December 12, 2012

I think we already have our Christmas tree

My family and friends know me as someone who isn't inclined to chop down a beautiful, carbon-storing live tree from a field just to haul it inside our living room for a few weeks. But I am drawn to the aesthetic side of Christmas trees...growing up I loved doing the decorations, the lights. And as an adult I love the extra beauty the whole shebang lends to the living space during the holidays. So for the past few years I've tried alternatives to the big chopped tree (which by the way, I've actually never had in my own home). Last year it was a potted tree. 
This year, I got the idea to maybe cut a branch from one of our trees outdoor and spray paint it gold. So I went outside and started scouting the yard for a good candidate. The mesquite needs trimming but doesn't quite have the uniform shape I like. The palo verde, the guava and the pomegranate are leafless right now, but I don't want to cut them too much, because they're of fruit-bearing age.
Then, as I was walking by the grapefruit tree, I noticed something uncanny.
I couldn't help but be struck by how much the grapefruits reminded me of Christmas ornaments. Suddenly, the idea of hanging sparkly spheres on a fake stand-in for a tree in our living room seemed a poor substitute for the real thing. Then it dawned on me, this image of a fecund fruit bearing tree quite possibly is one of the original inspirations for an adorned Christmas tree. I don't profess to know how today's commercial and materialistic-heavy traditions evolved from the ancient traditions of the celebration of the rebirth of the solar year. But I do know that in beholding our grapefruit tree, so beautiful and full of life, promise, and delicious fruits, I lost the desire to find a branch and decorate it with plastic balls. I can find another way to put some glitter in the house these holidays. But I think we have our Christmas tree already.

November 4, 2012

Discoveries around "The Diet Cure"

I posted a while back about a fascinating book I read, "The Diet Cure" by Julia Ross. Ever since I read this book, I've made a number of discoveries about my health.
Inspired by the book, I was testing out several specific food groups to see if I had any adverse reactions to them. I did a week without refined sugar and white flour products, a week without any gluten products at all, and a week without dairy. At the end of the weeks without the specific foods, I introduced them back into my diet gradually in order to observe if any adverse reactions such as headache, weight gain, bloating, digestive complaints, etc. arose.
The first thing I discovered was that sugary and white flour products did have some slight to moderate reactions for me, including headache and some bloating. I also lost several pounds after the week without them.
Then I went on to "test" for a gluten reaction by eliminating all foods containing gluten (wheat, oats, and rye). At the end of the trial gluten-free week, I was expecting (perhaps dreading) bells and whistles when I re-introduced them (in the form of whole grains) back into my diet. But to my surprise there really were no noticeable symptoms. The same happened with dairy—no problems that I could notice. I was sort of relieved because wheat and dairy are big parts of my diet and I wasn't looking forward to possibly having to eliminate them. My naturopathic doctor isn't 100% convinced of my self-testing results because I did the tests one at a time rather than all together. But for me, it's a good start. I say this because when I first heard about checking for this kind of stuff, I was very closed off to the idea of an elimination diet. In fact, I remember almost laughing at my doctor when he suggested the idea.
Now, however, the few things I discovered about my reactions to refined sugar and white flour/rice products were enough for me to start making an effort to avoid refined sugar when possible and replace white flour products with whole wheat, and white rice with brown rice, etc. I'm happy with the results, and also knowing that I'm getting more fiber into my diet.
I'm also interested in doing a week without corn, to see what happens.
Perhaps the most interesting discoveries were two things I found out about myself around the time of this self-testing. In her book, Ross suggests that once your diet is balanced in favor of proteins and vegetables, with just enough healthy carbs and fats for satiation, the pounds should begin to melt off. The caveat is that this can only happen if you're biochemically stable. And should the initial weight loss peter out (or never occur), you might need to get checked out for imbalances such as low thyroid. I noticed my weight loss occurred when I removed the refined products from my diet, but then tapered off. It didn't bug me too much because I am more in favor of exercising than dieting, but it did catch my attention.
It just so happened that I had decided to get my thyroid levels checked during my yearly checkup, around the time I had finished this elimination diet. When I went to discuss the results with my doctor, he told me I had thyroid dysfunction. I was sort of shocked because I've been getting my thyroid checked for years because both my parents have low thyroid, and I've always tested normal. But according to my doctor, it's often underdiagnosed, and in my case, although my T3 and T4 levels are normal, it's the TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) that's too high—working harder than it ought to trying to stimulate an underactive thyroid, in his words.
There's more: he ordered a test of my cortisol levels, which apparently are also connected to thyroid function. I just found out that they came back "low," but have yet to discuss the implications of the results with my doctor. Rather than feel upset, I'm actually relieved that there may be some underlying reasons for my sluggish metabolism (and my cold extremities, and possibly even joint pain among other things). I'll have a lot to learn about how all these puzzle pieces fit together: diet, metabolism, hormonal levels, stress. But I'm up to the challenge and grateful to have found a practitioner who seems to be willing to think outside the box and find the root of the problem (finally).

September 15, 2012

Musings on the Eve of Mexican Independence Day | Binational Family Conversations on Race and Identity

