MacBooks and Grain Mills: The Tangled Nest School of Reformed Techno-Luddites

MacBook-2Confession:  I’m now writing my blog about simple, handmade, sustainable domestic arts from my brand new, super-shiny MacBook Pro, in all its MacBook Pro glory, including the celebrated “precision aluminum unibody enclosure.”  I labor under the fantasy that The Tangled Nest suddenly looks brighter and more beautiful to everyone, not just me.  I love this computer.

Still, ironies and ambivalences hover.  I spent half an hour this morning shopping on the MacBook’s “advanced glossy digital  display” for a hand-cranked grain mill.  I expected to find such things on earth-motherish-foodie-bread-nerd websites, but as often as not I end up on some so-far-right-it’s-left-stockpile-now-for-the-apocalypse website, where the tab for the grain mill page is right next to the tab for the “guns/ammo” page.

Sometimes I feel like two different people in one body.  Tom says, “That’s why I married you, honey–you’re a floor wax and a dessert topping.”

This is my dream grain mill–the gorgeous, solid cast-iron Diamant Mill from Poland.


Isn’t it lovely?  It  costs more than my new MacBook Pro.  I will probably be settling for the Family Grain MillEverything Kitchens in Missouri has an unbeatable price (and no guns), and the FGM has an optional electric base.  So when I’m tired from typing on the computer, I won’t have to hand-crank the mill!

The Summer Solstice Garden

Remember the mounded earth raised beds that looked like a graveyard and made me cry?  After some sun, rain, and a fair bit of work, this garden is now one of my favorite places in all the world.

February above, June below:


Here’s today’s view through the chicken coop door:


We grow only what we truly love to eat, and save our experimental forays for the farmer’s market.  Several times I’ve tried growing something that sounded exciting, but if we don’t LOVE what we grow, it just won’t get eaten up.  So this year we have a garden-full of peas,  lettuces, beans, shallots, lots of tomatoes, small sugar pumpkins, ONE zuchinni plant (Cocozelle–an Amish heirloom), some sweet peppers, cucumbers, delicata winter squash, chard, oft-used herbs, flowers for the soul, and a few other favorites.

I planted two kinds of pole beans:  Kentucky Blue and Violet-Podded Stringless, which make those gorgeous purple pods.  I love how even the stems of the Violets grow purple, so I can tell them from the others even though they’re planted together.


We planted Oregon snow peas and Cascadia bush snaps at the end of March, and are now overrun with their sweet pods:


This morning I picked the first bouquet from our sweet pea teepee, planted on the spring equinox:


Even Claire will eat broccoli from the garden.  It looks so pretty in the morning, all dewy.


The columnar apple trees are producing little applets.  Columnar apples are branchless, with fruit growing compactly along the trunk–perfect for backyard gardens.  If you are interested in these trees, autumn is a great time to plant them–just get two varieties so they will cross-pollinate.  Ours are Northern and Golden Sentinel.


The chicks, meanwhile,  are all getting along nicely.  The older girls still peck at the younger ones, but it seems to be mainly symbolic.


Looking back at the coop:


I hope all of your gardens (real and metaphorical) are flourishing.

Happy Solstice.


Soporific Salads and Lettuce Opium

Remember when the Flopsy Bunnies ate so much of Mr. McGregor’s lettuce that they fell into a deep sleep?  Mr. McGregor was able to pick them right up, put them in a gunny sack and take them home, where Mrs. McGregor vowed to cut off their heads, skin them, and use them to line her coat.


“It is said that eating too much lettuce is soporific,” Beatrix Potter wrote.

I used to think that Potter’s sleep-inducing lettuce  was a plot device, but the milky sap released by cut salad greens is indeed known to calm the nervous system, and to possess a mildly soporific, sometimes euphoric effect. Lettuce is actually named for this sap.  Lactuca, the genus name for both wild and domestic lettuces, is rooted in the Latin lact-, milk, and though our garden varieties were bred by modern agriculturalists to have less of this bitter  substance, plenty of it is still released when we cut into the base of most lettuce heads.   Lettuce sap contains the chemical Lactucarium, a non-narcotic sedative and analgesic, structurally similar to opium, but not nearly as strong.

This year I planted Bullet Green Romaine from Territorial Seed Company.  It's super-sweet and beautiful--I think it's the best romaine I've ever had.
"Lettuce milk" released from freshly-cut romaine. This year I planted Bullet Green from Territorial Seed Company. It's super-sweet and beautiful--I think it's the best romaine I've ever grown.

