Tag Archives: detours

Barter ECOnomics & the Much-Maligned Art of Packrat-ism

folded dollar houseI’m a little embarrassed.

One of the lovely side-effects of living below the poverty-line  is the realization that most money-saving behaviors are thoroughly environmentally friendly. I’m embarrassed because it shouldn’t have taken a detour into destitution for us to put this type of lifestyle into practice. A matter of putting my money where my mouth is (figuratively speaking, that is, since absence of money is the catalyst in this case)…  So here we are, engaged in creative do-it-yourself projects, re-using and recycling and “upcycling” and making do for ourselves rather than buying even simple stuff.

shopping cart

of course we don’t avoid the store entirely… Grocery shopping for the essentials with our “phenomenal cook”–Elena Grace’s (accurate!) description of Keoni

In my previous life, if I needed (or wanted) something, I went straight to the store. Didn’t even think about it. Even a DIY (do-it-yourself) project would result in an automatic shopping-list for the needed components.

In contrast to that mindset, we make a game these days of “creative alternatives,” even with a DIY undertaking.  Our goal isn’t so much to do things inexpensively with DIY, but to see how close to FREE can we get with any project. For any item on our list, we’re asking ourselves what we could use, and where we might find it. (Funny thing—it does feel like a game, and there’s a definite satisfaction in “scoring” something we’re looking for.)

barter system

um, NOT quite how it works… (image courtesy of barter-guru.com)

Last month I joined the Freecycle network, which acts as a hub for people to offload (and pick up) used items at no cost. Without a doubt, the most neglected component of the eco-trinity (“Reduce, Re-use, Recycle“) is the practice of re-using—which is a shame, given the relatively high costs (both ecological and economic) of the recycling process… Freecycle operates a lot like the “free” listings on Craigslist (though unfortunately there’s not a lot of member activity in our area, so I’m still a regular Craigslist browser as well).

We are also blessed with a wonderful network of friends and neighbors who make bartering a viable possibility in our household economics. It should be said first, however, that although there is a steady traffic of foods and favors and funning exchanged across our various fences, the majority of those interactions aren’t undertaken with any aim so concrete as “bartering” for something specific. That’s just neighborliness, on all sides.

neighbors

Keoni & Bill admiring our shared vegetable garden

Having said that, though–I will add, on reflection, that the habit of neighborliness has stood us in good “credit” with those neighbors when we are on the hunt for something specific. And since those same neighbors have now formed addictions to Keoni’s cooking, they know precisely what they want in return. Case in point: when we approached our neighbor Steve to ask about the stack of two-by-fours by his shed (gathering materials for our son’s chicken-coop project), Steve had a wish-list at the ready. He held up two fingers and requested (1) Keoni’s teriyaki sauce and (2) his ginger salad dressing. Then he stabbed his two counting-fingers toward the pile of wood and told us to have at it—he had no plans for it. When we asked Bill (retired from construction, and a certified electrician) to see if he could sort out the electronics of our broken shave-ice machine so we could offer it as a rental to Keoni’s boss, Bill jumped at the chance to ask for Keoni’s “Tahitian Lanai” banana bread.

There are times, too, when neighborliness results in rewards unsought. Keoni stopped to offer condolences to the father and brother of our recently deceased neighbor, asking also how he might be of help. They’re looking to sell the place, so he offered to keep the lawn mowed in the interim. He spent yesterday morning mowing and weed-whacking and clearing trash (his OCD kicks in here—he can’t do half a job without following through on whatever else needs doing) and when they stopped by again, he suggested to them that they should store the outdoor items to prevent them from disappearing. (Unfortunately, we had some experience with that last year—while we were in the process of moving from our foreclosed-on house to this trailer, someone decided to help themselves to a number of our outdoor tools, plants, even a water fountain…)

tackle box

Christian reverently inventorying our late neighbor’s tackle box. “This guy took REALLY good care of his stuff.”

