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Emergency preparedness: Buy toilet paper. September 2, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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There may have been something funny about the theme of this year’s Disaster Prevention Day in Japan, “Let’s stockpile toilet paper!” But there’s nothing funny about the disaster that prompted Disaster Prevention Day, held every September 1st. One Spetember 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck an area of Tokyo and killed more than 140,000 people. Most of the lives were lost due to fires sweeping through the area and burning down the closely packed buildings, which were made of wood, bamboo and paper and used flames for cooking, heat, and light. In a country prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, being prepared for a disaster makes a lot of sense.

Our friend Ben also approves of stockpiling toilet paper, tissues and the like for emergency purposes. The Japanese government suggested keeping a month’s supply for every household member in reserve; in Japan, they sell special emergency rolls that are something like 460 feet long and are rolled so tightly they look like those big rolls sold in the U.S. I wish we had those here!

I’d take this even further. Of course you could blow your nose with toilet paper if you ran out of tissue. But if you’re dependent on a well for all your water, as we are here at Hawk’s Haven, if the electricity goes out, your water stops running. Normally, we try to never use “picnic products” like paper plates and bowls, paper or plastic cups, and plastic knives, forks, and spoons. But we keep a supply on hand for emergencies, and actually used some of them when the power went off for almost a week last winter. When you have to drink bottled water, use it to brush your teeth, and use it to flush the toilet, you don’t want to waste it washing dishes! Paper towels and napkins are lifesavers here, too. Not to mention extra toothpaste, soap, and so on.

Even if you’re on a sewer and get city water, if something contaminated your city’s water supply so the water was basically unusable for drinking, bathing, etc., you’ll want a backup supply of bottled water. Those big gallon jugs are great for flushing the toilet, but we find that, over time, they deteriorate and spring leaks. We use them in our greenhouse and to water our raised beds and container plants, but always keep an eye on them and recycle any that spring leaks. We also keep some on hand for the toilet, but keep an eagle eye on them to make sure they’re not leaking on our mudroom and laundry room floors! For permanent, leak-proof water storage, our friend Ben recommends those perfectly clear plastic jugs that a lot of “spring water” is sold in. They’ll never leak unless you step on one. And for drinking water, we get cases of real spring water in glass jugs, which we’ll also use for tooth-brushing in an emergency.

Besides toilet paper, the Japanese government recommends stores of food and water, a portable toilet, and a first-aid kit. I don’t know what they mean by “portable toilet,” but our friend Ben doubts that it’s a Port-a-Potty. Instead, it’s probably one of those sturdy buckets with toilet seats that are sold at camping, hunting, and sporting-goods stores like Cabela’s. You put a plastic bag (like a plastic grocery bag) inside the bucket, anchoring it with the lid, then go when you need to go and toss the bag when it’s full.

If you have a lawn and garden, you might think about buying a chamber pot (a porcelain receptacle for urine) at a flea market and pouring the nitrogen-rich urine on your lawn and flowers (not your food garden!). Urine has been known for eons as an excellent natural fertilizer.

Here in scenic PA, we’re in the path of the aftereffects of major environmental disasters rather than on the front lines. We won’t have to face off against earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, or other terrible acts of nature. But we could certainly suffer their effects, as well as terrible droughts and winter ice and snowstorms. It’s always best to be prepared.

We always have a cord of wood curing for our woodstove, since if the power fails it could mean the difference between frozen pipes (and frozen us) and reasonable warmth. Our gas stove can be lit by matches if the electricity goes off, so we can have warm food, even in winter (you can also use your outdoor grill if you have one). But we also have canned food that we can eat cold if we must, along with food that’s durable and fine at room temperature like crackers, nuts, dried fruit and cheese.

Since we’re not in the eye of a storm or other catastrophe that would force us to abandon our home, we’ve basically tried to disaster-proof our home so we could continue to live in it in the face of a power disruption, ice storm, or whatever. But we have stocked our cars with durable emergency items (including first-aid kits and space blankets, toilet paper, bottled water, tissues, sani-wipes, condiments, utensils, etc.) just in case.

Last but by no means least are your pets and critters, who’ll find themselves cut off just like you. Making sure you have extra food (and litter, in the case of cats) for your pets on hand at all times just makes sense. We keep our cat, dog and wild bird seed in big pest-proof tins and our parrot and parakeet food in pest-proof glass jars. The chickens’ scratch grains and egg-layer pellets are stored in metal garbage cans in the chicken yard, safe from invasion.

“Be prepared” is more than a Boy Scout motto. It could be a lifesaver!

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Are you ready for the Frankenstorm? October 28, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Ironically, Silence Dogood had just written two posts about disaster preparedness here on Poor Richard’s Almanac when word reached us of the imminent “Frankenstorm,” a combination of three hellacious fronts, including an arctic storm and hurricane Sandy, which will converge on the East Coast, combining gale-force winds with snow and heavy rain, snapping trees and causing lengthy power outages. The hurricane alone has already killed 43 people in the Caribbean; just wait ’til it meets up with the other fronts up here.

Check out Silence’s preparedness posts by typing their titles, “Hoarding for the apocalypse” and “Eating from stored food,” in our search bar at upper right. But thinking about last October’s freak snowstorm, which snapped off endless branches because the trees, as now, still had their leaves, and toppled numerous trees, cutting power to millions, has given Hallowe’en a whole new meaning here at Hawk’s Haven. Our friend Ben and Silence remember being without power for a week in freak freezing temperatures, when we should have been enjoying Indian summer. Instead of sitting on our deck watching the flames ascend from our fire pit, we were wondering how to keep our pipes from freezing and bursting.