Tonight is the eve of Mexican Independence Day.
According to Wikipedia, "Mexico, in the second article of its Constitution, is defined as a "pluricultural" nation in recognition of the diverse ethnic groups that constitute it, and in which the indigenous peoples are the original foundation." 
So, like its sister country to the north, Mexico is a free state that shook off its European colonial monarchy, that also shares a vast diversity of native North American as well as Old World cultural heritage. But in my opinion, Mexico appear to differ from the U.S. in that a smaller percentage of its people seem to make a point of embracing their racial roots.
My observations are probably skewed by where I've lived previously in the U.S.—mostly in liberal urban areas, and now Mexico—in a region characterized by heavy colonial influence compared to states like Oaxaca or Chiapas where indigenous influence is stronger.
But either way, I’ve always noticed how differently people choose to identify themselves culturally or racially. I know that whole college courses and even degrees are dedicated to this type of topic, and I've had very little formal study of it. But as a dual citizen with two feet planted in both my birth country of the U.S. and my home country of Mexico, with a binational and bilingual daughter and a Mexican husband, these type of questions will never cease to pique my interest. 
A few days ago, my little family and I were listening to music while having lunch. My 2 year old daughter, sitting in her highchair, began bobbing her head to the rhythms of Jay-Z & Alicia Keys' Empire State of Mind.
My husband Margo asked her if she was from New York, and then answered for her "no, you're from Queretaro."
I said, "yeah, well, she's from NY through me—her mama's from NY!" We both laughed. 
As I went over to stir the nopales I was cooking, I thought about how there are millions of people who call themselves African American, even though they themselves aren't from Africa nor do they even have recent relatives from there, although their distant ancestors came from there many generations ago.
"Can you imagine if someone's great-great-great-great-grandparent was from Mexico, do you think they'd call themselves Mexican American?" I asked my husband.
To use myself as an example, my great-grandparents on my father's side are from Mexico, and I even became a naturalized Mexican citizen last year through marriage with my husband. But I haven't yet referred to myself as Mexican American.
Margo is a born and bred Queretano. "Yeah right...they'd probably call themselves something else," he said. 
"Probably white," I replied, "Or Hispanic," I ventured. 
I was thinking of my own "whiteness." After growing up of German and Mexican ancestry in a heavily Italian and Polish neighborhood in Upstate New York, most people assumed Salgado was Italian. On college applications, I checked off "other" and wrote in 3 different races—white/Caucasian, Hispanic, and Native American, to reflect my mixed European ancestry and the mixed mestizo ancestry. Mestizo refers to the indigenous Mexican Indian/Spanish blend that characterizes the great majority of Mexican people, but many people call Mexicans or other Latin Americans "Spanish." In fact, that's the definition of the regularly used term Hispanic. 
Why is that? Why do people choose to identify themselves with one ancestry over another? The answers should be fairly obvious, but there seem to be a lot of exceptions to the rule, depending on where you're from or where you grow up.
"Does that mean that most Mexican Americans have less pride in their heritage than most African Americans?" I asked my husband. I wasn't thinking of the Chicano pride movement back in the 70's, but modern Mexican Americans by definition (such as myself)—I'm not sure if the pride in cultural heritage extends as uniformly to 3rd or 4th generation individuals these days as it does with other minority groups.
"I think so," he said. "I think it's because we have a lot of discrimination in this culture. A lot of Mexicans are embarrassed to say they're indios (Indians or native peoples) because they've been prejudiced against them for so long. So people say they've got a Spanish grandfather, grandmother, etc."
Margo's family didn't exactly raise him to take pride in his Otomi roots, in fact they whipped him to get him to go to Catholic church every Sunday and kiss his godparents' hands. But somehow he saw past the religious zealotry to become more of a free-thinker as a teenager.
"I wonder if because of the civil rights movement in the U.S., people feel safer to show off their heritage," I mused. "If you have an indigenous grandfather or grandmother, you're likely to tell everyone about it, be proud of it."
And yet, in the next song, Lakota singer/songwriter John Trudell laments the isolation of native people of the United States. "Industrial reservations, tyranny stakes its claims. Blue Indians, emotional siege in civilized state....glory and gold lead a desperate chase. Blue Indian, melting pot, ruling classes, haves and have nots." It's from his album Blue Indians, and it's got a lot of good food for thought.
Today for our Independence Eve dinner, my husband made vegetable noodle soup and bean tacos while I worked on finishing a translation for a botanical garden in Sinaloa state. The document I was working on described historical figures in Mexican botany—from Mexican explorers to the Jesuits to Mexican female scientists and even a researcher from Arizona.
When I told my husband about what I was working on, he wondered aloud ¨You mean like conquistadores? The enslavers?"
"No..." I admonished him. "The people were just interested in plants." Safe assumption, right? Being a plant person myself...
Instead of heading out to the festivities downtown, we avoided the crowds and drunk drivers and went for a walk out in his father's cornfield. Back home, I made Mexican chocolate.
I can't claim to truly understand the reasons behind why we choose to embrace some parts of ourselves or why we wish to cast aside the others. But I am glad that I can ask these questions and explore them freely with my partner so we can at least come close to modeling honesty, respect, and pride for our ancestry with our daughter wherever possible—no matter how tangled or frayed our roots end up throughout our lives.

September 13, 2012

A Closer Look at My Nutrition | My First Few Weeks with "The Diet Cure" by Julia Ross)

It's been an interesting "food month." Last month I read a compelling book called "The Diet Cure" by Julia Ross, MA. director of Recovery Systems in Northern California. It was so compelling that I decided to test if I had a gluten insensitivity and went off gluten for a week. Today I'm reintroducing it to "see what happens." It just happens to coincide with a visit we're getting from our very own private chef—yes, you read right: I won a raffle at a local supermarket and a private chef is coming to our home tonight to prepare food using their special cooking equipment (which they'll of course try to sell us and I'll politely decline...but it'll be fun in any case :-)

About the wheat-free week, as I said on my Facebook page when I first decided to put this book into practice, "I'm not really a "diet" person—I buck the fads in favor of common sense & nutrition. That being said, I do have some "issues" I'd love to improve: extra pounds, joint pain, and occasional depression. The book I'm currently reading has me convinced that there's more than meets the eye to 'everything in moderation.' As a result, yours truly is now investigating her body's relationship with refined sugar & wheat (among a number of other substances)."

And it's true: I'm not really a diet person. But I have struggled with being anywhere from slightly to moderately overweight for a good part of my life. And many of my relatives have suffered from obesity and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes or low thyroid on both sides of my family. So although I'm not attracted to fad diets, or crash dieting, I am very aware of what I put into my body and am a big health advocate. Most of my friends know that I'm an amateur herbalist and swear by my Nutritional Healing book for being able to get rid of ailments, like nixing colds with Vitamin C and garlic.

So it wasn't too much of a stretch for me to be convinced by Ross that there are eight basic nutritional imbalances that individuals can have which can affect their health—both physical and mental.  She asserts that by answering a series of questionnaires you can start to detemine which imbalances might be affecting you.

What were most interesting to me were arguments that sugar and refined grain products like white flour can be addictive. Ross discusses the brain's chemical reactions to certain food substances and why we can become "addicted" to foods that are actually adverse to our health—in a very similar way as we do to substances like drugs or alcohol. The chapter about re-regulating naturally mood enhancing brain chemicals through healthy eating (NOT undereating the right foods or overeating the wrong foods) was most fascinating to me. She also went on to talk about other imbalances that often go undetected, such as thyroid imbalances or systemic yeast overgrowth, which are harder to diagnose but that plague people all the same until they undergo comprehensive testing.

In my case, I decided to first cut out extra sugar—it seemed the easiest, fastest, and most important thing to try. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, and I think it'll still be okay to consume it in moderation, just with more awareness. Toward the end of the first week, I cut out refined grains products—white flour and white rice—also, not as hard as I expected. The reason why it wasn't so hard was because I was making sure to consume a lot of protein, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats. Ross believes that undereating/malnutrition is more common than we think and leads to a depressed metabolism. This is a tactic I never quite understood, or at least couldn't get to work for me, but I think it's because I wasn't eating enough nutrient rich foods.

I wasn't doing this for the weight loss effect, just for the health-enhancing effect—Ross believes that gastrointestinal upset and joint pain, two things I often complain of, can be caused by certain foods. But I didn't mind when, two weeks later, I checked the scale and saw that I'd lost 5 pounds.

This next week, I go off dairy, again, "to see what happens." I've gotten a skin allergy test before for hayfever allergens, and it came up negative for most major food groups, except a slight allergy to soy. But Ross explains that some internal adverse reactions to foods go undetected by the skin tests, which is why they promote the elimination diet approach. I like this approach in that it's learning a little more about my body, and I'm only doing one food at a time, not all at once. I especially like the unexpected effect it's had on my cooking—having to go a week without bread, pasta, or crackers meant I had to obtain a few more interesting grains for my kitchen like amaranth flour and make garbanzo flour patties. I made my own mayonnaise with a fresh egg from our chickens and olive oil, great because regular mayo is made out of soybean oil (and even better for how delicious homemade mayo is!). I also made Thai food for the first time in years to go over brown rice. Any excuse to spice up the action in my kitchen is welcome around here, and if it has the pleasant side effect of losing a few kilos in the process, all the better!

I'm a little nervous about the upcoming week without cow's milk because I am quite beholden to my dairy products—yogurt, cheese, kefir, etc—I love probiotics. But I got some goat cheeses to hold me over, and if the wheat-free week was any indication that depriving yourself of one food can lead to embracing several others, then I should be excited about what the week ahead has in store.

June 30, 2012

Patience, Public Health Care, and No More Mr. Nice People—VOTA MAÑANA PAISANOS

I'm not usually a proponent of time flying, but we are well ready for June to be OVER. Life ain't often a bowl of cherries here, but June seemed to be particularly rough for this family. Heck, it's been a rough spring. After the fire from the lightning strike, then it was Margo's finger. Then a round of Giardia for us all. Then I got food poisoning. Baby fell down and split her lip. I finally went to a naturopath and my tummy is feeling much better, but then Margo got stung by a scorpion. I'm looking forward to turning the page on the calendar.

As if all this wasn't enough, Thursday, Margo's 75-year old father got into a serious accident in his truck when he was headed out to his cornfields. I asked Margo, "what the hell, do we have a hex on us or something?" Margo, who doesn't have a superstitious bone in his body, replied deadpan "maybe it's time for you to get out your brujeria," referring to my incense. The idea of a shamanic limpia doesn't sound half bad right now. Too bad it's too late for the elections tomorrow.

Amidst all this chaos, I've been working busily on my last chapter in Amor and Exile, an emotional task in and of itself. Part of me is desperate to finish and get it over with, part of me is breathlessly excited to figure out how we're going to publish, and a little bit of me is sad that such an absorbing and satisfying project will soon come to an end.

In the book, one of the biggest changes I've noted in myself in the nearly six years since I had to relocate to Mexico is that I've (forcibly) become a more patient person. I say forcibly because I haven't always accepted that change in myself, especially when running up against bureacratic red tape that I've encountered in Mexican institutions. But since there's a different pace of life here than the one I was raised in in New York, I've had no choice but to be patient with my in-laws, with friends, coworkers, land titles, myself even. And I do think I'm a slightly better person as a result.

But I'd be lying if I said I've become uniformly patient with everything across the board. I might be more patient with individuals, for example tonight when we went to get a haircut with Margo's cousin. We called at 5:30 to see if she was free, and she replied come at 6:30. But when we got there at that time, she was coloring one woman's hair and cutting another's, while another was waiting in front of us. I did get a little huffy, but I also did calm down and wait—until a little after 7 pm. After all, you can't beat a haircut for $2 bucks. And it's not like we had anything better to do.

You see, I can be patient when I'm just killing time waiting for something else. I'm talking about waiting for news about Margo's father, mi suegro. And I'm finding that I'm not quite so patient when it comes to health matters. Ever since his accident Thursday morning, we've been waiting for something concrete to happen in his treatment, a sign that he'll definitely be OK. But now, almost 60 hours later, there's still no green light on his surgery to fix two crushed vertebrae in his neck (C4 & C5), no assurance he won't be coming home on a respirator.

Unfortunately, it's not a matter I have much power to affect—not from an logistical nor from an economic standpoint. Maybe that's what upsets me so much about it. The whole situation reminds me of what happened when Margo's mother had a stroke—the entire family just waited patiently while she was channeled back and forth between the clinic and home and to various practitioners who failed to consider her need for rehabilitation urgent. No one was happy that she was ill, but neither did anyone seem as upset as me that it was taking so long for her to get sent to physical therapy. Eventually, almost two months after her stroke, she did get sent to therapy, and recovered a good deal of the use of her left side, but she's still too weak to cook or clean for herself, and her quality of life has significantly diminished. Of course it's impossible to know if this is because of the delay in therapy.

In the case of my suegro, he was taken directly from the site of the accident to the state hospital. There, they decided they'd transfer him to the hospital where he's insured as a pensioner (IMSS, stands for Instituto Medico de Seguro Social). It took TWELVE hours and more than 6 visits back and forth between clinics and copy shops for Margo to get the necessary paperwork to get his father moved. By the time he was transferred, it was almost 11 pm. More than half a day had passed since his accident.

All the while, they had full knowledge that he had broken or dislocated vertebrae. It was the opinion of the treating ER doctor who received him that he'd need to be sent to Mexico City for treatment, they didn't have the right equipment in Queretaro. Even so, it took another EIGHTEEN HOURS, to Friday 6 pm, for the attending neurologist to evaluate his scans and confirm that he'd need to be sent to the specialist hospital 3 hours away in Mexico City. He wasn't sent until 11 pm that night, by ambulance.

Meanwhile, what's incredible is that my suegro was totally conscious, aside from catnaps, and could move all parts of his body. But just a tiny lesson in vertebral anatomy belies the heavy risk of his situation—whether spinal cord damage is sustained above or below the C6 vertebra (his fractures are at C4 & 5) determines whether you'll become a paraplegic or a quadriplegic. Even so, despite now being at the trauma center in Mexico City since 2 am this morning, he STILL hasn't received a green light for the surgery. We were under the impression that with the determination sent from Queretaro, he'd be seen immediately upon arrival. Not so.

As of 8 pm this evening, now almost 60 hours since his accident, the word is that he is still in observation and they are evaluating his tomography to see if his vertebral fractures are due to an old injury or the car crash. WTF? Prior to the crash, he is one of the most physically fit members of this family who never complains of aches or pains, and after the crash he had bruises all over his body, a 3-inch laceration on the back of his head and bleeding on the brain (not to mention the previous hospital had already determined the necessity of surgical vertebral replacement). Does this require a rocket scientist?

Why they are taking their time on this is beyond my capability of understanding. When I say this to Margo, or his brother who accompanied him to the DF, they respond that there are a lot of other people with worse injuries in line in front of them. Now, I understand the need for triage, and I don't know exactly what their system is here at the IMSS trauma centers, but if you continually put someone in line behind every more traumatic patient that arrives, you'll be waiting all year because car accidents are one of the top causes of death here. And sadly, exceedingly long waits appear to be the norm, as I found on one forum with comments about IMSS service at that particular hospital.

As soon as I heard about the crash, I immediately recommended a private hospital. I raised the same issue with my suegra's stroke 2 years ago, and I received the same response this week: "where else would we take him?" And I say, to Hospital Angeles? Medica Tec 100? (The first rate hospitals in this city). I then get the same response: "but they're too expensive." And then I try to give up the suggestion, respect their decision (although I really can't get it out of my head). The reason I'm frustrated is because I see a family, a matrix of people, who could get access to the necessary resources but don't consider them an option for a case like this, where their health hangs in the balance. Margo's father has several landholdings, a herd of cows, and several vehicles and pieces of valuable heavy machinery that could easily be cashed in for better treatment. To Margo's credit, he's tried to recommend long-term planning for emergencies/retirement age before, but his ideas probably seem foreign to a family who's always lived from hand to mouth (or maybe they sound too much like his wife's). But the brothers who drive those vehicles and operate that heavy machinery that their father bought haven't volunteered to sell a single one—just a few hours ago I saw one getting drunk and the other has only called once in the last 48 hours.

I try to respect the family's acceptance of the need to just wait, emulate their patience, but it's so hard, especially when I suspect it's completely unnecessary, and just an artifact of a several-decades long habit of complacency. When I think about my father-in-law laying there in a hospital bed, a millimeter away from becoming quadriplegic, I just can't accept that patiently waiting is the only option. But why is it that I'm the only one who seems so intent that there's several ways that this situation could be made better? I try to breathe deeply, ask my husband how he feels. He replies simply, "frustrated." I empathize, deeply. Even though my father-in-law and I are not close, he does not deserve to suffer. I want to see him come home walking—still be able to eat my baked goods he can sniff from a football field away, play with his granddaughter. Or realize what he's been missing by spending so much time on the farm and not with his enormous family.

I'll take some lessons away from this experience, toward my own family's health. For the last couple years, we've been enrolled in the even more basic Seguro Popular universal health care system here in Mexico. I've considered it backup catastrophic insurance, and the truth is it's come in handy a couple times, like when Margo got stung by a scorpion—we didn't pay a dime. We usually pay out of pocket for private doctors' visits. When I had my appendix out last year, it caught me by surprise, and I had to borrow money from my parents to have the surgery in a private clinic. Afterwards, I started thinking, maybe I should have sucked it up and gone to the public hospital. But now, after seeing firsthand what happens in the case of a true emergency, how proper care is delayed again and again, I don't feel quite the same conviction. My only other option is private health insurance—the kind that Americans are now forced to carry, for their own benefit. I'm not obligated to have it, and I'm not even sure I could afford it, but it's something I want to look into.

When I told this to Margo, he cynically replied, "it'd be just the same service, you'll see." Somehow I doubt that. The difference between the service I've received at the IMSS clinics (I did enroll when Margo had a company job a few years ago, just to "check it out") and the private clinics is like night and day.

I've been told this it how it works in the public health system. That's it's good service but that it takes a long time. I'm afraid that in some cases, taking a long time is not good enough. Sometimes it's just not better late than never—it's got to be NOW.

p.s. I would have thought that on the eve of the 2012 Mexican presidential elections, I'd be blogging about that topic instead. But almost everyday of this month, with the exception of a few Facebook posts here and there, the personal has forced its way into precedence over the political in my life. I feel a bit badly about that. But it's also my first presidential election as a newly naturalized Mexican citizen and part of me thinks it's important to not just vote, but absorb the whole panorama before I start shooting my mouth off. On the other hand, I see a lot of parallels between this "exceedingly patient" syndrome I've encountered, and the citizenry's de facto acceptance of continual abuses of corruption and mismanagement of public funds at the hands of a government and media endowed with a significantly lopsided amount of power. Let's not be patient, paisanos—let's get change where it's needed, NOW.

May 18, 2012

Honey Harvesting | D-I-Y Honey Press

This morning's project, thanks to my amazing husband Margo, who never ceases to amaze me with his combination of creativity and practicality.
My father-in-law has a beehive on the property. The first year that he tried to approach the hive (in all the wrong ways, against my advice), he, my brother-in-law, and my husband Margo got attacked by some very angry bees. From then on he hired a fellow to come to remove the honey-filled frames from the hive—his payment is a portion of the combs and honey. The first few times honey was harvested, we were given a bit of comb with honey, and I found it a bit difficult and messy to strain even small amounts by hand. So when my husband showed up two days ago with a bucket with three entire frames full of comb and honey, I knew we were going to have to come up with another solution to extract the honey.

I got the number of a local beekeeper who said using his centrifuge wasn't a good option because he only ran it with 17 frames inside. Plans for a D-I-Y centrifuge built with a 50-gallon drum and bicycle rims looked cool, but a bit much for our purposes. It was looking like we might have to do it by hand again, but I was reluctant and Margo said his brother was having quite a time with the mess on his hands for many other frames that he'd been working on extracting for days. Meanwhile, we didn't have *too* much time because we didn't want the honey to crystallize in the frames.

We browsed a few plans for presses. One utilized an automobile jack to provide the pressure force and looked pretty functional. It must have inspired Margo because when I asked him if he thought we could do something similar, he replied "sure" and a couple hours later he had a wooden press structure of his own design finished. We often sketch plans out before making stuff, but in the interest of time, he didn't draw anything up beforehand, just sort of eyeballed it (so, sorry there's no schematic). The jack presses a platform upon which sits the honey collecting basin basin up from below.
From above, an adjustable height arm hung from a short piece of galvanized metal tube provides the upper fixation point for a removable wooden plank that's the top pressure plate for the comb honey.
The comb honey is cut up (important to expose many surfaces to release the honey from the cells) and packaged into drawstring cloth filter bags (since I haven't found cheesecloth locally, I made them myself from sheer polyester fabric that's durable enough to withstand multiple pressing to strain materials like infused herbal oils)
The comb honey is sandwiched between the top plate and a bottom plate with legs (all pine board). 

The honey oozes out from the bag, off the planks and into the basin. I only got to try one pressing with my husband before I had to go to work this afternoon, he did the rest of the bucket and in the end it produced about 4 liters worth of delicious mesquite blossom honey. We think it was well worth the effort as our extraction process was more efficient and easier to clean a larger amount than the by hand method.
Total cost: $0 USD/MXN, all scrap materials (pine board, screws, galvanized pipe, car jack, rubbermaid basin, scrap fabric & hemp twine)

May 10, 2012

Gracias por mi cafe...Feliz Dia de las Madres

Today is Mother's Day in Mexico. Instead of of every 2nd Sunday, their date is May 10th. Margo asked me what i wanted today, that he had to work but would be home early to go out to eat. I told him I'd love some pancakes for breakfast. 

So when I came downstairs, there was a stack of blueberry pancakes in a pan on the stove, and a to-go mug of coffee nearby. Margo had already left though. I thought, oh, how sweet, he left me coffee too, and so thoughtful to put it in a to-go mug so it wouldn't get cold. My daughter and I ate the pancakes and I sent him a text message to thank him for the breakfast, to which he responded, "enjoy it."  Then I heard his truck in the driveway. I met him at the door and said, "Sorry I didn't wait, I didn't think you were going to join us" He responded, "no I just came back because I forgot my coffee." You should have seen the look on my face. But we both had a good laugh about it, including my daughter, who was watching us from her highchair as her Dad hugged me goodbye. 

I think the point is to not take ourselves too seriously, but also value ourselves as women and mothers. For me, it was easy to laugh off the coffee mixup because I feel valued every day—as partners my husband and I make equal contributions to raising our daughter and I don't feel put upon in this family. On the other hand, it's been up to no one else but me to make the effort to take as much care of myself as possible. I feel good about the sacrifices I've made because they were made consciously and of my own free will.  Don't get me wrong, it's nice to be celebrated, but ultimately our value as mothers shouldn't boil down how many roses we receive or how fancy of a dinner we are treated. It actually occurred to me to say thank you to my daughter this morning, for giving me the opportunity to experience one of most meaningful things I've ever done in my life: motherhood.

Feliz Día de las Madres a todas mis amigas mamás, que disfruten este día y todo el año al máximo y que nunca olvidemos de cuidar a la mama de tod@s, nuestra Madre Tierra. p.d. gracias a mi amiga Miriam por este imagen, no se quien es el autor pero me parece muy bella.

May 1, 2012

The Power of the 'Net (vote for me if you haven't yet, please! :-)

Note: if you just clicked to vote, the link's at the bottom of the post! :-)

It never ceases to amaze me how the Internet allows me to maintain one foot in the U.S. and one foot in Mexico. I know, this is going to sound like an Internet commercial. Whether it's video chatting with the fam over Skype, or keeping tabs on friends via Facebook, or just imagine—how did we survive without EMAIL? Well, I did survive for four years without Internet, actually. It's just that in those 4 long, dry years of having to use only cybercafes down the street, I developed such a craving for connection with the culture I'd left in the U.S. that when I finally got it back, it probably looked like a long dried-up alcoholic going back to the bottle.

When I told a friend a couple years back how happy I was to be getting Internet the week before my daughter was to be born, she chastized me a little, saying the first  month was for bonding with my baby. Well, I did bond quite intensely with my daughter, but felt guilty enough about my time spent sending pics to my circle in the U.S. that I mentioned it to my mom. She responded simply that the person who'd poo-poo'd my Internet zeal probably had never lived far away from her family or in a foreign country for any significant amount of time. About her, who knows. Some people might be happy to be distanced from people, have an excuse to not be in touch. But for me, all I know is that I am truly grateful for a way to stay in touch with the community that I love so well that otherwise I'd have no means of staying connected with.

I was reminded of this when driving to work the other day, when I almost hit a huge cardboard box with styrofoam peanuts spilling out all over the highway. My immediate thought was, oops, there goes someone's Mother's Day present. Countless times before, Margo and I tried to send a box from the U.S. to Mexico, or someone tried to send us a package or a letter from the States to here, with no luck. The Mexican Postal Service, which must rely on burros to some extent (the four-legged animals, not people, lest anyone think I'm insulting postal workers), is notorious for mysteriously losing mail, or delivering mail many months later. Needless to say it's easy to quickly get fed up with this option and my penpals quit palling me. Fedex and UPS are out of the question, charging more than 30 dollars for a mere envelope.

Makes you wonder how NAFTA is such a moneymaker, with all that international transport that's cruising up and down the continent, huh? Share a little of the cheap freight fees with the little people, guys!

Anyways, to make a long story short, all these years of staying connected online have led to me sharing a good deal of my life online, both the personal and the political. I now blog regularly on two blogs while maintaining my projects website. The other day, my coauthor of Amor and Exile, Nate Hoffman, nominated me for a Netroots Nation Scholarship as an Immigration Scholar. It's an opportunity to attend a national progressive conference in Providence, RI in June, and meet other grassroots/online activists. I wasn't 100% it was something I could be competitive at, but, at least in these first 24 hours, I've been pleasantly surprised.

Not only was I surprised at the application/profile statement I was able to put together, and that among the many hats I wear I actually am a bonafide blogger, but I am totally touched by the outpouring of support from my community who's voting for me. In an exile situation that is often disorienting culturally and professionally, even if I don't win the scholarship, it'll be heartening to know that at least some of my efforts to clarify who I am and what I stand for are reaching their target—my extended community.

p.s. if it's May 2 or prior, you can still vote for me at

April 25, 2012

5 year old greywater orchard bearing fruit

Five years ago, we were only a couple months away from moving into the first floor of our new house that we'd built from the foundation up with our bare hands. One of the finishing touches on our yard was to install a greywater irrigation system with the intent of growing fruit trees and saving water at the same time in a semidesert climate. I'm happy to say that the results have been one of the most amazing things I've experienced while living in Mexico.

Before (view of our front yard, May 2007)

After (view of our front yard w/five year old orchard, April 2012)

I added a couple other before and after photos and a bit of an explanation about greywater to my ecological gardening page on my site, Los Mesquites. The update is partially in preparation for a greywater workshop I'm planning to give next month, but inspired tonight by a salad I made with the last grapefruit I plucked from the tree of this past season's crop. I call this picture 'grapefruit, AFTER.' :)

In addition to the grapefruit,  we've been picking mulberries this month, which have been few but tasty. Standing under the mulberry tree and handing fresh fruit to my daughter who really enjoys them, I can't help but think that there are few things as satisfying as growing a tree from a tiny sprout on your washwater and then enjoying the fruit that they bear.

Before (view of recently installed greywater drainpipers, May 2007)

After (view of mulberry tree with pomegranate, guava, and daughter in background, April 2012)

April 22, 2012

We Are the Earth

The mantra "Earth Day Everyday" has rung clear as a bell in my head ever since I first started celebrating the holiday as a youth, probably in high school, possibly earlier. I've been an environmentalist so long that when my art therapist asked me to picture an image of "my authentic self" for a self-reflective assignment, I couldn't come up with anything other than visual images of nature. One, two, three, four days later, and I still can't come up with anything other than rainbow colors, rivers, forests, a crescent moon, silhouetted mountains.

But is it because I am an environmentalist (which term I once loathed to admit publicly for all the negative press the term has gotten over the years, but now embrace wholeheartedly with pride) or is it because, at heart, we really are inseparable from the Earth that sustains us? This is not a philosophical question I'm asking. I really do think that the reason why "Earth Day Everyday" is so hard for some folks to adopt is because little by little, our human community has grown further and further from awareness of its roots as utterly, inextricably, and incredibly dependent on the Earth's ecosystems that sustain it.

Granted, not every society or individual has that same level of detachment from Pachamama. Thank goodness, otherwise we would not have so much indigenous wisdom to drawn on as we try to right our often erroneous path with regard to how to best tread on this planet. Thank Goddess for invisibly steering the hand of passionate scientists who decode the inherent wisdom of Earth systems and sustainable technologies that may allow us humans to inhabit the third rock from the sun for a more peaceful and prolonged period of time.

Even though it's Earth Day everyday at our house, I'm not bragging because I know I could always do more. I know I have way too big of an ecological footprint than I could have (we obviously don't have 2.19 Earths, my score), and that I make way too many excuses for not doing things as ecologically as I could. That might be an intimidating statement for someone who doesn't do the type of things that we do here on a daily basis, like buy organic, use cloth diapers, irrigate our fruit trees with greywater (used washwater), collect rainwater, feed kitchen scraps to our chickens and collect our own eggs, plant native cacti, make my own herbal remedies, and recycle practically all our solid waste.

Despite doing all of the above things, we're still "on the grid" in that we use gas, electricity, city water, buy produce that probably was farmed with sludge or sprayed with pesticides. We drive an old truck that burns good old-fashioned gasoline, and don't ever walk or bike to the grocery store (I claim only partial responsibility for that—the local roads are way too dangerous for us to currently consider it an option). Okay, so I need to get more involved in local Queretaro politics...umm, sure. I'll get right on that tomorrow.

