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3. Warning: New Stuff Ahead!

This site is dedicated to finding paths to happiness without new stuff. Why would you want to find these paths? The section below lists some reasons from my own research and experience.

This list focuses on the effects of new stuff on individuals. New stuff sucks for the planet, too, but I want to look at that separately. Though they’re not really separate. What’s damaging for an individual is usually harmful for the earth as well.

New stuff sucks because:

> It costs money. Think of what you had to do to earn it. Small amounts add up quickly. If you could cut your work hours, would you? Imagine not needing money, or needing very little, and still being happy. Mostof my life I’ve been able to work part time—not so I can sit around and watch TV, but so I can do the work I choose, instead of what the boss wants from me.

> It takes up space. How much shuffling things around will the new purchase mean? Is the storage locker trap about to ensnare you? Are your cord and outlet needs multiplying out of control?

                When I first saw the heaps of black spaghetti my electronics were creating, I joked that I had a side job doing “cord management.” Then a friend said, “That’s not even original. If you go into that office supply store on Broadway you’ll see a whole display under a sign that says exactly that: Cord Management.” So the joke was on me. But actually, cord snarls are no joke. One day my toe got caught in a loop of my laptop cord, and I sent it flying across the room. The accident was fatal. To the device, not to me. This time.

> It demands your time. Hours of your life. Maybe you’ll have to spend time learning how to use the thing—maybe a lot of time. Maybe it will come with a thick manual in funny (but almost unreadable) English. With obvious warnings and tiny drawings. At the very least you’ll have to dust the thing.

> It often turns out to be not what you wanted once it’s home. It’s the wrong color or the wrong size or doesn’t do what you thought it would. Will you fight traffic again to return it, or just take the loss?

Food packaging, in particular, is designed to conceal, and also mislead, with idealized pictures and unreadable ingredients in miniscule type and all caps. Unless you have a keen understanding of “net weight,” you might not be able to determine the quantity of chips is in the bag; besides being opaque, the package has been pumped full of air and is too stiff to feel for contents.

Actual amount of vitamins in a bottle.

Online orders can definitely come with surprises. I recently ordered a roll of common black electrical tape. It came in a round plastic box! No way was that called for. How could I not feel that this excessive plastic—made primarily of fossil-fuel chemicals—was being forced on me?

 >  It will break or wear out. Almost everything does—clothing, furniture, appliances, technology.  Once a friend made a computer for me, gave it to me for nothing. It lasted 15 years. (It still worked for some things, but it just couldn’t handle the new complexities of the Internet.) Less than two years ago, I  bought a brand new laptop, and paid close to $500 for it. It’s already dead—an internal failure, not my fault. And I’m supposed to accept this as routine?

Most new stuff, being made as cheaply as possible, will use plastic where plastic should never be—on nuts and bolts that quickly strip, on pieces that move or get left in heated cars, on critical appliance parts, on playground equipment that turns brown and brittle in the sun. We don’t hear about these breakages. According to an online presentation by a plastics company (Microsoft PowerPoint – Why Plastics Fail Norway 20.04.10 final.ppt (sintef.no), “[Plastic] product failure is rarely reported. No one wants their dirty washing aired in public.”

Plastic parts for an evaporative cooler water distributor.

Ironically, you don’t want your new item to be indestructible, either: It will stay in the landfill or ocean forever. You want your things to consist of compostable materials, to return to the earth naturally, after a long, useful life.

>  It will soon go out of style or become obsolete. In other words, it’ll be worthless! Some products are intentionally designed that way, so you’ll have to spend more money to replace them (and thereby enrich the company). Isn’t that mean? If a human being treated me like that, I wouldn’t go back for more abuse. But the world economy is set up so we almost have to return for more exploitation, because a relatively small number of corporations produce what we need. It’s hard to reject those companies as we would a person.

But it’s not all or nothing. I just try to do my best to “respond” to their manipulation with the boycotting tools I have (that is, targeted boycotts of particular companies—say, Nestlé or Monsanto).

>  It can harm your health. You’ve probably seen the warning that indicates a product is “known by the state of California to cause cancer.” Too bad the other 49 states don’t require labels like that on their toxic products. “BPA-free” and similar cheerful labels are supposed to make us feel good—in this case, like something was done about the problem of poison chemicals in plastic—and we want to believe it. But the fact is, plastics have “sister chemicals” that are just as harmful as BPA—to your babies and to yourself. (And don’t get me started about all the other kinds of “greenwashing”!)

>   It’s usually overpackaged. (Like the roll of tape I bought.)  The packaging quickly overflows your wastebaskets and increases your trips out to the garbagecan.  What’s more, these aggressively packaged items have become almost impossible to open. (There was a time, not long ago, when they weren’t.) This practice is not for the buyer’s benefit—stubborn packaging causes tens of thousands of injuries and even deaths every year. It’s been said that tough packages are necessary to prevent shoplifting, which is the only reason I’ve been able to find for the change, but I’m not sure that’s the whole story. If you have other information, please comment! (For that matter, comment on this list, too, or add to it.)

                I once went to a garden party that struck me as unusually elegant and lovely. Why was this, I wondered? The house and property were modest; the host a working woman. Then I realized she had put out ceramic plates, glass glasses, metal utensils, and fabric napkins. Being accustomed to parties where trash piled up in stacks and cans, I felt like royalty that night. I felt cleaner and lighter. Does living with waste affect us subconsciously? I believe it does. I’ve also been to parties at the homes of wealthy people who put out cheap, disposable serving goods. These gatherings just felt a lot less classy than the big, beautiful houses implied they might be. Sure, cleanup for “classy” takes longer. However, you can always trade tasks with a friend, or listen to the radio or a podcast while you work, or just spend the time thinking about the friends who came and the party’s successes. (Or laugh at the failures.) Not enough “real” dishes for your crowd? Visit thrift stores. You could have fun creating, say, three stacks of plates that you mix-and-match beautifully to each other and to the cloth napkins. If a plate breaks—well, you’ll only be out a dollar or less.

>  New stuff is already designed by someone else. There’s nothing about a ready-made product that says “you,” or expresses your unique identity, or engages your creativity. Target is fast and easy, at times maybe even appropriate, but a room full of Target is a recognizably Target room. The brick-and-board bookcases of my college-era apartment may have been ugly, but they at least hinted at the people who lived in the place—beginning adults without resources, who lived near an empty lot with overgrown junk. Who had recently gotten fired up about trying out something called “resin” from the hardware store on the planks that one of us filched from her dad’s workshop. Those bookshelves were honest. “Honest Tea” is just not as important as honest me. (Brew it. Avoid the bottle.) If we can’t honestly put ourselves “out there,” how can we like ourselves?

I love this vintage jacket with padded shoulders.

I regret the negativity of this list—talking about the ways that the new things you buy can be creatively stifling, income-draining, disappointing, unhealthy, time-stealing, and even dangerous. But I think this is necessary to come to the radically freeing flipside of buying new stuff and trying to squeeze happiness from it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when certain of my habits change—the ones I’ve identified as unhealthy—something much better moves into my life. It just does. I don’t know how to explain it, except to say…

As I write, I’m sitting here at a new computer, and it’s driving me crazy. The keyboard is different from my old one, and just hovering over it with my fingers makes the cursor move to random, faraway places. Sometimes my file shrinks down to two inches for some reason.     

Right now my heart is feeling the excitement of writing, but it’s not being strengthened as it would be if I were out walking. It feels  like my arse is spreading in this chair, where I’m barely moving. I missed the sunset and it’s dark out now, but electric light is coming from a lamp and emanating from the screen, going directly into my eyes. What I hear, though, is thunder, light raindrops and a toad. In this Sonoran desert town we’ve all been thirsty for falling water, because we didn’t have a rainy season last year—only one rain when there  should have been at least twenty. People called it the Non-soon. It was similar to having Death Valley temperatures in Seattle, or no snow all winter in Minnesota.

                I can’t sit here any longer. I have to see what’s happening out there. Excuse me, but I’m going out.

Okay, I’m back at the computer. I had a mild adventure. Leaving my dry room, I felt a heavy mist brushing my body, or maybe it was heavy enough to be called rainfall, I didn’t know. I would get wet.  I listened for the direction of the toad’s call to locate him. (I knew it was a he because the females are silent)  It didn’t surprise me that I found him in my little puddle of a pond where toads had shown up every year. Tonight, five toads sat in the pond, but only one little chap was croaking, sounding like a lamb baa-ing . He was also puffing out his throat into a white-marble sac and then withdrawing it, in an off-on rhythm of a few seconds. The whole while he stared at me with his gold-foil eyes and lens-shaped pupils. I stared back. Which of the other toads were just males not in the mood, and which were females? Would there be more mating tonight? Eggs in the morning? The last rain’s tadpoles had all been eaten by dragonfly larvae—every last one of, certainly, thousands. I’d tried different ways to save these tadpoles in the past—scooping them up with a net and putting them in a large container of clean water. But somehow the dragonfly nymphs always appeared like magic, small, but growing quickly on their abundant prey. Nature was magic. Nature was cruel. For sure, Nature was always presenting new mysteries. I smiled to myself in the dark, in the mist.

And then I had to laugh out loud, because these toads were cavorting in the silliest way, with their hind legs thrust out to the sides, and meeting each other with brief front-wiggles like ants communicating along a trail. Was it combat? Foreplay? I only knew I could stand and watch their joyous kickoffs and childlike glee till morning. But then I couldn’t, because suddenly, the winds rose and brought a downpour onto the landscape. I got soaked! I felt deliciously cold! The monsoons were not gone, after all. The rain felt like God saying, I’m still here. This was a bit problematic, since I don’t exactly believe in God, but isn’t the sky where “he” is supposed to be? Up there “bowling,” making thunder? Well, I didn’t have answers about anything, except that I knew that this clear visitation of water, or life as we’re starting to call it, was benevolent, and the world wasn’t at an end just yet. I was happier when I experienced God–Nature, the Creator, the Universe–as benevolent, so it made sense to think and live according to that idea as much as possible.

And now I need to finish this post. I was planning to explain how this story illustrates why life can get better and deeper when it goes beyond shopping for new stuff. But I think I’ll let you, the reader, find that sense in it. If you’ve read this far you must have found some inspiration in this blog—please keep reading! The next post is about what I did on my COVID vacation. (I built a chicken coop without buying anything.)

Post 27: Pressed Flowers

January 14 was my mother’s birthday. If she hadn’t died too young, at age 74, she would have been 105. (Somewhere there’s a scumbag who made it that far, I’m sure. That guy with the hood and scythe can be so unfair.)

So I’m thinking of her. I’m thinking of the family vacations we took in the car, us three kids in the back, my dad always driving, my mom in the passenger seat up front, looking out the window. Every once in a while she’d draw an audible breath.

“Oh, Rog, could you stop for just a few minutes?”

Usually, but not always, he’d pull over, and she’d get out. We knew she’d seen some color by the side of the road, purple or yellow or orange. Flowers. Whether she recognized them or wanted to investigate what might be a flower she’d never seen before, we didn’t know. But we knew she’d be just a few minutes and then get back in the car—one hand grasping the stems of her loot—so as not to make us wait. As we drove off, she’d find a book (we actually read stuff on our trips) and stick the flowers or leaves between the back pages. The back leaves. She’d put the book under her feet to weigh it down or maybe a use a heavy rock she picked up for that purpose.