And that wasn’t all. City folks who have city water and sewer services may wonder why we’re even making such a big deal about losing power. But out here in the middle of nowhere, losing power means losing everything. Our friend Ben and Silence naively thought we had it made when we bought Hawk’s Haven. The property had a well, oil heat, a gas stove, and a septic system. If the power went off, we figured, all we had to do was light some candles, keep the fridge door closed, and wait for it to come back on. How bad could that be?

Plenty bad, as we discovered when an ice storm cut off our power while our friend Cole was visiting one February. It was then that we understood that every single thing in our house was controlled electronically, which meant that no power meant no light, no heat, no water, no computer, no plumbing, no nothing. We couldn’t even take Cole to a hotel to escape our miserable conditions, because the ice had made the roads too hazardous for travel.

This eye-opening incident gave us what our friends still tease us is a “survivalist mentality.” But hey, we’d really rather survive, given the alternative. As soon as the ice had cleared, we got a wonderful secondhand catalytic woodstove and had it installed in our living-room fireplace. Our living room doubles as our guest room, since we have a sofabed there; we figured if worse came to worst, we could sleep on the sofabed ourselves while the power was out, continue to feed the woodstove, and huddle under our down comforter, wool blankets, and cotton duvets. We have flannel PJs (yours truly) and “granny gowns” (Silence) for cold nights, and aren’t averse to wearing socks to bed if we must. We keep a cord of split, cured wood under tarps near the house at all times, and always have a supply of dry wood inside next to our woodstove, along with a variety of firestarters.

The next item on our agenda was making sure we had plenty of water. We have spring water delivered monthly for drinking, so we typically have 27 gallons on hand. But we realized we also needed water for tooth-brushing, washing, dishwashing, and flushing, so we started collecting plastic gallon containers and refilling them from the tap as needed. Tip: Don’t use biodegradable jugs for this, because they will degrade, draining water all over your wood floors. Those shiny transparent containers that won’t biodegrade in a thousand lifetimes are the way to go for water storage (as long as you don’t plan to drink the water!). I guess it’s comforting to think that at least they can serve some useful purpose.

Cooking isn’t actually a problem if, like us, you have a gas stove. Even if yours is electronically controlled, like ours, you can still turn on the gas and light the burner with a match, then, once the food is ready, simply turn off the burner (or oven) as usual. (Buy the larger-size wooden kitchen matches so there will be more space between the flame and your fingers.)

Washing the dirty dishes is far more of an issue. This is where a store of paper plates and napkins, plastic utensils, and aluminum-foil pans might come in handy. We know you’d never normally use them, but this is an emergency! And you can always burn or compost the paper and recycle the plastic and aluminum. If you have access to ample quantities of clean water, you can skip the disposables and wash your dishes in an enamel-coated steel dishpan, just like great-Grandma did back in the day. They even say the dirty dishwater is good for your garden.

Getting back to food, here are some tips that can make a big difference if the power goes out: First, have plenty of food on hand that doesn’t need to be heated or refrigerated. A peanut butter and honey sandwich with a sliced apple or banana or a peeled orange or tangerine can go a long way towards establishing normalcy and satisfaction. Hard cheeses will stay good for a very long time at cool to cold room temperature, as will jams and jellies and even butter. Crackers and chips will stay good longer than bread, and many are delicious with peanut butter or cheese. Popcorn cooked in a heavy cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven over a gas flame or on a woodstove and served with melted butter, shredded Parmesan, and apple slices is comfort food at its finest. If you have hummus or veggie dip in your fridge along with pita or naan, baby carrots, celery stalks, and broccoli florets, pull them out and enjoy!

Don’t forget hot drinks. You don’t actually need an electric coffeemaker (or a neighborhood Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts) to enjoy coffee. A ceramic or plastic filter base that fits over your mug, a filter (we like unbleached Melitta filters), some ground coffee, and boiling water are all you need to make coffee by the cup (for pennies a cup, mind you, unlike those bazillion-dollar single-cup machines). Hot tea is even easier: Boil water, pour in teapot or cup with one or more teabags, steep, and serve. We find hot cocoa a bit too thick and rich for our taste, but if you’re a fan, stock up now on the supplies you need to make yourself a warm, comforting cup.

Lots of canned soups are now made to be heat-and-eat. Your microwave may be a non-option in a power failure, but you can still pull the ring on that can and pour it into a pot on your woodstove or gas burner. Baked beans (we love Bush’s Grillin’ Beans) can be eaten cold straight from the can, but can easily be heated up on a gas burner or woodstove. If you have a gas or charcoal grill (and who doesn’t?), you have a way to cook food reliably even when the power fails, as long as you’ve had the sense to get extra supplies like charcoal, propane tanks, etc.

Here’s a tip that may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but we think it could be a lifesaver for newbies to natural disasters: Eat your most perishable foods first. If you have raw ground beef in your fridge, make burgers, sloppy joes, spaghetti with meat sauce, or your favorite immediately, and eat it immediately. Ditto for hard-boiled eggs, coleslaw or other mayonnaise-based salads, and egg and pasta salads.

If you have salad greens that won’t last a day without electricity, make a big salad and eat it at every meal. (Make everyone dress only the bowl they’re eating; dressing, oil and vinegar, and oily veggies like olives, will break down salad greens overnight, so rather than putting them on the whole salad, have diners add just the amount they want to their own bowls. They can always have seconds!)

We wondered what panicked homeowners would consider essentials after last October’s disastrous freak snowstorm, but quickly discovered, around here, at least, that everyone appeared to be on the same page. The shelves had been stripped of battery-operated lanterns, water, and bread.

