Tag Archives: Asphyxia life

How to put up local food for winter

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Image: A picture of shelves full of glass jars with metal lids, filled with preserved natural food such as cherries, apricots, olives and tomatoes.

One of the best ways we can reduce our resource footprint is to cut down on food miles. By learning how to preserve local food ready to eat in winter, we can end up with a pantry full of cheap food that is tasty beyond anything you can buy in the supermarket. You also avoid producing heaps of waste, another plus for our planet.

It’s actually not that hard nor time consuming. I can fill these shelves with a few hours a month from November to February, and then in March I spend a few days on the tomatoes. The hardest bit is doing it for the first time – collecting your jars and preserving equipment, and figuring out where and when to get the best local surplus food.

Although it may seem strange to think about winter when the weather is just warming up, now is the time to get organised to make sure you can eat local food all next year. Start with cherries and apricots in November and December, and finish with tomatoes in March or olives in June.

I’ve written about how to do this in more detail here.

Raising backyard chickens for meat

Raising chickens for meat

Nov 13, 2011 by Asphyxia
Raising chickens for meat 1

Yesterday my chickens arrived! They are a special meat breed of bird which apparently fatten quickly and make delicious eating. I was vegetarian for 20 years, but in the last couple of years I’ve started to eat meat again for health reasons. I’ve never had anything against people eating meat, though I’ve always thought it would be most ethical to raise the animals yourself, and probably kill them too. Since I started eating meat, I’ve been trying to gird myself to actually live according to my principles, and raise my own meat.

There are other reasons why I believe it’s good to raise our own meat. The meat industry can be pretty cruel. I only eat meat from local farms where I’m pretty satisfied that they raise their animals well and kill them humanely. But even so, surely I can give them a better life in a suburban backyard than when they are raised on a commercial scale. Afterall, our home-produced eggs are so much better than the most expensive organic free range eggs we can buy. Like the eggs, I’d expect the meat to be more nutritious – though who can really know. Also I am concerned about the amount of wastage that occurs. Despite repeated requests, I’ve never been able to obtain chicken heads or feet for soup. What happens to them all? Are they chucked out? Recently, watching a fisherman fillet a fish, and waste all but the very best bits of it, I realised that it’s probably the same in the meat industry. We are in the habit of eating the muscle meat but not the organs (though they are very good for us), and in our society it’s rare to make stock from bones these days.

I also want to really understand how much food I can produce in my backyard. I already produce 80% of my family’s fruit and vegies. Could I produce a good portion of our meat onsite too? I’d like to find out.

I am probably in for quite a journey, emotionally. The chicks that arrived yesterday are adorable. They are so cute I’ve already sat for ages, watching and watching them. To think that one day I’m going to kill them, with my bare hands, is quite astonishing. Somehow I’m going to have to gird my loins, toughen my heart and do it. I’m curious to see how I emerge on the other side of this.

Raising chickens for meat 2

In case you would like to consider raising your own chickens for the table, here’s the practicalities.

I bought the chickens from a hatchery in Queensland, Australia: Peak Poultry Supplies. They cost $2 per day old chick, plus $30 for shipping (up to 100 birds in a carton). I would have liked to buy them locally, but despite researching for two years I’ve been unable to find a farmer in Victoria who will sell me meat chicks. If you know of any avenues for me to research with this, please tell me! I’m still looking, for my next batch.

I bought starter crumble for their food, though I’m hoping once they are a little older I can mostly feed them worms, insects and greens from my garden. Ultimately I would like to make my own food for them from day one, but I haven’t found enough information to do this yet. I also bought a small feeder and waterer. I picked these up from a stock feed shop, where they were a fraction of the price they go for in pet shops. In an op shop I found an adjustable lamp, and I bought a 60 watt globe from the hardware.

For now I’m keeping them in a cardboard box. I lined the bottom with several layers of newspaper and a bag of well rotted sawdust I had lying around. When the sawdust has run out, I’ll put dirt on the bottom. I’ll compost all the litter when it’s too dirty for the chickens to use any more. As they grow, I’ll move them to my rabbit cage, which is bigger, and then I hope to put them in with my egg-laying chooks.

I’ve put the lamp quite low over their box, and in the coming weeks I’ll gradually raise it. If the chicks are too cold, they’ll huddle tightly together under the lamp. If they’re too hot they’ll fan out away from it. I’ll use their behaviour to tell me how high to put the lamp.

All up it’s costing me $6.40 per bird, though if I do this again it will be much cheaper since I’ll already have the lamp, waterer, feeder etc, and maybe by then I’ll be able to make my own food too.

With meat breeds of birds, because they fatten so fast, when they get to a certain age (weight), their legs may be too weak to hold them up, and they could break. In the industry they are slaughtered just before this happens – its cruel to have a chook live with broken legs. Thus the birds need to be slaughtered promptly at 6-8 weeks of age. My friend Roderick, who is joining me on this mission, and will show me how to kill the birds, tells me that home-reared chooks are much healthier and less prone to this problem – hence you can wait longer before slaughtering.

Other people I’ve mentioned this to say I should get a breed of birds that aren’t specifically for meat, so that I don’t participate in this cruelty. However, regular chickens can take 4 months to be fat enough for the table, which means you need to feed them a LOT more grain, a serious negative, both financially and for the environment. Because of my touring, I’ve decided to go with meat breeds so I can do it as a quick project. However, I’m hoping Roderick is right, because then I can start slaughtering at 6 weeks, doing two birds at a time (one for the table, one for the freezer), and really spread the killings over a longer period. That way we aren’t clogging up our freezer, and we can plan on eating, say, a bird a week.

If the birds are healthy, maybe we can even raise a breeding pair to egg laying age, get some fertile eggs, and then I can raise my next batch without needing to order from Queensland. Fingers crossed. Though I’m not very optimistic about this plan – I think a rooster crowing at 5am might do permanent damage to our relationship with our neighbours.

Chickens for meat update

Nov 28, 2011 by Asphyxia

Here’s my chicks when they were two weeks old:

Chickens for meat update 2
Chickens for meat update

I took these photos just after I moved them out of the cardboard box, and into the wire framed rabbit cage. They had suddenly grown fatter overnight and looked like they could hardly stand up. While in the first week they scratched at the dirt and did nice chicken behaviours, suddenly it seemed they couldn’t even stand on one leg to scratch. Their walk turned into an awkward waddle. I thought they’d need a bigger cage to make sure they got exercise and learnt to manouver their fat bodies around.

Unfortunately though, I think I moved them to the wire cage too soon. Being larger, it is also colder, even with blankets draped over it. They huddled together so tightly that two of the chickens got injured and died – trampled to death? I quickly moved the chicks to a wooden box instead, a bit larger than their original cardboard box. Since then, no more deaths, thank god. But I noticed that they tended to sit all day. If they were eating, they’d be eating sitting down. They’d only waddle the minimum distance they had to and collapse onto their bellies. I decided it was time for them to go outside.

Chickens for meat update 3

For their first trip to the great outdoors, I put down a mini fence that is normally garden bed edging, and made sure I gave them a spot with both sun and shade. They were absolutely thrilled. Instead of sitting down, they all got to it, pecking around, exploring, testing out the plants and generally fossicking around.

After a few days of this, I was lifting them into the box to carry them back to the bathroom, when they suddenly worked out how to flutter their way out of the box. Clearly I was using a box that was too shallow. They were so happy, freeranging, that I let them go free for a few hours.

Chickens for meat update 4

Today, they are three weeks old, I’ve let them go free in the garden all day, and guess what? They are doing all the things chickens should: standing on one leg to scratch, fluttering from one place to another, dust bathing, and pecking at everything… hooray! They seem very healthy. I think they were so bored in their cardboard box that they had nothing to stand up for.