To our surprise, they told him he could help himself to whatever he could use from the yard and garden; they had already taken the few things they wanted to keep, and they’re focused now on clearing the place out.  It seems a little morbid to benefit from the death of a neighbor (one of the few neighbors we didn’t know, at that), but on the other hand we can offer a most appreciative home to the fishing tackle, portable barbecue, gardening tools and potting soil… And maybe, after all, the neighbor would get a kick out of our delight over the little garden-hose timer, which has long been on our wish-list for use with our sprinkler on the lawn.

Our neighbors have also been a great resource for our start-up gardening. Bill is kindly sharing his established vegetable garden with us—we provided seeds (which can be bought with Food Stamps, yay) and weeding-services (always with the “help” of his nosy wiener-dog, Buster), and a steady stream of baked goods—in exchange for which we’re enjoying radishes and tomatoes and carrots and broccoli and zucchini and (my favorite!) snap-peas. Bill jokes that we must have a bakery-bush behind the house, and wonders how far apart you need to plant those…

We’re working, too, on our own collection of kitchen herbs—plants started from seedlings and cuttings we’ve gathered from neighbors and from the herb-garden at Keoni’s work, and even road-side and river-side. (Wild asparagus grows along the river right near our house!) Some of the home-grown herbs are going into my “Kitchen-Chemistry” experiments (another installment coming soon!)—our other ecological/economical DIY project.

weeding

weeding the vegetable garden on Bill’s side of the fence (with Buster’s help)

What actually prompted this post was the curious collection of components for our planned compost barrel (which will no doubt get a post of its own when it’s completed)—a project that combines both the Reduce and the Re-Use commandments… We’ll be cutting down substantially on our outgoing trash and gaining compost for our developing kitchen-garden—and we’ve gotten creative in assembling its ingredient pieces. We find that the key to bartering (and sometimes getting things free) is keeping eyes open for items we can use, and being willing to ask.

For the compost barrel, we asked for an empty 55-gallon barrel of soy sauce from a restaurant-supply company. Its pivot-rod will be an old gas pipe, which we asked for when a gas-company worker was checking lines in the neighborhood and taking out unused pipes. And its supports will be a pair of outdoor umbrella-stands that Keoni rescued from the trash heap at the restaurant where he works.

kitchen herb nursery

the “nursery” of kitchen herbs—including seeds planted in the egg cartons

And that brings me to Packrat Habits. I have officially retired from teasing Keoni about his Packrat-ism, due to the overwhelming number of times he has pulled something useful out of the shed—something for which we had no imagined use when he picked it up. The umbrella stands fit in that category, as does the John Deere key he picked up in a parking lot a few years ago. We didn’t own anything at the time that could possibly fit that key, but this summer when we misplaced the key to our riding lawnmower (itself an item partly-bartered from a neighbor last summer), damned if he didn’t pull out that found key from wherever he had it stashed, and damned if it didn’t fit our lawnmower! I concede the field—he’s less crazy than I thought.

Still plenty crazy, though, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. On that note, there’s a clump of road-side wild-flowers I’ve had my eye on, and I think I’ll go dig it up—it’s either that or pay $5 at Home Depot.

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How to Bury an Owl

Ah, trick question!  Of course you wouldn’t bury an owl, because the Migratory Bird Act makes it illegal in the United States to be in possession of even an owl feather, let alone the entire dead bird. (Or three.)  So of course this post is entirely a work of fiction. (Cough, cough.)

Last summer I was sent by an Idaho Travel magazine to an old mining town in Idaho’s Owyhee mountains (“Silver City, Idaho: A ‘Ghost Town’ that Never Gave Up the Ghost“). The Owyhees were named for a trio of native Hawai’ian trappers, working for the Hudson Bay Company, who disappeared in these mountains around 1820.  For my husband Keoni, a native Hawai’ian himself, this bit of history put an intriguing spin on our trip.

Spam-can cairn--an offering to Pele

Islanders use two words for giving directions: makai (toward the ocean) and mauka (toward the mountain), since pretty much anything on an island can be described within that frame of reference.  When I asked him if that’s why his “uncles” might have lost their way, he replied in Pidgin, “Bruddahs wen’ mauka, wen’ mauka… Stay los’!”  Joking that our trip might double as a search-and-rescue, we armed ourselves with an offeratory can of Spam, which these days is a favorite food in Hawai’i (you can order Spam & eggs at McDonald’s there).

