Smoke gets in our lives

When we left Montana in early September, smoke from local and regional forest fires was thick, for the second summer in a row.

My tomatoes hung, unripe, on their bushes, a disappointing reminder of how little direct sun we had received this year. Dips in the lake were always accompanied by the throb of helicopters and light aircraft overhead.

The sorrow of losing the last bluebird days of summer to smog was nothing compared to the suffering of those who couldn’t go outside because of compromised lung function [there’s a few of them in Lincoln County because of a vermiculite mine that operated in Libby in the 70’s and 80’s].

When we returned to Australia a few weeks ago, we returned to smoke from bushfires. The Yankees Gap fire – a highly unusual winter fire which started last month and has burnt for over 30 days, flared up again on the day of our welcome-back picnic at Kianninny bay, driven by strong warm winds.

It’s unsurprising, given how dry it is, especially for this time of year [you can read my first impressions of arriving home to drought here]

When my brother drove us from Canberra to my parent’s place in rural NSW for the first time, the dry was evident, especially after living in the relatively wet and green forests of northwestern Montana.

As Laurie drove us closer to mum and dad’s house, along their dirt track driveway, and saw the bush full of tall, dead wattles draped in long strands of crackly bark, I said: “you know what this place needs?”.

My brother and I looked at each other and at the tinderbox out the car windows and said in unison “a good fire.”

Despite summer after summer of preparation for the inevitable, for over 30 years the bush around my parent’s place has never burnt. Perhaps this will be the year.

In many ways, in Montana and in the Bega Valley, it’s the same story. A noticeable increase in the frequency of wildfires year by year. An increase in how hot each fire burns, and in how long it’s out of control for – and in how many structures are lost.

But the narrative I hear about wildfire is vastly different in each country, in each place. Here on the far south coast of NSW, a dominant narrative is about human-induced climate change – words that are never spoken in rural Montana.

Instead, the narrative in conservative Montana is that because environmentalists [often presumed to live elsewhere/in California] have held up logging operations with litigation, causing economic decline, the loss of a beloved timber industry and now ever-worsening wildfires.

A Facebook post that circulated a month ago showed the rage felt by some rural Montanans towards this “other”: “…. all you environmentalists that wanted to save our forests up here, I’m inviting you to live in what we have to now, you think air pollution is bad right now where you are? Let me tell you, when you can smell smoke from your basement, and you have ash raining down on you on a daily basis, then we can talk. I invite you to our state of Montana, so you can see what your responsible for. You might think lightning is responsible, but in all reality it’s your ignorant thought processes that hold up timber sales and logging in litigation that leads to disasters like this.”

Ironically, the environmentalists living in California and trying to stop logging in the north-west are living in a state that has had a hell of a fire season for the last few years, so it’s safe to say that smoke gets in their eyes too.

In the last few days, firefighters have finally contained the Mendocino fire, the largest and longest burning fire in California’s history. The blaze has killed a firefighter, destroyed 280 structures and covered an area about the same the size as California’s beloved sprawling city, Los Angles.

While everyone looks for someone to blame for the increase out-of-control wildfires, one thing is clear: the fires affect everyone, rich and poor. While money, to some extent, can provide an escape, our recent global trip showed a sameness about this year’s extreme heat and dry that is unavoidable.

A quick peek in the Guardian this morning confirmed the global nature of this year’s heat – Africa recorded it’s hottest ever temperature [of 51. 3C! that’s 123 F] at a weather station in the Sahara desert, and Sweden, a country which usually experiences an average of three wildfires in a summer, has had over 50 this year.

While global warming is certainly implicated, other weather factors, such as a weak jet stream [a core wind pattern that moves weather around the globe] and changes to sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic [known as the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation] are at play as well.

[Thanks to Simon at simonsweather.org who first explained these concepts to me].

The Facebook post which circulated this summer in Montana ends cheerfully and with an admirable maturity level: “We as Montanan’s, and I as well, think I can say this for the entire state to personally hold you responsible for what our living conditions are. And you wonder why we don’t like you!

On the subject of heat and fire, it’s clear that my Montana community is not alone in searching for someone or something to blame.

