The secrets of soap

I had wanted to make soap for a long time, but was stopped by the mysterious ingredient called “lye”. I had no idea what it was or where to obtain it… until by pure chance, I discovered that lye is actually the caustic soda we always keep on hand to take care of severely clogged pipes.

We also had a bottle of olive+unspecified vegetable oil we once bought to light Hanukkah candles and discarded because it smoked. So it just sat for years on our pantry shelf, not fit for human consumption, lighting, or much of anything really. It was the perfect candidate for my soap-making attempt.

I started reading about soap-making and realized it’s a whole science/art, with all sorts of oil combinations with different properties, essential oils, etc. I decided to just do something basic for starters. I followed a very simple recipe, omitting the essential oil and using, instead of the different oils, the one I had on hand.

I’m far from figuring out all the intricacies of soap-making just yet. I didn’t use a scale. My measurements might not have been 100% accurate. My batch of soap never showed a proper “trace” and took forever to set. There was probably too much liquid. Nevertheless, the oil did turn into soap and I was thrilled, because I made something useful out of something useless.

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Above: soap cut into bars and set out to cure

These soap bars might not look very shapely, but I’m making good use of them for laundry. I cut off a piece of appropriate size and simply place it in a little mesh bag, which I then toss in with the load of clothes. It really works! It doesn’t have the potency of a commercial laundry detergent, but it’s fine for clothes that are slightly sweaty/dirty.

I intend to go on and learn more about making soap, and will keep you posted as I progress.

Chicks, seedlings and useful reading

Here is one of our newest chicks, hatched this week. Our current resident rooster is a Black Brahma, so we get a lot of black chicks with cute-looking feathered legs. Unfortunately, we don’t have a Black Brahma hen (I’d love to get one, so we can have pure-bred chicks), but in the meantime I’m hoping to get good birds from crossing the Black Brahma with our best hen, a mixed New Hampshire (I think). She’s a nice big brown hen and gives us plenty of big brown eggs. So hopefully I can get some pullets who will be beautiful, good-sized, and good layers.

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Black Brahma cross chick held by Shira (7 years old)

seedlings

Above you can see a mixed tray of cherry tomato, pepper and melon seedlings. I realize it’s rather late in the season to have seedlings indoors, but I’m counting on the long, warm days we usually have well into October and even November. Either way, I have nothing to lose, right? The tomatoes, peppers and herbs we already have planted outside seem to be doing nicely. We’ll see how they fare and whether we get any produce by the end of the season. I can hardly wait.

In my spare time (ha ha) I’m catching up on a bit of useful reading. My current read is The Backyard Homestead, and I must say I’m greatly enjoying it. It has everything outlined in such a clear, straightforward way – gardening, raising small livestock, useful landscaping – and it really showed me that, rather than wish we had more land (which of course would be nice), we should instead work towards making the best of what we do have – and I know that, being creative, we can do much, much more.

Modern technology and sustainability

“I don’t think the past was that simple, especially after researching the pre-industrial era. Rural life may seem idyllic to us, but the reality was often harsh and cruel. Children died from disease and ill hygiene. People worked and got by with so little, sometimes going for days without food to eat. 

Self-sufficient they may have been, but their life was pure drudgery, toiling from dawn to dusk without education or recreation. I don’t think the farmhands who ploughed and sickled by hand, enduring blisters,and the women who spent hours lighting fires and scrubbing clothes by hand really appreciated the simplicity of their way of life, haha. People died earlier too!”

Far be it from me to deplore modern technology. On the contrary, I am very thankful for all we have at our disposal today, modern medicine not the least of it. There’s no way I’d willingly give up my washing machine, which helps us do our laundry with so little effort; my nifty little grinder, which allows me to prepare freshly ground oatmeal with such ease and efficiency; the ability to control our room temperature with one press of a button; the Internet, which allows me to obtain a wealth of information and connect with like-minded people from all over the world; my cell phone, the ability to travel with relative ease, our refrigerator or any of the countless things we take for granted these days.

Being free of the drudgery of drawing water from a well or scrubbing clothes by hand frees me up to spend more time with my children, relax, and work on meaningful projects.

When it comes to people who desire simple living and the connection with earth and nature, I believe technology is actually what makes modern one-family homesteads possible. Things like solar panels, milking machines, incubators and modern agricultural techniques, for example, enable people to go off the grid and start their own small-scale farms.

Furthermore, even when building small-scale, off-grind cabins, people normally use electricity-powered tools such as saws, drills, etc.

In our neighborhood, we have a farm which is run by a very industrious family. They make delicious cheeses, yogurt, and a variety of other products. They use milking machines, a computerized irrigation system and, of course, extensive refrigerators for all their fresh produce. They work hard, that’s for sure, but if they didn’t have modern technology there’s absolutely no way they would have been able to accomplish all that work on their own, without employing a few workers (which I know they cannot afford). If you read historical novels set on farms, it will strike you how many people it took to do all the work manually, in order to accomplish anything on a serious scale. Most of these people were unpaid or very poorly paid and uneducated. These days, nobody would want to live like that, and that’s perfectly understandable.

It’s all great while technology is used as an aid at home; but when the coin flips, and technology controls you – when people are addicted to always having the latest gadget, to over-processed foods, to internet shopping, to online social networks; when people begin to spend a larger and larger portion of their life in front of the screen, that’s where I believe we do have a problem. It does take a particular balance to eat the apple, so to speak, and spit out the seeds. And this is precisely what I’m aiming for when I talk about simplifying.

Doing the Thrifty Thing

The ability to make a small income go a long way can be a make it or break it factor for a simple life at home. It can be the one thing that allows you to stay home with your children, helps your family get out of debt,  or enables you and your husband to pursue your dream of starting a self-sufficient homestead or starting your own business, rather than doing the daily 9-to-5 grind until you retire. It can tide you over a lean period, or help you save towards owning your own home. And in a way, spending less is more than earning more, because there’s no government tax on what you save.

I have had many people tell me that living on one income is “impossible”. It is not. In our family, we have gone through not so much poverty, but financial instability – periods of nice paychecks followed by some pretty hard times. We always made it, though, and not just survived, but thrived – and learned a lot along the way, too.

‘OK, OK, I agree with you. It is possible to live on one income. But why would you want such a miserable life? And why do you want to deprive your kids of everything their friends have?’

 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see anything bad or immoral about liking nice things, wanting to be dressed in pretty and fashionable clothes or to go on vacation. The problem starts when we become enslaved to these things. When we become so wrapped up in them that we forget what’s truly important.

 

What about children? Won’t they feel deprived because their friends have more brand-name clothes and go on vacations more often? Since I’m not a mother yet, I can’t know for sure. But here is my experience. I was raised by a single mother who worked very hard to support our family. We only had her small income and had to make it somehow. Occasionally, I wished I could have more new toys or clothes. But this is not what made me miserable as a child, and indeed, it isn’t what matters in the long run!

 

Frugality isn’t about being miserable. It’s about creativity and challenge. It’s drawing the line between what you need, and what you can do without. It’s homemade presents and costumes made from altered old clothes. It’s not signing up to a dozen afternoon activities, and instead having a blissful opportunity to explore freely and with curiosity. Playing outside. Climbing trees. Spending time at the local library. Drawing and writing, making stories, playing games… I loved doing all that as a kid, and I was never bored! My children, in turn, love it too. Who said a child needs a big house and a heap of expensive electronic gadgets to be stimulated? Look at us. We have lots of things. Does it make us happy?