For now they are hanging out in the box overnight, and I’ll free range them in the garden during the day when I’m home.

They eat so much food I’m in shock. They whipped through my 5kg bag of starter crumble in the first ten days. The amount they eat increases every day. I’ve now worked out how to make my own food for them. It’s more expensive and more work than starter crumble, but I’m sure it’s far, far more nutritious.

Homemade starter crumble recipe:

4 cups grain, coarsely ground – I use a mix of wheat, corn, barley, oat grain – whatever I’ve bought cheaply in bulk.
1/4 cup flax seeds – I don’t grind these as they go rancid quickly, and they are small enough for the chicks to peck whole.
1/4 cup seaweed – I collect my own from the beach, dry it in the sun for a few days, and grind it to a coarse powder. This provides minerals.
3 tsp salt – since I had washed the salt off my seaweed. If using unwashed seaweed, maybe just 2 tsp? Use unrefined salt to provide minerals.
2 tbsp cod liver oil – to provide vitamins A and D, and for general good health. I bought a big bottle of animal grade oil from a feed shop.
2 tbsp fat – I use the tallow that we scrape off the top of stock when we cook it.
1 tbsp molasses – provides vitamins.
1 cup protein – eggs, fish, meat….

Mix everything together and feed to the chicks.

Apart from the protein, I only had to buy the cod liver oil and flax seeds specially. These are both optional – I include them because I want the chooks to have optimum nutrition, and hence to provide very nutritious meat for me to eat. I buy grains and salt cheaply in bulk for my family, so it’s no drama to feed some of our supply to the chooks. The protein, however, has been a bit more challenging, since I want to get it for free. I got some fish carcasses from the market, ground up the meatier bits in my food processor, and then dried them in my dehydrator. The result crumbled into fine “pellets” that mixed well with the rest of the feed. When that ran out, I fed them scrambled eggs fried up with greens from the garden. The fish shop will have more free fish for me tomorrow, but in the meantime I’m not sure what to do for protein. I’ve got a bucket of snails that I picked off the garden last night – maybe I can crush them? There’s also worms in my worm farm – maybe I can pick out a handful for the chooks?

So far, at 3 weeks, the chicks have eaten their way through a 5kg bag of starter crumble, and 5 batches of the above homemade recipe. Yikes! I can see why eating a lot of meat is not good for the environment – they go through SO MUCH grain!

Meat Chickens update

Dec 12, 2011 by Asphyxia
Meat Chickens update

Here’s my meat chickens at 3 and a half weeks of age…

Chickens for meat update

Dec 24, 2011 by Asphyxia

You might want to skip this post if you are vegetarian or squeamish. I did it – slaughtered my very first chicken for meat. I’m not going to go into all the how-to details here – leave a comment if u want to know more, and I’ll email you.

The main thing for me has been the emotional journey. Could I really raise a flock of adorably cute chicks, fall in love with them, spend hours watching their antics while tending to them several times a day, and then somehow kill them and still enjoy eating the meat? I desperately wanted the answer to be yes, because it’s a way to make sure the animals I eat have the best possible life.

I chose two of the biggest roosters, but not the biggest healthiest one because I’m still hoping there’s a chance I can raise my own chicks from eggs. I spared the little ‘doomed’ chicken that follows me around. I sequestered them in a small cage overnight, so they’d miss dinner and breaky (cleaner to slaughter if their guts and crop are empty). I felt a bit mean, but Paula pointed out that the hunger was the least of their problems.

Roderick came over to show me what to do. I was all business and determination – I refused to allow sentimentality to get in the way. Roderick did the first one, pulling its neck. But when I tried that, mine didn’t die. I tried a couple more times but no go. Roderick held him on the chopping block for me, and I cleavered off its head – fast, calm and decisive.

Blood went EVERYWHERE – very gory. But somehow I remained steely-nerved. I stayed detached right through plucking and butchering, both of which were easier than I’d expected. Once the chickens were processed, they looked just like the ones you see in the shops, and weighed 1.1kg (size 11), which is small, but pretty amazing I think, for a chook that was only reared for 6 weeks. Also, with my no waste policy, I kept a bag with giblets and feet, which I’ll use in stock. We plucked the feathers into a pot of soapy water – they are now zipped into a pillowcase, ready to be turned into a coat for winter.

Roderick told me the livers would be good fried with herbs. After he left, I was still in such sturdy shape emotionally, that I decided to eat the livers for lunch! Paula fried them for me in butter, garlic, and herbs (all home produced) and they tasted STUNNING. I remembered eating a chicken liver salad in France, which tasted like this, but when I tried to reproduce it at home with liver frpm the market, it tasted awful. Now I know the secret! I’ve got plenty more chicken liver delights coming up. I wonder if thr meat will be as amazing, too? The chickens are in the freezer now. We’ll try one in a week or so.

So, it seems I CAN do it, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I think it helps that I’ve been practising killing things. First I watched a rabbit slaughter in Italy, 2 yeas ago. I felt ill afterwards – nauseous and horrified. The next day I watched s chicken slaughter. I was much better prepared, but it still made me feel pretty queasy. Fast forward to this year: I went yabby fishing and cooked up my catch. I couldn’t enjoy eating them though – all I could see on my mind as I chewed was the image of them archig away from the boiling water, and clutching my tongs. Yikes. A few months later, I killed 3 fish. It might not sound like a big deal, but to me, fish are as alive as chickens, and I really had to steel myself to do it. But I did, and ate the fish on the same day. I managed to enjoy the meals, and mentally was able to separate the kill from the food. Now, it seems the practise has stood me in good stead.

I did head upstairs for a big lie down after I’d eaten the livers. And at the end of the day, when I was feeding my 12 remaining chickens, there really did seem to be fewer in my flock – I felt a real pang of sadness, and a sense that my babies were incomplete: an urge to go searching for them.

I’m deeply grateful to Roderick for showing me what to do. This journey has been years in the making, as I’ve worked up to this point. He made it possible, and it feels like a major milestone. I reckon I’m confident now to go it solo next time. Just gotta buy a cleaver and sharpen it by next Thursday.

Chickens for meat update 5

Chickens for meat sum up

Jan 17, 2012 by Asphyxia

I’ve just about completed my chickens for meat journey. All the birds but two are slaughtered, and they’ll be dispatched this week. I had to give up my breeding hopes, because one of the chooks got sick with Mycoplasma Synoviae. It’s a bacteria like a cold, which causes lameness and is highly contagious. It’s very common in commercial flocks, and it seems likely that my chooks inherited it from their parents, and will then come down with the illness when they are under stress. Since my chooks are considerably overweight, that counts as stress, and makes them vulnerable to the infection. Once the chook comes down with Mycoplasma Synoviae, we have to kill them and we can’t eat them. (We could go the vet route, antibiotics etc, but I’m not prepared to do that.) In my mind, all that work in raising the chook, and its life, and the cost of its feed, have all been wasted. I decided that rather than risking my other chooks coming down with it, I would despatch them quickly to avoid possible wastage.

So… last week was a very full on week, starting with emergency dispatch and composting of the sick chook, and then slaughtering two the next morning, and two the morning after that. It felt like we didn’t get a break from the emotions that go with killing, and the exhaustion that goes with being steely, so it was a pretty heavy week. I see now that slaughtering two chooks a week is very do-able. Slaughtering five makes it feel like I’m living in a kill-fest. This week we decided to do two today and two on Thursday, so that we’ll have a day’s break in between. Hopefully that’ll feel easier.