He had another mission as well: looking for rounded rocks of pahoehoe lava (what we “here in America” would call vesicular basalt), which he plans use to line an imu, the traditional pit for roasting a whole pig.  Our overnight bag and camera bag rode in the back seat, the car-trunk kept free for his boulder collection.

On his native turf, however, he would never remove volcanic rock without making a return offering to the volcano goddess Pele–traditionally a cairn of rocks with fresh fruit or flowers or a bottle of liquor.  It’s a custom he takes seriously, although with his own touch of humor–there have probably been some hikers in the Owyhees who are still puzzled about the Spam-can-topped cairn they ran across…

It’s not the only cultural custom he still practices, some of them adjusted with a modern twist.  He was taught not to sweep after dark (because it brings bad spirits into the house)–so he only vacuums during daylight hours. If something gets spilled or broken at night, it stays put until morning when he’s willing to get out the vacuum. Same thing with whistling in the house–not after dark.  He doesn’t shake hands when he greets someone he knows, or even meets someone new–he embraces them, with an intake of breath as the “exchange of breath” that’s part of the cultural greeting. The word aloha literally means “exchange of breath.”

Another interesting linguistic side-note…  The Hawai’ian word haole is used now to refer to white people, but it literally means “without breath.” (And no, it’s not a compliment.) When the Islanders attempted to welcome newly arrived missionaries with their traditional greeting–the embrace and exchange of breath–the prudish new arrivals recoiled from the nearly-naked natives and refused to hug…  So the Hawai’ians assumed they had no breath to exchange.

card shark tattoo

Keoni's "card shark" tattoo--Mano protecting against the "Suicide King"

Another cultural element about which he feels strongly is the ‘aumakua, or guardian spirit in animal form. His family’s ‘aumakua is Mano, the shark, and several of his tattoos include Mano as a symbol of protection.  The King of Hearts card (often called the “suicide king” because of the dagger he’s holding to his head) is eclipsed by a fiercely protective white shark–his guardian against any return to that dark place where suicide seemed the only out. A traditional Maori tribal representation of a hammerhead is swimming up the side of his neck, a design gifted to him from a Tongan family who used to eat regularly at our Hawai’ian restaurant. He added this one after talking with his grandfather in a dream–Tutu Pa suggested he put Mano on his neck rather than put a rope around it ever again.

I wrote in an earlier post about Owls crossing my path until I recognized them as my own ‘aumakua (or totem, or whatever Irish word would better fit my own heritage–owls are totems in Celtic culture too). Interestingly enough, my sister responded to that post by emailing that she’s been developing an affinity for owls over the last year as well. I don’t believe in coincidence.

owl goddessOn this particular road-trip, as we were returning from the Owyhees with a trunk full of volcanic rocks, we passed a large white owl, dead in the middle of the road.  It didn’t look as though it had been hit or run over–just dead on the center line.

As we drove for another moment in silence, I was just feeling all kinds of wrong about leaving that owl dead in the road. Like dragging an American flag on the ground or stepping on a consecrated communion wafer, rolled into one. Keoni was watching me, and without a word, he swung the car around in a U-turn and headed back. Without a word, I grinned at him in relief.

I thought he would pull over so I could run out for it, but instead he slowed in the empty highway, opened the driver-side door, and lofted the owl onto my sandaled feet. Its feathers were warm from the sun. When we got to a pull-out, we carefully tucked it among the pahoehoe rocks in the trunk and nosed the car back in the direction of home. Not five minutes later, we passed another untouched dead owl, this time on the side of the road. And within another five minutes, another owl.

three owlsSo we arrived home with not one, but three white owls in our trunk. Arranging an appropriate owl-burial took priority over the other unpacking, so Keoni dug a hole in our garden and we solemnly interred our owls. With an offeratory Spam sandwich (extra mayo) and a cup of soda (liquor would be more traditional–but we’re both recovering alcoholics) and some quiet words of respect.

I see public buildings with plastic owls on top to “guard” against pigeons. Well, the guardians of our home are the three white owls in our garden. Or perhaps now it’s a guarden.


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