Category Archives: Eco Thrifty Baby

Permaculture Kids: Integrate – Don’t Segregate

There is always a lot to do when practicing regenerative agriculture on a worn out horse property. But instead of the children getting in the way of getting work done, we try as much as possible to integrate them into the day-to-day workings on the farm, as well as with special events.

Verti, who is nearly 4, helps feed the birds every afternoon. She also loves digging drains, planting in the garden and picking fruit. Manu is still too young to help, but I can put him in a backpack and get a good three hours worth of work done. (I do occasionally forget he’s on my back and accidentally bump his head into a branch or low doorway.)

Another one of Verti’s jobs is to welcome visitors onto the farm and give a little tour. Here she is with 17 teenage boys from Wanganui Collegiate School this week.

We believe integrating the children with our work on the farm is all a part of instilling in them what is normal for a family: composting, cutting firewood, growing veges, raising hens, eating cockerels, and soon milking goats.

When we look towards an uncertain future of environmental decline and when many current occupations will not even exist, it’s really time to think, “What are the characteristics and skills we need to develop in our young people and how do we help nurture their development?”

The short answer is getting them outdoors as much as possible and away from screens of all types. That’s a start anyway.


Peace, Estwing

Driftwood Dream Playground

Our driftwood playground is finally complete…for now.

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The latest addition is a child-friendly ‘bridge/ladder’ over a roofing iron fence from the pigpen to the playground. How appropriate!

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Talk about a design challenge: making an overpass that is kid-friendly but pig-proof.

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All of the playground equipment is made from New Zealand native hardwood. The swing set is held together with galvanised threaded rod.

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It is a good example of chainsaw joinery.

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The wood is rock hard. I dulled the chainsaw blade in 15 minutes. The swing  will easily last for decades.

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And fun was had by all!

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Peace, Estwing

A Muddy Birthday

We celebrated our son Suleiman’s – aka Manu – birthday yesterday. The theme of the party was “Let’s make a mess.” (Manu is good at that.) The featured activity was the mud pit – aka farm pond partially completed. It’s amazing how much joy can be provided by clay and water. Fun was had by all.

No Manu, it’s your 1st, not your 21st!


Peace, Estwing

A Letter to My Children


Editor’s Note:This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle. Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 8.22.36 pm

Dear Verti and Manu,

Unlike Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, I do not have 45 billions dollars to give away, but your mum and I agree with Mark and Priscilla that “we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today.”

“We will do our part to make this happen, not only because we love you, but also because we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.”

I’d like to give the two of you my perspective on what the Zuckerbergs have set as their two priorities to improve the prospects for your generation: advancing human potential and promoting equality.

Advancing human potential probably has a million different interpretations, and I’m sure the Zuckerbergs have different ideas than your mum and me. From what I have learned, the most important things we can do to promote human potential are these:

  • talk to and read to our children as much as possible;
  • limit all screen time as much as possible (down to zero is ideal) before age three;
  • create opportunities for creative, independent play for children;
  • get kids outdoors as much as possible, as long as they wear hats and sunscreen;
  • cultivate attitudes of helping, sharing; and gratitude in children.

I know that the two of you are decades away from becoming parents yourselves, but I need to get this stuff down while it’s fresh in my mind.

What the world needs most is creative problem-solvers. If we wire that in from an early age it contributes to maximizing human potential in individuals and societies. That is the best win-win we can plan for.

From what I understand, people are made of equal measures nature and nurture. It’s the same with garlic. Growing great garlic starts with superior genetics, but that’s only half the game. An exceptional crop requires ample high quality compost, heavy mulch, good soil, regular watering, and pulling at just the right time.

It is the same with growing great children, only with more compost and less mulch.

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Promoting equality is one of the major challenges of our time. Pope Francis himself has put it alongside climate change as the most pressing issue facing humanity. Sadly, both of these issues appear to suffer from an over abundance of personal opinion and an under abundance of research when politicians get involved. Our own community is exceptionally vulnerable to both, yet many of the decisions made by the local government make both issues worse. As economic inequality widens, we all suffer the consequences of increased social problems, crime, and violence alongside the negative effects of a depressed local economy. It’s literally a lose-lose for rich and poor alike, yet the trend locally is making things worse.

It’s sad but true, but what can we do to fight the tide and promote equality? The first and most important thing is to get those people who do not vote to VOTE in every election, especially local elections. Politicians on every level do not speak to ‘the people’, they speak to ‘the voters’. There is a big difference when you look at economic inequality.

Promoting equality also involves advocating for a capital gains tax and removing GST on fresh fruit and vege on the national level. Locally, it means lobbying councilors to reverse the regressive rates system that makes wealth inequality worse in our community while depressing local economic activity. Wouldn’t you think the Chamber of Commerce would be the first group beating this drum to the door of the council chambers?

