Bittersweet Basket Weaving

Bittersweet Ugly Basket

My first “ugly” bittersweet basket.

What does it mean to make a relationship with parts of the natural world that we ordinarily think of as trouble?  I am wrestling with this question as we wrestle with the bittersweet vines that surround our yard.  Asian Bittersweet is classified as an invasive species, because it takes over an area and can wipe out other species.  It is very hard to get rid of it.  This has provoked some places, including Falmouth, Maine, to plan to use horrible pesticides in its eradication–which seems to me an even worse problem–and a never ending one, because they admit that they won’t be able to ever completely eradicate it.

Some folks are taking a different approach however.  Yesterday, Margy and I attended a workshop led by Zack De La Rouda about weaving baskets with bittersweet vines.  I loved  Zack’s attitude–since we brought this plant here, then we need to find ways to deal with the consequences.  And with climate change and other pests threatening species like ash and willow, which have traditionally been used for baskets, we need to keep looking for options.  So he brought us into his experiments with making useful items with bittersweet. Which, as he said, is everywhere. The vines had been cut, dried, and then soaked in water for a couple days. I have to say it was not an easy material to work with–hard to bend and shape, at least for a beginner.  But Zack assured us that everyone has an ugly basket–when our first attempts to learn the skills result in less than usable outcomes.  So I took a pic of my ugly basket.

Another presentation in April got me started on this question.  Tao Orion, author of Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration spoke at the Resilience Hub.  We might think of getting rid of invasives as important to promoting a balanced eco-system.  But what she discovered is that in the professional world of land management, what usually happens first is a complete destruction of the “invaded” area with powerful pesticides.  She helped us to look beyond “the war” and explore other options for dealing with invasives.  For example, we can look at the function invasive plants are playing in the ecosystem where they have taken root, and address imbalances in the soil and other factors that may need attention.

Bittersweet shoots

Bittersweet vine shoots.

Orion was from the west coast, and didn’t specifically address bittersweet.  Margy started cutting off huge vine stems that are surrounding other tree trunks, to try to save those trees from choking.  But the vines are so resilient.  Tiny shoots start coming up in the lawn, from root networks spread beneath the soil. Non-pesticide ways to deal with them include pulling out what you can, cutting off what you can, and ongoing cutting, to keep the roots from getting the nourishment they need.  (Even people who use pesticides have to do all that, by the way.) In the final analysis, there is no way to completely eradicate them, so you have to learn to manage them.

On the plus side, bittersweet is a remarkable example of resilience.  They propagate by seeds, by roots spreading through the soil, and can re-grow from small root segments. You’ve got to admire that multi-functionality. And birds love the seeds in winter.  There are dozens of birds who live in the uncultivated area just west of our yard–which is overrun with bittersweet, as well as raspberries and blackberries and grape vines growing wild.

But on the other hand, I can’t help but compare it in my mind with the European peoples who invaded this continent, including my own ancestors from France and Scotland in Quebec, and my Germanic ancestors who came later–as immigrants being used to settle the west. Just like an invasive plant, the European invaders took over the landscape, wiped out other communities of people, and destroyed the balance of the eco-system.  On an even wider scale, modern human beings as a whole species have overrun our planet and are destroying our ecosystem.

So perhaps the most important lesson bittersweet might teach us is to look in the mirror, at our own invasions, and together we might learn about how to live within respectful boundaries with all of our siblings on this planet.

Guests & Storage

Bed for guests & storage

One of the principles of permaculture design is stacking functions–whereby one item serves more than one function at the same time and in the same space.  I just finished putting together this bed which occupies a corner of our finished basement, and it provides room for guests, as well as room for storage underneath.  (Now we just need a mattress.)

Since we downsized, we’ve needed to be creative about how to manage multiple functions in a smaller space.  We really want to be able to offer comfortable hospitality to guests, but we also have been struggling with storage options.  So the two major requirements for this bed were that it be comfortable, and also that there be room for boxes underneath.  I have a lot of boxes–the archives of my life you might say.  Some early writing, some political work, some letters and photos… When I considered the possibility of getting rid of them, I realized that I wanted to keep this history–if only to go through it again in my old age.

Now, I am happy to see it before my eyes.  My plan is to organize the boxes, and make a diagram of where they are, so that if I need to get access to them, I know right where to look. Otherwise, they will be hidden under a bed skirt, and the room will be neat and welcoming and uncluttered.

 

Unexpected Magic

River MagicI am beginning to wonder if the book I have been writing (whether I publish it or not) is creating a kind of unexpected magic to manifest the visions within its pages. Yesterday, for the new moon, I read my journal from the last new moon until this one–a practice I do every new moon day.  This particular month has been a time for spiritual restoration.  But I noticed something rather curious as I read.  Old rituals and practices are finding their way back into my life after a time of absence.  And it seems related to the writing of the book, Finding Our Way Home.

In one chapter, I write about the practice of diving into water every day, which came into my life when I lived on Cape Cod.  But for 11 years, there was no body of water close enough to where we lived for me to do that anymore.  And I didn’t imagine there would be in our new house, but then we learned about access to the Presumpscot River just ten minutes away.  So now it is a possibility again.

In another chapter, I write about dance as a form of prayer–physical, emotional, a way to experience the energy of the divine in my body, and find joy in the midst of struggle.  When I lived in Boston, I was part of a women’s spirituality circle that danced as a part of our rituals.  But I haven’t had an easy or collective way to do that for a while.  Then, this month I found a community group that meets for free-form expressive dance every Sunday morning–not always so great during the church year when I am occupied most Sunday mornings–but for the summer it is accessible to me, and once a month on my Sunday’s off during the year. So now that is a possibility again.

And then I started thinking about how I had written about wanting to use less oil, to have a house that was zero-carbon–I wrote about it before I could imagine any way that we might really find a way to live in greener housing.   But this past year we started an intentional search for greener housing.  Our new home is not all the way to zero-carbon, but with our solar panels and in-town location we are using so much less oil than before.

Journaling DSC01316I also write about the spiritual practice of writing–and the book as a ceremony of reconnection to the earth, to each other, to the spirit within all.  But the magic I have been noticing this month was completely unexpected, beyond my wildest dreams, and uncanny in its particularity.  I wonder if when we write our hopes and visions, when we express our gratitude, when we imagine and tell the stories, there might be an energy that starts to percolate. What has lain dormant wakes up and tries to find a way to express itself.  All I can say is wow, and thank you.

The Devil in the (Solar Credit) Details

Solar DetailI was finally able to take stock of my estimated taxes for next year, and compute how the solar energy credit would work for me. Sad to say, the devil is in the details: while I was hoping to be able to take a tax credit to recoup 30% of the cost of our solar panels, it won’t quite work out that way. For this coming year, I will be able to take less than one third of that.  The rest I will have to carry forward to future years.

I am disappointed about that, and a bit surprised.  But before we installed the panels, I wouldn’t have even known how to ask the questions to discover all this.  In the literature on solar, it was always expressed as “may be able to get 30% of cost as a tax credit, but consult a tax professional.”  I had just assumed that it would work to take the credit this coming year, because I knew my tax bill is generally higher than 30% of the solar cost.  But I think I got caught in the peculiar way that minister’s taxes are computed.

Ministers are counted as “self-employed” for social security, so we pay 15.3% of our total compensation toward social security self-employment taxes.  Most employees have 7.65% withheld and the other 7.65% is paid by the employer. (On the other hand, ministers get a break on our housing allowance, so that tends to even it out.)  What ends up happening for me, though, is that the largest part of my actual tax bill is the social security self-employment tax. And I did not realize that the solar tax credit could not be used against that tax, but only the regular federal taxes.

I share all this because I am guessing that some of my ministry colleagues might have an interest in installing solar panels, since you share the same values I hold about caring for the earth and using renewal energy.  I wanted to warn you that you might not be able to count on getting that money back in the first year. Plus, I can see how this makes it even harder for solar panels to be affordable for lower income folks.  The lower your income, the lower your taxes, and the more years it may take for a rebate to actually come back to you.

Personally, I’ll be okay financially.  And I don’t regret having installed the solar panels, even with this and other political setbacks. But I sure was looking forward to having that rebate for other house projects that are waiting in line. So it goes.

Water for Future Gardens

Garden SpigotToday a plumber installed a new outdoor spigot at our house. The old one was buried behind the steps to the deck, close to the driveway, and not at all handy for future garden watering. This one is on the other side of the deck, close to where we are imaging planting fruit trees and other food crops. It makes me happy to see it there, all ready to use.

Before we installed it the spigot, we had to research what material to use for the piping–copper, PVC or PEX.  We chose copper because the PVC varieties and PEX piping seem more hazardous with leaching that puts chemicals into the water. This article was very helpful.  Since this spigot will be watering our food, we want it to be as non-toxic as possible.