It takes 40 minutes to kill and process each bird. Paula and I work together for an hour and forty minutes, including some preparation and cleaning up time. It doesn’t sound like much out of our day, but I really do feel exhausted afterwards and seem to need my nap. And I think it’s better not to do anything else major for the rest of the day if possible. Maybe I’ll get tougher eventually but that seems to be the right balance for me to manage it.

The weights of the birds ranged between 1.1kg (at six weeks) to 2.6 (the very biggest bird, slaughtered at nine weeks). We had a 2.3kg bird, but the rest were under 2kg. The final birds we did in week ten were 1.7 and 1.9kgs. If we’d done them at eight weeks I reckon they would have weighed about 1.2 – they were the smallest. Feeding them for two weeks to gain about 500g is not very efficient, I think.

So, now it’s just about over, would I do it again? Definitely, yes. It gives me a true appreciation for the meat that I eat. I feel like eating a bit less of it now (very appropriate because I think I was eating too much), and what I do eat feels very precious. The homegrown chooks taste unbelievably good. Much, much better than the best biodynamic chicken we can buy. I know my chooks have a really good life, that they are well loved and pampered, have a stimulating existence full of foraging and a big variety of fresh greens to peck at. I think it would be hard to reproduce that on a commercial scale.

Next time, I think I’ll do slightly fewer birds, maybe twelve, rather than sixteen. I think I’ll dispatch them all between six and eight weeks, as they didn’t really gain that much weight beyond eight weeks, and were much harder to kill after eight weeks as their bones became a lot tougher. Also beyond eight weeks I’m feeding them in order to maintain their body weight, which is not an efficient use of feed. That will mean killing four birds a week for three weeks. I think it’ll be challenging emotionally but doable.

When they were babies, maintaining their feed and water was quite a big job, as was catching them to return them to their box at night. I think next time I’ll buy a 20kg sack of starter crumble, and then when that’s run out, I’ll switch to my stockfeed shop recipe. Also, we now have a fenced off run, which we didn’t have before. Next time, once the chooks are 2-3 weeks old, I’d like to move them out to the fenced run, ideally into a small insulated house with a lightbulb I can switch on as need. That way I can grow food in the run in advance, and I can hopefully round them up back into their house when it’s cold, rather than having to catch each one individually. I’ve since discovered that using a broom to round up chooks works really well. I wonder if they’ll be that easily rounded up as little babies, with the broom method? I would also buy a larger waterer – by 2 weeks it needed refilling three times a day!

Estimated cost of raising my chooks:
2 bottles of cod liver oil $18 each (I have most of the second bottle left ready for next time).
1 bucket of molasses $20 (I have only used one tenth of the bucket).
4 batches of my 26kg stockfeed recipe $40ish per batch
5kg bag of starter crumble $7
Roughly 10kg of homemade feed, labour intensive! $10ish?
The chooks themselves: $30 for shipping, $2 per bird (I bought 16 for me, but I also paid for Roderick’s birds and his share of the shipping).
Feeder $7
Waterer $7

I estimate that to raise one chook to eating age of approx 7-8 weeks, it takes around 5kg of grain, 1.5kg of protein, and a corresponding proportion of vitamins and minerals (via seaweed, cod liver oil, molasses).
All up, not counting Roderick’s birds, but including the entire shipping, it comes to roughly $300. With three deaths, I’ve ended up with 13 birds, which rounds out to $23 per bird. Belmores, the butcher near us, sells organic whole chickens for $30 for 1.5kgs. However, I believe my meat is FAR more nutritious than any commercial meat, in part thanks to the cod liver oil, molasses, and seaweed that I have fed them, as well as the wider range of herbs and greens they’ve had access to. The supplements have been the expensive components of their diet. If I just bought starter crumble and then grower crumble, it would have been MUCH cheaper, so if economy was your motivation for raising your own meat, then you could definitely do it that way.

Next time I reckon I could do it a fair bit cheaper. I would dry and grind seaweed in advance so I didn’t need to buy it. I wouldn’t have to buy molasses, I’d only have to buy one bottle of cod liver oil, maybe none if I dispatch sooner. I also have a contact for buying grain in bulk, so if I bought it all well in advance at the bulk price, instead of from the feed store, I’d get that cheaper.

I’m going to have a break from chicken raising for a while, and will probably raise another batch next spring. If you’d like in on the venture, let me know, and I can talk with you before I order. Sharing the cost of shipping will make it cheaper. And I’m happy to show you how to dispatch if you want to raise your own chickens and learn enroute. (Obviously this only applies to those of you in Melbourne!)

Anyone who wants to learn how to kill a chook can look here, though I ended up with a bit of a simpler set up.

Chickens for meat – plans for next year

Jan 25, 2012 by Asphyxia
Chickens for meat - plans for next year

I did this page in my journal to remind me what to do when next year rocks around and I raise another batch of chickens for meat.

I’ve been thinking and thinking about how I can streamline the process and the budget, now that I’ve got a bit of experience.  Raising the chicks was a lot of work, and the main thing that was a pain was catching every one of 17 chickens by hand, and carrying them into their box in the laundry, when I needed to bring them in.  I’d let them out for an hour or two when it was sunny, and then suddenly a cold wind would spring up.  They were only half-feathered at this stage and couldn’t really cope with the cold weather.  So frantically we’d try to round them all up, one at a time.  Training them to come for food seemed impossible.  Then ten minutes later the sun would be out again, and I’d want to let them back into the yard, because they really didn’t seem happy cooped up in their box.  You can see how it ended up being a lot of work.

I think next time I need to have a smaller fenced in yard specially for my little chickens, where they are protected from the big egg laying chickens.  And I need to set it up so that the chickens can access their home themselves, from the yard.  That way I can have their food and water in there at all times, and they should quickly learn to go in there as required.  Now I know how handy the broom is, I think with a set up like that, I could just about sweep the chickens through the door with the broom!

Their home would need to be very well insulated, so that the light bulb keeps them sufficiently warm.  I’m thinking a low, insulated wooden box, preferably lined with some kind of thermal mass such as bricks on the floor, to hold their heat.  The box would have two rooms – a small one for when they are tiny babies, and a bigger one for when they outgrow the little room and don’t need as much heat.  I would then use the smaller room to sequester the chickens the night before dispatch (so they don’t eat, and hence are cleaner to butcher).

The roof would open up, an insulated lid, so that I can easily change the water and food.  There should be a joist with hooks so that I can hang the waterer and feeder – hopefully their food and water will stay cleaner that way.  And ideally, the roof could be locked in a slightly open position, so that on hot nights they have good ventilation.

I did a page in my journal about my plans for next year.  I’m not sure if I will actually make this ideal chook house – I will probably find a way to do it though, because I plan for many years of chook raising now that I know I can do it.

Chickens for meat - plans for next year 2

Chickens for Meat Update

Jun 1, 2012 by Asphyxia

Well, I’ve slaughtered five chickens now.  I wouldn’t say I’m a pro though.  I’m doing it every Thursday morning.  The first Thursday, as I’ve mentioned, I was steely as anything.  But once it was all over I allowed myself to feel a bit weak and emotional.  That was fine.  But I noticed that as the next Thursday rolled around, I was still feeling weak and emotional.  The thought of doing it again was just hideous.  In fact I felt quite nauseous thinking about it.  Still I knew I had to go through with it, no matter what.  After all that build up, actually doing it turned out to be less painful than the thinking about it beforehands.  I vowed that in future, I won’t dwell on it.  It’s not making it nicer for the chickens, my feeling miserable about their deaths.

So, this last Thursday, I didn’t think about it at all, beyond the basics of what I had to do to prepare.  Still, I found myself getting somewhat antsy in the lead up to the chop.  Afterwards I felt exhausted.  I couldn’t rest – I had a big day of preserving and gardening jobs that simply had to happen.  Next week I’ll do everything I can to make it a day off once my chickens are slaughtered.

