Dear MOTHER April/May 2017

Reader letters about straw mulch, a high school sustainable-building project, healing after fire, and more.

Dear-1

Bakers use a bench knife, also known as a bench scraper, dough scraper, or pastry scraper, to move dough, slice it, or scrape a work surface.

Photo by Fotolia/imfotograf.

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Just Plain Encouraging

I started reading Mother Earth News back in the early 1970s, so I guess I’m a longtimer now. I always find something of interest in each issue, but I decided to write to say “thank you” for the December 2016/January 2017 issue in particular. It has great articles, practical recommendations (I like stuff I can use!), and is overall just plain encouraging.

I’ve been baking bread for more than 40 years, but I’m still learning new techniques all the time, so I’ll be trying Wendy Akin’s recipes (“Daily Breads: Potato, Oatmeal, White, and Rye with a Starter”). I love “Make Soap the Old-Fashioned Way” because of the detailed, step-by-step directions that I can actually put to use. I’m planning to grow sweet potatoes again this year, so I enjoyed those tips (“The Gardener’s Table: Sweet Potatoes & Shallots to Savor in Winter”). The older I get, the more I realize how important community is; “Farming the Neighborhood” and “Grow a Community Giving Garden” are both practical and inspiring. I guess you get the idea — thanks for a great magazine!

Jill Woodward
Covington, Georgia


Community Support

I was very interested to read your article “Aging Gracefully on the Homestead” (February/March 2017). I’ve spent the past several years working with others to create a senior community in rural North Carolina called Elderberry, which has 18 small and tiny homes. It’s a place where we can continue to do the things we love as we age, such as gardening, keeping animals, hiking, heating with wood, etc., but do so with the help and companionship of others. For those of us who love country life but are becoming unable to manage our large farms, this is a creative alternative. Sharing your farm with others, or converting it into a small community, can provide support for the daily work and other needs, as well as foster deep friendships and regular interaction with others. Thank you for your great magazine!

Mary Bennett
Rougemont, North Carolina


New Arrivals

I won the Heritage Chicken Starter Kit giveaway recently, and got my last item today — the chickens! Thank you so much for the giveaway!

Sandra Bruno
Stanton, Kentucky


Herbicide Concerns

The February/March 2017 issue was a great one, and I particularly appreciated the article “Aging Gracefully on the Homestead.” I am approaching 73 and still unwilling to give up my chickens, horse, garden, orchard, and huge blueberry patch.

My preferred transport help is an aluminum cart. Wheelbarrows are too unwieldy and prone to tip over. My Foldit Cart is very light, and the panel in front can be removed to get the contents out. For transferring chicken feed from the car to the chicken house in the winter, I use a sled. To get the feed into its garbage can, I sometimes place a box next to the can and flop the bag onto it first, so the final lift isn’t so far.

Other advice published in this issue concerns me. Organic gardeners in my area are now aware that, with little exception, straw and hay come from fields sprayed with herbicides, and can harm a garden. Even the manure from animals that graze on sprayed fields is toxic, as one of my friends found. So what can we use for mulch? And how can a straw-bale raised bed be a healthy one? Please clarify this for me, and my organic fellows!

Kathy Hunter
Wallowa, Oregon

Kathy, the best thing you can do is start looking for a local, organic source to provide your hay, straw, and manure. Odds are there’s someone around your area who fits the bill and would probably be more than happy to connect with another conscientious grower! After you find a trusted source, you can rest easy knowing there’s nothing unwanted going into your garden. —MOTHER


Stepping Off-Grid

Hello! I’m new to Mother Earth News and recently read Allan Sindelar’s article “The Basics of Battery Power” (December 2016/January 2017). I look forward to reading more about solar and stepping away from grid power as my wife and I now own a small plot and home. Thanks for the great articles.

Nathan Rains
Winchester, Tennessee


Earth Advocate

Even though I’m only a small-scale village gardener, I love reading your magazine, and I especially enjoy the articles that help the “small” Earth advocates, such as myself, make a difference. I enjoy how you include little projects to make my garden, yard, and life better for the environment. While I dream about implementing the larger-scale projects you feature, such as living off the grid, I’m able to implement the small projects immediately. Sometimes my projects turn out, other times I simply learn a lesson from them.

Tammy O’Connor
Whitelaw, Wisconsin


Rocket Stove Love

In your August/September 2016 issue, you asked for pictures of rocket stoves. Well, not only did I make my own rocket stove, but I also made a whole fire pit to cook on, and if and when winter comes, it will keep me warm. My cast iron and I love it!

Mary Carnes
Seguin, Texas


A Resilient Education

I’m thoroughly enjoying the past couple of issues of Mother Earth News, and especially Editorial Director Hank Will’s December 2016/January 2017 commentary entitled “Just Choose Hope.” There are so many areas of concern, and all seem to be converging at once. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

One of the classes I teach at Chambers High School is called “Explorations in Science.” This fall, we spent a lot of time learning about environmental science, with global climate change as one focus. Then we moved on to electronics and basic physics. I was struggling to come up with a final semester project for them to do, and wanted it to be about something that had the potential to benefit them in the future.

That’s where two recent articles from Mother Earth News came into play. We read “Building an Affordable, Sustainable Home” by Chris Magwood (October/November 2016) and “Build a More Resilient Homestead” by Alex Wilson (December 2016/January 2017), along with the editorial “Just Choose Hope.” From there, we hatched a plan to figure out how to build a green, energy-efficient house that was resilient to the vagaries of climate change, most notably wind, in our Sandhills region of Nebraska.

What students considered as they searched for information was energy efficiency, durability (100+ years), structural soundness, wind resistance, and location (behind a windbreak). The foundation and walls needed to withstand the expansion and contraction associated with temperature extremes, as well as be well-insulated to minimize energy usage. Students wanted to have a backup source of energy, such as solar or wind, plus have access to clean drinking water.

The project was divided between three students, who conducted research and presented their findings to the class. Breanna covered foundations and flooring; Trevor examined roof construction with wind and fire protection; and Jacob found information on walls, windows, and insulation.

The students then constructed a small model of their house design. The roof overhang provided protection from glaring sun in summer months, yet allowed passive solar energy to enter windows during winter. They planned a shelterbelt of evergreen trees on the north and west sides of their lot, and a large garden in the yard to provide some food for their family.

At the project’s conclusion, the students were asked what they learned. Breanna says that she now knows a home can be built to withstand storms while being energy-efficient. It also surprised her that homes can be built from just about anything. Jacob says he was amazed at the amount of planning and engineering involved with building a home. Trevor says he learned about the various types of materials available to build sturdy houses — that aren’t normally used here, but could be to build more resilient housing.

Jennifer Burtwistle
Chambers, Nebraska


Healing the Land

I read “Just Choose Hope” in the December 2016/January 2017 issue. You encouraged readers to send in our stories of hope. Here’s mine.

Our lives changed forever late in the summer of 2015. We were vacationing in Washington, without a care in the world, when the call came in. I heard “fire” and “evacuation,” and words that my mind couldn’t wrap around.

We took the first ferry off the island and began our two-day journey home. About halfway there, a sinking feeling came over me as I heard the sound of window glass breaking in my head. I knew our home was gone.

We lost our home and five outbuildings, including our beautiful chicken coop that we had built just a few years earlier from lumber milled on our property. We lost everything inside the home and garage as well. We lost my husband’s tools, our house cat, and several barn cats. We also lost 58 acres of pristine mixed forest, including pines, cedars, firs, and madrones. We lost our 1⁄4-acre garden, and fencing, too.

Shortly after the fire, we noticed neighbors leaving town. The fire had consumed more than 70,000 acres and some 640 structures, more than 500 of which were homes. Two people died.

More than 50 percent of the home owners had no insurance. I don’t blame them for leaving. It was really too much for most to take. Our whole community was devastated.

It took nine months for us to regain possession of our property. During those nine months, we were barely coherent. The Pacific Gas and Electric Company, as well as loggers, were cutting down trees. Cleanup crews were taking our home and possessions out in dump trucks; huge equipment was everywhere.

It poured buckets of rain in December, and the blank, black, devastated hillsides slid down into our once-beautiful 3-acre pond and onto our roads, where it plugged the culverts. Debris was everywhere.

As the rains dried up, shock began to turn into grief, and then into a glimpse of some sort of acceptance. A shift was beginning in me. I didn’t want to see myself as a victim. I was already tired of feeling sorry for myself, and feeling helpless and hopeless. It didn’t happen overnight, but was a slow process that emerged because we refused to give up. I began to understand and take comfort in the fact that a fire in our area had been overdue for some time — I just happened to be living there when it came through.

I began to tell people that I didn’t own the land, but that the land owned me. I was the custodian. I owed a debt to this land. After all, it had held me, educated me, relaxed me, fed me, and kept me safe for more than 10 years. What could I do to help heal this land? Where could I look for opportunities to be of service to my community and to this land?

As I began the process of healing this beautiful land that I’d been entrusted with, I began the process of healing myself. I met wonderful people willing to lend a hand, and I lent a hand back. We worked on erosion control, we worked at replacing culverts, and we’re still working on cleaning up all the ash.

People have asked for more than a year now whether we’re rebuilding. Yes — we’re rebuilding a community, a forest, our faith, our will, and our spirit. A house? Not so much. That’s not the important part; anyone can build a house. This land needs us now.

Cathy Ansel
Mountain Ranch, California


Sustainable Soap-Making

I read Susan Verberg’s article “Make Soap the Old-Fashioned Way” (December 2016/January 2017). I’m staying in a small community in the Himalayas. We’re already making our own soap from commercial lye and vegetable fat with the cold-process method. We now want to start making wood-ash soap. So, my question is, since we’re using all the mixed wood (including pine) we can collect for our fires, will it work? Do you have any experience or suggestions to share about this? And is it possible to use the cold-process method?

Kristian Rastas
Sainj, Uttarakhand, India

Kristian, how wonderful to hear that your community is interested in sustainable soap-making! Yes, it’s possible to make lye out of softwood ashes, but the best woods are hardwoods, especially those burned with high-efficiency stoves, such as modern woodstoves. That doesn’t mean other woods or other means of burning won’t work — they’re just not as efficient. Also, if you use softwoods, the burn will yield a smaller amount of ashes than with hardwoods. Be aware that pine burns very hot, though, and this heat can break down the salts in the ashes that you need to make soap.

To answer your second question, while it’s possible to use the cold-process technique to make soap with wood-ash lye, it’s not possible to make modern cold-process soap with wood-ash lye because commercial lye and wood-ash lye are two different hydroxide salts. One is a sodium salt and the other is a potassium. Sodium hydroxide makes hard bar soap, and potassium hydroxide makes soft scoop soap, no matter which process — cold or hot — is used.

I hope this helps, and good luck in your soap-making endeavors! — Susan Verberg


Homesteading Gracefully at Any Age

Thank you! In your February/March 2017 issue, you provided reader tips on how to age gracefully on the homestead (“Aging Gracefully on the Homestead”). While I’m still in my early 30s, I appreciated the tips so much. I have a severe autoimmune disease that dashed my big homestead dreams years ago.

This year, I’m attempting to believe I can still accomplish my dream my own way. The reader tips encouraged me that I can still homestead and yet be conscious of my health. Thank you to everyone who contributed and, of course, thanks again to you, Mother Earth News! Keep up the great work!

Mo Montgomery
Exeter, California