Ode to Tall Trees And The Sticks They Produce

Tall Trees, Photo © Liesl Clark

We live out in the sticks — literally.  All around us, sticks tend to abound. Our land is a thin strip of a clearing in a second growth fir and cedar forest punctuated by the green canopy of enormous big leaf maples. We’re on a tree-sheltered bluff above Puget Sound where winter winds blow down branches like myriad arm parts of stiff wooden dolls.

Kindling, Photo © Liesl Clark

We pick up the branches all winter long, a resource dropped from above, but readily put to use. Nothing is wasted here. Large pieces are cut into lengths for the fire as we heat our home entirely with wood. Small bits are used as kindling, we even pick up many of the pine cones to use as firestarters and store them in baskets, and the green wood goes in the stick pile, to be temporarily used as shelter for the creatures that live deep inside.

Little Creature Habitat: The Stick Pile, Photo©Liesl Clark

Every property should have a stick pile. It provides safe cover for wild birds and we know a possum or 2 live there. Think Christopher Robin and the little homes his friends had.

Come spring, we always have stick construction to do. Our whole property is outlined with natural fencing to keep deer at bay. The sticks are the mainstay barrier, not a serious one, but a natural barrier that doesn’t set us too far apart from the forest beyond.

Deer-proof fence? Well, sort of. Photo © Liesl Clark

But it’s the vegetable garden that gets all the attention around here. It’s enclosed by a stick structure unmatched, perhaps, on the planet.

The idea started with my son, Finn, who at 4 decided we needed to build a fence for a garden. We designed lengths of fence that went into the ground, pre-built by the 2 of us: Three lengths were horizontally affixed to 2 vertical posts with thin vertical sticks then fixed every foot or so. We built half a garden’s -worth and then took a break, a little discouraged by the huge effort. Then our friend, Ang Temba, arrived from Nepal and recognized the design as one commonly used in rural mountain villages. He finished the project with renewed vigor. The fence is hardware-dependent, 4-inch long screws and a power drill do the job, as well as a post-hole digger to bury the thick posts.

Stick Fence 2.jpg Photo © Liesl Clark

Drilling Stick Fence.jpg Photo © Liesl Clark

Beautiful arched hemlock and cedar branches adorn the uppermost reaches of the fence, some 7-8 feet high, to deter deer from jumping inside.

Arches National Fence, Photo © Liesl Clark

We liked the structure so much that when it came to enclosing our chickens (to protect them from raccoons, bald eagles, and mink) we built a stick fence for them, too. It’s actually an entire timberframe aviary fully enclosed in requisite chicken wire.

Chicks in Sticks, Photo © Liesl Clark

As soon as we finished it, our coop, known as “Chicks in Sticks,” was featured in Bainbridge Island’s first Tour de Coop, surely picked for the whimsical stick-fort-like hideout the feathered girls call home.

The trees must look on with amusement, peering down through their branches at our woven stick world below. Why do we gain such pleasure from making sense of the materials made readily available to us by the wind, the land, and the tall trees above?

Posted in Repurposing, Reuse, Upcycling, Voluntary Simplicity, Zero Waste | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Last Plastic-Free Place on Earth. Well, Almost.

Riding into the Village of Samdzong, Upper Mustang, Nepal, Photo: Liesl Clark

It was a plastic bag, of all things, that spooked the young Tibetan horse into a bucking frenzy. We had just saddled him up and tied some snacks onto the already-packed saddle bags. Our 9-year-old son, Finn, was his rider. Something about the unfamiliar sound of crinkling plastic set the horse off and 10 seconds later Finn miraculously threw himself from the saddle, landing onto his back. He stood up, immediately, and faced everyone to say, in a shaken voice, “I’m okay.”

Plastic bag caught in a pile of kindling, Tamagaon, Upper Mustang, Photo: Liesl Clark

Ironically, this was the only plastic bag I had accepted from a shop keeper in 10 days and my misjudgement felt like a slap in the face. Plastic bags don’t belong out in the wilds of the Himalayan high steppes — even the 2-year-old gelding knew that.

