Wednesday, July 30, 2008

From Bashful to Bodacious



Last spring, I decided to grow some of my own food. Without any raised beds (since rectified thanks to Mr. Green Bean) and a yard that was mostly lawn, I did what I could. I hesitantly tucked a couple tomato seedlings in amongst the lamb's ear and daisies in my backyard. In the front yard, I hid some thyme and oregano next to the Mexican sage and Penestemon. I hoped no one would notice. Thus, began my edible gardening.

A few friends were surprised that I would grow vegetables in with my flowers. However, as summer padded in, my tomato seedlings stretched beyond their cages and dangled their cherry red fruit over the dahlias and foxgloves. There was something romantic and old fashioned about them. By the time I harvested the last tomato in November, even doubting friends pronounced a tomato tucked amongst ornamentals wonderful and many swore they'd try the same thing next year.

Yesterday, waist deep in squash leaves, hair in my eyes, I pried the crabgrass out of the dirt where it was crowding the climbing Scarlet runner beans. "What have you got in here?" my neighbor from across the street asked, peering down into ever expanding green. I eased apart leaves to show off my baby banana squash, my preemie Potimarron. I clambered over the vines to point out my peppers and frown over the baby apple tree still recovering from a deer's feasting. I waved into the butterfly garden to explain that there were peas, lemon cucumbers and tomatoes lurking amongst the Cosmos and yarrow. Lastly, my kids bounded over to explain how big our sunflower forest had gotten. They ran between the scaling stalks and stood next to the biggest plant so that our neighbor could understand just how tall the sunflowers really were. "Taller than me!" my three year old announced.

A year ago, I would have been far too shy to plant vegetables in my front yard. Even last spring, when asked what I was growing, I gave vague answers such as "flowering vines, some plants." I couldn't quite spit out "pumpkins" or "beans."

A year ago, too, my neighbor might have responded differently than he did today. "What a great idea!" he marveled. "We should do that next year." In a way, I didn't expect his response. My neighborhood is very traditional - a grass and roses kind of place. But I shouldn't have been surprised. A different neighbor stopped me last week to thank me for "bringing up the neighborhood." She said that she had seen on the news how front yard feasting is very fashionable now.

She's right. Everywhere you turn, people are talking about edible landscaping, Victory Gardens, growing their own. The food revolution is here and it's exciting . . . and a bit scary to be the first in your neighborhood to replace lawn with lettuce. Here are some baby and not so baby steps for going from bashful to bodacious:

1) Plant some innocuous (e.g., not obviously edible) plants in flower beds. People won't blink at a a few of the following:
  • herbs
  • potatoes
  • onions
  • blueberry bushes
  • strawberries
  • Swiss chard (Bright Lights looks pretty)
  • sunflowers
  • pole beans that climb up an attractive structure
  • peppers
2) Expand your flower beds, nibbling away at the grass. It doesn't feel like ripping out grass. It doesn't feel like a big step. Just getting more planting room. I did this bit by bit. No one noticed the shrinking lawn - except the water company.
3) Put some lettuce or herbs in your window box - with or without flowers.
4) If you are up for a bigger step, remove a patch of lawn. Doing it in the fall allows sheet mulch and cover crop to improve the soil over fall and winter. We did this with our sidewalk strip last October and, although some of the newspaper and cardboard from the sheet mulch has not completely degraded, the soil underneath is loamy and rich.
5) Plan to replace lawn with flowers instead of edibles. For some reason, people find it more acceptable to grow flowers than vegetables in your front yard. As a result, it doesn't feel like a big step. A flower garden - especially one that features native plants - uses less water than lawn, requires less upkeep and will increase the biodiversity of your yard. My "butterfly garden" was mostly planted from seed (replanted successively through out the year) so it was cheap, mostly plastic-less and has a natural, lush look to it. Better yet, a brimming flower garden is the perfect place to tuck in peas, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. With the swaying strands of Cosmos, Queen Ann's Lace, Mexican sunflowers and lavender, no one notices a stray vegetable here or there.
Doing any these things will embolden you.
You will revel in the ability to run out front to grab some thyme for your pumpkin soup, to scoop up a few tomatoes for your salad, snip a couple snap peas for stir fry or harvest some baseball sized potatoes.
You will get to know your neighbors, if for no other reason than you'll be out front. As your garden grows, so will interest in it and discussion about it. Someone might even join you next year. While there is always someone crotchety who might complain, I find the more I connect with my neighbors, the less likely they are to complain about anything.
You will realize that there is no reason to be bashful. That vegetables and berries are beautiful, and, heck, its your yard anyway!
Last spring, I hesitantly tucked a couple tomato seedlings in amongst the flowers in my backyard. In the front yard, I hid some thyme and oregano next to the Mexican sage and Penestemon. I hoped no one would notice.
Next spring, I won't think twice about rows of tomatoes, eggplants or peppers. About mounds of potatoes, cucumbers or pumpkins. About climbing beans and sprawling peas or even corn.
My edible garden will be both bodacious and bountiful. And my neighborhood will be better for it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Pretty Is as Pretty Does


Last weekend, I attended a Safe Makeup and Face Care class. Did I surprise you? I surprised myself!

