Friday, January 6, 2012

The Shell

Photo courtesy Flickr

For several years I’ve been experimenting with the way the house is laid out. Corralling small possessions into one room on each floor has left the rest of the space flexible and easy to maintain. I can reconfigure a room single-handed in ten minutes. The second floor “smalls” live in a glass-fronted bookcase and in plastic bins on high-tech coated wire storage racks. The ground floor smalls live in the pass-pantry and in the toxin-free mechanic’s red metal rolling tool chest that has replaced the kitchen junk drawer.

A sleeping room with none but essentials in it becomes a guest room with a simple change of linen. Carefully edited space forces me to make sure the furnishings are as good and as well cared-for as I can manage, and that the walls, ceiling, and floor are, as well.

Many of the forces of domestic life leave one spread far too thin. Offering a pitched challenge to excess leaves me with at least the realistic hope of energy left over to think and feel.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Aftermath

Photo courtesy Flickr

A friend from New Orleans told me that the period between Twelfth Night and Ash Wednesday is one long carnival season. As Christmas wanes, I’ll swap violet decorations for red in the green and gold mix and coast until Lent. Then I’ll subtract the gold and green until Easter.

Christmas clean-up is simple if one uses fresh greenery. A traditional tree, alive and decorated with fruit, popcorn, and strings of berries can simply be parked in the garden as a fancy bird feeder. Wreaths and swags can be mowed into mulch.

During the year I keep an eye out for interesting bandannas and scarves. I use them as “furoshiki”, the traditional Japanese carrier/wrap combination. Spread the square of fabric flat, straight, and with one corner facing you. Lay the contents in the middle, lift the facing corner and its opposite number and fold them together tight against the contents. Turn the remaining fabric close against the contents to secure the edges and then tie the excess into a square knot. I like to tie a small ornamental item into the knot in lieu of a bow. Small toys or stuffed animals are welcome. A reusable wrapper is part of the gift, and it’s usually a welcome relief to the recipient. Flickr offers a rich selection of examples of furoshiki-I'll have to tighten up my game.

This year I bought a cardboard suitcase from the local shipper’s concierge office, turned it inside out, decorated the face with flame tape and a Marvellous comic poster, and set a bulky gift into it. With the box flipped right side out again, it was ready to ship home, where the box can store flat until it’s needed for something else.

Christmas is easily over-amplified. I have come to appreciate a safe and sane approach to decorations, food, and gifts. I set gifts under the tree on the afternoon of the twenty-fourth. It helps to remember that Christmas was originally a feast for the deprived. What I find precious now is undisturbed time with the family, particularly when we cook together, and the knowledge that, for now, excess is more of a problem than want.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Planning the Garden


Photo courtesy Flickr

A great big gorgeous seed catalogue arrived last week. It’s from an outfit that supplies plants adapted to Puget Sound’s unusual climate. I used to settle in with the catalogue and lay out weeks of heavy labor for myself in the months to come.

Years of waste and incompetence have taught me that nearly anyone is a better and more responsible grower of vegetables than I. The willingness to fail has served me well. A shop four blocks away will offer six-packs of healthy organic seedlings when planting time arrives. Corn salad and chickweed are established as edible weeds-in-residence, and the wild roses glisten with edible hips.

The kitchen compost heap lies in a little sun trap sheltered from the wind. Last year in a hurry and on a whim I set several six-packs of edible greens into the heap without separating the plants. I mulched them with an inch-deep layer of complete organic fertilizer and did nothing else for them, not even watering. I’ve had flat-leafed parsley, green shallot tops, kale, chard, and beet greens from that patch for three seasons, and they’re growing like it’s not January. Any temperate day adds centimeters to the leaves. Potatoes turn up when new garbage is turned in, and two volunteer tomato seedlings are still standing against the cold.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ashes


Photo courtesy Flickr

Out of consideration for my many neighbors’ lungs, I’ve cut back on the amount of wood smoke I generate. The French parlor stove left after the fourth Christmas in a row with a burn ban. On a city lot, we’re self-sufficient in barbeque wood. The only open flame I see from one month to the next is that of a well-secured tea light.

Sometimes I wonder if the creeping combination of consumer safety, environmental, and homeland security concerns are on the verge of creating a culture in which human beings will be denied the use of fire. It has long been true for most people that the only real need for fire is to light their cigarettes.

The design and services that make contemporary life so convenient also de-skill. As elders pass on, the living memory of basic processes passes with them. The deep wisdom of millennia evaporates without our even knowing it’s gone.

New Year’s neighborhood celebration was diminished by a national story about a couple who had lost their elders and their children in a fire. The father of the family had cleaned fire place ashes into a paper bag and set it somewhere that allowed the house to ignite, not so difficult now that many furnishings are made of oil. His was not a stupid move: it was an ignorant one. Society has an obligation to train each person in the effective management of fire just as it trains in computer skills.

Before smoking was banned in offices, all wastebaskets were made of metal: the risk of fire was common knowledge. Galvanized metal garbage cans with lids were called “ash cans” for good reason. Anything that held ashes from any source was fireproof. It was unheard of for ashes to go into other than a dedicated receptacle.

There’s dignity to managing a hearth. The old rhythms of the housekeeper center on keeping it tuned and decent so that it will warm and feed the family. At bedtime, the fire was “banked”, or covered with ashes so that it could be revived in the morning. A healthy bed of ashes is an asset, allowing one to direct and modify the burning patterns of the fuel. A sweet-burning wood fire is a great privilege. The time and attention it takes to manage one charts the passage both of the day and of the yearly cycle of harvesting fuel. Now, a fire is a leisure luxury, but it used to be that tending the fire was a welcome micro-break that cleared the mind of the task at hand and refreshed one’s train of thought.

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More after the jump.