I can’t tell you, though, what immense satisfaction it was to eat the first one.  It tasted delicious, simply exquisite.  We stuffed it and roasted it, then had roast chicken pickings in the fridge for days – many delicious meals from that chook.  We saved all the bones and Paula has cooked it into a stock, which I hope to start on tomorrow.  It was a glorious feeling of abundance, having that whole chook in the fridge, and it feels even more abundant to know that our freezer is slowly filling up with chickens.

I have had to simplify their food though.  I simply couldn’t source and process enough free protein to keep up with what my chooks eat.  Here’s my new, easier, but still highly nutritious recipe, from ingredients bought at the stockfeed store:

20kg sack of mixed grains (I get wheat, oats, milo, and corn)

5kg bag of meat meal or fish meal

1kg bag of seaweed

10 tablespoons of molasses (I bought a large bucket and am slowly working through it)

150ml cod liver oil (I bought a large bottle).

When I get home, I mix it all up, and keep it in a drum for the chickens.  I’ve bought 3 batches of the above so far, along with some other smaller homemade batches of my previous recipe.  I’ve got nine chooks left, and they are eight weeks old.  Five have been slaughtered so far.  I must point out that the above recipe does not constitute the cheapest way to feed chickens.  I’ve lost track, somewhat, of the costs involved in feeding them, but it’s been expensive, to say the least.  I could definitely do it more economically, but a high priority for me is to make my meat ultra-nutritious, and I’d rather pay more for that.

A new batch of chicks

May 14, 2012 by Asphyxia
A new batch of chicks 2
A new batch of chicks

We’ve received more chickens!  They came on a bus from QLD, though I’m optimistic I now know where to get them in Vic, which I hope to do next Spring.  This time I’ve got 15 little chicks, and am sharing them with two neighbours: Suni and Lis.  We’ll get 5 chickens each, assuming none of them die.  And if a few do die, we’ll share up the meat by weight.  Yes, these are for the table.  My last lot of chickens were SO DELICIOUS I’m committed to doing this for the long term.  I had these babies for a few days, and now they’ve gone to stay with Lis for a few weeks, until they are big enough for the garden, then they are coming back to my place to eat all the greens I’ve planted for them.

Chickens for meat – the latest batch

Aug 2, 2012 by Asphyxia

If you are vegetarian or squeamish, please skip this post.  It’s about the chickens I raise for the table.

This batch of chickens was shared with my neighbours Lis and Sunny.  The three of us contributed to their care, shared the costs, and then got together on slaughter day to process the meat.  It was so much better doing it with a group than going it alone.  When things happen like the globe blows and a new one is needed urgently, there was generally one of us available to deal with the problem.

Here’s the chicks as sweet little babies when they arrived.

Chickens for meat - the latest batch

They came from Peak Poultry Supplies and cost $2 each, plus $30 shipping.  They came down from Queensland on a bus, chirping wildly.  Next time I hope to buy them from Korumburra Hatchery which is much more local.  We shared this shipment with my friend Roderick, so Lis, Sunny and I only paid $5 each for our share of shipping.

Chickens for meat - the latest batch 2

We housed them in a wooden box in Lis’ lounge room, with a lamp over the top, a small waterer and a small feeder.  We fed them an organic grower mix which is suitable for meat birds.  Meat breeds grow very fast, are slaughtered at 8-10 weeks, and need to eat high protein food in order to meet their growth requirements.  Each bird eats about 6kg of food during its lifetime.  The feed comes in 20kg bags costing about $30 each.  If you go the non-organic route, feed can be cheaper.

Poor Lis found them a bit too stinky for the lounge room, even when we changed the litter every day.  We have several layers of newspaper in the bottom of the box, and we topped them with some very absorbent rice hulls that Sunni had on hand, until they ran out, and then we went with only newspaper.  Roderick bought sawdust from a stockfeed store which has had the dust removed.  He found it absorbent and only had to change the litter once a week, though he topped it up most days, I gather.  It’s not wise to use regular sawdust as litter because the dust can damage the lungs of the chickens.  Next time we’ll put the box in the shed to spare Lis the smell!

Once the chick’s outgrew their tiny home (about two weeks old), they moved to this crate in Lis’ shed:

Chickens for meat - the latest batch 3

The litter had to be changed daily, and at the same time the food and water needed to be topped up.  The photo shows the chickens at about 4 weeks, just before they moved to my place.  They really needed to come to me a little sooner – by three and a half weeks they were just too big to be in this box all day, so Lis and Suni took them for a few outtings in Lis’ garden.  Unfortunately I was away at this time, hence the delay in moving them to me.

When they finally moved to my place, we brought the crate too, and set it up in a fenced run I had created for the chickens.  I planted it out several weeks before with “clucker tucker” seed, and it was nice and green by the time my chickens needed it.  Suni’s husband Marcel had helped me make a door in the crate, which meant the chicks could come and go as they pleased.  They’d head outside into their run to peck at greens and scratch in the dirt, but when it got too cold or wet they’d head back inside to eat.  By the last week, the chickens were so fat that the food and water had to live outside.  Each night I’d close the door, to protect them from foxes.

You can see the fenced run here.  This photo was actually taken a few weeks earlier, when the chickens visited me briefly while Lis went away:

Chickens for meat - the latest batch 5

The 16 chickens actually flattened and demolished the greenery within a few days.  After that I chucked in weeds and herbs for them to nibble on, and added some leaves as litter.  Roderick adds free council mulch to his run and finds it very effective in preventing it from becoming a poo-bath.  Those chickens really do poo as much as they eat!  Luckily I had four fenced runs ready to go, so once a week I moved them on to a new run.

Finally they were eight weeks old and it was D-Day.  Here they are, nice and fat, just before we processed them:

Chickens for meat - the latest batch 6

We did ten chickens the first day, and the smallest six the following week.  The first week Suni’s dad came to give us a hand, and we also had help from Paula’s brother Mark who was staying with us at the time.  The huge communal event really helped to take my mind off the sadness of ending their lives – we had to work so fast and hard to process each bird that there wasn’t time to dwell on the ending.  Since it doesn’t make a different to the bird whether I dwell on it or not, I think it’s better not to.  For the bird the most important thing is a good life and then a very swift efficient death, which is what they got with the cleaver.

The second week it was just Suni, Lis and me doing the killing, while Paula assisted us in the kitchen.  I wasn’t sure how we’d go, because at nine weeks the birds are big and have strong necks, which make it difficult with the cleaver.  But the three of us turned out to be a tight team.  One person held the bird.  One person chopped with the cleaver, and the other person then pushed down hard on the cleaver to finish the job, and then helped hold the bird to stop it from flapping while the blood drained out.  I was relieved to know we could do it without help from Suni’s dad, or any men with big strong arms.

By the end we were all exhausted.  Suni even had to have a nap, which is unheard of for her!  But one this is for certain, when you’ve killed with someone, it’s very bonding.  Even though chicken slaughter couldn’t possibly be described as an pleasant way to spend the day, I have to admit that it was very satisfying to work so hard with my neighbours, with such a lovely community feeling, and to end up with a freezer-full of meat.  Even better, in my mind, is the fact that Suni likes the white meat while Paula and I prefer the red meat, so we divided up our share of the chickens by weight, and each got the kind of meat we like.

Suni and Lis didn’t want the feathers, so I saved them all for my down jacket.

All costs added up, it came to $16 per bird, which is very good considering that to purchase an organic chicken of comparable size costs $30-$35.  Mind you, it’s a lot of work.  As Suni said: “I’ve never worked so hard for a meal in my life!”  But I think that reflects the true cost of the food, and it’s the only ethical way to eat meat if we are going to do so.

(By the way, I was vegetarian for 20 years, and I started eating meat for health reasons.  I now need to choose between being perpetually ill, or eating other creatures.  Sadly, I would rather kill and eat other creatures than be sick all the time.  I have always believed that if one eats meat, one should learn to raise and kill it oneself.  Hence my own backyard chicken-raising venture.)

Homemade down jacket

Aug 11, 2012 by Asphyxia

I’ve had a growing bag of washed feathers from my chickens, and I decided to make them into a down jacket.  I love wearing a down jacket, and I often borrow Paula’s jacket, but I find it has a yucky, plasticy feeling to it, and an associated plasticy smell which I hate.  I decided my jacket would have to be all natural materials so that it would breathe and smell right.

My friend Jenine suggested japara as the fabric, since that’s what doonas are made from – the weave is very fine so the feathers don’t poke through.  Unfortunately I could only find white japara at my local fabric store, so I bought that and some black dye.  As you’ll see from the photos, the “black” dye wasn’t very black at all, but actually a rather pretty mulberry colour.  C’est la vie.  I’m quite happy with the colour, though the dye job came out a bit splotchy and looks decidedly handmade.  I’m not too fussed about that, since for me the jacket is to wear around the house, like a dressing gown, so that I don’t need to turn on the heater, and can be snugly warm while doing art, washing the dishes and getting my jobs done.

In order to make it easy to get the jobs done, I ended up making the sleeves quite short, and having a long woollen cuff that would roll up.  This reduces the bulk around my wrists and makes dishwashing and art easy tasks to undertake while wearing this jacket.

Homemade down jacket 1

You can see the finished jacket here.  Paula forbids me from leaving the house in this jacket, and I have to agree that it’s not the most stylish thing ever, especially when teamed with my homemade ugg boots, which they usually are.  (I’m wearing them in this photo.)  However, the jacket wins a lot of points for being very warm.  It isn’t as warm as my doona, despite being significantly heavier, so it’s not perfect, but it really is keeping the chill off my winter.

Homemade down jacket 2

To make this, I used the pattern from an old jacket that fit me perfectly.  I should have added a bit more ease since the down forces the fabric to bulk out.  I sewed the lining to the outter fabric (both japara), and then added all the horizontal seams, so that I had a series of pockets ready to fill with feathers.

When plucking the feathers, we plucked them straight into a bowl of warm water.  I then rinsed them in the sieve in the kitchen sink, and stuffed them into a pilowcase which I hung on the line to dry. I sewed them into the pillowcase for security, and saved them up until I had about 5 pillowcases-worth.  By that time they’d developed a bit of a smell, so I soaked them overnight in white vinegar and water.  Then I washed the “pillows” in the machine on hot wash three or four times until they were fluffy and had no trace of the weird smell.  Next I unpicked the seam, removed the damp feathers, and sorted them.  I found that by squeezing in my palm I could quickly identify any wing feathers which were too stalky for a jacket, and I set those feathers aside.

What was left got stuffed into the pockets of my down jacket.  The first batch I worked with when dry, and they made a hideous mess of the house, despite my most careful efforts.  The second batch I stuffed while still damp and that definitely made them easier to control.  I then sewed up the jacket and dried it thoroughly.

Finally time for a test wear: and it’s WARM!  Very snug!  I don’t feel hot in this.  I just feel like my body is at its own temperature, which feels just right.  But it’s a bit heavy.  I think I stuffed too many feathers in some of the pockets.  But I’m a bit nervous about the mess involved in trying to extract them, so not sure if I’ll make it a priority to renovate!

Undies from an old T-shirt

Undies from an old T-shirt

I mentioned in a post recently, the dire state of my undies. They are an embarrassment. If I’m having a massage or risking being seen in my underwear, I have to put on a pair that’s too uncomfortable for daily use (hence they reason they are still in public-worthy condition). However, I don’t want to go out and buy new ones, for reasons outlined here.

It turns out, however, that you can make them from old T-shirts! I don’t know why it took me so long to work this out. Check out this great tutorial, and this one. Well I stocked up on old T-shirts from the op shop, grabbed my bag of elastic (also collected from the op shop), and while I was on holidays at the beach recently, I got to it. First problem – it turns out people only give elastic to the op shop when they have pieces that are too short to be useful. Bummer (so to speak). I really couldn’t go, aesthetically, with one leg of one elastic and one of another type. Yuck. If I’m going to make my own undies they have to be at least moderately stylish. I searched and searched the internet until I found out how to sew elastic-less undies, and set about making a test pair.

The secret to elastic-less undies, btw, is to cut from stretchy fabric a band for each leg and for the waist, 5cm wide and about 5cm shorter in length than the circumference of the leg/waist.  Use these bands instead of elastic.

Second problem – my sewing machine is yet another of those items that still feels very new to me (I bought it new 15 years ago), and is on its last legs. I’ve had it serviced several times, but it’s just missing too many stitches, the zigzag doesn’t work any more – it gives me grief. Now for a big batch of undies, I’m intending to hunt down a friend with an overlocker, and go round for a good stitch-up. But before I do that I want to have cut out a whole pile of undies so I can do several in one go. And before I do that, I wanted to make a test pair – I’d be really spewing if I sewed seven pairs of undies and found out they were uncomfortable. I couldn’t even massage enough goodness out of my machine for a test pair, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity down at the beach to cut out the entire pile. So – I did what women probably always did, many years ago, and sewed them entirely by hand. Actually it wasn’t too bad – took two, maybe three hours. And the advantage was that I could stitch them in a way that they would stretch nicely around the leg and waist band (on my machine either the thread ends up too tight and cuts into my skin, or else it stretches the fabric badly and makes it buckle).

So, I’m wearing them right now, as I type and guess what? The are gorgeously comfortable. No wedgie. No too-tight leg. And not only that, but I’m rapt with how they look!

Now.. to find an overlocker…

PS – my plan for my sewing machine is to replace it with a seriously old one, the kind that was made back when they were built to last.

How to really grow food in your backyard

For more than twenty years, I have grown food.  For the first ten years I had limited success, and was pretty baffled as to how an ordinary backyard could really produce enough food to feed a family.  Over a three year period, however, I made changes to what I was doing, and found I could produce 80% of my family’s vegies and roughly half the fruit from a normal suburban block.  Here, I share with you what I learnt, in the hope that it can help you feed your family from your garden too.

I’ve written everything I know about growing food here.

I don’t ask the world to revolve around me

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When I was growing up, I was often reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Instead of walking into a conversation saying “What?! What are you talking about?” I should wait, listen, and then thoughtfully contribute.

I get the idea behind this, I really do. In fact, I’ve totally internalised it. The problem is, it doesn’t work for Deaf people. I can’t slip into a conversation being held by hearing people and make a contribution at an appropriate moment.

Stella Young, comedian, activist and feminist who died in 2014, taught me that actually, it is appropriate for me to ask for access. We all have the right to be included. I still find it hard to accept this, and believe it, but I’m trying.

Instead of making an excuse for why I can’t go to a party or social event, I’m trying to learn to explain that I don’t want to come because if there are no signing people there, I would be excluded. Instead of accepting that I can’t take this course or that course, I am learning to ask the teacher to make the effort to adjust the curriculum so I can access it.

It’s hard, it’s awkward, and whenever I do this, I have that inner voice piping up: ‘the world doesn’t revolve around you!’ But when I think of OTHER people, of, say, Stella, who couldn’t get up a flight of stairs no matter how hard she wished it, I think, ‘Of course she should have access. Let’s all make it happen.’

