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Are you ready for the storm? December 13, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has recently been reading and hearing quite disturbing commentary on the Eurozone crisis and its potential implications. What those in the know are saying is that the world is hovering on the brink of a depression that will make the Great Depression of the 1930s look like a minor recession. They’re predicting years of deep depression, and that the dominoes could start falling at any minute.

Admittedly, this is hardly a cheering topic to be bringing up as we all prepare for the Christmas season. But since Christmas is all about love, the joy Christ brought to us and we can bring to others, thinking about how we can safeguard those we love in the event of a catastrophe, how we can give them the gift of simple abundance in hard times,  seems appropriate. And being prepared is one way to do it.

Most of us don’t have tons of spare cash, especially at this time of year, to enable us to stockpile necessities. Or the resources or desire to build a bomb shelter or bunker to store our goods and an arsenal to defend them should worse come to worst and starving gangs attack us. If it comes to that, God help us. But if it doesn’t, yet we still find ourselves unemployed, with no gas for our cars, heat for our homes, and food and clothing for our families out of reach, what can we do?

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have discussed this at great length over the past week, given the urgency with which people have been contacting us with the potentially dreadful news. The measures we ourselves plan to implement are things we normally do every winter, in case we’re trapped in the house with no power and no way out for some time because of a major winter storm. Plus a couple of extras specifically for hard times. Here’s our must-do list:

* Keep some cash at home. We always do this anyway, as a safeguard against running out at the bank or needing cash and not being able to get to the ATM. But what if a depression leads to runaway inflation, so your paper dollar is suddenly worth about three cents? We know people who have bought pre-1965 “junk” silver coinage, coins that are too beat up to have numismatic value to collectors but still retain their value as small-denomination silver for barter or exchange. Stocking a silver supply may seem too extreme for most, but keeping cash on hand is another matter. Our friend Ben was shocked to learn that in a crisis, even banks that didn’t fail outright might close for several months, freezing all assets and disabling their ATMs. In those circumstances, if you want to eat, keeping cash in small denominations in the house is a good idea. Get in the habit of getting out an extra $20, $10, or even $5 or $1 to put by every time you use the ATM, or save it from your change at the store.

* If you live in a cold climate, have several ways to keep warm. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we inherited fuel oil heat when we bought the house. But not only is it expensive, if the power fails, the heat shuts off. Once we realized this, we bought an efficient woodstove for our fireplace and stocked up on wood, which we keep stacked and dry. People always ask us why we don’t burn it for pleasure, but we keep our stove for emergencies so we’ll have the wood if we need it. For pleasure, we have a firepit in the backyard and burn fallen branches and scrap paper (like toilet paper and paper towel rolls, Kleenex boxes, junk mail, etc.). We can enjoy a fire anytime without wasting our precious fuel. Lowering the thermostat in the cold months so you’re used to cooler temperatures will help you prepare and save money on heating bills. And making sure you have plenty of warm (non-electric) blankets, flannel sheets, comforters, quilts and the like is a smart move in good times and bad. Our ancestors wore flannel gowns, wool stockings, and nightcaps to bed in their freezing homes for a reason!

* Stock up on staples. Few of us have the extra, say, $500 to rush out and stockpile basic foods and other necessities. Even if we did, we probably wouldn’t know where to put all that stuff. But if you plan ahead and take it a little at a time, you can build your stash as you figure out where to put it. The way we look at it, in a real crisis, electricity could be iffy, so when we think about staples, we try not to consider stuff that has to be refrigerated. We figure that rice, pasta, dried and canned beans and other legumes, canned tomato products, cheese, powdered milk, nuts, dried fruit, and long-keeping fruits like apples and veggies like onions, potatoes, carrots, and winter squash are necessities, along with plenty of salt, pepper, herbs and spices to add some flavor. Nut butters, jams and jellies, pickles, and other long-keeping canned and jarred foods, including a few luxuries like olives, pesto, and artichokes, can go a long way towards boosting the menu. Crackers, unpopped popcorn, oatmeal, grits, cookies and the like can also keep for quite a while if stored in tightly sealed glass jars. Stock up on flour, yeast, baking soda, and baking powder if you have a gas or wood-burning stove and know how to bake bread; if you don’t, there’s no time like the present to learn. Don’t forget olive and canola oil! Not to mention foods you might not eat now in canned or dried form, like mushrooms, corn and peppers. In an emergency, they’re way better than having no mushrooms, corn, and peppers! If you eat meat, consider canned tuna and ham and cured or smoked meats like pepperoni, bacon and ham. To keep your budget under control, pick one or two items to buy in bulk every time you go grocery shopping, and keep an eye out for sales. If your grocery is selling big cans of beans or tomato products at 10 for $10, that’s the week to stock up on those.

* Don’t buy what you don’t eat. This should go without saying, but we’re saying it anyway. If you’ve never eaten a split pea in your life, but your family loves baked beans, buy baked beans, skip split peas. (Unless you learn to make delicious split-pea soup between now and then.) Buying bazillion bags, boxes, cans, or jars of whatever, however healthy and nourishing it’s supposed to be, makes no sense if you don’t know how to cook it and your family doesn’t want to eat it. If times get bad, there’s no reason to add another layer of hardship. And if times don’t get bad, you don’t want to be stuck with stuff you wouldn’t eat, right?

* Stop wasting money. Think about the things you spend money on now without giving it a second thought—that Starbucks latte, a Diet Coke, your morning stop at Dunkin’ Donuts, that mid-afternoon trip to the vending machine. Now, our friend Ben can sympathize if you’re thinking that, if there are no Starbucks franchises this time next year, you’d better get those lattes while you still can. But if you took the money you’d normally spend on these daily extras and put it in a jar every morning, you’d have an emergency stash of cash by year’s end.  

* Don’t forget the other stuff. Here I’m talking about the so-called dry goods that make our modern lives possible: toilet paper, tissues, paper towels, napkins, shampoo, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, floss, toothbrushes, Q-tips, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, combs, hair ties, hand lotion, emory boards. Not to mention aspirin, antihistamines, vitamins, bandages, cold packs, and first-aid staples. Some of this stuff is really bulky, so you’ll need a strategy to store it. Think about the attic, basement (if it’s dry), under the beds, in guest closets, in your closet if you happen to have unused floor or shelf space. Turn your guest room (if you’re lucky enough to have one) into an emergency storage room. Again, watch for sales, and think about how fast this stuff gets used up. Try to encourage the family to use less toilet paper, etc., but don’t hold your breath. While you’re at it, make sure you have enough towels, washrags, etc. to last your family for five years. Not to mention clothes and underwear. Goodwill, Salvation Army and other secondhand stores are cheap sources for extra clothes, towels and bedding.

* Get ready to wash and dry. Assume that in a crisis you’ll be washing and drying dishes and clothes by hand. Stock up on clotheslines and clothespins, wooden drying racks, dish racks, and liquid dish and laundry detergents, not to mention a big washbasin for your clothes.

* Get extra shoes, coats, sweaters and socks. It’s no coincidence that artists depicting hard times or soldiers in desperate straits often show them barefoot or in shoes that have split and are tied together, threadbare coats, etc. We’re hard on our shoes, especially, and they wear out fast. Buy extra pairs of sturdy, comfortable shoes for every season while you can, and make sure you have plenty of warm outerwear. Thick, soft knit scarves can double as neckwear and headgear, keeping your head, neck, and chest warm.

* Please remember your pets. While you’re stocking up for yourselves, please stock up for your pets. They’ll need food, litter, etc. whether you can get to a store—or there’s anything in the store, or anything affordable—or not. A metal garbage can or plastic 5-gallon bucket can hold plenty of dog or cat food, birdseed, etc., and both dried and canned food keep a long time.

* Think about entertainment. Imagine that you’d lost your job and the crashed economy meant that you were trapped at home for months on end. What would you do, especially if the internet went down and the electricity went off? Getting some books, magazines, puzzles, and games like cards, Monopoly, checkers or chess, and Scrabble could help you and your family pass the time. Or—if you have the space—our friend Ben’s favorite, a ping-pong table.

