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Adventures in Traditional Soap-Making

A Brief History of Traditional Soap-Making

traditional soap-making

Pannikin of soft-soap on chair at left

Then Almanzo was left alone in the kitchen, to take his bath.  His clean underwear was hanging on a chair-back to air and warm.  The wash-cloth and towel and the small wooden pannikin of soft-soap were on another chain.  He brought another washtub from the woodshed and put it on the floor in front of the open oven-door.

He took off his waist and one pair of socks and his pants.  Then he dipped some warm water from the tub on the stove into the tub on the floor.  He took off his other pair of socks and his underwear, and his bare skin felt good in the heat from the oven.  He toasted in the heat, and he thought he might just put on his clean underwear and not take a bath at all.  But Mother would look, when he went in the dining-room.

So he stepped in the water.  It covered his feet.  With his fingers he dug some of the brown, slimy soft-soap from the pannikin and smeared it on the washcloth.  Then he scrubbed himself well all over.

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Chapter 7 Saturday Night)

That “soft-soap” is what we are after.  I’ve called it “man soap,” or “kick ass soap.”  The traditional methods of making soft-soap go back literally thousands of years.  The basic process involves leaching ashes in water to produce “lye-water,” and then mixing the lye-water with a fat, or fats, usually over heat, to “saponify” the fats.  In Almanzo’s case the soft-soap would probably have been made from cooking and heating-fire ashes, saved from the previous winter, and left-over fats from cooking.  Soap-making was springtime work, and it was work, without question, and usually the responsibility of the woman of the house.  In a perfect world, the resulting product contains neither fat nor lye, but only soap, the two ingredients having been totally consumed in the saponification process.  I’ve called it “man soap,” or “kick ass soap.”  It’s real, it’s natural, it was traditionally made from waste products, and it does the job.  And, the devil is indeed in the details; more on that to come in this post. Read more

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Wellpump Failure!

Background

Equipment failures never happen at an opportune time, and this was no exception to that rule.  It was about 0300 the moring of the 21st when Geri woke me to tell me that we had no water pressure in the house, and that day was our first running the new Primal Woods Pure Michigan Maple Syrup evaporator, and all of the associated new equipment.  I had no time for this wellpump failure!  But of course, I had to make time.  That time was this morning, when sap was not yet flowing, and when I did not have enough sap onhand to fire up the evaporator again.

Today’s Actions

Wellhead cover off

The braided line is connected to the body of the wellpump, and ensures that it does not fall to the bottom of the hole if the PEX tubing and wiring break.  Read on to learn more. Read more

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Improving White-tailed Deer Utilization – Part 1

The first White-tailed Deer of the season, image from Instagram

I killed two white-tailed deer this year, field dressed and hung each to age a bit, and then took them to my processor to be made into cuts (steaks, chops, roasts, etc.), ground venison, and sausages.  I also helped my friend Jacob to get his deer processed, and it was during an exchange between us and the processor, that the processor mentioned that the amount of meat typically returned to his customers, as a fraction of hanging weight, is approximately 35%.  When recently picking up the meat from a 1/2 steer (grass fed) that Geri and I had purchased, that processor told me that the yield for beef is typically 70% of hanging weight; of course they have been bred to maximize meat production.  Still, I found the 35% yield from white-tails to be too low, unacceptably low in fact; if I am going to take the life of an animal I want to use as much of the animal as is possible.  With that in mind, I established the following goal in the 2016 Year in Review post:

Homestead BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) 2017 – Butcher, process and preserve at least one deer, on the homestead; improve utilization from 35% of hanging weight to >=60%

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Warré Bee Hive Construction – Part II

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It is a rainy and cool fall day, in the middle of a week predicted to be rainy and cool, which has the benefit of finally bringing me back around to Part II of two-part series on building a Warré bee hive.  It is hard to believe that I wrote Warré Beehive Construction – Part I over two and a half years ago; I am not proud of that fact!

We started Primal Woods, LLC this year, and as part of the “Sugarers” subsidiary, of course honey is a part.  The plan is in place to double the number of hives each year until we have at least 64.  Even at a relatively modest 25 lbs of honey per hive per year, that would add up to 1,600 lbs of honey per year.  Having said that, with all of the various pressures that honeybees are under, from pesticides in particular, it is possible that their production might be cut in half, or more.  For now though, 64 hives seems like an aggressive target.  Inside of that number, the plan is to double each year until we get to 64, so this year that meant building an additional two hives; it will be four more in 2017, eight in 2018, and so on. Read more

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Garden Improvements 2016

Rough plan view of garden and improvements, more or less to scale

We installed the garden in year two on the site, that would have been 2014.  Basically that involved designating a space, installing the five 4 foot by 8 foot raised beds, on contour, and filling those beds with topsoil.  The soil profile on the home-site is 2 inches of topsoil, atop five feet of clay, almost clean enough to throw pots with straight out of the ground, resting on sand, almost as fine as powdered sugar.  In short, it is not great soil as-is for a vegetable garden.  This year so far, we have added about 4 cu. ft. of compost to each of the raised beds; call that a wheel barrow full in each.  Now though, we are getting a bit more ambitious.

There are a few reasons why we are getting more ambitious, and why we are perhaps a little impatient in making our garden more productive.  First of all, our diet has changed pretty radically over the course of the past two years, for reasons I may go into in detail in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that it is for health-related reasons.  This past year we have got a better handle on what we put in our mouths, and we want to grow more of that food ourselves, organically.  Secondly, in partnership with a friend, we are going to raise a few meat chickens this summer and into fall; if allowed, chickens can be hell on a garden. Read more

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Life’s Work

It seems like it has been forever since I posted, or was it yesterday?  To say that we have been caught up in something of a whirlwind is probably an understatement.  Just 4 days after my last post, on 24 September 2015, my now former employer made a public release, “BUILDING FOR A STRONGER FUTURE, CATERPILLAR ANNOUNCES RESTRUCTURING AND COST REDUCTION PLANS.”  Some of us have felt that tightening in the gut that follows showing up at the job only to find out that your badge does not work!  Typically the cause has nothing to do with an end to employment, rather it is a system malfunction of some sort, or you kept your badge to close to your cell phone, or another of the innumerable and perfectly innocuous possible causes.  Am I a part of the “stronger future,”  or am I a part of “cost reduction?”  Warranted or no, the guts tighten up a bit until the matter is resolved, or at least understood.  So it was on the morning of 24 September. Read more

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A Calling

This post is along the same lines as my first, from back in February of 2014, titled “Spring 2013: In the Beginning…”  Focused on introspection, what’s going on inside, as opposed to the “how” of this or that.  Like all of us, consciously or not, I have been on something of a personal development journey, and the past 6 years or so, with Geri’s huge impact on my life, the speed of development has increased dramatically, and we have been on the journey together.  <Now some might say, “what personal development?”  Ha!  Well, if that is you, I will just remind you that there is this blind spot we all have, called “what I don’t know that I don’t know.”  And in this case you should thank God for that!>  As we have eliminated a lot of the noise from our lives, attracted the positive and eliminated the negative, systematically, and with intention, we have been able to feel and hear ourselves with increased sensitivity, it seems to me.  The most recent example of this for me, was Facebook.  It just had to stop, so for those of you wondering about my silence, there you have it.  The homestead Facebook page is still being maintained, but I have not been on my personal page in several weeks.  It has made a huge difference; I have a lot more stillness in my life.  That is not saying anything bad about Facebook, and there are certainly great aspects of the experience, which I miss, but for me it became just another addiction, and I invested more time and energy in it than I should have.  The point is, after eliminating a lot of modern day distractions, TV being the first several years ago, the resulting quiet is gorgeous.  In the space left behind is the work, and a state of more heightened awareness of ourselves is a key benefit of “doing the work,” as Geri likes to say, on ourselves and our relationships. Read more

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It is Tapping Time, And That Means Spring!

Here we go, in southwest Michigan!  The 10-day forecast includes what appears to be an almost picture perfect start to the maple sugaring season.

10-day weather forecast for Kalamazoo, Michigan

Starting on Saturday, 7 March, you can see that the daily high and low temperatures will bracket the freezing point for six days in a row; that dynamic is what causes maple trees to develop a positive pressure when the temperature rises above freezing, pushing sap out of the tree.  I will plan to tap at least some of our trees on the morning of Saturday 7 March, and I would bet that they will start flowing that afternoon. Read more

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Top 7 Messages from The Land Ethic Reclaimed MOOC

Perhaps as I did, you might ask, “what is a MOOC?”  According to Oxford Dictionaries [1]:

Pronunciation: /mook/
Definition of MOOC in English:NOUN
A course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people:  ‘anyone who decides to take a MOOC simply logs on to the website and signs up‘ORIGIN
early 21st century: from massive open online course, probably influenced by MMOG and MMORPG.

My homepage in the Coursera iPad app

I believe I owe a debt of gratitude to Mary C., and the Van-Kal Permaculture Facebook page, for the lead to this treasure trove.  I am sure there are other sources, but this particular course was offered through Coursera, so I signed up on-line and also downloaded the app for my iPad.   There are many course offerings from a large number of prestigious institutions, accessible by browsing or searching the course catalog. Read more

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Forest Products: Hard Maple Flooring

American hophornbeam for fencing

I have posted on more than one occasion, regarding the felling of trees, bucking and splitting to produce wood fuel, and chipping to produce mulch.  There is also American hophornbeam (aka ironwood, see under “Trees” on the Plants & Animals page) growing on the homestead, which makes great fence posts; I have perhaps 15 to 20 such posts air drying now.  Hophornbeam can also be used to make long bows and re-curve bows, which I intend to attempt in the future.  Of course maple syrup is another  forest product, and one we intend to expand our production of in the spring of 2015.  And the list goes on.

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