I'm not much into makeup. Or even skincare. I aim for that minimalist, environmentalist, use few products, create little waste state of mind. My shampoo comes in a bar. My conditioner is vinegar mixed with tea. I brush my teeth with "natural toothpaste" and a Preserve toothbrush. That's my beauty routine.

So what was I doing at a cosmetics class?

Whole Foods offers free, private classes for groups. A fantastic green mothers club from a few cities over set it up and invited my green book club. The turn out was amazing. It was a great opportunity to meet other green moms, take a break from the kids on a Sunday afternoon and to do something girlie. We may be "green moms" but that doesn't mean we're not girls.

Besides, the class wasn't all that girlie. ;-) We learned about the scary ingredients in mainstream cosmetics - ingredients that you don't want on your skin or in the environment. We inspected the reduced packaging efforts of the organic small business lines that sell at Whole Foods. And were privy to one of the best kept beauty secrets of women everywhere, one that Crunchy Chicken coincidentally divulged while I was at the class. Coconut oil.

My biggest take away from the class, though, had nothing to do with skincare. It was that it helps to think outside of the apocalyptic box. That people want to connect in positive, fun ways as well as meaningful, environmental ways. That we can share ideas on community building, home cleaning and local eating over some organic mascara and toner. That green moms are a truly beautiful group - inside and out.

Pretty is as pretty does and these beautiful women do quite a bit.

Monday, July 28, 2008

APLS Power - Activate!


SUMMONS OF SUPERHEROES
By Ima Greenie, Daily Planet Staff Reporter

GOTHAM CITY - As this reporter previously relayed, sustainable superheroes have been emerging across the country for some months now.

To date, these superheroes have cloaked their identities behind pseudonyms such as The Purloined Letter, Domestic Accident, Goose Juice and IB Mommy. They have, for the most part, worked individually. Appearing in Indiana to rid the world of trash. Saving carloads of recyclables from the landfill from Oregon to California and back. Subduing unsustainable scrubbies and liberating lawns across the country.

These previously shy supers, however, have become quite brazen in recent weeks, embracing their inner affluence and proclaiming "I Am A Superwoman." Apparently, the environmental superheroes - some of whom call themselves APLS - realize "there is strength in numbers" and have begun working together. They've gathered on the Going Green with Burbanmom Yahoo Group, banded together in The Bushel Basket, assembled on the APLS Facebook Group, and planned a physical meeting in the Pacific Northwest.

Reports are now coming in of a top-secret conference of APLS here. This will apparently be home base for individuals with the desire to live sustainably in an affluent society, which, when paired with action, is the only known trigger to superherodom. The APLS Blog will kick off a carnival of connections, whereby the environmental superheroes focus on a single topic each month. Further, rumors abound of regional APLS rising up, organizing physical assemblies of known APLS by geographic location. If you are aware of anyone who might fit the profile for a regional APLS organizer, please report back to this reporter.

It is too soon to tell how the bonding of superheroes might impact the battle to save the planet or alter the communities of these caped crusaders. It is clear, however, that the so-called APLS community grows more powerful by the day. APLS blog organizers report that, like the Wonder Twins, APLS are stronger when they work together and urge all superheroes still in hiding to join in.

If you are aware of any other gathering of APLS, please contact this reporter with details.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Squashed


It's that time of year. The summer sun fights bedtime, trying to outlast the moon before giving way and peeking below the horizon. The sunflowers in my sidewalk strip jump a foot each day and my kids take turns measuring themselves against the sturdy stalks.
The tomatoes
. . . let's not talk about those. The Romano beans race up the windmill, struggling to get to the top but falling just short. Birds scamper under the overgrown butterfly bush, dragging away bugs. The wading pool is out and in use. The boys seem to be living on wasteless popsicles. The parks are full and our bikes resting from trips back and forth, buffeted by warm breezes.

We've halfway through summer and it is time again. