Laura McLeod
“We worked hard, and we made everything, but we were also fortunate,” said Lois. “We had the farm, so we always had food. We gave it away to anyone who wanted it. All during the depression, we helped others. Folks were generous – we all did what we could.” At 97 years old, Lois remains fiercely independent. She's pictured here while working in her yard.

Green My Ballard: Lean times offer greener lining

My 97-year-old neighbor Lois is fiercely independent. She grew up during the Great Depression, faced down cancer in her 60s, lost her husband in her late 70s, and recouped from a broken hip in her early 90s. She still drives when she needs to. And she hates to ask for help.

And still I offer. As do the other neighbors. She occasionally accepts, albeit reluctantly. She often offers payment (declined). The real payment is in her stories.

Reflections on the Great Depression

“When you’re growing up, you have fun, but you don’t realize how good you have it,” she said. “I guess we were all poor, but we didn’t know we were poor. We made lots of things, my mom sewed everything. We learned how to do things because they needed to be done. We learned to work, we learned out to figure things out. During the depression, we gave stuff to anyone who needed it… No one sold anything, they gave it to them. The farm life was a close knit group that took care of one another. “

Lois grew up with 10 siblings – five brothers and five sisters – on a farm outside of Elma, Washington, in Grays Harbor County. They raised all their own food – pigs, cattle, chickens, vegetables… The 11 kids, along with two cousins, were the worker bees: They picked the orchard fruits, cut hay, worked the fields, milked cows, chopped wood, fished, pickled and preserved foods, baked bread, and made butter from cream. Lois learned equipment maintenance and repair (which could account for the jerry-rigged mechanics around her house, such as the pulley system she uses to get groceries from garage to kitchen). Fending for herself became second nature, but so did generosity.

“We worked hard, and we made everything, but we were also fortunate,” said Lois. “We had the farm, so we always had food. We gave it away to anyone who wanted it. All during the depression, we helped others. Folks were generous – we all did what we could.”

Lois learned a lot about food on the farm. She warns, “Be careful about meats. Wash chickens with salt water and vinegar, then dry and cook thoroughly. It’s a good idea to scrub all your meats with salt water and vinegar.”
“You have to remember that animals are fed foods that aren’t entirely pure,” she continued. “We should never feed our hogs or chickens anything that wasn’t good food, but I worry about what they’re doing to our food these days. And no matter how much we wash our food, we’re still eating a lot of pesticides.”

“More and more, we’re going to have to be self-sufficient again, and we could do it,” she said. “People are going to go back to home canning. Pressure cookers make it quicker – we had to use hot water baths. I learned a long time ago that if you’re canning tomatoes in hot water, in order to get away from food poisoning, put in a teaspoon of lemon juice. Most things like certain vegetables will keep a long time in the refrigerator if you put something like vinegar on them; for more than three or four days, it’s better to freeze them.”

She also doesn’t throw things away very often. She says people these days are trying to buy old things because they work better than some of our newer stuff.

Fast forward to today

Take away horses, cows, and the lack of some modern conveniences, and her story sounds a lot like the sustainable communities popping up in urban areas everywhere – even before our great recession.

A recent Sustainable Ballard meeting focused on Simple Living: Tips from Your Neighbors during Difficult Times. Ballard residents Deanna Duke, Kathy Pelish, and Jody Grage shared their own experiences.
Deanna, noted author and environmentalist, is working toward self-sufficiency, and helps others do the same through her nationally recognized blog, The Crunchy Chicken. She regularly challenges readers to step out of their comfort zones. The “Freeze Your Buns” challenge asks that we lower our thermostats during the winter months – even just 3 degrees. “We’re heading into a low energy future,” said Deanna, “so we need to start living differently.”

She also noted that “food waste is the largest landfill contributor.” An interesting statistic: 40 – 50% of our food goes into landfills. To Lois’ point about pesticides in our food, she noted that the FDA relies on manufacturer safety testing – whether in food additives or body products – rather than conducting their own tests. And manufacturers only test for immediate impacts, not long term, and don’t account for “biocumulative” effects. Deanna recommends going organic.

Kathy, long-time Sustainable Ballard member and co-founder of Salish Sea Trading Cooperative, learned, like Lois, “to be joyful in constrained circumstances” growing up in New Jersey, flavor factory capitol of the world (to their credit, they also have some of the cleanest water in the country now). Kathy advocates eating locally, preserving our food, and increasing our local food production, noting that in Havana, Cuba, in-city gardens can almost feed the urban population. She acknowledged, "We need to think in terms of durable, efficient, economical, and lasting.”
We can no longer afford to always have bigger and better.

At a young age, Jody, activist and retired teacher, learned from her father that “you could do things differently from others and it would work.” She suggested starting clothing exchanges, remaking clothes, planting vegetable gardens, and raising chickens.

“What’s a standard of living?” she asked. “How much stuff do you need? Can you do with 1/3 less of everything? We have or use about 1/3 more of what we need. You have to make your own list of what you value.” She recommended reading the book, Values Clarification.

A closing slide included the (unattributed) quote: A good planet is hard to find.

Indeed it is. We have to take care of the one we have. Lois suggests we “listen to old people.” They’ve had a lot of practice doing with less.

Coming up next weekend:

Moving Planet, Saturday, September 24 – a global/local event by – Join Sustainable Ballard and Salish Sea Transport Cooperative to kayak, paddle or sail to the South Lake Union Moving Planet event. 10 am start point is 24th St. end dock. Contact Andrea ( for more details. Workshops, events, and a rally to demonstrate our community’s call for clean energy and transportation solutions.
Sustainable Ballard Festival, Sunday, September 25, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Ballard Commons Park – interactive displays, storytelling for kids, games, chickens, goats, live music, outdoor classrooms, do-it-yourself workshops, cooking and gardening demonstrations, money-saving tips, learn about health and well-being, or action and advocacy.

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