Friday, August 30, 2013

Another Hidden Nest

I love it when my hens surprise me with these little nests. Even though it means the eggs were wasted (they are usually rotten when I find them) it just makes me smile to find their secret little stashes. I was cleaning up in the garden this week and found this little trio in the irises.

Aren't they sweet?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I've Gone Too Far

Well, crap. I've gone too far this time with the whole making shift thing. I'm an enthusiastic follower of the free section of the Austin Craigslist. And somehow I thought it might be okay to get a free mattress (I know, I know). A full-sized pillowtop mattress: clean (supposedly), located in a fancy neighborhood (promising), and posted on Craigslist by someone who knew how to read and write properly (a plus).

I'm holding my breath.

What I ended up with was a full-sized disaster that smells like a cat lady's house. It doesn't smell like cats themselves, or even cat pee, but it smells like a cat house. Like cat litter perfume and cheap pet food. I'm gagging a little just thinking about it. Why did I not take one whiff and say "thanks but no thanks"? Well, when I got to the house the guy opened the door holding the mattress. No chit chat or let's have a look or anything. It was all business, and very quick business. Before I knew it I was driving home in a cloud of cat smell. By the time I arrived home I had all the windows down and then I yanked the damn thing from the back of the van quickly and left it in the carport. No way was that thing going inside.

So now I have two options. I put it back on the free list. Or I wait until a friend who lives within the city limits has bulky trash pick up in their neighborhood and is nice enough to let me put a cat mattress on the curb in front of their house. (That may be one sign of a true friend.)

Lesson learned. There are some things you just shouldn't get for free off of Craigslist. For all the good stuff I've scavenged I do occasionally end up with a dud. (Although this is my largest yet.) Now you see why I call Mr. Chanclas my long-suffering husband. He didn't even bat an eye at the strange mattress leaning against his weight bench. Sigh.

Anybody want a free mattress? For their cats?

P.S. I have added a new label called "failures".

Friday, August 23, 2013

What To Make With Old Chicken Feed Bags?

I have a lot of chickens. Which means I buy a lot of chicken feed. Which means I end up with a lot of chicken feed bags. Some chicken feed bags are paper, which is easily composted, but many are plastic and so I have saved them. I couldn't throw them in the recycling bin and they just seemed too sturdy to throw away (not to mention wasteful). So now I have a pile like this:

They are kinda pretty, aren't they? I don't have anything special to say about Purina (I'd rather be buying organic) but I can say they make pretty, brightly-colored feed bags. I'm looking for ideas on how to repurpose them. I think I might be able to sew that material on my sewing machine so I might try making some sturdy market bags with them. (Because the material is a bit slippery I would probably have to put masking tape where the seam goes, sew over the masking tape, and then tear the masking tape off after the seam is in.)

I've also heard of people growing potatoes in old feed bags. (Much like my tater tire experiment.) A few months ago I used feed bags to bring home a bunch of horse manure for the garden. I plan to always keep a few bags on hand for impromptu needs like that, but I'm really looking for a good use for all the other bags. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How To Make a Bike Rack From An Old Pallet

Check out my low-budget bike rack.
Why do they never put kickstands on kids' bikes anymore? Because our bikes don't have kickstands I have a big metal tangle of bicycles in my carport. The little kids are sometimes even unable to extract their own bikes. Today I was cleaning up our workshop and carport and decided to rearrange the bikes. I needed a way to make them all stand up so I grabbed a wooden pallet from the materials yard. I picked out a pallet that had 2-3" gaps between the wooden slats on one side. (Some pallets have only very tiny gaps between slats.) I threw the pallet on the carport floor and then parked the bikes on it, placing one or both bike tires between the pallet slats. I was able to fit all three of our kid bikes on the pallet and probably could fit a fourth if I had one.

Ready to roll.
It's not fancy and it's not pretty but it solved my problem quickly and cheaply. Hooray for improvised solutions! Hooray for not buying more stuff!