But this guilt is not stemming from a desire to want to "keep up with the Joneses." Rather, it's a frustration that there's aspects of our lifestyle that I'd green over in a heartbeat. If only the government would do their part and put in bike lanes. If only organic food and solar panels were less expensive. If only biodiesel was more popular here. If only, if only, if only. So I do what I can, and change the things I have control over. I'm working on it, and I assuage my guilt by knowing that's better than many.  I also avail myself of inspiring ideas on how to do what we're doing better, like those being carried out at my former coworkers and good friends at Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center in New Mexico (hi Amanda & Andy! You're my EDED heroes!).

One thing I decide I can do in addition to greening my own lifestyle is help inform others how they too can tread more lightly on the planet. That's how I became an educator actually. I think people would be surprised to find out, especially now compared to 20 or even 10 years ago (shocked I can say that with authority), that greening their daily lifestyle is a lot easier than they might think. It isn't actually that much more expensive, especially if you're into D-I-Y. And even when small things are a little more pricey, like food, just think of the words of Birke Baehr "Either pay the farmer, or pay the hospital." I love that an 11-year old could re-inspire curmudgeonly old me.

Which is why today, on "Earth Day," I permitted myself to feel proud of the little things we do every day. Sometimes they're annoying (dealing with chickens), inconvenient (turning a subterranean valve covered with cobwebs to direct our greywater to the right fruit trees), expensive (organic dairy products), or just plain gross (rinsing cloth diapers). I don't do these things to feel good about myself—I do them for the rest of the Earth's inhabitants, like wildlife, and also, for our children, and their children, to be a model for those who might also decide it's time to start giving the Earth the due respect she deserves.

p.s. I forgot to mention that I actually did do something special just for Earth Day, which was plant a pine tree outside our house, who along with a banana tree and a few other ornamentals, will soon receive rinsewater from the kitchen sink. Even though digging the hole wore me out, I just think of how beautiful that tree will be 10 years from now. But wait a second, does that mean I could see myself here in ten years? Hmmm....

April 16, 2012

A Time for Growth

Time has a way of flying even faster than normal when you get older, and as I've found, especially when I had a baby. What I once noted by benchmarks such graduations, new jobs, weddings, etc. is now measured at a much more accelerated rate. Weeks counted during pregnancy, and then inches and pounds of growth in the first year, all her new behaviors and new words become my new daily reminders of the passage of time. Her growth has almost entirely absorbed my mental attention, except that I also have a partner and work—two aspects of my life that were everything to me before I had a child. Making space for everything has become the new challenge, quality time for my partner, for myself, for everything else that I love to do besides raising my daughter.

The other night I mentioned to a friend and to my husband that one thing I really miss from our single days in California was going out to clubs to go dancing. "There's a time for everything," he replied, which I interpreted as he'd given up on the idea of ever doing that again, in contrast to me, who still holds the hope that we'll carve out that time for ourselves again even if it's not as often as before. But I held off on applying that pressure to an already overworked Dad. "Well, not like there's any great clubs for us to go here anyways," I joked.

Last November, when my daughter was barely over a year old, I had a medical emergency that, for economic reasons, led me to take on some part-time work in addition to writing Amor and Exile. Since then, my daughter is now a year and a half old and I haven't written a single new chapter in the book. It was a difficult task, holding off on writing for what felt like such a long period of time. Nonetheless, I have no regrets about my decision to make us a two income family. Working outside the home forced me to streamline my schedule and reorganize priorities. In addition to swimming twice a week, it gave me some sorely needed time to myself.

On the other hand, I found myself longing a little too much to "get back" to the projects I'd begun to establish since before she was born: finish Amor and Exile, and make progress on environmental projects such as our organic garden and local environmental education efforts. But I still wasn't ready for it to be one or the other—so I dropped down to three days a week, albeit longer hours two of those days, in order to see if I could fit a little more of everything into my life.

It seemed ambitious at first—but after two weeks of spring break where, instead of taking vacation, I worked hard on my next chapter and the garden while also continuing to teach English, I saw that I could indeed make advances in one area of my life without entirely foregoing another. It felt blissful to get back to writing, and the mantra "do what makes you happy" never felt so right, affirming what I suspected this past year, that writing has really gotten under my skin.

Now I'm nearing completion of my third chapter in our book, and we'll be back into collaborative editing in May. As if the silent hand of fate was at work as I simultaneously requested new growth in my life, in this first week of my new schedule, I've already got two appointments scheduled to explore some new environmental education opportunities in the community. At first I just felt really lucky, but I also know that they wouldn't have materialized if I hadn't come up with them as an idea in the first place. Making them happen will also come at a sacrifice—less time to work out, socialize, etc. But if the past is any indication of how good I'll feel knowing that I've actualized something I've set my mind to, I should be okay.

And when my little girl, who was not too long ago a little baby, turns 19 months this week, I'll be reminded that yes, it's often difficult to make the best decisions: it pains me when she cries when I slip away into my home office, but she also sweetly offers her babysitter a kiss goodbye and hugs me even tighter when we're back together. When I see her doing things, at such a young age, like diapering her dolls, reading with her feet, feeding the animals, hanging laundry or watering plants, pretending to talk on the phone, being kind to others, or just simply smiling or wanting to be with us, I also remember that, she pursues the things she most loves in life because she sees her mom doing the same. 

April 3, 2012

Henhouse Rules Part II (Bloody Chickens!) VIDEO UPDATE

The morning that our second hen's round of chicks hatched. Everyone was co-existing happily and co-parenting seemed to be working for the two hens, at least for the time being.

By the next morning, however, the tone had changed drastically and one of the hens had done some serious pecking damage to another's head, as I described in my last post. After closer inspection it looks like the "aggressor" also sustained some pecks to the head herself, which might be what started the whole fallout. Three days after administering first aid and injections to the badly injured hen, she was finally drinking water and walking around again. One of her eyes is even trying to open again, though I'm afraid the scar tissue might be an issue.

I've since placed the aggressive mother in a pen of her own with the chicks for everyone's safety. I got some feedback from a friend that chickens can peck each other out of boredom and to hang something in their coop for them to take their pecking out on. I have to say that I really think it was just a freak occurrence sparked by a very strong maternal instinct combined with fighting breed genes. The hens had already been together in the nest box for 3 weeks with no problems, and only 1 day together with the chicks free in the coop. We've had problems with ranch hens getting aggressive with leghorns in the past, but that's when they haven't had access to the yard which they now almost always do.

I'll have to see when and if I can put the two hens back together in the same space—maybe not until the chicks become more independent. In the meantime, I hope the second mom makes a full recovery and can go on to raise another brood—this time by herself—because although she avoided certain death, she did lose out on the opportunity to mother the chicks that hatched from the eggs she brooded for almost a month.

March 30, 2012

Henhouse Rules Part II (Bloody Chickens!)

It's days like today when I wonder if I'm really doing the right thing by raising my own chickens for eggs. It's a noble task, and the rewards (usually, fresh eggs daily) are many, but the challenges are also abundant. It's not like we don't treat them well—they have fresh food and water 24/7, a veritable chicken condo with a multilevel coop, a fenced-in pen to protect them from cats and dogs, and even regular free-range in the yard and trees. So what's the catch?

In our latest saga of chick-rearing, everything was going fine until...the twenty-seventh day. In general, things had been going well in the henhouse ever since rooster #2 was shipped off to la suegra's house a few months ago, al caldo. The black and white tweed rooster who escaped scot-free earned his stay by getting along swimmingly with the three hens. But the most recent events have taken us from the joy of birth to the horror of cannibalism in a matter of days. Timing played a special role in this whole happening so it's broken down by days.

Warning: this relate is not for the faint of heart.

Day One: One hen got broody and decided to sit on some eggs.
Day Three: Hen is still on eggs. Another hen joins her to sit on more
Day Four: Two hens are sharing the sitting on seven eggs in a large nest box.
Day Five: Another hen comes in to lay an egg. She accidentally breaks one of the incubated eggs.
Day Six: The two nesting hens' next box is lidded off from the others, I let the nesting hens out daily for food and water.
Day Seven: The other two hens are laying in the other boxes. No more broken eggs.
Week Two: Hens still sitting on eggs
Week Three (Day 15): Wondering why chicks haven't hatched, I look up incubation time online, and am reminded that it's three weeks (21 days), not two weeks for chickens.
Day 18: Hens are still on eggs. Other chickens and rooster are fine. I start counting the days.
Day 20: A wonderful surprise: the first hatched chick! Unfortunately, I also discover one of the other hens is sick. I stop by the vet's for medicine for her and supplements for the chicks' water. I isolate the sick hen. Margo cleans the coop in preparation to let the hens down from nest box.
Day 22: Two chicks are hatched, four eggs remain. I take the lighter-colored hen and two chicks down from the next box so they can run free with food and water in the coop. The sick hen is still sick after three days of antibiotic/steroid injections. The vet believes she probably ate a scorpion.
Day 23: Another chick hatches with the darker-colored hen in the next box. The sick hen, who was in a box outside the coop, is whisked away in the night by a clawed animal.
Day 25: Two more chicks hatch in the next box, for a total of five. I put the darker hen and her three chicks down with the others in the coop
Day 26: Everything seems to be fine, chicks are getting stronger. I do notice that the darken hen seems to be a little more clueless, more interested in eating and has even pecked one of the chicks (although she did feed another), whereas the lighter hen seems to be more maternal and protective of the chicks. I figure they will "figure it out." The 6th egg has been abandoned, unhatched and cold, and I dispose of it sadly. That night, I ask Margo how long he thinks we should keep them in the coop before we let them out into the pen. He says, maybe a few days. Famous last words.
Day 27: (this morning) I happened to notice one of the hens bobbing her head in the coop. Not another scorpion, I think to myself and run outside.

When I get there, I make a horrific discovery: the darker hen is sort of bowing in front of the lighter hen, who is pecking her comb and her head, which is covered in blood. I rush into the coop and separate them immediately, noticing that the chicks are huddled off to the side. I stand for there for at least a minute agape, with my toddler standing at the door offering us the hose, trying to decide what to do. If I put the lighter, maternal hen with the chicks, will she kill them? I curse the lighter hen, asking her what in sam hell she was thinking. As if she understands. What do I do with the injured hen, and where do I put her so the others can't get to her? If chickens smell blood, they just keep pecking. I try to think why the lighter hen did this, when they got along just fine as nest box mates for three weeks. Then I remember how protective she was of the chicks, even trying to peck me when I got near, and that they are hens of fighting stock—seven were given to us three years ago by a friend who at the time was raising fighting cocks. At first I was apprehensive but when they demonstrated what good egg layers they were, we kept them. Their natural aggressive qualities had never reared their ugly head (literally, blood-covered and quite ugly) until now.

Upset, I put my daughter safely in her stroller while I frantically searched for my first aid kit. Why so much loss on the heels of what was supposed to be the joyous hatching of eggs and cute fuzzy chicks? I can't find the medicine for the injured hen, so I call my husband who sound utterly unsurprised that this happened—they're fighters, he says, and they've been inside too long. Not able to argue with him, I rush back outside and wash off the injured hen's head—she's not putting up a fight, then check on the other, who's closely guarding the chicks. I sterilize her wounded head and it becomes clear the other hen intended to peck off her entire comb—only a little stump remains. Her eyes are half swollen shut. I am appalled, but do my best to clean her up and then administer the same antibiotic/steroid injection I had just days earlier been administering to the other sick hen. I put her in a fenced off section of the pen in the shade and keep an eye on her.

I check on the other hen with chicks every hour or so. They're all still OK. The rooster crows all day long and the other hen is looking for a way into the pen so she can lay her egg. They seem oblivious. I have errands to run and I know if I take the injured hen to the vet they're only going to do what I just did for her, except charge me a fee I can't afford. So I cross my fingers and hope that this latest drama will blow over fast, because I'll be damned if I'm going to have a bloody Easter basket on my hands!

March 19, 2012

Bonfire Anxiety

We have this family tradition of having bonfires on the solstices and equinoxes, and with the spring equinox coming up you'd think I'd already be inviting friends and family over to toast marshmallows this week. But we're just getting over being sick (the baby still is, technically), and I'm more overworked than usual. Normally even those factors wouldn't make us shy away from a shindig—sometimes celebration's the best medicine—except that we experienced an unusually traumatic fire just over a week ago—one that puts all previous bonfires to shame for its scale, timing, and impact.

Almost everyone's lives have been touched by fire, if not literally then remotely. The mass media has brought the regular forest fire seasons that have threatened arid landscapes in the Western U.S. into people's living rooms, and many know someone who's been personally affected. But fewer have actually experienced a unplanned, urgent, uncontrollable fire for themselves. Lightning strikes are the sort of thing that causes life-threatening damage so infrequently that mention of them goes the way of the mythical. You see trees on the trail that have been hit by strikes, you hear of far-removed stories but they hardly ever touch our lives.

But both finally hit home (literally) for me last week when, after having been struck by lightning at approximately 11:30 pm last Saturday, 1500 of my suegro's (father-in-law's) hay bales burned down to the ground in one night. With my baby daughter and I and several family members looking on (ironically, at first, in the rain), my husband and his brothers attempted, in vain, alongside the city fire department and several good Samaritan neighbors, to put out an enormous fire that started with too much force to ever really have a chance to be stopped.  Luckily, the fire was totally contained—the only other damage was an underground electrical register box that got crushed by the trucks that approached the fire, and they did manage to save some alfalfa and sorghum. But the once imposing mountain of baled corn stalks was brought down—a year's worth of work and harvest reduced to a paltry pile of sodden and ash stained compost. I've been recalling the incident ever since, and I don't think I'll ever see a weenie roast again in the same light.

As traumatic events always do, the event and its aftermath resulted in drawing people closer together. Memories are made. Others are recalled by the elders. My suegro's stories of people he'd known who were actually killed by lightning in the cornfields they worked decades ago. My grandmother told me more of her own personal tragedy of her family losing their barn when their house and barn were struck by lightning when she was eight years old...a story I had an inkling of, from a poem she'd written, but never heard many details about. In a chilling twist to the pre-lightning strike part of the story, my two brothers-in-law (cuñados) told us that they were atop the pile of bales only minutes before lightning struck, on a ladder and crawling around up top struggling to cover the bales with a tarp to protect them from the rain. It was perhaps the only silver lining to this particular incident that they themselves were not the victims.

Outside my house this moment, nine days later, a water truck is pumping 5,000 liters of water into the water tanks that our families share that are housed in our shed. The tank was drawn down from my husband's valiant but pathetic efforts to counter the fire with garden hoses before the fire department arrived, and the city's supply hasn't been enough to top it back up. My cuñado, a man who I once got along with famously in the States, but since moving to Mexico has been a tougher pill to swallow, is also there, recounting the story of last week to the water truck man. Even though we've had our differences, they're transcended by the sadness of tragedy, and one memory from that night rises above the rest for me. The four brothers had finally given up trying to fight the fire and were standing shoulder to shoulder facing the fire, watching helplessly as the fire trucks dumped countless liters of water on the fuming bales. Everyone present had been drawn together by forces of nature, and were completely forced to relinquish all control, as part of us all went up in those flames.

March 11, 2012

Henhouse update

One of my goals as a blogger is to master the art of the short post. It's very difficult for me since I'm very long-winded. My first foray into the short blog arena was literally 5 minutes ago—to celebrate this blog's 5000th pageview. This post is not exactly short but neither is it one of my characteristic super-long posts.

What I want to say is that my experiment with the nesting chickens worked. In my last post, I described how I put up a removable door to protect the 2 nesting hens from their marauding sisters who don't watch where they step when laying their own eggs (although the other two are laying, they're not "broody," i.e. not interested in sitting on the eggs. I must be a shabby bird biologist because I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what makes a bird broody in the first place). The day after I tied a shield with custom air holes, fabricated out of a scrap piece of corrugated plastic, and affixed to the front of the next box with my crappy knots (no wonder my husband gave me a little guide to knots a few years ago...if only I'd studied it), I was pleasantly surprised to find 1) no more broken eggs up top in the occupied nesting box and 2) a fresh egg laid by one of the unbroody hens in the box below. Success. Since the 2 broody hens are sort of blocked in, even though they hardly ever get off the nest (I've never actually observed them do it—they kind of semi-fast for 2 weeks), I feel obligated to make sure they get out and stretch their legs, eat, drink, and take care of their business at least once a day. So that's a tad bit labor intensive, but if it results in cute little chickies pretty soon, I think it'll be worth it. Crossing my fingers!

My next post will be quite long because it will tell the dramatic story of something that happened here last night—a terrifying night of a huge fire on the property started by a lightning strike. But since we were up all night and are exhausted, it'll have to wait. Hasta pronto.

5000 pageviews!

Sometime this weekend The Succulent Seer got its 5000th pageview. This is pretty exciting to me considering that it's a little over a year since its inception last February. Looking forward to five times that many page views in 2012. A little ambitious? Maybe...but I have a good feeling about this year, despite all the nutty prophecies abounding. 

March 9, 2012

The Real Easter Basket

Two months have passed since I began working part-time at an English school. It's been nice to get out of the house, I enjoy the personal interactions, and I can now breathe a little easier on the economic side of things, but it's had its expected flip-side results as well. I'm quite tired every day, I worry I'm not giving enough undivided attention to my family (some correspondences are suffering), my hip pain has returned, and my amount of free time to dedicate to creative pursuits such as writing, art, and gardening has taken a hit.

But there're also some undeniably wonderful things happening at the same time—the growth of our daughter, the flourishing of our orchard and flock of chickens, even the growth of some friendships and personal strength. I tend to believe as is in nature, also is with people, and vice versa. Even when it seems like I have little extra time for anything, the above things are both a blessing and a natural result of small, diligent, patient efforts toward progress, combined with the wonderfully powerful and cyclic elements of nature.

I'm the kind of person who likes to answer every personal email I receive, but it hasn't always been possible with my new schedule. But one of the side effects of not always being the most responsive, or first to reach out, has been to find out which friendships have perservered despite my low levels of maintenance. It reveals a connection that can stand the test of time.

I never would have guessed that something as simple as, when we built our house, placing a window facing a mesquite tree, would bring so much enjoyment from the center of our home—seeing its vibrant, almost flourescent green leaved branches waving gently in the breeze and filled with songbirds coming to take a drink from a dish of water on the ground below it. It took years of gently inviting wildlife to our yard and runoff from our roof directed to the mesquite's roots for this whole scene to develop.

There's a weedy grass that got out of control in our yard while we were otherwise occupied with parenting duties, and when I finally decided to reclaim my garden and started letting my daughter come outside and explore while we worked, we'd get covered with its sticky seeds. Even the regular feeling of desperation of just walking outside for a few minutes to pick greens or feed the animals, only to spend almost half an hour just picking the spines out of our pantlegs (and weeks afterward trying to eradicate it), managed to turn into a unexpected moment of repose, albeit a month or two later. Just today, my daughter and I were standing in the kitchen after coming in from outside and I noticed she was prostrate on the floor behind me. At first, since she has a frustrating puppy-like characteristic of chewing shoes, I impatiently said, no touch! But when I looked down, I realized she was picking seeds off the bottom of my pantleg and couldn't help but smile. This is a 17-month old, who picks kale leaves and feeds them to our chickens—why had I assumed she was just getting into trouble instead of doing something constructive? I took a deep breath, stooped down, and hugged and thanked her, acknowledging to myself that I'd judged the moment too quickly.

The living things in our garden have been in a relative state of neglect, with the exception of our flock of chickens. They didn't lay a single egg for almost 4 months this past winter, and we were starting to wonder if our efforts to keep them fed and safe were in vain. Our older chickens almost got passed over for new chicks to replace them. But then miraculously, almost a month ago, they began laying again, and right now, not one but two of them are sitting on eggs in the nest, in the hopes that they will become first time moms to some fuzzy little chicks in less than a couple weeks. In checking up on them last night I observed that one of the 7 eggs they'd laid and were brooding was crushed and smeared over the others. I couldn't figure out if it was them or the other chickens coming in and stepping on them. So I decided to try and experiment with a swinging door so they could get out and eat and drink water once or twice a day but that would block the other two hens from coming in, who'd have to lay their eggs in a lower nest box. As I was snipping and collecting grass from around the yard, and placing it in the coop, rearranging the eggs carefully, I couldn't help but think of an Easter basket. Then I thought, duh, these *were* the original Easter egg hunts! Even though I probably won't have time or money to do up a fancy colorful gift basket like the kind we used to get as kids, we'll have the satisfaction of having the real thing.

Not to be trite, but cliches describe these situations well—finding the silver lining of every cloud, or asking yourself what you can learn from a situation. My own personal list goes on, but I hope I've made my point. In these particular moments, I made a mental note that sometimes even the most disdainful situations can have surprisingly sweet results—especially if you take the time to look for them.