* Don’t forget light. Even if the electricity stays on, it’s a good idea to have plenty of light bulbs on hand. If it goes off, having lanterns, flashlights, and other solar- and battery-operated equipment like radios is essential. (Plus plenty of batteries to operate them.) We have both a battery-operated radio and weather radio, as well as every combination of solar, battery-powered, and wind-up flashlight, lantern, and radio. It doesn’t hurt to have a stock of candles on hand, either; I wouldn’t want to have to read or work by candlelight, but you can certainly eat by it. If you decide to try kerosene lamps like the ones the Amish use, I’d suggest that you buy one and practice lighting, cleaning and maintaining it to see how it works for you. We’ve never tried them. Finally, if you don’t have a serious solar or wind-powered system and the grid goes down, adjust your hours. Rise with the light and sleep when it’s dark, as our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, advises. It may not make you healthy, wealthy or wise, but it will save your batteries, kerosene, candles, etc.

* Get fit. If there’s no gasoline or it costs the earth, you may find yourself in need of alternative transportation. Unless you live on a farm, have horses, and know an Amish buggymaker, that’s probably going to mean that you’ll be doing a lot more walking and biking. If you don’t have a bike, consider buying one (along with a repair kit) and learning how to ride it. You can buy great reconditioned bikes; just make sure you don’t get a racing bike when what you need is a sturdy one that can haul a lot of groceries. Walking every day is the best exercise there is; get in the habit now so you can go the distance if you have to. Your health will benefit even if it never comes to that. If you live in the city, you probably already use public transport, but if not, now’s a great time to start, so you can learn the routes, the cost, and the time involved. 

* Grow your own. Self-reliance helped folks get through the Great Depression, and Victory gardens helped them get through rationing during the World Wars. Most of us won’t be able to grow all our food, but anybody can learn to grow some of their food, even if it’s in containers on an apartment balcony. Converting a sunny part of the backyard into raised beds, building (free) pallet compost bins, buying seeds, and planting a few berry bushes and a fruit tree or two can make a big difference, especially if you learn to succession-plant so the harvest keeps coming. If you raise a few backyard chickens you’ll have a steady supply of eggs until the days shorten in fall (or year-round if you heat and light your hen house). If you put up some coldframes you can extend your growing season (the cheapest way is to make the walls out of straw bales and pick up windows that have been set out at the curb to put on top; you can use the bales for mulch when they start decomposing). Setting up rain barrels to catch roof runoff will help with watering chores. Silence reminds me that it’s a good idea to learn basic canning, drying, pickling, etc. techniques, so you can handle the harvest if it’s too much to eat fresh. You can also work out an arrangement with your neighbors where you each grow different crops and share the harvest. Which reminds me…  

* Know your neighbors. Close-knit communities have historically helped their residents survive hard times. In these days of suburban sprawl and bedroom developments, the very idea of community may seem ludicrous and outdated. But getting to know the people who live around you can pay off bigtime in times of trouble. Whether your neighbors are keeping an eye on your place, babysitting or petsitting, exchanging lawn care for winter wood, bartering sugar for onions or oil, or simply going in on the cost of groceries and sharing meals and rides, they can be a godsend when times are tough. Or anytime, when you think about it.

* Pray. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it would be a really, really good thing if none of this came to pass. When you address the Deity of your choice, adding a plea for the welfare of the people of the world seems both timely and appropriate. Those who, like our friend Ben, enjoy chatting with the saints and/or holy people of their faith, ask for advice, insight, and intercession. Those for whom Gaia, the Earth herself, is the highest entity, ask forgiveness for humankind’s sins against her and beg for mercy.   

What else can you do? We’ve read over and over that you should stock up on prescription meds ahead of an emergency, but we’re skeptical that any doctor would agree to give you a multi-fill prescription. And of course, how you could pay bills that keep coming due like clockwork when no money is coming in is beyond us. (To say nothing of taxes.) There’s a lot that’s beyond us, and we’d welcome any tips and insights.

But what we can say is this: Having a cushion against hard times is a good feeling, even when there’s not a cloud on the horizon. It’s a great gift to give yourself and your family this Christmas.


Mrs. Buff Orpington January 21, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Yesterday, someone searched our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, for “Mrs. Buff Orpington Blondie.”

