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5 March 2015

And what of happiness?

This post was originally published 28 Dec 2010.

A feeling of renewal always comes calling at this time of year. The new year is looming, an old year almost gone and life is telling me to look around, take it all in, reassess, look toward the coming months and make sure that what we're doing will continue to make us happy and satisfied. I have been doing that reassessment over these past few days away from the blog. I've spent time with my family, talked on the phone with friends, thought about life during the small hours of the morning, and relaxed while looking out the window at the rain. It's been raining for a week, it's still falling now. I picked our garlic crop in the rain at 5.30 this morning. What a crazy and wonderful way to really experience this season and all its wild weather.

In a sense I'm living my dream life right now but if I were to believe many of those women's magazines, I should be yearning for my long gone youth, dying my hair, thinking about botox and clearing out last year's fashions to make way for newer versions. There is much more depth to my life. I am surrounded by a loving family, I have a major creative project to concentrate on, and the freedom to do whatever I feel like doing when each new day dawns. And even though I have that freedom, I choose to remain here, working in my home. From the outside it's just Hanno and Rhonda, two golden oldies, living a very ordinary life in semi-rural Australia; but our lives deceive, we live large. We have the freedom to choose how we spend our time - there is no boss expecting us to turn up for work, no watches telling us we have to be somewhere soon and no other controlling factors we need to be aware of. We have no debt and live frugally so we know that if we remain productive and live within our means, we'll continue along this path and feel the satisfaction and contentment it brings for a long time.

My main occupation at the moment, and for the coming months, is writing a book. After breakfast I come into this little room, close the door behind me, turn on the computer and start reading, editing and writing. Every so often, I check out the forum or emails, or I go out and wash up, make bread, prepare a meal, make the bed, knit or mend and those small actions, while giving me a break, make me feel I'm still contributing to my home. In reality though, Hanno is doing more that he used to and although he's not been gardening due to the season and the rain, he has been doing the washing and the floors, which frees me up to work on the book. Marriages that work well are fine things. 

And what of happiness? Yes, it's here daily, bubbling away in the background, like a tea kettle on a wood stove, always ready and always enough to be shared. I don't know what it is I did to deserve this charmed life but I'm sure many of you feel the same way about your own lives. You are touchstones, in a sense, a way for me to know that even though we live outside the mainstream of our culture, there are others who walk along with us. And now as I look towards tomorrow and next year, I know that I will continue to work towards my goals with enthusiasm, optimism and gratitude and if I can take you all along with me for the ride, it will be even better. 

4 March 2015

Living the high life on low tech

This post was first published on 21 July 2011.

I really enjoy living where we live. The climate is wonderful, we can grow food all year and unless we have a bad year, it's neither too hot in the summer nor too cold in the winter. We live on a small piece of land at the edge of a pine forest that is bordered by a permanent creek, lined with rain forest. In the old days, trees were cut in the mountains behind us and brought to a timber mill on the other side of our one lane street. Logs were launched from our backyard into the creek and floated downstream to the Pacific Ocean. There, sailing ships waited for the logs which were loaded and shipped to places far, far away. Stripping tall timbers from our forests no longer happens here but not much else has changed at this end of the lane since those days. There are ten houses here now, but the mango and nut trees they planted back then are still here, and when you're quietly working in the garden you can imagine those days when logs would have rumbled by, probably right through where our house now stands. 

Our front garden (above) and our vegetable garden (below).

The house from the back. You can see the solar panels, the solar water heater (right) a couple of skylights and the whirly birds. Of course, Hanno's ladder is there; he's often on the roof pottering around, checking or fixing things.

Life is good here and we hope that even after we've gone, this land will look the same as it does now and support the efforts of a hard working family - hopefully our descendants. The key to this is to protect the land, to keep it vegetated, to remain organic gardeners, to use as few chemicals as possible, to continue to encourage birds and wildlife and to remain radical conservers of the land we live on. We will continue to harvest water from the roof, generate electricity with our solar panels and as much as we can, live a low tech life.

Our outdoor sink and one of the water tanks. We wash vegetables and fruit here, and our hands, so we don't bring too much dirt into the house.

Part of our low tech approach is to gently manage our climate for our own benefit. We use what our natural environment gives us. We dry our clothes in the sun instead of using a dryer;  we use the soil to produce food; we use harvested water on our crops, instead of using town water; we use cross ventilation as much as we can to cool our home. When we first came here to live we installed whirly birds to extract hot air from the roof space; they're powered by even the slightest breeze. Hanno has just finished painting the entire roof with solar-reflective paint which makes a big difference to the temperature of the metal roof and therefore, the temperature inside during the hot months. We also have three skylights on the roof that bring more light to the kitchen, bathroom and laundry without needing to flick a switch.

