A must-have book for the twenty-first-century home..
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Ellen Sandbeck is an organic landscaper, worm wrangler, writer, and graphic artist who lives with (and experiments on) her husband and an assortment of younger creatures -- which includes two mostly grown children, a couple of dogs, a small flock of laying hens, and many thousands of composting worms -- in Duluth, Minnesota. She is the author of Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles and Eat More Dirt.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Ever since I first began landscaping organically in 1980, friends have been asking me for advice about how to solve problems around the home and garden without using chemicals or breaking too much of a sweat; in 1995, after I first self-published Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles: Amusing and Useful Techniques for Nontoxic Housekeeping and Gardening, total strangers began contacting me as well. When asked for housekeeping tips, I always made it clear that I was primarily an organic gardener and that the sole focus of my housekeeping was to keep my family healthy and happy. Period. But a couple of years ago, my focus broadened a bit: A few of my friends were unable to maintain control of their homes and the disorder was making them suffer. I spent many long, chatty days helping them clear out and reclaim their living and storage spaces. The profoundly life-changing effects of these cleaning and organizing sessions made me realize that I wanted to write a book about nontoxic housekeeping.
For several months, my big party joke went something like this: "Guess what the subject of my next book is?" Everyone guessed that I was writing another gardening book. After a well-calculated pause, I would deliver the punch line: "It's about organic housekeeping!" Incredulous and hysterical laughter generally erupted. The joke worked so well because I am one of the least domestic people I know. I prefer to spend as little time as possible doing housework: I would rather dig a ditch than iron a shirt. But on the other hand, my family is extremely healthy; I am quite knowledgeable about managing living systems, controlling pest organisms, and preventing disease; no one has ever gotten sick from my cooking or cleaning; and although both my husband and I had allergies when we were children, our offspring have no allergies at all. After they stopped laughing, most people told me they wanted a copy of the book as soon as it was published. My friends know that if there is an easy, low-maintenance, nontoxic way to accomplish a task, I will find it.
I have been an organic landscaper, gardener, and worm farmer for most of my adult life. One of my great pleasures is to design and set up a miniature ecosystem, tend and tweak it, and watch it balance itself out. During the years I have repeated this process in dozens of gardens, ranging in size from the tiny to the massive, and with hundreds of worm-composting systems for food waste, ranging in size from under-the-sink to large industrial. My goal with each of these projects has been to design a low-maintenance ecosystem that is as self-sufficient as possible.
Both a low-maintenance organic garden and a worm composting system depend upon beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms to break down organic waste materials, synthesize vital nutrients, and fend off harmful microorganisms. In this way they resemble all other living systems on our planet, whether that system is a prairie, a blue whale, or a human being. Without bacteria, the surface of much of our planet would rapidly be buried under piles of unrotted wood, leaves, and dead animals. But we would not be here to suffer the consequences because, without our intestinal microbes, we would long since have starved to death.
Unfortunately, many modern cleaning products contain antimicrobial agents. Like all other pesticides, antimicrobials have a tendency to kill off beneficial organisms while allowing harmful ones to proliferate. As they say: "Only the good die young." Our homes are our habitats, and our health depends upon a large population of helper microbes in and on our bodies as well as in our houses.
My housekeeping philosophy and my gardening philosophy are essentially the same: Evaluate the situation; work with what you have; don't make extra work for yourself; and as much as possible, avoid the use of toxic chemicals. In general, I've found that my attitude mirrors that of people who are the most knowledgeable about the effects of chemicals; all of the chemists, hazardous materials workers, emergency workers, and biological researchers whom I've interviewed avoid using synthetic chemicals in their own homes.
If we are to thrive physically, our air, water, and food must be clean. If we are to thrive emotionally, our shelter should be a home filled with love. With the exception of clothing, our basic needs are exactly the same as those of other mammals.
Many of us who live in the developed world have gone well beyond satisfying our basic physical and emotional needs. In fact, we have gone so far that some of those basic needs are no longer being met. We seem to have forgotten what our ancestors knew quite well: The only real reason to do any cleaning at all is in order to maintain our health. If that cleaning happens to make our homes and our clothing look prettier, so much the better. But if we clean just for appearances, rather than for health, we may end up rubbing our burning eyes, scratching our rough, reddened skin, and suffering asthma attacks while wearing soft, fragrant, toxic clothing in gleaming homes that make us dizzy with the aerosolized essence of mountain meadows. Then we can look out the windows and watch the robins fainting on our perfect lawns.
One spring Emily Dickinson wrote this down: "House is being cleaned. I prefer pestilence."
Before the twentieth century, housework was a grueling, full-time job that only the wealthiest householders were able to avoid. Carrying water, tending fires, making clothing, and cooking left very little time for other activities. Wood and coal fires and oil lamps produced soot that built up on walls, furniture, and carpeting each winter, making exhaustive spring cleaning a necessity.
Twentieth-century "labor saving" devices promised to change women's lives beyond recognition. A shirt that used to take months to sew by hand could be machine sewn in a matter of hours; central heating and gas and electric stoves rendered wood piles obsolete; and automatic washing machines and dryers liberated housekeepers from days of heavy labor every week.
Our predecessors knew that the reasons for doing household chores were to keep their families healthily fed, clothed, and sheltered and to protect the house and its contents from damage caused by pests and the elements. They would be shocked at the extra work we are making for ourselves. If a woman living in 1904 was transported one hundred years into the future and was given a washing machine and dryer, a vacuum cleaner, a sewing machine, a dishwasher, running water, indoor plumbing, electric lights, and a gas or electric stove, would she spend all that saved time fretting over bacteria in her drain or garbage pail, or worrying about whether dust mites inhabited her pillow?
In 1900, a newborn American's life expectancy was 47 years, but by 2000, it had increased to 74.8 years. This increase is due to the construction of municipal water and sanitation systems and to the development of vaccines. We are no longer dying in droves from diseases caused by poor sanitation; now we are suffering from chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, caused by our affluent and indolent lifestyle, and allergic diseases such as asthma and eczema, which many researchers believe are induced by too much cleanliness. Many of us seem to be suffering from alienation and depression as well.
Our great-grandmothers' homes were obviously clean enough, or we wouldn't exist. The extra sanitation promised by in-the-tank toilet cleaners, antimicrobial dish liquids, disinfecting sprays, and air fresheners is not making us happier or healthier. There is not a synthetic cleaning product on the market that can improve our health, though there are plenty that can ruin it.
One thing that our foremothers knew only too well is that housework is tedious, repetitious, and boring. Suggesting that housework is fulfilling or satisfying or that you can get exercise by doing deep knee bends while cleaning is disingenuous. The only rational response is to do housework efficiently and as little as possible, then go out and do something you enjoy.
In 2002, researchers at the University of Glasgow officially discovered that doing domestic chores lowers people's spirits; all other known forms of exercise elevate them. Professor Nanette Mutrie, who is on the Scottish Executive's national physical task force, said, "With vigorous exercise, the effect is clear; the more you do, the better it is for wellbeing.... With housework it is the opposite -- the more you do, the more depression you report."
We cannot afford to assume that industry has our health and best interests at heart. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and America's first surgeon general, wrote, "There is a place in Scotland where madness is sometimes induced by the fumes of lead. Patients who are affected with it bite their hands, and tear the flesh upon other parts of their bodies..." Yet lead was added to gasoline to improve engine performance until 1976, when it was banned by the federal government. Lead was also a common ingredient in house paints until the government banned it in 1977. Inner-city children are still suffering from the effects of exposure to lead-based paints and lead contaminated soils.
If industry can ignore lead's well-known toxicity, how much more easily can it ignore the as-yet-unknown dangers of newly invented synthetics? More than seventy-five thousand different synthetic chemicals have been formulated in the United States and have been released on to the market and into the environment. An additional two thousand to three thousand new chemicals are introduced each year. Not even the most brilliant and dedicated chemist could possibly keep track of all of them. How can a lay person hope to be well informed enough to make intelligent choices about which products to buy and which to avoid?
I was underwhelmed when I read a December 21, 2000, news release from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which began as follows: "As part of EPA's commitment to increase chemical information, two notice...
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