But we must think globally on this one – humans don’t like extreme heat and dry and we don’t like how accustomed to the milky blue haze we are becoming.

Smoke is in our lives and it makes us all anxious, searching for an escape route, or an escape goat, or a scapegoat.  Like the animals we are.

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Smoky goodbye party at beautiful Milnor Lake, Troy, Montana. Late August 2018.

 

 

 

 

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Bear dogs – a boon to a recovering grizzly population?

Living in northwest Montana, there are times I feel nervous hiking or berry picking in bear country.

So often I’ve thought: there’s got to be a better solution to my nerves than clutching bear spray as I round every corner and singing Madonna songs at full volume to try to prevent surprising a bear.

The risks of being attacked by a bear are low, but the stakes are high.

Early this spring, a woman working as a field assistant for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in a grizzly bear research program was mauled in the woods near our neighbouring town, Libby. The organization issued a news release yesterday about the attack, which confirms that the bear was an adult grizzly bear.

According to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, an estimated 50,000 to 1000,000 grizzlies lived in the lower 48 alongside native Americans. But with the arrival of white folks with firearms, the population plummeted to less than 1000 by 1975, when the species was declared threatened.

Grizzlies are still threatened but in recovery in our area, and locals are still practising doing something we’ve never done before – live with these large predators without killing them when our lives overlap too much.

But how?

I went to our family friend Sierra Owen’s place property in the lower Yaak yesterday to find out more about how she spends hundreds of hours working and playing in the woods free from worry about predators.

Sierra’s predator solution was staring me in the face as soon as I pulled up in her driveway. Four large, incredibly fluffy dogs calmly surrounded the car, not barking or moving.

Their mane-rimmed blunt faces and solemn eyes reminded me of lions.

“The dogs are Ovcharka breed,” Sierra told me as she finished her morning chores, which included a changing of the dogs, kenneling some and letting others out [there are  seven total] “they are an ancient breed – the Persians used them as war dogs – but they were originally bred by shepherds who were dealing with lots of predators, especially wolves.”

Ovcharkas are not herding dogs, Sierra explained, but the dogs will run the perimeter of their territory, catching the wind and driving predators away with their “obnoxious” behaviour.

They also gravitate towards hills and high places, where they can watch and wait.

“When you see them with a bear, it’s amazing how fast they are for a large dog,” Sierra said, “they will circle the bear, nipping it on the butt until it is fed up and eventually moving it along.”

Looking into the dense, dark woods directly uphill from Sierra and her husband Odie’s property, and the area where they keep chickens, dog food and previously, pigs, [all bear attractants] I can see why they wanted to find a predator solution.

“Those woods are a corridor between the second largest and the largest roadless areas in the Yaak,” Sierra said “before we had the dogs, I had no idea how many predators moved through there, but now we have the dogs and we can hear when they have something, we know it’s a highway.”

Sierra and her family – which includes son Diamond and daughter Bella – got their first Ovcharka seven years ago when wolves started coming into her yard to hunt their piglets, and her two Australian Shepards would “hide under the porch,” Sierra laughed.

[What can I say? we Aussies are just not accustomed to living with predators!]

“We were looking for a match for wolves initially,” Sierra said “and our first Ovcharka, Atta, did a great job keeping them at bay. But watching her chase them out over and over, we realized – it’s a big job for one dog.”

As their Ovcharka family grew, and they moved into breeding the dogs [check out their website] Sierra and Odie have had several close encounters with predators which have confirmed their faith in the dogs.

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“A few years ago, we had an older grizzly bear take one of our piglets,” Sierra said “our electric fencing was not high enough, and he just stepped over it before the dogs could even smell him. It was Ares’ only failure [not to smell the bear before it entered the pig pen].”

When the dogs did get wind of the bear, eating his pork in the nearby woods, they pursued him. Meanwhile, Odie and Diamond grabbed shotguns and ran outside, as they had a black bear tag [which means you are allowed to hunt one bear in a particular season].

Odie and Diamond were already too close before realizing they were not dealing with a milder mannered black bear, but a huge, old grizzly bear, who was defending his kill.

“The bear charged Odie, and Ares got between them” Sierra recalled, “Odie told Diamond to get the hell out of there and tried to retreat himself.”

