Monday, April 28, 2008

Plenty Going On

As Children & Nature Month draws to a close, I am headed up to the redwoods, or what's left of them, to let my boys soak in nature's peace, stillness and fortitude. We will have no Internet connection and, possibly, no television. I therefore plan to devour some good books, romp through the forest and watch the stars. I will be back online Sunday, May 4th.

In the meantime, there is plenty to do:

1) If you have not yet signed up for the Be a Bookworm Challenge, please leave me a comment and I will add you to the sidebar when I return.

2) If you have signed up for the challenge but have not yet told me which book you will be reading, please leave me a comment so that I can add your book to the ever-growing, truly fascinating list of books under Greening Our Beans.

3) If you have not yet picked a book, check the Greening Our Beans sidebar list or this post for ideas or enter to win a book. Crunchy Chicken is giving away green books all week long - a different book every day of the week.

4) BOOK GIVEWAY: Finally, I will be giving away PLENTY: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith & J.B. Mackinnon, the creators of the 100 mile diet. This was my first true green read, the book with which I founded my Green Book Club and the inspiration for my first forays to the farmers' market. If ever there was a book that made eating an adventure, this is it. Leave a comment to be entered to win. I will pick a winner on Sunday, May 4th.

5) If you've already done all of these things, relax and Be a Bookworm.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Junk in the Trunk

One desperate Sunday evening, I wander into the kitchen and scour the pantry for something sweet. I push aside rice, dried beans, a jar of bulk flour, the bin of homemade granola, and last year's can of mandarin oranges that I can't bring myself to eat in case disaster strikes and we need "canned food".

Nothing. No cookies. No candy. Not a oxidized chocolate chip or a honey stick in sight. I keep digging and, suddenly, hit the mother lode. At the bottom of the cereal basket my hand brushes a foreign plastic clam shell. I pull out a container of Lucky's brand chocolate chip cookies. I have no idea where these came from. I didn't buy them. Did I? I haven't shopped at Lucky's in at least a year, more like two. If I did buy these back then, they are remarkably well preserved. I sniff them. They smell fine. Not a crumb is out of place.

I can't resist though. It has become habit. I flip the container over to peer at the ingredients. The main purchased sweets we eat these days are cookies sold at the farmers' market by a local bakery. The bakery's label boasts five ingredients. Lucky's cookies? I stop counting after twenty-two - seventeen of which are recognizable only to someone with an advanced degree in Chemistry. I relocate the cookies to the trash.

A few months ago, I polished off In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan. The book delves into the not-so-tasty world of processed food products. I say "food products" because most of the stuff gracing supermarket shelves these days is not actually food but food wannabe. It is often laden with corn syrup (which wasn't invented until the 1960's) and comprised more of chemicals than real food. Thankfully, Mr. Pollan sets out a number of suggestions for better filling our plates, including two of my favorites:

1) Only eat something your great grandmother would identify as food. Plastic yogurt filled tubes would not be recognized. Neither would squirtable cheese or diet Coke.
2) Avoid products containing ingredients that are (a) unrecognizable, (b) more than five or (c) high fructose corn syrup.
In the past several months, we've abandoned most pre-made goodies in favor of homemade treats comprised of local, organic and fair trade ingredients: rice pudding with honey meringue, meringue cookies and granola bars. Baking from scratch keeps all that junk out of my trunk and, because I'm not using all the plastic wrappers, cartons and bags from store-bought sweets, keeps junk out of the garbage collector's trunk as well.
Indeed, Mr. Pollan agrees that junk food is okay if we make it from scratch . . . and if we don't eat it all the time. I've done very well with the former but have successfully ignored the latter. Unfortunately, it shows. A daily (or twice daily) ration of homemade chocolate pudding or oatmeal chocolate chip cookies is not so good for the junk in my trunk.
To further reduce my carbon bite and the size of, um, my trunk, I've joined Blue Collar Crunch's Diet for Global Hunger challenge. Blue Collar Crunch asks participants to (a) abandon fake food (check), (b) eat real food (check), (c) eat lower on the food chain (check, I'm a vegetarian), (d) determine our recommended daily caloric intake (er, check), (e) lower our daily caloric intake if we're carrying excess weight (um, er, yeah, I'll work on this), and (f) take daily action to raise awareness about the food crisis (no problem, check). Mr. Pollan would surely approve.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Getting Comfortable

The sitter was here. It's 78 degrees out. Not a cloud in the sky. And I need to go to the bank. I could easily walk but I have about a million things to do before she leaves and a walk would take 30 minutes or so. My hulking minivan lounges in the driveway. It used to beckon me on such occasions with windows down, wind blowing, James Blunt crooning. Today, though, the birds are in the trees. The season's first butterflies flit from yard to yard. There is just the slightest breeze. You can't enjoy all that from inside a car.

I pull my spanky red bike out from the garage, don my husband's helmet and climb on. I wobble down the sidewalk and venture out on to street. Pumping over the hill, I float down the other side - passing parked cars, school children, the empty park and teeter into the bank's parking lot. Once I'm done with the ATM, I climb back on the bike seat and lumber toward the street. In a minute or two, my pedaling smooths out, the weaving stops and I'm headed home feeling, er, less uncomfortable than the last time I rode my bicycle.

This ride is much like my path to a lighter life. The first time, okay, the first several months that I line-dried my clothes, I hated it. It took too long, the clothes weren't as smooth as I was used to. Expectations change, though. We get used to something different. And different is not bad. Now, hanging my clothes is my yoga, meditation and communion with nature, all rolled into one. I don't notice that the towels may be scratchier or the jeans stiffer.

Switching from paper napkins or towels to cloth also seemed a hassle in the beginning. I couldn't chuck my soiled towel in the trash but had to walk all the way, okay ten steps, to the hamper. The washer filled up a tad sooner as well. In a month or two, though, the softness of a cloth napkin on my face or the absorbency of a dish towel to clean up spilled apple juice far outweighed the rough convenience of paper.

The first time I made yogurt, it took forever and came out part brownish water, part brittle whey. The second time took even longer and ended up overly lumpy. I couldn't convince my youngest to eat it and, food wasting aside, I couldn't stomach the stuff. Now, I throw yogurt together in a matter of minutes and it comes out perfect - or at least edible - every time.

Carrying a canvas bag is not going to save the world. Neither will using CFL light bulbs. It's not that we shouldn't do those things. Absolutely, we should. But it is not enough to think that one or two changes alone will halt global warming in its tracks, refreeze the Artic ice, or gift us with a simple life. This is a journey. There are many steps. As soon as I become comfortable, I look for the next step, the next change. I keep moving just outside of my ever-expanding comfort zone in search of a richer, more meaningful life.

Someone recently asked me if, after a year of living like this, doesn't it become too hard, too much? Don't I want to go back to my old life already?

As I wheeled my bike into the garage this afternoon, I thought about her question and my answer. No. I'm just getting comfortable.

Grab a Great Green Book

Continuing on with the Be a Bookworm Challenge, I thought I'd pass along a few resources for low emissions (e.g. used) books.
  • Browse your 'brary: Most libraries have online systems these days that allow you to reserve a book online and then pick it up at the front desk for a small fee. My library charges $.75. I can renew my book two times unless someone else has a hold on the book. I'm not alone in my love of libraries: check out Simple-Green-Frugal for an ode to the library (and it's not just for the books).
  • Borrow a book: If your library doesn't have a book, you might be able to find it by posting on freecycle or a local message board.
  • Just swap it!: Check out PaperBack Swap and Swaptree to trade books and other items online - for free. I've gotten quite a few good reads on the former, which also allows you to enter currently unavailable books on a wish list and receive alerts when someone posts that book.
  • Ponder Prosperity: Theresa at Pondering a Myriad of Things is holding a drawing to give away her copy of Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle (which she won from the Crunchmaster, who was given it by the author, David Wann). Click here to read about Theresa's drawing and leave a comment to be entered to win the simple life!
  • Buy it Used: Now might be a good time to investigate that dusty, mysterious used book store near you. You never know what they might have - or your local thrift store for that matter. I found the whole set of Little House books at our thrift store and I consider those books to be prime, simple life reading. If you want to order it online, check Abe's Books which is like Amazon but specializes in purely used books (and doesn't wrap their stuff in loads of plastic). If all else fails, look on ebay or Amazon for a used copy - most are like new, significantly cheaper and not made of new material so it's a win for the environment.
  • Support the Locals: If you are buying it new (that's okay, I just bought a new copy of Common Wealth - shhh, don't tell Crunchy), try a local independent bookstore if you can. I am a sucker for small businesses. Sometimes, though, the fates conspire against us or we don't have the time and we just order it off of Amazon. Again, not a sin! (That's where my copy of Common Wealth came from. Shhh!) You are going to read the darn book, right? Then pass it along to someone else who is interested or treasure it and refer back to it from time to time. I feel that books are an important exception to the Stop Shopping game. Without books, where would we be?
Gotta go read a book. Farewell, fellow bookworms.

If you have not yet joined the Be a Bookworm Challenge, leave a comment so that I can add you.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Nibbling Through a Good Book

You've signed up to Be a Bookworm but now what?

Check out the sidebar for "Greening Our Beans" where I'll keep track of all books being read for the challenge. If your book is not up there, please leave me a comment so that I can add it. Already, there are a number of listed books that I had never heard of that but that look fascinating.

If you are deciding on what book to read this month, here are my absolute favorites:
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver: Ms. Kingsolver chronicles her family's attempt to eat locally (mostly from their own yard) for an entire year. The journey is a beautifully written, lyrical romp through seasonal eating and is chock full of the most memorable, meaningful quotes I've encountered. This book was a favorite among my Green Book Club members - many of whom identified with Ms. Kingsolver as a parent. This book will motivate you to grow an edible garden and to fight for your local farmer.
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan: A dense read that sparked more conversation at my Green Book Club meetings than any other book so far, Omnivore's Dilemma explores eating in the industrial food chain (think McDonalds), eating big organic (think Whole Foods), eating small organic (think farmers' market) and eating food you've hunted and gathered (think, um, hunt and gather). You'll never reach for another factory farmed burger without thinking twice after devouring this book. The truth behind "big organic" will also surprise you and the earnestness with which smaller farmers approach your dinner plate will awe you.
  • Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic by John De Graaf et al: An entertaining read, Affluenza compares our society's desire to consume (and the accompanying need to work more, use more resources, pour more toxins into the environment and distance ourselves from our community) with an illness and prescribes inoculations, medicine and other "cures". After consuming this book, I finally understood how and why we, as a society, lost touch with the simple life and got lost in the rat race. I also learned how to escape.
  • Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffrey Sachs: Authored by a former big wig in the United Nations, Common Wealth addresses the converging crises of the twenty-first century not with the gloom and doom of many books, but with hope and realistic suggestions for change. I suddenly understand how farming in Africa, drought in Australia and the social welfare system in Sweden relate to life in the United States and how those things, among many others, will impact our ability to mitigate global climate change, biodiversity, famine, water shortage and energy supplies.
My runners-up include In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan, which explores the world of processed food and offers a number of helpful rules to avoid eating, for lack of a better word, crap. I also enjoyed my first "eco-read", Plenty:One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, an entertaining, quick read about the creators' of the 100 mile diet and their effort to eat local food for an entire year (starting in the dead of winter!). Finally, if you are a parent or work with children, I cannot recommend Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv highly enough. The book has spawned a movement to get our children back in touch with nature in an effort to save them from obesity, consumerism, boredom and a myriad of "disorders" as well as to instill in them a love for and need to protect the natural environment.
A number of you recommended your favorite books in the comments:
Finally, for more recommendations, check out Rural Inspirations book list, Bean Sprouts' Top Ten Inspiring Books About Self Sufficiency, or Sharon Astyk's uber comprehensive two part The Best Books About Nearly Everything series: (1) Books to Help Us Understand Where We Are Now and (2) Books to Help Us Regenerate.
That's a whole heck of a lot of books to nibble through. Now go . . . be a bookworm.

If you haven't booked your May yet and would like to join the challenge, please leave me a comment and I'll add you.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Challenge Yourself: Be a Bookworm

As I closed the back cover of my latest read, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, I realized how much I'd learned from this book: how closely our fates are tied with those half a world away, how poverty and unrest in one place creates instability and environmental destruction in another, how important the Olympics are (that's right!), and a million other things that surprisingly tie in tightly to climate change, species extinction, ecosystem destruction, and resource depletion.

My experience with Common Wealth was not unusual. In the past year, I have read many books that have forever altered my life, my lifestyle and my thought process. I eat differently thanks to The Omnivore's Dilemma, Plenty and Animal Vegetable Miracle. I raise my children differently due to Last Child in the Woods. I shop differently courtesy of Affluenza. I will vote differently because of Common Wealth.

Books affect us like nothing else. They provide depth unlike any blog post or magazine article. They persuade unlike a conversation over coffee. They open our minds, answer our questions and pose new ones of their own.

My appreciation of books leads me to launch my (likely one and only) challenge: BE A BOOKWORM. I challenge you to read a single, ecologically relevant book during the month of May. Post a comment if you'd like to participate so that I can add you to my sidebar. Once you have selected your book, post another comment. I'll keep a running tab of books being read. At the end of the month, I will post a Reading Roundup soliciting your comments on the book you read, whether you'd recommend it and what you learned.

Later this month, I will post a list of recommended books and ask for recommendations from you. Then, look for posts throughout May about how particular books influenced certain aspects of my life.