It looks like it will be a good solution for us but if it doesn't work out I can just throw the pallet back out in the materials yard (read: junk heap) and use it for something else later. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Eating Grasshoppers

A bag of roasted grasshopper with chile.

When I was in the fourth grade I remember studying the Karakawa Indians and learning that they ate insects such as grasshoppers. My ten-year old mind couldn't really fathom why someone would want to do that. It's interesting that my own ten-year old daughter doesn't think it's such a big deal. Why wouldn't we eat grasshoppers? They're an abundant and inexpensive source of protein. And they make great bar food!

I haven't seen any roasted grasshoppers for sale in the U.S. but they are still common in Mexico. I bought some from a street vendor outside the bank in Coatzacoalcos a couple of weeks ago. They were roasted and sprinkled with chile powder. The vendor had an enormous bag of them and I was trying to figure out how you harvest that many grasshoppers at once. He said they come from the corn fields (of which there are MANY in Mexico) but I forgot to ask how exactly they trap them. I'm curious about that.

Two sizes of edible grasshoppers. I much prefer the small ones. The larger ones are softer, which I find gross.

Little Sister ran over to sample the 'hoppers. She ate a few and deemed them 'okay' and then she was done.


Bless my adventurous eaters! I hope they will always have such open minds about food. We tend to limit ourselves too much to our own culture's ideas of what constitutes "food".

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Homestead in Mourning

Big Sister with her two mallards
Well, we are home. We had a wonderful visit in Mexico. And like every good adventure, it also felt very good to return home. Unfortunately, we returned home to find all of our ducks and one remaining guinea missing and our sweet old dog at the end of her life.

First, the birds. Our dear neighbors took care of all of our birds and our cat while we were away. The chickens look great but there was one night at the very end that the ducks didn't want to get back in their enclosure at night. They can be very stubborn and infuriating that way. Sometimes they require herding or multiple attempts before I can get them safely locked away. They remind me of a line from one of my favorite children's books, Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, "They teach you patience but sometimes you can't help wishing they were different." So the ducks stayed out that night and the next morning all three of them (plus the guinea) were gone. The two Khaki Campbells and the guinea are likely dead (a few feathers at the scene) and I'm hoping the mallard flew away. I wouldn't be surprised if the mallard came back for a visit sometime.

Pete the mallard as a duckling
 In fact, the other mallard, who had been missing for a couple of weeks, made a surprise return while we were gone. Right through the living room window. The neighbors found her wandering around inside the house, unharmed. The huge living room window was shattered, which the neighbors kindly patched up for us until our return. Then the mallard disappeared again. Sigh.

Big Sister and I were especially sad about the ducks because we invested so much time and effort in raising them from day-old ducklings. Plus, the mallards were Big Sister's special pets. None of the ducks were  intended to be meat birds. They were cute and amusing and we planned to eat their eggs and let them provide duck-y services like garden weeding.

Sweet, patient Penny the dog

Our 15-year-old dog, Penny, stayed with my parents while we were gone. She had been stiff and slow for some time but while we were away her back legs just started to give out on her. When we got home we got to spend 24 hours with her before our dear vet came out to the house to put her to sleep. Mr. Chanclas dug her grave in the backyard (it requires a pickax with all this limestone) and we laid her to rest yesterday next to our cat that passed away in June. I miss her already.

So it has been a sad week here at our homestead but I am ready to return to my routine of caring for the remaining animals, feeding our family, and starting a fall garden. The summer garden burned to a crisp and it is time to plan for fall.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Mexican Street Market: San Juan Chamula

A family at market. Note the toddler held on mama's back by a rebozo.

Last weekend I had the good fortune to spend three days in and around San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. I think I can count San Cristobal amongst my very favorite cities. It's up in the mountains and the cool mountain air was a welcome respite from August in Austin (or Coatzacoalcos, for that matter, which is where I have been these last two weeks). There is a heavy presence of local indigenous groups. I heard many, many people speaking Tzotzil, the local Mayan language, or alternating between Tzotzil and Spanish.