Some days or weeks after we got back from our trip, we could expect a session on the kitchen table, where our mother spread out the tools and components of her project: twice-folded paper, envelopes to fit, white glue, a pair of scissors, a soft paintbrush, a bowl of water, a box of tissues, and the book that had the flowers in it. You never knew what they would look like when she pulled them out. That was the fun of it, really—at least for me, looking over her shoulder. They might have changed color. Or not. The trumpet-shaped ones might offer a view from the side or a view from the front—more or less a circle. Always, they’d be perfectly thin and flat, caught for good in a kind of painting that the book, as artist, had made. They looked ironed. Like the dollar bills our grandmother used to wash and press before slipping into our birthday cards.

Cards made with pressed flowers
These are two cards made by my mother. The first uses the tissue paper method; the second employs a grey paper bar to organize the flowers, with Contact paper on top (over time, particles of petals have escaped into the bubble to the left.) Neither is pretty, but they’re 35 or 40 years old. And they might be the last of her cards in existence.

Next—this must have been the fun part—she played with different groupings on each card. Sometimes she’d end up with a bouquet arrangement, with the stems coming out of one of the corners. At other times she’d start with a striking circle-based flower and have smaller ones burst out from that center, along with the leaves. These had the most energy, reminding me of fireworks. When the layouts were finished, she’d put dots of glue on the backs of each piece and set them in place. Of course the pieces were fragile, but if one broke you could just glue the bits close together and the paper would reunite them.

I thought the notecards were stunning at this stage,. What fantastic shapes and colors came from the dirt, even the untended strips of land along roadsides! Unfortunately, my mother felt one last step was necessary. It’s true that, even glued down, the dried pieces were fragile. An inadvertent flick of a fingernail or careless contact with an envelope edge could dislodge a leaf or petal—more than one over time. So she applied a protective layer, probably using some recipe from one of her women’s magazines. It involved wetting a tissue (one ply) with dilute glue and pressing it over the flowers. You could still see them through the thin coating, and it gave the surface an interesting texture, but it seemed to me to be too much interference. Later she stuck clear Contact paper over the cards instead. It bubbled along the edges of the glued parts, which were slightly raised, but I liked it better.

My mother used those cards. She had to keep making them, because she wrote so many letters, notes, birthday wishes, thank-yous, and cards for every other occasion. They were one of her biggest claims to fame. If she’d bought them all new, they might not have been able to afford to have me, their first born.

That’s a joke, or course, but she did save money. And she had fun. The entertainment was free. (Well, I don’t know where she got her paper and envelopes, probably wherever she could.) I think most importantly, though, her craft required a connection to the natural world. It required close observation with inevitable hands-on study of living things. It was necessarily an ongoing relationship, one that evolved over time, and provided consistent rewards.

Growing up on a farm, my mother developed a love for plants and animals early on; the flower pressing was just one of many ways she interacted with outdoor life. (See “How I Got This Way,” Post 7.) Today, increasingly, kids grow up mostly indoors, and we have what some have called a “nature gap.” Studies have been conducted, books and articles written, warnings circulated—because a population alienated from the earthy context they sprang from will fail to love and keep it. But I don’t need to rant or explain this situation to anyone. I think we mostly get it. Ianto Evans, who wrote The Hand-Sculpted House, believes that the straight lines and precise corners of our houses and rooms might be driving us slowly, unconsciously, mad—they’re that far from anything in nature. He can’t be completely right. Bees have geometrical cells; crystals grow in perfect, flat planes. But manmade things—skyscrapers, shoes, items of molded plastic—don’t feed the soul, and so the soul can die.

Table made of eucalyptus trunk
Here’s a small table I made from a section of eucalyptus, a round piece of glass, and pressed flowers.

Picking flowers prevents their reproduction. On a large scale, this kind of assault is what’s killing us. The snipping and grabbing of parts. But humans can live on a small scale—delicately, to match the fragility of dried petals pressed in books. With awareness and gratitude.

Pressed leaves
This was an experiment in symmetry. I’m not sure it succeeded.

When I go out hiking these days, I see stuff and get the urge to pick it. When I get home I’ll put it in one of my thick dictionaries—English, German, Spanish—and I’ll put other books on top of those big ones. The books are in my way, on the floor, for a few days, until I move them to my “Pressed Flowers” notebook with its pocketed pages. If I’m lucky I’ll forget to transfer the flattened plants to the notebook, leaving them in the dictionary until one day I look up aufenthaltserlaubnis or entonces, and they fall out onto my desk with color and memories of the desert wash or hillside where they grew.

Pressed leaves
Leaves can be more striking than flowers. Nature has come up with shapes no human artist could imagine.

Now and then a project will call for a flowered “painting,” and I’ll get out the notebook. I’ll play with layouts like my mother did. She never had specimens from tropical Mexico, Puerto Rico, Texas, or the Chiricahua Mountains, so these have become precious to me—especially since I’ve cut way back on travel. I wonder if I’ll ever have the guts to put glue on them.

But there are other wonderful obsessions besides flower pressing: photography, birdwatching, live watercolors, sound recordings, butterfly tabulations, cloud sketches, insect imitations, leaf rubbings, natural clay discoveries, crazy-striped rocks, pigments to grind, seeds to try sprouting . . . Anything can inspire a love of what’s out there. Respect has to come along on the hike. That will normally grow with contact.

Not everyone can choose to wander the wild world. Low-income families and people of color, as usual, are more likely to be shut out. Nobody should be confined, hour after hour, to the built environment. No development should reduce access to the primeval sources of any human.

Nobody has to press flowers, but everyone needs a passionate connection to nature and a way to get out there: kids, parents, the elderly—everyone who likes living on this planet and can’t think of anywhere else they’d rather be.

Post 26: An Unqualified Reviewer Takes On “Don’t Look Up”

During the holidays, with New Stuff Sucks on hiatus, I watched a documentary on Netflix. (Terry put me on his account. The free library service, Kanopy, would have been enough for me—but I’m not complaining.) The documentary was short, and I don’t remember what it was about. But when it was over, before I could get back to the “controls,” I found myself at the beginning of another movie.

When I watch a movie, I watch it on this machine. Laptops are deficient right out of the box. Track pads don’t work, so you cover yours and get a mouse. If you don’t use the numbers panel, you can put your mousepad there. The keyboard is only visible in bright light; you have to enhance the letters. You make the power button visible by outlining it. Ports should be seen from the top, not just the tiny openings on the side (paint or old nail polish works). If you have to really hit the spacebar for it to register, you raise it up a bit with a piece of thick tape. And let the thing get dusty, to show it who’s boss. Now I can get some work done!

Normally I don’t like to fall in line according to what some algorithm has picked for me to watch next. I like to think I still have free will to choose how I spend my leisure time. In this case, though, the movie I’d fallen into was the new Don’t Look Up. I’d already decided I wanted to watch it. Terry had mentioned it, explaining that it was about a comet headed straight toward Earth.

“Huh?” I scoffed. “That’s been done, remember?” I was thinking of Melancholia, which came out just over a decade ago, about the exact same thing.

It’s rare that I retain more than one percent of the details in a movie—even if only a few months have passed. But I remember what hits me emotionally. And the last scenes of Melancholia had —well, quite an impact on me.

The ending was frightening, and it probably would have affected me even without my childhood dream. When I was very little, I dreamed something so scary that I’ll never forget it. Though my emotional response was fear, the dream had overtones that went beyond that: wonder, disbelief, amazement, puzzlement. All that in a short dream! I was looking up at the night sky, at the full moon. It had begun to take on the rusty-yellow color it usually has when it’s at the horizon, rising or setting. But it was high in the sky, and it should have been bright white. Instead, slowly, it started to turn orange—a deep, rich orange, almost shadowy. At last it was red—and started to get bigger. Was the moon itself growing, or was it coming closer? Clearly, now, I could see it was coming closer, straight toward Earth. It was the end of the world. The end of me.

That’s when I woke up, of course. I was in my little bed in my little bedroom. I can still feel myself sitting there, and the terror, with all its nuances, still gripped me for a while as I sat at the edge of the bed. It had felt so real . . . then gradually it faded in the early morning light. It was time to eat breakfast and get ready for school.

It’s no wonder I still remember those last scenes of Melancholia, with the beautiful comet growing ever larger in the sky. My dream was extraordinarily similar. It felt the same.

But Don’t Look Up was different, Terry said. It was supposed to be a comedy, a metaphor or allegory about climate change.

That interested me. So I let it play.

I’m no film critic. My childhood was almost devoid of movies, so I never really understood how they “worked.” I paid no attention to the names of actors, certainly not directors, and I rarely even remembered the titles of the films I saw. Subtle twists of plot—even some not so subtle—eluded me. So, watching this one, I wasn’t quite sure at first what to make of it. It was billed as a comedy—albeit a dark one—but it didn’t seem like a comedy to me. Weren’t the situations and characters in a comedy supposed to be absurd, ridiculous, over the top? I think of I Love Lucy, or Carol Burnett descending the staircase wearing curtains, complete with rod. Whereas this movie seemed based in the real—maybe the outer edges of real, but not the ridiculous. I didn’t laugh out loud more than a few times. Some of the characters did seem hard to believe—the super-flirty, completely narcissistic U.S. president, the crawlingly- slimy CEO, and the slick-as-powder newscaster. But they didn’t make me laugh. Would this make the movie a satire? A parody? A farce? A spoof?

Oh, who knows. I do know there were at least three minor characters I really hadn’t paid any attention to until the end. Obviously, I ought to have identified them earlier. (Did I miss anything important?) One thing I didn’t miss were the brief snippets of what seemed like serious nature documentaries that came in flashes within the ongoing narrative. They stood out like random thoughts, outside of the rest of the movie’s flow. Was that even allowed in a popular film?

I tried unsuccessfully to form some coherent opinion of it, in case someone asked me how I liked it. But my head was like the jumble of clothes and towels and cleanable rags I’d dumped into the washing machine that morning. I’d forgotten to hang them on the chairs. I went out in the post-movie dark and took care of it, numbing my objecting hands.

The next day, despite having nothing smart to say about the movie, I bragged to Terry that I’d found my own way to it. He wasn’t impressed, just sad that I hadn’t waited to watch it with him.

“But I’m happy to watch it again!” I insisted. I seriously needed to. I believed that now.

It was different the second time. I already knew all the characters. I knew how it ended, and all the basic plot elements leading up to that. So I could pay attention to less prominent details. And I decided to start with the belief that this was going to be a realistic film, paying attention to any places where I thought it departed from reality.

These new parameters made all the difference. First off, it was a long, long time before anything truly diverged from the real world. It used its media tools, of course—comedic timing, visual feasts, and body-amplified lines that could get extra mileage out of everyday dialog. But these were expected.