We’ve never used kerosene or oil lamps, and don’t think a freak storm is an especially good time to master the basics of oil-burning lanterns. Candles are easy, but they’re not exactly bright. Even the long-burning, three-wick emergency candles are pretty dim. Instead, we use battery-operated lanterns to supply light when the power goes out.

Silence and I have a pair of Coleman battery lanterns that take 4 D-batteries each and last a long time. Each fall, we make sure the lanterns are still lighting at the push of a button (otherwise, we’d replace the batteries). We clean the bulbs and white plastic shades. Our faithful lanterns provide enough light to see us safely to the bathroom and back when the power fails at night, or to cook by, if Silence uses both lanterns. But we have to admit that they’re pretty dim.

In the wake of the oncoming Frankenstorm, we thought a few more lanterns might be in order. But by the time we began hitting our local hardware stores yesterday, we were way behind the curve. Store after store informed us that all the battery-operated lanterns had been snapped up.

Silence finally found a 24-LED light bar for $13 that operated on three (included) AAA batteries. It could hang from a hook, but Silence had an idea to allow us to use its ultra-bright light for our bedtime reading: Set the light bar on one of those folding triangular wood frames that let you display plates, paintings, and etc. We have a couple sitting around, and Silence was right: They were perfect.   

Our local grocery was also out of bread (fortunately, we’d already loaded up on that) and, surprisingly, water. There was not a single gallon jug of water to be seen. The store employees were dumbfounded, but after last year’s power outage, our friend Ben and Silence weren’t surprised that our neighbors had also understood what having a septic system meant in terms of being able to flush when the power went out. (Not to mention having clean water for drinking, brushing one’s teeth, giving to your pets, bathing, etc.) Fortunately, they swear a truck full of water jugs will be arriving at 9 p.m. tonight; you can bet we’ll be there first thing in the morning.

What else? Vitamins, OTC meds like aspirin and Benadryl, first-aid kits with plenty of bandages and antibiotic cream. Pet food. Layers of clothing and blankets. The dual security of land lines and cell phones; if one goes out, the other most likely won’t. Lots of reading, writing, knitting, cooking, and other low-tech recreational activities to enjoy while your power is off and you’re trapped at home. (Napping gets extra points here, too.) And make sure you know your neighbors—and they know you—and you have their phone and e-mail addresses. It could save your life, or theirs.

Now is the time to follow the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” Every step you take could save your life, or at least make your family more comfortable as you weather the coming crisis.

Hoarding for the apocalypse. October 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I saw a headline on the Yahoo! home page yesterday about the 36 items you need to hoard against an economic breakdown, or some such thing. Admittedly, since it was one of those one-by-one slideshows rather than a simple list, and I didn’t have time to spare, I didn’t read it. But this is a topic our friend Ben and I think about a lot. So of course last night I was lying in bed thinking about the most essential items to have on hand in case you couldn’t get to the store for a while, or if you did, the shelves would be stripped bare. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Toilet paper. This always heads our list of necessities. Our ancestors used dishcloths instead of paper towels, handkerchiefs instead of Kleenex, and cloth napkins instead of paper napkins. If we had to, we could, too, which is why OFB and I keep a supply of each of these on hand. But toilet paper? What would you use instead of toilet paper?! Wrapped in its original packaging, toilet paper will keep practically forever (as long as it’s kept dry). The issue here is space; toilet paper takes up a lot of it. 

2. Soap. Our ancestors used soap to bathe, as shampoo, as laundry detergent, and as dishwashing liquid. Their hair might not have been as glossy or their clothes as fresh as ours, but simple bar soap did the trick. Bar soap keeps forever and takes up remarkably little space. Investing in an assortment of laundry soaps (like Fels-Naptha), bathing/deodorant soaps (like Dial), kitchen soaps (try a French-milled dish soap), and all-purpose soaps (such as a glycerine or olive-oil-based soap) could pay off if you were abruptly cut off from access to our usual array of specialty products.

3. Toiletries. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, mouthwash. Nail scissors, emory boards, nail clippers, orangewood sticks, tweezers. Q-Tips and cotton balls. Deodorant and lotion. Hair ties. Vitamins. Aspirin. Bandages. If all the stores shut down, would you have enough to survive for a month? For a year? OFB and I believe that all of us should keep a year’s supply of these necessities on hand, along with a comprehensive first-aid kit that contains sting and dental kits along with allergy relief like Benadryl. And if you wear glasses or contacts, extra pairs, contacts, saline solution, and the like are a must.

4. Backups. We’re firm believers in everything from extra pillows and blankets to extra pillowcases and sheets, towels and washrags, tee-shirts, socks, jackets, shoes, jeans, sweaters, gloves, boots, earmuffs, hats, you name it. If you use it or wear it, you should have more of it. What if you can’t get more and yours wears out? What if it’s really cold inside and an extra blanket or comforter or two would mean that you could still get a good night’s sleep? Solar technology has transformed devices from calculators to radios and flashlights to smartphone and computer chargers. Wouldn’t it pay to invest in a few? Seems like cheap insurance to us. 

5. Meds. OFB and I are lucky: Vitamins and aspirin pretty much do it for us, and we can buy those in unlimited quantities if we need to stock up. But what if you need a prescription drug to survive? We don’t really have an answer here, since it seems to us that doctors are very reluctant to prescribe on a more than month-to-month basis, for whatever reason. If anybody out there’s had luck getting a longterm prescription, please share your secrets of success!

6. Heat and cooking. In much of the U.S., staying tolerably warm in winter would become a major challenge  if conventional sources of heating, such as electricity, fuel oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy broke down. The same would be true of cooking. Getting an efficient woodburning stove and an ample supply of cut and cured wood might mean the difference between staying marginally warm and freezing. On a sunny property, solar energy could heat a house and its water supply. Solar stoves can be as simple as an aluminum-foil-lined box or as complex as a high-end array, but they allow people to cook without a heat source other than the sun.  

7. Water. City dwellers may only think of water in terms of their monthly water bill. Water and sewer are one of those things that happen, and will always happen, automatically no matter what. Not so for those of us who depend on wells and septic systems. The second the electricity fails, we have no light, no internet, no water, no plumbing, no heat, no cooking, no nothing. If the electricity were to go down for an extended period, we would be driven to using the chamber pots of the 18th century and hauling water from the nearest creek or pond. Those who can afford non-electric composting toilets or whose communities still allow outhouses, go for it! Those of us who are fortunate enough to have propane (gas) stoves know that a match will give us hot food even when our electric stove starters fail (as will a woodstove, even if it’s a simple heating unit, as long as you have plenty of dry wood stored), but the same is not true of water. Storing water for drinking, water for flushing, and water for washing is essential for emergency survival.

8. Food supplies. If you have a reliable source of heat for cooking and water for hydrating, storing dry staples like beans, peas, lentils, pasta, popcorn, grits, cornmeal, and flour is a very smart idea. (Unfortunately, denatured flours and etc. like unbleached white flour will keep longer than whole-grain flours, so stock up on those vitamins.) Include lots of foods that add flavor and pleasure, not to mention concentrated nutrition. You can find dehydrated butter and cheese in powder form along with powdered milk. Don’t forget nuts and cooking oils, vinegars, condiments like mustard and ketchup, and a wide array of dried herbs and spices, as well as plenty of pepper and salt. We like RealSalt, Herbamare (herbed salt), and Trocamare (hot herbed salt).

Our friend Ben’s parents had a bomb shelter when he was a very young child, and he and his siblings loved to play pioneer in its alien confines, surrounded by bags of dried peas and jars of peanut butter. Having never eaten a pea, much less a dried pea, in his life, OFB was fascinated by this futuristic food, which brings up another important point: Learn to make good food with staples before you have to, and make sure your family will enjoy what you make. It will be hard enough to endure the inevitable deprivations of a crisis without being subjected to bizarre, tasteless foods you all hate. 

If, like us, you might find yourself without the means to reliably heat food, canned food can be an excellent storage option. You can open and eat canned beans, baked beans, corn, and the like straight from the can. Add some jarred salsa and a handful of tortilla chips, and you have a meal. (Shredded cheese and sour cream, plus hot sauce and/or pickled jalapenos, certainly wouldn’t hurt, either.) Those jars of peanut butter from OFB’s youth are a great source of calories and protein; pair them with your favorite crackers and keep those crackers in a sealed container to keep them fresh as long as possible. Dried pasta and cans or jars of crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, puree, and the like can quickly make a spaghetti supper, and onions, garlic, mushrooms, cheese, herbs, and spices can make it a family favorite. 

Apples, pears, potatoes, and sweet potatoes all keep well in cold storage; so do winter squash, onions, garlic, cabbages, and Brussels sprouts. Turnips, broccoli, kale, and winter radishes are also reliable cold-weather crops. Dried fruit and high-protein, high-cal snacks like roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds are excellent additions to salads and cheese and fruit plates. 

In short, learn which foods keep well, how to use them to make food your family will enjoy, and how to combine them to balance your nutritional needs. You don’t need to build a bunker full of military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) to survive a shortfall. But it will help if you have a pantry or larder stocked with long-lasting foods you can rely on, a couple of cookbooks devoted to cooking with storage foods, and a few reliable field guides to wildcrafting, aka supplementing your storage staples with locally available fresh greens and foods like wild mushrooms, poke greens, lamb’s-quarters, chickweed, amaranth, watercress, sorrel, purslane, ramps, even kudzu. 

9. Grow your own. You don’t need a farm to supply your family with food. A small raised bed or two, a few containers, some tomato cages, and you’re set!  You might choose to build a greenhouse for year-round food production rather than investing in a pool and hot tub, or pass up the latest prestigious landscaping trend in favor of a grape arbor, strawberry bed, raspberry trellis, chicken coop, blueberry bushes, or fruit trees. The important thing here is to know that raising your own food is work, time-consuming work, and it’s important to learn how to grow the crops you want, how to harvest them, and how to preserve them by canning, pickling, and drying (the three low-tech preserving techniques that will hold up if the electricity goes out).

10. Don’t forget Fido. Hard times aren’t just hard for you, they’re hard for your pets. Make sure you have plenty of pet food, treats, and toys on hand for your dogs, cats, birds and etc. Stock up on flea and heartworm preventives. And if your dog or cat is suffering from an illness, make sure you stockpile meds for them just as you would for any family member.

Last, but by no means least:

11. Make lots of local friends. This tip should probably be first, since it could save your life. By befriending your neighbors, you’re investing in priceless life insurance. You give eggs, fresh veggies, and home-canned goods to your neighbors. In return, they keep an eye on your property, drop in with home-baked treats, recommend reliable folks who can do specialized chores that are beyond your abilities (cheap), and make sure you know if anything unusual is happening in the neighborhood. This is how people have always survived. This is how we can survive now.

What are your best tips for being prepared?

           ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Dealing with the dark. August 1, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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The news that half of India’s 1.2 billion people have lost their electrical power in the worst power outage the world has ever known should be sobering to us all. It’s sickeningly hot, and the drought that’s hammering us here in the States has pounded so hard on India that the government has set up rescue stations so people can bring in their livestock and try to save them. Now on top of that half the nation has no power.

