

As I stood there wondering what to do next, the fearsome sound of barking dogs came thundering down the hillside. Hannah tensed and clutched my arm. Things Hannah doesn’t like: Strange dogs, being lost. And here we were, about to be eaten by Dobermans in the middle of an unknown forest.

At close range the dogs turned out just to be friendly mutts, who sniffed us, wagged their tails, and milled around waiting for us to do something more interesting. I kept waiting for our hosts to come down the hill after the dogs, bearing lanterns, torches, or some other light-bearing device.

They didn’t come. So we went to find them, following the ambient light of dozens more solar lanterns, which allowed us to feel our way through the garden and to the outdoor kitchen. Next to it was another building, which turned out to be the sauna. Each new discovery, instead of being a joyous surprise, was a cruel disappointment. All we wanted to do was find our cabin, set our bags down, start a little fire and turn on a light or two.

We decided that our next best bet for finding the cabin was to continue up the driveway, past the glowing garden area. Ignoring the ominous thumping noises – which turned out to be a pen of miniature goats – we set out into the now-total darkness, brandishing solar lanterns which we’d liberated from the garden.

Sensing that I had no idea what I was doing, Hannah began asking uncomfortable questions. Like, Where are we sleeping tonight? And, Are we going to get murdered?
After a few minutes of this, I decided we were barking up the wrong tree. My new plan: Return to the A-frame, which at least had a propane heater, get cozy and figure it out in the morning.

The A-frame, it turned out, was the answer all along. In it, lying mockingly on the tiny table next to the bed, was a map of the village. A quick glance was all it took to learn that our cabin, the Half-Moon Cabin, was just a couple hundred feet down the path.

Thirty minutes later, we had a roaring fire going. A half dozen candles provided enough light to satisfy our civilization-weakened eyes, as we chuckled over the irony of the birthday gift Hannah had finally unwrapped – an electric coffee grinder.

Then we settled into a comfortable silence, letting the reality of being miles from the nearest human being – or power outlet – settle in. Like many of the things I end up doing with Hannah, it wasn’t the kind of activity I would have chosen for myself, but now that I was here, I appreciated how truly rare and special it was.

Whether we knew it or not at the time, we’d both gotten what we came here for. On the whole, we didn’t have much. Our food was still down in the car nearly a mile away, we had no cell phone service and no convenience store down the road. But after the unsettling idea of not having anything at all, or at least not the minimum expected, the biggest surprise was in discovering – again – how just the very basics of warmth and shelter can be a bounty.

The next morning, Hannah was up at first light. I heard her brushing her teeth and making humming noises outside our tiny cabin. Then she spit and flung open the door, sticking her mint-scented face right up in mine. Her eyes were wide, her smile even wider.
“Sweetie,” she said. “This place is incredible.”

I rolled over and went back to sleep, thanking the powers that be for plans that come to life like wood-carved creatures, turning around to surprise those who attempt to control their fates.

Check out all the photos on Flickr

The merry mycologistFresh Strawberries in NovemberIt's a BurlThe Purple WaterHannah with special birthday friendIt's A Burl
Entrance to treehouseSwinging benchesWacky stuff at It's A BurlTaylor's SausageRetro shop, Cave JunctionEntrance to Maitreya Mountain Village
Little Jones CreekTake the bridge, or ford the creek?The Half-Moon CabinPath from our cabin to the gardenThe goat penMaitreya Hut
Outdoor kitchenMaitreya gardenBaaaaGoat in a fernBaby Goat at MaitreyaGirl on Burl
November 17, 2013

Roasted Eggplant Cashew Butter

A little bit dangerous. That’s how all good recipes should be.

It starts with cashew butter. You know, like peanut butter, but with cashews, a nut which happens to come from a deadly fruit. But more on that later.

When I’m feeling ambitious I use my cuisinart food processor to make my own nut butter. The process itself is not difficult, but may cause hearing loss. When I think of the horrendous noise created in the first five seconds of grinding nuts,  I usually find myself at the bulk section of the co-op, using their machines to quietly place whatever quantity of peanut or almond butter I desire into my very own jar.

However, my partner Hannah and I just moved into a new apartment in Ashland, and the previous tenant (who we kind of knew) happened to leave some food items behind for us. The jar of kombucha I swiftly passed on to a more appreciative owner – I once consumed a bad kombucha and I don’t care to recount the experience, thank you.

The giant bag of cashews in the freezer was a happier discovery. First, I made a nice batch of cashew butter using just the cashews and a little salt. Like I said, easy in the cuisinart – just plug your ears until the ground nuts slowly begin to release their oils and turn into a paste. The longer you let it run, the creamier it becomes.