At first I thought the president was exaggerated. But when she’s in front of a large crowd, wearing a Trump-shaped ball cap, spouting Trumplike rhetoric, her words and narcissism are certainly not beyond what this country has experienced. The greed and selfish decision-making of both the president’s son and the cellphone CEO are absolutely true to life, I think. And the occasional ads that are thrown in are spot-on realistic. I’m thinking especially of the house-wifey woman getting solace and guidance from science, and the endearing (exploited) young Black girl who cites comforting words from Psalm 23. Second time around I’m finding all of modern societal structure represented pretty accurately—the greed, the obsession with job creation, the two extremes of our politics today, the names of things (“The Rip” is a talk show, “BASH” is a cell phone company), the disregard for science, and the use of social media. (The diverse real-time comments shown scrolling up the screen during the big concert might have been lifted from a real event, and the frightful, manipulated images generated by Kate’s talk-show appearance are all too plausible.) There was only one fictitious note that I could discern, and that was that everything, across the board, was represented in its extreme. Thankfully, we don’t see those extremes in every aspect of life. Not yet, anyway.

Two scenes in particular made me appreciate the genius of cultural insight behind this work of art. One featured a young man speaking out about trying to unite the two far ends of comet response—whether or not it existed—in a single movement. It put the last touches on my view that that our two political camps cannot come together without some difficult, if not impossible, changes in opposing belief systems. No kumbaya hand-holding or speeches are going to unite people. Unfortunately.

The other illuminating scene is maybe my favorite—aimed directly at me and at you, my New Stuff Sucks readers. Here I laughed the hardest, at both the performance and the words. The president’s asshole son is joining the public prayers for all the anxious people listening. Haltingly, he prays: “I wanna give a prayer for stuff. Like, material stuff. Like sick apartments and watches and cars and clothes and shit that could all go away, and I don’t wanna see that stuff go away. So I’m gonna say a prayer for that stuff. Ah-men.”

A movie that makes fun of a hateful character’s need for stuff! Ah-men and hallelujah.

Watch Don’t Look Up for the rest of the brilliant cultural portrayals it offers. Or watch it a second time for less obvious details. If you’re on the edge of your seat, watching to find out what happens in the end, you might want to skip the rest of this post—which could spoil the final tensions—until you’ve finished the movie.

What happens at the end of this movie parallels both my dream and Melancholia. I’m once again looking up at a celestial body headed straight for me. For all of Earth. The feeling of horror and finality was, for me, the same all three times. But beyond the emotional hit, the events, implications, and cinematic statements of Don’t Look Up were especially thought-provoking and extensive. So, although the feeling of being about to lose myself was the same, indescribable, my thinking became part of that fear, making it more complex.

The second time through I cared more about the demise of the good-guy characters and what they had to say: the way they called a tragically late romance “sweet,” and visited mundane subjects—now precious—during the Last Supper of their newly formed family. The nature excerpts absolutely belonged now, and they became even more heartbreaking: a bear loose in a store, seals climbing a green hill. For some reason the glimpse of a honeybee in slow motion moved me the most—it was so fragile, so innocent and unsuspecting. Bits showing colorful, diverse humans joined the nature clips toward the end and were just as awful to think of as about-to-be-obliterated life forms. This nature stuff at least points to the movie as being an allegory about climate change. It’s what a lot of people think. Who knows.

I think the most important clue as to meanings comes at that last communal meal. The plates and glasses on the table have begun to shake. Dr. Mindy abandons all small talk and offers a simple thought: “Thing of it is, we really did have it all, didn’t we?”

This happens to be the last human utterance in the film. So it might be the main point, or at least something meant to be pondered. But we, the audience, didn’t die from a comet’s strike, so the quote should be changed to present tense: “We really do have it all, don’t we?” This may not be what the sick and poor of our planet would say, but in the comfortable Western world, people might often agree.

That black feeling of doomsday from dreams and movies always passes in the daylight of everyday life. But ideas and words don’t have to. I want to keep Dr. Mindy’s realization on the front burner of my brain for as long as I can. It carries thankfulness within it—”I have it all!”—and thankfulness has been scientifically proven to boost mood. It can liberate us from having to search, spend, roam, and give up our time.

Obviously Hollywood movies always have problems, including this one. But I like the way the very popular Don’t Look Up—at least when it comes to our attitude toward “stuff”—seems to have aligned itself with this blog.

25. Biking into 2022

Thanks for finding your way back to this site after the break. Please send me your stories of personal victories over consumerism during the holidays, under the heavy pressure to buy new stuff. Here’s a short one from me:

My daughter has finally gotten the bug to fix up her weedy, unkempt yard—but she had no tools at all, not even a shovel. Whereas I found myself with double, triple, even quadruple versions of shovels, rakes, brooms, and saws. (How did that happen?) I could have just handed her the extras, but I decided to get some extra mileage out of the gift and have some fun. So I painted all the handles with leftover white paint, and made a couple potato stamps for a contrasting green pattern by rolling the flat stamp over the handles. As a final touch I tied a matching green bow on each handle. I wasn’t at all trying to pass off this collection as new. The metal parts were rusty, the shovel had a nick where there should have been a point, and the broom’s plastic base was paint-over-tape where I had repaired the broken-off section. But she loved the gift, and I know we’ll have some fun times together, cleaning up her outdoor spaces.

Yard tools
Anna’s dolled-up yard tools.

And here’s a personal New Year’s story. Who knew it would be a biking story?

My friend Marion had invited a handful of old friends over for the night before New Year’s Eve day. She had just set up a new fire pit, and this was to be an outdoor fire-circle gathering. But rain threatened. And I really didn’t want to leave my comfortable, peaceful house for the outside world. In the end, the promise of good company beckoned. The only question was, bike or car? I usually bike the three miles to her house. A good portion of the trip was a nice bike route, with a red-brick-delineated lane just for bikes, rock sculptures along the way—some of them even engraved with the moving poetry of our most prominent Tohono O’odham linguist and poet, Ofelia Zepeda. But bike routes can be deluged with rain like any other street. Even if it’s not raining when you set out, it can hit you moments afterward, or on the way back—a further deterrent to leaving home. Also, I’d just “done” my hair, a complicated weekly procedure involving washing, conditioning, semi-drying, and a body-treatment involving an hours-long wrap I’ve discovered can make my thin, wispy hair look almost healthy. If it got wet ’d have to do it all over again. And I might arrive soaked, a scraggly mess.

I’d ask Terry if I could borrow his car. I do this four or five times a year. He always says yes. It may as well get some use, with the insurance he pays.

It had been months, maybe years, since I’d driven at night with rain. I was scared and exhilarated. Terry’s car presented a couple small challenges. His turn signals didn’t turn off automatically; you had to remember to manually switch them off or you’d be signaling wrong intentions to all traffic until you remembered. One of the lights was busted, so you had to make sure the brights were always on—then both sides worked. But I knew about those things. So what? I’d be dry. He handed me the keys, and I set out.

Luckily, his windshield wipers worked. That’s something that goes out regularly on most cars. The rubber tends to detach and trail the arm’s movement like a dog wagging its tail. Or the metal arm itself buckles. But Terry’s wipers were good, and I had a good view out the front. But not out the back and sides. Beads of rain, close together and large, blocked my view from those glass plates. It seemed dangerous. Earlier that day, we had heard the unmistakable crash of metal on metal and saw the accident at the end of our block. We didn’t walk to gawk, but I had the usual thoughts an accident always elicits: I’m glad it wasn’t me, and yet it could happen to me.

To make my first right turn—the stoplight was red, but this was allowed—I had to wait for a long line of cars on my left to pass. Before there was a break in it, a tall, black vehicle pulled up on my left and I couldn’t see the line at all. I had a bit of space ahead of me, so I pulled up to restore my view. The other vehicle pulled ahead the same amount. Was that really as intentional as it seemed? To find out, I pulled ahead a few more inches. So did the other vehicle. I hope you crash tonight was my immediate thought. Shame on me! I thought of myself as a good person. Maybe that driver did, too. Maybe it was the highly competitive nature of driving that gave us these uncivil impulses. The light turned green. The black vehicle proceeded through the intersection, and I made my right turn.

Right into the left turn lane of oncoming traffic.

Immediately, I saw what I had done. But how? How could I make such a mistake at such a familiar intersection, just two blocks from my house? I figured it must have been the thoughts and emotions engendered by the encounter with the ill-behaved driver. It was that big jerk’s fault! Then I realized the oncoming lanes of traffic were completely unoccupied and pitch black. I could see that just up the road, another accident had ended up in a blockade, perfectly perpendicular to the roadway. Probably both  the lack of oncoming headlights and my hotly engaged emotions had thrown me off and caused me to pass the correct lane, turning into danger.

But it’s entirely possible that I would have done that anyway, that someone else’s accident saved me from one of my own. Luckily, it also gave me the empty space to zoom back into the lane I needed to be in, and go on with my trip, heart pounding.

Even after some minutes, it didn’t stop. Because I really couldn’t see very well. The bright oncoming cars lit the raindrops on the windows, right where I needed to keep track of the curb. Where was it? And where was the stripe that marked the righthand side of the lane, which I wasn’t supposed to cross? I slowed down and felt much safer. Some drivers were matching my speed; others honked as they quickly passed me on the passenger side of the glittering wet glass. No wonder there were accidents on both ends of my street.

I was making slow progress to the house, but I didn’t care. I was almost there. A few blocks away. When suddenly a pair of headlights was coming straight at me. Should I stop? Swerve to the left? To the right, driving through people’s yards?  Before I could react, the vehicle turned sharply in front of me, just clearing my car and passing me on the left where it was supposed to be. In the foggy darkness I could see that it was, if you don’t mind me being brand-specific, an Amazon Prime delivery truck.

I swore I would never drive again. Or at least not on a rainy night.

Everyone was already seated in Marion’s living room, so all five faces smiled at me as I entered. Sweet, much-missed friends! They included Keith, a friend and benevolent former boss.

He was in bike shorts, and not at all disheveled. Well, he’s not a thin-haired woman whose clothing, when wet, could cling in an unsightly way! I rationalized. But yes, he’d ridden 20 miles from home, almost at the southern border of Marana, and he planned to go back the same way.

What an athlete. Well. I love him anyway.

###

Then it was New Year’s Eve. Terry and I had been invited to another firepit circle—I suppose outdoor gatherings were still popular due to the continued popularity of vaccine refusal and Covid-variant successes. This time, a bike ride held unusual appeal, since we planned to drink and didn’t want to drive.

This time, it had been raining off and on all day, and it was misting when it was time to leave. But being motivated to avoid a DUI (only motorized vehicles can be ticketed for that), I had time to get my cold-weather gear ready. I got out the soft, mohair-like scarf to tie under my chin to be pressed down by my helmet, so my ears wouldn’t ache from the cold air rushing past. I found the mittens with the pockets of beans that covered the fingers so they’d stay warm—once I microwaved them for 60 seconds—for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the ride. Best of all, I’d wear the bright-green jacket I found once at a thrift store my daughter wanted to drive us to, in the days when “riding along” somewhere was the only time I got to see her. The jacket was like new, filled with down, and—well, I thought I already had too many coats and jackets. I didn’t buy it. But five blocks down the road going home I asked Anna if she’d be willing to turn around and go back for it. That neon green might save my life someday, I said. Of course, Mommo! So now, it enables me to brave any low temperatures Tucson can dish out. (In fact I’m usually sweating by the end of the ride.)