This painting is a reminder to all of us, to make the effort to provide access to everyone. It might be someone who can’t read a sign because their glasses are at home, it might be an elderly relative who can no longer hear at the dinner table, or it might be someone like me, or Stella, who have to ask over and over, for access.

If you are in a position to provide access, maybe you can do so without being asked. Simply offer. Arrange for an interpreter if you are inviting a Deaf person to a hearing-only event. Check out a venue for access and toilet accessibility when inviting a person who uses a wheelchair, and let them know that you did so. I’m learning to ask… but when I don’t have to, it means the world to me.

If you’d like to do your bit to raise awareness about deafness, feel free to share this post. Thanks!

Inner-City Independence

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This article was published in Grass Roots magazine…

Many people imagine you need acreage to be independent, but my ex-partner and I enjoyed 80% self-sufficiency on a small inner city block. At the time this article was published in Grass Roots magazine, we were marionette performers and had spent the previous four years touring with our show, The Grimstones. Our son, Jesse, was eight years old and we homeschooled him. It was a real challenge to manage our sustainable home life and eco farm with busy full-time jobs and a son to educate. But  when we’d neglected the sustainable lifestyle in the past, I’ve felt I’d lost my soul, spending too much time in sterile hotel rooms. Although I always took a craft project on tour to work on, it was when I got home that I could throw myself into the garden and all the new projects that I’d had time to dream up.

SELF-SUFFICIENCY?

I never strove for complete ‘self-sufficiency’, but I aimed to produce food and products for as many of my family’s needs as possible, from materials as close to the source as possible. As well as producing from my block, I scavenged a lot from my neighbourhood.
The list of things we produced includes:

  • Cooking almost everything from scratch. We grew most of our fruit and vegies, and what we couldn’t grow, we bought locally from the farmer’s market. We bought meat from the market too, though soon I hope we won’t need to. I also scavenged from neglected local trees, and collected food for the animals from dumpsters. We bought salt and wheat grain in bulk, and were working our way through honey given to us by a friend. Raw dairy products came from a local farmer.
  • We tried not to buy too much other food, instead focusing on ways to feed ourselves well on these base ingredients. I made bread, pasta, pastry and lots of fermented foods. We bottled excess fruit (from our own and neighbouring trees, and from the farmer’s market) so we could still eat locally in winter, and we bottled all our tomatoes – often buying 100kg from a local farmer.
  • I had made my own soap, which has lasted us about five years. A project for one day was to work out how to make soap from ash lye and the fat we scraped off the top of our cooking stock. We bought in laundry detergent in bulk.
  • I was working towards a closed system of fertility for my garden. We composted all our waste, including humanure, and scavenged leaves and grass clippings from our local area to use for mulch and additional compost. I collected seaweed, dead animals and fish for fertility. My aim was to garden without buying in new products and ingredients, though I still needed to buy a few things.
  • We had a grid-connect solar electricity system that produced about two-thirds of our needs. Our solar heater used a tiny bit of electricity to produce lovely heat in winter. We had solar hot water, but used LPG to boost it and also for cooking. We had a greywater recycling system which we used when necessary. The 40,000lt rainwater tank provided for our house and garden, so we were completely self-sufficient in water most of the time – quite unusual in Melbourne.
  • We bought as little as possible, especially new items. We got most of our clothes and consumer goods from op shops, or made our own. From a ream of recycled office paper I made notebooks, and did art and craft with upcycled materials that we found or got from op shops. A lot of making happened as a result of trying not to buy: felted ugg boots, baskets and string from local plants, boxes made of papier-mâché, knitting from fleece I’d spun myself, making candles from wax I’d found in the hard rubbish and so on.
Homeschooling

HOMESCHOOLING

I’d always known I wanted to homeschool. The reasons we homeschooled were numerous:

  • The hierarchy and social structure of school is damaging to kids.
  • School tends to make kids less inquisitive and less keen to learn by stamping out the questions, the ‘whys’.
  • By home educating we could tailor the education to Jesse’s level for each activity, and find ways to engage him that were meaningful to him, so he was more likely to hold onto information.
  • We couldn’t have had the travelling performing lifestyle that we had if Jesse was in school.
  • Jesse learned so much through incidental life experiences, especially as we travelled, that his education was rich with doing rather than learning about doing.
  • Neither of us wanted to miss the fabulous Einstein moments as Jesse learned some new skill. It was wonderful to be there with him and share his journey.
  • We could choose Jesse’s curriculum. I believe that schools are gearing our kids for a life where oil is as abundant and cheap as it is now – and that Jesse would be better to learn skills that are more likely to be needed by the time he becomes an adult, when all experts agree we will no longer live in an economy fuelled by cheap oil.

We all loved it. We did have regular ups and downs, and changed what we were doing regularly to see what worked best for us. We’d noticed that Jesse was more satisfied and stimulated with a structured approach. We spent a few hours each morning homeschooling. Generally I tried to do two or three topics with him a day, and then handed him over to his other mother, who did another couple of topics. But if life was more interesting, or one topic ended up taking over for the day, we went with that. It was great to be able to be flexible. We gave Jesse a lot of input and he was pretty keen to do most of the topics we offered him, but, like any kid, at times he preferred to wander off and play Lego or read a book than do his homeschool work.

Asphyxia wove a basket cover for the chook food to keep wild birds out.

The sign says ‘Real Food’ and the gates keep the chooks out most of the time. Behind the lattice is a 40,000lt rainwater tank, Jesse’s favourite place to sit.

HOMEMADE HOUSE

I built my own house on my block when I was 22. I’d just graduated from a computer science course and was being lured to work at the banks. I couldn’t think of anything more depressing. When I visited some handmade houses in NSW I was totally sold – I knew I wanted to spend my time building a my own home, making it an enormous artwork, rather than working nine to five under fluorescent lights on a computer to pay off a mortgage. I did work in computers for another year to save the money, but I didn’t mind that, knowing that the day I reached my savings goal, I would quit. And I did. My family was horrified that I threw away my job to do something I had no skills or experience in.

I paid for a contractor to dig and pour the concrete footings, and from there I did most of it myself. Friends came and helped me, and were as inexperienced as I was at building. I had no skills whatsoever – I had to work out how to hammer in a nail from a book. There was no-one who could take charge and say ‘This is how you do this’. My friend Andrew stayed with me for the first three weeks and helped me put up the timber frame – I learnt so much from him. After that it was just me showing my friends what to do. It took seven months until I moved in, but at that point it was really just a lock-up shell – there was no kitchen, no running water, nothing!

I hoped that through building I would become competent in many areas. And I did become a semi-decent bricklayer. But I’m still hopeless at carpentry – most of the woodwork came together as a fluke. I wired the house myself and learnt how electricity worked. But the plumbing wouldn’t remain leak-proof for me and in the end I had a professional come in to finish the job.

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LOW-COST LIVING

My house cost me $10,000 (about $25,000 today). Most of the materials were second hand. I assumed that this wouldn’t be my ultimate home for the rest of my life – I figured if I stayed more than three years, I’d be financially ahead, as that’s what I would have spent on rent. I was still here 15 years later and I hoped I would die here. I did wish I’d made the house a metre bigger in each direction, and a metre higher in the loft – but at the time I couldn’t afford that extravagance! As it was, the three of us squeezed into a tiny place that was 4m by 6m with a low sleeping loft overhead, a tiny room I added later which was just big enough for a double bed, and an outdoor bathroom. Our home had a beautiful soul. The whole place was filled with a sense of old-world romance. Everyone who visited felt it. There was nothing sterile; the lumpy whitewashed walls, the gothic arched stained-glass windows, the clawfoot bath in the loft right next to our beds: they were all enchanting and soothing. I like to be in beautiful spaces, and our home was one.

