Bush Living Challenges 2: Uh… Everything? (except the important stuff)

DSC02022Mail comes every day, but because of school, I can only get to the post office on Wednesday. I, very unwisely, didn’t get a sled in Fairbanks this week and continue to carry my parcels through the snow like an old-fashioned Christmas card. It’s tricky when I have a lot of boxes! Today, Mr. Ben very kindly let me put my packages in his sled. Over the sound of the sled scraping over the hard snow (it got cold again this week) we chatted about postcards and speculated about the contents of our packages as we walked home. I love Wednesdays. The school has early dismissal and the teachers all walk or ride in the school truck to get the mail. My friends and family have been amazing about sending regular letters and care packages, so I always have something to look forward to. Masi’ (That’s Gwich’in for “thank you”) and loads of love, y’all.

This is Fort Yukon from the air.

This is Fort Yukon from the air.

Venetie looks similar to this, but smaller and with mountains in the distance. Someday I’ll have the presence of mind to take a picture. Almost everything in the village has to be flown in on a small plane (special circumstances might call for a barge up the river, but I think that’s just for vehicles and other things too heavy and bulky to fly). Heavy things like furniture and liquids get expensive quickly, and there’s a wait for everything. When flying out of Fairbanks, baggage goes on the plane with you and freight goes on a plane sometime when there’s room. Baggage is a dollar more per pound than freight, but freight is uncertain. Don’t send your cheese freight and expect to make pizza that same night. Boxes usually come within a few days, and the freight office will keep them cold or frozen for you while they’re waiting to ship.

That monstrosity is my grocery receipt from January 2nd.

That monstrosity is my grocery receipt from January 2nd.

I bought everything I needed for two months that day, then stocked up again last week. The first time, I bought a ton of frozen green veggies, and I’m still working on those. My fridge is awesomely cold, so I still have (unfrozen) carrots, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and cabbage from January. Eggs too. I freeze things like butter and cheese, and I make most of my own bread products. Salad greens and fruit are really the only things I can’t keep, so I revel in those things when I get the chance (salad twice a day, every day this week! With avocados!). Apples are okay in the fridge for a month, but they go a little soft after that. This time, I got some frozen fruit to spice up my breakfast once in a while. Really, the food thing isn’t that bad. Running out of something or realizing you are missing a key ingredient that can’t be found at the village store really truly sucks, but it doesn’t happen to me too much. I’m a good provisioner, and I stocked up with a good variety of ingredients, so I work with what I’ve got. Pro – tip: Cilantro freezes with its flavor intact. It’s worth its weight in gold on taco night. I discovered this accidentally, when my cilantro wound up in a box of frozen stuff for shipping.

Here's the post office! I took this photo way back in January, probably around midday. Compare the quality of light to that in the photo from this afternoon with the packages! It's incredible how much we've leaned into the sun!

Here’s the post office! I took this photo way back in January, probably around midday. Compare the quality of light to that in the photo from this afternoon with the packages! It’s incredible how much we’ve leaned into the sun!

Here's a closeup of the flyers on the post office

Here’s a closeup of the flyers on the post office, a little gossip for those of you who are interested.

In case you were wondering about what's newsworthy in the village

And some more, just in case you were wondering about what’s newsworthy in the village.

The phone company?

The phone company?

The dump

The dump. We’re working on recycling, but it doesn’t make much economic sense.

The district had inservice in Fairbanks last week, which provided a nice opportunity to get groceries and eat ice cream. I got to visit book stores and the ice park and the Festival of Native Arts, where I had the pleasure of seeing one of my students dance. I strolled through a couple of art galleries with my hostess, an awesome lady who works in the district and offered to put me up for the weekend and drive me around, which was extremely helpful because I still have no idea what I’m doing, logistically, though I’m figuring it out. She made sure I made it on the plane with everything I’d need, and I’m grateful to her for that.



The art and culture and food made a good change of pace from the predictable pleasures of village life, but I’d worn myself out teaching hard in the weeks leading up to inservice, so I spent most of last week in training or in a sick fog. I didn’t even get to have dinner with Dave and Lindsay, which I was looking forward to. I slept through dinner a lot.

It felt weird, having to get in a car to go somewhere. I didn’t like opening the cupboards in my suite at the hotel and not seeing the comforting rows of flour bags and cans of coconut milk that I keep soldier-neat here in my Venetie apartment. Flying in on sunday, when the pilot banked the plane and I caught sight of the mountains, then the tiny village, vanishing small in the flats, I felt my face stretching on its own into a (snotty [so snotty] still-sick) smile. Home. My little corner of the wilderness.

DSC01973My life here is simple and my time is full but never rushed. A friend commented to me in a letter that he’s impressed by my ability to keep cabin fever at bay. It’s not hard. I like having time to fill with cups of tea and french practice and cooking and long walks and phone calls. I like the simple pleasure of once-a-week mail and my breathtaking view of the night sky.  As I told another friend, I have the luxury of bathwater time, copious and comfortable and ideal for reading. I need a houseplant or two, and I still need a sled, and in a truly ideal world I’d have an actual bathtub, but coming home made me realize how profoundly I am happy here.

Tips for spending less money and putting less crap in landfills

I haven’t written a post quite like this before because I like to be very careful about how I talk about social and environmental issues. Words can be politically polarizing and I don’t like to be labeled an environmentalist because the label dismisses the other parts of my identity and the economic and social impacts of the way that Sean and I choose to live.