Water is harvested from the roof and stored in three water tanks. This small one (above) is used to water pot plants on our front verandah. This tank is also used as a platform for food that defrosts in the sun. Even now in mid-winter, a shoulder of pork takes about three hours to completely defrost (below).

Other smaller things we do include defrosting covered food in the sun instead of using the microwave and sometimes using the car sitting in the summer sun to dehydrate food. I sweep instead of vacuum, we removed our dishwasher a couple of years ago and wash up by hand. I would love to say that we harvest wood from our old trees and use it for heating but Hanno has an aversion to wood fires so we go without heating except on very cold mornings when we heat the kitchen for a couple of hours with a reverse cycle air-conditioner. I would also love to say we had an outdoor wood-fired bread oven that we use to bake bread, cakes and biscuits, but I can't. Maybe that is something I can look forward to in the future.

Beans drying in the warm air.

I wish we could use more low tech ways of doing house and yard work, or heating/cooling our home. I wonder what you're doing. I wonder if there are some things we've just not thought of but could easily do if we had a clue. So please, tell me how you manage heating and cooling, water, electricity, defrosting, cooking, drying and washing in a modern home environment. This blog has become a place for sharing ideas, often radical or forgotten ones, so I'd love to hear what you're doing in your home.

3 March 2015

Behind closed doors

This post was originally published 14 April, 2009.

Fifteen years ago, when Hanno and I first bought this little house, we drove along a one lane street, turned onto a dirt driveway and saw a very basic house on a magnificent piece of land surrounded by pine and rainforest. We didn't know it at the time, but this home, of all those we have shared over the years, would nurture us, bring us closer together and ease us along the path to a more simple life. We made some improvements as soon as we moved in to better suit our family, put up fences to keep the dogs in, and in the time since then, we've been happy here and content to wake up each day within these walls.

I am still in awe of the land we live upon. I never say we own it because as far as I'm concerned, we are merely the custodians here until we pass it on to our sons; and in truth, the land probably owns us. We wake up surrounded by trees, sometimes we hear the rushing of the creek that is our back boundary, and when I walk into our back yard, even after living here 11 years, I often just stop and look, amazed at what I see. All my life's roads have lead to this place.

Our gate has been closed these past few days and if I didn't know better, I would say we had been cast adrift, completely cut off from the rest of the world. There is peace here, we hear birds call, sometimes a train in the distance, but apart from that, it's a wind rushing through the trees type of silence that feels alive with activity and energy.

There has been the undeniable whiff of self-reliance in the air over Easter. I've baked bread and nut slices, made a simple evening meal each night, set the table numerous times, washed dishes and clothes, swept, lit candles, watered plants on the verandah, watched rain fall and thought about my life here, on this land with my family, and you, my blog family. I also worked on my project, did some writing, knitting and a stocktake of the soap, yarn and fabric I have on hand. There are a hundred things I could do, and one by one I get to those that need my attention, all else can wait until its time. It's been a beautiful Easter when we both worked to produce what we need here and mended a couple of things to keep them going a while longer. After such days, it's easy to go to bed pleased with the work we've completed and tired enough to sleep deeply until the next morning.

The simple life, full of the home tasks of cooking, mending, cleaning and growing has been the way of life for the majority for many hundreds of years. But now, in the context of our modern times, when shops are full of fashions, leaf blowers, designer dog collars and pre-cooked food, it feels like it's in sharp contrast to how most people live. Working with one's own hands and producing the goods we need to live is truly empowering but the wonder of it is that is so easy to do. These are just life skills that are easily passed on to all of us by example, by watching others.

I look at TV sometimes and I wonder if what they show is real. Are the streets really that mean in cities? Do people really kill each other over drugs and money, and for no reason at all? Is road rage real? What life skills are being passed on by watching all that? I suppose I know the answers to all those questions and for now, on this Easter weekend, I've been content and well and truly happy to stay cocooned here, listening to the rain, stitching and knitting, and wondering if living simply can make a significant and real difference outside my gate. I wonder if Hanno thinks these same thoughts. I wonder if you do.

Thank you for coming here to share our days, it still amazes me that you do. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and lives with us here too. Welcome to the new readers, warm hugs to all the older ones. Let's all work towards getting the simple message out to all those who surround us in the normal course of our lives, and show, by example, that this way of living not only empowers and enriches us, it builds contentment and greater expectations.

2 March 2015

The button box

It's a very busy time here so I'm going to republish a couple of older posts over the next few days. It will give you something to read from my archives and it will give me extra time to do what I have to do.  This post is from October 2007.

