Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Stack Your Functions!

In Permaculture lingo, “stacking functions” refers to building redundancies into a sustainable garden. In a forest, a tree doesn’t just do one thing; instead, it performs multiple jobs, like regulating climate, sequestering carbon, holding soil together, providing habitat, and giving food, just to name a few. One of the problems with industrialized society is that almost every aspect of our lives is specialized – there are shockingly few things we do or have that that perform more than one or two functions. This is especially true in our food and habitat (for most of us, houses and apartments), and it leads to an incredible amount of waste. Imagine if forests needed a separate organism to do each and every single job that one tree can easily perform.

Take, for example, a lawn. The lawn is pretty much the epitome of wasted space. Most of the time, it performs one single function: looking nice (if you like the way lawns look, something I personally can’t wrap my head around). Sometimes – sometimes – it also serves as a recreational area, so that’s two functions, which wouldn’t be so bad if lawn wasn’t the single largest crop in the United States. If you add a hedge to the edge of it to make it look nicer, you again have a plant that probably only serves one function – and notice that they don’t help each other out very much. If you find it impossible to keep your lawn healthy, this wasted space and lack of relationships is the reason why. Lawn is a monoculture, and there’s a reason monocultures never occur in nature.

To build a truly ecological garden, you need to make sure that all your plants are performing multiple tasks (and that all tasks are being done by multiple plants – more on that in a minute). For example, if you’re a fan of flowers, don’t just get a variety that looks nice. Try to find a flowering vegetable or perennial herb, or a creeping vine that acts as mulch or shades a window, or an edible flower like nasturtiums, or a flower that feeds and creates habitat for beneficial insects and spiders. If you’re growing vegetables, go for natural configurations that help the plants help each other. The most often cited example is the Three Sisters garden, in which squash, corn, and beans help keep each other healthy through mutually beneficial relationships. The corn provides a stalk for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and the squash acts as mulch. See The Urban Homestead or Gaia’s Garden to learn how to do it, or check out Kai Chang’s blog for updates on his garden. Another way to stack functions is through a polycultural bed, in which seeds are scattered so that vegetables come up in no particular pattern. The random placement of beans means that you don’t need to rotate your crops to amend the soil, and the close proximity of plants shades the ground so that the temperature is regulated and moisture is preserved. Again, see Urban Homestead or Gaia’s Garden.

Think about stacking functions in terms of landscaping, too. Why plant some anonymous hedge when a rosemary bush is edible and produces adorable flowers? If you’re looking for border plants, why not plant strawberries or chives, both of which also flower? If you never use your lawn, why have one at all? Edible landscaping, polycultural beds, or a fruit or nut tree can look just as nice (better, in my opinion) as grass. And if you take your climate into consideration when you’re planting, it’ll take much less work to care for your garden.

It’s also important to make sure that multiple plants are meeting a particular need, in case something happens to one of them. If you want to grow food, don’t just grow one plant or type of crop – if it gets a disease, then there goes all your work for the season. If you live in a dry climate, don’t rely on just one source of water – use multiple irrigation and conservation methods, like a soaker hose, thick mulch, a cistern, and berms and swales.

To reduce waste, try to stack functions in the rest of your life, too. One example from my own life is transportation. When I drive my car unnecessarily, I’m wasting both gas and time; notice that the car is only performing one function. If, however, I ride my bike, now I’m getting exercise while I travel. If I ride the bus, I can read or grade papers. If my destination is close enough to walk to, then I can listen to a Yiddish tape while I exercise and travel. Note that since most people reading this blog probably live in a car culture, the car makes sense, for now, if you’re in a hurry or if you need to carry a lot of stuff. However, since the earth doesn’t contain enough resources to sustain car cultures indefinitely, consider the virtues of animal transportation – a horse will give you fertilizer and companionship in addition to healthy transportation. (Horseback riding is a workout, right? It looks like it, at least.) Also note that this form of stacking functions shouldn’t turn into an addiction to multitasking. If you’re doing more than you can comfortably concentrate on, or if it’s stressing you out, then you are canceling out the good effects of your functions.

Conversely, living in a place that gives me the option of walking, biking, taking public transportation, or driving is an excellent system of redundancies. If my car or bike is in the shop, or I’m temporarily disabled, or I don’t have time for the bus, I still have plenty of options. I’ll never be completely stranded as long as I’m traveling within my city.

