Monday, June 30, 2014

Images from a Ukrainian village in June

It's June 29th, and Yulia just happens to have turned 29 yesterday. Here are some pictures from her first full day as a 29 year old:

Some black currants (and one yellow raspberry) that I picked from the vacant house next door. Yulia made the smoothie. Ingredients: mango, banana, honey, nettle, basil, cilantro, borage, lettuce, and bee pollen
Another of Yulia's creations: Burmese tofu made with chickpeas. Turmeric gives it the yellow color. 
On a Sunday afternoon stroll
How fortunate we are to have access to wide open spaces right by our house!
"Come here, Toma...Good dog!"
Yulia planted these wild persimmons from South Carolina last fall. The seeds overwintered in the pot outside and are now emerging. One persimmon has fully popped out while you can still see the leaves holding on to the seeds on the other two.
There are definitely lots of peas right now :)
We will be picking our sour cherries any day now. Just waiting for them to turn the right shade of dark red...
Is that a scarecrow or man?
Even though we know that it is a scarecrow, the corners of our eyes repeatedly inform us that it is a man. We did many double takes.
Another fantastic sunset!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Euro Woodpiles

Yulia and I were pleased to read in the news that two counties in the Rogue Valley of Oregon have voted to ban the growth of GMO crops. We spent the spring of last year working on a farm in the Rogue Valley and met some really terrific people there. It's wonderful to hear that this corner of the United States is leading the way in the fight against GMO's.

While GMO's are a big issue in the States, we don't face that same problem here in Ukraine. There is already GMO labeling here, for example, while the US is still working on its GMO label laws. However, we have a different problem that concerns this corner of the world--shale gas. I wrote about the brewing shale gas fracking problem last fall. Since then there has been no fracking near where we live. But recently fracking has come up in a different context--as a way to circumvent Ukrainian and European reliance on Russian natural gas. Right now people are beginning to push the idea that shale gas fracking can create energy independence from Russian gas.

NATO says that Russia is funding anti-fracking groups. Shortly after this report came out, an article titled, "Fracking could free Europe from Putin," followed. The author of this article argues that, while there are some valid environmental concerns, "with good regulation [emphasis mine], shale gas will not only make Europe less dependent on Russian supplies, but that it is also this decade’s best solution in terms of cutting CO2 emissions and improving living standards."

This creates another layer to the already tricky fight against fracking in our area. Firstly, it frames the discussion as if being anti-Putin necessitates one's being pro-fracking (i.e. If you are against Putin you should support fracking). Secondly, what the argument in the above quotation hinges on is "good regulation." We see very little evidence of good regulation around us, so the suggestion that regulation will stave off environmental consequences is not reassuring. While the author of this article is writing in the context of the European Union (which is slightly reassuring since Ukraine is not part of the EU), other major publications do support fracking in Ukraine. The staff of the Kyiv Post, in an editorial called "Frack ahead," makes an almost identical argument: "[B]ased on the record in the United States and elsewhere, we think the environmental concerns are not serious enough to stop fracking." They conclude that Ukraine needs to move forward "even if it means accepting more risks." Like the article, "Fracking could free Europe from Putin," the Kyiv Post recommends that along with fracking, Ukraine should invest in renewable energy: 
Ukraine needs to move in all directions at once – more coal, more nuclear, more gas, more oil – and an even greater effort for more renewables, including solar and wind. These efforts have to be coupled with greater energy efficiency in apartments, factories and commercial buildings.
We happen to actually live on the Olesska shale gas deposit that this article mentions. When we hear that we must "accept risks" from people living in Kyiv, I understand that to mean that we deal with the environmental problems so that they can continue using cheap gas. After all, the environmental risks are local.

These writers treat the discussion as if it were entirely academic. They disconnect themselves from the discussion by focusing on statistics that they read about somewhere else. They propose using shale gas with renewables, which adds another layer of separation. Someone else must create those renewables first. They will not be developing them themselves.

This helps shift the responsibility from the writer to someone else. Someone else calculates the statistics. Someone else develops renewable energy. Someone else deals with the environmental risks.

Since all of us are users of energy in one way or another, it would be a lot more productive to focus on what people can do themselves to fix the problem. Energy use and economics are not self contained abstract ideas. They are fundamental to the way we live. After all, it does not make sense to come to the conclusion that, for example, eating processed foods is unhealthy and then continue on eating processed foods. Energy use is just as fundamental.

The Kyiv Post is on to something when they write that energy diversification needs "to be coupled with greater energy efficiency in apartments." Before starting the enormous project of hauling in tons of water and chemicals to remote fracking sites, maybe people should think about things like insulating their attics. This isn't to say that journalists shouldn't make recommendations to policymakers and the managers of large industries. But to only spend one part of one sentence discussing personal responsibility is not good enough.

One could argue that it is very difficult to change a system as complex, corrupt, and large as energy in Ukraine. I think that this shows a lack of imagination. I think it is possible to abstain from Russian energy without sacrificing the natural environment of Ukraine, but it will require a readjustment to the way we live. Take, for example, the Victory Gardens of the World Wars. Rather than relying on buying food at the store, people began to grow their own to support the war effort. This freed the few large farms that there were at the time to send food to the military. There are precedents, but we'll have to see if Euro Woodpiles catch on. It's a humble idea, though it just may help.

Yulia and I enjoy academic discussions and learning new information, but we came to a certain point where we realized, "Alright we've thought about this stuff, now what?" That is why we are living the way we are and why we write this blog. We felt we had to act on all the lofty ideas we were always talking about.

Next week marks our one year anniversary of living in our home, so maybe I should write a post reviewing everything we've learned about not only using energy, but also about gardening, home repair, living with new neighbors, staying happy in a new place, and blogging.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pulled in different directions

As we've now moved into the warmest part of the year with the longest days, I--oddly enough--find myself with less and less time to do what I want to do. Should I make the dog some soup? Nah, no time. Feed her some Friskies along with the cats. Should I catch up on the news? I end up skimming the headlines and simply make sure Kyiv hasn't been turned into radioactive ash. No time for those things right now. I'm focusing on the basics.

What's got my attention? Providing food, water, and shelter, of course.

Before you get worried, let me assure you that Yulia and I are not starving, thirsty, nor cold. We are simply trying to improve the way we get food and water and make the shelter we already have better.

We've done our best to plant a diverse garden, and most of our attempts at growing food have been successful so far.

The tomatoes here seem to be doing fine.

The ones planted under the roof are OK (probably the best) too.

And then there are the tomatoes around the sea buckthorn trees, under trellises scattered around our property, and in pots. All in all we have over 200 tomatoes. ...Ya, I think we've got enough! But that's what happens when you wait years to move into a house and accumulate seeds as you impatiently wait to plant a fruitful garden.

We put up this trellis for squash and beans. It's on the site of the old compost pile, so we planted this area rather intensively to take advantage of the rich soil. This is an older picture. Most squash and beans are developing rather nicely, though some got chewed up and died before they ever had a chance. How sad!

Many of the fava beans have developed pods. I really like growing these. You can plant them early, and they get big quickly and out compete many weeds. They are sturdy, hardy plants.

You can also plant chickpeas early. I've never seen chickpea plants before. This is what they look like. I think they have cute flowers!

The sunflowers (green) and amaranth (purple) are turning into mighty plants.

And we might get half a handful of blueberries from the bush we just planted!

We also will have a few gooseberries. At the beginning of the spring they started out as two sticks about the size of your hand when you make a peace sign. I'm surprised they produced anything at all!

Aside from creating a system to get healthy food right from our own land, we are also in the process of installing running water in our home.

Here you can see the pipe running from the well to the building where the pump will be. Quite honestly, living without running water isn't that big of a deal, and doing all this hard work feels frivolous at times. But it's better to get this done before we start renovating the rooms where we want to put the taps.

Which brings me to home renovations. We are continuing to work on our house. Today, Yulia started lacquering our veranda (It looks wonderful so far--I'm so excited!), and I finished painting what will be the living room. Next I plan to install new windowsills in that room just like the one I put in the dining room recently:

Remember what this window looked like when it was installed in December?

I also finally got around to putting up a box to cover the hideous surge protector and electric meter (which are in the dining room for some reason):

So, yes, a lot going on. I feel like the more and more competent I get at growing and fixing things, the more work appears for me. I guess competence gives one an eye for all those things that still need work.

However, I should be clear. This is not a complaint. I'm so happy that I'm fortunate enough to even have this opportunity, and I would rather be no where else than here with Yulia creating a beautiful place for us to live. I titled this entry "Pulled in different directions." While I do feel like I am not devoting enough time to any one particular thing, these seemingly different directions really lead in one direction in the end: to what we will simply refer to as, home.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The June twilight

The setting of the sun brings out a certain aspect of enchantment that I rarely see during the day here on our homestead. It evokes a new cast of characters who are invisible during the day.

As I ready water to wash before bedtime I hear rustling in the bushes. I narrow my eyes to see who is spying on me and see our neighborhood hedgehog sniffing around in search of a nocturnal lunch.

Meanwhile, the owl eyes me dismissively and completes another silent flight around the clearing. I hear its lecture later. The lesson tumbles expertly into sleeping ears.

The garden gnomes form a line and dance and laugh at me. They are even more silent than the owl's wings. One of them had too much ale and tries to pull down my pants, but can't even reach my socks. I walk away unknowingly.

And the moles meet with hamsters under the potatoes. They drink yerba mate and play chess. The barrister suggests they try a scone with their beverages. Many of them are pleased with the combination.

This whole world unfolds as I put on my pajamas for bed. The transition period of evening lasts especially long in June. The sun slides into the horizon moving both north and west. The last hints of the sunset are still visible around 11 o'clock here at the 49th parallel. It gives me an extra bit of time to ponder and consider a world I know so little about.

Sweet dreams!

Monday, June 16, 2014


I don't remember seeing many poppies when I lived in the United States. Here around our village we see lots of them.

While most poppies grow wild, we tried growing some of our own. Yulia and I dropped some seeds of California poppy (come to think of it, we saw lots of these along the highways in California) in our garden back in the early spring. We kept looking and looking for them to sprout, but saw nothing for the longest time. Last week I was about to take a hoe to the area where we planted them, but held off. This week we saw the flowers pop out from the weeds! What a wait!

Yulia and I love poppies because they are so red they are delicious. See for yourselves.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Seeing Ukraine by leaving Ukraine

I was at the Ukrainian-Polish border earlier today. I had to cross in order to get a new stamp in my passport as part of the process to get permanent residency in Ukraine. Because I had stayed in Ukraine over 90 days I had to pay a fine. I knew about the fine before crossing, and it was a smaller amount than I expected, so it was no big deal really. As long as you pay the official fine, then you can re-enter Ukraine.

But this blog post is not specifically about bureaucratic procedures and Ukrainian law. It is about the people I encountered at and along the way to the border. Crossing the border took me out of my daily routine, and I experienced three kinds (for lack of a better word) of people that I do not normally see.

The first group of people were a surprise to me--the Ukrainian border service. Although I had to pay a fine, I felt that they treated me with respect and worked with professionalism. I know that it's very common for people to rail against government workers in Ukraine, but I must be honest. They were actually professional and courteous. The border guards led me to an office, opening doors for me along the way. It was quite the special treatment. The office we went to was staffed by a young man in his twenties or thirties. I filled out a form with him, and he then showed me the way to a bank window in the lobby. He wasn't dismissive about showing me, but made sure it was clear which way to go (It was quite a simple route, actually). But my point is that many people I have had experience with would have just waved their hand in a vague direction and sent me off.

While in that office I overheard the staff discussing a question regarding refugees who were trying to cross the border. They were fleeing Donetsk and traveling with a young child. This is just about the only first hand experience I've had regarding the conflict in Donbass. Since tensions with Russia escalated there has been little action here in western Ukraine. Things have been quite calm, actually. This was a big reminder to me that not everybody in Ukraine gets to enjoy the relative stability that I am used to. There are people frightened for their lives who can no longer live in their own homes anymore. It was a reminder that all of us, even those all the way on the western border of Ukraine, share the same space with people a 24 hour car ride away on Ukraine's eastern border.

Then there were the two men who were trying to sell me a ride. While looking for the bus to the border at the train station in Lviv, a man approached me and offered a ride in his car. He would get me there fast, especially because the buses were "on a break" at that moment. I refused and found my bus, which was interestingly not on a break at the time. When I was finished with my business several hours later, I was walking to catch the bus back to Lviv when another man accosted me, offering to drive me back to the city. He was even pushier than the first: "Come on. I've got a guy in the car already. I'm driving him to the airport. He's heading for Turkey. I'll take you for fifty hrynias." I told him no thanks, that I had a bus to catch. "Come on. The bus goes through all those villages along the way. And the next bus doesn't leave until 3 pm. How about 30 hryvnias?" I told him no. "How much is the fare to Lviv? 25 hryvnias [It's 23]? I'll take you for 25." I just walked away. I got onto the bus at the station and it pulled away five minutes later at 12:15. These two chauffeurs represent a way of doing things that I hope is on it's way out the door in Ukraine. They show no respect for the people around them. They pester and they lie and their actions only make people more distrustful of those around them. This is the last thing Ukraine needs right now. And, if you haven't noticed, these aren't some kind of Kremlin backed agents and mercenaries that we hear about on the news all the time. These aren't corrupt, high ranking politicians in Kyiv. These are ordinary people from western Ukraine. People like these two men will only rot Ukrainian society from the inside out.

These three encounters show me a country that is moving in several directions, but more than anything I think that it is turning into a place where people respect one another, where being rude and indifferent makes you look antiquated, even passe. It was strange to be treated with such dignity while paying a fine to government workers, but these are the welcome surprises I hope to keep seeing in years to come.