We were at 13, 300 feet, just outside the royal city of Lo Manthang in the Kingdom of Mustang, Nepal. Finn’s horse galloped away down a rough stretch of canyon, the saddle bags now dangerously tangled between his hind legs. He had ripped himself, twice, from the grips of Tashi Wangyel, his owner, the former horseman of the Raja, or king, of Mustang. Tashi was devastated by the sight of the abrasions across Finn’s back. Finn is like a son to him, a dear friend of his own son, Kunga, who is one of the youngest monks at the nearby monastery. Luckily Tashi had a spare horse Finn could jump on as we had a 5-hour hike ahead of us to the Tibetan borderlands village of Samdzong.

“Dolma,” Reliable Steed, Photo: Liesl Clark

We had 6 days to excavate 6 caves for the remains of a 1600-year-old people who once buried their dead in cliff-side shaft tombs. We also had a waste audit to conduct, researching how a traditional village at the end of the trail handles the influx of modern plastic packaging in many goods that are now available due to the nearby construction of a road from China and Tibet.

The New Way: Traveling by Truck up The Kali Gandaki River. Even 6-Year-Olds are Piled in the Back. Photo: Liesl Clark

The Samdzong people, compared to most villages in Upper Mustang, are relatively untouched by modern amenities often brought in to Mustang to appease the tourists. There’s no shop in Samdzong, indeed few tourists are given permission to visit the forgotten village. We’re helping fund the building of a museum for the ancient artifacts our team of archaeologists and climbers uncovered in the high caves — the attendant grave goods of a Himalayan people we’re only just beginning to flesh out through genetic analysis. The material culture these people had at their fingertips consisted of domestic animals, wood, ceramics, wool, glass beads, and metals like bronze, copper, iron, and other precious metals.

Samdzong Village, Plastic-Free. Photo: Liesl Clark

Little has changed in Samdzong today. The people in this bucolic village work their sheep and yak wool day and night, spinning and weaving to make sweaters, colorful clothing, and even hand-woven woolen boots and shoes that are more prevalent than sneakers.

Samdzong’s Handmade Sustainable Shoes, Discarded in Riverbed. Photo: Liesl Clark

Samdzong Wool Works. Photo: Liesl Clark

For thousands of years, archaeologists have claimed, indigenous cultures discarded their material waste just outside their homes and villages, along slopes outside enclaves where gravity and precipitation would lend their aid in melting ceramics, wood, and textiles back into the Earth. Broken stone tools simply blended back into the landscape that thousands of years later only a trained eye can now identify. These are the clues to the ancients we look for in Upper Mustang, discards flippantly thrown out of cave dwellings or village homes as well as the goods buried with the dead, to accompany them into the next life.

Ancient Bronze Recovered by Finn from Cave Tomb. Photo: Liesl Clark

Fast forward some 1600 years later, and Samdzong’s material culture is still mostly natural: Wood, metals, ceramics, a little glass, and of course textiles. They trade their large flock of goats for food and goods from Southern Nepal and nearby Tibet. A small percentage of what’s carried back to the village is plastic, and the behavior around waste has not changed. All household trash is sent out the door, often into the irrigation ditches only a few feet away so the buoyant plastic can be carried off with the current. The good  news is that the plastics are limited to a few things: Ramen noodle packets and clothes washing powder bags from China. The women wash their clothes in the streams and ditches and set the empty bags free with the moving water. I picked up a large plastic feedsack-worth in about 10 minutes of cleaning-up down river.

Samdzong River Plastic, Photo: Liesl Clark

We carried out with us the feed sack of plastic from the Samdzong river with promises to take with us next year’s village plastic if the locals stockpiled it year round. If all visitors to Upper Mustang carried out with them a large sack-full of a village’s compressed lightweight plastic packaging, including water bottles, and took them to Kathmandu to give to the rag pickers who collect and sell them to India for a reasonable price, Upper Mustang might be freed from its choking plastics.

