Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bit by Bit

I have a confession.  Sometimes we forget that we are off-grid.  We leave a light on here and a printer on there.  We stand with the fridge door open and leave the tumbler (for cleaning brass) on all night.  And then the days shorten and the skies become cloudy, hampering our ability to produce electricity and charge batteries.  At first, we don't notice but go on living the electrical high life.  Then, suddenly, seemingly without warning, we are thrust into utter darkness.  Our batteries are exhausted and we are rudely awakened to the fact that we are, indeed, an off-grid family.

Over the years, our electrical usage has increased bit by bit.  When we first wired our "shouse" to generator power we were thrilled with one fluorescent light fixture.  Of course a second light followed the first and soon our home was flooded with light.  What a wonder!

After adding a few solar panels, we thought we had it made.  We bought a computer and hooked up a printer.  We would turn it on for special occasions but were careful never to leave it on for long.  A television, dvd player and electric tea kettle followed.  Soon, a microwave found a home in our kitchen, as did a Bosch mixer, a grain grinder and a blender.

Eventually, we put in a large solar array and were quite positive that we would never be able to use as much power as we generated.  We started behaving like normal people, having every room in the house lit, leaving the computer on all day and watching movies whenever we wanted to.

But alas, it was not to last.  We found, that although we do make a lot power (at least in the summertime), we have become complacent with our conservation.  We now use more power than we make.  To make matters worse, our battery bank is aging and no longer has the capacity to store the power that we do make.  Rolling blackouts have now become our new reality.

There is a silver lining in our situation.  We are being reminded that we off the grid.  We are reevaluating our priorities and bringing our electrical usage back into line with the amount of electricity we can realistically produce and store.  We are turning off lights, shutting down the computer and not watching movies.  

It is amazing how things creep up on you.  We have found that we really have to be disciplined in all areas of our lives.  If we make more power, we will use more power.  If we make more money, we will spend more money.  Bad habits begin in little, easily excused ways, but little by little, they take over our lives and eventually thrust us into darkness.

And so, we will once again use only the power that we can make.  We will tighten our belts and remember that we are "off-the-grid".

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rendering Bear Fat

Last week, my industrious friend Lady Day invited me to spend a day at her home rendering the fat from two bear their family recently "harvested".  I have no idea if the layer of fat on these wee beasties is at all indicative of the winter we will have, but they were both rather roly poly - one yielded 30 pounds of fat and the other (a much smaller bear) yielded an additional 15 pounds.

The important thing to remember when you are butchering an animal with the intent to render the fat is to allow the fat to congeal before you attempt  to remove it from the carcass.  If you don't give the fat time to cool it will be an oozy gooey mess you won't soon forget.  You can remove the fat from the animal in large chunks and put it in the freezer until you are ready to render.  This is especially useful if you will have multiple animals from which to render fat - you might as well save it and do it all at once.

To begin the rendering process, cut the fat up into roughly 1" to 1 1/2" squares.  Make sure that you don't leave any hair in the fat (you want high quality oil, after all).  Fill a large stock pot (or two or three, depending on how much fat you have to render) about 1/4 to 1/3 full.  Rending fat will splatter so you don't fill your pot too full.  If you are using a conventional stove you don't want to deal with the mess and if you are using your wood cookstove (as we did) you don't want to start a fire.
Fat cut into chunks
Pots on high on the wood cookstove
Fat beginning to melt
Cracklings beginning to brown
Ready to strain
Turn your burner on high (or get your wood box filled and cranking out heat) and put your stock pot(s) over the hot spot.  Stir occasionally.  You really don't have to stir very often, just enough to keep the fat from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

As the fat begins to melt, the chunks will grow smaller and begin to brown.  These are the cracklings (you know, the ones that Laura talked about in the Little House on the Prairie books).  Some folks like them sprinkled with a little bit of salt and other people use them to flavor soup or corn bread.  If you have no taste for cracklings your chickens will love them.
Removing the cracklings from the oil
Straining the oil and pouring it into jars for canning
After the cracklings are quite brown but not burned and your pot is rather heavy with oil it is time to strain the fat into canning jars.  Take the pot off the stove and remove the cracklings with a slotted spoon.  When you have removed most of the big chunks (cracklings) you can then strain the oil through a fine, mesh strainer or a couple of layers of fine cheesecloth.