Yeah, me to, but this is where personal opinion gets in the way of robust research. Most people believe only what they want to believe and what fits their pre-existing perspective on the world. (Research, by the way, shows this quite clearly.) I reckon all we ‘little people’ can do is form robust arguments based on the best available data and findings, and set out to influence hearts and minds.

Everyone is capable of change, and it is possible to change the grossly unequal world we occupy. But it will only happen one person, one voter, and one politician at a time.

If you choose – Verti and Manu – to fight the tide of inequality yourselves, remember to take time out to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets, to smell the flowers, to catch a wave, to dance to Neil Diamond, and to get plenty of sleep. You’ll be in it for the long haul.

Much love from Papa

Creating Magical Moments for Children without Creating Rubbish

Editor’s Note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

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Whether one attends church every week, once a year or not at all, Christmas is to a large extent a children’s holiday. It’s all about Christmas morning and “the look on a child’s face” when unwrapping gifts wrapped in ribbons and bows. Many of us have memories of this from both the sides – as youngsters and parents. It’s wonderful.

But the moment is fleeting, and many of the toys end up discarded or broken within a matter of weeks if not days. Ironically, a small plastic toy that brings a brief moment of joy could subsequently spend the rest of eternity in a landfill. Talk about heaven and hell!

In this season of pausing to reflect, lets pause and reflect on this extraordinary moment in history we occupy. Something that we buy on a whim at the dollar shop can persist within a buried pile of rubbish for hundreds of generations to come. Compare this to the first Maori and European residents of these islands. Few artifacts persist from each group compared to what landfill archeologists will be finding from us for centuries to come.

Of course there is nothing wrong with the desire to make a child happy, but I would argue that Christmas – or any holiday involving gift giving – is less about the ‘things’ and more about the ‘moments.’ The shiny plastic things that go “beep, bop, bang” are just one pathway to the moments we treasure. There are other pathways.

If the end goal is magical moments, then the design challenge is this: How do we create magical moments for our children without also creating a pile of rubbish?

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Like any good design, this one should be holistic, adaptive and cooperative. It should also dare to think outside of the square. For example, when thinking of ‘things’ to give a child, one consideration is not a ‘thing’ at all, but rather the gift of time. Does that sound cliché?

Whether it’s cliché or not, mountains of research show that what most children want is more time with their parents. Along the same lines, there are two mountains of research showing that reading to children under the age of three is about the best thing parents can ever do. On top of that, it’s free. How’s that for eco-thrifty?

Other gifts-of-time we can give children include a special day at the beach, a trip to the movies, a boat ride, a treasure hunt, a mystery adventure, or a Neil Diamond greatest hits dance party.

Fair enough, but at the end of the day most parents still want to give their kids ‘stuff.’ But even from this perspective we can design much more sustainable solutions than the current one-way trip to landfill.

In the field of materials cycling, the global leaders are chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough. The pair has been working on what they call cradle-to-cradle design for two decades. Put simply, cradle-to-cradle sets the stage for infinite materials recycling with no such thing as landfill. In fact, the motto of this design methodology is “waste equals food” – in other words, the remnants or leftovers of one process are used to feed another process. This is accomplished by creating two materials metabolisms: biological and industrial.

The biological metabolism can be explained in three words: let it rot. Nature has been doing it for millions of years. Any materials that come from living organisms can be returned to the soil to promote the growth of more living organisms.

An industrial metabolism involves all materials that do not come directly from plants and animals, which include metals, minerals, plastics and other synthetic materials. The challenge is to make the recovery and remanufacture processes easy and efficient to ensure 100% recycling so that a broken plastic toy would readily be turned into a new plastic toy – over and over. From this perspective, gift giving could be guilt-free forevermore.

But until that day, another strategy for low-impact holiday giving is to choose durable gifts that will last. Our household does lots of wooden toys, and my parents still have 40+ year-old wooden toys that they get out when the grandchildren visit. Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 9.16.59 am

For Verti’s birthday in August I used driftwood to build a fairy village for indoor play and a swing set outside. The totara, matai and rimu timbers are incredibly durable and will last for decades. If I’m still alive when it falls apart, I will remove the treaded rod for reuse or recycling (industrial metabolism) and let the ancient timbers decompose naturally (biological metabolism).

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Spoiler alert: Verti’s holiday gift from me this year is a strawberry patch outside our front door. Although I bought plastic planters, they will be protected from direct sunlight by a wooden surround made from weathered native timbers. The completed project will be attractive, durable, productive, and provide magical – and tasty – moments for years to come.


Peace, Estwing

Free Range “Big Girl”

Verti is quick to say, “I’m not a baby. I’m a big girl.”

Yesterday she was keen to watch a movie after her breakfast. This is what we did instead. Verti took her chick, “Boot,” for a walk.

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A very muddy walk.

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A sort of clay mud that sticks.