Submeter

Submeter

It is also attached to a submeter we purchased from the Portland Water District. Our sewer bills are computed based on the volume of our water usage, and with a submeter, the water that is going into the ground (rather than the sewer) won’t be used to compute the sewer bill.  So spending the money for the submeter now should eventually save us money in the long run.  Now all we have to do is contact the city for an inspection, and we’ll be good to go.

(Except we won’t be planting gardens until next year.)

River Swim

River SwimI went into the river this morning!  This little access gem is only ten minutes from my house.

When I lived on Cape Cod, I discovered the possibility of taking a quick dip in the water every morning.  Cliff Pond was a ten minute drive from our house, so I’d drive over, jump in, honor the beautiful water, and I created a ritual to let go of all sorts of worries and troubles and joys and gratitude into its refreshing hold. One year I did this starting in April and continuing through the beginning of November. It was a central spiritual practice for me during that time.

When we moved to Maine 11 years ago, that was no longer possible where we lived in North Yarmouth.  The nearest water was a tidal bay about 20 minutes away. We could only swim there 2 hours before and after high tide.  It was great in its own way, and we loved paying attention to the tides.  But I had to find new morning rituals and new spiritual practices. Sitting in the screen tent.  Walking.

Imagine my surprise, after our move to Portland, when our friend recently told us about this access point for river swimming.  Margy and I went there to swim with her a couple days ago.  Thank you! And today, I got up my courage to go on my own.  Courage because, as a woman, I always carry a little fear about going to solitary natural places on my own.  But then I remembered–this is the River!  I need to take that risk and go into the water.

I have been astonished at the blessings that have been unfolding in our new place, unexpected treasures like the creatures passing through, and now the return of old lost rituals. My heart is full of gratitude and wonder this morning.

Still Angry

Last week, we got our first electricity bill with a full month of solar energy production on our roof.  I was excitedly looking forward to a bill in which our production exceeded our consumption, and so we had nothing to pay at all.  Zero for electricity!  Well it turns out, that can’t happen in Maine.  Apparently, in the not so distant past they changed the structure of delivery rate payments so that anything less than or up to 50 kWh is billed at a set rate.  So no matter how little we use, I realized, we would always have to pay $11.51 per month.

But then, the very next day I read in the paper that rates were going up July 1st–but I couldn’t find the details anywhere until today–so now the basic delivery rate will be $12.88 for up to 50 kWh. (By the way, that would be .2576 per kWh if you used those 50.) The delivery rate for over 50 is going from .06302 to .066541.  This is in addition to the actual energy charge, which for us with CMP standard offer is an additional .064430 per kWh.

I wouldn’t be so angry if I hadn’t spent a day at the state house at the end of April listening to conservatives arguing that solar customers were getting a free ride and being subsidized by all other customers.  Here’s the thing I was thinking that day, assuming that we did have true net metering–where we only paid for the balance between what we generated and what we used–solar customers benefit the whole grid because we are adding energy to the grid during its highest use demands–summertime in the heat of the day.

And this is our earth we are talking about–we should be creating policies that encourage more and more renewal energy usage, or we won’t have a planet that can support human life anymore. Human life, anyone?  At this point in Maine, only on the hottest summer days do we even reach 1% of the total energy used being solar energy. Shouldn’t we be talking about how to increase that to 50%?  Not castigating those of us who have worked so hard to make a change, by calling us “elite” and acting like we are a drain on the rest of the customers?

Margy and I just spent a lot of money because we really care about the earth. It was almost impossible for us to do–we had to move to a new house and downsize our living situation to be able to afford the investment. But we really really care about the future of the earth. And we also hoped that as we grew older and had less financial resources, this would help us to get by.

But now I know that even if we use no energy at all from the grid, we must still pay 12.88 per month, to be able to be tied into the grid. And I understand that if everyone had solar panels tied to the grid (wouldn’t that be our dream future?) we collectively would have to find a way to maintain and support the infrastructure of the grid. But the attitudes of certain politicians in Maine are downright punitive towards solar customers.  While I was web surfing trying to find the new rates, I discovered that two years ago, they were trying to add a $25 monthly surcharge for solar customers.  It didn’t succeed that time, but everything will be reviewed again this coming year. Oh, and by the way, CMP is owned by the Spanish multinational corporation Iberdrola. So isn’t that the real issue–the privatization of public utilities and profits for the shareholders?

I am dealing with a bit of reality shock about all this–after the initial excitement about going for solar, I am discovering just how much of a battle is involved on so many fronts.  It caught me off guard. I called our solar installer and he apologized for this not being clearer up front–he thought he had explained it before. But I am curious–to those of you with solar in other states:  do you have any zero bills? How does it work where you live?

CMP Bill 0630161004