After the fat has been poured into sterilized jars, cap them off and put them in your water bath canner and process for 20 minutes.  That's it!  That is all there is to rendering fat.
A large roasting pan full of cracklings
Ready to use in place of shortening
You can now use your rendered fat in multiple ways.  You can use it in place of vegetable oil in recipes.  You can use it as frying oil.  You can let it harden and use it in place of shortening in biscuits, pie crust or whatever you need it for.  If your fat is particularly white and without sludge, you can use it in your soap making (although tallow (the fat around the kidneys) is best for this.

Rendering is a skill that every homesteader/prepper should know.  It takes little time and the oil that is produced is worth its weight in gold.

*Please excuse the pictures - I took them on my phone!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Symptoms of a Wasting Disease

As I watched the comments roll in on the subject of government funded welfare I realized that the willingness to accept government assistance was indicative of a fundamentally more destructive epidemic.  We are a people that have become more concerned with our personal comfort and safety than we are with protecting our most sacred ideals.  We have lost our vision.

Every great nation in history has been founded on ideals.  The United States was born in the minds of men long before the Revolutionary War was fought.  The actual war was merely the physical manifestation of the convictions held by men intent on securing their freedom.  Not only did our fore-bearers put their lives on the line for an ideal, they also scarified their fortunes.  They saw past their own finite lives into the future of a nation.  They believed that the ideals they held dear were more sacred than their money, their lives and even their families.  They understood that men were created to live for something greater than themselves.

Welfare, WIC, SNAP programs, School lunches - they are only symptoms - symptoms of a wasting disease in the souls of men.  Men are losing their vision.  They are serving themselves before all others.  No longer are men willing to stand on principle, regardless of the cost.  They cast blame, make excuses and cower in the face of opposition.

The remnant that does retain their vision are marginalized.  They are mocked, ridiculed and labeled "Judgmental".   Those who choose not to comprise their principles are seen as "unenlightened" and "uneducated".  They are viewed as selfish.

Here's the rub - YOU are responsible for your own decisions.  Stand or fall - it's all you.  Someday, you will have to kneel before your maker.  You will have to answer for your life.  You won't be able to play the "he made me do it" card, the "it was too hard" excuse or say "I had to deny you, or they were going to kill me".  You have to stand - now.  You have to live for something bigger than yourself.

Our country is a nation of vision.  We have to get past our own circumstances and see the bigger picture.  We only have one chance to get it right.  Hold the line, people - hold the line.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Shame of a Nation

I came across a news article that touted the United States as a "Food Stamp Nation".  I know that in recent years food stamp usage has soared, but a food stamp nation?  In America?  It couldn't be true!

I stared in disbelief as I read the article before me.  44 MILLION people in the United States accept food stamps.  Another 9.3 MILLION accept WIC.  What has this nation come to?

When I was growing up, accepting "Food Stamps" was shameful.  Men would rather dig ditches or shovel manure than see their family pay for food with government issued stamps.  And it wasn't just pride that kept these men from accepting charity, it was a matter of freedom and justice.  Free men don't stand in lines waiting for their daily bread, slaves do.  Free men don't depend on someone else's benevolence to provide for their family, slaves do.  Free men don't wait for others to direct their lives, slaves do.

This was once a nation of free men.  In fact, freedom was so coveted that men gave up their lands, their families, and their sacred honor just to secure it.  They fought to be beholden to no man.  They shunned charity and embraced their role as provider.

We are the descendants of nation builders.  The men and women whose blood fertilized this land built cities, traversed continents and founded institutions.  They bled, they fought and they persevered.  They left their nation a better place than they found it.  They were builders.

What is our legacy?  Ours is a legacy of destruction. We take, we plunder, we destroy.  The children of nation builders have become the children of destruction.  Not only can we not build a great nation, we can't even feed our own families.  Rather than caring for our families and those less fortunate, we allow the strong arm of the government to steal money from our neighbors, all the while bemoaning OUR victim status.

Shame on us!  Are we a country of free men or a country of slaves?  Free men get off their duffs and do the hard things.  Free men are willing to suffer in order to build something worth building.  Free men realize that the borrower is always slave to the lender.

The truth of the matter is it is not and never was the responsibility of the federal government to provide charity.  That responsibility rests squarely on the churches and citizens shoulders.  There is no denying that people do need help from time to time, however, they are best served by help administered with accountability.