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But so much fun.

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Some apple picking.  Screen shot 2015-04-27 at 8.42.29 AM

Finally it was snack time.

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A good morning with no digital technology involved.

Peace, Estwing

Understanding Nature: Toddlers, Trees, TPPA

Eco Design is about working with nature instead of against it. Nature, in this case however, can mean many different things. For example, it may refer to natural ecosystems and how they maintain a dynamic balance. But it can also refer to sun angles and hours of daylight that fluctuate seasonally. This can be referred to as a natural energy flow.

Nature, from an eco design perspective, can also refer to the behaiviour of animals such as chickens. In this case, we often speak in terms of “a chicken’s nature” to scratch up the mulch in a vege garden.

Believe it or not, even my two and a half year old daughter has a nature, and for the most part it is a nature to imitate and to help. As parents we can choose to work with her nature or work against it at our peril. As a father and designer, I constantly design experiences that channel my daughter’s nature for good instead of evil.

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Trees have a nature, and different trees have different natures. For example, it is in the nature of plane trees to block drains and crack pavement. To quote Wilson Street business owner Tony Swain from Monday’s Chronicle, “The council has just planted the wrong type of trees.”

Step one of eco design (also step one of common sense) is to plant the right tree in the right place. What a crack up it was to read the explanation from Wanganui District councillor Ray Stevens in Monday’s Chronicle that the trees were planted back when Wilson Street was residential. Is this to imply that the trees would not grow into the sewerage pipes of private residences or block storm drains in a residential street? This excuse for council’s mistake makes no sense, and appears to support the Wilson Street business owners’ feelings that “council was not listening.”

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Although trees have their nature, this is not to say that a tree’s nature cannot be channeled just like a toddler’s. For example, we have heard from a number of sources that the plane trees around the city used to pollarded regularly to control their growth.

Another example involves the training and pruning of fruit trees. The nature of most trees is to grow to the sky, which is a problem for the safe and easy harvesting of fruit. ‘Channeling’ branches to grow sideways instead of upward involves two steps. First we train the branches with twine and stakes (see photo), and then we prune to an outward-facing bud. The tree is still a tree, but by working within the confines of its nature we make it more ‘user-friendly.’

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Finally, it is in the nature of corporations to maximize profits. In fact, it is their one and only mandate. There is not social mandate. There is no environmental mandate. There is no cultural mandate. There is only the profit mandate.

Understanding this nature of corporations, does it make any sense to readers that we allow them to negotiate a major trade agreement in secret? As a democracy, does it make sense for citizens and voters to stand by and allow the current government to sign onto this secret trade deal – the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) – without expressing our justifiable caution?

Mr. Key has stated that the October election was a mandate from the voters for the beliefs and policies of the National Party. Is it in the nature of New Zealanders to accept this and wait another three years? Or is it in our collective nature to voice concerns through all the channels of democracy?


Peace, Estwing

A Free Range Childhood, Part 2: Cultivating Action

Richard Louv is a journalist and author who recently spoke in our River City. He advocates for children spending more time in “the woods” as North Americans call wild places with lots of trees.

I did not hear him speak in W(h)anganui, but went to a talk he presented at Dartmouth College (USA) eight or nine years ago. From what I remember, he was full of facts, figures, and statistics as any good journalist would be. From what I gather he shared the same type of information during his talk here, although presumably updated.

It is not difficult to document the loss of wild places near residential housing. Nor is it difficult to document the time children spend in front of screens instead of playing in “the woods.”

But like most journos I have known over the last two decades – Chronicle staff excepted, of course – he only tells part of the story. To illustrate this point, I have to begin with a question: For what purpose should we be striving to “reconnect kids and nature”? In other words, why bother?

Here are a few answers I have heard:

To decrease behaviour problems

To get kids “out of the house”

To help develop observation skills

To encourage “respect for nature”

To ingrain an “environmental ethic”

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In my opinion, the primary purpose of providing abundant opportunities for children to spend time in nature would be as part of a greater scheme to encourage the development of ecological literacy. Simply “reconnecting kids with nature” is not sufficient, and here is where Louv misses the rest of the story.

We know that spending time in nature is insufficient to develop ecological stewards or Kaitiaki of the planet because the generations of human beings who caused the environmental degradation we now face spent considerably more time in the natural world than the current generation of children. We may have fond memories, but they do not necessarily translate into sustainable behaviours.

Interestingly, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the current generation of young adults – sometimes called Millennials or Generation Y – embrace much more sustainable lifestyles than Baby Boomers in spite of having spent less time in “the woods.” What is also interesting in that despite their eco-friendly lifestyles, most Millennials do not self-identify as “environmentalists.” Good on them.

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What could possibly explain this apparent contradiction in Louv’s “Nature Deficit” argument? The answer is simple: Recycling. Here is what I mean from a big picture perspective.