Thanks to Westwick Dreaming for the bounce over to My Make Do And Mend Year and for reminding me that it’s important to share these things. In the spirit of reusing, recycling and repurposing, this post lists some of the simple things that we do at the homestead, in addition to buying local, to minimize the stuff we throw in a landfill and the money that we contribute to businesses that don’t match our values:

Part 1: Recycling, Repurposing

  1. Sponges: I cut a corner off of a dish-sponge and it becomes a counter sponge. I cut a second corner off and it becomes a floor/nastiness sponge. After that, I throw it into a container on the back porch and it becomes an outdoor sponge. Sometimes the progression is shortened or modified depending on the needs of the moment, but the principle works well. This was inspired by the dish-sponge, bulkhead-sponge, sole-sponge, head-sponge progression I learned in my weeks with Ocean Classroom in middle school.
  2. Old rubber scraper: It became brittle and the end began to disintegrate, but instead of throwing it away, we hung it on a nail by the chicken fence and now use it to scrape out containers of nasty goop on its way into chicken-bellies.
  3. Packing materials: we keep a bag of them in our storage room and delight in mailing them back to our friends and family.
  4. Recycling: A lot of folks in our area don’t recycle. Even the progressive young teachers that we spend most of our time with are daunted by the absence of a curbside recycling service in our community and wind up discarding hundreds of pounds of recyclables each year. Sean and I use a set of three Rubbermaid tubs that fit in the trunk of our car. As one fills up, we pull it onto the porch and bring in another. We rinse our recyclables before throwing them in the tubs, which prevents critters from taking an interest and unpleasant odors from developing. We dump the tubs when we make trips to the city. Usually, this system works fairly smoothly, though we do occasionally produce too much recycling between trips.
  5. Clothes: if they’re good quality, we donate them, but if they’re too torn or stained, we toss them in my rag tub. I use them as cleaning rags or to make patches, potholders, and new seats for old chairs. I may also use small scraps in lieu of twine to build trellises and tie tomatoes. I saved the pockets from my old overalls and I’m planning to nail them up in our tool-storage area to use for small tools and bits of hardware.
  6. Tissue paper, gift bags and wrapping paper: I use wallpaper glue and make pretty lanterns with the tissue paper we save. Otherwise, this stuff gets folded neatly and stuffed in a drawer to be used next holiday.
    Pig Lantern
  7. Twist-ties and bread-tags: Stored in the junk drawer, these things come in handy from time-to-time. A bread-tag can be used to extend the life of a flip-flop when the strap pulls through the sole.
  8. Plastic grocery bags: We use these for covering bowls of rising dough, harvesting and storing greens, and in the place of paper towels for picking up dead mice and frogs that the cats dragged in. Thanks to the grocery store, we have never bought garbage bags: I stuck wall-hooks to our trash-can and they keep grocery bags from slipping into the bin when they grow full. Between composting and recycling, we don’t make a lot of trash, so this bag size works well for us.


    A photograph would have been actually gross, because the cupboard under our sink is a scary, scary place.

  9. Paper grocery bags: I store packing materials, clothes that aren’t in season, craft materials, and overflow recycling in these. They also make good table-covers for messy projects.
  10. Feed Bags: One of these on the porch makes a great trash-bag. They also make drop-cloths for painting, skinning or other messy projects.
  11. Egg Cartons: We use them over and over for our eggs. These would also make good packing materials if we were ever to run out.
  12. Yogurt containers, cans and peanut-butter jars:  I sort bits of hardware or rubber bands or twist ties into these, or use the lidded yogurt containers as backup tupperware.
  13. Jugs from vinegar or detergent: These make great scoops for feed.
  14. Compost: it’s easy and as a bonus, our trash never smells like garbage.

Part 2: Making from scratch

  1. Soap: We use the lard from our pigs to make bar soap. I often use the bar soap to wash my hair, and it can be grated to powder and mixed with borax and baking soda for use as laundry detergent. Liquid hand soap is easy to make out of the odd ends of the grated bars or bits scraped out of the pot: just add water and allow the soap to dissolve.
  2. Trellises: Bamboo (not to be mistaken for the native cane) is not indigenous to the forest here, so I feel no qualms about harvesting poles for trellising our tomatoes, cukes, peas and other climbing or trailing plants. I simply pound some canes into the ground and tie cross-bars to these uprights to provide support for my crops.
  3. Food: obviously, we grow a lot of food ourselves. I’m not sure this has saved us much money, (we’ve spent a lot on infrastructure in the past few years) but it helps us cut back on packaging materials that we have to throw away, and contributes to reducing emissions from shipping and chemical use in industrial agriculture.

Part 3: Minimizing by borrowing, buying used, or buying quality

  1. Books: I read a lot, and instead of buying books I go to the library or download for free. I pay a membership fee to use the library in Memphis, and it’s absolutely worth it. Supporting artists is important to me, but I’m not sure how to do this most effectively when it comes to authors: I don’t want a larger cut of my purchase going to a chain store or Amazon if I can help it. For now, I’m sticking with supporting libraries.
  2. Clothes: My clothes come almost exclusively from Goodwill and moving-out piles. This arrangement suits me because I don’t feel guilty discarding something that I don’t love as much as I thought I would if I hardly spent any money on it.
  3. Food Storage: We bought a set of pyrex containers that will last into the next century and totally eliminates the Tupperware-lid-matching problem.
  4. Furniture: Our furniture is all used or homemade, which I’m extremely proud of. It’s not all beautiful and it doesn’t match, but who cares? We’ll upgrade when we’re ready, probably piece by piece as I learn to refurbish nifty old stuff.
  5. Farm Equipment and Appliances: From lightbulbs to fencing, Sean does his research to make sure it’s durable, effective, and energy-efficient before we purchase anything new. We also get away with borrowing a lot of these items from our wonderful neighbors. Gifts of pork and garden veggies make these arrangements mutually beneficial.

Anything cool that I should be doing and haven’t thought of yet?