Ares managed to distract the bear and run it into the woods, and the family sought assistance from Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who came to trap the bear.

After the bear was released in a nearby drainage, Sierra half expected it to return.

“But it never did,” she said, “I think this is the best thing about Ovcharkas – they’re not only a deterrent, but it’s enough of a negative experience that even problem predators often don’t return.”

Ares may have saved Odie’s life, but he also saved another life – that of the bear.

Once bears have a taste for livestock, garbage or other food sources, it can be impossible to keep them out, and the bear may end up being euthanized.

Sierra has worked for local non-profit Yaak Valley Forest Council since 2004 as a seasonal field technician, and she told me she and her colleagues never go out alone.

But having her dog Ares along when she’s at work results in the whole crew feeling safer, she said, and the benefits of a bear dog on the crew have been demonstrated several times.

“I’m still alert, but I ultimately feel that it’s not my job to identify when there is a predator in the vicinity,” Sierra explained, “I know that Ares will find it before I do and that he knows what to do.”

Although Sierra trains her dogs in basic commands, the behaviour that Ares displays when he comes up against a predator is not the result of training but is an innate quality, the result of years of breeding.

bella

Last week, Sierra and her two colleagues were collecting data in the woods when “I heard Ares on the creek bottom doing this crazy barking – different to when he has a bear – and when he came back up the hill, hot on his heels was a full-grown grey wolf,” Sierra told me.

On reflection, Sierra thinks it may have been the wolf barking, not Ares.

“He [Ares] had obviously been scrapping – he wasn’t hurt, but his fur was ruffled and he was covered in slobber,” Sierra continued.

The wolf retreated, and the cool-headed crew continued their work, but soon found they were surrounded by the pack, who were barking “just like my dogs when something comes in the yard,” Sierra said.

The crew decided to move to the next drainage, and the wolves “basically escorted us out” Sierra said, noting that her dog kept close, ready for action but not provoking the wolves.

When the crew consulted a wolf biologist about the incident, she said there was almost certainly a den of puppies the wolves were protecting.

Sierra, along with many who work in the woods they love, is a conservationist at heart and said she believes it is her responsibility to manage her livestock and other bear attractants. “It’s not that the predators are bad for wanting to eat,” she laughed, “if we wanted to never deal with predators we would live in Kansas!”

But when humans and predators are sharing space, having a tool like an Ovcharka could be the key to minimizing human-bear conflicts and preventing situations like the mauling of a Fish, Wildlife and Parks employee on the job.

The reason U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service allowed researchers to hike alone in known bear habitat was likely budget, but if they are not in a position to pay another employee $15 an hour, then maybe a dog at a one-off cost of $2000 plus food and board could be a good comprise.

It’s best for us to avoid surprise encounters. And it’s best for the bears.

Plus, these dogs are mighty cute! check out Sierra and Odie’s website for info about their next planned breeding.

cuddle

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The glut – morel season

 

One of the things that blows my mind about this part of the world – north-west Montana – is how much food people forage, hunt and preserve.

Australia has wild food too, enough to sustain indigenous people for 60,000 years, but aside from the obvious – seafood and game meat [yes, kangaroo!] – bush food is more subtle than the dripping berry bushes we see here in the summer.

Or maybe bush food is just less in line with modern tastes, so fewer people utilize it.

We went mushroom picking yesterday, and this morning I woke up to the funky, sweet smell of morel mushrooms drying in the dehydrator.

Morels are wild mushrooms that appear mostly in low-intensity fire sites in the spring. I’d never done any serious mushroom picking until yesterday, and my only experience with morels was that some friends gave us some dried morels a few years ago.

Because we had them, I threw a handful in a soup or stew every now and again, not really believing that the grey, dry, unscented pieces of mushroom would contribute anything to the dish.

It took me quite a few stews to realize that the elusive funky flavour was the dried morels.

I don’t actually like the smell of drying morels. It’s pretty cloying. But morels are like fish sauce, or dried shrimp – when I smell them cooking, it’s not good – but the flavour in a finished dish is somehow different, and welcome.

Knowing that it’s not unusual for people to find fields of morels, and come back with gallons of mushrooms, we took plenty of bags, and set off into some dense burn area alongside a creek and beside a logging unit.