Choked with Trash: Community Garbage Deposited Alongside a Waterfall Outside the Kagbeni Police Post. Photo: Liesl Clark

“We often discover the settlements or mortuary remains of ancient cultures by first finding their trash: Their ceramics, or broken stone tools, even stone flakes from tool-making that were left behind. This is the common waste of early peoples,” explains Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, leading archaeologist in our scientific inquiry about who the first people were to settle and thrive in Upper Mustang.

Almost completely intact skeletal remains of a 1600 year old man from Samdzong Mortuary Caves, (L to R: Nepali Archaeologist, Mohan Singh Lama; Dr. Bruce Gardner, M.D.; Dr. Tina Warinner, Geneticist) Photo: Liesl Clark

Our research is all about early people’s garbage and grave goods. That we’re also committed to addressing the modern garbage of the local culture seems only fitting. We’ve brought Italian metallurgist, Giovanni Massa, with us to study the many metals we’ve uncovered in Samdzong’s caves. Thousands of years from now, when single-use plastics will be a mistake of the past, what will archaeologists make of our own material culture and plastic waste left behind? It will surely still be here, buried under the silt and dust of timeless winds. I image a plastics specialist will be needed to determine which polymers were used, how they could possibly have gotten here, asking why we invented a material that will never fully break down, slowly dissolving into smaller and smaller bits, disseminating into our waters to be taken up into our food chain, inadvertently consumed by creatures great and small.

Prayer Flags in Mustang’s Relentless Wind. Photo: Liesl Clark

Posted in Children's Libraries, Homeschooling, Increasing Literacy, Repurposing, Reuse, Zero Waste | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ancient Himalayan Trade Route Choked With Modern Plastic

By Liesl Clark as part of the series: The Last Plastic-Free Places on Earth

Plastics are ubiquitous along the river, often found in drifts

We spent the better part of the day bumping around in a jeep on a dirt road up the Kali Gandaki River, the world’s deepest gorge, and we’re stunned to have arrived in a village that has wifi. It was just 6 years ago when my husband, Pete Athans, and I trekked up this deep river valley, carrying our children on our backs, ages 3 years and 18 months. We’d follow porters carrying goods, even live chickens trapped in cages, up and down the steep rocky trails. Fast forward to today, and that same trail is now a marginal road, overrun with trucks, jeeps, even buses, transporting locals and Indian pilgrims on their way to sacred Hindu sites at the headwaters of the Kali Gandaki.

Now a rare site, porters along the Kali Gandaki are a thing of the past

This river drainage is one of the precious few routes that cuts through the highest Himalaya, two 8000 meter peaks on either side, providing reasonable and yet sometimes treacherous passage for travelers.

Peaks in the Annapurna Massif, Photo: Liesl Clark

Just a few days before we passed through the narrows of the gorge, a landslide rendered the road impassable and several people lost their lives. Locals shoveled out the rock and debris to provide a track that a truck or bus could traverse, with only inches to spare as buffer between you and a thousand-foot drop down to the river below. The landscape here is ever-changing, but the movement of people through it is not. This trade route is at least 3000 years rich, and we’ve worked the past 6 years with a team of climbers and archaeologists to find the human and material remains of the earliest cultures that migrated and traded here, those who carried their precious goods with them from afar to ultimately settle here and thrive.

Donkeys carrying goods up river as seen out our jeep window, Photo: Liesl Clark

We’re headed back up to the northernmost village on the Kali Gandaki drainage, a forgotten corner of the Himalaya where only a handful of Westerners have been. Our aim is to begin an excavation of a promising series of cave tombs to learn more about the 1600 year old culture we’ve uncovered. They came here and buried their dead in tombs they painstakingly carved out of the earth, which are now caves high on cliff faces. Along with the dead, special belongings were buried, perhaps the most precious among them, many transported here on their backs or acquired through trade from the myriad peoples who traveled through here from distant lands.