Another area of your life in which you should stack functions is food. Over the past century, we’ve developed a bizarre system in which, generally speaking, pleasure and nutrition are separated from each other. We eat fast food and chips and then buy vitamin supplements. We choke down iceburg lettuce and then crave cookies and soda. The whole reason we have a sense of taste is because a good taste, absent artificial ingredients, signals good nutritional content. If the food you’re eating isn’t both pleasurable and nutritious, then there’s a problem. It’s probably not your fault, especially if you’re low-income, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Western culture needs to drastically change its food system.

Finally, think about stacking functions in terms of space and garbage. If you have one room in your house for the guest bed, one room for each child, one room for eating, one room for watching TV, one room for entertaining guests, and one room for working on the computer, then you have too many rooms. (Full disclosure: I myself currently live in an apartment with too many rooms.) Like the lawn, all this wasted space creates a lot of unnecessary work. Can you put your desk in the guest room? Do you need both a living room and a den? Similarly, if you use a disposable cup once, for fifteen minutes, and then throw it away, that cup has only performed one function in its entire lifetime. Use a glass instead – or, at the very least, compost the disposable one and feed it to your plants. If the cup isn’t compostable because it’s plastic or has wax or poisonous dyes or whatever, then that’s a bad system.

Of course, the idea of cutting down on garbage is hardly revolutionary – but in practice, it can be maddeningly hard to pull off. This is why the best way to really start stacking your functions isn’t to simply pat yourself on the back for using canvas bags at the grocery store or travel mugs at the coffee shop, but to honestly evaluate every single object you use. If it only performs one function – or if it’s not reusable or even biodegradable – then it’s wasting space and resources. Once you realize that, you can begin figuring out what to do about it.

Food, Food, Food

I’ve realized that food justice and eco-kashrut has made me kind of a foodie. I never thought the label applied to me – when I think “foodie,” I think “pays $30 for a jar of olives and then cooks for two hours” – but I’ve become addicted to the alchemy of cheesemaking, the creativity that comes out of figuring out what to do with the contents my CSA box. Each loaf of bread I bake comes out slightly better (although there’s nothing I can really be proud of yet). I love following the rhythms of growing seasons – although it’s pathetic that that’s some sort of novel concept – and throwing together a good, healthy meal. I grew up on KFC, Panda Express, and supermarket beef, but this week my husband and I made beet soup and okra with lemon, not because we searched out the recipes and then went shopping, but because beets and okra were what we had.

So when I saw that there’s a Jewish food conference happening in California next winter, I nearly jumped out of my seat. First off – a conference on the West Coast!? Isn’t there some law against that? You mean people in California actually exist? Secondly, this conference isn’t just about Jewish food and kashrut – it’s focused on issues like nutrition, food justice, and eco-kashrut. Right up my alley.

But there are a few problems. First off, judging from the description and last year’s schedule, it seems like more of a retreat than a conference. Lots of movie screenings and baking classes; not a huge number of workshops on how to get things done. I’d love to learn how to bake challah… but I’d rather spend that morning strategizing with other food activists on how to dismantle industrial agriculture, and then get their numbers and bake challah some other time. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be any way for participants to put together workshops or panels – the programming is completely controlled by the organization putting it on. Finally, the price tag for registration is – wait for it – $280, set to go up to $360 in August. Compare this to AMC’s $100, J Street’s $175.

So if good food is something that supposedly only upper-middle class Jews care about, then what does that say about how they perceive other Jews? If food comes out of the ground for free, and yet somehow it takes $360 a head to get together and talk about it, what does that say about their relationship to food? If they need the money because they’re going to spend four days holding cooking demonstrations and preparing meals – well, yum, but again, that’s not a conference.

Also, notice the date? The conference starts on Christmas eve. I can understand wanting to choose a date when most Jews are going to be free, but holding an event on the single most important holiday in the country in which we live ignores the reality of those of us in or from interfaith and multiethnic homes. If I went, I’d have to drive up to the Bay Area early Christmas morning to have dinner with my husband’s family, then drive back down to the conference that night.

There are a few scholarships available, so I’ll probably apply for one and then make a decision depending on what I get. Maybe I can meet some other scholarship people there (something tells me that I wouldn’t have much in common with the people who could afford the ticket on their own). But still – if this is how the progressive Jewish community approaches food issues, then the eco-kashrut movement does not exist.