The blog world is a busy place. There are many great challenges this May. You may plan on throwing it down for Crunchy. Chile may still have you clearing clutter. You may be growing things for Melinda or the folks at Path to Freedom. However you plan on spending your May, I hope at least some of it will be devoted to a good book. Be a Bookworm.

To add the banner to your blog, go to add text in Blogger and cut and paste the code below:

<a href="
challenge-yourself-be-bookworm.html"><img src= "

* Photo courtesy of Peter Hellebrand.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Tomorrow is Earth Day - my personal day of awakening. In its honor, I am resurrecting my ponderings on the Church of Climate Change. Has Earth month converted you? Do you count yourself among the believers? Read on and find out:

Do you remember when everything clicked? When you suddenly realized how your actions impact our environment and how living more lightly could help the Earth, its creatures, your health, your conscience, your family? Are you a different person after the CFL light bulb went off than you were before?

Many of us are. The changes start out subtle and innocuous. We began carrying a canvas bag when grocery shopping or we stop buying bottled water. In the weeks and months that follow, we spend hours plugged into the Internet, gleaning information, and then fly into action, making change after change. Soon, we are different - unrecognizable to the people who knew us before.

We eat differently. We shop differently. We socialize differently. We read different books and wear different clothes. We prepare for apocalyptic scenarios like Climate Change, Peak Oil and economic collapse and talk about "simple living" or "self sufficiency." We take up knitting or canning. We plan elaborate "victory gardens" and dream of owning chickens. Voracious shoppers become anti-consumers and take up the Compact. Fast food eaters scour farmer's markets for locally grown, organic produce. Some of us trade in boon companions like the American Idols and Jack Bauer for new friends like Crunchy Chicken and No Impact Man. For those who knew us before but, for whom the light bulb has not yet gone off, it may seem as if we've joined a cult.

Indeed, in many ways, the green movement - or any social movement - bears certain hallmarks of a religion. In addition to the lifestyle and personality changes, we divide people into"believers" and those who are "willfully ignorant." One of the movement's best known leaders, Al Gore, has been labeled a "prophet in his own time" and has a devout following. There is also the talk of converting or "influencing" others.

I, myself, feel a bit missionary-ish when I write about inspiring change in others or spreading "greenness". Is global warming really a religion? Nah. It's an unfortunate fact. Are my lifestyle changes extreme or fanatical? I don't think so. They just fit. Living lighter feels more healthy, honest and honorable. I'm happier this way - even if there were no such thing as Climate Change. But how about you? Are you a believer? Can I influence you to make just a few changes? Recruit you to spread the word? Enjoy Earth Day just a bit more than last year?

Have a happy Earth Day. Do something good for the planet.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cutting the Cord

I open my kitchen cupboard, the corner cabinet where I keep small appliances and bake ware. I move over the stacked mixing bowls, both the plastic mixing bowls that I've owned for years and my newly acquired second hand stainless steel ones. I'm making cilantro chutney and the cilantro is wilting as I dig past some glass canning bottles. The lid to my food processor is in here somewhere. Lifting the dehydrator rings and moving the extra ice cube maker aside, I gingerly pull out the Cuisinart cover, trying not to disturb the cookie sheets and muffin tins resting on their side and close the door. Yes, I am a candidate for Chile's Cut the Crap Challenge.

All month, I have been a decluttering demon, whirling through my kids' toys (isn't it always easier to get rid of someone else's stuff?), sifting through their art work, careening through my closet, avoiding my desk and finally hitting the kitchen cupboards.

I have too much stuff. But even more than I have too much stuff, I have too much stuff I never use and yet cannot bring myself to get rid of. I love my stuff.

I cherish the natural wood train set, so free of media characters, almost Amish looking in its simplicity. I bought for a song at the local thrift store a year ago. The boys have never played with it much less looked at it. My oldest is long beyond trains and the younger one is beyond hope into his Thomas trains. There is no unringing that bell.

I adore my cherry speckled dish set that I collected a decade ago. It is a mish mash of serving dishes, bowls, pitchers and platters that I trotted out once, five or six years ago, for a brunch. Still, occasionally, I will see a scarlet cherry peeking out from behind the everyday bowls and pitchers on the top shelf and I feel, well, happy. I couldn't possibly let that go.

That brings me to our set of wedding dishes. Only four of the salad plates have survived five years of toddlers but the dinner plates are in perfect condition. Why? Because they don't fit in my dishwasher (in this house, or the last) so we don't use them. We also don't use the matching platters above the fridge, still wrapped in their original bubble wrap. They were, however, "wedding gifts."

Nor we have we ever used the elegant white platter from Cost Plus (it is so beautiful though and someday . . .), the metal acorn trays from Pottery Barn or the glass bowl from a forgotten wedding guest.

Because I couldn't possibly get rid of any of these items, I turn, instead, to goods without emotional attachment. Books in the back of the closet. Clothes that no longer fit (and never did). Extra kitchen tools. I've been through this kind of decluttering before. It's not so much ridding the house of things as it is rearranging. The new order will last for a few weeks, possibly even a month or two. Eventually, though, something is put in the wrong drawer, I acquire too many canning jars off-season and I am back to where I started - digging for the Cuisinart cover in the back of a crowded cabinet, where plastic tubs and cake tins jostle each other like passengers on a rush hour subway.

Then I read Chile's advice last week for clearing clutter from kitchen cabinets. It was almost like she was looking into my own cupboards. Were you, Chile? Despite all my talk about living a simple life, I own four sets of dishes. It was only with the stiffest resolve that I donated my fifth to a friend last year. Chile posited that "[r]otating multiple sets of dishes just to avoid boredom, however, is the kind of wasteful consumerism that is damaging the planet." Ouch! That hit a little too close for home. But, it's not like Chile has ever laid eyes on my cheery cherry dish set. She might be singing a different song if she had.

I thought about what she had written, though. Chile promised that, with less stuff, my petite kitchen would seem bigger, roomier, strainers and blenders would not mount an escape every time I opened a cabinet door. I also thought about why I was keeping all this stuff. I had feelings for it. Not the kind that you have because it was your husband's first gift or passed down to you from your great grandmother. No, these things just made me happy, or, more accurately, had made me happy once a long time ago when I was a very different person.

It was time to cut the cord.

I've since set free the cherry dishes - migrating to a neighbor. The wedding dishes and bowl - finding a new home at the thrift store. The train - going to a grateful friend who has avoided tedious Thomas with her children. The platter - helping our sitter set up an apartment of her own. I could liberate more goods from my home but, for now, this is enough.

My cabinets feel bigger with less stuff. I can slide the toaster in and out without jolting it's cupboard companions. I can easily locate a container for leftovers without risking dismemberment from falling canning jars. I find myself with time on my hands. Instead of arranging and rearranging, moving items from one pile to another, I can now mend that torn tee shirt, glue the broken toy, remember to turn the power strip off, hang my laundry, finish my library book or think about how I don't miss any of that stuff - even the cherry dishes.

