Guerilla Cultural Repair

See the cool things you can do if you know how to repair stuff?

For a year from September 2005, under the nose of the Panthéon’s unsuspecting security officials, a group of intrepid “illegal restorers” set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building’s famous dome. Under the supervision of group member Jean-Baptiste Viot, a professional clockmaker, they pieced apart and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust in the building since the 1960s. Only when their clandestine revamp of the elaborate timepiece had been completed did they reveal themselves.

“When we had finished the repairs, we had a big debate on whether we should let the Panthéon’s officials know or not,” said Lazar Klausmann, a spokesperson for the Untergunther. “We decided to tell them in the end so that they would know to wind the clock up so it would still work.

The Guardian via Bryan on Twitter

Suddenly I imagine a course with a veteran clock-maker as part of the Sustainable Living Arts School curricula. A little bit folk school, a little bit Ruckus Society.


Making cheese

I’m starting to think that it really is all about fermenting culture/s. Most cultures around the world ferment their grain products before eating them (sourdough, beer, African grain porridges) and cheese, wine, beer, traditional soda pop beverages, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, most condiments (soy sauce,catsup!) were originally fermented. Seemingly we were comfortable with our role as hosts to a thriving, squiggling world of micro-organisms.

I really have to get a copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz but in the meantime I keep popping onto his website for nuggets:

By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote diversity among microbial cultures in your body. Biodiversity, increasingly recognized as critical to the survival of larger-scale ecosystems, is just as important at the micro level. Call it microbiodiversity. Your body is an ecosystem that can function most effectively when populated by diverse species of microorganisms. By fermenting foods and drinks with wild microorganisms present in your home environment, you become more interconnected with the life forces of the world around you. Your environment becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the earth with to enter your diet and your intestinal ecology.

Wild fermentation is the opposite of homogenization and uniformity, a small antidote you can undertake in your home, using the extremely localized populations of microbial cultures present there, to produce your own unique fermented foods. What you ferment with the organisms around you is a manifestation of your specific environment, and it will always be a little different. Do-it-yourself fermentation departs from the realm of the uniform commodity. Rediscover and reinterpret the vast array of fermentation techniques used by our ancestors. Build your body’s cultural ecology as you engage and honor the life forces all around you.

The prized cultures of a San Francisco sourdough, or the finest Bleu cheese, have their roots in wild fermentations that took place in someone’s kitchen or farmhouse long ago. Who knows what compelling healing flavors could be floating around in your kitchen?

At the cheese-making workshop through the Free Folk School a few weekends ago I dipped my toe into the world of fermenting dairy products. Our teacher David gently led us through the simple process of making a fresh cheese and gave us a glimpse into the infinite variations that go into making aged cheeeses. Andrew, who organized and hosted this gathering, is now growing some kefir cultures, gifted from our teacher David and I hope to hive some off in a while and bring ’em on home. I’m looking forward to trying to make some blue cheese- I’ll happily share the recipe we learned and some culture when there’s some ready.

David making cheese

This was a workshop with hardcore foodies. My fermentation teacher Andrea and pal Cedena were along for the ride. When Cedena suggested frying the paneer in butter and dipping it in maple syrup I perked up. That’s exactly what Harry and I did with the chunk I brought home. He’s now down with cheese-making.


Erin, another woman at the workshop shared an impassioned and imaginative picture of a world where the tastes of cheese vary from valley to valley, from one side of the hill to another, with the endless nuances of the land itself. The word “sustainablity” is a pretty slippery beast these days but it’s critical that we define it in a meaningful way for ourselves. Really good, homemade and locally made cheese is definitely in the mix for me.

So to conclude, a plug for a near miraculous local food resource. There were a lot of Avalon bottles at this workshop and I left mindful of how amazing that we have a local dairy, successfully operating after 100 years in Vancouver. This is apparently oldish news but I just came across news of their expansion plans and their goal to be 100% organic (certified organic products account for about 70% of their sales right now).

Time to whip up a cafe au lait and rest my eyeballs.

Leaf Piracy

First layer- newspaper

When the leaves fall my thoughts, and the thoughts of permaculture-inclined folk everywhere, turn to sheet mulch. Time to feed the gardens or start new beds with all the free, organic goodness falling from the trees. My heart-felt thanks to all my neighbours who so painstakingly rake their lawns, bag the leaves and stack them in inviting piles in the back alleys- you are an integral part of my food security plans.