We need to become a nation of builders once again.  Let's not leave a legacy of destruction for our children's children.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Harnessing Suffering

Not to long ago, as my folks were cleaning out the dark recesses of a tumbledown building on their property, they came across what remained of an old, homemade harness.  This was not an ordinary harness, used for beasts of burden, rather it was a harness fashioned by my fathers hands, for the exclusive use of my mother.  Yes, you read that right.  My parents came across the remnants of a harness that my father had built to be worn by my mother.

Many moons ago, when I was a little girl, my parents moved from their comfortable life on an island outside of Seattle, to the outbacks of the American Redoubt.  They bought 25 acres of raw land that boasted two creeks an abundant spring and a quirky bridge.  Truth be told, they hadn't even seen the land itself - when they purchased their dream (on nothing more than a handshake), the property was under 3 feet of snow.

Hastily selling their island home, they loaded all of their earthly possessions into a 4 horse trailer (built by my fathers shop class) and bravely forged a new life.  Although they bought their land outright, there was no infrastructure in place.  Power lines, septic systems and water lines had to be installed.  The well had to be developed, the property needed to be fenced and housing had to be secured.  All of this was to be accomplish before the winter snow flew, roughly 3 months.

The first few weeks living our outback adventure found us sleeping in a borrowed tent and taking baths in the creek.  We woke early (often to frozen ground, even in the middle of July) and filled our days with domesticating our new environment.  My brother and I piled branches and other debris on towering burn piles, pulled obnoxious, persistent thistles and caught crawdads in the creeks.  As we were playing/working, my parents were about the business of preparing a home for their family.  My dad hand-dug our well, lined it with cedar boards and filled it with drain rock.  They used shovels to trench a line from the spring to the location of our "someday" house.  Dad "borrowed" a trackhoe and dug a hole for the septic tank, along with trenches for a drain field.  They laid pipe and spread drain rock - and that is where the harness came in.

My parents couldn't afford to hire someone to come in and install a septic system.  My dad had enough knowledge to put one in, so they opted for that course of action.  They dug the holes, had a septic tank placed, but still needed to move a HUGE amount of drain rock for the drain field.  At first, they tried just using the wheelbarrow.  What they found was, that once loaded with rock, it was too heavy for one person to move.  And so, Dad gathered together some rope and fashioned a harness that could be hooked to the front of the wheelbarrow.  With mom pulling and dad pushing they could move load after load of rock from the pile to the drain field.  After blisters, sores and exhaustion, the job was done.  At a great cost to themselves, they had accomplished the extraordinary - building their dream, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load.

I find it interesting that modern people tend to believe that suffering is something to be avoided at all costs.  Our entire political system revolves around the concept that no one should have to suffer.  We seem to believe that suffering produces bad fruit.  If children are allowed to suffer, they will become criminals or psychopaths.  If adult have to suffer, they will become abusers - of drugs, alcohol or children.  Our entire society is entrenched in the belief that suffering is bad, therefore we have to do everything within our power to eradicate it.

However, that is a lie.  Suffering can be a gift from God.  It can produce character in our lives that nothing else has the capacity to.  Suffering can bind us to the people that we love, it can serve as an investment in our future.  In suffering to provide for their family, my parents gave a part of themselves, and in doing so, they invested in our family and in our land.  Their blood, sweat and toil sustained us - their suffering became the glue that held our family together.   They went without so they could provide for us.  Through their actions, we learned that, although unpleasant, suffering wrought the fruit of gratefulness, humility and patience.

My parents helped shape the way that I view the world.  I don't like to suffer.  I don't like to see other people suffer.  But I do see the value of suffering.  I realize that only through suffering can God mold us into the image of His son.  Only through suffering can we become truly grateful.  Only through suffering can we truly empathize with others.  Only through suffering can we build something lasting, something great.

My mothers harness now hangs in a place of honor.  It is a reminder of what it is like to suffer.  But much more than that, it is a reminder of the blessings that come from suffering.

Don't be afraid to suffer.  Get your hands dirty.  Go without.  Tell your children no.  Prepare them to step, undaunted into the future.  Teach your children that it is O.K. to suffer - they and you - will be better for it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Comfort of Winter Dinners

As the air chills and the fires crackle, I love nothing more than settling in to our wonderful winter menu.  Beef roasts, roast chickens and hams send their heavenly scent throughout our little shouse and minister not only to our bodies but also to our souls.  Mashed potatoes, gravy, fresh rolls and any number of vegetables round out our simple feasts.  Oh, there is nothing to compare with a meal prepared by loving hands for the delight of a waiting family!

