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Things I’ve learned through quilting

  1. Every stitch counts.
  2. Proper preparation is 80% of a successful project. If it isn’t cut right, it won’t sew right.
  3. You can’t get a quality result from inferior materials.
  4. If you don’t start, you’ll never finish.
  5. Slow progress is still progress. If you can’t do a lot, do a little.
  6. Creativity is a discipline.
  7. Books and videos are great, but nothing beats a face-to-face class.
  8. It’s always worth revisiting the classics, but if an art doesn’t change, it dies.
  9. You can do things with a machine that you cannot do by hand – and vice versa.
  10. What seems simple can be very complicated.

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Environmental Work

Eric Holthaus’ tweetstorm struck a nerve with me. Right out of college, I landed my first job working as a wetlands ecologist with a consulting firm. My job was to go out and find wetlands on large properties that were slated for development. This being the early 90s, most of them were to become golf course communities.

I thought I was mapping wetlands on properties so they could be protected. No, it was just so that the firm would know what sort of permit they needed to apply for, and how many hoops they could charge their client for jumping through. Or, even worse, it was so they’d know where to best put their stormwater ponds.

After about 9 months, I moved and got a job with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. I was writing permits* that, in theory, put limits on wetland and stream destruction. In theory, I would be minimizing habitat loss. In theory, every acre of wetland destroyed meant that more wetlands elsewhere would be restored or protected.

Every now and then, I was able to get a smaller project called off because of the difficulty in getting a permit. But every major project that came across my desk got approval. Sure, sometimes I’d manage to wrangle a minor change or two around the edges. Big projects had big money. Where there’s big money there’s political clout, and eventually I was always told to write the permit.

These permits always had stipulations for restoration or conservation easements. Which, in theory, should mitigate the damage done. I had confidence in neither. I’d never seen a created or restored wetland that had half the functional value or habitat of the natural, undisturbed one. Marshes along the edge of a BMP just are not the same as a mature forested wetland. Conservation easements are worth the paper they’re written on and a lawyer’s fee – I was never convinced they’d last more than 25 years. In perpetuity, my ass.

Besides, there was no way any regulator could follow-up on the promises made by a permittee. We were all too busy trying to keep up with new applications. So, there were no inspections of restored areas. No checks to make sure the areas that were supposed to be protected actually were.

In short: I was documenting destruction, not preventing it. After a few more moves, job changes, and the advent of the internet, I found myself out of the environmental protection game. It’s a lot less stressful. Why try to save the planet, when no one seems to actually want it saved? When there are so many forces actively seeking its destruction?

It’s been many years since then, but I still feel guilty about my defection.

*Technically, they weren’t permits, but certifications.

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Talent

Last year, I took a class in needle-turn appliqué. Next to me was a woman for whom the fabric tucked perfectly, whose stitches were tiny and even – beautiful work. She had never attempted to appliqué before, and if memory serves, had never done any hand piecing or quilting, either.

That’s talent.

Meanwhile, my attempts had jags, puckers, uneven stitches. Sigh. Even though I’ve tried appliqué in the past, even though I’ve been hand-piecing, embroidering, and hand-quilting for years – I struggled in the class. I just don’t have a talent for it.

That’s okay.

I’m still fascinated with the technique, and the next quilt I’m planning to make will have some hand appliqué work. Not having the talent just means that the project will go slower and may not turn out as perfectly as if someone with talent were doing it. I’m okay with that. Imperfect is better than not done.

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Word for 2017

My word for 2017  is “Abundance.” For me, this means that I will approach life with the assumption that there will be more where this comes from: that I do have time enough to do the things that are important to me, that I do have enough stuff, that Sierra Trading Post will send more coupons, and that I really don’t have to hoard a year’s worth of Trader Joe’s Fireworks chocolate bars.

It means that I am grateful for what I have, but I won’t worry about it running out. Worry about future scarcity is stressful, and can lead to some irrational choices: do I really need to store that old futon frame? Futon frames are easy to come by. Why am I afraid to cut into that gorgeous fabric? There are new, beautiful fabric designs introduced all the time.

I’m lucky enough to be in a place where I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to grasp at and hoard stuff out of fear.

This attitude of abundance can manifest in many ways. For starters, I will not buy any new books or clothing in 2017. I have plenty of both. Feeling like I must buy something now because it is on sale and won’t be available later is a false sense of scarcity. If I happen across something I really like, I can take a picture, post it to Pinterest, or otherwise document it. I don’t need to own it – at least not right away. When the time comes to buy something new, I can shop using those notes. It’ll be like shopping from a store where I want everything instead of trying to sift for a golden nugget among chaff.

At work, I will get over the feeling that there isn’t enough of me to go around. I do have enough time and energy to take on those projects with potential impact. If I let go of the time-consuming chores that aren’t really paying off, there’s plenty of time.

In my world, food is abundant; I do not have to eat when I am not hungry. There will always be another tasty treat. I can go get a donut whenever I want. I do not have to eat one just because it shows up at work. Only eat it if I’m specifically seeking it.

I hope that approaching life with an attitude of abundance will inspire me to be more generous, and more open. I hope that by acting as if there will always be plenty, I will consume and waste less. I look forward to seeing where else this attitude can make a difference in my life.