Of course, I loved this. Buff Orpingtons are our all-time favorite heritage chicken breed. They’re large, docile, friendly, and gorgeous, with their glowing golden plumage. Known as a dual-purpose breed, the hefty hens produce abundant brown eggs and apparently make good eating, too. (Admittedly, our current Buff Orpington, Stella, is the top chicken in our little flock, and rules the roost with an iron claw, proving that there’s an exception to every rule. But all our previous Buff Orpingtons have been as peaceful and friendly as could be.) Our friend Ben and I would recommend Buff Orpingtons to anyone starting out raising chickens, and though we prefer the look of a colorful mixed heritage flock rather than a flock of nothing but Buff Orpingtons, we’d never want to be without one.

But what’s with “Mrs.” Buff Orpington?! And was Blondie the chicken’s name? I suppose you could think of Buff Orpingtons as blondes, but their bright gold plumage is more the brassy blonde of Mae West and Madonna and less the platinum blonde of Debbie Harry and Marilyn Monroe.

Always distrustful of my ignorance of popular culture, I decided to once again turn to that font of wisdom, Google, to make sure I wasn’t missing something. For all I knew, Mrs. Buff Orpington could be a cartoon character like Foghorn Leghorn, or even a character in the movie “Babe.”

Sure enough, Googling “Mrs. Buff Orpington Blondie” revealed that Mrs. Buff-Orpington was a hoity-toity character with affected upper-class speech who appeared on the radio show “Blondie,” which aired from 1939 to 1950. (Note that upper-class hyphen in “Buff-Orpington,” at that time not a sign of equality in marriage but of the combination of great families.) And yes, “Blondie,” like the cartoon strip on which it was based, was about the life and adventures of Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead.

Maybe, like me, you grew up with Dagwood and Blondie in the Sunday funnies, and found them tedious beyond belief. There was Dagwood, eating a monstrous sandwich. There was Dagwood, sleeping on the couch. There was Dagwood, sleeping on the job. There was Dagwood’s boss, the short, corpulent Mr. Dithers, chasing Dagwood around the desk with a ruler. Please God, bring on “Dilbert,” “The Far Side,” and “Calvin and Hobbes”!!! “Blondie” was as predictable and boring as “Peanuts.” Spare us, please.

But, as I discovered while researching Mrs. Buff-Orpington, things are not always what they seem. I was astounded to learn that the staid Mrs. Bumstead had started out as the carefree Flapper Blondie Boopadoop, doubtless akin to Betty Boop. The footloose and fancy-free Ms. Boopadoop debuted in her own comic strip in 1933, where she hung out in dance halls and was, if not what we’d now call a “working girl,” at least a girl from the working class. Then Blondie met the upper-crusty Dagwood Bumstead, the scion of a fantastically wealthy family, and everything changed, though surely not as she’d hoped it would.

As a child, I saw Dagwood Bumstead as Everyman, the hapless, inept guy who had no ambition and was dull as dirt, always screwing up, never smart enough to pull off his feckless schemes or to learn from his mistakes. To discover that he’d originally been depicted as a wealthy playboy was almost more than I could take. Apparently, he only became Mr. Dithers’s pathetic flunky once he’d married Blondie and his aristocratic family cut him off for marrying beneath his class.

Good grief! What a wonderful lesson for me. I need to remember that I don’t know everything I think I know. Far from being the stereotypical Fifties family that seemed so out of place in the cartoon pages of the Seventies and Eighties, Dagwood and Blondie were the classic rags-to-riches (gone bad with the cut-off inheritance) fantasy of the Great Depression. They really belonged with those other Thirties cartoons I found completely incomprehensible: Pogo, Orphan Annie, Nancy, Dick Tracy. A world as alien and unintelligible to me as the moon landing would have been to my great-great-grandparents. (I can still remember trying to figure Pogo out, and failing over and over. It was as if it had been written in a language I didn’t know. I feel the same way about Doonesbury. I guess sometimes, you just have to have been there.)

Thanks to whoever searched the site for Mrs. Buff-Orpington, I now know many things I would never have learned without him or her. If you’re curious and want to hear a radio broadcast of the “Blondie” show, Google “Blondie radio show” and you’ll find a site with a link. And if you’re thinking of getting a few chickens, we still think Buff Orpingtons are the best.

                 ‘Til next time,