In ancient Greece, guests were served lettuce soup at the end of a meal to help usher them into dreamland.  Turning this notion of hospitality on its head, the Roman Emperor Domitian was known to torture his guests, who were forbidden to fall asleep in his presence, by serving them heaps of lettuce at the beginning of state dinners (Domitian was assassinated in the year 96–“perhaps justly,” writes Jack Staub in 75 Exciting Vegetables).  And of course throughout Europe salads are still traditionally served at the end of a meal, an homage to lettuce’s sedative properties.

There have been modern scientific studies concluding  that the sleep-inducing qualities of lettuce is simply superstition, but I am somewhat more inclined to believe centuries of cross-cultural medicinal usage above a sterile lab result.

(A Beatrix Potter aside:  I am a fan.  I have heard her dismissed as “Too Cutesie,” which is a terrible midsreading.  Yes, those bunnies are pretty darn adorable, but no cuter than a real passel of sleeping baby rabbits.  Potter’s animals are perfectly wild beneath their ill-fitting clothes, and her reading of the human-wild relationship is wry, biting, and clear-sighted:  “Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.  Your father had an accident there.  He was put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”)

Backyard Chickens, Ethiopian Style

A wonderful guest post from my husband Tom:

In May I left Lyanda and Claire and our new little chicks for a three week trip to Africa for work. A few days later (isn’t jet travel amazing?!) I found myself in a small stone-built compound in Mekele, Ethiopia, where Julia, the photographer I was traveling with, was documenting a peer-outreach worker’s weekly visit to an HIV-positive client.  The room where the client lived was very small, just enough space for a bed and a small stove to cook on, so I slipped into the courtyard to give them some space and to wait.

speckchicksmAs I sat in the sun, two things caught my attention. There were half a dozen chickens roaming around, including this speckled gal of an unfamiliar breed, scratching and pecking in the dirt just next to me.  Handsome chicken! But even more compelling was the face of this older woman who had stepped out her door and was watching the commotion: white foreigners swinging expensive photo gear and taking photo after photo, the woman photographing her neighbor, and the man photographing her chickens! I took this snapshot of the scene, and began hoping I might find a way to take her portrait.

chickenssmBiding my time, I noticed a small set of eggshells pressed into a little circle of earth above the door of her storage room. This was a keen anthropological observation, I decided; surely I’d found some ancient Ethiopian cultural practice, richly imbued with nature-magic and the potent symbolism of eggs and new life. If I could, I’d get the old woman to explain it, and thereby gain a deeper understanding of local Tigray cultural traditions.

chickenssm-0618-2As the photo shoot finished, I asked our translator to introduce me to the old woman. “Tell her I have chickens at home too,” I instructed, hoping our mutual fondness for poultry might open a door to asking more challenging questions about the folk traditions of local animal husbandry.

We shared a smile about our chickens-in-common. “And why are there eggshells above the door?” I asked, pointing across the courtyard. “What do they symbolize?” Her eyes followed my pointing finger, there was a rapid exchange in Tigrinya, and the old woman laughed, walked across the courtyard, talking all the way, and promptly reached up, pulled down the shells, and began crushing them between her fingers.

chickenssm-2“What is she doing?!” I asked our translator with mild alarm, the Tigrinya speakers having forgotten that I no idea what was being said.

“They’re just eggs,” he replied, chuckling to himself as he negotiated the gulf between an inquisitive American guest with a chicken obsession and an old woman whose home we had invaded with Nikons and impertinent questions. I pressed him, “What do you mean?” as the old woman tossed the eggshells into a corner. They exchanged a few more words, and the symbolism of the eggs was revealed to be merely personal, not deeply cultural. When the chicks had been born, the old woman had stuck their eggshells above the door, in a small gesture of celebration. That was all.

The ice broken, I asked to take her portrait, and took what is one of my favorite images from the whole trip, with a bemused smile and an intriguing set of traditional tattoos. (See high-resolution versions of all these images, and a photo of the outside of the house, here).chixlady500

As my colleagues said their thank yous and slipped out of the courtyard, I turned and took one last wide-angle shot of the scene. I hadn’t learned any secret Tigray chicken traditions, but I’d met a wonderful old Ethiopian woman, who was clearly fond of her brood.chickenssm-4

Magical Cottonwood Snowfall

This week we Seattle-ites experienced record high temperatures for the first week of June.  On one of those 90 degree evenings, Tom turned up all sweaty from his bike ride home and said, “I’m taking you girls to see some snow.”