In places like New Zealand, most people who engage in sustainable behaviours do so out of a certain level of ecological literacy, which consists of environmental knowledge, an attitude of care, and the ability to act.

Don’t laugh, taking action is a real skill and goes right to the heart of the apparent difference between Boomers and Millennials. Many Millennials had educational experiences in primary school that included learning how to take action on environmental issues while most Boomers did not. The classic example is recycling.

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If you are over 50 or under 30, ask yourself this question: Was there a recycle bin in your classroom?

Learning to take action is equally important to learning to care, but neither is part of what an assessment-driven education system demands: learning da facts! As parents and teachers who want to do our best to raise sensitive children who engage positively with their environment and community, it is essential that we do not take Louv’s prescription as comprehensive but rather as part of a much larger and ongoing learning process. If we miss the big picture, then nature walks run the risk of tokenism, and we will fail to prepare this generation of children for what is predicted to be an increasingly volatile world with greater pressure on limited natural resources.

To be continued…

Peace, Estwing

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Verti’s Free-Range, Local, Organic Garlic

2015 Permaculture Principles Calendar

Available today at the River Traders Market

A Free-Range Childhood, Part 1

It is hard to be a child in 2014. The pressures and distractions of adulthood inevitably trickle down to children who often suffer the effects of mum’s and dad’s increasingly digital lifestyles. At a time when research shows what young children need most is quality time with their parents, the trend is in the other direction.

For some reason I have always been fascinated with this type of tension between extremes. Perhaps this is why I gravitated toward Buddhism, which is based on the story of a royal prince who takes a vow of poverty and then finds a middle way. Screen shot 2014-12-12 at 2.28.40 PM

Verti finds her Middle Way. 

In common language we call the middle way a “balanced life.” My observation is that it is hard to achieve and getting harder all the time. As a social science researcher I am fascinated by the way people live their lives, especially when certain behaviours run contrary to what they report to be their values. In other words, there is a dynamic tension between what we do and what we think we ought to do.

From my observations there was a similar dynamic tension at the centre of the A Place to Live Conference recently held in W(h)anganui. I chose not to spend $1,000 to attend the three-day conference, so my perspective is based only on what has come through the media.

It appears that the conference had a significant focus on refuting Shamubeel Eaqub’s recent comments, which came through at times in what Kim Hill identified as “boosterism” during her radio show. Fair enough. Most of us love living here and are not afraid to say it. I love living in W(h)anganui and “boost” it at every opportunity.

But at the same time I am not afraid to critically reflect on our city in an attempt to make it even better. We hear from various sectors of our community the desire to change, but without critical reflection we are destined to stay the same. In the spirit of critical self-reflection, here is some food for thought.

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Verti in a moment of reflection. 

On the one hand, the keynote speaker brought from America for the conference, Richard Louv, promoted the value of children spending time in nature. On the other hand, numerous speakers representing Whanganui promoted the digital world and ultra-fast broadband.

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with either of these messages, placing them side-by-side presents us with what is probably the most difficult proposition facing humanity: our ongoing disconnection with nature caused largely by our increasing connectivity with technology. We are separating en masse from our life support system (Earth) in favour of a tech support system (Microsoft).

As difficult as it is for adults to find balance between Mother Earth and motherboard, I suggest it is infinitely harder for children. They are so easily dazzled by the colours, sounds, and movements of passive screen entertainment.

If we as parents, teachers and a Whanganui community wish to instill an abiding love and respect for nature in our children, it will be a monumental task made all the more difficult by the increasing role of technology in our lives. This is not a judgment, but a statement of fact.

I know this because my wife and I have spent the last 27 months trying to raise a free-range child with an active, independent mind. It has been damn hard work. Yes, at times it feels like work, but if you know our daughter, Verti, you know that at two she is already an inquisitive, creative problem-solver. Screen shot 2014-12-12 at 2.28.57 PM

Verti engaged in play – imitating papa.

Our simple formula is based on research in brain development: 1) no screen technology before age three; 2) constantly talking to her from day one; 3) providing her with opportunities for creative, independent play.

The aim is not to raise a Luddite child – technology will inevitably come. The aim is to prepare a human being who is best able to consider a vast array of competing factors and choose her own middle way.

To be continued…


Peace, Estwing

Eco-Thrifty Birthday Present

What seemed like “a good idea at the time” has turned into a larger-than-expected project making a play kitchen for our two year-old daughter. I am posting a visual step-by-step now, but will write a full post sometime in the future.

Cabinet from a second hand shop.

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Cutting it into pieces.

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One piece.

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 Piece, pieced back together.

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And with a lid.

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Other piece.

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End of day one.

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Start of day two.

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End of day two.

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Day three.

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End of day three.        Screen shot 2014-08-24 at 5.58.56 PM


Peace, Estwing