Even here, pundits are threatening soaring grocery prices in the face of a poor crop, thanks to unprecedented heat and drought. (Thank you, global warming!) But what happens in a society where the crops and livestock die off and the people can’t afford to pay more? We read the death toll with horror when the power fails in some city or other here and the elderly pass out and die in their apartments or tenements. Imagine half a nation in horrific heat and drought conditions losing power and having no backup!

Imagine it happening here, in some future nightmare scenario. What would you and your family do if the temperatures were in the high 90s, it hadn’t rained in weeks, and the power shut off? What would you do if it was the middle of winter and freezing and the power just stopped? Now is the time to think this through and get the generator and other supplies you’d need to bring your family through a crisis like that. Now is the time to connect with your neighbors and set up some support systems that will help not just you but your community if there’s some kind of breakdown. Don’t wait for it to happen here. Because when it does, it will be too late.

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.

We’re baaaack… November 2, 2011

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Gads. After being without power for four days, we’ve learned a bit more about ourselves. Living here in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, as our friend Ben and Silence Dogood do, our situation in a power outage might be inconceivable to those of you who have city sewer and water.

We’re on a well and septic system, have oil heat and a gas stove. When we first moved to Hawk’s Haven, we were quite smug about our situation. If the power failed, sure, we’d be in the dark. But we had lots of solar-, hand-cranked, and/or battery-operated lanterns, radios, and a weather radio, not to mention wind-up clocks and watches. We also had a good supply of long-burning candles. No worries, right?

Wrong. The first time our power went out during an ice storm, we realized that all our supposedly non-electric conveniences were electronically operated. No power meant not just no lights but no heat, no water, no plumbing, no cooking. Yow.

Fortunately, our gas stove still can be lit with matches, so we can still cook in a power outage. After that first horrific outage, we got a small but efficient woodstove for our fireplace and have made sure we had plenty of cured hardwood and firestarters, not just for warmth but to make sure our pipes don’t freeze. We have bottled springwater to drink and filled gallon water jugs for flushing. And our lanterns let us travel from room to room after dark without problems, though they’re not really bright enough to read by or see yourself clearly in the bathroom mirror.

This outage was pretty mean, we have to say. It combined severe tree breakage with early darkness and late light, resulting in 13-plus hours of pitch blackness, and unseasonable cold, at 25 to 30 degrees F. every night. Because the ground wasn’t frozen, we weren’t too terrified of frozen pipes, but still were very happy for our efficient little woodstove. And of course we ate out and, when we ate at home, used paper plates and cups, which we can eventually burn in our firepit.

Now that the power’s back on, we realize how grateful we are for our modern-day conveniences. Silence keeps going on about how fabulous it is to have light and running water, so she can wash her hands and brush her teeth. We’re thrilled to see our indoor thermometer creep up to 59 degrees F., as opposed to 47 during the outage. Our friend Ben is very happy to brush my teeth, take a hot shower, and flush the toilet. 

But you know what? OFB and Silence have talked at some length about what we missed the most, and it was a decent amount of light. 13 hours of darkness is unhealthy; trying to read or do anything else in low light is unhealthy. The defining factor for us wasn’t cold, or lack of hygiene, or humiliating bathroom practices, as we might have expected; it was the super-short days and subsequent endless, sleepless nights.

As Silence said, once our power was finally restored: “You know, Ben, I might just stay up all night.” Water for hand-washing and dishwashing is excellent. Heat, light, and plumbing are excellent. But OMG, strong light to see by coupled with computer and other electronic services are more than excellent: They’re essential, at least for us.

Did you lose power? If so, what did you miss the most?

The S word. October 28, 2011

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S as in snow. We’re still in October, in case someone hasn’t noticed, and should be enjoying the golden days of autumn here in our part of scenic PA. It’s rare that we have snow before Thanksgiving, and usually we enjoy a slow, delicious harvest season and revel in the crisp air, blue skies, and brilliant colors.

Apparently, this year it’s not to be. The front-page story in our local paper announced that tomorrow there’d be rain followed by between 1 and 6 inches of snow, depending on your elevation, followed by a low of 31 degrees F.

Grrrrrr!!! So much for a long, leisurely fall. Fortunately, most of our winterizing was done, but we still had a busy morning here at Hawk’s Haven. We took the last two plants into the greenhouse and turned the thermostat on for the first time (to 55, the lowest the plants can bear). (Many of our greenhouse plants spend the growing season on our deck, and trust me, hauling 50-odd plants across half an acre twice a year is no picnic.) We stored the garden hose and put the Styrofoam faucet protector over the faucet. We put the a/c cover over the outside of the one window air conditioner we possess; we’d already taped bubble wrap over the part of the a/c that’s inside.

Indoors, we stretched bubble-wrap “curtains” across the tops of  our draftier windows, and added extra bubble wrap behind the always-closed half-curtains in the bathroom window and the now-closed half-shutters over the window with the a/c. We have insulated curtains on the windows we don’t bubble-wrap, which also all happen to be double-glazed so cold is an issue but drafts aren’t.

We’d already hauled out our draft excluders and placed them against the bottoms of our outside doors, the mudroom door, and the door of an especially drafty closet. It always amazes us how much cold air those simple fabric draft excluders keep out! We’ve amassed quite an assortment over the years, but for those who would rather not shell out good money for the stuffed fabric versions, here’s a tip: A rolled cylinder of bubble wrap rubber-banded on each end works every bit as well.

Flannel sheets, a down comforter, bedspread, and heavy Pendleton wool blanket keep us toasty at night, even when the bedroom itself is frigid. (Our fleece-lined mocassins keep our feet from freezing when we get up.) And a tiny portable heater in the bathroom makes showers bearable without having to crank up our oil furnace. (We keep the thermostat dialed down to 55 through the cold months, given heating oil prices, so every bit of additional warmth we can squeeze out is well worth it.)