We live at the top of our watershed, a couple miles uphill from Longfellow Creek, where our water drains.   A buffer of native trees hides the creekside trail from busy Delridge road, and along the creek grow Black Cottonwoods, as they have for centuries.  Coast Salish groups, including the Duwamish that live here, may have used the tree’s thick, wrinkly bark for water buckets, and their leaves as an antiseptic. In the early spring, the cottonwood buds lend their rich, vanilla fragrance to the air.  Now the seeds, covered in the soft fluff that helps to protect and disperse them, are falling like snow.  We’ve never seen so much of it.  Somehow, even in the heat, we felt cooled.  It was magical.



Blossoming thimbleberry covered in "snow"
Blossoming thimbleberry covered in "snow"
The heat doesn't keep our neighborhood beaver from working...
The heat doesn't keep our neighborhood beaver from working...

Western Tanager and the Morning Cup

This morning while I was sipping my morning coffee in the backyard, a Western Tanager dropped from the sky into a corner of our little pond.  No matter how many tanagers I see in my life, I will never cease to be startled by their glowing presence.  Western Tanagers are bright yellow with black wings, two vivid wingbars, and a face that has been dipped in cherry-red crayolas.


I called Claire–this would be the first tanager she’d seen this year.  “Oh!” she gasped, “It looks tropical!”  Then she covered her mouth and laughed.  “Oh yeah–it is tropical.”  Western Tanagers migrate from Mexico, Central, and South America to build their nests and raise their young in our coniferous forests.  This bird was stopping for water and a short bath, before continuing onward to choose its summer breeding place.   Such migrants will continue to pass through our yard until mid-June.

2525728973_e9d48fbc2fThe related migrant on the east side of the country is the Scarlet Tanager.  Its entire body is covered with the same red as the Western Tanager’s face.  On both birds, it is a startling color that seems to be lit from beneath.  Thoreau referred to the Scarlet Tanager in his diary as the Fire-Never-Redder bird, recalling an acquaintance who, on seeing a tanager for the first time, exclaimed “fire never redder!” and promptly fell in a ditch.

The Western Tanager is one of the many birds that benefit from our choice to drink shade-grown coffee, and I smiled over seeing one in the midst of my morning cup.   In Mexico, avian censuses in coffee monocultures (a modern growing method foisted on farmers in developing countries by “first world” corporations) show that they support only four or five species of birds.  Traditional shade-grown coffee plantations of the same size, with their multistory forest-like plantings protecting the shade-loving coffee shrub, support up to 140 species, including many of the migrant birds–thrushes, warblers, tanagers–that grace our gardens each spring.  (If you have any friends who remain shade coffee skeptics, that’s an astonishing statistic to share!)  As deforestation continues in these birds’ tropical homes, and here in their breeding areas, shade coffee growers provide much-needed habitat and refuge.  (Our current favorite local roaster:  Tony’s in Bellingham.  Their Cafe Carmelita is pure heaven).

The tanager is the avian poster-child for the Seattle Audubon Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign.   The campaign logo features the artwork of local artist and activist Ed Newbold, who couldn’t be more generous in sharing his talent with the community.


Yummy coffee, shining bird, such far-flung wildness right here in my little urban garden.  Winged migrants remind us that our own map-drawn lines mean so very little.  Instead, it is our beautiful, almost unfathomable interconnectedness that rings far, sacred, and true.

Backyard Chicken Update

We can’t believe the fluffy bits of down I wrote about a few weeks ago are now fully-feathered, chicken-shaped girls.  With the help of my amazing dad Jerry, who worked hard with me here while Tom was in Ethiopia and Senegal, our coop is finished. We think it’s pretty wonderful.  We’ll post a coop tour and plan later, but for now just a few photos, and chick-news:


Above are the two Barred Rock chicks, Esmeralda and Lucy, now nearly six weeks old, along with Chrysanthemum the Rhode Island Red.  As a discerning observer you may perhaps notice that Lucy’s comb looks awfully large and red for such a little girl.  You’d be right.  Lucy turned out to be a rooster, now re-named “Jehosephat” by Claire.  Roosters are illegal in the city, and Lucy/Jehosephat was relocated just this morning to her new home on the rural eastside.

