Contemplating Sustainability, in Its Many Contexts

Part of last summer’s fresh pea harvest. Peas are notorious for taking a fair amount of garden space and prep time for a relatively small bowl of sweet deliciousness. Are they “unsustainable?” It depends.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the many meanings of “sustainability.” After doing a little binge watching of Marie Kondo’s tidying up show on Netflix, I was forced to re-confront the sustainability of owning and maintaining everything I have. In January, I became aware of an online Zero Waste course sponsored by Eco Collective in Seattle, took the course, and pondered more about both waste and a more intentional use of resources in my life. Additionally, I have been reading about the closures of facilities at Woolrich in Pennsylvania and Jagger Brothers yarns here in Maine with sincere dismay. The word used to describe these operations by the decision makers responsible for the closures was, “unsustainable.”

Of course, there are sustainability issues in our very own microcosms, our personal and career lives. I have two assistants, one on site and one off site, because even with my tiny business the workload required to continue its growth curve was unsustainable for me alone. I recently had to announce that I’d be stepping away in 2020 from a volunteer position that’s near and dear to me because it has become, added to my other upcoming commitments, unsustainable for me. Just this week my husband and I had a heart to heart about the sustainability of my work hours vs rest and family time, because the red flags are everywhere. I attended church with the intention to keep going for the first time in years this past weekend. I have noticed that my mental and spiritual health has reached an unsustainable and yes, unstable, point without a carefully chosen faith community to help remind me that unconditional love is still very much alive in the larger world.

I owe this topic, this integration of what sustainability means in its many contexts, to a post by our friends at Dulse & Rugosa, a beautiful zero waste skin and hair care company based on Gott’s Island here in Maine. I had posted the article about the Jagger Brothers yarn mill closing and Dulse & Rugosa was able to broaden that out to the issue of sustainability in general. I had said that when I was a real estate broker and didn’t get both sides of a home sale, my father used to say, “Half loaves add up to whole loaves.” I’d said that the same held true in supporting – sustaining – the things, businesses, people, organizations, the very planet, that we love. We don’t have to give a whole loaf. We don’t even have to give half a loaf. We just need to give whatever part of the loaf we can when we can. If we can do that, we can perhaps reduce the number of sad business closures we read about on a regular basis.

Dulse & Rugosa responded by posting this image on their social media pages.

Image may contain: sky, ocean, text, nature and outdoor
Posted on Dulse & Rugosa’s Instagram account. Words may be attributable to Blue Ocean Action.

How would our decisions be different if we were planning to stay? While American culture tends to avoid explicit discussions around death, we certainly do behave as though whatever we won’t live to see doesn’t matter. This implies an awareness of our mortality, perhaps only when that awareness is convenient. But what if we lived as though we “planned to stay?” Because, you know, we do stay, long after our mortal bodies are gone. We stay in impactful ways and those ways can be positive, negative, neutral, or somewhere along a continuum of all three. How would we treat the world, which includes the earth, each other, everything in it, if we planned to stay? Maybe another way of asking is, “What would we do if we acknowledged that what we do matters?”

Sustainability is so often a concept used in the context of environmental policy, and rightly so. However, I want to suggest that we also look at sustainability by asking the following questions. I also want to make clear that I struggle with these as much as anyone else does.

  • Of the hundreds or thousands of things that I own, which ones do I want/need in a way that’s sustainable not only now, but also do not burden my loved ones after I am gone?
  • Of all the businesses I say are important to me, how many do I offer sustenance to by buying something from them on a regular basis, even if it’s just a small thing? Do I wear my “Shop Small” pin mostly to big box stores and then feel deflated when my local yarn store folds?
  • Of all the activities I give my time to, which ones create the best outcomes for myself, the people I love, and the larger world?
  • Of all the activities I give my time to, are there any that require taking time away from others? Do others ever have to bear the costs of my allocation of time?
  • When I buy something, how much packaging do I really need? Does visually engaging but ultimately land-fillable (or worse) packaging add real sustainable value or just make the product more salable for its manufacturer at the outset?
  • When I choose my DIY activities, what kind of balance can I strike between those things my knowledge and resources are well suited to and those things I can leave to others, thereby supporting their businesses? (For example, here at the Parris House, we grow vegetables, apples, keep bees, and keep hens. We make our own soaps and of course, we do fiber art. Our resources would not sustain larger livestock, but we can support our local raw dairy and meat producers by buying from them instead.)

At the top of this post I have a photo of last year’s pea harvest. I love fresh, sweet peas, but every year I grow them I think to myself, “That was a lot of time, space, tending, and shelling for such a small return.” Is it a small return, though? That’s a subjective question. How do I quantify the satisfaction inherent in the process of growing, harvesting, preparing, and then tasting those fresh peas? To borrow from Marie Kondo, they definitely “spark joy.” I suppose for me, staking out a row for peas, knowing the return is objectively modest, is worthwhile and it’s causing no harm. For someone else, the effort would simply look unsustainable. Everything we do, buy, produce, or spend time on can be subjectively evaluated in the same way unless it is simply crystal clear that whatever we’re analyzing is objectively harmful or unsustainable.

I think you get the gist of my musings. In my life there have been several crossroads at which the unsustainability of a single decision or accumulation of decisions has become so unbearable that some kind of disruptive change has been necessary to create a more tenable life situation. What I am learning now is that by looking at sustainability in a holistic, multi-contextual way, I can make better decisions that will work in the direction of ease and responsibility – to myself, to others, and to the planet – instead of accumulating in to an unsustainable morass. These decisions include what I choose to do and have and what I choose not to do and not to have.

Henry David Thoreau distilled this down to its very essence when he wrote, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Thoreau lived as though he planned to stay, conducting his life with an economy that is rarely matched in modern day America. In fact, his economy with words is one I apparently can not hope to achieve.

I’d be very interested to know your thoughts on this topic and the contexts in which sustainability has meaning for you. In a country where some of us have too much and yet others have much too little, what are the moral implications of seeking sustainability in a variety of ways as well? Feel free to join the discussion. I know I don’t have even a fraction of the answers.

Parris House Savory Dill Easter Bread. What will you choose to sustain with your metaphorical half a loaf? (For recipe, click HERE.)

 

Parris House Savory Dill Easter Bread

We all have THAT cook book, especially if we’ve been around the kitchen for a while.  It’s the cook book with the dog ears, the stained pages, and a history.  For me, THAT cook book is the old 1980s version of the Betty Crocker Cook Book.  I received it as a gift for my bridal shower in 1987 and have used it faithfully ever since.  It has the best mac and cheese recipe ever in it, and the recipe for quiche which wins me accolades.  In fact, I served that quiche at our Maine studio opening event in 2013 and a couple of people still talk to me about that quiche.  Really.  But aside from using the recipes just as they stand, following this classic cook book also taught me a lot about cooking, and how to make my own recipes.  I even have a four leaf clover pressed in to the pages of this cook book. I think that makes it extra lucky.

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For a lot of years I used the basic bread recipe in this cook book when baking bread, but gradually over time I started diverging from the recipe, and then I started just winging bread recipes entirely.  It became like soup; you just do it.  The recipe for the Parris House Savory Easter Bread is a combo.  The basic bread recipe in this cook book was the jumping off point, but I changed it considerably.  And the traditional Italian Easter bread, which is actually a very sweet bread with lots of sugar in the dough and sprinkles on top, also inspired this bread in form and appearance.  My mother made Italian Easter Bread every year, and so I hesitated before so radically changing the recipe for our Easter dinner, but I wanted something savory with a rustic farmhouse look. Here’s what I came up with…

  • 1 package dry yeast (or 1 TBSP)
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • 1 TBSP sugar
  • 1 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1-1/2 TSP sea salt
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3-1/2 cups bread flour (add more if you need to but be careful not to make the dough tough)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh dill

Just before baking:

  • Six RAW eggs, colored or not (your preference)
  • 3 TBSP melted butter
  • 2 TBSP sea salt

OK!  Combine the yeast and all the wet ingredients, the sea salt, and the sugar in a large mixing bowl and whisk them well. Gradually mix in the flours  until you have a wet dough, then add the chopped dill, mix some more.  Add the rest of the flour and when you have a knead-able consistency turn the dough out on to a floured surface and knead it for several minutes until it starts to become nice and smooth.

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Use a little cooking spray or oil in a large bowl and plop the dough down in to it.  Cover with a tea towel and place in a warm location to rise.

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While the dough is rising, choose your decorative eggs.  I chose to use the eggs just as they are straight from the Parris House Hens.  These girls lay pretty eggs.

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However, you could certainly use any eggs you wanted, and in traditional Easter breads, dyed eggs are used.  I chose these six:

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After about an hour your dough should be at least double in size.  See the before and after pics here…

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Now it’s time to punch the dough down, and create the circular braid.  Divide the dough in to three equal sized balls, then roll them out in to equal length and width ropes.  From there it’s just like braiding hair.  Braid the dough and then form it in to a circle, molding together the two ends.  Don’t worry that the connection doesn’t look braided; you’re going to just put an egg in there.  Space the other eggs evenly tucking them in the nooks in the braid.  These eggs should be RAW because they bake in the oven as the bread bakes, so be careful about pushing on them too hard at this stage lest they break.

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Now you need to let the bread rise again, about 45 minutes.  It will again almost double in size and puff up around the eggs.

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Now it’s time to prepare the bread for baking.  Melt a little butter and brush it on to the bread, avoiding the eggs so that they do not discolor during baking.  Sprinkle a bit of sea salt on the buttered areas, again avoiding getting it on the eggs.  I actually did get a bit of sea salt on my eggs and they speckled from it.

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Heat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (I’m sorry, my Canadian friends, I don’t know what that translates to in Celsius) and bake on the top rack for about 15 minutes, then move to the bottom rack for another 15 minutes.  I do this in my oven because I find that way it doesn’t get too brown on the top or the bottom.  However, I would caution you to check the bread frequently because ovens differ.  For example, the electric oven at my lake cottage will burn things like this in a heartbeat if I’m not carefully watching them.

When the bread it finished it will be golden top and bottom but not too dark.

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That’s it!  It’s a very easy bread to make and would go nicely with a variety of dishes.  The eggs are hard boiled (or really, hard baked) when the bread is finished and can be eaten along with it.

Tomorrow my husband Bill will be making his family’s homemade French vanilla ice cream recipe.  Stay tuned for that as well.

Happy Easter, happy Spring, and happy hooking! – Beth