Hannah and I have a rule in the house – if someone cooks, the other person has to do the dishes. Exceptions are my special cooking projects, which have been known to dirty every dish in the kitchen without producing anything edible – like when I try to make bread.

Unfortunately, my dear sweetheart doesn’t have a particular fondness for cashews, buttered or not. Since the food processor is notoriously time-consuming and annoying to wash, I knew I had to make something more exciting in it to be able to convince Hannah to wash it for me.

Enter the eggplant. When the late-summer abundance of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes hits, and the daytime temperatures start dropping, I love tossing everything in olive oil and roasting it in the oven. Roasting is to vegetables what grinding in the food processor is to nuts!

This recipe happened when I threw roasted eggplant and some other veggies in with a new batch of cashew butter to make a sweet, spicy, creamy and delicious spread. Although the recipe is not exact, I have attempted to record what I did!

Roasted Eggplant Cashew Butter

for roasting:
1 eggplant
1 sweet pepper
1 spicy pepper
1 bulb garlic
olive oil

for the butter part:
1/2 c cashews1/2 to 1 lemon, juiced
1 T Spike (seasoning available at health food stores, or salt)
1 T cumin
3 branches of fresh oregano
1/2 bunch of parsley

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Halve the eggplant and rub with olive oil. Place cut side down in a baking sheet or pan. Leave the peppers whole, rub with olive oil and add them to the pan. Remove the outer skin of the garlic bulb and chop off the very tips of the cloves. Roast the whole garlic bulbs in the pan or them wrap in foil.
Throw the roasting pan in the oven. Turn the peppers when blackened on the top side. Once all the skin is black, the cooled peppers can be easily skinned. Roast the eggplant until the insides are very soft – at least 20 minutes. The garlic will be ready after about 30 minutes.

When cooled, remove the skin and the seeds from the peppers. Remove the top from the eggplant. Squeeze the uncut end of the garlic to release the roasted garlic “meat”. Set the roasted veggies aside.

Put the cashews in the food processor and let ‘er rip. When the butter is creamy, stop. Add the lemon juice, Spike, herbs and cumin. Add the roasted vegetables.

Enjoy on crackers, as a sandwich spread, as a pasta sauce or by itself.

Cashew tree picture from somewhere on the internet

Cashew fruits on a cashew tree. The nuts are in the cashew-shaped appendage below the red fruits.

Sidebar: Cashews are a pretty weird nut. They grow on trees like walnuts or almonds, but the tree is actually considered a fruit tree. It grows in the tropics only – which is why all the cashews you can buy at the grocery store come from Brazil, India, Africa or Southeast Asia.

The stem of the cashew fruit grows to be larger than the fruit itself, and is actually edible. People in the tropics grow them for this part of the fruit and leave the nut part alone. In fact, they avoid it at all costs. Why?
The cashew-shaped fruit, which contains the seed which is the cashew nut we eat, is filled with a caustic liquid that can actually burn holes in your skin and – if you manage to eat it – your gut. Workers have to wear goggles, protective gloves and clothing to harvest the fruit and roast it, which must be done outdoors because the smoke created is also damaging to the lungs.
I can see why Hannah doesn’t like them. She did, however, love the eggplant-cashew butter. And the food processor was washed without protest.

September 16, 2012

Food Cycles Bicycle Tour: Literally, a revolution.

Hello, blog readers.

Since 2007, you’ve been reading on this blog about how backwards, out of control, inside-out, unsustainable, inequitable and outrageous our global food system has become.

This platform has been my way of speaking up, of questioning the accepted truths about where our food comes from and where it goes, and of sharing my personal experiences on the ground, first in India and now around North America.

At one point, I described the mission of this blog “to be a quiet voice in the corner for more sensible food policy and to endorse the consumption of edible flowers”.

Sure, quiet has its place. For the past two years, my partner Hannah and I have been quietly working our service-industry jobs while also quietly working at NettleEdge Farm. We’ve been quietly talking to people about why they should ride their bikes more and depend on their cars less; quietly, we’ve been advocating for sustainable communities and an end to consumerism. And we’ve been quietly outraged that America just hasn’t been listening to us.

We will be quiet no more. We are going to speak louder, yell if we have to, gain some attention, and start spreading what we’ve learned here in Eugene, Oregon to the rest of the country. And we’re going to get there on our bicycles.

Here’s the plan: We leave in December 2012 from the Oregon coast. We’ll travel five months, across the southern half of the US, and arrive in Boston, Massachusetts. From there, we’ll take the train back home. We’ll carry only what fits in the two bags on the back of our bikes. Using the WWOOF program, we’ll stay at farms along the way, where we can work for the good, organic food that will power us across the continent. These farms will be our mileposts, from the cranberry bogs of the Oregon coast to the plantations of the South. Along the way, we’ll write and blog about our experience, we’ll talk to people from all walks of life, and do what we can to draw attention to this small act of defiance.