I remembered to wear all this, and to secure my hair at the top of my head. But I forgot that bike seats, even under a protective roof, can get soaked by a sideways-driving rain. Now there was no time to tie on a plastic bag or towel. I’d arrive with wet pants, for sure.

We set out in the fine mist, energized by the smooth, quiet bike path—completely separate from cars—that would take us most of the way. The small corner of downtown we threaded through was harrowing, but without incident.

The fire was already popping when we arrived. My pants couldn’t have wished for a bigger, more beautiful drying agent. With my back to the flames I felt them dry almost completely in a matter of minutes. Toward the midnight ball drop it started to pour down, so we went inside for snacks and champagne toasts, without further following what was going on outside. So when it was time to leave and we opened the door, we were a bit surprised that it was still coming down hard.

“Hey, I’ll drive you guys home if you want,” said Robert, our host. Put two bikes and three people in his car? What technique did he have in mind?

“I’m riding,” Terry said. “Then I am, too,” I said.

My bean mittens were soaked from the trip over. (What if they sprouted from the watering? I wondered.) But Robert lent me a pair of heavy-duty gloves to ride home in.

We headed out down the driveway to the streets. There would be no escaping a total drenching. I could tell by the way the top of my thighs, facing the productive sky, immediately turned dark and wet. But the streets were almost empty, with most people still toasting 2022 and drinking in their dry, shining houses. We ruled. Water, as in desert recharge, rocked. In the form of rain it was pure and harmless: Waiting for us at home were heat and steaming tea and dry clothing—plush bathrobes, fuzzy nightclothes. The empty bike path, with its mostly smooth asphalt and decent lighting, was an invitation to pull out all the stops.

Whoo-hoo! The joints of my body seemed oiled, the kinks ironed out. My glasses beaded up like little windshields, but I just looked over them. Robert’s heavy gloves warmed my hands—and vice-versa. Was I worried about the down of my jacket getting soggy?  Not at all. On this short ride, we’d be home by the time rain got past the jacket’s skin. So my torso was both dry and warm. I was untouchable. And a new year was coming. I had little hope for it, but at least it was starting out invigorating. Empowering.

Almost home, I heard a voice: Happy New Year!—and then attached it to a dark figure crossing my path. Just what was he doing here on this rainy, dark street after midnight? What were we doing on this rainy, dark street after midnight? And why do I rush to judgement and fear? His voice was warm and sincere. Yeah! I yelled back, enthusiastically.

There’s a kind of life-stretching we all want to do, but usually don’t: the stretch toward our own goals. Modern life offers the highest kinds of pleasures and comforts, with such constancy that we tend to hang on and not let go. It’s too easy to expect them, to go with the happy images in front of us, ultimately believing we deserve them. We may look up to athletes, musicians, meditators, idealists, and others who do stretch beyond their comforts to reach the point they’ve identified for themselves. But the rest of us—you and me—continue to be drawn toward the comfortable car, and we have to be pushed to get on the bike. If there are no excuses, we’ll create them. Ooh—I’m gonna get wet, maybe take on a bedraggled look, like a loser.

Polar bear holiday decorations
Merry Christmas, polar bears! We honor you in plastic . . . sending you to extinction. Another fine example of people killing what they love with representations of it.

Avoiding new stuff isn’t as hard as what our heroes do, but it takes the same kind of skills—moving beyond the most comfortable choices, pushing certain other choices, just a wee bit. Trying to fix something instead of tossing it, find what you need on a buy-nothing list, eat a “weed,” build from scraps, wait for that item to appear in a thrift store, adopt a wabi sabi aesthetic, set up a composting toilet . . . ride a bike. The reward for riding over a hill is often far greater than the effort involved. I need to remind myself of that. And I wish everyone that ability to stretch, with all its positive outcomes. I’ll wish it for the ill-behaved driver of that tall car, for the Amazon Prime delivery guy, for the man who greeted me with a Happy New Year in the dark, for myself, and for you.

Happy 2022.

Here’s my bike and I before I donned my safety vest and before the winter rains—and, evidently, before we started work on Anna’s yard.

Post 24: Oprah Was Wrong

I might not remember this exactly, because I haven’t tuned in to hear Oprah talk about anything in many years. It was one of her “etiquette” shows, I think, all about what’s polite and what’s rude, the things you should never do. Re-gifting—passing along a gift you didn’t want to someone else—was on the list of don’t-do’s. She said it was bad mannered. And I remember disagreeing with her, even then. I thought it was just wrong not to find better homes for things you didn’t need or want. Because whatever the item was, it had most likely required some amount of planetary abuse in the making. Too late to undo that, but at least it might have a useful life and some respect before hitting the landfill. Best of all, though, the gift-giver could avoid shopping for another present—new stuff.

I notice there’s an update about re-gifting on Oprah.com. Different people are quoted, with different opinions—some still maintain it’s the height of rudeness, while others see the logic in it. Who knows what Oprah herself believes; maybe she’s coming around.

This post, however, will take you beyond re-gifting—all the way to thrifting. Imagine that person you want to do something really special for, but you have no idea how—until, wandering around a thrift store, you find something you know is perfect. It has happened to me more than once. You just have to shop differently.

There are different levels of thrift gifting, so you have choices. Will you pretend it’s new stuff? Maybe it looks new and you want to add an authentic-looking price tag. Or maybe you’ll attach a fun tag with a heart and your name—just to give it the feel of something new, and to be honest. Or maybe you’ve found a tea set, not a single chip, but the box it came in isn’t there, so it doesn’t look new—you don’t care; you know it’s just the right thing, and you find some old box. No pretense. In my case, everyone knows I never buy anything new, even for gifts, so anything goes, as long as it’s thoughtful.

I hope the following pictures and captions inspire you to thrift gift, and to break away from absurd rules of etiquette that support malevolent, exploitative corporations over local merchandise recyclers: our thrift stores.

Courtesy Marion Wilkinson.

These beautiful 1834 woodcut prints—with documentation—were only $3 each. They’re a reminder that you don’t always have to go to an antique store to find antiques. You just need to develop an eye for valuable old things, and visit the thrift stores.

Almost every thrift store has a basket section, usually filled with dirt-cheap baskets—not like the ones above. Clockwise from left, these photos show the traditional work of the Tohono O’odham, the Hopi, and the Tarahumara (or Raramuri). If the store staff are knowledgeable, these natural weavings won’t be found tossed in with the $1.99 baskets; they’ll be behind glass near the cash register. Do the prices of baskets reflect the cost of labor in the region where they’re made? It seems likely, but I don’t know. The Tohono O’odham and Hopi live in the United States; the Tarahumara are in Mexico but have managed to hold onto much of their ancient culture (perhaps that’s valued). In any case, if you find any baskets like these for thrift-store prices, you’ve chanced upon a bargain. It happens. If not, get some of the cheap ones and put another gift inside. It’s worth a little more in a basket.

Speaking of baskets: this is a rare thrift store find by my friend Marion—which you may or may not recognize as a bunch of devil’s claw pods. If you scroll back to the Tohono O’odham baskets, you’ll see small areas of black woven into the design. That’s the long finger of the devil’s claw. T.O. weavers—and their numbers are diminishing—store this resource in bundles like this: compactly, sharp ends pointed inward. But what a mystery this is. Did a weaver’s hands get too arthritic to continue her craft? Why wasn’t it given to another basket maker? How did it end up in a thrift store? I love these second-hand mysteries! If you do happen to know someone who would appreciate something like this bundle, I’m sorry. You won’t find another, at least not in a thrift store.

Thrift stores usually have a good selection of like-new vases. Some of the standard glass ones are so inexpensive that I’ll get half a dozen and store them outside (turned upside-down, to avoid mosquito breeding) for when I want to bring someone flowers, maybe as a holiday hostess gift. I can tell them not to worry about bringing the vase back. This time of year, I like to go to my pyracantha source, where heaps of the bright berries are spilling over a wall into the alley, and make a bouquet or two. They last longer than flowers. And they’re not, as some think, poison. You can make jam with them. (There are other kinds of red berries, some poisonous, so know your plants.)

The freehanded blue vase is my favorite of all time. I love it so much I’ve convinced myself it was shaped by a famous, skilled potter—was it NW or MN? Or even KZ? Let me know!

If anyone on your list is into glitz, sparkle, and glam, look for it at a thrift store. Don’t buy glitter new, especially if you love seafood. It’s plastic, and it ends up in oceans.

When I don’t know what I want, except that I know I want ideas, I check thrift stores. Wouldn’t this thumb piano be great for a kid who leans toward music?

It’s rare to find tools this shiny and new looking—suitable for hanging as art!—in a thrift store. But good tools are durable, sometimes even generations old. To me. they’re as acceptable showing normal wear-and-tear as antiques. Girls need ’em, too.

Photo courtesy Jan Mosier.

Kitchenware often does come in sets at thrift stores—sometimes chipped, but often not. If there aren’t quite enough pieces to make a set of six or eight, put together a set of four. I’m told these are perfect for eggnog, hot spiced cider, and ice cream. The color’s right!

But kitchenware gifts can be one-of-a-kind, too. I use this spouted bowl at least once a week. I love just holding it—it’s heavy—and running my hands along its thick, smooth rim. I learned a bit of French, too: The subtle gold lettering isn’t referring to something small. “Le petit déjeuner” means breakfast.

I remember I bought this bowl at one of the upscale, Eastside thrift stores, where the shelves are artistically arranged and you can see most everything at a glance. There are also dusty, super-cluttered, chaotic versions—and everything in between. So shoppers have a choice. I like them all, and tend to visit whichever one is near where I am.

Don’t you think this small shelf-let would appeal to a number of types? It’s a way to display a three-dimensional art piece on a wall. And the featured art could easily rotate. If this is a gift, the art to be displayed could be given along with it.

When you polish off the nuts or cookies that a boss or colleague has given you, what do you do with the tin? Some people wash out the crumbs and give it to thrift stores, which is why they have so many, in a variety of shapes and sizes. If the painted decoration on the tin is too commercial, I like to cover it up with tape and stickers. And then put something inside—just about anything.

Sometimes I don’t know a thing exists until I see it in a thrift store. Maybe that will happen to you—you’ll see a gift you didn’t know existed. (This phone case was “like new” when I bought it, but now it’s getting dirty from use.)

My purchase of these wooden shoes was a lovely kind of frivolous act. I can’t wear them or think of any other purpose for them. But they were clearly hand-carved, and probably old, and that appealed to me. I didn’t know if they were generally valuable, but they were certainly worth more than the five dollars the thrift store was charging. They presented another thrift-store mystery: inscribed near the opening on each was the word “EILMARKEN,” which, in German, refers to a kind of express postmark. Were these the shoes of a speedy runner? Did one run in such shoes? Why German, when the shoes seemed Dutch? I hope someday someone can explain the inscription.

These shoes make me happy when I see them, and they remind me that frivolous gifts can be wonderful. If they’re not new. In fact, second-hand stores can sometimes make frivolity possible, with their low prices.

Photos courtesy Matts Myhrman and Dee Miller.