One of our favorite winter meals consists of pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits (and a veg on the side, for good measure).  When I was a girl, my mother always served pork chops baked atop escalloped potatoes.  They were delicious and creamy - rarely were any left over to enjoy later.  For the first couple of years of marriage, I served pork chops just like my mother, however, my husband, not being fond of escalloped potatoes, wasn't particularly enamored with this meal.  And so, for our family, pork chops became a thing of the past.

One day, as I was frugally shopping for our monthly groceries, I noticed that pork chops were on sale and thought that just one more pork chop dinner could be in our future.  Remembering my Aunt Anita's method of cooking pork chops, I thought I would give it a try.  She dredged her pork chops in flour seasoned with salt and pepper and quickly browned them in a bit of butter.  After browning both sides, she poured water over the chops, covered the frying pan with a lid and simmered the whole lot for about 3 hours.  She added water from time to time and by the time the pork chops were done, there was a thick, flavorful broth just waiting to be turned into gravy.
Flour-dredged pork chops with sliced onions
Water added
Simmering away
The savory makings of gravy
Princess Dragon Snack mixing roux
Adding roux to the broth
Adding milk to thin gravy
Rich, savory gravy

I tried out my newly remembered recipe, adding a sliced onion to the pork chops and water and oh, my goodness - what a feast!  After the chops were done, I removed them to a serving platter, mixed a roux (water and flour, mixed into a thick soup), poured it into the liquid left in the pan and heated it to make a flavorful, thick gravy.  Mashed potatoes, corn and biscuits filled out the meal.  To say that Sir Knight approved is putting it lightly.  Pork chops once again graced our winter menu!

Pork chops and wood cookstoves are a match made in heaven.  Your cast iron skillet (with lid) and your wood cookstove work in concert to create the perfect "slow cooker".  Your pork chop dinner will bubble away on the cookstove as you go about your day and culminate in a perfect winter feast.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reloading in the Living Room

Over 20 years ago Sir Knight invested in one of our first survival tools (without even realizing it at the time) - a Dillon Progressive Reloading Press, an RL550B, to be precise.    We set it up in a seldom used room in our suburban home and Sir Knight put it through its paces.  Soon, 9mm and .223/5.56 filled every available ammo can and threatened to take over our living area.

Originally, Sir Knight made the investment in his Dillon Press so that he could shoot reloaded ammunition for practice and save our factory ammunition for "good".  The theory was that the factory ammunition was sealed and consequently more moisture resistant than what we could reload (the primers and bullets are sealed in mil spec ammunition), therefore it was prudent to save those and use our reloaded ammo.

Rather than a drudgery, reloading became an anticipated hobby.  .308/7.62x51, 45ACP, 45 Colt (also known by the slang "long colt", given to it by the soldiers of the day so not to confuse it with .45 Smith & Wesson (a shorter cartridge), and 300 Winchester Magnum soon joined the 9mm and .223.  Our home became a regular ammunition factory.  It wasn't the least bit unusual to come home to the gentle hum of the case cleaner putting the final shine on a load of dirty brass.
Installing the press in our living room
Help from Miss Serenity

Back when we started reloading it was far more cost effective than purchasing new ammunition.  Over the years, as the cost of ammo has increased, the cost of reloading components has increased exponentially and the bureaucracy has become more and more off-putting (you now have to pay hazardous material fees for both primers and powder (when ordering online), not to mention that they cannot ship together, which also increases the costs.  It is interesting to note that loaded ammunition is NOT considered that hazardous and can ship ORM-D (although not through the United States Post Office - don't even try!).