Friday, April 18, 2008

You've Come a Long Way, Baby!

It was a school day and I was killing time before I had to pick up the big guy. We swung into the Target parking lot and I unbuckled my littlest. I needed toilet paper and some toothpaste and Target was only a fifteen minute drive from my son's school. Loading the little guy into the red cart's seat, we slipped through the automatic doors and gawked at the Dollar Section. Spot the Target dog winked in our direction. Whoa, they had the cutest spring decor and garden tools for only a buck! I picked up a couple of pastel handled trowels and weeders (that would bend back entirely the first time I sunk them into the dirt) and some cute Hawaiian themed plastic plates and cups. We streamed past the purse section but sunglasses caught my eye. The boys were always squinting and now that spring was here . . . I picked out a Diego pair for the little guy. He was really into Diego right now, and, of course, Thomas. I debated over the Star Wars ones but finally chose the Batman pair for my oldest. An hour later, we wheeled back to the minivan where I tucked nine white and red plastic bags and a twelve pack of Charmin into the back and the little guy into his car seat.

After retrieving my big boy, we drove by the library to pick out a few books. I hate clutter so it was nice to check kids books out from the library, knowing they'd migrate out of my house in three short weeks. The children's librarian had a nice display of Earth Day books up and we chose a few: Earth Day Birthday and Recycle Every Day. I had cared passionately about the environment as a young adult. We shopped at Whole Foods, buying mostly organic produce, and we recycled religiously (mostly). Heck, every now and then, we even donated money to The Nature Conservancy.

That night, after clearing the boys' AlphaTots remains from the dinner table, we sat down to read their library selections. I explained the importance of recycling, glossed over the bring your own bag part, skipped the compost section and ended by talking about how important it was to care for our planet. After putting the boys to bed, I thought about those books, about my own impact on the environment, wondered at the climate change headline I'd seen on Yahoo's home page and the world I would leave behind to my boys. In Matrix-speak, I took the red pill. I chose truth. I woke up.

The next morning, at Whole Foods, I tentatively informed the cashier that I'd like to buy "one green bag, no, I . . . I . . . I'll take two". I also tossed a magazine boasting Leonardo Di Caprio and "100 Things to Do For Earth Day" onto the conveyor belt.

Over the ensuing months, I went from occasionally forgetting my bags to using them for every shopping trip, to finding reusable produce bags, to using the library for my own books instead of just the kids. I planted a garden, hung a clothesline (and used it), walked my son to school.

I ventured to the farmers' market where everyone knew each other and what to buy. As time went on, I too became friends with the vendors, chatting about grandmothers and preschool. I compared notes with other shoppers - "Oh, the guy under the blue umbrella has peas today? They are organic? Where are they grown?"

I stopped shopping. I haven't been to Target since December and I can't say I miss it. I rediscovered hikes and natural spaces. I learned to fix things instead of throw them out. I can pack a waste free lunch with one hand tied behind my back (or carrying a three year old).

I read articles, blogs and books. I powered through environmental checklists and left Leonardo's 100 things list in the dust. I joined the Riot 4 Austerity yahoo group to find more ways to cut back. I would never get to the targeted 90% reduction from the current American's use, though. That was just crazy. Some of these so-called Rioters were pretty out there. How can you possibly have a family of four produce less than three pounds of garbage a week? Still, they had good ideas so I read and incorporated. One year into this venture, my family is the one producing virtually no garbage. We could go weeks without the garbage collector and not stink.

I do have a ways to go. I need to get on my bike more. I have to decide what to do with the front lawn - let it die, leave it its current brownish-green color due to lack of water or replace it with an edible garden? I need to whittle away at our plastic consumption - even recyclable plastic is too much. I need to speak up more.

But I've come a long way, baby.

The thousand mile journey begins with a single step - or a single canvas shopping bag. Each step feels as meaningful as the last. There are many steps in this journey, however, so I must keep moving.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost

Happy Earth Month and best wishes on your own journey.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Adventures of the Caped Crusaders

By Ima Greenie, Daily Planet Staff Reporter

GOTHAM CITY - There has been a significant increase this month in reported sightings of superheroes throughout Gotham City and the rest of the Country.

Just outside of Richmond, Virginia, a woman known to her Internet following as Burbanmom entered her child's preschool, clothed in a green cape, green leather boots, a gold headpiece and gold wrist bands. She approached the teacher and
offered to provide a flyer's worth of educational eco-tips for Earth Day
. Onlookers report that Burbanmom raised her gold wrist bands to deflect the expected laughter and criticism, which apparently never came. It is further reported that the school has invited Burbanmom to spear-head additional ecologically related activities. The investigation is ongoing.

Across the country, in Oakland, the infamous Betty Terry, an environmental explosives expert known for expelling fake plastic fish and other plastic paraphernalia from homes and businesses, launched a campaign to
convince Clorox to take back and recycle Brita filters, create new filters that do not need to be discarded and design a product that can be dismantled and fully recycled. Members of the public report that Ms. Terry has solicited their participation in her escapades by asking them to sign a petition and send in their used Brita filters. It is suspected that Ms. Terry and her cohorts will descend on Clorox headquarters sometime in the near future, armed with thousands of returned filters. Ms. Terry is said to have adopted a new superhero suit bearing the following logo:

Any sighting of Ms. Terry should be reported immediately as she is considered extremely dangerous to the plastic industry. Members of the public are strongly encouraged to visit this site to learn more about Ms. Terry and her crusading campaign.

Meanwhile across the Bay, a person known only as Green Bean entered a City Council meeting flanked by five caped individuals. Witnesses report that the super six appeared to have never met but quickly banded together and overtook the meeting. The avengers addressed the council with rallying calls for residential curbside pick up of food waste. Green Bean's words to the council were largely drown out by the sound of her frantically beating heart. Nonetheless, Green Bean and her companions were greeted with smiles and nods from the council and cheers from bystanders. Once the public comment period was over, said crusaders disappeared into the crowd and could not be located.

Further south, a woman dressed solely in second-hand black leather has been spotted trolling the LA Metro and hiding in bushes outside of office buildings. Police believe they have identified the woman as Arduous, a public transit super heroine, based upon interviews with two bosses for said woman. Ms. Arduous could not be reached for comment at this time.

Elsewhere, parents at a Little League game reported the woman identified alternately as Eco 'Burban Mom and The Trash Lady transforming her cape into a garbage bag capable of collecting untold amounts of recyclables from suburban sports games (see comments). Spiderman was recently seen scaling a building in Hong Kong. Outside of Chicago, Sexy Mama was sighted wielding two steel reusable water bottles and liberating litter through out the suburbs. Desert Dwellers have long whispered tales of a dark character known as Chile, who skulks in kitchen corners seeking to rid them of clutter and non-local produce. Finally, there are a reports of a family of supers on a mysterious bike train appearing at random farmers' markets across the country.

These reports make one thing quite clear. Super powers are on the rise. Caped crusaders are appearing everywhere and scientists cannot pinpoint any one cause for their abrupt emergence. Some posit that Climate Change coupled with drugs in our drinking water have triggered Sudden Super Syndrome in ordinary adults who previously cared minimally about the state of the environment. Other experts believe that these individuals have been living amongst us all the while, shielding their identities and line drying their clothes in secret. They believe that Super Chicken may have inspired these previously unidentified individuals to materialize from their dimly light homes. Whatever the cause, environmental avengers are on the rise and one may be living in your neighborhood, your apartment building or sharing office space with you. Take caution as heroic tendencies are thought to be highly contagious.

Please address any comments or report additional superhero sightings to the author.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Not Too Corny!

Just a super quick post to let you know that King Corn, the independent movie documenting just how much corn we Americans consume, will be showing on PBS this week. Here in the Bay Area, it is showing tonight (!) so check your local listings. If you are like me and have been meaning to watch this documentary for like forever but have never gotten around to signing up for a NetFlix account and your library doesn't have it, watch it or TiVo it and corn it up.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Proverbial Wisdom

While making my son's bed last week, I noticed a tiny tear in his fitted sheet - a brightly colored array of helicopters and dump trucks that we bought at a neighbor's garage sale. I made a mental note to mend the sheet the next time I pulled it off the clothesline. It took a total of three minutes to sew the hole and, as I put the mended sheet back in the linen closet, it occurred to me that a stitch in time does save nine (or a trip to the landfill).

Our forbears, in large part, lived simpler lives than our own and they seemed to have an adage for every aspect of that life. Somewhere along the way, we forgot what those sayings truly meant and we strayed from the simpler life. We now find ourselves in a land of busyness, clutter and climate change without a map home. As I mentally tick through my ancestors' maxims, though, I realize that they are our compass. To get back onto the right path, all we have to do is to follow the advice of our great grandparents, to embrace proverbial wisdom.

If you think I am overstating the matter, consider the following examples:

A fool and his money are soon parted: This month we celebrate Crunchy Chicken's Buy Nothing Challenge. That's right, we are supposed to buy nothing, or at least nothing new. One of biggest roadblocks to living a truly green life are consumeristic tendencies. The "green consumer" is apparently a pipe dream. Really. The easiest way to live green is to hang on to our hard earned cash.

Buy the best and you only cry once: If we are going to spend money, though, we should buy something that will last for generations. That way, we won't have to spend money on constant replacements.

Clothes don't make the man: While this is true, I don't relish the idea of pants up to my armpits (yes, those again) and a boxy white shirt. There is no reason to trudge around like a dowd when you can buy everything you need at your closest thrift store or trade clothes with friends or complete strangers.

One man's trash is another man's treasure: And boy oh boy, is there alot of trash around. Lucky for us because we can get all we need for free from someone's trash and still live a very stylish life.

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade: Make do and repair what you've got - even if it is a cheap plastic laundry basket that you could replace for $5 at Target.

Variety Is the Spice of Life: Over 20% of American emissions involve food production and transportation. That is equivalent to emissions generated from vehicles. The solution is easy and, thankfully, delicious. Farmers' markets, CSA boxes, gardens and buying clubs brim with local foods that shifts with the seasons. Instead of eating bananas and apples year round as in my former life, I float from fruit to fruit and vegetable to vegetable. Just as I tire of persimmons, they are gone and citrus have taken their place. As citrus make their exits, strawberries wait just off stage.

Garbage In, Garbage Out: Or, we are what we eat. The busier we get, the more we turn to convenience food - be it restaurant meals, take out or prepackaged meals from the supermarket. Indeed, Americans eat so much in the way of high fructose corn syrup and other corn additives, that Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma, dubbed us "processed corn walking." Home cooking, even if you can manage it only once or twice a week, is healthier, is made of ingredients we know and control, generates less waste and just tastes better. Beware, though, before you know it you'll join the Slow Food contingent and be baking bread, hand-making pasta and churning butter just for fun.

Birds of a Feather Flock Together: Going green is increasingly popular. Book clubs, simplicity circles and garden groups are forming to bring like-minded people together. When you have trouble connecting in person, however, there is always the green blogosphere to turn to - a place so crowded with eco-nuts that we can all feel at home.

Beware of the false prophets: With the increased interest in living green, also comes more marketers feeding on environmental concerns and in some cases "greenwashing" their products. In other words, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Don't Throw Stones if You Live in a Glass House: Living green is a journey, a series of small steps. Every traveler you meet will be at a different point on the path than you. We are all in this together so let's support each other in our efforts to tread more lightly.

Out of sight... Out of mind: Unfortunately, this adage holds too true. Our world is one small planet but we tend to think only about what we can see. Mitigating climate change and environmental destruction will be a global effort. No country or region can be left out. The community we build must extend beyond our neighborhoods and touch people in the far reaches of the globe.

Silence Is Golden: Our great grandparents did not know a life, such as ours, forever disrupted by the blare of cars, the hum of the computer, the din of the television. Occasionally, flipping the switch on technology reconnects us with our friends, our families and ourselves.

He who lives too fast, goes to his grave too soon: This one is self explanatory. Live simply. Embrace life's smaller pleasures. Feel blessed.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil: Individual actions only take us so far. We need more people - particularly the decision makers - on board. Sign petitions. Write letters to companies and politicians. Send back unwanted plastic. Force our politicians to act according to our values. Be heard.

Actions speak louder than words: Enough talk. At some point, we need to get off of our computers and practice what we preach. We need to plant victory gardens. Spread the green word. Put our money where our mouths are and buy our food from the people who grow it. We need to get our rear ends off the couch and on a bike seat. Line dry our clothes. Live differently.

Waste Not, Want Not: When candidates running for President call America "a wasteful culture", the problem clearly is epidemic. From garbage to water to food to gasoline to electricity, our society throws away too much. If we were to embrace just one piece of proverbial wisdom, this would be the one. This one alone could be our ticket home.

The journey to a greener life was once well worn. The clearly marked signs that ushered our ancestors home are still there; they are merely shadowed by overgrown trees, hidden by reaching ivy. We can find our way, though, if we just follow the advice of those who walked before us. If we just listen to proverbial wisdom.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lighting the Night

It was a late Monday night and the buying club delivery had just arrived. I stood by the white van chatting with the owner's friend about The Omnivore's Dilemma and how wonderful it to find humanely and sustainably produced animal products such as the grassfed beef, pastured pork and eggs, raw milk delivered to our club. Suddenly, my companion looked up at the clear sky - the stars shimmering against the black night - and inhaled. "Wow, you don't have much light pollution around here," he admired. I had never heard that term before but agreed nonetheless taking in the distant stars and planets. After signing for our order, I waved goodbye and went inside, leaving my porch light on.

Home safety experts sometimes advise leaving outdoor lights on at night to deter unsavory sorts from skulking about. I have diligently left my light on for years for that very purpose. In a nod to living lighter, I long ago replaced the incandescent bulb that burnt out monthly with a long lasting CFL bulb. I've since learned, though, that there is no evidence that artificial lighting deters criminal activity. Moreover, such lighting can create deeper shadows in which criminals might hide. If safety concerns remain, motion detectors and other strategies are more efficient and effective.

I never gave another thought to my acquaintance's comment about light pollution until I came across an article about it last week. Apparently, lights left on at night, like porch lights and office lights, greatly impact the population of migratory birds which use the stars to navigate. These birds often become disoriented by the plethora of lights in cities and densely populated suburbs, like mine. Indeed, as many as 900 million birds crash into buildings annually because they are confused by the bright lights. Moreover, night lights negatively affect turtle hatchlings, salamanders, and juvenile seabirds to name a few.

The more I learn about leaving my light on, the more reasons I encounter to turn it off. From now on, I'll give my porch light, my electricity bill, and the birds a rest and leave the job of lighting the night to the stars and moon.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


"Wow, that's a lot of strawberries," a fellow farmers' market goer smiled at me as I hefted a flat of organic strawberries to my car, parked along side the road.

"They are just sooo good," I grinned back and opened the back passenger door, gently positioning my red babies on the floor, under the empty car seats. The boys were home with their father and I'd slipped over to the closest farmers' market for some produce to tide us over until the big Wednesday market. I settled into the driver's seat and glanced at my watch and then the stack of books on the passenger seat. There was just enough time to return my library books and pick up Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, which I had reserved on another blogger's recommendation. An hour and a half to myself was a luxury and I intended to enjoy it.

I stuck the key in the ignition and turned. Everything was still. That's strange. I tried again and again nothing happened. Checking to make sure the headlights were off, I tried a final time. Again, the engine was silent. Sitting in my car, parked along the side of the busiest road on the San Francisco Peninsula, I felt an overwhelming sense of . . . calm.

Not just because I'm a grown up now. With a husband, two kids and a mortgage, though, I am assuredly that. No, I was undisturbed because, for now anyway, a car is just a convenience, not a necessity. A year ago, I would have felt very differently but many of the changes I've made to reduce carbon emissions have made local life second nature. First, we've significantly curtailed the kids' after school activities and, without a car, well, we'd just cut back more. Certainly, a five year old can live without gymnastics and the local park and rec offers a wide variety of classes. Next, we stopped our weekend outings to the zoo or the amusement park. Hiking closer to home, gardening and discovering a local creek have provided just as much amusement. Finally, to both reduce consumption and support small businesses, I abandoned Target in favor of local stores. With the exception of my farmers' market, nearly everything I need on a weekly basis can be found in my small downtown - just a fifteen minute walk from home. Besides, sauntering down a shaded street, listening to birds gossip in the trees and watching flowers wave cheerfully in the breeze, well, just feels better than sitting in a car.

I pick up my cell phone - only one bar left - and dial the Automobile Club. Someone will be here within the hour. I then phone home to let my husband know I'll be late. With no radio and the need to conserve my cell phone battery, I might as well read. I pick up an overdue library book, Seed to Seed. Before I've finished the first chapter, the tow truck has arrived, the battery is charged and I am on my way.

It's a different way than the way I've come, though. And it will likely lead me down a different road. Will I give up my car? No. I just may move one of my sons to a closer school, replace a far away doctor with one closer, walk a little more, and finally get on that bike of mine. Independence is one sweet ride.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What's In Your Wallet?

For the last five years - since the birth of my first child - I've religiously used my Toys R Us MasterCard, earning monthly rewards in the form of Toys R Us gift cards. After it dawned on me that (A) consuming copious amounts of lead-bearing plastic toys shipped from China might not be in the best interest of the planet and (B) my kids would be better off with infinitely fewer toys, I stopped cashing in my rewards. Instead, I donated the gift cards to my children's schools, where they were used for art supplies, wooden musical instruments, new scooters. It seemed a good compromise . . . except that every time I opened my wallet, there was something in there that didn't belong.

In thinking about living lighter, I tend to focus on active changes - hanging laundry, baking bread, shopping at the farmers' market, things that I can do physically. Inactive changes, like having my money work for the environment, often don't register with me even though they require less effort than, for instance, hauling buckets of bath water out to the ornamental plants.

The search for a greener credit card only involved a few clicks. Credit Card Watcher, GreenShopper, Co-Op America and Treehugger have all published articles rating different cards, their rewards and the banks who back them. Because we pay our balance off monthly, APR and finance charges were not a consideration. This left me with two factors to consider: the rewards earned and the lending bank.

Environmentally friendly credit cards offer a range of rewards. Some donate a percentage of your every purchase to organizations like World Wildlife Fund. Others, like GE's Earth Rewards MasterCard and Bank of America's Brighter Planet VISA Card, rack up money to be invested in renewable energy and carbon offset projects. The Working Assets Card offers its cardholders the ability to donate $.10 per purchase to one of 50 nonprofits.

Ultimately, I decided to go with the Salmon Nation VISA Card from a regional bank in Washington state dedicated to sustainable principles. First, I am trying to keep the endangered species of a small business alive. Moreover, the card will donate a percentage of my purchases to protect the watersheds between Alaska and California and, if you read the news these days, the salmon really need our help. Heck, using a card like this might even count in The Giving Challenge. Finally, it is a powerful feeling knowing that my money is living lighter too.

That's what's in my wallet. What's in yours?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Taming the Toy Chest

It's three o'clock in the morning. Someone is crying. In the dark, I stagger out of bed and open my bedroom door. It sticks for a second as it encounters a die cast car buried in the carpet. I grope past the door, into the hallway and push open the boys' door, which bangs against a plastic castle looming behind the door. It is the little guy sobbing, maybe from a nightmare. I wade through an army of stuffed teddy bears (my oldest's "collection") to get to his bed. Leaning in to comfort him, I encounter something hard and immobile underneath the covers - a plastic tow truck.

Our house is a teeming toy chest mobbed with plastic and stuffed odds and ends, that overflow from bedrooms, the playroom, closets and the family room, spilling over on to the front porch or splattered across the back lawn. Do my kids have too many toys? You bet they do.

Toys are just one of the reasons I am doing Chile's Cut the Crap Challenge this month. American children own too many toys. Stuffed animals in every shape, color and species. Trains, cars, trucks. Calico Critters. Kitchen sets. Dinosaurs. Pirate ships with buccaneers. Marble mazes. Barbies and Bratz. Blocks. Balls. Bath toys. Puppets. The list is endless and does not even touch on musical instruments, art supplies, puzzles, books and games.

While our home remains gorged with toys, it has, in the last year, slimmed down considerably. We've gradually chipped away at the number of toys, completely eradicated any toys with batteries or computer chips and significantly depopulated toys based on movies or television shows. My boys used to complain they were bored, would relentlessly push the siren button on the fire truck over and over again or would look to me for instructions on how to play with a particular toy. Now that they have fewer toys, boxes and buckets become hideouts from the Big Bad Wolf, sinking boats ("It's the Titanic, mommy!") or vrooming cars packed with teddy passengers and busy boys. One teacher commented to me that my son far surpasses his classmates when it comes to pretend play. I'm sure it is due, at least in part, to the lack of toys we have at home.

When the boys were born, my husband announced a "7 Toy Rule" (each child could have 7 toys). I unilaterally amended the rule to 7 per category of toys (e.g., transportation, animal) and then further parsed it to 7 per sub-category (e.g., 7 cars, 7 trains, 7 dinosaurs). Eventually, I just brushed off the whole laughable rule and did my own thing with the Toys R Us rewards we earned from our credit card.

Now, I have to admit that Mr. Green Bean may have known what he was talking about. Seven isn't such a bad number. It really isn't too few - though it may seem so in this century of excess. So, in the spirit of Cut the Crap Month, I am ridding of the house of even more toys. I doubt we'll end up with 7 per boy. We will, however, end up with far fewer.

This week, I've already culled five bags of toys and books from the flooded toy chest. De-cluttering in an eco-friendly way, though, means forgoing the giant dumpster in the driveway and finding new homes for your fallen soldiers. Here are my favorite ways, in order, to toss the toys:
  • Sell them on Craigslist or through a mothers' group. I reserve this for more desirable items like puzzles, wooden toys, trikes, and, hopefully this month, a train table.
  • Donate them to my children's schools. Nothing could be easier than dropping off a bag full of toys when I drop off a kid. I separate out toys that are in good condition and check with the teacher first. They are usually delighted and I often see donated toys played with by other students.
  • Give them away via Freecycle or a mothers' club message board. I'm always honest about condition when I list the item and can ditch my clutter without leaving home.
  • Donate them to my local thrift store. No Impact Man recently waxed poetic about toy libraries, where toys are borrowed and then returned once children have tired of or outgrown them. I'd argue that we don't need to complicate things with formality. We already have such services in our home towns - in the form of a second hand store. Most toys we've bought in the last year come from the local thrift store and a fair number have a round trip pass - donated back once we're done with them.
What will we do after taming our toy beast? Board a ship set for rough waters, perhaps. Maybe take a trip to Jupiter in a cardboard box. If the kids can dream it, we can go there.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Stop Shopping Recycled

In honor of Crunchy Chicken's Buy Nothing Challenge, which I joined, I'm being truly green and recycling my previously-posted 10 Step Program for Buying Less Stuff. Happy non-consuming to you all.

10. Get Inspired: Set aside 20 minutes to watch The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard and de-program from the need to consume. Next time you feel the urge to buy new shoes because "fat heels" are in this year, remember where all of our stuff comes from and where it goes. Then check out Simply Green Living and No Impact Man for ideas on how to put The Story of Stuff into practice.

9. Maintain, Maintain, Maintain: Take care of the stuff you have. If I empty the vacuum filter when it needs it or take the car in for its regular tune up, it might run better. In turn, I'll be more satisfied and less tempted to replace it. If I put my tools away before it rains, they won't rust and I won't need new ones. Dusting the coils on the refrigerator saves energy and extends the life of the fridge.

8. Repair what you have: Fixing items seems to be a lost art. Indeed, it often costs more to repair an item than to buy a new one. Sometimes, even replacing a battery is more expensive than the item itself and the product, dead battery and all, finds its way into the landfill. I remember loving a hole in my pants as a girl because it meant that mom would sew some uber-cool rainbow or unicorn patch over it. I recently went looking for a patch for my son's pants and faced a very bleak selection. When was the last time you visited the cobbler (the what?) to get your shoes re-soled? How often a year do you take your dull knives and scissors in to be sharpened? Beth at Fake Plastic Fish wrote a great post about fixing instead of tossing. Melanie at Bean Sprouts similarly repaired an item that now runs good as new.

7. Make Do: Next time you break something - even something cheap and plastic and easily replaced by a quick jaunt down Target's aisles - follow Burbanmom's example and make do. Suck it up! Use your laundry basket with the broken handle, ignore the fact that the number 3 button on your phone has to be pushed five times before it actually dials, consider your worn sofa "shabby chic" and paint your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them.

6. Wear It Out: Ignore trends and wear the clothes you have (hey, those 1980's shoulder pads still make your waist look thinner), use the chunky old cell phone, haul around your hefty laptop, drive the older model car, don't get a newer, cooler recliner. The list goes on but we hardly ever wear anything out these days. We tire of it or it seems old and dowdy so we replace it with something shiny and new. Even replacing things more slowly - a new cell phone every two or three years instead of every one - is reducing and means fewer trips to the landfill.

5. Love Thy Neighbor: And borrow from them crazy. Do I really need my own pitch fork for turning compost once a month (yes, I know I should do it more)? Can my neighbor borrow my ladder so they don't need to buy one? The blogger at My Journey to a Simple Life shared how her neighborhood works together to save money and reduce consumption by lending. Neighbors don't have what you need? Hit the library, rent tools from Home Depot, or sign up with neighborrow, a nifty site pairing lenders and borrowers in certain cities.

4. Second Chance Love Story: There is nothing sweeter than scoring some second hand stuff for a song. Stalk thrift stores, garage sales, Craigslist, Freecycle, Ebay, dumpsters. Because we live in a throw-away society, there is virtually no need that cannot be met without used goods. Check out Lighter Footstep on the benefits of used stuff.

3. Do Without: A Mickey Mouse waffle maker for only $20 online? Maybe I can just make Mickey - or better yet, people shaped - pancakes and the kids will survive. Instead of buying a Kill-A-Watt, I can unplug whatever it is and save more overall energy.

2. In It For the Long Haul: When you do buy something new, consider long term needs and long term quality. Purchase something that will last; that you can pass down to your children and grandchildren. Check out Casaubon's Book for more thoughts on thinking longevity. And, the number one way to stop buying stuff . . .

1. Don't Go Target: Or the mall, or WalMart, or whatever store or website flips your switch and turns you into a consumptive zombie. When you have to buy something, avoid the big box stores with their shiny displays. My personal consumer spending plummeted when I started buying staples at the local drugstore instead of Target. Why? Well, the goods I bought closer to home were a tad more expensive but I wasn't lured into buying all that other gewgaws that Target hawks.

And there you have it. Ten ways to kick some non-consumption booty in Crunchy Chicken's Buy Nothing Challenge this month.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Good to the Last Drop

As my family's garbage output is now officially less than ten percent of the average American's (see sidebar Riot 4 Austerity numbers), I feel like I can finally talk some serious trash. There are tons of ways to taper off your trash: compost, ditch disposables, make your own, buy items with less packaging or better yet don't buy it at all. The list could go on and on but the simplest way is to stretch your resources. In other words, it ain't empty until it's empty.

Several weeks ago I lifted the lid on the bathroom waste can only to discover our toothpaste tube lounging amongst the spent tissue and cotton swabs. Sure, to the Muggle eye, that tube looked empty. I knew better. I rescued it from the waste bin and, squeezing and scrunching, happily brushed my teeth with its contents for another three weeks.*

Like Green Bean Good Fairy, I glide from room to room working my stretching sorcery on various lotions, conditioners and soaps. We have mostly switched to bar soap but, for years, I added a splash of water to liquid soap whenever I refilled a container. We are almost out of face cream. Before delving into what would be the most eco-friendly replacement, however, I decided to do the greenest thing of all and keep using what we had - with some water mixed in. My husband asked me this morning if I've refilled the bottle because it seems to be regenerating itself. ;-) The added benefit is that the water actually makes the thick lotion easier to apply.

As to the conditioner languishing in my shower, that baby has been around since before the dawn of global warming. Like a miracle of biblical proportion, even though I add water every time I use it (every 3rd or 4th shower alternating with the vinegar wash), the creamy consistency remains the same, the bottle just as full.

For other products, I forgo adding water and just use less. A capful of laundry detergent? Why? A 1/4 of a capful (and sometimes none) will get the job done. You don't really need to fill that little bowl full with dishwasher detergent - just a dash.

To what do I owe my mystical powers? Why, to my parents, of course. In the interest of frugality, we would often add a bit of water to a near empty ketchup bottle to use up the dregs. It worked like a charm - unless someone went overboard and the ketchup turned to tomato soup. That was not so tasty on the tater tots.

So with that final warning to not be overly exuberant with the water, I hereby bestow, on you, my powers of alchemy. Go forth and bewitch thy bottles, remembering the simple spell: reducing the refuse makes everything good to the last drop.

*To further reduce wasteful packaging, many people make their own toothpaste. I'm sure this is fine but, after taking my then 4 year old in to have 8 cavities filled in one sitting (we were using store bought toothpaste without fluoride), I'm a bit gun shy to transition the family to homemade toothpaste. We'll stick with a "natural" brand of toothpaste.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Bringing the Mountain to Mohammad

Unlike any generation before it, today's children spend far less time outdoors and the few outside hours they do have are often devoted to structured activities and team sports. Most often, children are inside, where we can keep them safe and "where all the electric outlets are." Exploration of the natural world, though, is a well documented balm to stress. It improves physical health, reduces the effects of disorders like ADD and ADHD and decreases aggression. In an effort to rebuild the connection between our kids and the wild world, the Children & Nature Network, a group spurred by and including Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, has dubbed April Children & Nature Awareness Month.

April, as spring rises up from her downy winter bed, is a perfect month to give our children unstructured time in natural places. While this time can include going on a hike, vacationing at a state park, or visiting a vacant lot, such outings cannot always be enjoyed on a daily basis. Work and school schedules as well as a general lack of access to undisturbed wilderness in our cities and suburbs render that impossible. Moreover, some have raised legitimate concerns about encroaching on wildlife habitat and carting our human baggage (cell phones, iPods, heavy footprints) into what little undisturbed wilderness remains. When you cannot bring your kids to the mountain, though, you can always bring the mountain to your kids - or at least to your backyard.

Here are some of the changes we've made as we gradually transform our tiny suburban yard into a backyard habitat:
  • Go native: We've added several native plants to our yard. In particular, we've chosen ones their provide either food or habitat for butterflies, birds or insects. Most local garden centers (not the Home Depot nursery) have a section of native plants to make it easy to find a mature plant for your home.

  • Go natural: We've never used pesticides in our garden and, as soon as I realized our gardener (before we replaced him a push mower) was using chemical fertilizers, we stopped those as well. As a result, we have lots of creepy crawlies and more baby lady bugs this spring than I've ever seen. My littlest was positively giddy when one crawled across his hand.

  • It's for the birds: I'm not sure whether a naturalist would approve but we introduced two bird feeders into our yard late last fall. One is stocked with thistle seed for the colorful, fluttery finches and the other holds sunflower seeds for bigger birds and squirrels. Our pre-feeder yard was frequented by only a single, lonely bird. Now it is a-wing with a dozen species of birds - sparrows, jays, robins, chickadees and towhees. They eat the seed but also spend a fair amount of time twittering through the trees, pecking around the plants and gathering dried grass for nests.

  • Give them water: Our bird bath is set under some berried trees and hugged by a butterfly bush and a native monkey flower. The boys delight in the antics in the bird bath - a robin flapping joyfully or a fuzzed black squirrel daintily dipping in its front paws. Peeping tom sessions through the window are frequently interrupted by one of them calling for the "bird card" and the other throwing toys and stuffed animals willy nilly in an effort to unearth our bird identification card so they can locate the bather's photo and I can read its name.

  • Leave it alone: Even in our diminutive yard, we've managed to give nature a shaded back corner. There, I let the weeds grow and the fallen leaves rest. I'll occasionally toss cuttings back there instead of in the compost bin. Expeditions to the back corner have unearthed a newt, pill bugs, spider webs galore and repeat bird visitors.

  • Grow a gardener: My three year old announced this morning, when I handed him a packet of nasturtium seeds, "I'm a big kid. I know how to plant seeds. I poke them in the dirt . . ." Sure 'nough, he did know how to plant them. Sometimes their attention wanders but my boys usually can be counted on to plant a handful of seeds, help with a few transplants, dig a hole and, always, water. Together, we have planted a butterfly garden in the front yard, cover crop in the sidewalk strip and a vegetable garden in raised beds.

  • Be a kid again: Sharon Lovejoy has authored a number of books about gardening with children. One of my favorites, Sunflower Houses: Inspiration from the Garden, explores playing with plants in a manner of which I long forgotten. Ms. Lovejoy details how to make daisy chains, hats fashioned from leaves, boats built from shells and dolls contrived from various flowers. To a child's imagination, plants can be much more than plants. While cutting back our cover crop (sigh! no sign of our toad resident), we transformed thick, hollow fava bean stems into flutes, straws and magic wands capable of transporting us to different worlds and shrinking us to the size of "amoebas". Pea flowers became miniature pirates - sticking their tiny pollen tongues out in mock threat. We discovered that nature is as magical on the Lilliputian scale as on the giant scale.
I cannot bring my boys to nature, with her gnarled climbing trees, grassy hiding spots and meandering streams, every day. But I can and do bring a little bit of nature to our own front steps. Happy Children & Nature Awareness Month.
Ladybug Larva Photo courtesy of Ladybug Lady.


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