What can you do? Follow our blog, foodcyclesbiketour.blogspot.com, and share it with your friends. Become a food cycler by reducing your weight on the global energy system – bike more, buy locally, and challenge yourself to source as much food as possible from your own backyard.

This new project will be my focus for the next eight months or so, and I probably won’t be posting here on my Tuulips blog. I do anticipate doing a lot of writing from the road, however. You can find it all at the Food Cycles Blog.

Over the years, I’ve put in many hours researching and writing posts to share here on my personal blog. The idea has been to provide an alternative to shallow food writing as well as guilt-driven, finger-pointing environmental journalism.

If you’ve enjoyed my efforts and my style and ever felt like you should be doing something to support my writing, now’s your chance. This trip will provide more fodder for blog posts than I’ll ever catch up on, but I’ll try. To make it possible, Hannah and I have launched a fundraising campaign for Food Cycles on Indiegogo. If you prefer, you can also contact us to contribute directly. Either way, you’ll be helping us get on the road and spread the good news: That good food doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to obtain. That we don’t have to rely on a global system on the verge of collapse to sustain ourselves. That our sun provides all the energy we need to grow our food and power ourselves, to wherever we want to go.

Thank you for your ongoing support! I look forward to entertaining you with tales from the (bike) saddle.

Tuula

PS Please help us spread the word! Forward this blog post to your own circles. You can also “like” us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FoodCyclesBikeTour

Or follow me on Twitter: @TuulaRebhahn

August 2, 2012

Homestyle Gringa Tamales!

On August 13th, River Road Community Organization, of which I am a part, is hosting a Tamale Fiesta (follow that link for details). The idea is to bring neighbors together and improve our culinary skills by learning and teaching how to make tamales.

I volunteered to help organize the event, and I thought it appropriate to try to make some tamales at home before lending my skills (or lack thereof) to others.

The internet abounds with recipes, so I’ll just share my photos from last night’s experience.

To set the scene: My domestic partner was working late, my kitchen was already 85 degrees, not even the cat would hang out with me, but I did have some beer in the fridge and a some speakers through which to pump Pandora’s Reggaeton mix.

In my possession: A bag of masa harina (the corn flour which constitutes the tamale dough), a tub of lard (the other main ingredient in tamale dough), various cheeses, various garden veggies, and some dried California chilis (chilis pasilla) which my recipe strictly instructed only to handle with gloves.

Not in my possession: gloves.

One hour later:

Prepped tamale ingredients, from left to right: cottage cheese; chopped summer squash, tomato, cilantro, onion and garlic; prunes; masa harina dough; chili sauce; grated cheese; corn husks for wrapping.

Don’t worry, dismantling the chilis and cooking them into sauce didn’t cause my fingers to bleed or anything like that. The sauce actually wasn’t spicy at all. The recipe said just to boil them in hot water awhile and puree. I “gringa-ed” up this boring sauce with some spike, cumin, Tapatio sauce and cilantro. Much better!

Most tamales are made with meat. I’m not a vegetarian but I am a poor-atarian, so I used some veggies I picked up at the farm the day before.

To fill a tamale, all you do is put some masa harina dough down on the corn husk like you’re making a sushi roll. Then you put your other fillings on top, but not too much or you’ll never get the thing shut.

All wrapped up in their little husks. Aren’t they cute?

In my pressure cooker with a rack underneath them, they steamed for an hour. They expanded a little while cooking, but held together pretty well anyway.

Just before they went in my stomach: Tamales with chili/sour cream sauce, home made refried beans and Spanish rice.

The veggies cooked perfectly inside the tamales (the slice of squash in this pic is an escapee). The two cheeses were great together, all cooked into the masa harina dough.

Sweating from steam and improvised Salsa dancing, I sat down to a delicious and satisfying meal. This camera phone picture even speeded the arrival of my dinner partner (and a couple of co-workers). Just in time to wash the enormous pile of dishes.

The end.