As for the snow itself, our friend Ben has huge Canadian snow boots, and Silence Dogood has her trusty Muck Boots fitted with Yaktrax Pros, steel coils that grip ice and prevent slipping, even when taking out our rambunctious black German shepherd, Shiloh.  One of our snow shovels broke last year, leaving us with a wide, shallow shovel but no deep-shoveled model, so getting a replacement is on our to-do list today.

And should the power go out, we can light our gas stove with matches and cook our meals by the light of Coleman battery-powered lanterns, fire up our woodstove for warmth, and call for repairs from our landline, which won’t go out in a power failure like cellphones. We can check the weather via our battery-powered weather radio, and we have another battery-powered radio for music, news, etc., plus several solar and wind-up radio/flashlights, a wind-up clock, and plenty of books, magazines, games, and the like to occupy us during daylight hours. Once it gets dark, sleeping works for us.

Stocking up is Silence’s byword for bad weather, and she’ll be out today getting a few more staples just in case. We make a point of having plenty of dry, covered wood for the stove, plus kindling and firestarters. We have a portable propane heater and lots of propane canisters to heat the greenhouse if the power fails. We have cases of bottled water for drinking and cooking, and plenty of filled gallon plastic water bottles for flushing and watering plants. (We’re on a well, so a power failure means no water for plumbing or drinking.) We stock up on food for all the critters—cats, dog, chickens, parrot, parakeets, and fish—plus litter for the cats and seed for the wild birds who visit our feeders. For our own use, Silence stocks up on onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and other produce that is best stored at room temperature and requires no special treatment.

Silence is a big believer in cooking up satisfying comfort foods for times like this: cornbread, lentil stew, black bean soup, spaghetti sauce, mac’n’cheese, chili, creamy pasta, roasted veggies, baked potatoes, baked beans, baked apples. All can be easily reheated for delicious, filling, warming meals. She has a whole larder of canned goods, boxed and bagged staples, herbs and spices, and the like, and replenishes them weekly to make sure everything she needs is close at hand. Should we be trapped for however long by snow, we’ll still eat great meals thanks to Silence’s foresight and ingenuity.

Here’s a last tip: Know your neighbors. How comforting to think that they’re there for you if you need a generator or to bunk down for the night or just a warm meal and good company. How relieving to think you could be there for them if they needed you. Community, connection, is what it’s all about, and never more than in an emergency.

Snow. Oh, no. But if it happens, are you ready?

Be prepared. August 26, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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As if the past week’s earthquake wasn’t enough to shake up the East Coast, now we have Hurricane Irene racing up the coastline, threatening to swamp states from North Carolina through New England this weekend. Governors in coastal states are suggesting that people pack up and leave their beachfront properties and vacationers head home pronto. The National Hurricane Center is concerned enough to have featured emergency preparedness checklists, disaster plan recommendations, and etc. on their website (find them at www.nhc.noaa.gov/).

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are plenty worried, even here in scenic PA. We’re not expecting 18-foot waves to come crashing over Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home, and sweep us through the surrounding cornfields out to sea. But we could get high winds and flash flooding, and our little house sits beside a stream under some very large trees.

We do have flood insurance, just in case, but there’s not much else we can do to save our property from acts of God beside sending up prayers to the Almighty to spare us and our place from harm. However, Silence and I are big believers in emergency preparedness. We’ve done everything we can think of to be prepared for a prolonged power outage or a situation (unlikely, thank God) in which we’d be forced to evacuate our home. Here are our checklists, for your encouragement and inspiration. We’ll start with the evacuation checklist first since it’s shortest:

* keep car’s gas tank full at all times

* keep first-aid kit in car

* keep emergency food, water, toilet paper and toiletries, utensils, hand sanitizers, “space blanket,” extra clothes, maps, etc. in car

* keep cell phone charged and cell phone car charger ready

* keep car-repair supplies (extra tire, tire repair kit, battery charger, shovel, emergency flares, portable gas tank, etc.etc.) in trunk

* have pet supplies and pet evacuation plan in place (cat carriers, portable bird cages, comfy dog seat liner, etc.)

* have all important documents, for ourselves and our pets, in files in one portable file box, making it possible to race to the car with it in seconds rather than wasting time trying to find/grab everything at the last minute

* have prioritized what to save (family photos, jewelry, etc.) in what order should disaster strike

* have an emergency stash of cash on hand that can be rushed to the car in seconds, since it may be impossible to access money via banks and ATMs 

* have a battery-operated weather radio, battery and solar flashlights, and battery, crank and solar radio, plus extra batteries

Obviously, this list applies in any emergency situation, including a fire. And it’s definitely worst-case. What if, instead, you’re able to stay in your home but might be confined there, potentially without power, for some time? This is way better, but still requires planning. Here’s what we’ve done:

* have first-aid kits for ourselves and the pets, and even a dental first-aid kit

* have plenty of stored water, both spring water for drinking and bottled tap water for flushing and bathing (we’re on a well and septic system, neither of which will operate without electricity)

* have both cell phones and a land line; sometimes only one of these will work

* have lots of food on hand that doesn’t require cooking, a gas stove that can be lit by a match in case of power failure, two solar cookers, and coolers plus constantly frozen ice packs, as well as two propane grills and propane canisters and a fire pit with lots of wood

* have a woodburning stove and piles of cured wood as a backup heat source

* keep ample supplies of toiletries on hand

* keep extra pet and chicken food on hand

* have camp-style toilets on hand

* have battery-operated lanterns, a large supply of long-burning candles, and solar, hand-cranked, and battery-operated radios, flashlights, and etc., plus backup batteries

* have five rain barrels for backup water supplies

* have endless books, board games, and etc. to entertain ourselves

We’re not, in general, big fans of paper and plastic disposable plates and utensils, but should there be no water for washing dishes, it might make sense to keep some of these on hand for an emergency, along with, of course, garbage bags for their disposal. And obviously, if you take prescription meds, you need to have an ample supply on hand, though frankly, we’ve never figured out how you’re supposed to do this. Let’s just hope your doctor is a sensible and caring type who’ll appreciate the necessity and authorize multiple simultaneous prescription fills. 