Our kids are 3 and 6 now and can hike a few miles, and we also had my mum with us, visiting from Australia.

mum 2

Our area had some widespread wildfire last year, and the Forest Service opened up parts of the burn area to commercial mushroom pickers, so most of the burnt forest had already been canvassed – we could see clusters of hollow white morel stems under trees, cut with a knife.

No wonder the pickers had picked it over – morels are hard, if not impossible, to cultivate, so wild, foraged mushrooms are the bulk of the market, and fresh morels sell for anything between $50 to $150 a pound.

We traipsed on, over fallen, charred trees. The ground, burnt so hard, was down to clay, and after spring rainstorms, was very slippery [In Montana, we would say “slick”].

And then we found one small morel and another. The further from the road we got, the more we found, and the closer we looked, the more we stopped, the more we could spot them, the caps disguised as pinecones.

 

I was actually relieved we didn’t come into a glut of mushrooms, but rather, one or three here and there – this year, we are heading back to Australia in September, just before the major harvest/preserving/hunting season begins, and I’m being careful to whittle away at our food supplies, not build them up.

But it feels strange to go against the grain of the season – to harvest the glut, and put it away to provide a small comfort in February when nothing grows, and it seems like nothing ever will again.

I guess the morel of the story is, use what’s right in front of you.

I know that when we go back to Australia, Haak and I will apply for the permit to kill and eat a kangaroo on my parent’s property, and when mango season comes around, I’ll buy a flat and freeze the cheeks to use in smoothies later.

There is still so much I have to learn about living in my own country and climate, but what I’ve learnt in Montana about freezing, drying, fermenting and canning food has made me see a glut as more than overwhelming – to see it as an opportunity, not to be wasted.

And I’ll be on hand for morel support for any Aussies who want to work the glut more, although we’re spoilt in having a continuous season – fresh lemons and greens in mid-winter!

***I just could not stop myself on the morel puns***

 

 

 

 

 

Summertime craziness

To understand the deepness of winter in North America, you must also understand the intensity of summer, as the two are always in tension:

For example, this weekend, we have the farmer’s market Friday evening, then we’re hosting a gig and party at our house. Saturday we have a picnic for the annual general meeting of a local non-profit. Sunday friends are arriving, and we already have my mum and another Aussie friend, Michael, visiting.

Just a normal, busy weekend, right? But every single weekend from June- August looks like that. And it’s in stark contrast to a grey, snowy weekend in late January when I am literally pacing our house, wondering if I should sort through our clothes again.

It’s not that you can’t do social things in winter.

It’s just that it’s dark at 4 pm and even if the day has been sunny, if it’s wet at all, the roads start to ice up as soon as darkness falls. Going out for a drink starts to look like less fun when you imagine the slow, nerve-wracking drive home, with a possible detour into a snow bank.

And so all of the big ticket social occasions happen in summer – weddings, family reunions, graduations: even funerals are sometimes put off until the spring for the convenience of travellers.

There’s a wild berry bush here known as serviceberry, which flowers early in the spring and then produces rather tasteless and mealy blue berries, loved by bears but not often eaten by humans.

Apparently, the reason for the name is that the bush flowers when the funeral services are held – when the ground was soft enough to bury those who had died over the winter and were kept frozen in the wash-house until the time came.

Because of the length and depth of winter, there is no growth for six months of the year. None. And so all the growing must happen in summer, and growth is fast, thick and incredibly verdant once it gets going.

Today, the first light was at 5:02 am and last light will be at 10:21 pm. 15 hours of grow time for my baby plants – no wonder the beans will seem to grow an inch overnight.

Three months is not long to fit in all the camping, hiking, gardening, food production, and outdoor projects in our lives, and the end result is a kind of frenetic breathlessness as we cram our days with tasks and try to sit out the yard with a beer at the end of the day as well.

Summer days here are stunning – beginning with cool [no, cold. It was 40 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, which is 4 degrees Celcius!] mornings with the incredible damp smell of cottonwood buds, reaching 80- 100 degrees and ending 15 hours later with the pink glow of sunset on the still snow covered mountains.

We are a few weeks away from summer heaven – when strawberries are still falling from bushes, cherries are reddening on trees and raspberries are abundant. This kind of luxurious, un-netted fruit harvest makes me realize the scale of Australian birds. I miss the noise of Aussie birds, so coarse and constant when I’m in Montana, but what a fight to harvest a berry!

In late August, we will be in full harvest in the garden, but simultaneously start watching the forecast for a frost and scurry around with frost cloth, hoping to ripen just one more pepper on the bush.

Then one day – bam! it’s over.

There’s a line in a Waif’s song [Vermillion] that I always think about at the end of summer: “She got old, she got idle as a picture/she died with the flowers in the fall.”

Seeing bright zinnias in their prime knocked down by an early frost is always sad. This year we’ll leave – maybe before that frost – and head straight into an Aussie summer.

It’s no secret that I don’t love winter in North America, but there is something wonderful about collapsing into a routine of cosy indoor time after a hard working, hot, activity-packed summer.

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The nearest thing

I saw an online article from my hometown newspaper, The Bega District News, this morning. “Police hunt for armed man,” was the headline, and the first sentence: “police are searching for a man believed to be armed with a knife and hammer.”

As I followed the story over the course of the day, a tragedy became clear – this man had fatally stabbed a woman and seriously injured another man.

But it’s terrible – my first response reading the headline was to laugh. A HAMMER???

I laugh because I’m so enculturated to Montana and the US now, that anything less than guns blazing seems like de nada.

The hammer detail reminds me of what I wrote about in All we have to do is nothing: kids having strong feelings and irrationally lashing out, with whatever’s closest to hand.

What’s at hand here in Montana is guns. The gun you see in this image I found on a friend’s porch a few weeks ago – the contrast of metal and the pretty cover was captivating, but the reason the gun was there pragmatic: it was on hand for shooting squirrels nesting under their house.

Around the same time I came across that gun, I went out for a short hike in a cedar forest with our family and Haakon’s parents. In the car park, as we gathered sweater’s and hat’s, as it is cool in the cedars, a young couple were also getting ready to hike.

The guy busied himself strapping a handgun to his right thigh while the woman put granola bars in her pockets.

These moments happen so often here that I’m almost used to them, but somewhere in the back of my mind, the Australian in me is still confused: why the gun to hike in a fairy-glen? For an instant, my mind jumps to the worst scenario: maybe he brought her here to kill her. Maybe he will kill us all.

This guy probably thought he was protecting himself, and others, against bears [and lions! wolves!]. The problem here is that HE knows he’s a good guy. HE knows he’s a good shot.

I have none of that information.

All I know is that he feels unsafe for some reason, amongst the giant trees, the ferns, the crystal clear creeks.

Study after study has shown human fatalities in bear attacks are lower when we carry pepper spray, not guns. Pepper spray has a wide range compared to a bullet and can spray up to 30 feet, so a panicked hiker need not be accurate to let the charging bear known he is not worth messing with.

Last night I was in the woods, but high above the bears: lucky enough to be drinking wine in a treehouse with a bunch of lovely women.

One woman, Jen, I had only met once before, and I got to hear a bit of her story. Jen grew up in the nearby town of Libby but had most recently been living in New Mexico with her husband and daughter.

One of the reasons she had moved back here was because there was a shooting at the school where she worked as a middle school math teacher, and she thought it was less likely to happen here.

Is it? I don’t know. Our school community has recently formed a safety committee and held public meetings to discuss whether or not to arm teachers at our school’s.

“Arming teachers is not the solution,” Jen said last night “but having armed security guards is a deterrent.”

I kinda think if you are desperate enough to think that going to a school to shoot kids is a good idea, you are past assessing risk or caring about the threat of your own suffering, or death.

I am in awe of Jen, although I only just met her, for marching her students to safety on the day of the shooting.

“Some of them were crying because they saw the two who died, they saw it happen,” Jen said.

Mostly I admire how much she still wants to teach math, and be in schools.

This morning, Haak and I stood by the stove together in the pale sunlight, waiting for coffee to brew, and while we waited I told him Jen’s story.

“I just read that so far this year there are more people who have died in schools than in the US military,” Haak told me “so skip high school and go straight to the military – it’s safer!”