Most people like to pick out their own home furnishings, but once in a while someone needs help. The photo on the left features some thrift-store furnishings. The solid wood entertainment center cost him just $45, as large furniture was on sale that day. (If there’s anything better than thrift store prices, it’s thrift store sale prices.) The small black table was $10, and the CD shelf was a bit less. He bought the shirt for $3.50, just to have people ask him whether he really worked at Costco. (No.) With second-hand prices you can afford more gags. To the right is a baker’s shelf that found a place in front of a window. The light-catching curtain is also thrift.

Wicker chair courtesy Dee Miller.

On the left is a wicker chair in beautiful shape considering it’s thrifted. Placing it under a porch roof should keep it that way a while longer. Next to the chair is a lamp I bought for $20. That’s more than I would usually spend on anything used, but I was taken by it—the antique feel, cut-glass spangles and dragonflies on the shade. Once in a while I give myself a gift. You should, too.

So now you have it: My rather random sampling of some gift-like items you can buy at thrift stores, and bits of philosophy to go with them. But just for fun, since I started with Oprah, I’m going to end with Yoko Ono. Last week I landed on the documentary, “LennonNYC,” in which she related a short anecdote. During the time she was by herself in New York, she happened to see a pair of fabulous silk pajamas in a “vintage shop.” She went in and bought them, thinking to herself that she very much wanted to see what man might fit them. (I presume they didn’t fit her.) In the end, John came back, and fit into them perfectly, and they were back together.

I don’t know if a thrift store is the same as a vintage shop. There are other names: second-hand store, antique store, maybe even flea market. But they all have one thing in common: the stuff they sell is used. Even fabulously wealthy Yoko wasn’t afraid of that.

Good for her. And us! And the planet!

Newstuffsucks will take a two-week hiatus for the holidays. See you in 2022.

23. Shirts from Shower Curtains

Guest Contributor: Barbara Rose

I met Barbara Rose when she started teaching permaculture classes here in Tucson, and a friend signed up. My friend loved it, so the following year I made sure to get in. I didn’t know it then, but Barbara was more than our teacher—she essentially helped bring permaculture forward into Tucson’s consciousness, after reading about the concept while researching sustainability topics. So I think of her as a permaculture pathfinder. But I also know her as a jewelry creator, recipe developer, native arts supporter, pen-and-ink illustrator, grassroots political activist, writer, and community visionary. And I’m sure I’ve failed to mention a half dozen of her identities. Here, you’ll get to know her as a builder, seamstress, and 1950s granddaughter.

                                                                                                                        —Kay

When I was young and lived with my nuclear family in the 50s and 60s, my adored paternal grandmother Evie (Evelyn, in Yiddish, Chavala) and I spent many hours together. Exactly 50 years my senior, Nanny Evie had lost her husband when I was less than a year old, and it was another 25 years until she found a suitable soulmate. Perhaps this was one reason we got to spend so much time together—she had more time on her hands, and I was a bit of a handful for my parents when my younger brother came along. When I was with Evie, I felt fully loved and supported as the nascent non-conformist I was to become.

Mostly we’d stay at her home, an old 1920s brick two-story that smelled of chicken soup, garlic and pickled tomatoes. In the backyard were several citrus trees and an avocado, tall and full of football-sized seasonal fruit (only slightly exaggerating here). A falling fruit could really mess you up if you were unlucky enough to be in its trajectory.

Cut in half, filled with grapefruit and sprinkled with salt, they were a backyard feast. More than sixty years later I can see the tree and savor the taste and texture of a Florida “alligator pear.” Evie had a jungle of rooted seedlings in her kitchen window, three toothpicks holding the big seeds halfway above the water. She read spicy novels and smoked cigarettes (until uncle Buzzie read her the riot act about cancer, then she stopped—not reading, smoking).

Once in a while we’d go downtown to Evie’s favorite thrift shop. I have a faint visual memory of a dark room with racks of clothes, but the smell of the shop was memorable: musty. Most old  things in 1950s southwest Florida smelled musty or mildewy—clothes and books especially. When my dad, Lowell, learned where we’d been, he was horrified, and made his mom promise to stop shopping for second-hand. I don’t know if Evie complied, but that was the end of our shared thrifting adventures. By the late ’60s, far from parental influence, I reconnected with the thrill of finding no two items ever alike—and the joy and treasure of times with my grandmother.

Preparing cob (clay soil, sand, and straw) for small outbuildings at a desert foods farm north of Tucson

In addition to being someone who like fabrics and wears clothes—a sewer and dresser—I’m a builder, with a 35-year-old “resource area” at the farm for used and reused materials: wood, metal, glass etc., that are continually handy and helpful for the next project. As my dear friend Kay has so delightfully noted, mud, straw, old cooler pads, a few recycled structural elements, some glass panes or bottles—and a vision—can produce useful, beautiful, and even mind-blowing results.

Interior of cob-kitchen addition.

There’s a deep connection for me between stitching things together—sewing old cloth into new clothes, mending and re-mending, a penchant for hoarding beautiful fabrics from thrift shops and even dumpsters—and turning subsoils excavated from rainwater-harvesting basins, and other discarded materials, into unique, usable, beautiful buildings.

I’ve always loved to sew, and also grew up with stories of my other grandmother, Frances, a late-1800s Russian immigrant, who’d made her living sewing clothes and hats in Brooklyn, NY.

I inherited her bolts of blue and green wool twill after she died, when I was 13.

I found a Wheeler and Wilson treadle machine when I lived in New Hampshire in the ’70s, and now have a 1960s avocado green Elna, which I hardly use because I prefer to sew by hand.

Stitching things together and mending are a bit like telling a shaggy story, don’t you think?

Just before the pandemic I found a beautiful blue-and-white striped heavy cotton shower curtain. The bottom part had become fragile and discolored, probably from the buildup of alkaline water that evaporated, which is the same thing that damages the skirts of earthen buildings here in the desert, which is called deflocculation.

Removing the damaged part left enough gorgeous fabric to make a new shirt with a pattern taken from a vintage Tarahumara blouse my daughter Maya gifted me for my 70th birthday. I sewed it all by hand, a glorious diversion during the insanity of the early Covid months—no work, nowhere to go, just stay home, sew, garden, etc. If you look closely at the hem you will see the buttonhole places where it was meant to hang as a shower curtain. I wear it all the time.

Many years ago, I found a beautiful handmade tunic at African Village, a Gem Show sideshow just off the interstate downtown. I have mended and re-mended the elbows and shoulders of that shirt many times, lengthened the sleeves and shored up the hem. Handwoven of gorgeous four-inch-wide bands of multicolored striped cloth by village artisans, some of the fabrics were more durable than others, providing ample opportunities for creative patching and stitchery.

The inside of the tunic is now even more interesting, and it tells the hidden story of how many times one area has been reworked.

In a place where ancient volcanic clay soils and cast-off cloth of diverse colors and textures meet up, old stuff does not suck. It spurs innovation and sparks joy, and I get to play with the possibilities.

22. Ribbons Are Forever

Ribbons

This is what one of the curling ribbons I tossed in a compost bin looked like after more than a year of composting. Not much happened. Parts of it lost their color and attracted some dirt, but otherwise there’s no sign at all of decomposition. The ribbon had defied the bacteria and other natural forces, just like plastic.

That’s because it is plastic. It’s made of polypropylene.

Who would know that? I threw it in the bin because it seemed papery, and I thought it would break down like paper. Nope. In that same batch of compost, I found a hundred little oval produce stickers, which I also thought were paper, printed with some glossy finish. It turns out most of them are made of plastic or vinyl. We just don’t know what stuff is made of, and our guesses—at least my own—are clearly wrong.

I’m pretty sure most holiday wrapping paper would compost, i.e., wouldn’t stay around for my great-great-grandchildren to find. And maybe some of the other kinds of ribbons—the ones actually made of fabric—will easily melt back into the earth.

But if I were to shop for giftwrap materials, carefully choosing matte paper and cotton ribbons, it would still be a destructive act. It’s the primary principle behind this blog: Everything mass-produced is, in the making, energy-needy, resource-stripping, and pollution-producing. On the other end—in the disposal—it’s more of the same, plus landfill-expanding, poison-leaking, and habitat-ravaging. Human habitat included.

These are, of course, abbreviated descriptions. On both ends of new stuff, the web of exploitation is complex.

We’ve been trapped into needing new stuff. There are times we can’t live or work without it. So what do we do?

Maybe start with realizing the times when we’re not trapped. I think gift wrapping qualifies as one of these times. It’s possible to just say no to buying new paper and ribbons. Because there are paper bag panels, nice cloth from clothing waste (see Post 17), old newspapers, natural string, potato stamps, pressed flowers and leaves, road-trinkets—really, almost unlimited ways to hide a gift’s identity beautifully before opening time. Most don’t require any special creativity. They can involve fun, and kids, and time, but they don’t have to take more time than new wrapping—they could eliminate shopping for that stuff, and save time.

Check the house, the storage shed, and even the streets, for suitable paper and ties —I even find rolls of tape fairly often—that could function as a wrap for your gifts. These are the artist’s materials. Haven’t you found that creativity is only stifled by a blank canvas? I’m always more inspired by limiting myself to what I find (Post 21). Standard paints and white surfaces don’t bring out my creative juices. Michelangelo used them, and Rembrandt, and Van Gogh—who wants to follow their acts? Creative gift-wrapping is exactly right for the creativity-challenged because found materials “speak,” and all you have to do is listen and follow.

If that doesn’t happen, have a look at these two sites for ideas:

https://www.wikihow.com/Make-Your-Own-Wrapping-Paper

https://www.creativelive.com/blog/21-delightful-diy-gift-wrap-ideas/

You may have leftover paper and ribbon from years past. I sure do. I’ve saved cards I especially like, and paper from big gifts, but I’ve also been given ribbon and wrapping paper by friends who have moved away, tenants who left it for me, etc.—so much, in fact, that I donated a ton of it to a disabled-artist studio and still have too much. I mean, is this stuff like clothing, where everyone has too much and can’t figure out how to dispose of it? I want to use it up soon, so I can indulge in the more enjoyable challenge of finding my own—get to a place where “new wrapping sucks.” There’s no sense in throwing it all away because, as we all know, there is no “away.”

I wonder, though—what if I were to use a nice bunch of the inherited curling ribbon, and make a big swirly ball of it for the top of some friend’s present—and she knows it’s made of polypropylene? What if she knows that the shimmering ball will never return to the soil? Will she feel like the gift (however perfect it may be) came wrapped in a curse?

Maybe I should try to use up all that ribbon this year. Before the word gets out.

21. Motherlode: Free Gifts from Our Mother Earth

This is not a normal gift guide, where you see something you like in an ad and run out to buy it. Actually it’s a gift guide that might empower you to avoid doing that.

I always feel sad when I hear about people who max out their credit cards, going into debt and even bankruptcy, in order to buy holiday gifts. These are obviously good, generous people who are excited about giving significant presents to other people rather than themselves. Without knowing the circumstances, I would never try to talk someone out of their big-hearted decisions and deeds. But when it comes to spending large sums of money, especially money that’s not really “there,” I wonder where the need or desire comes from. Is it the warm, cozy, even ecstatic advertising we’re enveloped in this time of year? The music that brings us back to some fond memories of childhood that are impossible to recreate? The pine-tree, cookie-baking smells that make the air itself seem charged with extra energy for doing more, socializing more, spending more?

