09 February, 2009

Nature, Harmony, and When There's None

Bleak. Stark. Still. We'd heard the stories and should've known, what with For Sale signs declaring the area's decline, that our drive through the towns of the Lower Murray would dampen the mood of our day.

Imagine you've based your life on a river. You fish for food and profit, you provide riverboats and tours for visitors. You do what your parents did, and their parents. You farm, live, exist on the river. Now, imagine a course of five years when the rains stop falling, irrigation channels are built, and the water slowly drains from your town like someone pulled the plug from the tub. This is what has happened in South Australian towns like Goolwa and the island of Hindmarsh.

A mixture of epic drought and urban water use has left the lower Murray, nearest it's mouth, with nothing but a small trickle of water. Boats sit neglected, run aground for more than a year, and tourism-centered main streets are left quiet, vacant.

I'd heard of this situation countless times on the news as some river-dwellers lobby for an injection of sea water into their basin, just to get the fishing boats afloat, and others still fight against the influx to avoid poisoning the fresh and brackish drizzle of water remaining with high-salt oceanic flow. It's another thing, entirely, to see it up close. To walk on what should have been covered three meters deep in brown-green currents.

Thanks to water locks and dams, the middle and upper Murray aren't suffering the same fate. Even other South Aussie spots, such as Renmark, are thriving on deep waters, their businesses taking up the tourist slack from the loss further south. But, as long as other states continue to drain the bulk of flow for their own use, the Murray's end will continue to become little more than a creek.

I wish there was a way, in our own homes, to contribute to the health of the Lower Murray, but it lies in the hands of politicians. This, of course, means it lies in the hands of registered voters. Follow your conscience. Even if you benefit from the re-routing of Murray waters, perhaps you can see clear to helping those who are suffering.

Climate and urban development have not been kind to Australia in the past few years. As I type this, hundreds of people are wading in knee-deep waters just to walk across their living room, submerged in the Queensland floods. Closer to home, tens of thousands of acres of Victorian and New South Wales homes, farms, and bushland are burning. And in our own back yard, there was an unbelievable life toll in the recent heat wave of more than a week above 40 C (104 F).

If the river's cause is not your cup of tea, then see if you can lend a hand to those surviving this impossible time, all during such an impossible economy. If you can't afford a financial donation, people in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, and New South Wales are in need of many forms of assistance. Old air conditioners for heatwave sufferers, blood donations for fire victims, and gifts of food, clothing, books, and toys for both the flood and fire survivors. Below are a few links I've found of ways to help. If you know of others, please share them in comments.

For those worldwide, keep Australia in your thoughts.

Save the Murray, Red Cross Bushfire Relief Fund, Salvation Army Bushfire and Flood Relief Appeal, South Australian State Emergency Service, SA Drought Link

07 February, 2009

One Hot, One Cold

When Autumn and Spring drift into these Australian lands, I can share recipes to my heart's delight, as the weather of both northern and southern hemispheres is similar. But, in these simmering summer months, I find it hard to get in the sharing spirit, knowing only half of my friends can relate. So, here's the solution. One hot and one cold! I hope you enjoy these treats. They keep me and mine comforted in the winter and refreshed on a summer's morn.

Sweet Honeyed Cornbread

3/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 eggs
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup milk
1 cup water
2 cups cornmeal (or fine polenta, for the Aussies)
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 190 C (375 F).

Crack eggs into a large bowl, whisking gently, then add butter, sugar, and honey. Cream together these ingredients then slowly add in milk and water.

In a separate bowl, sift together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt.

Add dry to wet, mixing until just combined as over-mixing will toughen your bread. Pour into a lightly greased pan.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out virtually clean. Cool for 5 minutes, slice and serve warm.

This is great served with green beans and potatoes, cooked with ham hock. Also excellent with chili or stew. I'll have to include some of those recipes at a later date.

Dried Delights Granola

4 cups rolled or steel-cut oats
1 cup wheat germ
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup crushed or sliced nuts (I like almonds and walnuts!)
1 cup dried fruit (raisins/sultanas, dried cranberry, chopped dates*)
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup canola oil
3 tbsp water
Preheat oven to a very low heat, around 150 C (300 F)

Mix together the oats, wheat germ, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, and nuts and set aside.

In a small pan, stir together honey, oil, and water. Heat until simmering. You can also do this, carefully, in the microwave. Just don't look away for too long!

Stir the hot syrup into your dry mixture, making certain all ingredients are very well combined. Grease two large, rectangular baking pans or cookie sheets and spread the moistened mixture evenly between them.

Bake for 30 minutes, occasionally stirring the granola to achieve equal browning.

After 30 minutes, add in any dried fruit you're including (*except for dates! These harden too much in the oven and should only be added in after the mix has baked and cooled). Bake for an additional 30 minutes or until the granola is golden brown.

Cool on trays, undisturbed. Once the granola is cool, gently break apart with a wooden spoon to create small clusters.

Place your freshly made granola into an air-tight container and enjoy for the next two or three weeks!

Recipe makes roughly 2 litres or 2 quarts, and is delicious as a breakfast cereal, or layered on top of yogurt with berries or chopped fruit on top.

03 February, 2009

10 Ways to Hike Up Your Homestead

The Realm of Home Improvement is a special level of hell reserved for masochists and wide eyed dreamers. You fix and change, renovate and re-do, and you always find more waiting on the horizon. But my, how we love it! The scent of sawdust is a near aphrodisiac and nothing beats the instant gratification of a splotched, hopeless wall suddenly gleaming to life with fresh paint.

If, like us, you have some outstanding credit card debt, or perhaps a devil-loan that seemed a good idea at the time, a few small upgrades to your home can raise the value and boost your budget more than even years of gardening and preserving. With even less done than the suggestions in this post, we increased our property value by over 30%, inspite of slow home sales and falling prices, from our last valuation two years ago. The subsequent equity line paid off 86% of our high-interest debt and gave us a financial buffer to get us through any unforeseen hard times.

1. Paint it Red: Okay, maybe not red, but a fresh coat of paint can't be beat for bringing new life to tired walls. Strip off that 70's wallpaper and add some neutral favorites, but don't be afraid of a splash of color! A red wall in a bright room can be a beautiful touch. If you work in a trade, see if the boss will let you keep paint leftovers, or try to mix a few colors from previous home paint jobs. Just make sure the bases are compatible! No free paint? $40-50 for a quality can of your favorite hue will make a world of difference.

2. From the Floor Up: With a little money and a bit of time, you can update your floors to their previous farmhouse splendor. It may not go perfectly—We met with un-aged wood in stripes beneath sticky carpet adhesive—but even a slightly splotchy wood floor outranks an aging carpet or, heaven forbid, dated vinyl. You'll need a hired sander, an edging sander, sandpaper (in grits of 40, 80, and 100 or 120), spirits for clean-up, and a stain/sealant of your choosing. All totalled, the investment is around $200 for two midsized rooms and a hallway.

3. Kitchen Re-Do: Kitchens and bathrooms make up, perhaps, the largest segment of a home's sale value. They are the rooms we rely on for our most basic of needs and we like 'em pretty! Unless you are blessed with original wood cabinetry and shiny Wolf ovens, you might want to kick up the kitchen with a little bit of work and very little money. Plan ahead and find a friend who is re-doing their own better-than-yours kitchen. Offer to take the old stuff off their hands! You may have to make some adjustments, and you'll likely have to put off your new kitchen awhile as you hunt for the friend in question, but it will save you hundreds and earn you thousands in equity.

4. Organization is Key: A few well placed shelves, as well as orderly, clean appliances, tidy nick-knack displays, and removal of all yard debris will give the heads up to any appraiser that this home is well maintained. It also can't hurt your own personal peace of mind. Check out flea markets, op shops, and yard sales for secondhand shelving solutions, or build your own! Speaking of yard sales, why not have one? You'll clear the unneeded clutter and make some spare renovation funds along the way.

5. Garden Quick Fix: Mow the lawns, water as much as you're able, and then trim, trim, trim, shaving those hedges, trees, and roses into clean shapes. Rip out old, clunky or unruly plants, replace with potted color, such as pansies, or decorative grasses for hotter climes, or edible beauties like red cabbages, berry bushes, and curly lettuce. "Re-purpose" your bulbs from hidden nooks of the garden to simple driveway borders and garden wall liners. Put a fresh layer of mulch on everything, and weed those veggie beds. Remember, the goal is to have a clean garden that is attractive and appears low-maintenance, even if you know better.

6. Space it Out: One might think furnishings have nought to do with house value. This couldn't be further from the truth! While it's fact that your favorite sofa will never be packaged in a sale price, the location of that sofa can change everything. We Plotters are the (not so) proud owners of a huge L-shaped purple, overstuffed, micro-suede sofa. This monster used to sit with one end protruding into the dining area. A bit of effort in moving it to the opposite corner and it's a whole new room! Visually, the floorspace is doubled. So get to rearranging! Even if you change it back after the inspection is done.

7. Cleanliness and Godliness: I've no doubt that the majority of 'steaders out there keep a lovely house, but one final wipe-down can do wonders for perception. Wash the front windows, give the floors a shine with a bit of oil and lemon, scrub the sinks until they gleam using baking soda and muscle, and don't forget the baseboards and corner cobwebs too. It brightens the whole place, and light is a big factor in the value of your space.

8. Community Investment: Your house is well squared away but the neighborhood leaves a bit to be desired. This, unfortunately, affects everyone's property value. So, if your neighbor has a worn out yard, or clearly didn't make it past "Go" on their last clean-up day, offer to lend a hand. This is a good idea for any reason, but it will only serve to boost your appraisal when the bank (wo)man comes a-callin'.

9. Mother Nature Knows Best: In a hot climate? Don't schedule that valuation for the dry, dead season. Same goes for the winter-woes. Make Mother Nature work for you and try to squeeze in those appraisals while your yard is at it's best. We Plotters narrowly escaped drought disaster, having our valuation only weeks before the current record-smashing heatwave. The appraiser would've been met with wilted vines and shriveled shrubs instead of a lovely, green yard.

10. Common Scents: The nose is our most aware and evocative sensory tool. Your valuer isn't immune! Schedule your weekly bread-bake for the hours before inspection, or just simmer up a pot of spiced water on the stove. Aromas such as baked goods and warm cinnamon are known to inspire thoughts of hearth and home.

You only get 10-20 minutes of the bank valuer's time. Make the biggest impact you can! But please do your research before trekking this path. Housing prices have suffered only somewhat in Australia, but greatly in the Northern lands (US, UK) so know your neighborhood. Look at comparable houses that are actually selling, talk to your mortgage broker, and get ideas from friends. We all have learned our lessons and know debt-free is the way to be. I hope these tips help you on the road to freedom.