Now, rather than a cost saving effort (although it is cost effective in most cases), we reload because it is a necessary survival/preparedness skill.  In addition to the survival aspect, we can also reload match ammunition far cheaper than we can purchase its equivalent.  Reloading exotic calibers (300 H&H, 300 Win Mag, 338 Edge, so on and so on) is much less expensive than purchasing factory ammunition.
Removing .45 Colt conversion from press
Putting .45 Colt tool head on its stand
Shell plate for 9mm
Installing 9mm shell plate
9mm conversion installed
When Sir Knight was researching reloading presses, he came across the Dillon Precision Progressive press.  Although far more expensive than a single stage press, the Dillon was capable of reloading speeds of up to 500 rounds an hour (we have loaded pistol ammunition at this rate).  From a mechanics point of view (Sir Knight), it is one of the finest engineered pieces of equipment we have ever owned.  Dillon's "No BS Warranty" is truly that - no BS.   Sir Knight has accidentally broken several items on his press (due to operator error) and called to purchase new parts only to be informed that the parts were in the mail and "No, you can't pay for them".  They arrived within 2 days, UPS.  
Checking proper load for 9mm with both a reloading manual and internet source
Filling the powder measurer
Picking up primers off the flip tray
Brass in the first stage
One pull and one push - the brass in the first stage gets resized, de-capped
(old primer removed), and the push seats the new primer
Advance the press and install brass in the first stage again
The brass in the second stage receives the powder charge and the case is
slightly belled to allow easier bullet installation in the third stage
Check your powder weight (according to your reloading manual)
The third stage receives the projectile (bullet)
The projectile is seated in the third stage
The fourth stage installs a taper crimp
Check the overall length against your reloading guide
Recently, our Dillon press moved into the living room (all the guys love that).  For the past 12 years, our press has been housed, rather unceremoniously, in our 40 foot container.  Sir Knight and his friends used it from time to time, but it didn't see the action that it had in years past, due to the fact that it was inconvenient - too hot, too cold or just plain inaccessible.  Finally, after years of neglect, we moved our trusty press into the house and it resumed a place of honor.  Oh, we are excited!

Survival equipment is nothing short of an investment.  The Dillon Progressive  has proven to this family to be worth its weight in gold.  It is most definitely a worthy preparedness investment.

Sir Knight's Reloading "Bullet" Points

  • This is not a "how to" reloading post.  This is a basic pictorial featuring the Dillon RL550-B.
  • Using a progressive press is an advanced reloading skill.  Do your research before purchasing and using one.
  • The reason I chose the RL550-B were the mechanical advances on the turntable (you turn it by hand, it does not automatically turn).  There is a feel to using a progressive press.  Once you have used one, you will understand what I am talking about.  If something "feels" wrong, you can stop what you are doing and check the cases in the cases without the press advancing automatically. 
  • I have reloaded close to 20,000 rounds with this press.  Other than routine maintenance and cleaning, I can found no wear at all in this press to date.   
  • Full Disclosure:  I have used this Dillon Press for over 20 years.  We have received no money to do this post.  The only thing we have received from Dillon Precision was excellent customer service.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Off-Grid Ingenuity - Toast on the Wood Cookstove

O.K., I'll admit it.  I'm a little slow.  For the past 15 years, I have been making toast in my wood cookstove oven.  Well, it can't really be classified as toast - more like razor sharp slabs of bread - but I call it toast, nonetheless.

The thing with wood cookstove toast is that by the time it is nicely browned, it is dried out, hard and brittle.  Eating wood cookstove toast is an explosive experience.  By an explosive experience, I mean that when you take a bite, your toast explodes into a million microscopic crumbs.  Due to the fact that I am an unapologetic toast lover, I overlooked the wood cookstove's toast deficit and assumed that I would eat dry, hard toast for the rest of my days.

And then I had a rather illuminating conversation with my mother.  We were waxing eloquent about the charms of our cookstoves and how pleased we were that the weather had turned, allowing us to fire off our beloved stoves.  We talked about all of the things we missed about our wood cookstoves during the hot summer months - things like putting food in the warming oven while we finished cooking so that everything was delivered to the table hot and always having warm plates (out of the warming oven) with which to set the table.  And then my mom said something that caught my attention - she said she missed browning hamburger buns on the top of the cookstove.  She opined that there was nothing as perfect as a bun, buttered and placed on a piece of aluminum foil to brown to perfection on her wood cookstove surface.

Really?  She has been toasting hamburger buns to perfection on the top of her stove for all these years while I have been eating toast that is roughly the same consistency as croutons?  Oh, the inhumanities!

Of course I had to put my new found knowledge to the test immediately!  I placed a piece of tinfoil (I assume you could use a thin cookie sheet also) over the medium/high setting (almost over the wood box) on my cookstove, placed three slices of bread on the foil and let the stove do its magic.  Almost immediately the toast began to brown.  I moved it around a bit (to make sure the bread was evenly browned) and turned it over a couple of times.  It only took a few minutes (rather than the 15 minutes, at least, that it takes in a hot oven) and, oh, my goodness, it was wonderful!  No more hard, dry, crumbly toast for me!  Now I can enjoy perfectly browned, yet tender, toast every morning with my tea, all because of my mothers Off-Grid Ingenuity!
Slices of bread placed on tinfoil over the wood box
Browning nicely!