Once I saw a big poster in an office supply store—and this wasn’t even the holidays—that made me laugh. Its purpose was to announce that their computer paper was on sale. But what it showed was a man and woman jumping—I mean really jumping high, knees bent, heels up in that classic attitude of extreme excitement. They were that thrilled about the computer paper being on sale.

Advertising is like that. Just a bit overdone. And at this time of year, it knows how to generate emotion. But things will never be more than things. So a purchase could be a trap. In any case, it won’t live up to the hype and “magic” that surrounds it. Instead of a gift that has a real, transformational effect on someone’s life, it’s a fleeting high that soon disappears into long-term debt.

And a purchased gift isn’t really from you! Someone else designed and made it. Where you might have.

I’ve made a lot of gifts in my day—to save money, to enjoy an afternoon or evening, and to add some element of personalization. That might be just from making it myself, or it might refer in some way to the recipient. Lately I’ve been relying on Nature to suggest something. For anyone who doesn’t feel creative, it’s a good way to start.

Of course, Nature gives away everything for free. That’s why we’re in trouble. We take what we want, sometimes even wasting what we’ve appropriated—take the buffalo, for example, killed for sport and heaved onto big piles, creating the Dust Bowl and not much else.

In this unusual gift guide, materials do come from nature. So it’s always a good idea to determine whether there’s any harm in the taking. (I note, for example, that saguaro “boots” are considered material that should be left in the desert.) Some native tribes have a tradition of both “asking” and “thanking.” And now we have science that shows gratitude makes people happy. So why not just say thanks.

The goal here is not to buy a product, or even make one, but to see possibilities and move beyond the examples and find your own originality. Okay—no more talking. Enjoy yourself.

Part One: Tell Me What You Are

Feline in stone. When I was out hiking one day, I suddenly got the feeling I’d just stepped over a cat. I took a step back and saw this rock with a kitty’s face looking up at me. I took it home and added two beads for eyes, which made the sweet expression come to life. It didn’t stand up on its own, so I added a clay base, left unfired, and a strip of leather jungle grass.

The more I’m out walking, the more evocative shapes like this I find.

Root with personality. This “driftwood” from a sand bar in Patagonia Lake was clearly a little devil. A bit of paint enabled him to stick out his tongue. I also gave him eyes and nostrils to bring out his wild expression.

Is your gift recipient completely out of shelf and counter space, unable to fit in another tchotchke? This little demon offers a solution: Just stick his “legs” between two books, and he can peek out from a bookcase, not requiring any space on a horizontal surface!

A friendlier yard ornament. I’m not the only one who hears wood pieces talking. My friend Royce (see more of him and his work in Post 14) saw a cow skull in this piece of wood, and made it happen with just a bit of red paint and some bottle-cap eyes. Real cow skulls get stolen from yards (it happened to me) and any bone will turn to dust in a few years. This wooden one will also break down eventually—but it doesn’t require the life of a cow to replace, just another piece of wood. (And there’s plenty of time to find one like it.)

A natural humpbacked flute player. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s cultural appropriation. And the worst example of this, at least in my part of the country, is the exploitation of the native character Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player. You’ll see it in jewelry, on signs, rendered as tattoos, and a lot more. But I’m not the artist here! Wind and weathering did it. All I did was recognize the shape—and add a tiny pot to make this piece useful.

Turquoise-rock saguaro. I don’t remember where I got this small rock loaded with turquoise. I do remember I felt bad when its corner fell off. Then I realized if I glued the fallen piece to the other side of the rock, I almost had a saguaro. I stabilized it with a wedge of wood and glued on a small section of bamboo for holding a secret message—a poem, favorite quote, bible verse, important contact info, or even the day’s list of things to do. Since the rock never saw fit to drop a chunk on the other side, delineating the other arm, I added a copper wire there. I think it makes a pretty good cross, too, for someone who would be happy receiving one of those.

Secretive shell. Some shells make perfect key safes. Are you ready to give your honey the key to your heart? Or just your apartment?

Part Two: Saguaro Boots

When I first moved to Tucson, someone showed me a saguaro boot—the skin that forms around the raw sides of the holes that birds make in the cactus. I started bringing home the ones I found. I don’t take them anymore, though. It’s now generally believed that it’s better to leave all decaying material in the desert, where it provides food and habitat for insects and other wildlife. The desert just doesn’t produce as much organic material as, say, forests.

Bowl them over. Nuts or candy—or a bigger mound of dragon fruit— become a very special offer when they’re presented in this centerpiece suite, hand-trimmed with beads and hugged by a saguaro boot.

Hanger for lightweight scarves.  I’m afraid this features another saguaro boot. Don’t look for one! You wouldn’t find one like this anyway; it’s unusual. But I often find pieces of wood and other common materials that seem to want to frame something. In this case I cut out the little fish from a drawing that otherwise failed. The featured fish is the Arizona topminnow, which was endangered but is now bouncing back—a happy, hopeful story to give as a gift.

Sometimes I add tags for my gifts. My “studio” is called Desert Muse. For a while I was using Mexican Bingo cards. Remarkably, I could always find a card that applied to the item in some way.

Part Three: Cactus Lace

The next few examples use cactus lace—the layered, internal skeleton of prickly pear cactus. It’s plentiful anywhere prickly pear has died, even in the city. I pry the layers apart and choose the sturdiest pieces. Then I force clay into the interstices using a rolling pin. It’s great fun to see how the different pieces turn out. Not having a kiln, I don’t fire the clay, but I do oil or varnish it, and it’s fairly sturdy—as long as it doesn’t get wet!

Left: Cactus-lace frame. This one holds a ceramic hand, but these frames can have openings of different sizes and hold different kinds of art—a long as it’s small. Top: Raw lace. Dried layers taken from a rotting cactus. Right: Lace box with mesquite bean handle. This box and the others I’ve made use rectangular slabs cut from the sturdiest rolled pieces. They’re fun to make but time consuming: Give to your best friends and family!

Pod box. I gave this box a wild, oversized seedpod lid. This one is customized with charms and stones, but your recipient could decorate it with just about anything. Or nothing.

Matts mug. My friend Matts Myhrman is a clay expert who digs his own, and knows how to fire it in a bonfire, without a kiln. This mug features an imprint of cactus lace.

Part Four: Vessels

There’s the one above, and just two more examples below. But both have broad potential.

Meaningful pot. Personalize an old pot—maybe one that broke into not too many pieces! Dig up a plant that’s spreading, or root a cutting, and plant it in a pot you’ve painted with a design that has relevance for your recipient.

I painted chicken feet on this pot for Terry. I’m counting on this pencil cholla to root in it.

Vase centerpiece. This core-eroded branch, decorated with wave-tumbled shell pieces, makes a small, one-flower vase (cheaply acquired at a thrift store) more substantial, and calming in its curves.

Part Five: Carving

There are so many ways to carve! Can you believe avocado pits? Tree bark? Backyard sticks?

Avocado adventures. Once I found out that avocado pits could be carved, I had a hard time throwing them in the compost bin. I’ve made buttons, beads, and pendants. Pins and nails make the holes—they should be left in until the pieces are dry. These are simple objects. The humble avocado pit has more potential than I’ve explored, more than what I’ve shown here. You can find some inventive, intricate examples online.

Mesquite scratchers. Do you have anyone in your life with an itchy back? I have one of those! And it really helps to have a stick handy in every room. I used a sharp kitchen knife to de-bark these carefully chosen mesquite branches. Braids, beads, and other trims can be added to the handle end for interest, or to personalize them.

Touchable bark. I don’t know where I was, but the trees had thick bark with a smooth inner surface. I found I could score it with my fingernail, so I knew it would be easy to carve. Carving exposed a nice shade of rusty red underneath. What words or whose names would you carve?

I hope this post launches you into something new and fun. Let me know what you’ve been inspired to do and make instead of buying new stuff.

Next week’s post will be short because of Thanksgiving—but still worth reading!

20. It All Comes Out in the Wash Water

There’s a scene from the movie El Norte that’s still with me 35 years after I first saw it. Actually, there are two other scenes I remember as well: the one where the father’s severed head is swaying in the breeze, and the one where Rosa and Enrique are crawling through a tunnel and are bitten by a horde of rats. It would be hard for anyone who’s seen the film to forget those images. But the scene I’m thinking about right now isn’t gruesome; it’s the one that comes to mind almost every time I do laundry.

Rosa and Nacha, the Mexican woman who has taken the young Guatemalan under her wing, are standing in front of a modern washer and dryer where the lady of the house—of the mansion—is explaining how the machines work. She wants the two women to wash and dry the clothes while she’s away. The rich lady is American (though with a hair pouf resembling Margaret Thatcher’s); she speaks English, which both of the maids understand only superficially. Nacha nevertheless pretends to follow the lady’s instructions, and whispers to Rosa that she should do the same. The lady cheerfully leaves. Rosa makes guesses, but the operation panels of the machines are completely overlaid with buttons, all in abbreviated English.

Rosa has an idea, though. She moves the clothes to a sink and washes them there, then finds a sunny lawn behind the mansion where she lays everything out flat to dry. She sits down with them, briefly, and smiles. In the end the clothes are clean and dry. The boss-lady is upset, nevertheless, that they weren’t done by machine. She says she can’t bear to think of someone doing such hard work.

Why was I so taken by that scene that I remember it almost four decades later? Even then, before I took the permaculture class and fell in love with basic mud construction, I appreciated the point: Hard work is hard, but under some circumstances you’ll trade it for simplicity, familiarity, and—sunshine?

The year I saw El Norte, I had a baby in diapers. Friends and family had given us many weeks of diaper service, so for a while, life was easy. (That part of life, anyway.) When the service ran out, I tried to stick with the cloth diapers, washing them myself. It was a big pain. I clothes-pinned them to our inverted-umbrella drying rack, once even posing with the baby in front of the “diaper tree,” white cloths waving like multiple flags of surrender. (Should I surrender, and switch to disposables?)

I didn’t mind the work that much. Of course, I wasn’t doing the wash by hand like Rosa did, but most of the diapers needed to be pre-washed, since our graywater went to a tree basin, and I wanted to be careful about what was in it. (Graywater from washing machines became legal not long after that. It seemed risky to me—but I suppose our poopy loads from those days would have to be considered blackwater.) The diaper tree days didn’t last long. But it wasn’t the hard work of washing that ended them. It was an incident.

We were in a fabric store shopping, the baby in my arms—I was holding her in the usual way, meaning she was sitting in the crook of my elbow. It was my fault. The leg of her elastic pants wasn’t elastic anymore, and it didn’t hug her thighs like it was supposed to. And cloth diapers were never meant to be leak proof. So what did I expect? At least it only got on my arm and clothes, not on the store’s floor or any bolts of fabric. Brown would show.

That’s what got me to switch to disposables. Not the work of washing. It was the embarrassment. Social pressures are strong. Including when it comes to consumer habits.