We lean towards each other, laughing in short, sad bursts, because what else can we do?

Next time Atticus goes to school, in Australia, I’ll worry about him losing his backpack, or breaking an arm falling off the monkey bars. I’ll worry about him being so excited he runs into a pole and gets a concussion.

I’m so relieved I won’t have to worry about him being shot at school anymore.

When someone is having so enraged, so irrational they could just pick up the nearest thing and use the force against anyone nearby, what do we want that thing to be?

A few months ago, I interviewed a handful of locals about the gun’s they own. A neighbor of ours, a very good man, told me that in his collection of 17 guns, he has a shotgun he keeps behind the bedroom door in case of intruder’s.

While I was there, he went to check on it. He came back, holding a gun: “actually, there were two back there,” he chuckled.

Guns are everywhere, man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Champagne lifestyle on $20,000

Although the title of this post is a bit cheeky, I chose the picture above – taken at Wallagoot beach, NSW in 2015 when we were home to have our daughter – because in that moment, I truly felt like I was living the dream.

The air was warm, the sea was warm and green, baby Callie ate sand with our friend Kat while we swam, and I felt like a dolphin.

[As any woman who has had a baby can tell you, it doesn’t take much to feel like a dolphin in contrast to the lumbering of late pregnancy!]

I recently wrote a post about living below the federal poverty line, and several people have asked me to explain how that works, exactly.

Because Haak and I have decided our marriage wouldn’t survive if one of us got to live in their homeland, and the other only got to visit their’s, we’ve moved a lot in the last ten years.

Moving a lot is not conducive to making money the traditional way – by sticking with a job or industry, seeking promotion, and networking to move up.

Because people in our communities know we are transitory, employer’s have to be willing to hire us short term. The school district here employed me as a teacher’s aid and mental health worker when I first lived here, and some of those jobs I was able to work for two years.

Haak has worked part-time at our local hardware store for the almost three years we’ve been stateside this time.

And we pick up jobs painting, building, child minding, cleaning, cooking …

When we are in Australia, our income has typically been higher, [more like 26,000-30,000] but the dollar is worth less, wages are higher, and things are more expensive, so our quality of life is similar.

[Except we drink waaaayyyy more alcohol here than in Australia – a really good six pack of local craft beer costs $7-$8.]

Especially in the six years since we had kids, working less and keeping our income low has worked with our life – we wanted to be around  when the kids were small, so we’ve chosen to do paid work 2-3 days a week and work which is not paid but adds value to our lives, saving us money, the rest of the time.

[Like how Haakon built/is building our house, so our loan is only $38,000, but the value is something like $100,000, and I make us such delicious food that we don’t even want to spend $10,000 a year eating out. Also, there is nowhere to eat out in Troy!]

Our basic monthly expenses in Montana are:

$650 – mortgage, house insurance, land taxes

$130 – utilities [sewer, electric, water]

$45 – car insurance

$150 – health insurance

$70 – phone/internet

$400 – food

$100 – gas/petrol

$10 – Netflix account.

We rent our basement studio to our friend Laura, who pays us with $200 per month and by delivering sanity playing with and helping our kids.

[An aside: I still find it hard to think in months with finances, not weeks. Australian’s are generally paid weekly, and costs are measured in week’s, or by that uncommon concept in the US: the fortnight]

We do have a credit card, which we pay every month. I think it has an insane limit – $20,000, which is our emergency money.

In the years we travel, we need to buy plane tickets – I typically search online for months and buy the ticket’s that are so insanely cheap I run out of the house screaming: Get me the credit card! NOW! [this year I found Seattle-Sydney, via Hawaii, one way, four people: $1,600]

Some of our monthly payment’s are notably low compared to the national average – it’s because we do live below poverty line*** that our kids have free health insurance, and we have cheap government-subsidized health insurance.

Also missing in our budget, but common for many American’s our age are college loans [Haakon got an amazing scholarship to attend college, and worked summers, coming out debt free] and car payments. As far as I can tell, the combination of these costs can be $300-$500 per month for many people.

Luckily, there is a strong tradition of driving old, quirky and sometimes unreliable cars in both our families, so we’ll never have to worry about car payments or the cost of comprehensive insurance.