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Raw milk

So, last night I went to a “cooking class” held by a pair of women who feel “called” to provide information on eating healthfully as a “ministry” – but have also started a small business around their classes. The class showed us how to make pizza using home-milled flour and mozzarella cheese made using raw milk. They discussed the benefits of using truly minimally processed foods including sugar alternatives, home-milled flours and eating locally. The pizza was good, the desserts tasty, the conversation interesting.

There was one bit of their spiel that bugged me (ok – more than one thing bugged me, but this is what I’m going to talk about today): they are strong proponents of replacing pasteurized, homogenized milk with “raw” milk. Their argument: raw milk is “alive” with beneficial organisms that support our own digestion and immune system; that raw milk is considered medicine, useful for treating anything from acne to cancer; and is a complete food – whole, raw milk is all you need to sustain life. Pasteurizing destroys nutrients, enzymes and proteins and generally makes processed milk a vastly inferior product. Like processed flours, pasteurization only benefits the food industry, and isn’t necessary.

Uh-huh. Right.

For full disclosure, I’m farm-bred. My immediate family did not depend on livestock for a living, but my grandfather raised beef cattle. I raised a dairy calf for 4-H, and took care of occasional orphans from Grandad’s herd. I have visited more than one dairy, and my grandmother had a backyard milk cow, which provided milk for half the neighborhood. I loved Grandma’s milk. Every week, she’d give us a big gallon jar filled with really wonderful milk. Or should I say that 3/4 of the jar contained milk. The other 1/4 of the jar was cream, yellow and thick. Mmm, cream. I still have a thing for cream. But she always pasteurized the milk.

Barnyards are not clean places. Cows are nasty, dirty critters. They prefer to hang around in specific places, and their sharp hooves churn up the ground at their hang-outs. They crap indiscriminately, and have no problem with lying in their own feces. Even if they have plenty of room to lie elsewhere. When they lie down, their udders are on the ground. Picture the barn as I knew it: surrounded by a moat of shitty mud, with the cow lying in the middle of it, calmly chewing her cud. She could’ve been lying 20 feet away, in the clean grass, but no. Knowing what I know of cows, the idea of drinking straight from the teat is more than a little icky. Even when it’s washed off. Because really, all it takes is a flick of a filthy tail, or the stomp of a muddy hoof and it’s dirty again.

But do I need to change that picture? Do these two women know something I don’t?

Is raw milk more nutritious than pasteurized? It doesn’t look that way to me. I made a brief search with Google Scholar using the phrases “raw milk nutrition” and “unpasteurized milk nutrition.” I came across a 1953 article in the Journal of Nutrition where the researcher fed different dogs different diets of milk that had undergone different processes.  Some dogs were fed raw milk, some evaporated milk, etc. The animals’ urine and feces were tested, and their weight was monitored to determine the animal’s health. The researcher found that “autoclaving whole raw milk at 10 or 15 pounds’ pressure for 15 or 30 minutes has no detrimental effect on the protein as measured by digestibility, biological value or nutritive index.”

Other articles weren’t so conclusive. There was at least one article that showed that babies fed on pasteurized human breast milk gained weight slower than those on raw. Another article showed that pasteurization inactivates glutathione peroxidase activity. Whatever that is. Others showed that differing pasteurization methods could alter the nutrition of milk somewhat, or that there is a possibility that drinking raw milk can alleviate allergies.

Ok, without an exhaustive search, I’m getting the impression that if pasteurization diminishes the nutrition of cow’s milk, it’s a modest change that probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference. It’s still a very nutritious food.

Now, let’s say that I’m determined to wring every bit of nutrition out of my milk. Is raw milk safe? Would any benefits I may gain by drinking raw milk be undermined by the risk of milk-borne disease?

This article, from the journal Clinical and Infectious Diseases points out that before pasteurization, over 25% of all disease outbreaks linked to contaminated food and drink were from milk-borne pathogens. Now, it’s less than 1% – and it seems that those milk-borne outbreaks were almost always from people drinking raw milk. The article confirms my suspicion that, even with modern hygiene procedures, it is darn near impossible to eliminate bacteria from the milking and milk handling process, and that to drink raw milk is to take the risk that you are exposing yourself to a pathogen.

Is the risk of exposure worth the potential (minor) health benefits? No way. My husband is of the opinion that folks preaching the raw milk gospel are very similar to those who have autism and vaccines linked in their heads: they are suspicious of the food industry and government regulations (ok – rightfully so), and no amount of scientific proof to the contrary will change their minds. Questioning industry and regulations is a good thing, but to ignore more than one source of scientific evidence because your mind is made up is not.

That all said, I did have a taste of the raw milk last night. It was delicious – sweet and creamy. Better than that skim crap we have in the fridge. But I suspect the difference was not due to it’s raw nature, but to the fact that it was fresh (less than a week old), from grass-fed Jerseys, and was whole. Almost exactly like the milk I used to get from Grandma. I wouldn’t mind getting milk just like it – if it were pasteurized.

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A poem

Woke up with this in my head – I don’t usually write poetry, but here goes:

Chicken Breast

I gave my order to the guy behind the deli counter, and saw him

The man who spurned me.

The man I mooned over, cried over, would have lived and died over.

He could’ve had my heart on a dish.

His eyes were still green.

His dark hair still curled just so.

His body straighter and stronger than even I remembered it.

We exchanged pleasantries.

I turned back  and my order was wrapped and ready.

I unwrapped it in the privacy of my kitchen.

To my surprise it had not been cut  –

Thinly sliced so I could arrange it on a platter.

But was somehow,

Inexplicably,

Whole.

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