When I started noticing Lucy’s impending rooster-ness, I added two tiny Buff Orpington chicks to our flock.  This is one of my favorite breeds, and I was glad to have space for them.  Here are Buttercup and Marigold, now three weeks old.


All the chicks have moved into the coop, but for now the young Buffs are kept separate in the Chicken Guantanamo area beneath the structure.  The older chicks still peck at them a lot, and they’re a bit small to hold their own.  The big girls sleep in the coop, and I bring the young ones in at night.


We love our coop, and so do the chicks.  Here’s Esmeralda in the chicken-door.


We’re slowly introducing the young Buff Orpingtons to the older girls.


We chose heritage breeds known both for their fine egg-laying and friendly, docile temperaments.  Now that the crazy rooster is gone, all our chicks are super-sweet.  I have every faith that they will soon live in chicken-harmony.

Why are we doing this?  See my recent post on city chicks and chickenomics…

Pretty, Practical, Hippie Herb Spiral: A Permaculture Inspiration

In their fun book, The Urban Homestead, Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen encourage our gardening efforts by telling us that “Nature is standing by, ready to help.”  Just as often, though, I resonate with Michael Pollan who, in his literate meditation Second Nature, writes, “Nature abhors a garden.”

Permaculture offers a gardening philosophy and practice that combines both notions, inviting us to work with the natural state of our landscape, even on a small backyard scale, to grow gardens that require less grappling.  In the current “victory garden” movement, it seems the impulse is to construct a few rectangular wooden raised beds, then fill them with soil and rows of plants.  Permaculture asks us to approach gardening with more heart, to first take a step back, and ask two questions.  What is is that we, the human inhabitants, require of our bit of land (food, a place to play, herbs, peace for the soul…)? And then, what does the land, and the region, need from us (soil rejuvenation, removal of invasive plants/grass, space for native plants, varied dimensions to provide habitat for birds…)?


We are still a long way from a full permacultural landscape, but in an homage to the vision, we’ve deployed one of the classic permaculture projects–the Herb Spiral.  Instead of a long path, or an unimaginative straight-edged bed for herbs, the herb spiral wraps nearly 30 linear feed of planting space into a five foot labyrinth.  The earth is mounded to three feet in the center, and slopes downward on the sides, terraced by a winding circle of stones.  Plants requiring less water, such as rosemary and dill, are planted near the center; those at the bottom edge of the spiral, such as coriander and parsley, will get more water as it makes its way down the slope.  The mounded bed also provides directional variation–the herbs that thrive in hot, dry climates (oregano, rosemary, thyme) can be planted on the sunny south side, while those that prefer cooler climes (parsley, chives) go on the north.  Cilantro, with its tendency to bolt, can be settled on the east side, out of the way of the hottest afternoon sun.

p1010290The spiral saves space, while it works with the elements of wild nature to allow our plants to flourish.  And I believe on some level we benefit from the cross-cultural symbolism of the labyrinth that ties in so well with our gardening efforts–a simultaneous turning to center, and back out to the wider earth.

Yes, it’s a little hippie.  I love it.

You can find more information on this project and many others in Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, my favorite book on home-scale permaculture, just out in a shiny new edition with color photos and an expanded section on urban gardening.  It’s super accessible–nicely written, filled with inspirational ideas, and the wild-ranging thoughts of a true permaculture activist.

Laundry Secrets from our Grandmothers: Best Ways to Line-dry

Of course you can hang your clothes any way y’all please, and they will still dry.  But I love the traditions and arcana of homekeeping.  Our mothers and grandmothers and our grandmothers’ mothers all learned particular ways to line-dry their laundry, and many of their methods result in better-looking clothes (no Pointy Shoulders!), speedier drying times, and even softer towels.  Plus people keep asking me about such things, and I realize many of my generation and younger have never hung clothes out to dry, and have questions about what works best (certain husbands who have been making sweet efforts, but nevertheless return their wive’s t-shirts with wrinkly lines down the middle, shall remain nameless).  So here’s a little line-drying tutorial, gleaned from the wisdom of women far more experienced than I:

  • p1010273Hang shirts, dresses, nightgowns, or anything else with sleeves from the bottom, not the shoulders (or they’ll look like they have 80s shoulder-pads).
  • Light sleeveless tanks and camis may hold their shape better if hung from the shoulders; just clip the very tops without folding over.
  • Hang trousers from the waistband.  If they are too long or heavy, you can clip the cuffs up onto the line just outside of the waist
  • For delicate cotton sweaters or other tops that you don’t want to clip, thread pantyhose through the armholes and pin those to the line.
  • Wet towels are heavy; folding them over helps keep their shape.
    Wet towels are heavy; folding them over helps keep their shape.