If you live where a hurricane like Irene could actually send stuff flying through your windows, there are hurricane shutters that can protect them and hurricane-proof glass. You can read more about them in The Christian Science Monitor‘s article “Hurricane preparedness: 5 things you can do to keep safe,” which has lots of useful links embedded in the online version. I found this via Yahoo! News, but you could doubtless Google it and call it up or go direct to www.csmonitor.com.

So okay, what are we missing here? How do you stay prepared? Please let us know!

Running out of gas. November 11, 2009

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Silence Dogood here (again). When our friend Ben and I moved to our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, we inherited a big old gas stove along with the house. To my ongoing amusement, it’s a Caloric stove. (No kidding.) I guess there was actually a time when “caloric” was considered a good thing!

I love gas stoves for three reasons: First, you can control the amount of heat you’re using with total precision. Second, once you turn off a burner, it’s off, unlike electric stoves with burners that cool down slowly so food can burn even when the burner’s been turned off. And third, even with an electronically-triggered gas stove like ours, if the power goes off, you can still turn on the burner, light it with a match, and keep on cooking. Let me tell you, that’s a good feeling.

However, I didn’t realize that the “gas” used by gas stoves was actually propane; I guess I thought it was natural gas, despite the tank outside the kitchen door. Fortunately, the folks who’d supplied the propane to the previous owners continued to supply it to us, and patiently explained one or two things to me along the way. They also suggested, repeatedly, that I get rid of the old behemoth and buy a modern gas stove. But I love my ancient stove, even though only three of the burners have ever worked.

Let me just say that cooking an elaborate meal on three burners can be a real challenge. Besides switching off pans with the dexterity and elan of a real chef tossing crepes or omelettes, I’ve resorted to using my slow cooker, rice cooker, and toaster oven at various times to make up for the missing burner. So you can imagine my delight when our friend Ben and I wandered into Big Lots last weekend to try to find a door mat to replace the one our puppy Shiloh had chewed up and, lo and behold, there was a countertop burner for $12. Yes! Finally, a fourth burner.

You’d have thought this might have occurred to me long ago, but Luddites that we are, familiarity with any sort of gadgetry is completely alien to us. Each new acquisition is not only a revelation, it typically requires endless agonizing in the “Do we really need this?” vein before a purchase is made. Not this time, though. I really, really needed that burner, not every day, but probably a couple of times a week, and definitely for any special occasion.

All I can say is, thank God we bought it. The very next night, I put sweet potatoes in the oven, chopped up a pan full of green beans, made a huge tossed salad (a nightly staple here), and was getting ready to make rice in our rice cooker. But first, I noticed something a little odd: The oven didn’t seem to be coming on. Turning on the burner under the green beans, I noticed the same thing: no flame, no gas smell. I tried the other two working burners: nothing. I turned on a burner and lit a match: nothing. Oh, no: Apparently we’d run completely out of propane. Whatever happened to auto-fill?!!

I guess we could have put the sweet potatoes in the toaster oven, if we’d been willing to wait a few hours to eat them, but I tossed them in the fridge instead, took the countertop burner out of its box and plugged it in, turned on the rice cooker, and put the pot of green beans on the electric burner. We had a simple supper of green beans and rice with a huge salad. It wasn’t quite the supper I’d envisioned, but fortunately OFB and I both love green beans and rice, so we were able to make do and be grateful for hot food in cold weather.

The next day, the propane people arrived and refilled our tank. Our ancient stove was back in business. But this experience had taught me a useful lesson: Just as a gas stove can be invaluable in a power outage, an electric burner can be a godsend if you run out of gas.

Do you have a backup?

              ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

Be prepared, part two. October 11, 2008

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are addicted to the short-but-sweet news digest, The Week. We think it pretty well sums up (or sums up pretty well) the national mood for any given week. The latest issue’s headlines tell a grim story: “Household debt: Will your credit line disappear?” “Car loans no bargain.” “Employment: Job losses add to woes.” “The financial crisis: Looking for a scapegoat.” “The economic crisis: On Main Street, fear leads to frugality.” Even the food and lifestyle sections reflect our national woes, spotlighting a simple one-dish chicken recipe from Jamie Oliver using potatoes and cherry tomatoes from his garden, and addressing budget issues with “Wine: A guide for troubled times.”

Unfortunately, this is not hyperbole but truth in advertising. To excerpt from The Week‘s excerpts in “The economic crisis”: “Auto sales are plummeting, airline traffic is dropping, and restaurant managers are looking out over acres of empty tables. A generation that is accustomed to living beyond its means is now scrimping like Scrooge…. Consumer confidence is shattered, as people watch banks and insurance companies fail, and their 401(k) retirement accounts drop by 20 percent to 30 percent in a matter of weeks.” In an ironic take on the situation, The Week quotes Lily Tomlin: “Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse.”

Our friend Ben is a big believer in humor providing some much-needed perspective. But I’m also a big believer in that old Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” In an earlier post, “Be prepared,” I talked about some low-key, commonsense preparations people could make to ensure that they had food, water, light, and warmth if the usual sources of supply failed them, for whatever reason, for a shorter or longer time.