Why I Want a Wife

The picture won’t fit here, but Sociological Images has a post up about The Occasional Wife – a business that sends out (I’m assuming) women to clean homes, organize offices, and do any other miscellaneous chores “you” might need. The tagline is “The Modern Solution to Your Busy Life.”

On a totally coincidental note, I’m feeling this urge to post this excerpt from Judy Brady’s “Why I Want a Wife,” which appeared in Ms. Magazine in the 70s:

I would like to go back to school so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and, if need be, support those dependent upon me. I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school, I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too…. I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about a wife’s duties. But I want a wife who will listen to me when I feel the need to explain a rather difficult point I have come across in my course studies. And I want a wife who will type my papers for me when I have written them…. If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free.

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?

Why I hate the American work ethic

Because even though I work until nine at night, I feel guilty if I’m not working by nine in the morning.

Genocide

This is genocide:

CROW AGENCY, Mont. – Ta’Shon Rain Little Light, a happy little girl who loved to dance and dress up in traditional American Indian clothes, had stopped eating and walking. She complained constantly to her mother that her stomach hurt.

When Stephanie Little Light took her daughter to the Indian Health Service clinic in this wind-swept and remote corner of Montana, they told her the 5-year-old was depressed.

Ta’Shon’s pain rapidly worsened and she visited the clinic about 10 more times over several months before her lung collapsed and she was airlifted to a children’s hospital in Denver. There she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, confirming the suspicions of family members.

A few weeks later, a charity sent the whole family to Disney World so Ta’Shon could see Cinderella’s Castle, her biggest dream. She never got to see the castle, though. She died in her hotel bed soon after the family arrived in Florida.

“Maybe it would have been treatable,” says her great-aunt, Ada White, as she stoically recounts the last few months of Ta’Shon’s short life. Stephanie Little Light cries as she recalls how she once forced her daughter to walk when she was in pain because the doctors told her it was all in the little girl’s head.

American Indians have an infant death rate that is 40 percent higher than the rate for whites. They are twice as likely to die from diabetes, 60 percent more likely to have a stroke, 30 percent more likely to have high blood pressure and 20 percent more likely to have heart disease.

American Indians have disproportionately high death rates from unintentional injuries and suicide, and a high prevalence of risk factors for obesity, substance abuse, sudden infant death syndrome, teenage pregnancy, liver disease and hepatitis.

While campaigning on Indian reservations, presidential candidate Barack Obama cited this statistic: After Haiti, men on the impoverished Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota have the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere.


This leads to genocide
:

Four Muslim men also pleaded their innocence before a judge in a White Plains, N.Y., courthouse after being accused of plotting to blow up a pair of synagogues and down military aircraft with a shoulder-fired missile. The feds had been keeping tabs on the men for a year and sold them the missile and explosives, which had been deactivated. The four were reportedly angered over the deaths of Muslims in Afghanistan at the hands of U.S. forces.

A note on the second one – this is not an example of Muslims being evil. This is an example of oppressed groups being encouraged to scapegoat Jews for what those who are actually in power are doing. In other words, this is how anti-Semitism works.

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

Some problems with naming

The term “Jewish feminism” specifically refers to feminism within Judaism – ie, making the religion and its practices more egalitarian. What about secular Jewish feminists? Jewish feminists who want their feminism to be within an ethnic Jewish framework, with a culturally Jewish support network? Jewish feminists whose hearts beat faster when the words women and radical and Judeo-Arabic/Ladino/Yiddish are all in the same sentence? What does such a feminism even look like in practice?

And if I light candles on Friday nights and, throughout the rest of the week, crave the calm that follows, am I still completely secular?

**

What’s the word for someone who believes that if the nation-state system is what we’re dealing with, then Jews have the right to an autonomous nation-state, and that it’s pretty noticeable when people seem the most eager to talk about questioning nation-states when the topic is the Jewish one – BUT that there’s no way to form an ethnicity/religion-based nation-state without displacing/oppressing another group of people, and doing so is contrary to doikayt anyway – BUT that since the Jewish state already exists, the question is moot, and now we should all just stop arguing and focus on equal rights for non-Jews in Israel and Palestine – BUT that it won’t be moot anymore if the non-Jewish population in Israel/Palestine continues to rise? As I’ve written before, I can put on Zionist, anti-Zionist, non-Zionist and post-Zionist caps within the course of a single thought, and remain solidly leftist all the while.

