Spiders and Lizards and Toads, OH MY

So one of the goals that SSH and I have set for our house is to not use herbicides or pesticides unless absolutely necessary. (Fire ant piles are one of the few things so far that’s been necessary) We use neem oil, baking soda, and other preventative measures with our plants, plus a mulching lawnmower to keep the grass nice. And a trowel and some elbow grease to remove weeds that get big enough to look particularly icky.

One of the benefits of this treatment is the healthy, thriving ecosystem in our yard. We have lots of beneficial insects, including wasps, dragonflies, and assassin bugs, plus honeybees in the bee garden. And we also have a ton of native critters.

Brown earth snakes and garter snakes hang around, especially in the gardens. We’ve had a snapping turtle take up residence under the tomato plants. And the lizards. Holy crap, so many lizards. When you open any of the doors, herds of baby lizards go streaking across the sidewalk. I’m always afraid I’m going to step on one. The anoles get bigger than any I’ve seen before too – some are close to 6 inches.

In the last week I have seen six separate toads. I am reasonably sure they are actually six DIFFERENT toads, and not the same toad six times. Some in the gardens, some around the potted plants, one hanging out on the front porch. Cute, fat toads.

And now that it’s getting to be fall, the jewel-back spiders are out again.

I was thinking about this today, and I realized it sounds a little like a wicked witch lives here. We’re actively cultivating a yard with a snake, toad, lizard, and spider population.

But then I also have a garden specifically for bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies, so I guess that balances out.

The Best Soap Ever

*crossposted from Seven Deadly Divas*

Back when I was in college, I decided to start growing out my hair. On a long hair care board, I ran across a discussion of something called a “shampoo bar”. My hair is somewhere between wavy and curly, extremely fine, and relatively thin, so I have to be pretty careful with what I wash it with – curly hair likes lots of moisture, and regular shampoos give me the bad aquanet frizz look. Not very attractive.

After a lot of forum reading, I started looking into shampoo bars, since I figured it was worth at least experimenting. I learned that some of them are essentially just solid state shampoo – a detergent with sulfates that had the exact same effect on my hair as regular bottled shampoo. Others, however, were made with super-fatted soaps and not detergents at all.

Brief Intro to Soap:

Soap happens when you mix oil/fat/butter with lye. The chemical reaction is called saponification, and when it’s completed and the soap has cured, you’re not actually left with any lye, just soap, glycerine, and water. People can make soap with animal fats (tallow) or vegetable oils and butters.

Tallow soaps are very hard and can be harsh – my grandmother made some tallow soap and while nobody uses it to clean their skin on a regular basis, it will get engine grease off your hands or pretty much any stain out of clothing. (It also smells vaguely like sausage.) Soap for your skin is usually made with vegetable fats and is much gentler. Super-fatted soap is soap made with more oils/fats/butters than the added lye can saponify into soap, leaving delicious skin conditioning oils and butters behind in the soap.

Natural and handmade soaps also still have all the glycerine – a saponification byproduct that draws and holds moisture (humectant). Most commercial soaps remove the glycerine because they can then sell it to you in more expensive stuff, resulting in a harsher soap for you and more money for them, when you buy their glycerine lotions.

ANYWAY.

After a bit of highly unfortunate experimenting, I saw a recommendation for shampoo bars made by a lady named Ida. Ida runs an online (and in person, if you live in Ohio) shop called Chagrin Valley Soap and Craft. Most of the reviews were highly favorable about her handmade soap as well.

I bought some samples – both of her shampoo bars and of her myriad soap offerings. It didn’t take long for me to get totally hooked. While my hair only needs to be scrubbed with shampoo about once a week (otherwise I just wash it with water and light conditioner), I use her soaps every day.

My skin is weird – my face is oily and acne prone, but also very sensitive to cleansers and most face washes will leave me with horrible pizza-like patches of acne after just a few days. The rest of my body, especially my arms and legs, gets dry, bumpy itchy patches all year long, worse in winter (even here in the swamp, where we only get quasi-winter-ish weather for a few short months).

I’ve tried going Soap Free, and had about as much failure as Haemonic has had success – I wouldn’t necessarily say I stunk, but my skin was VERY UNHAPPY, even if I did drastically cut down on how often I wash the not-dirty skin (like my upper arms). Also, I do a lot of gardening. At the end of a good afternoon of work in the garden, not only are my hands and feet dirty, my legs are dirty, my hair is dirty, my ears are dirty, I probably have dirt up my nose, and depending on the wind and how sweaty I get? I probably have dirt in my bra too.

Such occasions actually require soap.

Changing over to super-fatted natural soap instead of detergent-based cleansers (or bars! many “bar soaps” at the big box store are actually detergent) got rid of all but the worst winter itchies and calmed my skin so that I only use one acne related product and a light moisturizer all year long. Which is good, because if you’re used to buying a 12 pack of Big Box Brand Antibacterial Body Soap for $3, paying for individual bars of handcrafted soap will make you a little dizzy. Being able to cut down on all the other gunk I was using helped offset the price, and I was supporting an awesome small business at the same time.

Now, I’m not going to say that only Ida makes really great handmade soaps. In fact, I know she’s one of many awesome crafters who make amazing skincare products. But if you’ve never tried a handmade, super-fatted soap before, I highly recommend you try one. And if you don’t know which one to try, maybe try a sample bar or three from Ida.

Not sure where to start? Try the Chamomile and Calendula, Cucumber Lime Yogurt, or Lemon Lavender – they’re all wonderful. If you’ve got acne prone skin, the Neem and Tea Tree is good, and extremely sensitive skin will do well with the Aloe soap and the Olive and Shea.

My favorite shampoo bars are the Carrot Milk and Honey and the Butter Bar.

I put in my first order to Ida in 2004, back before she had a checkout cart and processed all her orders just by email. These days things are more automated, and Ida has a full checkout system on her site, but the soaps are still just as awesome.

And the best part of mail ordering your soap?

Your mailbox (and your bathroom cabinet) will smell AMAZING.

To get the most use out of your handmade soaps (of ANY variety), you should store them out of direct contact with water on a tray of some kind so that they can dry. Because of the glycerine in natural soap, it tends to absorb water and “melt” more easily than detergent soaps. I also cut my soap and shampoo bars into thirds, since that gives me a good hand-sized chunk to work with and keeps the rest of the bar out of the humid shower air until I need it.

Clotheslines and Eco-Bullshit

I live in Texas.

In Texas, it is HOT in the summer. Our air conditioner runs almost continuously during the heat of the day, and we keep it set at 80 degrees. Running an electric clothes dryer, even one next to the wall that vents outside, only adds to that burden and contributes to my being a sweaty mess, sitting half-naked under a ceiling fan eating frozen grapes.

Ahem.

So I decided to pester Spaceship Husband until he’d help me set up a clothesline. (I’m short, he’s tall. Much easier if he helps.)

After some hemming and hawing, we opted for a “trial run” of a clothesline looped between two trees in our yard. I’d suspect it cost about $10 to set up – two bags of clothespins and a length of poly clothesline. It’s not perfect (it tends to loosen itself), but it works for now and will be super easy to take down if we have guests/etc.

I’ve learned a few things though, since I installed it. Call it “trial by sunlight” if you will:

  • If you have a yard full of mosquitoes, they will eat you alive while you hang clothes. Bugspray is your friend, and try not to be out at twilight.
  • Clothing hung on a line can be a little stiff if it’s a “knit” and not a “woven” – a couple of good shakes and snaps can help, and that stiffness will wear out in a few minutes.
  • If you hang your clothes in the sunshine, hang them inside out, otherwise the sun can fade them.
  • A clothesline that is a little bit too tall is OK – it’ll sag some when you get clothes on it.
  • You’ll want a good number of clothespins (50 is a good start, I have about 100 – they’re very inexpensive), and you’ll want an easy way to get to them. A canister in the laundry basket works. My favorite is in a simple pocket-apron. You may also be able to find patterns for cool clothespin hangers that actually hang on the clothesline.
  • Put the laundry hamper in the middle of the line and work from there, otherwise you’ll have to keep moving the hamper.
  • You can pair up your socks as you hang them – leave space after each one, and add in the second of the pair when you find it. Then you can just fold straight from the line.
  • It takes about an hour for average clothes to dry on the line – longer for towels, less for sheets. Your mileage will, of course, vary by location, temperature, and wind.
  • Some things (like jeans) you’ll probably still want to put through the dryer. That’s OK too. It’ll take a few loads of laundry to figure out what those items are. One run of the dryer is a LOT less hot than four.
  • Some things, like sheets and cotton things, will actually be LESS wrinkly if you dry them on a line. Which means less ironing. Woo!
  • If you don’t have a yard, you may be able to hang a retractable clothesline on a porch (if you have one of those). If you can’t hang a clothesline in the yard OR on a porch, consider some wooden folding drying racks that you can put up inside. I got mine at Target, I think. I use them for … unmentionables … but they can be used year round and in the rain too. Actually, I think having at least one is a good idea for anyone, clothesline or not.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave things overnight if you need to – one night won’t kill the clothes, and the sun should burn off any dampness quickly. Rain, however, poses a possible soggy problem.
  • Your clothes really will smell good. Kind of… breezy and outside-y. They won’t smell like overheated fiber, like clothes out of my dryer do (even on “low”). And it’s free, post rope purchase.

I’ve been pretty pleased with the results. For one, it encourages me to do laundry intermittently, and not try to cram it all into one hot day whereby I swear off even looking at the washer for another two weeks. It also gets me outside – which is HOT too, but for some reason it’s different being in the sun/wind than it is roasting away folding hot clothes in my living room. (Also, the clothes off the line are sun-warmed, but not nearly as burn-your-knuckles-on-a-button hot as clothes out of the dryer).

And honestly, with as much time as I spend in the garden, I’m out there anyway – I can usually hang a load of damp clothes from the washer, water the garden, weed, do any other garden chores, and then take things down.

Now for the eco-bullshit part.

I’ve debated about writing this post for a few weeks, because of what it could get construed into meaning.

There is so much crap, for lack of a better term, piled onto things like this. I’m not necessarily trying to “get off the grid” (I like me some internets), and I’m not trying to be political. But I do think it’s smart to take advantage of things – like my time (I’m still unemployed) and the sunshine and wind, and my love of gardening and being outside. And if that can be “eco-friendly”, save energy or water, or save myself a few bucks, I’m all for it. That doesn’t give me any moral superiority, it’s just what I can do with what I have.

I think taking care of the earth is smart and responsible. I also think that living like a “modern human” is pretty great too.

I’m not sure why it’s so politically charged to replace burned out light bulbs with fluorescents (which, admittedly, have their own issues) or use reusable things vs. disposable ones or have a garden or recycle or maybe put up a clothesline or a rain barrel (most of which are done as much in the name of saving a few dollars as being “eco-friendly”) without getting sucked into the judgmental, us vs. them, “green” bullshit.

I guess what I’m looking for is perspective – not making things into some great political decision, not demonizing someone who can’t afford to do “X”.

I like showers and my washing machine and being able to read a book in bed with the light on (or turn on a light so I don’t stub my toe into the bathroom door at 3am). And I like growing a garden and finding ways to keep it happy without using chemicals (when I can) and drying my clothes on a line and canning pickles.

That shouldn’t sound mutually exclusive, and I don’t think it has to be.

And I’m really not sure where I’m going with this, at this point. I’m obviously not saying that being environmentally conscious is bad. I just think that there HAS to be a middle ground somewhere, and that there’s a level of name-calling and finger pointing that gets lumped into these kinds of discussions that I don’t like. These kinds of “eco-conscious actions” get politicized so often, and they don’t need to be. Some of them are just fun for me to do (pickles), others make financial sense (clothesline, energy saving appliances), others are little, practical things that anyone can do (using a reusable vs. disposable thing). There’s a HUGE margin (and a happy medium) between Patrick Pollution and Ginny Granola*.

I think most of us fit in the middle somewhere, and that’s OK.

*How did granola get to be such a symbol of the radical environmental movement? It’s tasty…