Road warrior: Kali Gandaki truck drivers are also master mechanics

Today’s moving and bustling humanity up and down this river corridor similarly carries with it the goods needed to survive the ravages of the climate. But these goods are perhaps more fleeting than those of yore. Few are made to last and most will likely be used and disposed of within the next few months. Welcome to modern convenience, leaving its ever-growing trail of plastic detritus up and down the valley, along the riverbanks, and indeed in the sacred Kali Gandaki waters themselves.

What was once an ancient trade route populated with porters, donkey trains, and backpack-wearing hikers has been transformed, in a matter of 3 years, into a dusty, sometimes desperate highway culture catering to the increasing numbers of people and goods now traveling more rapidly up and down valley. Many of the changes have been positive for the locals: Now most of the villages have electricity and building supplies and household items are much cheaper, medical supplies are more readily available and the standard of living has certainly improved. But most of the goods that move up valley will stay here forever. There are no garbage trucks to remove the plastic from this high dry landscape. Household refuse is either burned, buried, or simply thrown down into the river to be whisked away on the currents. The wind plays a key role, too, in the distribution of lightweight plastics. Scientists on the Kali Gandaki clocked some of the highest sustained wind speeds here on Earth.

Weaving in Kagbeni, Photo: Liesl Clark

Tomorrow we enter the Kingdom of Mustang, the upper reaches of the Kali Gandaki and a restricted zone protected by the government of Nepal and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project aiming to keep the ethnically Tibetan culture intact and the fragile high mountain environment pristine. We sign in at a check post and must show the police our expedition’s list of food and expendables. When we return through the same check post in 2 weeks, we’ll show them our actual trash, proof that we carried out everything we brought in. If the trash doesn’t add up to the items on the food list, we can’t retrieve our $300 trash deposit. Our garbage will then be transported back down valley to be disposed of in Kathmandu. All glass bottles and aluminum will be recycled, and the plastic will be sent to a landfill 10 kilometers from the city where biscuit and ramen noodle packets, as well as plastic bottles are taken out of the fly-laden piles by rag pickers who stockpile them and sell them off to India for recycling there.

Roadside flattened bottles, Photo: Liesl Clark

We expect to find less plastic waste the higher we go, as the population becomes more sparse, and the aim is to find a remote corner devoid of plastic debris blowing in the wind, caught in the trees, and choking the waterways, but the presence of the road and the influx of goods coming down from China might bring surprises.

Dhaulagiri, Photo: Liesl Clark

Posted in Children's Libraries, Homeschooling, Zero Waste | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Plastic-Free Places on Earth: The Land of Reuse

Sometimes you have to travel to the other side of the planet to find reuse inspirations you had never considered before. Following the banks of the Kali Gandaki River, we’ve finally entered the land of reuse, one of the most challenging places to live, yet innovation and creativity with the things one would normally throw away can be seen at every bend in the road.

Reuse, here in remote parts of Nepal, is simply a matter of necessity. Goods that are carried up into the hinterlands are here to stay, forever. There’s no garbage truck to carry off the refuse and little resources available to make and fix things. But the people who live here are incredibly resourceful, repurposing what they have into useful things for the home. For thousands of years, the Himalayan people here, currently the Loba, Thakali, and Magar, have made do with what they have and have reused the items in their lives with fervor. The following images are a few garden and farming reuses we’ve come across in lower Mustang.

Garden and Farm Reuse, Thakali-Style:

Construct a garden fence from scrap wood tied together with elephant grass reeds.

Wood is precious in Mustang so if a fence is needed, scraps are found to create it and lashings are adhered to hold the wood scraps together. These fences are made of sustainable materials.

This Thakali family tied a bamboo fence together with electrical wire

Anything that can hold something is turned into a planter in Mustang. Since the landscape is so harsh, container gardens are very successful here.