Clothes hanging on a line have strong social meaning. The sight signifies poverty. Neighborhood associations often ban it, even when the state protects it as part of one’s right to use solar power. In spite of this stigma, your clothes are supposed to smell like fresh air. A few years back there was a commercial that featured clothes blowing beautifully on a line, insisting that the product would impart the same freshness to your clothes if you used it. I don’t remember what the product was (which means the commercial was ineffective), but I laughed—in a jeering kind of way—because I had the genuine scent of solar heat and fresh air in my clothes.

I was unaffected by the laundry-line stigma. I wasn’t part of any neighborhood association. It was hard even to see into the back yard because it was surrounded by a dense oleander hedge. And some of my neighbors had clotheslines of their own.

I’ve been offered a free electric dryer twice, and both times I’ve said Thanks but No Thanks. I’d used dryers at laundromats. They’re not usually places you want to hang out in for any length of time. So the experience of checking, checking, checking on the load—just to discover there’s hardly a difference in moisture content from one coin deposit to the next—was always unpleasant. Sun drying is different. I know there are rainy, snowy climates where the sun’s drying power is limited, even in the summer if it’s humid. Someone else will have to speak on that; place needs to determine our habits, anyway. But here in the desert, at least during the summer, the first items you hang up are dry by the time you’ve hung the last items in your load. Sure, you could say it’s work, but I’d rather be actively hanging my clothes than waiting, waiting, waiting for the inferior power of electricity to get the job done.

Skip the clothespins and go right to the colorful tree sculpture.

And anyway, I’ve improved on the clothesline. The lacy-metal patio chairs I’d bought in the eighties were dated now, okay, but conveniently full of holes that allowed anything laid out on the seat or thrown over the back to dry from both sides. Each arm had a flat armrest that was perfect for poking the ends of socks and underwear into, so they could hang down with air all around.

These two chairs are full.

I plan to have a race someday—give someone a clothesline, a bag of clothespins, and a basket of washed clothes, while I start out with the same basket and my chairs. I know who would win. I just don’t know by how much.

So I’ve been able to save some money over the years, not buying that new stuff—the dryers—and not paying for repairs, either. But I’ve used a washing machine since I moved in. In other parts of the country (or world) it might be unconventional to have the machine outside, and to direct the wash-water out to a tree—bypassing the drain. But that’s not unusual here. Except for these details, I’ve washed my clothes conventionally for years.

This part of my old washing machine makes a perfect solar oven.

I’ve had only two washing machines in my life besides the one I have now—all bought used. I wouldn’t want a new one, since it’s outside (though under a roof). It’s crazy, yes, but I still have the second machine—it just doesn’t wash clothes anymore. It bakes cookies. That machine happened to die while I was taking the permaculture course, so I thought about how I could keep it from the landfill. I took it apart. I knew nothing about how it had worked, but I just kept unscrewing, unbolting, pulling the parts apart. The shell fit right over my ugly laundry tub. (People still think it’s another appliance, until I open the lid.) The heavy part that turned still turned within its housing, and was weighted with concrete—good thermal mass for an oven? The fact that the basin turned inside a base meant it could follow the sun horizontally. I cut off the top of the agitator and packed insulation up to that point, then draped a black, heat-absorbing cloth on top. It needed a round piece of glass. No problem; thrift stores at the time carried a popular round, particle-board table topped with glass, the size I needed, always for $5. I added three reflective panels. And voila, I had a solar oven. Who could have known: the best mesquite cookies ever come from that oven now, a couple times a month—thanks to Terry’s evolving recipe.

Two loads, five chairs

But this post isn’t about baking. It’s about laundry, and how I’ve been a conventional laundress. I do remember once, on a small-group tour of Brad Lancaster’s permaculture site, he pointed to a five-gallon bucket and said, “That’s my washing getting done.” A woman in the group immediately piped up, “Oh, no! I’m sticking with my washing machine!” But now there’s a trend called “laundry stripping.” The idea is that your “clean” clothes still have residues from past detergent, fabric softeners, etc. You soak them, maybe in a bathtub, adding borax, washing soda, and laundry detergent. (Huh? Isn’t that what you’re stripping out?) You watch the water turn dark, or various colors.

Maybe I’ll try it. Maybe Brad’s soaking idea has some legitimacy. It would be nice to not need a washing machine. New stuff. But I’m skeptical. I remember watching Rosa, bent over the frothing sink, scrubbing. Friction and motion might be important. Rosa’s tradition was using rocks to scrub clothes against, at the bank of a stream or river, always with other women. I saw this once in central Mexico from the window of a bus, but we whizzed past.

This won’t ever be my social reality. No streams or rivers around here run regularly, and if they did, I don’t know anyone who would want to meet me there with a load of dirty clothes. But I’ll keep my chairs for drying.

The flat armrests on my chairs are perfect for grabbing and drying socks.

What if my old washer kicks the bucket? It has developed a glitch—not advancing by itself after the fill. I have to wait around about five minutes for the waterfall noise to stop, and then push the tiny lid-switch button with my thumbnail. It kicks back on, and everything’s fine after that. If it died completely? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is a character in Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist who threw his dirty clothes in the shower and stomped on them—where he would have been stomping anyway. That might work!

I can hear some informed friends reminding me that newer appliances are usually more energy efficient than the older ones. Would the newer washers use less water, also? Probably not, considering you’re the one who selects the water level to suit your load. Would the energy savings be worth it?

It depends on what you mean by “it.” Worth what you pay for the new machine? Or worth the environmental cost? The former is easily found on the price tag. The latter is almost impossible to find out. What are the materials? Where did they come from? What energy was required for the various parts and the whole? What pollution was produced? Are any of the materials recyclable? Are any of them toxic? To humans? Other biology? What fuels were used in shipping? And what’s the expected lifespan of the machine before it becomes trash?

It’s not an environmental factor, but I also like to know what the human toll is, in terms of labor conditions.

These are all unknowns, and to make these unknowns known is close to impossible, even for Donald Rumsfeld. We’re not supposed to know. For some people, the answers might get in the way of a purchase, and we can’t have that happen. But the veil of secrecy around what we buy—washing machines just being a single example among millions—is only partly intentional; it also stems from the increasing complexity and sourcing of parts. Of course there’s a supply chain problem when these sources shut down. Some of the dominoes fall.

I get angry when I can’t get the answer to questions about what I want to buy. My dollars are setting unknowns in motion—funding who knows what. Sometimes I say, screw it! I need this. I don’t have much choice. I have to buy it. Other times I say, screw you. I don’t need your plastic, your excessive complexity, your poison, your human-misery product. There’s another way I can do this (get this, make this).

When my washing machine konks out, I’ll try the bathtub soak, I’ll try the shower dancing, and who knows what else. But I’ve had a responsibility to renter(s) for years, and still do—I’ll probably get another used machine. I’ve had pretty good luck with them. I’ll show someone my cool solar oven, and let them have the dead washer to take apart.

I doubt very much I’ll ever get one of those shiny models with a billion buttons that aren’t useful at all unless you know English.

Go Rosa!

19. Girl Power

When we left our protagonist couple in the last post, they were facing a seemingly impossible dilemma. Should the chickens get to keep their freedom in the back yard, creating havoc and hastening its demise? Or should they be forced to give up that choice territory and be relegated once again to the 185-square-foot coop and run they were limited to in their chickhood?

.   .   .

It seemed to me there was simply no solution. I practically lived in the back yard. Having chickens digging holes everywhere would put me in danger of a sprained ankle, or worse. The whole yard would eventually become one huge dirt pile with all the “tastiest” vegetation gone. Any slimy little pile that Terry missed would certainly present itself to the bottom of one of my shoes—maybe, with its slipperiness, also causing me to fall. Yet if we banished them from the yard, I knew Terry, with his love for animals—really, a kind of communing of his soul with theirs—would feel as though his own wings were being clipped.

But he wasn’t fazed a bit by the situation. He just said, “Let’s go look at the yard.”

There was some unused space (I later measured 70 square feet) under the oleander bush where the door to their coop and run opened.

“How about we just fence off this area here?” he said. “I could open the door in the morning and let them in. Do we have any fencing material?”

“Yeah. Nuffi stuffi.”

“Of course, in the heat of the summer, they’re still gonna have to go under the orange tree, where we set up the mister. The area would include your laundry graywater ditch. We could keep it filled with water so they could cool their feet, too.”

“Okay. I’ll go look at the fencing.”

Orange-tree hangout: The fencing might be almost invisible, but a chicken-scratched area has a lived-in look all its own—chicken-sized holes, nothing growing, anything mulch-like buried in the dirt.

When my friend John left town, he left me two rolls of nicely rusted field fencing. If field fencing can be beautiful, this stuff was—mostly because once unrolled it became almost invisible, the best kind of beauty when it came to avoiding visual interference within the landscape.

This idea could work.

The back gate hangout: In less than an afternoon, I closed up the two door-sized gaps in the enclosure with chicken wire gates, one long piece each, folded into thirds. The three layers gave the gates more stiffness than one layer would have provided. I wove in a couple rods, and I can boost the rigidity further by weaving various kinds of sticks, rods, bamboo, or what-have-you.

Terry still had one more “conflict minimizing” trick up his sleeve. He showed me an area by the alley gate that was already mostly enclosed by the back fence, the neighbor’s fence, and two low dividing walls I’d put in. There were just two gate-sized openings that could be temporarily blocked by plywood or the like. He envisioned this zone as the chickies’ late-afternoon hangout, before they were ushered back into the coop and their beloved tree-branch roost.

The problem was solved! Our breakup averted!

The chickies soon mastered the routine. Usually, when the enclosure they were in was opened, they’d run right over to the next, and go in. Not too shabby, I thought. Smart.

I found one thing especially amusing. The urge to lay eggs in the box I built—actually a rebuild of a discarded rabbit hutch—was so strong that they somehow managed to escape the pen they were in and run back to the coop. They’d lay the egg, announce it with their loud, unmistakable egg call, and run back to the others. (They couldn’t always get back in, but after hearing the announcement, one of us would go help whoever it was back over the fence if necessary.)

To me it looked like they were excited to be escorted, four times a day, to a fresh but familiar zone. Is excitement in a bird really so hard to identify? I’m no scientist, but I’d see it expressed in insistent vocalizations and quick movements—in this case, the three girls swirling over and under each other just before their release, then dashing off at full speed to the next open gate. It seemed clear that they preferred this day-long “progressive dinner party” to being let loose into a larger, less manageable space, where they often lost track of each other, the lost soul calling out mournfully to the two that had disappeared. Togetherness (not necessarily good will, just sticking together) was of supreme importance. Three chickens don’t make much of a society, but our three have an order, nevertheless. Peggotty recently lost her status as top hen to Havisham. Havisham got bigger, for whatever reason. (Genetics?) Dedlock’s back turned lighter, but she wasn’t going gray—a few times we’ve caught Havisham pulling her darker surface feathers out. As if knowing she needed to counter that, Dedlock started pushing her way to the front for every food toss, becoming adept at grabbing the choicest bits—from a sister’s beak if necessary—then running fast to a dark corner to finish them off as soon as possible.

Waiting for handouts. Dedlock; left, most alert, with one eye trained on whatever will fall. Peggotty, center—patient, not pecking. Havisham, right—looking at her “charges” rather than up. She’s obviously bigger (and therefore less concerned with food?).