As tempting as it is to just stay quiet about the wonders of sheet mulch- frankly, it’s easy pickings right now for leaves if you’re willing to put up with the confused stares of your neighbours (for the leaf pirates in our family that’s the whole attraction) – I really want people to have the experience of how easy it can be to grow yourself some good, rich dirt and a few veggies. Your food security is my food security after all.

But apocalyptic fears aside, we at the Sustainable Living Arts School just enjoy a good learning party. Truthfully everything we teach is pretty basic. It ain’t rocket science. But I like to learn by doing and I like to have a good time while I’m doing it. So we threw a “Start next year’s garden now” party a couple of weekends ago out in Kitsilano (isn’t that rad?) and Dan Gibbs, our teacher initiated us into the mysteries.

Laying down a sheet-mulch can be as easy as a thick wad of wet newspaper or cardboard right down over the grass- yep no digging, followed up by a foot or two of leaves. Or you can strive for a perfect balance of carbon (think dry, brown organic material) and nitrogen (think green and smelly stuff) that will get the composting in place action happening fast. I’ve done enough now to say confidently your lawn will be transformed into a rich, happy growing bed by spring regardless. Use what you’ve got. You should see Robin’s garden up in Robert’s Creek- she started with a thin layer of grit on the mountainside and without bringing in any outside soil has some pretty wild and abundant growth going on.

Second layer- manure

Dan had ordered some manure like substance from Lawn Boy and he’d made up a nice and stinky weed tea which we sprayed over the leaves, inoculating them with goodness. Robin (headmistress of the Sustainable Living Arts School) send me a list of the NPK (nutrient value) for various weeds. Did you know that fermented morning glory (bindweed to the uninitiated) has more nitrogen than manure? So stop cursing it and start harvesting it! Weed tea recipe: fill bucket with weeds, then fill again with water. Leave it until it’s stinky- one week? two weeks? Then you can dilute it and use it as a fertilizer for your plants. We sprayed it on full strength over the leaves.

Fun with gizmos

Dan had saved some seed husks from the garden he grew and loved on the island a while back. This is part of his biodynamic magical spin on the process. Harry would have enjoyed that story and loved sprinkling the magic dust over the garden. (He was kind of bummed I didn’t take him along; afterwards I realized kids could have easily been accommodated. We only had one very small person along for this day.)

I met Dan Gibbs, our teacher for the day, at a practical Permaculture weekend at Robin’s place on the Sunshine Coast. This means we bonded over the course of a beautiful autumn day hanging out in the gardens and homes of Robin and her merry band of subsistence farmers/ economic and social radicals. Which I guess means Dan feels like an old school mate in the best sense of the world. He ‘s someone I enjoyed learning with immediately, and who is always teaching me something without me knowing it’s happening.

Dan is the man!

Last month when we were talking about weeds (yep still thinking obsessively about weeds) as succession plants he said something like “and of course this land is in succession back to temperate rainforest- it’s what it wants to be”. I’ve used that term “succession plants” a lot in the last few months as I reflect back on Oliver’s work with ruderal ecologies and his brilliant project for the World Urban Forum a few years ago. I think it’s time to go deeper with forest gardening. Perhaps I can tempt Gregoire back for a city-focused forest gardening workshop this spring.

Fashion Crimes

It was enough to make you vomit all over your new denim jacket. The Gap has been caught using child labor in an Indian sweatshop, and not just child labor–child slaves. As extensively reported on the news, the children, some as young as ten, were worked 16 hour days, fed bowls of mosquito-covered rice, and forced to sleep on a roof and use over-flowing latrines. Those who slowed down were beaten with rubber pipes and the ones who cried had oily cloths stuffed in their mouths. Gap Kids: New Frontiers in Child Abuse on Barbara’s Blog

I asked my friend and former colleague Diane if she had any workshop ideas she could teach for the Sustainable Living Arts School. She responded, sheepishly with a “somewhat frivolous” workshop idea to help people make the most of the clothes they’ve got already. It ain’t frivolous when a trip to the mall feeds the child abuse Barbara Ehrenreich describes and unleashes more sickening corporate mealy-mouthed apologies.

There’s enough damn clothes in the world already without chaining children to their work benches to manufacture more. Support local hipsters when clothes shopping is a must and you’re not up to the thrill of the chase at the charity thrifts. Or trade all your duds in for a new batch at a local swap-o-rama-rama.  Or support your local art/craft/textile blogger- check out the links at Thimble (my friend Laural) or True Stitches (a former neighbour).