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ANIMALS

Although our block was only 450m2, because our house was small we had room for animals. We kept chooks for eggs and a recent experiment was raising our own broilers for meat. Worms provided castings and the worms themselves were also food for the chooks, as well as doing lovely digging in my garden. I was raising my first batch of silkworms and hoped to spin and use the silk, though I expected I’d only produce a small amount. Believe it or not, I was experimenting with breeding maggots as chook food. Yum! I also had bees for honey and wax.

City Bees

I wanted bees for years, but had trouble accessing information about how to keep them. The best way to learn is from an experienced beekeeper. I tried going to workshops, but since I’m deaf, I couldn’t lip-read the teacher through his bee-helmet. I tried bringing an interpreter, but she could no longer sign when she was suited up with thick gloves! Finally, a friend introduced me to Martin O’Callaghan. From him I bought a top-bar hive, complete with bees, and every time something needed doing, I rang him up and he came over to show me what to do. He was very visual at communicating with me, no lip-reading needed, and the one-on-one tuition worked perfectly. Usually I try to do things like this on the cheap – I would have liked to build my own hive, catch my own swarm etc. But what I was paying for was the private tuition, and for a deaf person like me, that’s the only way to go. I’d only had the bees for six months so was yet to harvest my first bucket of honey. I couldn’t wait!

Productive Bunny

I also kept an Angora rabbit for her fur, which I spun and knitted into clothes. The second-rate fur I felted and used as lining for shoes. I’d had her for about 18 months and her fur was amazing, seven times warmer than wool. The items I’ed made were exquisite, so soft, not a hint of itchiness. I wanted to understand if sustainable textiles were possible. And in small quantities, it seemed so. It seemed unbelievable we can make gorgeous garments from a rabbit that mostly ate weeds from my garden. I bought her a small amount of pellets, and planned to see if she could produce the same amount of fur just free-ranging in the garden. I learnt to spin from a lovely old lady at the Handspinners and Weavers Guild – I think she was a bit taken aback by my excitement and enthusiasm. I used a spindle rather than a spinning wheel; it was easy to take on tour, and I could spin a length of yarn while waiting to go onstage at the theatre – a good way to make use of ‘dead’ time.

CRAFT AND SEWING

I am competent with the sewing machine and sewed a lot of homewares for my family – bags, cushions, pouches, toilet cloths (to use in place of toilet paper), and much more. I tried not to buy fabrics – rather I collected good sheets from op shops. But I loved making artistic dolls, toys, wheatbags etc, and I got to a point where my really special fabric stash had completely dwindled, so eventually I lashed out and bought a handful of new fabrics. I used them very sparingly, as accents, to complement the second-hand fabrics.

I did make clothing – usually special items that I couldn’t get second hand. We found so many good clothes in the op shop that I tended to put my sewing energies into homewares, but I’d a few clothing projects on the go such as some down jackets for winter. I was very into art and made books and a lot of miniature dioramas in boxes – all from recycled materials.

GARDEN

Jesse’s garden includes the three sisters: corn, beans and zucchini.

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My garden took a few years of learning, but for the most part we now had a constant flow of food without too many gluts. Every so often there’d be a failed crop, such as when the chooks got into the bed of seedlings I’d planted to eat in September – there was a gap that month and we bought from the local farmer’s market instead. I grew the food, and harvested several times a week. I picked anything that seemed ready, and as much of it as I thought the plant could cope with. I delivered it to Paula, who worked out how to process it all so it wasn’t wasted. She was amazing at getting through everything, especially when I give her a single stalk of asparagus, three pods of peas, and other items that don’t quite make a meal.

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We also had a family culture of harvest feasts – sometimes it was a single item like the artichokes when they were ready. I made mayonnaise, then we sat down together and celebrated the exquisiteness of the artichokes. Other times the feast had several dishes. The main point was that they celebrated the deliciousness of home-grown foods.

Jesse really absorbed the celebratory atmosphere, and I think because of this he loved artichokes and spinach and many other vegies that traditionally kids don’t like. We had a delightful ritual at the time of taking a bowl of homemade ice-cream into the food forest, topping it up with berries, and then sitting down to eat in the midst of all the greenery. It felt so special and abundant.

We’d spent so many years touring with our show that I was looking forward to spending more time at home and I was thinking of projects like raising bunnies and pigs to eat, and learning to live without a fridge. I’d recently became a writer when I was commissioned to write a book series about my family of puppets, The Grimstones, published by Allen and Unwin.

An angora rabbit for sustainable textiles

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Image 1: A picture of a gray-furred angora rabbit resting between a wooden paling fence and a tree trunk, with the vibrant green leaves and red flowers of a nasturtium plant in front.

Want to read the story of how I kept an angora rabbit who turned weeds into shoes and clothing that are incredibly soft and seven times warmer than wool? I wanted to understand if textiles really could be sustainable, and that took me on a long journey of weaving, spinning, knitting and being bitten and cuddled by a rabbit disguised as a fluffball. I’ve written about it here.



Life without toxic relationships

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Image: Artwork text of black paint saying, ‘YOU ARE ALLOWED to walk away from TOXIC PEOPLE’. The background is an urban grunge textured wall in black, dripping light brown paint and a slash of a red paint.

One advantage to having my entire life wiped out and being forced to start over in almost every single aspect, is that I can rebuild it much, much more carefully. The thing I am doing differently this time is choosing the people who will be in it according to whether or not they have empathy, and whether or not they are manipulative. This article, How to never get involved with an abuser again, changed my life. It says to look at the way a person acts, not what they say, and don’t accept any excuses for hurtful behaviour.

When I read the list of signs that a person lacks empathy, I recognise people I have known. Here are some examples:

  • Inability to imagine how their words and actions may affect you;
  • Isn’t interested in finding ways to soothe your worries;
  • Becomes angry or looks at you with a blank face when you cry or get emotional;
  • Is hurtfully blunt and casually critical, and when you become upset, tells you they are ‘just being honest’. Honesty without kindness is cruelty.
  • Talks at length about a topic that clearly bores you, without noticing;
  • Brings up sensitive topics after you’ve asked them to stop;
  • Expects instant forgiveness;
  • Invalidates your thoughts, experiences, ideas and concerns;
  • Neglecting or ignoring you when you are sick;
  • Judgemental;
  • Believes they are always right;
  • Expects you to accomodate their needs and schedule, without regard for yours;
  • Doesn’t ask you how your day was or how your doctor’s appointment went;
  • Self-centredness – seems to have plenty of empathy for you but not for others. Watch out – you’re next;
  • Indifference to the suffering of others;
  • Doesn’t seem to care how their words or actions affect you.

I will add some red flags to watch for of my own:

  • Has a vision of how you are or should be, and is more interested in trying to get you to fit that vision than understand how you actually are;
  • Offers you something and when you take them up on it, acts like they never offered it;
  • Expects you to move out of their way rather than expecting to work around you;
  • ‘Forgets’ saying or doing things that upset you when you call them on their behaviour, and tells you it didn’t happen;
  • Tells you that you’re over-reacting or being too sensitive when let them know you feel upset or hurt;

According to the article, you can tell if you are being manipulated by looking at your own feelings about the relationship: 

  • You often feel guilty; your mood depends on the state of the relationship; you feel inadequate;
  • you never feel sure where you stand; you carefully control your words, actions and emotions around this person;
  • you do things that go against your values or make you feel uncomfortable;
  • expressing negative thoughts and emotions seem forbidden so you hide them;
  • the relationship feels complex and you can’t quite put your finger on what the problem is;
  • you try to figure things out but can’t get anywhere;
  • you want to please this person but keep getting it wrong;
  • you end up in no win situations where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t;
  • you feel afraid of losing the relationship;
  • you feel you are walking on eggshells.