**

What do you call it when all your dreams center on women, but in waking life all you’re into is men? What do you call it when you perform pretty femme, and enjoy performing femme, but don’t often feel very femme? (“Poor body image,” maybe? How many of my issues are socially constructed, and how many just come from personal baggage? Almost every time I played pretend as a kid, I’d pretend to be a male character. In this video interview I chalked it up to a lack of good female characters in kids’ pop culture, and I think that’s true – but over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to suspect that there was more to it than that.)

**

Is the term “guerrilla gardener” offensive to actual guerrillas?

**

I personally identify as and feel white, but I hate it when people claim that Ashkenazi Jews are required to identify as and feel white, because many of us don’t. If the construction of whiteness – see Noel Ignatiev’s essay “Immigrants and Whites” for an explanation – is designed to be an absence of markers, are you still white if you’re visibly marked with sidelocks or a headscarf? I’ve heard Orthodox Jews report that no, they aren’t – or, well, they don’t feel like it, at least.

**

When I was growing up, Jewishness was defined solely in terms of religion, and more specifically, in negatives: Jews didn’t believe Jesus was the messiah, Jews didn’t celebrate Christmas. I never wondered how, if I did celebrate Christmas and belonged to an interfaith family that did believe, at least on the surface, that Jesus was the messiah, I could still be a Jew – I just knew that I was, or a half-Jew at least, and figured that it would make sense eventually. One of my first deep philosophical questions was whether I could believe Jesus was the messiah and not believe it at the same time.

Alain Badiou defines a Jew (although is it really his place to go around defining Jews? I know he made a controversial statement about the Holocaust, although I never read it firsthand) as anyone who can’t say they’re not a Jew. Again with the negatives – but given issues like intermarriage and conversion (either to or from Judaism), it does make a lot of sense.

**

“Calendula” is not just a fancier name for “marigold.” Different types of marigolds have different blooming seasons. The owners of the website that listed calendulas – a winter flower – as a good companion crop for basil need to be sacked.

**

If I’d known that Julie is, in the minds of 99% of the English-speaking population of the world, not a nickname for Julia but rather a completely different name, I would have never started going by it. Every time I meet someone! “Is your name Julie or Julia? Both? But… but… how? How!?” It’s too late to turn back now – I no longer see myself as a Julia, except on paper.

**

For a brief time in high school, my sister wore a cross necklace and attended Christian rock concerts at Angel Stadium. She would have been within her rights to call herself a Jewish Christian, even though it would have driven people up the wall. She’s never identified as Jewish, though. Instead of two half-Jews, my parents produced one Jew and one WASP. I’ve always thought it has something to do with the fact that I look Jewish and she doesn’t. We don’t look like sisters at all.

She’s having a chuppah and a glass at her wedding, though! I was thrilled when she asked my advice about it, even though that advice was whether our Jewish relatives would think it was weird. My response: “Of course they won’t think it’s weird! Why in the world would they think it was weird!? I was afraid they’d think my wedding was weird, too.”

**

The name of this site is Modern Mitzvot. Is what I’ve written mitzvot? No. Well, yes. Okay, sort of.

SPEAK! Listening Party in Long Beach, CA!

Remember that awesome CD that’s out right now? The spoken word collection that features the work of BFP, Black Amazon, Little Light, and so many others? The one that combines personal history and movement making in truly inspiring ways? If you live in or around Long Beach, CA and haven’t heard it yet, now’s your chance! On Sunday, June 14th, Petit Poussin, Christine, and I will be hosting a listening party from 2-5. As we listen to the CD, you’ll be able to participate in discussion and respond by making your own media, whether it’s visual art, handwritten text, a zine, blogging or twittering, or whatever combination of the above you can come up with. Afterwards, we’ll sit down to a potluck dinner. CDs will be available for sale – remember that all proceeds go towards getting single mothers to the Allied Media Conference next month.

Address available upon RSVP. A quick warning for people with allergies: a friendly medium-haired cat will be present.

RSVP to modernmitzvot at yahoo com or ppoussin at gmail com!

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