Barbara’s post morphs into a modest proposal to deal with the plague of unemployed children in America, which speaks to my slightly fried mommy brain this morning both as satire and catharsis.

This is what jobless children do: They rub Crazy Glue into their siblings’ hair; they spill apple juice onto your keyboard. Believe me, I see this kind of wantonly destructive behavior every day. Vandalism is a way of life for unemployed children, and they do not know the meaning of remorse. In fact, corporate America should go further and make a strong statement against the sickening culture of dependency that has grown up around childhood.

Why are jobless children so criminally inclined? Because they know that whatever damage they inflict, the Froot Loops will just keep coming. The Gap should portray its child-staffed factories as part of a far-seeing welfare-to-work program, which will eventually be extended to American children as well.

She also rips off a good one at the expense of Montessori schools that supports my prejudices but no need to quote the entire post-go read it.

Fermentation Learning Party

I’ve done two workshops with Andrea Potter on lacto-fermentation as a food preservation technique. She’s a delightful teacher who passes on the theory and history of lacto-fermentation as she passes out the knives and gets us chopping. A few weeks ago Andrea was interviewed on CBC (5 min MP3) to promote the sustainability conference at Langara that the Sustainable Living Arts School was participating in. Listen and learn!

People around the world have always eaten fermented foods and for good reason. They help promote good intestinal flora and are a source of the much bally-hooed “probiotics” that you can spend a lot of money on at your local natural foods store. They also increase vitamin and mineral content. Sauerkraut has many times the vitamin c of raw cabbage. Modern industrialized food processes have practically eliminated these foods from our diet, which might have something to do with all the folks walking around with digestion problems.

But knowing something is good for you doesn’t necessarily lead to action, especially if the action that is required is in the form of an ongoing commitment. And sauerkraut is indeed an ongoing commitment. You “tend” a crock as you would a garden. Andrea advises checking in daily to taste and remove the foam (a.k.a. scum) that forms. After a couple of weeks it’s ready to eat. But it’s easy work- I fold back the towel on my crock, peer in and taste. The real work is in the chopping, and that’s where a learning party comes in.

Last Friday I invited some friends over, along with the kids to make up a batch of rainbow kraut. It’s made from red and green cabbage and carrots and the finished product is a lovely sunset colour. It tastes delicious. I successfully tracked down an old-fashioned crock on Craigslist. Any food grade plastic bucket will do and Andrea advises jumping in and getting going rather than waiting for the perfect equipment (what- you don’t want me to drop hundreds of dollars at the gourmet warehouse before I get going?) . But I put out my desire for an old-fashioned crock to my personal Craigslist diva and Elaine got back to me with one fast.

We chopped up about 12 cabbages and a kilo or so of carrots. Five women, who were also supervising nine children aged 5 and under got the crock going and clean-up done in one hour. There will be many jars to share in a few weeks. Wendy reported in that she did manage to find a jar of unpasteurized organic sauerkraut made the traditional way (cabbage and salt) at the health store for $9.99. Five families will get many jars of super-food for a fraction of that and an excuse for two Friday afternoon parties.

I did do something wonky with the salt measurements though. When I tasted it the next day it was intensely salty. The ratio was supposed to be 5lbs of cabbage to 3tbsp of salt. I estimated we had 30 lbs of cabbage (based on weighing 3 of them) and so measured out 18tbsp to sprinkle over the layers of chopped cabbage. Andrea has stressed how this is a pretty flexible process so I didn’t despair but chopped up 4 more cabbage and another batch of carrots last night. I’m still wondering if I could add more.

It’s in the kitchen doing its thing and I find that oddly exciting. This is food security in action and it’s emblematic of the kind of learning parties I want the Sustainable Living Arts School to inspire. It takes a community to replace an industrialized food system that relies on cheap oil. The economics of fermentation depend on small-scale networks of friends sharing what they make.

We’re thinking of a Rueben sandwich party to celebrate the unveiling. Meanwhile Jake whistled up the most amazing dip Friday night with some store bought sauerkraut- just sauerkraut, yogurt and mayo. We gobbled it down with corn chips and my favourite fermented beverage. (Next project: home beer making because the stuff in the stores is all pasteurized.)