We spent a day at the market in San Juan Chamula, a town outside San Cristobal. The traditional dress of the Chamulans is a black skirt of shaggy wool for the women, paired with a bright silk blouse. The men wear a white shaggy wool overcoat. The wool comes from locally raised sheep, which dot the surrounding countryside. Their homesteads are really impressive and I'll write more about that later. Today I want to give you a taste of the marketplace.

Brother was checking out the wool selection. Those were some really fluffy piles.

Beautiful handwoven baskets for sale next to piles of horrible plastic shoes. For all the natural beauty of the rest of their clothing, the indigenous women wear terrible plastic flats.

Gorgeous sacks of locally grown beans and corn. Corn is grown in every nook and cranny, on every rocky slope and trash-filled lot.

A selection of colorful local fruits and veggies. Many are familiar but the little yellow balls are nanches, a Mexican fruit.

Baby chicks being put in a plastic bag to be taken home. I watched a Chamulan woman tuck one into her rebozo with the rest of her load. Then a little boy wanted these two and got them in a bag.

The boy who bought these chicks ran off down the street with the bag in hand, chicks and all.

I couldn't get enough of the macadamia nuts, which I had never seen before in their shells. They are so buttery and sweet and delicious.

A cartload of rambutanes, which I think are what we call lychees in English.

Women in traditional Chamulan dress, toting children and loads in their rebozos. Rebozos are basically a long strip of fabric used as a bag, baby sling, baby hammock, shawl, and whatever else you may need in the moment.

These chickens grilled over a wood fire looked so delicious. We stopped for chicken later that day.

Four Chamulan policemen in traditional dress and carrying long nightsticks. I decided to take a picture of their backs because they looked all business despite their lack of firearms.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Beautiful Thatched Roof

It's been a little quiet here on Making Shift this week because I'm in Mexico visiting family. I'm in the state of Veracruz, enjoying the good company, the fresh coconuts, and the shade of this particular structure in my in-law's backyard. These thatched-roof structures are called palapas in Spanish and you see them in all the coastal areas.

Inside corner of thatched roof
I haven't yet had a chance to blog about my interest in alternative building techniques, but I'm a big fan of cob cottages, straw bale construction, thatched roofs, and more. Specifically, I'm fascinated by building techniques that rely on local materials and fit local conditions 

Gorgeous interior of thatched palapa
When my in-laws moved into this house there was already a palapa out back but the thatched roof was very old and falling down. They had it replaced this past year and the result is attractive from the outside and absolutely beautiful from the inside. The thatch itself is done with palm fronds. (You can see palm trees in the background in the first photo.) The support structures are a local wood that is fairly lightweight but very, very hard. 

How often do you imagine that a thatched roof like this would last? I probably would have guessed no more than five years. This one is guaranteed for ten years and will probably last much longer. So not only is it made of natural, native materials, it's also long-lasting and surprisingly waterproof. This is an area that receives a lot of rainfall and it stays incredibly dry under a well-made palapa. Sand, which is sometimes blown around in the wind here, does sometimes filter through the palm fronds, but water does not. The fronds overlap in such a way that it sheds water quickly.

Beams and palm fronds secured with baling wire and plastic twine
I was surprised to see that the palm fronds are attached to the support beams by plastic twine. I would have thought that the plastic wouldn't last very long but my father-in-law said that since they are underneath the structure and not directly exposed to the sunlight that they don't break down so quickly. The major connections between beams are made with baling wire. (Hooray for baling wire! One of my personal favorites.) My father-in-law said that you can also have the roof done with all wire (no plastic) and the cost is quite a bit more but is guaranteed for several more years. 

We are going on a road trip for the next few days so I'm sure I'll have lots of makeshift Mexican solutions to share next week. Backyard agriculture abounds here, as does every makeshift household solution you can imagine, plus lots and lots of community. Viva Mexico!