Snowzilla Takes the Village

2016122VillageOur neighbors got to prove their mettle and thus, the truth of the phrase “it takes a village” during a snow storm this weekend. The epic first blizzard of 2016, Snowzilla buried the east coast from Virginia to New York City, dumping two to three feet of snow, shutting down schools, airports and Broadway.

In our rural North Carolina community everything ground to a halt with a sleet storm followed by snow, icing over our driveways and roads. Fortunately, we did not lose power as did 120,000 Carolinians east of us. But we were faced with a challenge. Our good neighbors who were on holiday without their children suddenly found themselves unable to fly home as planned. Although they had a solid child care plan in place, their stay was now extended by three days. The delay might have ruined their trip were it not for the robust network of friends who volunteered to pitch in.

Tami called a meeting at her kitchen table and we put together a schedule. Brooksie, a lovely woman from another neighborhood had stayed with the kids the night of the storm and would continue sleeping at their house until the ice began to melt. After she was able to drive out, others would stay at the house or bring the children to their homes. Some of us showed up for the breakfast shift and others to make dinner. None of us could get our cars out so we walked back and forth, carrying food and crayons.

The kids adapted as if this were nothing out of the ordinary. They easily accepted their new extended family and went along with the program as if this were the status quo. Indeed, humans are likely hard-wired for nurturing by many rather than two. Years ago, when Bob split from the mother of his children, she wisely observed that the girls were faced with an addition problem rather than a subtraction problem. They now had two mothers and two fathers, she said.

Another benefit of these unexpected circumstances was that we got to hang out with each other. I spent one memorable afternoon with Brooksie, a former acquaintance who now feels like a friend. Lyle and Tami called a potluck and we had an evening of hot chocolate, conversation and crokinole. Time slowed down and despite the cold we were driven outside and into each other’s homes. Zoila and I made the rounds to Hope’s, to Brooksie and the kids, and to Tami and Lyle’s  holding umbrellas against the sleet. Hope set them up at her kitchen table with markers and a roll of paper so they could make a welcome home banner while we “mothers” enjoyed a good chat. It turned out the storm and delayed return of our friends were a great excuse to spend time with each other.

It’s times like these, when our cars are frozen to the earth and we mine our cupboards for crackers and beans that we return to our rightful pace. The gift of a common, meaningful goal gave our stride purpose and blushed our cheeks with pride of accomplishment. Eventually, the snow melted and the parents flew home, but we are all better off for the experience, happy to know what we are made of and what we can do together.

Death Cafe Comes to Pittsboro

DeathCafeDressed in earth colors and shades of purple, nearly forty people met at The Plant on Sunday to discuss death. Death Cafe is yet another cutting-edge Abundance NC event, the folks who brought Pecha Kucha to Pittsboro. The concept sprouted in London five and a half years ago and is quickly spreading across Europe, North America and Australia. The objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Our hosts baked dozens of cupcakes and set up a coffee bar with locally roasted coffee from Plant neighbor Aromatic Roasting Company. Many guests brought plates of home-made confections. There were party lights and the hum of expectant energy. Settled in with coffee and cake, we began introducing ourselves.

Heartfelt and articulate, we heard from hospice professionals, women who had lost their husbands, men who had lost a child and people who hadn’t lost anyone yet but knew their time would inevitably arrive. Some spoke of good good-byes, others of natural burials, the world of the unseen, being awakened to death and unrequited grief. We talked about how common it was to care for the sick and dying at home a couple generations ago. How it was when family witnessed the transition and prepared the deceased for burial, often laying them to rest on family land.

With seventy-five million baby boomers aged fifty-two to seventy, the time is ripe for a new awareness. Many question the necessity of $7,000 to $10,000 funerals involving iron-clad coffins, embalming, and concrete liners. Biodegradable coffins and home burials are becoming common with the help of a blossoming natural death industry.

After two hours of listening and sharing, I left feeling less daunted by my aging parent’s eventual passing and more prepared to put my own affairs in order. And perhaps Bob and I will find a nice tree to settle under when our time on earth is up.


Compassion and Choices

Piedmont Pine Coffins

What’s My Line

Nana wasn’t lazy, I tell myself as I lurch from task to task, slogging my way through an endless to do list. Nana wasn’t lazy, but I just have to get outside for a walk. As soon as the woods closed in around me, my vision began to blur. Dang, here I was feeling sorry for myself again.

In theory, Christmas marks the season of peace and joy, but in practice we tend to set high bars for ourselves. I know I’m not the only one trying to pack too much into the last week of the year. I feel ensnared by commitments, tangled in party preparations.

I call upon Nana’s ear. She will listen to my woes without laughing and have something wise to say. Deeper into the woods I plunge, Nana at my side. Not all of my day is work, I begin, but I feel as if it is. This walk in the woods with you isn’t work, this is play. I enjoyed thirty minutes on facebook this morning and an hour corresponding with my email buddies. That wasn’t work, either.

And then it hits me. Nana wasn’t always on her feet, working. Nana napped in her chair by the phone in the afternoons and never missed “All in the Family” and “What’s My Line” on TV. When I shared her home we’d sit at the dining room table after dinner with a bottle of plum wine, relaxing and talking about anything that came to mind. Turns out, Nana was not the workaholic I’ve come to measure myself against.

I decide to explore the next level. What’s really troubling me is a task I wasn’t able to master. It had seemed like an easy problem but the solution eluded me. And then this morning Bob made a few transactions solving the problem I’d spent six hours trying to get my head around. His MBA and business career came to his aid in a way my horse, restaurant and clerical experience didn’t.

Some things are not possible. I couldn’t arm wrestle Arnold Schwarzenegger and win, for example. Nor could I swim the English Channel. I don’t have the mind for tax law but I’m smart enough to know when to say, “I can’t do this.” Not, “I don’t want to,” or “I’m too lazy to learn how to,” but “I can’t.”

Best not to attempt those things that are beyond you. You make your choices and live them without guilt. And then you sit in your favorite chair and relax.

Email for the Overwhelmed

I hear a lot of people say “I hate email!” “I get way too many emails!” or “Text me, it’ll just get lost in my email.” I completely understand because email can be overwhelming until you tame the beast.

It’s a great tool which helps me get things done quickly at work, organize my social life, and have long, meaningful conversations with my far-away friends. But, like any tool, it can easily lose it’s edge if neglected. A few minutes of maintenance once a day will help keep your email volume manageable.

I’ll mention here that I’ve routed my other four email addresses to one account. Here’s what I see when I check my email:


The panel on the left shows my folders. There are 8 unread emails in my Inbox, 7 in Drafts, 9 in Spam and so on. Over time, I’ve set up filters to send work emails to the Altadore folder, skipping the Inbox but keeping them marked as unread. This way I can see at a glance if I have any new work emails. I’ve done the same thing with other aspects of my life. As you can see, Friends is a separate category. I get to decide if I’m working or playing by choosing which folder to dive into.

My Inbox is on the right with all 8 unread emails and one already read. The first thing I do is clean that out. The only emails that should be showing up in my inbox are those which haven’t been routed to one of my folders. These are usually newsletters and notifications. I’ll scan them, deleting anything I’m not interested in and if I have time, I’ll deal with the emails that require action. My goal is an empty Inbox.

In terms of maintenance, if I want to stop getting emails from HARO, for example, I’ll click on the email and unsubscribe. If I can’t unsubscribe, I mark it as spam. Or I’ll take a moment to create a filter which sends everything from that address or with that subject directly to the trash. If I’ve gotten an email that I belongs in a folder, I take a moment to create a filter and re-direct future emails. Email from Bilbo Baggins will never again show up in your Inbox if they belong in your Friends folder.

Next, I go to the Spam folder just to make sure there’s nothing in there that shouldn’t be:


On this day I found an email from the chatlist that didn’t belong in spam so I checked it and clicked on the “Not spam” button. Then I deleted the rest, leaving an empty Spam folder.

Finally, I check the folders with new emails, read and archive anything not requiring action and leave everything that’s pending behind. When I’m finished with a folder, it looks something like this:


The red stars mean I need to take action and the orange stars mean I need to take action after receiving a response. No star means it’s in the works but still on my radar.

Housekeeping complete, I can settle in to write and answer emails. Or do something away from my desk, secure in the knowledge that I’m on top of things. If you think this method might work for you, I’ll happily help you set it up. No one should be burdened with email clutter and life’s too short to wade through junk mail.

Thankful for Time-worn Life Lessons

1954FrankCamilleHappy Thanksgiving to our family, friends and any readers that happen upon Plastic Farm Animals!

First and foremost, Bob and I are thankful for Emily, Tyler and our first grandchild Nolan Trout who turns one week old today. Welcome to the planet little Nolan!

Second, I’m thankful for delicious Thanksgiving memories going all the way back to Nana granting me the honor of decorating a giant basket with fruit, nuts, and animal-shaped hard candies.

Third, I’m thankful for all the glorious advice I’ve gleaned from the many people who have passed through my life. Much of it came from the older folk and I’m excited to pass it down.

Life is simple if you’ve got a good work ethic, healthy moral compass and respect for the natural world and all its creatures, including your fellow human beings.

It’s the externals that make life complicated. Our many possessions impede movement and clutter our minds. We’re bombarded by media promoting a culture of selfishness and waste without consequences.

Here are a few tips to help navigate the dark waters of our time:

  1. Leave some surfaces clear of stuff – an empty horizontal space is an invitation in the same way clutter is a rebuke
  2. Make sure everything has a place and you know where it is
  3. When you’re done with something, put it away
  4. Close the gate or door behind you unless you found it open
  5. Take an extra moment to leave things nicer than you found them
  6. Don’t waste food, water or words
  7. Give yourself idle time without screens to think and create
  8. Spend as much time as possible outside
  9. Walk in the woods
  10. Learn the calls, colors and habits of the birds in your yard
  11. Be nice to others, even when you are unhappy – it will make you feel better
  12. Share what you have and others will share with you
  13. Listen to what people are saying and imagine being in their shoes
  14. When you see someone working, give them a hand
  15. Always take the high road, pettiness makes you feel cheap

These fifteen lessons have served us well. May they do the same for you.

Nana, Cookie, Johnny and Grandpa

Nana, Cookie, Johnny and Grandpa

Safe House

MaryAnnAilloTexas1920sBad shit is going down in Paris, there was another earthquake in Japan and the world situation is desperate as usual. It’s enough to make me want to crawl back under the covers.

Everything looks good from my sunny desk window. Colorful birds chipping away at the feeder, traffic purposefully whizzing by, leaves lazily fluttering. I’m taking it slow today, recuperating from vascular surgery and my belly is full of the cheeseburger Bob made for breakfast.

My weekend “To Do” list is benign and easily realized. A little writing, some crocheting and a bit of work in the kitchen. Our browsers are off and neither Bob nor I will climb into a vehicle today.

Yup, all seems well if we ignore the news. We didn’t have the heart to watch the 911 footage and this new mess is equally distressing. If there were something we could do, we would. Meanwhile we’re going to carry on and look the other way.

But wait, actually we are doing something. Along with our friends, neighbors and co-workers, we’re creating a local economy which will survive cataclysmic collapse. Call it sustainability or call it resilience, the model harkens back a century to when people grew food, heated with wood, made their own hooch and shared their homes.

Nearly 100 years ago my Sicilian great-grandmother Mary Ann ran a boarding house in Dallas Texas. This was one way of getting by back then. You gardened, cooked, cleaned and did laundry for your family and your roomers. I imagine Mary Ann’s world was small, and what was happening on the other side of the world wasn’t too much of a threat.

Our work at The Plant involves shepherding a distillery through their first years, supporting two farms, a fuel-maker and a nonprofit whose mission is “to cultivate and celebrate community resilience.” All of us working together are consciously creating a local economy that is more reciprocal and enduring than the global model. Our work seems purposeful and real.

At home, we have twelve quarts of sauerkraut and a big box of Bob’s sweet potatoes to help us through winter. Next door Haruka and Jason are preparing for their annual rice sale tomorrow while another neighbor finishes work on a hen pen before bringing home a flock of layers. Zoila stopped by with some locally made goat cheese so we gave her a bottle of local port. Lyle came by with pecans he picked off the ground and we sent him away with cheese.

We are secure in our friendships, making it easy to turn away from the news. The world situation inspires us to work in the garden, put up cabbage, bake bread and trade with the neighbors. And maybe one day we will follow in my great-grandmother Mary Ann’s footsteps and open up our house to lodgers.

1920 census

Jesse and the Widowmaker

StandingJessBobWidowmaker [wid·ow-mak·er] noun – A dead branch caught precariously high in a tree which may fall on a person below. Oxford Dictionary.

Jesse was my golden boy until he became Bob’s golden boy and later Julie’s. Never mind that he was a bay. Bob and I had him for ten years and now Julie has owned him for eighteen. We referred to him as Jesse the Wonder Horse because he always came through, and one day I’m convinced he saved my life.

I brought Jesse home when he was two years old and Julie met us with a brand new halter and a big bag of carrots. I started walking him in that halter every day, like a dog. We’d walk around my 13-acre pasture next to the railroad tracks and on down the road. I taught him to walk across the ditches at first and later to leap over them. If I walked, he walked. When I leapt, so did he. After we started work under saddle, I always had a choice whether to take it slow or plunge ahead.

There’s nothing more unsettling than a horse that jumps out from under you rather than step down into a ditch and back up. You can feel them twitching under you, tensing for the jump and there’s nothing you can do but hope they can clear it and land on the other side instead of down in the bottom.

On the other hand, it’s fun to jump anything you don’t feel like slogging through. I recall cuing Jesse to jump one yucca bush after another to alleviate the boredom of a long hot ride on the otherwise featureless Colorado plains.

By the time Jesse was five I’d put over a thousand hours on him. He was so push-button I could ride him in a halter and lead rope. After work I’d ride him ten miles just to keep him fit. I joined the Larimer County Horseman’s Association and rode up into the mountains on the weekends with twenty or thirty other people and their horses.

It wasn’t unusual for Jesse and I to trot around the bend and find a group of riders standing beside an obstacle. “Everything alright?” “Everything’s fine. We just thought we’d wait and let Jesse cross this bridge first.” And we would walk right across so the others could follow.

JesseCamSandOct90It was on one such ride that Jesse saved my life. We were walking up a switchback trail when Jesse started. Reflexively, I pulled back on the lead rope to stop him from running off. An instant later a loud crack from overhead reached my ears and I loosened my hold and leaned forward. Like a bullet, Jesse launched into a full gallop and up the trail we sped. A minute later we stopped, sides heaving to look far below as an enormous widowmaker crashed upon the very spot we’d been moments earlier.

What I love about this story is how it illustrates the deep trust between me and my horse. Jesse heard the crack and reacted, I second-guessed him, he acquiesced, I reconsidered and gave him the go-ahead. In a matter of seconds we made a decision which may have saved our lives.

Jesse turned thirty last April which is remarkably old for a horse, and he may not see another Spring. Julie has given him a perfect life and now must make an unimaginably difficult decision, whether to watch him struggle through another northern Colorado winter or let him down easy. When he goes, a part of me goes with him, but this time he will be the one to show me the best way across the ditch.


527JessJulie  JessSuperSweetSiderSummer85

Julie and Jesse on her ranch in 1998, and Jesse and his mother, Freckles in 1985


A sad image of high-schoolers being evacuated with hands in their air.

Umpqua Community College students being evacuated with hands in the air, as if they were perpetrators rather than victims.

I couldn’t take another word so I punched a finger into the car radio power button and sat in silence. A prestigious panel had been discussing the latest school shooting on the Diane Rehm Show and I was still bristling from their word choices.

People who kill other people are murderers, not “shooters” and yet during the few minutes I listened, everyone used the term shooter. When they began referring to the massacre as a disaster, I lost it. Man-made violence is not an act of nature as the word disaster would imply. The latest killing was pre-meditated mass murder, plain and simple.

I get it. We’ve come a long way since two perpetrators murdered twelve students during the Columbine High School Massacre sixteen years ago. Yes, those are the words they used back then. Perpetrator, murder and massacre.

There have been 163 School shootings since then with 45 this year alone, according to Newsweek. Mass murder has become commonplace, an earmark of a violent gun-obsessed society. We’re inundated with murder and so it makes sense that media would try and soften the assault with damped-down language.

It’s a small thing, I told myself and tried to forget it. In the hours that followed my little tantrum, I wanted to share my outrage. But by the end of the day, after dozens of conversations with peers and co-workers the only person I was able to vent to was Bob. Not only are we as a nation becoming numb to the mounting legacy of violence, it seemed futile to voice my indignation. Sad times, I tell you. Sad and frustrating times.


Denver Post December 12, 2013 – School shootings since Columbine High massacre

Newsweek October 6, 2015 – Map: Every School Shooting in America Since 2013

Oxford Dictionary – dis·as·ter [d??zast?r/] noun
“A sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life.”

Resilience Diva Tami Schwerin – Getting it done by making it fun

Queen Bee 2009Few people are as good at their jobs as Tami Schwerin. The dynamic executive director of a small North Carolina-based nonprofit, she moves through her day like silk across polished oak. Her ready smile and signature girl-next-door charm exude a level of calm which belies the magnitude of her accomplishments.

In the twelve years since creating Abundance NC, Tami has built a vibrant local economy, beginning with Chatham Marketplace, a local food co-op grocery. In support of the Abundance mission “to cultivate and celebrate community resilience,” Tami and her team provide farm-to-table dinners, workshops, conferences and festivals. All of which handily promote community resilience by building awareness and fostering connections.

Tami’s husband Lyle Estill is also a local hero, playful and well-connected with a giant roll-o-dex. Between them they must know everyone within 100 miles of Moncure and their influence extends across the nation and globally. If you want to make something happen, all you have to do it pitch it to Tami and Lyle.

Tami’s secret is her natural penchant for parties. Even as a young girl, she loved to throw a party and has developed her talent into a fine art. Tami’s parties are legendary events, often themed and thrumming with costumed revelry. Her Mardi Gras parties come to mind, as does the Alice in Wonderland party she put together to celebrate her daughter Jess’s engagement.


Two hearts aligned, Judy Wicks and Tami Schwerin at the Money and Meaning Conference September 10, 2015

What Tami has always known and many of us are just catching onto is this; people like to have fun. If I had a nickel for each time I’ve heard the word fun come out of Tami’s mouth, I’d be swimming in dollars. It would appear that her life’s mission is to make sure everyone around her is having a good time and in that, she succeeds mightily.

I’m reading Judy Wicks’ memoir “Good Morning, Beautiful Business – The unexpected journey of an activist entrepreneur and local economy pioneer” and noticing the parallels between her life and Tami’s. Affirming Tami’s wisdom, Judy writes:

“And we’ve seen that when people get together, amazing things happen. So we create opportunities for people to come together to learn from, inspire and support one another, in their shared efforts to build more resilient communities.”

Today is Pepper Fest day and Tami is already out at Briar Chapel, setting things up for another legendary party this afternoon. It’s been raining for three days and the forecast is for more this afternoon but Tami is unfazed, posting to facebook: “Super excited about my new raincoat and THE 8TH ANNUAL AMAZING PEPPER FESTIVAL TODAY! 3-7pm….It will be an adventure…come on out and enjoy the covered food and music and kids events. Wear your rain gear! Ha!”

As I have come to realize, Tami’s ability to make everything more fun is what makes her nonprofit, her community and her life so successful. People respond to her and gravitate into her circle of light, eager to participate and support. Indeed, it was the twinkle in Tami’s eye that lured Bob and I here eight years ago. I couldn’t wait to throw in with Tami professionally, and when we saw the opportunity we bought a house in her neighborhood.

So there you have it: Tami follows her heart, and we follow her, eager to help create the antidote to the destructive soul-sucking global economy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading out to Pepper Fest!


Tami and Camille in the throes of the second annual Pepper Festival October 18, 2009

Lawns and Hay Fields

If the photo on the left troubles you and the one on the right makes you happy, you are like me. I find large expanses of lawn depressing. What a waste, I think. All those hours of mowing, and for what? Hay fields, on the other hand are full of pastoral promise. They evoke images of thriving farms and happy horses. Unfortunately, there are four times more lawns than hay fields in the my country. 40.5 million acres of lawn compared to 9.4 million in hay to be exact.

You may be thinking, “Oh Camille, here you go again. What could possibly be wrong with a lawn?” Well, for starters, it’s a waste of fuel. Add high-particulate air pollution, unnecessary water consumption and toxic lawn chemicals, and the lawn begins looking like a bad idea. Especially when you weigh the alternatives: farms, gardens, orchards, pastures, hay fields and wood lots.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Homeowners spend billions of dollars and typically use 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops.”

“According to IBIS World’s Landscaping Services market research report, the US lawn care market in 2014 generated revenue of $75 billion. The country with the next largest lawn care industry is Australia (with a) Garden industry worth $3 billion.”

“Spending an hour behind a roaring lawn mower can spew nearly the same amount of oily pollution into the air as a 100-mile car trip, according to a Swedish study.”

“Lawns with high maintenance (mowing, irrigation, and leaf blowing) and high fertilization rates have a net emission of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide that have large global warming potential.”

“More troubling still, the American perfect-turf ideal has been exported across the globe to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even Asia, where it is transforming parts of the countryside into replicas of the Augusta National golf course in Georgia.”

A large lawn is not just a field of grass, it’s the worst kind of mono-cropping. High maintenance, non-productive bling. Super-sized lawns represent conspicuous consumption in a country infamous for showing off its assets. No wonder they make my stomach churn.

Science Line – Lawns vs Crops in the Continental U S

ABC News – Study: Lawn Mowing Equals Car Trip

Wikipedia – Lawn

Columbia University – The Problem of Lawns

Lawn Starter – Lawn Care Around The World

AP Central – Lawn and Landscape in World Context, 1945-2000