Bucket planters are the rage in Mustang

Lettuces and Herbs are Planted in Large Styrofoam Boxes that would Otherwise be Thrown by the Roadside

Some of the most beautiful handmade brooms can be found in Mustang.

Even sticks are repurposed into brooms and garden rakes

Posted in Repurposing, Reuse, Upcycling, Voluntary Simplicity, Zero Waste | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Last Plastic-Free Places on Earth: Zero Waste Traveling

Packed to the Gills, Ready for Zero Waste Travel

by Liesl Clark

“Our flying time today will be 10 hours 41 minutes.”

We were mentally prepared for the demands on our time for the flight from Seattle to Seoul, but the big surprise was the onslaught of single use plastic. For a family that generates only a garbage can-worth of trash every 4-6 months, consuming that much plastic in a single day hurts to the core. Of course, our carbon footprint for flying to Asia, alone, offsets the year-round effort we’ve made to consume less plastic and generate little waste. But if we didn’t go to Nepal, we wouldn’t be able to search-out the last plastic-free places on Earth. My family and I have spent the last 3 years conducting village waste audits in remote parts of Nepal while also trying to uncover the difficult truths behind the essential ragpickers of Kathmandu.

We’re All “Plassengers” Swimming in Single Use Plastics

We’re trying to acquire as little plastic as possible while traveling and we’re off to a wretched start. Each of the 200 Boeing 777 seats on our plane comes with individually cling-wrapped blankets, and the following reusable items, all in their hermetically sealed plastic bags: head phones, a bathroom kit, toothbrush and slippers. A plastic bottle of water sits on top. That’s a lot of plastic per passenger, and our family’s first big dose of BPA in a long time. The message from the airline is clear: These are reusable items they’ve washed. The plastic wrap should make us feel safe from any germs that might have previously been on these items. And when we’re done with them, they’ll wash them and wrap them in plastic again. On our second flight, we chose to opt out of these items and simply didn’t use them. Reduce, Reuse, Refuse.

Let’s face it, the entire interior of the plane is plastic, which we’re thankful for, as it reduces the plane’s carbon footprint due to its light weight components. Korean Air’s efforts at reduction of carbon emissions are laudable. They even plant forests in Mongolia to offset their carbon emissions.

Plastics Have Helped Airplanes Reduce Weight and Hence their Emissions

The key to zero waste traveling is subterfuge: Bring your own travel kit and you’ll quickly learn the tricks of the waste sleuthing trade. Our simple zero waste travel kit consists of a water bottle, coffee mug and bamboo utensils.

Zero Waste Travel Kit, Sans Reusable Coffee Mug

We’re on our way to Kathmandu, Nepal to lead another expedition to the ancient kingdom of Mustang to search for the earliest evidence of the first people to have come to the Himalaya. We uncovered 3000-year-old human remains last year and hope to learn more about these ancient people by climbing up into the high cave tombs they carved out for their dead and excavate the sites for more bones and material artifacts.

For millenia, humans have traversed the Earth, taking with them their materials and possessions, using them as they needed and discarding of them when done. Until plastic was produced, the material waste early cultures left behind was predominantly ceramics, metals, and glass. We’re taking a journey back in time to those cultures.  The people who remain in the villages, presumably their descendants, are relatively untouched, with little influence from cultures reliant on consumable plastics. While plastics are slowly seeping into the villages, a crisis is occurring as the old ways of sustainable disposal meet the new non-degradable and highly toxic-to-burn materials.

Imagine: There’s no municipal recycling in the hinterlands. Everything must be reused, or into a hand-dug hole it goes, the mini landfills just outside each village. But space is running out and with erosion those landfills are shedding their plastics with every monsoon.

As we work with a team of scientists to find ancient material remains, indeed search for the waste left behind by the earliest known people to have come to the Himalaya, we’ll also work directly with the villagers themselves to learn how they handle the influx of cheap Chinese plastics from just over the border while still clinging to their more sustainable ancient traditions. We have much to learn from them, in documenting how they live closely to the Earth and use everything in their lives, repurposing and reinventing new uses for items brought into the household. And they, in turn, have much to learn from us, from our own mistakes in becoming too reliant on unnecessary plastics. Up there, throwing “away” is poignantly never truly away and those plastics that make their way up to the top of the world are here to stay forever, flowing ever so slowly down the watersheds into our streams, lakes, and rivers to the larger populations below.

Killing Time on a 10 Hour Flight: Craft a Bracelet from Plastic Airline Blanket Wraps

Are there any truly pristine, plastic-free waters on our planet? Precious few is our answer, having worked with scientists studying the toxic deposits from ash and air pollution on the highest glaciers. Burning plastics, among many other pollutants in the air, has contributed to this disturbing trend of high mountain streams, well above populated villages, with detectable levels of pollution.

The best my family and I can do — our little tribe of “Garbage Spies” — is try to address plastic waste wherever humans go, starting with ourselves. Whether we’re in Kathmandu or a tiny village near the Tibetan border, we endeavor to discover the systems in place for reusing, recycling, or disposing of plastics. We determine which plastics are most prevalent and why, and then we talk with community leaders, families, and the children themselves at our little children’s libraries we’ve established, to search out best practices for dealing with plastics and preventing them from getting into the environment. For the next 3 weeks, we’ll send you installments of our story from the Himalayas, the garbage sleuthing done and the lessons learned as we travel further away from the source of plastic outflow to the least likely places it ends up, the places we all thought were immune from modern packaging and single-use convenience.

Koala’s Headband Repurposed from Airline Headphone Plastic Wrap

Please check back with us to follow our story, whether they’re from the highest reaches of our planet or sea level where all things plastic ultimately flow.

Posted in Repurposing, Reuse, Upcycling, Voluntary Simplicity, Zero Waste | Tagged , | 4 Comments

First Chapter in Our Book of Reuse

Chapter 1: An On-going Photo Essay of the Things We’ve Upcycled or Repurposed into New Iterations for Family Reuse

Repurposed window, now mirror

Repurposed window, now mirror

1) The old window turned mirror. This 6-pane window was found inside our 200-year-old barn and looked about the same vintage. Glass was broken on the floor and there was no caulking to speak of. I cleaned the cobwebs off, scraped the glass shards from the grooves, used a wire brush on the wood frame mullions to remove old paint and gunk, then took it to a window shop and asked them put mirror into the frames instead of glass! It was cheap and the results were exactly what I envisioned.

Sea Glass Frame

Sea Glass Frame

2) Sea Glass Picture Frames: The fun part was exploring our new beach when we first moved to our little island. The multicolored glass told a story of many inhabitants coming here long before us.

Home made candle

Home made candle from freecycled wax

3) A post on Freecycle brought us an abundance of unwanted and half-burned candles. Added some of our own wax from our honey bees and, voila, new candles!

Pallet Playhouse

Pallet Playhouse

4) This pallet playhouse in the trees was built entirely out of 2 wooden pallets and branches from around the property. The “slide” access to it was left on the property by the timberframers who made our home: another reuse of construction debris.

Note, in the next picture how HUGE the tree trunk is on the right side of the frame. You’re only seeing half of it, too. This tree was cut down a century ago by loggers on the island who downed the first-growth trees to help rebuild San Francisco after its great fire.

Another view of the play palace/pallet in the trees

Another view of the play palace/pallet in the trees

5) A button valentine kid-creation for friends at school.

Buttons on clear plastic retrieved from trash = valentine

Buttons on clear plastic retrieved from trash = valentine

Posted in Reuse, Voluntary Simplicity, Zero Waste | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Angels While Gathering Wood

Handsaw for Winter Foraging

Handsaw for Winter Foraging

One of our greatest joys, lately, has been foraging for wood in our forest to augment the dry-split wood we have stacked for winter use. We heat our home entirely with the wood from our land and a new pastime for the kids is to wander the slopes and swales to find kindling or larger pieces we can cut with a hand saw, quietly, while listening to the winter sounds of the forest. Bald eagles chatter above, complaining from the constant pestering by crows. And our cat, Willa, scrambles up trees to keep out of view. There’s something immensely satisfying about picking up the piles of blown down limbs and using them to help heat ourselves in these cold months.

Lumberjack

Lumberjack

Every afternoon is spent in these woods, and we’re getting to know the patterns of light, the shifting breezes from Port Orchard Bay below us, and the dramatic changes in weather intimately. Our efforts were rewarded, yesterday, by a visit from 2 angels, bringing new joy to the littlest members of our family:

Posted in Homeschooling, Uncategorized, Voluntary Simplicity, Zero Waste | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Thank You, Tree

Five dollars and some good footwear will get you on the slopes of the Olympics undertaking an adventure that’s guaranteed to tighten bonds in your family and connect you to a Christmas tree you can “weed” from the forest. This sustainable practice, offered by the U.S. Forest Service,  means the trees left behind get more light and nutrients. It’s Christmas tree shopping with a sense of meaning, connection, and good old fashioned adventure.

Many people can’t afford the $30-on-average pre-cut trees at your local lot. These come in every shape and size. But with a little effort (don’t forget your handsaw) you can pick out a custom-grown tree for your space.

Here’s what the USFS says about it: “Forest Service Christmas Tree permits …. are $5.00 each and are good for one U-cut tree on the Olympic National Forest. Permits may be purchased at any Olympic National Forest office (Forks, Olympia, Quilcene, Quinault).”

USFS rangers say they don’t need to re-plant “because the trees seed themselves so readily,” hence the locations where you can cut are specified dense tree locations where you’re encouraged to weed one that’s close to others.

Elf & Tree

Elf & Tree

Time is still ripe for the picking. Enjoy the beautiful drive, the invigorating hike, and the quest to find that perfect tree. Our tradition is to thank the tree before we cut it down, being mindful of the water, sun, and soil that provided for its life in the first place.

Posted in Voluntary Simplicity | Tagged | 1 Comment

Power Sabbath

Breakfast by Candlelight

Breakfast by Candlelight

Sundays, for us, are power sabbath days. If you’ve never tried a power sabbath, it’s well worth it to ease the burden of everyday assaults on the senses from computers, lights, appliances for even a few hours.

Have you ever been thankful for a brief power outage, for the reminder it gave you of how pleasant a slowing-down-to-deal-with-the-basics-in-life can be? For us, it’s reminiscent of 12-hour daily load sheds in Kathmandu and simple living on expedition, a reminder that we live a privileged life. Access to power shouldn’t be taken for granted. Using less of it each week, of course, reduces our impact.

Reading by Hurricane Lamp

Reading by Hurricane Lamp

We have a propane stove/oven and heat our house entirely with wood, so the switching off of power isn’t a huge shock. But we live in the Seattle area and mornings can be dark, so candles light our way about the house and kitchen. We highly recommend you try even a morning or evening of power sabbath, so the whole family can check in with each other and simplifying your lives by turning off all links to wall sockets. Try it and see what sort of quiet magic happens.

Posted in Homeschooling, Voluntary Simplicity | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Life Less Laundry: In Praise of Dirt Bags

How often do you do your laundry? Americans launder clothes way too often. And we use too much detergent, according to the Wall Street Journal. We’ve started re-thinking our laundry scene here at home. After spending much time living in villages in the dustiest parts of the Himalaya, one looks at laundry a little differently.