= = = ♥︎ = = =

Tricia's husband died suddenly a few years ago and she's spent the past couple of years deciding whether she would sell the family home and move to a smaller place. She now lives in a beautiful six bedroom mansion house on the outskirts of Sydney. There is a library, chandeliers, four hectares of bushland and a heated pool set in a beautiful secluded garden with fountains. This last couple of months she's started packing up, decluttering and selling or giving away a lot of her unwanted possessions.

She drove up from Sydney in a car packed to the roof with things she wanted to give to me or to the people at our Neighbourhood Centre. The first day she was here, we took a lot of those things with us and gave them away to people whose needs include the blankets, pillows, coats etc she gave.

She also brought some things she thought I would like. One of those things was mum's button box.

We were both born in the 1940s and grew up as part of Sydney's working class in the 1950s. I guess we both did well for ourselves and although I became middle class, I have always thought of myself as working class. I feel comfortable with those values and the collective flaws and strengths that helped shape us.

Our parents left little in the way of material possessions when they died but what I have of my mother's I really cherish. She gave me the amethyst ring and pendant she was given for her 21st birthday, I have a small fruit knife that was her mother's - it has a bone handle with the name 'jean cullen' carved in it, a little green glass that she liked and some very fine Orrefors glasses that I drink from when I'm sick. I also still have a stainless steel wok she gave me in the 1960s - it must be one of the first non-Asian woks in Australia as no one (except me) used them then.

And now, the buttons.
I went through them yesterday and tried to remember where they were from. I wanted to see, with my mind's eye, the dresses and coats they would have been on. I didn't get far with that because going through the buttons brought back different memories to me. I remembered how mum, and every other woman we knew, saved buttons, string, ribbons, old zippers and fabrics 'just in case' they were needed. And that frugal philosophy was why I had that box of old buttons in front of me.

The buttons were packed in the small, brown, plastic containers that pills used to be dispensed in before the days of pre-packaged bubble packs and child-safe bottles; there were also two little glass vegemite jars. All these were held in a 1970s 'Fresh Pak' plastic box. It must have been one of the first plastic containers sold then. It is brown, with an opaque lid with the words 'Fresh Pak' on it.

I spilled each container out so I could have a good look and along with all the buttons came a flood of childhood memories. It really was a different world then. Now that I look back on it, we, and almost everyone we knew, were what we would now think of as 'poor'. But we didn't feel like that. We had everything we needed, we never went hungry, we took our place within a strong and happy community and we knew everyone, not just in our street, but also in the streets surrounding us.

I was too young and silly to know what people really focused on in their lives then but in our home we rarely talked about money or possessions. My mother taught me valuable things like caring for others, self respect and respectfulness, she told me it was good to be kind, brave and thoughtful, she demonstrated every day the value of hard work and she showed me, by example, the importance of positive role models. So although there may not have been much in the way of physical possessions given from her hand to mine, she left me with the soul of a frugal, hard-working woman and for that I will be eternally grateful.

These are the buttons I will keep. The rest of them will go back to Sydney with Tricia and probably spend the rest of their days, not as they were intended - as a functional part of clothing or furnishings - but as a silent reminder of the days when thrift was a part of almost every life and we all saved things 'just in case'.

27 February 2015

Weekend reading

Thank you all for the good wishes and love sent during the week when I announced I'm writing another book. It's a wonderful opportunity at any age to write but to do it when I'm nearing 70 is a beautiful gift. The process of writing enables me to think about what we value and how we live those values, and in the end, I feel regenerated and that every morning is a brand new beginning. What a life! I'm delighted to write about it and so thankful to live it as we do away from the mainstream.

I hope you have a lovely weekend watching the seasons start to change. Stay safe, I'll see you again next week.

Eggs Are Back: The Elegant Simplicity of the New Diet Guidelines
We'll all die one day. Isn't it time we got used to the idea?
Cheesy cauliflower breadsticks
Avian flue in backyard chickens - specially for north America but a lesson for everyone who keeps chickens
A family affair
Spurtopia workshops in Brisbane Spurtopia homestead is closing in April. If you want to see what they've set up there, you'll have to move fast.
Gluten-free: health fad or life-saving diet?

25 February 2015

Overnight bread

Last week I wrote about soaking your rolled oats before you eat them and the benefits that  come from that. Today I thought I'd continue on and talk about soaking other rye and wheat grains before they're eaten; today's post is about bread. The reasoning behind all this is that grains soaked before cooking are easier to digest than those that aren't, and if they're soaked in an acidic liquid such as whey, buttermilk, yoghurt, or water with lemon juice, the grain will release most of its goodness instead of a small portion of it. It's all got to do with humans having only one stomach so unsoaked grains pass through too fast to be broken down. That causes digestive problems for some people and the grains don't have enough time to release all their goodness, which affects all of us.  Other grain-eating mammals such as cows, goats etc. have more than one stomach, or several compartments in their stomach, that allow them to process their food a lot longer than we do.

This bread is good on the first day and lasts to a second day but the crust and the bread itself aren't like a soft sandwich loaf. It's drier and the crust is crunchy.
 It makes delicious toast and that's how we have it on the second day.
If you don't like that texture, try the rye mixed loaf below which is more like the texture of a sandwich loaf.  Both are excellent as toast.
This is the half white-half rye loaf. It's the one I like the most because I think it has a better texture than the white loaf. 

If you read about how to make bread in Nourishing Traditions it's a long process that I don't have the time nor the inclination for. I'm sure it produces very good bread but I'm a regular bread maker and need my bread to fit in with everything else I do in a day. I'm happy with the so called five minute bread, that I make up and allow to sit in the fridge for a few days.  It's well and truly soaked by the time I bake my bread.

I found very similar recipe in my Maura Laverty classic Irish cook book, Full and Plenty, that I'm going to try this week. Her recipe for "yeast bread (overnight method)" was published in 1960. I'll share that recipe with you next week when I post about the bread I make.

The way I do the five minute bread is to make up the recipe in Artisan bread in five minutes a day, but with a tweak. You'll need a storage container capable of holding the mixture that will sit in the fridge for at least overnight, and for a few days after that. That takes care of the soaking. You can double the recipe quite easily if you have the room to store the dough and then you'll only make up one batch of dough for several loaves of bread.

The book says it makes four one pound loaves (that's just under two kilos).
  • 3 cups warm water
  • 1½ tablespoons yeast
  • my tweak is to add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to the water.  OR you could use ½ cup of buttermilk, whey or yoghurt to the liquid before adding it to the mix, but you'll have to adjust the water content accordingly. Mix it thoroughly so it will be easier to incorporate it into the flour. 
  • 1½ tablespoons coarse salt
  • 6½ cups unbleached white flour (or half rye and half white wheat flour)
I do this step in the morning, the day before I want the bread. 

Before mixing them together, mix the top group together, then the second group together. Then add half the liquid to half the flour and mix together thoroughly. If you have a big mixer with a dough hook you can use that because it takes an effort to mix this. I do it in two batches and use a spatula. When the first batch is finished, tip it into your storage container and start the second batch.  When both batches are in the container, mix them together with your hands, put a tea towel over the container and leave it on the bench to start rising. 

After about two hours, take the tea towel off, put the lid on but don't press it down to make it air tight. The dough will let off gas and it needs to have some means of escape. I use a Decor long plastic bin and have the top attached at one end and sitting on the top other end.  Put the dough in the fridge and store it there until you're ready to use it, but you can use it at any point after this first rise.

The dough after it's been removed from the fridge.

Don't knead the dough. It will develop the gluten and you don't want that. Just fold over the dough onto itself until it forms a smooth top.

When you want to bake a loaf, about two hours beforehand, take a piece of dough suitable for the size of your loaf from the container. Place it on a lightly floured board and fold the dough into itself so you have a smooth top and uneven bottom. You don't want to knead the dough, just bring it togehter as a nice smooth loaf. Let the dough sit to rise and return to room temperature. It won't rise a lot, it will do that more in the oven when it's baking.

Make sure the dough has flour over the top because that will protect it while it rests and rises.

About 20 minutes before you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450F/250C and place a cast iron pot with lid in the oven to heat up. After the dough has risen (about 45 minutes) carefully place the dough into the cast iron pot and with a very sharp knife, slash to top of the dough. Place the lid on the top of the pot.  You could use a pizza stone to bake on, that is how they bake it in the artisan bread book.

Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake until the top is golden brown.

Remove from the pot and place on a cake rack to cool.

The method below is the same recipe, using a cast iron pot, but with the addition of the dough being baked in a loaf pan inside the cast iron pot.

You can leave the dough in the fridge for up to a week if you want to.  I think it makes better bread the longer it's in the fridge. I usually make a fresh loaf every second day and I get three fairly large loaves from one batch. If I had a large family or we ate more bread, I'd make up a double portion of the dough at a time.  I have to say Maura's recipe looks easier so I'm looking forward to trying it. I have a sneaking suspicion I'll like it. ;- )

If you have trouble making bread it's probably because you don't knead the dough long enough or you under or over proof it. This method takes all that away and replaces it with time in the fridge. If you've never made a good loaf, try this and see how you go with it. Or, maybe you just want to wait for Maura's recipe. And I don't blame you at all for that.

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