    Hang towels from the short end, folded over about three inches.  Give them a sharp snap in each direction before hanging, and again when taking them down to make them a little softer.  (Why does this work? Any physics teachers out there?)  Adding a quarter cup of white vinegar or baking soda to your wash cycle will also help soften towels.

  • Fold sheets in half, then pin the corners of the hemmed, open end to the line.  Pin opposite sides of the hem in different places so air can flow through the middle.

    Sheets like so...
    Sheets like so...
  • Our grandmothers learned to hang socks from the toes, but I can’t see that it makes a difference.  It does help drying time to clip socks and skivvies to the line, though, rather than just draping them over (which is tempting–it’s faster).  If you drape them, the middles take longer to dry, and they often blow off.   I like to shake the smalls to the bottom of the basket, then hang them all together.  Socks can be hung in pairs–it’s pretty easy to find them in the basket as you go.  Then you can just fold them as you take them down, and save sorting time.
  • You may want to hang colored-things wrong side out, and out of direct sunlight.  Most things are fine for a few hours, but whole days of bright sun can cause fading over time.

Any other line-drying tips?  Please share!

Simple (and Beautiful) Outdoor Clotheslines (part two of a short series)

Tom and I have differing clothesline philosophies:  I want a permanent line in the backyard, he doesn’t.  My ideal line would involve the classic t-shaped wooden beams at each end, strung up as trellises to grow beans.  Tom doesn’t like how they look, and thinks a permanent structure would take up too much space. Our first house already had a clothesline in the yard, but when we moved to this house we compromised, and put up a retractable line.  We got a really long one (forty feet), which reaches from under the deck, across the yard, to the cherry tree. It holds an entire load of clothes, and disappears when the clothes are dry.  A crafty person could make such a thing themselves, but the self-winding line from the local hardware store is inexpensive, and works great.  I installed it myself, in spite of my irrational fear of power tools.

A favorite spring ritual:  switching the flannel sheets and down comforters for the light, sun-dried cotton sheets and blanket
A favorite spring ritual: switching the flannel sheets and down comforters for the light, sun-dried cotton sheets and blankets.

If you don’t already have a clothesline, putting one up would be a lovely way to celebrate the spring season.   If you’re in a DIY mode, click here for a simple line you can put up with un-electrified hand tools and take down when not in use, requiring just two eye rings and a sailor’s cleat.  Be sure to use coated rope made for clotheslines, as plain cotton or nylon quickly stretches out, and eventually mildews.  Because of our deck configuration, our line is really too low, but it still works just fine.  The ideal clothesline height is as high as you can comfortably reach–remember the wet laundry will drag it down a fair bit.  6 or 7 feet is typical.

Small spaces can inspire creativity in clothesline tactics:  retractable/removable lines don’t require a straight shot across a long yard–they can be zigzagged between trees, fence posts, whatever you have. For large loads or sheets, we commandeer extra space by hanging laundry from deck railings, chairs, and over tree branches.

If you’re interested in constructing a permanent line, there is plenty of inspiration/how-to in this new Mother Earth News article.

Does your Home Owner’s Association or local government prohibit clotheslines where you live?    Then we want to encourage gentle nonviolent resistance (see my recent post on Laundry Outlaws).  Consider hanging your clothes in spite of the ban (in as nice a way as you can), educate your neighbors (sweetly), and register your HOA in the Right to Dry registry.  Find more information there on beginning a neighborhood campaign to overturn the ban.  Remember the steps of non-violent action attributed to Gandhi:  First they’ll ignore you, then they’ll laugh at you, then they’ll fight you, then you’ll win. (If all goes well, we’ll skip the fighting part.)

Together we can re-create the standards of beauty that define our neighborhoods.  Using the earth’s natural cycles of sun and air to refresh the clothes we and our children wear every day, and the cloth beneath which we sleep–how beautiful is that?

I’ve loved hearing all of your laundry stories!  If you have a creative clothesline idea, please share…