First, water has to be collected and carried to your fire to be heated, if you’re going to be a purist. Otherwise, a nearby stream will suffice. Secondly, you have to hang it up to dry and inevitably those clothes get full of wind-blown dirt and dust as they drip dry. Then, I learned an amazing lesson about laundry while living 6 weeks in Kathmandu. I noticed people don’t waste energy wringing out the wet clothes and linens to hasten drying. The water must be put to use! Laundry is often hung right over the vegetable garden to drip-irrigate precious veggies. So, come summer, our family hangs our dripping-wet laundry (no spin cycle used) over our tomato plants and we never need to water them.

Phortse-Bound

Phortse-Bound

Meanwhile, back in the village once your laundry is dry and you finally put on your so-called clean togs, within seconds those clothes can get pretty “dirty.” But dirt ain’t dirty! We’ve all learned to bring brown clothes to wear in Nepal so dirt can be hidden. The dirt isn’t the problem that ultimately makes you want to launder your clothes. It’s the bodily stuff humans produce on clothes (smells notwithstanding) that become one’s standard for washing. And if your animals somehow get their stuff on your clothes, (cows, yaks, horses, chickens) then it’s time to wash. Otherwise, a little dirt isn’t worth the effort to wash and one learns to wear clothes for many days, if not weeks, when you’re on expedition before having the time and commitment for washing.

Even here in the States, we’re becoming more water-conscious. Levi-Strauss Co. gets it: In a recent article in the New York Times, Levi-Strauss is admitting to the amount of water they’ve used in the past to stonewash their jeans. And now they’re sewing tags in clothes to tell consumers to not wash their jeans so often (by the end of their life, your jeans will have consumed 919 gallons of water.) In fact, if you want to kill those yucky microbes, Levi-Strauss recommends you throw ‘em in the freezer for 24 hours. One jeans-wearing guy is reportedly swearing off washing his denim-trous…ever. He’s already a year down that road.

But for us, the issue has become more about plastic. Yes, plastic is in your laundry and one of my favorite scientists today, Mark Browne, has determined that on average a single garment will shed 1900 fibers of microplastic per wash into your gray water. The problem is woven in our favorite polypropylene pants or tights, or poly-wool blend sweaters. If it’s made of plastic, it’s shedding plastic, and those microfibers are showing up on every shoreline on our planet. This is a very real concern to marine biologists and toxicologists who are finding that microfibers are ingested by many marine species and are likely making their way into our own food stream.

So take a close look at your dryer lint. It’s those fibers that are making their way out of your washing machine and into our waters. If you’re a died-in-the-wool purist about your clothes and only wear organic cottons and fibers, you’re doing wonders for the planet. The Fibershed Project is a fine example of lessons learned when you truly look at clothes, how they’re manufactured, where they come from, and the amount of energy, water, and toxins used to make them. The Fibershed folks promote looking at which fibers can be sourced in your own bioregion.

Laundry Solution? Wear No Clothes.

Laundry Solution? Wear No Clothes.

Whether your concern is toxics, water conservation, social justice, or buying and/or sourcing local there are also those who are committed to  zero waste laundry practices. Our friend Rebecca, at Rockfarmer has a great DIY laundry detergent recipe we’ve used for several years. And Biokleen’s 10 pound powder detergent in a box (buy it bulk through Azure Standard, along with all your other bulk needs) is also great on the environment. But it’s not going to be fully zero waste until we can sort out the problem of plastic micro-filament shedding into the environment.

We’re working on getting funding to develop a filter to stop the plastics from leaving your washer and entering our waters. Our hope is that the clothing manufacturers who produce the poly-blends might be the ones interested in contributing to this effort. Lint in your dryer is a resource for some (I know one explorer who saved his for months before heading out into the hinterland and he used it as firestarter for a journey across the Tibetan Plateau,) but lint in your washer is a potential endocrine disruptor for marine species and ultimately ourselves.

So, the next time you see me or members of our family and we’re looking a little “dirty,” you’ll know we’re stretching our standards a little, wearing those clothes just a little longer before contributing further to a growing problem in our oceans.

Journey to Kagbeni

Journey to Kagbeni

Posted in Homeschooling, Voluntary Simplicity, Zero Waste | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments