Friday, 31 August 2007


A couple weeks ago Gord and I volunteered, along with about 50 other people from our Tai Chi club, to serve dinner at Edmonton's Mustard Seed street church. We had been looking forward to it for quite a while, and we really enjoyed helping out there. Hundreds of people who had waited outside in the rain for at least an hour were fed a tasty Chinese meal. Most of the people had likely been out in the rain much longer than that, since many of the people served by the Mustard Seed are homeless, a lot of them living in the "tent city" about a block away.

Everything went well at the dinner and all of us volunteers had a rewarding experience helping out our fellow citizens, but that's not really what I wanted to talk about.

Before we went into the church to get set up for serving the dinner, there were two people waiting around back to get into the kitchen with us - an older man and a younger woman. They were wanting to see how things get done in the kitchen because they were going to be serving a meal there in the near future. That was all Gord and I heard about the two of them at the time, but when we were at Tai Chi two days ago we spoke with another Tai Chi-er who had talked with the man and lady a bit more. It turns out that the two were father and daughter, and that the father was turning 60 soon and wanted to serve a meal to the Mustard Seed folk as his 60th Birthday celebration. Now that's generosity!

Thursday, 30 August 2007

August Garden Update

You may say this picture of the garden looks a lot like ones from earlier in the summer and you'd be right. Apart from the rapid growth in July when it was stinking hot, my plants have grown rather slowly. August was a cold and cloudy month, except for today, which was stinking hot again. Weird.

I pulled out the radishes (A2) which had gone to seed, and cut down the oat grass (D4) until it was just stubble. I also cut off several of the first lettuces (D2 and D3) , which had also gone to seed and which were producing only tiny and very bitter leaves. In their places I planted more oat grass, which has already re-sprouted about an inch, and also re-seeded some more lettuce with much hope and wishful thinking. If we have a nice September I may just get a second crop of those things.

The carrots, over on the left in spaces A3 and A4 are still very small. The carrots under there are about two inches long now, and while they are very tasty, they will not amount to much. Let's just say I don't have to build that root house just yet. On the other hand, I have learned much about how not to crowd the carrots all together, and that they must be thinned. The beets and chard keep producing tasty leaves which the guinea pigs just love, and they chomp down the carrot tops as well.

My tomato plant, which you can barely see off to the right in a bucket, is doing remarkably well. The tomatoes on there are absolutely delicious, and just nicely cherry size. Even when they are not fully ripened, they taste so much better than store bought. There are many more green tomatoes left on the vine, and I'm hoping the warmer weather continues for a bit so they can also ripen up some more.

The strawberries are also doing well I think. They had lots of blossoms, which I am pinching off at the advice of the greenhouse lady, who said this would help the plants to produce better next year. We planted them kind of late this year, so we weren't looking for a big crop of strawberries in any event.

There's nothing like coming home after work and heading over to the garden for a snack of baby carrots and cherry tomatoes!

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Back in the Day...

This weekend we went to visit Fort Edmonton Park. It is essentially a living museum on a quarter section of land in Edmonton's river valley, where four periods of local history have been brought into the present.

There is an entire 1846 trading post Fort, complete with beaver pelt press, Factor's house and living quarters for 125 men, women and children. Up from the Fort is "1885 Street," a recreation of an Edmonton main street, including blacksmith shop, school, drugstore, candy store, livery, and residential houses. "1905 Street" depicts the electrification of the city and its trolley cars, and "1920 Street" shows a burgeoning post-war metropolitan Edmonton.

There are interpreters dressed in period costumes who provide information about their "era" and who stay in character the whole time. We were served scones baked in a wood stove in one era, and were gently scolded in another when we were unintentionally "over familiar." We rode a steam train to the 1846 Fort, and an electric trolley out of the 1920s. There is even a full service hotel on the property, called the Hotel Selkirk, where people can stay overnight and enjoy the atmosphere of the times.

I was struck by the simplicity of the setting, even in the "metropolitan" era. Granted, I was probably more attuned to that this year than in previous years, but I don't think I'm the only one who is looking for more simplicity in life. I have a feeling that's part of why Fort Edmonton is such a popular attraction. It's easy to romanticize the "good old days" and wish to be living back then. I have spent many hours as a child (and quite a few as an adult), thinking how neat it would be to be living like Laura Ingalls did.

But things just aren't like that anymore, and probably they weren't all that simple back then either. But we do seem to have a collective longing to go back to a simpler time, or maybe it's just me.

Finding simplicity in our own lives isn't easy, or simple. Figuring out what to do, and what to stop doing, is hard. And it usually comes with consequences for us and for other people. You have to say no to things you used to say yes to. And then there's the risk of being seen as lazy, either by others, or by oneself. I'm not sure what to do about that. All I know is that when I see our guinea pigs contentedly chewing their hay, or the flowers outside with their faces toward the sun, they surely know more than I do about simplicity.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Folk Fest Philosophy III

The last lyric that really struck me at this year's Edmonton Folk Festival was this one:
They thought that living high was living well
Unfortunately, I can't be completely sure which musician sang it, but I think it may have been Harry Manx. To me, this line really sums up the misunderstanding that our consumer-focused society seems to have: that you have to have a lot of stuff to be happy. When I write this kind of thing, I have to be mindful that I do have quite a lot of stuff myself. It is definitely easier to have stuff and say you don't need it in order to be happy, than it is to not have stuff and say you're happy just the way things are.

In saying that, I am implying that the person with less stuff looks at the person with more stuff and envies them, or at least wants to be more like them. But this is also an assumption I'm making. Will people always have to have stuff first before they realize they don't need it for happiness, or can this realization come beforehand? I don't know. It seems like a wise person would know such a thing ahead of time, but a lot of wisdom comes from experience first.

Lao Tzu seems to have been pretty wise -- here is one thing the Tao Te Ching says on the topic:
Holding a cup and overfilling it
Cannot be as good as stopping short
Pounding a blade and sharpening it
Cannot be kept for long

Gold and jade fill up the room
No one is able to protect them
Wealth and position bring arrogance
And leave disasters upon oneself

When achievement is completed, fame is attained
Withdraw oneself
This is the Tao of Heaven
This is essentially the principle of moderation in all things, and an endorsement of the merits of contentment. I like the imagery of the first two lines especially, because they provide a nicely concrete illustration of why overconsumption is unwise. It's easy to imagine overfilling a cup. It's usually done in a hurry, with little care or attention. And it's messy and wasteful too, and it causes a bunch more work in the clean-up. It is a lot more enjoyable and satisfying to pour just the right amount into the cup, and then take the time to appreciate its contents. To be content with the contents. Hmmm....there must be good reason why those words are the same.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Folk Fest Philosophy II

It's been a bit longer than I wanted it to be, but here is the second of my ramblings about the inspirational environment at the Edmonton Folk Festival earlier this month.

The second of the three lyrics that really stuck with me from that weekend was this:
Don't let the devil ride
This line is from a song by The Campbell Brothers, a rousing steel guitar-based gospel singing group that we had the pleasure of listening to on Sunday morning, the last day of the Folk Fest. The song is a cautionary one, saying that "if you let'm ride, he's gonna wanna drive." You can imagine the energy of the singers and the crowd as everyone sang the chorus over and over again, "don't let'm ride!"

In the middle of clapping and singing along with everyone that Sunday morning, I thought, this is such good advice. And I don't mean in the perhaps semi-literal religious sense that the singers may have intended. I find it good advice in a more general way: so often the things we end up doing and regretting are things we knew we shouldn't have even started. And things we know we should do, we just kind of let them slide. Instead of nipping things in the bud, it seems we just kind of go along with something because it doesn't seem so bad, not really. Especially not compared to what so-and-so is doing. And things go along for a while and then we find ourselves in a big hole, and somehow don't know how we've managed to dig so deep. Or how to get out of the hole.

The "don't let'm ride" metaphor works for me on small and big levels. Personally, on a small scale, it's what happens when I, for example, let a racist joke go uncontested at work, or take two helpings of dessert, or maybe don't bother to check the air pressure in my car tires because I'm sure they're just fine and I don't have time right now anyway.

On a larger scale, it's how we got into this whole mega-consumption mind set in the first place. The idea that things just can't run out, because hey I'm only using a little bit! What harm can it do? How does that saying go again? No snowflake thinks the avalanche was its fault? That kind of thinking is what prevents us from turning things around too, because hey I'm just one person, what can I do, and besides I don't have time right now anyway.

Essentially, it's the point of view that a little bit of complacency or indulgence just can't be all that bad. But little things do add up to big things, whether they're positive or negative. And if they're negative things, it won't be long before the 'devil' isn't just riding, he's driving.

Now just imagine if they were positive things each of us were doing!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Wonders of Baking Soda

So I've been trying to clean with natural or at least non-toxic cleaners these days. This past weekend we've been doing a fairly big clean up around the house in preparation for guests and I decided to try and use this newfangled baking soda stuff I've heard so much about. It was amazing!

I was cleaning my linoleum bathroom floor, which can get fairly gunky over time and the baking soda cut right through everything, with no residue! I may clean more floor more often it was so easy! I just sprinkled a bit on my hot, damp cloth, wiped and presto! Clean floor! I sound fairly enthusiastic about this I know, but it was really quite surprising to me how well it worked.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Folk Fest Philosophy I

Four days of listening to fantastic folk, blues and world beat music has come and gone for another year!

The Edmonton Folk Music Festival is something that Gord and I have come to love and look forward to all year long. The music is fantastic, and the atmosphere nearly utopian. This is our third year attending the festival, and each time I am more and more impressed with the general goodness that pervades the event. People are kind and polite. They wait patiently in line and no one butts in. There is hardly any litter on the ground - you would hardly know that 85 000 people made use of the festival site over 4 days. I have only heard one person swear in the three years we have been going, and that was a performer who seemed to get the hint not to do it again when there was utter silence after his having done so.

I could go on and on about the recycling, the reusable plate program, the composting, the solar powered cash registers, the hemp baby clothes, but I what I really want to write about are three lines from three songs from three separate performers we heard this weekend. These three lines were simple but profound and I scribbled them down on a paper bag when I heard them, so I wouldn't forget. I wanted to write a little bit about each of those lyrics, over the next week or so. Today's profound lyric is this:
Everywhere we go, people like pie and ice cream.
This is a line from a song by Bill Bourne, called Pie and Ice Cream. Bill's partner in music this weekend, Aysha Wills, gave some background information about the song before they sang it. Essentially, Bill Bourne's theory is that since, everyone likes pie and ice cream, there should be a world wide program of trading guns for pies. Yes, guns for pies. Soldiers would be offered the pie of their choice in exchange for their weapon of choice. Pretty soon, everyone would be having a nice snack, sans ammunition. Of course this is ridiculous, right? It couldn't really work.

But when you think about it, war is about food. Abstracting a bit more, war is about securing resources and maintaining access to them. If everyone had enough food and water, would there be any reason to go to war? If everyone had what they need -- not what they want, but what they need-- I bet almost every war could be avoided. It is as simple as making sure everyone on the planet has enough food to eat and water to drink, and as complicated as redefining what "need" really is.

The Tao Te Ching has some interesting things to say about this:
Chapter 12

The five colors make one blind in the eyes
The five sounds make one deaf in the ears
The five flavors make one tasteless in the mouth

Racing and hunting make one wild in the heart
Goods that are difficult to acquire make one cause damage

Therefore the sages care for the stomach and not the eyes
That is why they discard the other and take this

Tao Te Ching as translated by Derek Lin
Overstimulation of the senses overwhelms a person (or a society) to the point where they are numb and can't appreciate anything but a continual influx of yet more 'extreme' experiences. Under these conditions, we think we 'need' all sorts of things, all the time. But sometimes these things can become "difficult to acquire" because we need so much and so many so often, to the point where we have to take it away from others. Then, the acquisitiveness "make[s] one cause damage." Damage = War.

The wise person, or society, will choose contenting stomach over the eyes every time. This I take both literally and figuratively. It is much more important not to go hungry than it is to have an 52" flat panel TV. Radically speaking, it is more important that everyone has enough to eat before anyone has a 52" flat panel TV. I'm not advocating that everyone sell all of their possessions and donate the proceeds to charity -- although that would be an amazing thing to do! I'm saying that individually and collectively, we have to get better at defining what we really need, and we have to acknowledge that everyone in the world has a right to have their basic needs met too.
And the soldier put his gun down, for pie and ice cream

Tuesday, 7 August 2007


Well, I did it! I made jam for the first time in my life. It is freezer jam, which I supposed could be considered a short cut to 'real' jam-making, but I had to start somewhere!

This jam started at Prairie Gardens and Greenhouses, where they have two huge u-pick strawberry fields. When I arrived there two days ago to pick berries, I was told that it was the end of the picking season for strawberries, but that there were still lots of berries on the bushes that were tasty, just small. I did find some large berries, but mostly they were quite small, say a half-inch cubed. It took me about an hour to pick a 4 litre bucket of berries, which cost $12. The berries were deliciously sweet and I sampled a few as I picked...mmmmm.

The next day I separated out some of the prime berries for strawberry shortcake fixins and chopped up the rest. I ended up with about 6 cups of chopped berries. To this I added the Club House brand "Garden Fare No Cook Freezer Jam mix", half a cup of sugar, and followed the directions on the package. ( I actually added only 3/4ths of the Club House mix because I had on 6 cups of strawberries instead of 8.) Not including chopping and picking time, it took me about 15 minutes to make this jam! My six cups of berries yielded 4 1/2, 250 ml jam jars. Adding up the cost of the berries, the jars and the mix, each jar cost me $3.16. This isn't unbelievably cheap or anything, but when I reuse the jars next time, the price will come down to about $2.32. That is a darn good price for a jar of homemade jam!

Next year I will have to recruit a few more pickers to come with me, and enough jam can be made for the whole family! What is also exciting for next year, is all the free wild raspberries we have around here - I will be able to make a lot of jam from those! In fact there may be enough left on the bushes right now that I can make a couple jars of raspberry jam with the Club House mix I have left over. Back to the kitchen!

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Tale of Two Farmers

Today I did two things I've been wanting to do for quite a while: go visit the Lola Canola apiary, and go strawberry picking at Prairie Gardens and Greenhouses.

I came home with a load of locally-produced goodness, which you can see in the picture above. Produce just doesn't get any more local than this, unless I were to raise bees and strawberries myself. Both of these places are within 2 1/2 miles of our house, as the crow flies. Even better news is that both places are sources of just more than honey and strawberries. Lola Canola also raises free range, grass fed laying hens, so I can get eggs there. And Prairie Gardens also has U-Pick peas and U-Dig potatoes.

Tomorrow I'm going to try my hand at making jam for the first time in my life!

Friday, 3 August 2007

Electricty Info from EPCOR

Well, after several rounds of email between myself, EPCOR and the Office of the Electricity Consumer Advocate, I received information about the price that large commercial consumers of electricity pay in Alberta. The bottom line is, EPCOR says they pay essentially the same as small business and residential customers do. The big consumers apparently have to pay the "flow through price" for electricity, which is a price that can fluctuate on a second-by-second basis. Small business and residential customers pay a price that is set monthly, which is sort of an average of what the price has been for the month.

This surprises me. I really expected that the big consumers would get some kind of bulk rate. I asked straight out if there were any other discounts that these consumers received that small customers did not, and I was told no.

I have a hard time really believing this. I have become quite skeptical over the past couple of years, and suspicious of big companies and the 'spin' they put on everything. So it could be that I am just biased and that what EPCOR is telling me is actually the whole truth. But it just seems to run contrary to how the world operates these days, i.e., that big consumers get discounts for buying in bulk. I will have to put this matter on the 'back burner' (?solar oven?) for now and mull it over for a while.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Local Food Month - Wrap Up

At the beginning of July we set some modest goals for our participation in Crunchy Chicken's Local Food Month. To recap, we planned:
  • To find out where our local farmers are located.
  • To buy as much produce as possible from these farmers either at their farms near us or at the Farmer's Market(s).
  • To learn more about growing our own food, and keep good care of our little 4X4 garden.
  • What ever fresh produce we do buy from the grocery store will be grown in Canada or the USA only.
  • To check where every food product we buy comes from, and when we have a choice (which is most of the time) to buy the one that is produced closer to home.
We did quite well with these goals, but I was a bit disappointed that I haven't yet actually made even one completely and totally local meal.

Ok, so here are the results, goal-by-goal:
  • We did find quite a few local farmers and producers, which I have listed on the side-bar to the right. I haven't made it out to Lola Canola's apiary yet, but I'm hoping to do that this Sunday.
  • We did buy quite a lot of produce from these producers at local farmers markets. Every week I would buy a selection of what was on offer, which was quite a lot! I bought peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, carrots and raspberry jam. There is nothing like a young field cucumber or vine-ripened tomato. And I have rediscovered the joy of potatoes - the little ones are so delicious just boiled with butter or garlic butter. Plus they are great additions to my lunch, just cold.
  • We have kept good care of our little garden, and it has really worked out well overall! I have learned a lot that can improve things for next year too, like how to pre-sprout peas before planting them, and that weather that is too hot causes spinach and lettuce to 'bolt' and go to seed early. I have also learned that I should've planted the garden about two weeks earlier. The carrots are still teeny-tiny, and I hope they will be ready before it gets too cold. I have also learned which seeds can be planted close together and which need more room. In addition to our 4X4 garden, we are growing chives, two kinds of parsley and oregano in the herb garden near the house, and we have also planted strawberries (in the ground) and tomatoes (in a 5 gallon bucket).
  • We were very good with buying our grocery store produce from only North America. We did buy grapefruit from South America once, but we were able to get them from the USA after that. This will become much more difficult when Winter arrives.
  • Grocery shopping has become quite the educational activity when you check where everything is made before buying it. We've also found out that even when something says it is made in Canada, that doesn't mean that the ingredients all come from Canada. For instance, I had switched to Soy Nice, made in BC, instead of buying Silk, made in the USA, but when I contacted the Soy Nice company, it turns out that their soybeans also come from the USA.
Local Food Month will definitely be continuing on into the Fall in our household, and I really want it to become a permanent way of eating once we connect with more of our local farmers and learn to grow more of our food ourselves.

Today is Wednesday again, so I'll be heading over to the Sherwood Park Farmer's Market right next to our Tai Chi classes this evening, to see what's come in from the fields this week!