 

July 30, 2012

Lacto-Fermented Salsa: Culture for your tomatoes

Here’s one of life’s sad ironies: The rich cultural heritage we inherit from our parents often doesn’t jive with our personal tastes. I’m thinking, of course, mainly of food.
My mom is German, and as a kid I ate a lot of sauerkraut, bratwurst and marzipan, mostly because I didn’t know better.
As an adult, I’ve tried giving the cuisine of my ancestors another chance, but it hasn’t stuck. I may nibble on a bratwurst or marzipan log now and again, but it’s my revulsion to sauerkraut that I know really makes my grandma turn in her grave. The thought of cabbage shredded and pickled, with that crunchy-flaccid texture and mouth-puckering flavor doesn’t just repulse me, it makes me wish I was adopted.
Interesting, because sauerkraut is made using the same basic process as cheese, bread, beer and other foods I know I cannot live without: fermentation. I present to you these Fun Fermentation Facts:

  • Fermentation is the oldest form of food preservation. It’s been around for 10,000 years – since the Stone Age!
  • Fermentation always involves a “culture”, or bacteria that consumes the sugars available in the food being preserved and produces carbon dioxide and sour lactic acid.
  • Coffee and cocoa (chocolate) beans undergo a fermentation process that eats away the slimy layer around the beans before they are roasted. Thank the bacteria for your daily fix!
  • In the Middle Ages in Europe, water was unsafe to drink so most people drank wine or beer. When fermentation occurs, “good” (non-toxic and often beneficial) bacteria win over “bad” bacteria that cause disease.
  • Fermentation is central to many ancient and modern cultures, and these foods are often considered delicacies. The Chinese prize duck eggs that are salted and flavored before being coated in mud and left to ferment for at least a month.

Ok, I take back the thing about wishing I was adopted. Chinese kids have it way worse.
Anyway, I know I may never find my roots in fermented cabbage, but there is another form of fermented vegetable (okay, fruits) that makes my stomach weep tears of joy. I give you…

Lacto-Fermented Salsa.

There are at least three ways of making salsa, that unbeatable combination of tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro, each with its own “consume-by” date.

  • Fresh salsa keeps for a few days in the refrigerator.
  • Canned salsa, either store-bought or home made, can last indefinitely on the shelf, but often tastes as much like the fresh version as cherry pie filling tastes like real cherries. Plus, canning your own salsa is steamy, hard work to do in the summertime.
  • Fermentation provides the best of both worlds, preserving salsa in the refrigerator or root cellar for up to six months, long enough for your tomato plants to turn into compost.

This salsa is made using the usual ingredients, with the addition of lactobacillus culture, easy to find in the air or in a carton of yogurt.
An honesty-the-best-policy note: Like most fermented foods, fermented salsa is an acquired taste (although acquirement can happen within seconds), and depending on the stage of fermentation, eating it may feel like chugging a just-opened can of soda. The sour flavor comes from the lactic acid created by the bacteria, who are also responsible for the carbon dioxide bubbles. Personally, I love this fizzy salsa, and even find it addictive. Kids do, too (I discovered the recipe while working at a gardening summer camp).

You’ll need one quart-sized canning jar, clean but not sterilized, and:
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped chili pepper, hot or mild
½ cup chopped bell pepper (optional)
3-6 (or more!) cloves garlic, peeled and minced (optional)
½ c chopped cilantro
1 t dried oregano, or 1 T fresh
juice of 2 lemons
1 T sea salt
4 T whey*, or extra tablespoon salt if whey is not available**
1/4 cup filtered water (unless your tomatoes are really juicy)

  1. Once you have all that stuff:
  2. Combine all ingredients and place in the quart-sized jar.
  3. Press down lightly with a spoon, adding more water if necessary to cover the vegetables. The top of the salsa mixture should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar.
  4. Cover tightly and keep in an undisturbed place in the kitchen. Fermentation time will depend on the room temperature. After two days, you should start to see bubbles, although it may take up to four in cooler climates. Bubbles indicate fermentation is occurring, and the salsa is ready to be eaten or stored in the refrigerator, where fermentation will continue at a much slower rate. Some prefer to leave the salsa out a bit longer to increase bubbly goodness.
  5. Enjoy with tortilla chips!

*Whey is the source of lactobacillus culture. It is simply the liquid that can be found in any yogurt that contains live cultures, such as Nancy’s (use the plain variety). For extra points, use whey from your own yogurt!
**If you can’t find whey, not to worry, lactobacillus cultures will find you. The added tablespoon salt preserves the salsa until wild lactobacillus already present in your salsa is able to multiply and create some fermentation action. However, this method will make your salsa extra salty.

A final note on mold: I know someone will one day successfully sue me for saying this, but it’s not really that scary. If mold grows on your salsa, either before or after you refrigerate it, simply scrape it off and discard. Add more water to ensure that your salsa is covered to prevent mold.

My tomatoes aren’t ripe yet, but when they are, I’ll be dicing and fermenting and waiting for those magical bubbles to appear. As for the cabbage, I’ll take it raw, thank you.

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