At night all was forgotten and forgiven, because they needed each other on the roost for warmth and safety.

But during the day you could recognize the different personalities: Dedlock was the Snack Snatcher, Havisham the Big Bully, and Peggotty the People Pecker (though she’d really slacked off on that; maybe because she couldn’t get to me anymore, behind those fences, or maybe because she’d lost her dominance. Now she’s sweet and agreeable.)

I’ve also watched them learn—and quickly, especially if it had to do with food. They learned the sound of dried mealworms being shaken in a bag. Or Terry could just say, “Oh, Gir-rulzI” and they’d come running up to the fence where he was standing. And if you were near their enclosure, just quietly reading or working, they would periodically let out a kind of guttural, dinosaur-like cry that was their way of whining, “Hey, please, it’s been an hour since you gave us something to eat—what are you doing just sitting there?” In fact, if they heard one of us crunch gravel on the other side of the house (possibly coming their way!), we’d hear their dinosaur roar. But these slick tricks are nothing compared to the feats of intelligence other people’s chickens have mastered. I recommend this jaw-dropping YouTube video for starters.

Are chickens what Buddhists like to call sentient? Are they conscious? Do they feel pain?

Yes, I’m sure of it. They represent yet another animal that turns out to be smarter, more socially advanced, and capable of more feeling—both emotional and physical—than previously held beliefs about them.

Our girls had a good life now—I did, too, because I had my yard back—and squawks of pain were rare. But I could tell it hurt Dedlock when Havisham pulled her feathers out. And if I stepped on a huge, scaly foot, the aggrieved party loudly let me know by crying out in pain. I couldn’t prove it was pain, but I had no doubt.

It was clear they lived on a pain/pleasure spectrum like I did, maybe different from mine but no less real. So what made their pain less important than mine as a human? Their smaller size? Their shorter lifespan? Slightly lower intelligence? I’m not sure these factors mitigate suffering. It was once believed that a human infant couldn’t feel anything. But we’re shocked and horrified by that now.

I look out of human eyes. But what if I looked out of chicken eyes? Their perception (having an eye on each side of the head) would certainly be different. But I’m not sure their underlying motivations, or their sensations of pain and pleasure, are markedly different.

Our three chickens are childlike—perhaps resembling babies in their limited (confined) knowledge of the world. They walk like toddlers who have just learned, leaning right, then left. When the Pied Piper (Terry) leads them to their next hangout–not with flute melody, but because they consider him their rooster—their side-to-side walk becomes a teeter-tottering run. I’ll never not laugh at this spectacle. I’m laughing at them, not with them. But they don’t know that. They’re innocent.

We understand these various behaviors, and so much more, when it comes to the pets we live with, but not to the creatures we eat.

I know, Nature is all about creatures eating other creatures. Nature is cruel. But also, usually swift. It takes human greed and capitalism—making the smallest possible investment for the largest possible gain—to establish industrial farms where animals suffer from birth to death. But I’m not going to go there. Enough books, articles, documentaries, and activist videos are out there, exposing the details—for those times when your stomach feels strong.

I only really want to make one point: The factory-farm horrorshow happens because these artless lives—life stock—are treated like raw material. Regarded as things. As stuff. As products, they get manipulated, concentrated, sold off, cut up, enticingly packaged and offered to consumers as “new stuff.” But they’re not stuff at all. Or weren’t. Or never should have been.

The factory farm industry goes beyond objectifying and destroying animal lives. It also poses many risks and harms to the lives of human consumers—and to the healthy environments they absolutely need to live and thrive.

This industry’s products might just represent the suckiest new stuff of all.

18. Henpecked

Someone recently suggested that I write about our chickens. I thanked them for the idea. After all, I wrote three posts about building the coop, and nothing on the occupants.

But what did they have to do with new stuff sucking? Obviously, if we’re getting eggs from them, we can avoid buying egg cartons. That packaging can be egregious: clear plastic and Styrofoam cartons will persist for centuries as pollution, unrecyclable, and even the paper ones are energy-intensive to produce. But these cartons are a small subset of the whole packaging issue, and I already gave them special attention in Post 14. (See “Garbage In, Beauty Out” for an artist’s reaction to plastic egg cartons deceptively overwritten with eco-text.) I just didn’t see any other reasons to write about chickens.

But it would be fun!

I know that chickens are a classic part of permaculture design. They do so much for domestic systems—picking off weeds, removing bugs from compost while also enriching it, contributing eggs for people and eggshells for wild birds to consume, loosening garden soil, and even stimulating human oxytocin (when they’re embraced as pets).

But what about meat? Before I met Terry (a vegetarian for decades), I avoided buying meat but didn’t pay attention to what was in dishes offered at potlucks. Permaculture favors meat under certain circumstances. Imagine a place where grass grew, but not much else. Humans could survive there if they ate the animals that grazed on it. When a rattlesnake got run over, when I live-trapped a squirrel, I put them in stews—mostly for flavor; the meat was scant—and ate them. Permaculture was about nature, and nature was dog-eat-dog. Terry said he’d never eat chicken. But if it was permaculturally logical, where I only had grass to eat otherwise, he could see me eating meat.

However, when we brought the three little fluffballs home, we named them. They were going to be our Dickens Chickens, named after three of his female characters: Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), Lady Dedlock (Bleak House), and Nurse Peggotty (David Copperfield). And attachment, of course, starts with naming.

That’s true even when it’s a dumb bird with a face that has no means of expression. The beak is either open or closed, but that doesn’t carry any meaning beyond the ambient temperature. (Birds are like dogs panting, keeping their mouths and tongues open to cooling airflow.) There aren’t any eyebrows over the always startled-looking round eyes, no muscles for squinting out tears or doubt—only a second-by-second assessment of food opportunities. It just seems, at first, that these are animals of somewhat low intelligence and feeling.

But dumb little babies are still cute. The three wisps of down on legs, randomly picked from a heated drawer at the feed store, were as irresistible as any kitten or puppy. I say “on legs” because as tiny as they were, they could shoot across the ground faster than a speeding bullet. (In fact, it occurred to me that the word “pullet,” used to describe them at this age, must have come from that root word.) They may or may not have been sisters, but they stuck together, amusingly, in all their running around and falling.

Havisham’s comb peeks through

Although all three were Barred Rocks, we fancied we could tell them apart by their markings. But they grew fast, and their markings stretched and changed. We watched these changes as though they were kids growing up, only it happened faster, the way everything happens now. You could tell they were proud of themselves when they were able to “fly” to the lowest rung on their chair, then to its seat, then to the top of its back. Next they figured out how to go up the ramp to a low roost, and finally to the highest one, five feet off the ground. If Terry was there, they’d use his shoulder as a jumping-off platform.

Soon we noticed a red line emerging from the top of each head, each with a different pattern of bumps. Now we’d be able to tell them apart. About this time, some friends who had older chickens showed us how fun it was to pick them up and hold them. When they’d see you reaching for them, they’d crouch down and freeze, waiting to feel your grasp on them. Who’d ever heard of this? I hadn’t. Apparently is was a show of submission to the hypothetical rooster.

Trying out the human lap

Our girls did this, too. Terry loved picking them up and setting them down on the bench next to him, or having them on his lap as he sat reading. I didn’t. A pecking order was developing, and Terry was the rooster.

They didn’t crouch for me.

By now we’d given them the run of the back yard. For them, life was all about eating. Right away, I learned which plants they liked, because they were the ones that quickly disappeared. The pale-green succulent, echeveria, was first to go; the purple-trumpeted ruellia was next, three-quarters gone before I realized it, but I was able to transplant the last bit to safety.

Work companions

They did do other things besides eat, but all of them had to do with eating. A favorite pastime was finding bare dirt and vigorously scratching it behind them—Michael Jackson moonwalk style—until it covered the graveled pathways and other graveled areas. Scratch-scratch-peck. I’m sure they were getting bugs, but it all happened so fast I could never see them. I countered with covering the most important bare-dirt places with rocks. In those spots, they were foiled. But then they discovered another amusement: digging under rocks—the rocks that I put there to accent or delineate the landscape. Yeah, the curve-billed thrasher had been doing that for years, hoping to find buried grubs. But their little excavations had nothing on the dark depth of these chicken holes. Of course, all the dirt was once again moonwalked onto carefully graveled ground. And there were way too many rocks in the yard for me to come up with a fix for that.

Peggotty, as the top hen, had acquired a habit unique to her position, which I don’t think had to do with food, though I did sometimes lose bits of flesh. She’d sneak up to me and peck me on the leg. I believe she was trying to put me in my place—below herself as top chicken under the rooster—by pecking me when I wasn’t looking. She could absolutely tell—I’m sure of it—when I’d let my guard down and had started to relax into some project. She’d go as deep as her hard, sharp little beak would let her, often hard enough to draw blood. I resorted to making myself a pair of chaps out of old leather to tie onto the back of my legs. It worked! By the time she came around to the front of me, it was too late. I’d seen her. The only problem was, it was a lot of trouble to haul them out and tie them on for the quick trips into the yard, say, just to pick a few greens from the chard patch for dinner.

Terry was impressively on the ball when it came to the poop scooping, so I had no complaints about that. Their droppings were an ideal ingredient for the compost bins and the soil. Also, the chickens were great at picking off roaches and grubs from the compost when we turned it. And the sweet things were giving us eggs now, one a day each—clean, latte-colored eggs with intensely orange yolks. Our omelets could barely keep up.

No one ever told me the details of that part of the chicken experience—the egg collecting. I hadn’t known about the distinct, passionate song that always announced the laying. Sometimes it wasn’t the producer herself who sounded off; it might be a sister. Nobody knows for sure why they do this. And if you went to get the egg right after the broadcast, it would still be warm from the bird’s body heat.

This was an intimate relationship we had with these girls. I wanted to know how they felt about us taking their eggs from them—but I doubted this would ever be the subject of scientific research. If Peggotty were mad, though, she’d find a way to let me know.

We’d figure someone was sitting on the box if she was missing from the threesome. If I went to confirm it, I stayed back and made it brief. It was just too much like peeking into a bathroom where someone was sitting on the throne.

But plants continued to disappear or get dug up and discarded. Holes appeared all over the yard; my gravel disappeared into the dirt they churned up. All the damage and extra yard work was starting to get to me. Terry, however, didn’t seem to notice I was becoming more upset, despite the clues I gave him.

I was so grateful for their gifts. I wanted them to be free. I didn’t think Terry wanted to entertain any other possibility. But unless I was okay with the Sisyphean task of daily yard repair, our ranging-the-yard chickens would soon render our outdoor space unfit for guests.

And it appeared to me this would be the biggest challenge so far in my eight-year relationship with Terry. It seemed the solution had to be either closer confinement or banishment of our birds. Our kids.

Oh dear. There’s more, but this post is too long already. And I’ve just written my first cliffhanger! You’ll have to come back next week to find out how this impossible situation turns out.

I didn’t intend to write two posts on chickens. Forgive me. I’m not always in control of the muse.

If you missed the Broad Perspectives interview on KXCI, you’ll still be able to hear it by clicking below.

Kay interviewed by Aspen Green and Kathy Harris.