In March this year, we lost our first half decent car [a 2007 Subaru Forester], to engine failure in Pocatello, Idaho, on the way back from a trip to Utah.

It was hard to walk away from $5000 of value, but here’s where our real riches are: in the few months we have left before leaving for Australia, we are driving Haakon’s grandma’s 1989 Toyota Camry.

Not having to replace the car because of family generosity means the money in our savings account – $6000, accumulated from our tax return and saving when I was working last year – can be used to finish siding our house, take a trip to Denver to visit relatives, and fund a few days in Hawaii on our way back to Australia.

I once went to a training when I worked for the after school program here at Troy Elementary. It was about poverty and was designed for middle-class teacher’s working in poor area’s like Troy to better understand the actions of their student’s and student’s families.

The presenter talked about social capital – how instead of buying insurance, people living in poverty rely on their community as insurance.

Although I don’t feel poor very often, this part of our reality is true.  Haak and I are so lucky that our family’s back us, not by giving us money, but with grandma car’s, mechanical help, eggs and garden produce, work connections, and the assurance that if we ever really need it, they will loan us money.

I like the way not having lots of money stops me from buying things all the time without thinking about it.

We almost never buy new clothes, except boots and shoes [and my Darling jacket!].

If I had money, I would buy all new bedding, I would buy all new, handmade mugs, I would buy a new couch … I don’t need these things… I already have them.

I like the way being poor makes me appreciate gifts SO MUCH.

A friend gave me a gift voucher to the local plant nursery this spring, and it was pure luxury to just go and get all the plants I wanted. I never would have done that on my own [thanks, Tess!].

So there is some control, some deprivation, to live within our budget.

It’s easier for Haakon than it is for me because he truly prefer’s the free and recycled, whereas I occasionally lust over new stuff, or long to travel more.

The time I most often wish we had more money is when I want to be generous – and my tactic here is usually to use money sitting in savings from the other country [for some reason it doesn’t count???].

 

We’ve had good luck and good health, and I don’t feel poor.

I feel rich.

 

How much do you make? is it too much/too little? how do you budget? save? are you in debt? have you lived below poverty line? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*** in 2017, the US federal poverty line for a family of four was $24,600

 

 

 

So much, so little

Last year I was volunteering at the Troy food pantry, and I noticed on the wall the federal poverty guidelines – $24,600 for a family of four.

But wait a second … we average about $20,000 a year when we are in the US. So are we poor? should I stop volunteering and start packing my family a box of food?

That moment in the food pantry has made me think a lot about income and how we see ourselves.

My family is a funny mixture of class values: poverty income and owning class aspirations. My parents have always operated on a low income but dealt in real estate, leaving them with a fairly comfortable retirement.

Poor is relative – when I look around Troy, I know there are people living on much less than us. Tarps cocooning trailer homes in the winter to keep them warmer. Kids whose only meals are the free ones the school offers.

But those same kids are the ones who run barefoot and wild around town in the summer – whether through negligence or intelligence on the part of their caregivers, the poor kids have the richest lives: looking for worms for hours, scrounging up $5 to buy french fries, drinking cold, fresh water from the faucet at the park.

While I’m handing over the $5, I ask these kids what their plans are for the day and they say “sit under the bridge when it gets hot” or “go and ask Justin’s uncle if we can mow his lawn for money.”

I don’t want to glorify poverty – and I don’t know what those kids live’s are like at home. But there is something about the struggle, the hunting and gathering urge, the thrill of success when they meet their own basic needs, that is sorely lacking in the live’s of the wealthy.

Is this why the average American credit card debt is $17,000? after understanding that our pay surpasses meeting our basic needs, are we purposefully creating a struggle?

Last year, we had a few friends visit, all in their mid 20’s – all had recently graduated college and moved into high paying, high responsibility jobs.

They all had the same response to their new fortune: a whispered “I don’t know what to do with all this money. I can’t even tell you how much it is, because it is just SO MUCH.”

Why do we pay some so much, more than they want or need, and some so little?

I saw a blog post last week which explained it in a few short words: privilege is the assumption that because you have more, you should have more.