I watch for the above in new people I spend time with, and if signs of manipulation or lack of empathy come up a few times, even in small ways, I choose not to continue the relationship. I am astonished to see that these traits can show up in the earliest encounters, often in seemingly positive ways. Some examples:

  • There was a guy who invited me on a date, telling me we’d go for a walk on the beach and that he had a puppy I was going to fall in love with. He did not ask to find out if I like walking on the beach, and he didn’t check whether I am into puppies. He assumed. Red flag: he has a vision of how I am supposed to be, not interested in finding out who I actually am.
  • I stayed with a woman who blindsided me with upsetting text messages during an important meeting. When I looked back I recalled a myriad of other small red flags. I decided to move out before things could escalate.
  • A friend showed me a series of videos on YouTube, and even after I had pointed out that I couldn’t understand them as they didn’t have subtitles, continued to insist that I would find them fantastic. She didn’t notice the bored expression on my face.

I’ve found I can tell a lot about a person by working with them in the kitchen. Say I’m washing the dishes, and the other person wants to wash their hands, what happens? Some people wait until a suitable moment for me, and then reach in quickly to wash. Others expect me to stand aside, or even stop washing the dishes altogether, because it is inconvenient for them that I am in the way. The former have empathy – they are thinking about my experience and taking care not to interrupt it. The latter are focused on their own experience and unconcerned with mine. I keep a very sharp eye on the people in the second group – usually there are other red flags which surface. By watching the small ways people interact with each other, I’ve found I can quickly pick up who has empathy and who lacks it.

Of course, some people are a mix – empathic in some ways and manipulative in others. I have noticed that if I call them on their manipulative behaviour or for crossing my boundaries, they will either respond with concern that they have upset me and a desire to understand better (and to change), or else respond defensively and maybe by pretending that the thing never happened. The people in the latter group get struck off my list. With the former, I watch carefully to see if their intention to change translates to actual change. Do they stop crossing my boundaries in the way I requested? Remember that behaviour speaks louder than words.

By pulling the brakes on these relationships before I become too invested, I have noticed a magnificent effect on my life: it is now filled with deeply empathic, caring people. I have never been so well loved as I am now.

When making new relationships, watch carefully for signs of whether the person has empathy or not, and whether they manipulate you or others. If you spot any red flags, watch carefully to see if this is a pattern of behaviour or just a one off. If it is a one-off, you could try calling the person (gently) on their behaviour and see how they respond. If their response is problematic or the pattern is strong, I encourage you to pull the brakes on the relationship if possible, and distance yourself. If that is impossible, take care to have very strong boundaries with this person and minimise day-to-day involvement.

If you recognise established relationships in your life that are clearly toxic, proceed carefully, as a person who lacks empathy or is manipulative may be quite mild while you are on their side, but become enraged and dangerous when they realise you are not. There are two key strategies to pull the breaks on toxic relationships – one is to establish boundaries and the other is to create distance. You could attempt to establish boundaries first, and go for distance if it fails. But maybe you know the person well enough to know that their behaviour is intrinsic and won’t change, in which case, distance is the only answer.

If it is a romantic relationship, imagine the worst case scenario and make preparations before you change the status quo. Hopefully it won’t come to that. But just in case, these are the kinds of ways you might prepare:

  • Ensure you have financial security, such as your own separate bank account with plenty of funds. If you share money with your partner, you could suggest a change of strategy such as having a joint account with enough money to live on monthly, and the remainder split into personal accounts belonging to each of you.
  • Place important documents such as house titles, bank statements, legal agreements etc in a folder in a safe place where they cannot suddenly ‘disappear’.
  • Talk to a friend or family member, preferably one who does not have a relationship with your partner, and make a plan to stay with them or call them if you need help.

Tried any of the ideas in this post? How did they go? Leave your comments below.

How to make a greenhouse tunnel to grow vegies during winter

Last autumn, I made myself a set of three greenhouse plastic row covers for my garden beds:

After trialling them this winter, I’ve decided they are definitely worth the hassle for a vegie garden in Melbourne.  I don’t think greenhouses are essential – with careful planning you can have vegies to eat all year round in Melbourne.  See my sidebar for how to really produce food in your backyard.  If, like me, you have a fairly limited space for your vegies, then the greenhouse covers can help get a crop in and out of a bed quicker.  I’m also hoping they’ll mean we get to eat summer vegies a little sooner, but that’s yet to be proven!

To make these greenhouses, I bought some “builder’s film” plastic from Bunnings.  I think it cost about $40 for a roll large enough to do three tunnels plus the cover for my greenhouse shelves which you can see in the background.

I used plumbing pipe to create the hoops, and thin steel stakes 1m high to hold up the plumbing pipe.  The reason the stakes are thin is so that the hoops will fit over them.  Originally I pushed six stakes into my garden beds, put three hoops over the top of them, and then draped the cover over that.  However, because my soil is so soft and fluffy, it wasn’t firm enough to hold the stakes.  So I bought some little u-shaped pipe-holder brackets (sorry, I don’t know the proper name for them!) and nailed them onto the sides of my garden beds.  Now the stakes slide neatly into them and remain properly upright.  The stakes I originally bought from Bunnings (metal with plastic casing) started to break, and I discovered that “metal” actually meant “very very thin and flimsy metal tubing, no stronger than the plastic”.  So don’t buy your stakes from Bunnings!  I took them back and replaced them with steel reinforcement stakes that I got from a building supply shop.

The builder’s film I cut to size, and then sewed with a wide zigzag stitch on my sewing machine.  I also sewed on a long plastic zip (don’t use a metal one – it’ll rust in the weather and you won’t be able to do it up), and then cut the plastic to create an opening where the zip is.  Then I sewed some strips of fabric to the corners and middle of the  bottoms of the greenhouse.  These hang down to the ground, and I place bricks on them.  If you don’t have raised beds, you can simply weigh down your greenhouse plastic with rocks.

As well as the faster growing crops, I’ve found the greenhouses very handy in terms of pest management.  Our local possum has not bothered our vegies, when the chooks break into the garden, they don’t get in, and the cabbage moths haven’t either.  So far this spring we’ve had a surprising lack of snails in these beds too – usually I need to be hunting for snails every night to stay on top of them.  So they are definitely a winner for me.  The drawbacks are that I must water manually, even if it’s been raining, and the garden doesn’t look as nice!  Actually that’s quite a big drawback, because I love walking around my beautiful garden and admiring all the food.  Now I walk around a plastic graveyard.  Yuck.  I fantasise about having a lovely glass structure over the entire vegie garden, which is somehow effortlessly dismantled over summer.  If anyone knows how to do this, please do share!

In the meantime, for serious food growers, I reckon the greenhouse is a great addition.  But if you just want to get started and grow some food, I think it’s low priority.

The best and cheapest humanure composting toilet

My friend Kat has framed a note I wrote to her before we met. ‘Hi, my name is Asphyxia, and I am wondering if I could come over to help you empty your composting toilet?’

Ok, I guess it is a rather unusual introduction. I had had three different composting toilet systems at my house and was appalled by all of them. I heard on the grapevine that this woman, Kat, had a good one, and wanted to know the details. Kat taught me the secrets to a stress-free composting toilet. This system has been amazing! It cost a grand total of $50 to set up (unlike previous systems which I had forked out thousands for) and never malfunctioned in almost a decade of use.

I’m sold. Want to know how to run a cheap and simple composting toilet system? I’ve put the details on this page here.