Silence and I also think it’s a smart idea to take advantage of the great self-reliance resources available to us. You can click on the links to our favorites in our blogroll at right: Backwoods Home magazine, which provides useful free content on its website as well as access to Jackie Clay’s wonderful how-to-do-it blog. Granny Miller, an amazing resource for everyone looking to be more self-reliant (and, incidentally, a marvelous example of what a thought-provoking how-to blog can be, even including videos of how to perform basic skills and featuring one of my favorite items, “Granny’s” pantry lists for 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, which not only show what and how much of each item they’ve stocked up, but what they’ve found they actually use). The Mother Earth News website, which, like Backwoods Home, includes helpful free content on its site. And Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog, a great resource for basics and staples. If you know of other excellent resources we’re unaware of, please tell us about them! We are eager to know.

Today, however, our friend Ben would like to focus on some items that don’t seem like matters of life and death, but that would quickly make a big difference between life being okay or miserable. They’re all low-cost items and most of them keep forever, so you can stash them in the laundry room, guest or linen closet, under the beds, under the bathroom sink or in the bathroom cabinet, or even in plastic storage boxes in the attic, garage, or basement—anywhere you have a little extra space. Here’s the list:

* Toilet paper. Be you never so sparing, you know how fast toilet paper gets used up. And I don’t care what people say about using newspaper if you run out. Ugh! (You’re going to need that newspaper for fire-starting, anyway.) Look for bulk sales and stock up on toilet paper now.

* Cloth napkins, dish towels, and hankies. Unlike toilet paper, you may enjoy the convenience, but you don’t really need paper napkins, paper towels, and Kleenex (or your favorite brand). Of course you can also stockpile some of these paper products when you find them on sale, but it makes sense to have some of the old-fashioned cloth versions on hand just in case. Cloth napkins and dish towels are often available at thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army for pennies, and, while our friend Ben would not personally want to buy a used hankie, new ones aren’t exactly budget-breaking, either. I suggest at least two cloth napkins per person, so one can be in use while the other is drying, and a dozen cloth hankies per household member isn’t really unreasonable.

* Toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, shampoo, soap, vitamins, etc. These items are hygiene and health essentials, and you should have plenty on hand. You should be tossing that old toothbrush (or reusing it for crafts or home-cleaning purposes) every three months anyway, right? Buy plenty of extras of your favorite kind (ditto for your family). As for toothpaste, our friend Ben has read with chagrin that studies showed that the much-hyped whitening toothpastes did no more to whiten teeth than the plain old house brands. So look for the cheapest version of your preferred (cavity-fighting) brand and buy plenty of extras. As with stored food, use your stored toothpaste and replace tubes as you use them, and ditto with vitamins. No-nonsense bars of soap keep forever and will come in handy if your fancy brands of foaming cleanser become unavailable or you can’t get to them or afford them. As for shampoo, our friend Ben knows that people used to wash their hair with bars of soap, and I in fact know one person who still does (gulp). But I would prefer to avoid this, to me, nuclear option if at all possible. I suggest stocking up on shampoo, detangler, and conditioner, again looking for sales or haunting the Dollar Store or dollar aisles at the grocery. Your teenage kids may insist it ain’t so, but our friend Ben wonders how different the Herbal Essence sold for $1 really is from the Herbal Essence on the full-price racks? Needless to say, deodorant and (if you’re a contact-lens wearer) contact lens supplies fall into this category, too, as do female hygiene products for all female family members of reproducing age. Our friend Ben is not going into birth control here, but if you use it, consider this a word to the wise.

* Basic meds. Aspirin, Midol, bandages, antibacterial creams, and the like strike our friend Ben as household essentials. Maybe not quite as essential as vitamins, but still, if you have a headache, cramps, or a cut, you’re going to need these. It makes sense to have them on hand. Obviously, if you’re on a prescription medication, having extra on hand is a good plan.

* Laundry basics. What if you had no electricity or propane to power your washer and dryer? You still need clean clothes. Our friend Ben enthusiastically recommends that you invest in a half-dozen or more bars of laundry soap, such as Fels-Naptha (still available in your local grocery), and a wash bucket so you can shave off some soap flakes and hand-wash clothes if you must. Having a clothesline and clothespins and a wooden drying rack on hand means you can get clothes dry without a dryer, indoors or out.

* Dishwashing basics. Our friend Ben and Silence wash our dishes by hand, so it took a minute for me to remember that most people use an electric dishwasher. As with the clothes washer and dryer, it makes sense to invest in a few simple alternatives so you can have clean dishes even if you don’t have electricity. Make sure you have a functional stopper for the kitchen sink, or a washbasin (you can also use this for hair washing if the shower kicks out). Buy liquid dishwashing detergent, sponges, and brushes on sale, and keep a stock on hand. (The Dollar Store or dollar aisle of your grocery are good options here, too.) Get a drying rack—plastic, metal, or (like ours) wood, so you can air-dry your dishes, and get a tray or dishtowel to put under it.

* A teakettle. If this sounds like some kind of Victorian antique to you, our friend Ben has two words of advice: Wake up. You may need to heat water, not just for tea, but for cooking, washing clothes, washing hair, and bathing if there’s a power disruption. Buy a big, sturdy kettle that will not only hold and heat a lot of water, but will hold up over a woodstove or open fire as well as an electric or gas stove. You just never know. And you can always use it for tea.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Warmth in the form of bedding and outerwear, water, food, and fuel are all first priorities, discussed in my earlier post. But these “second-tier” staples are not only (in our friend Ben’s opinion) essentials, they’re just as vital as the ones that sustain life, at least if you have the luxury to accumulate them in time. No doubt I’ll have more to say about preparedness in a future post. But if you have the basics, you’ll also have peace of mind. And that’s priceless.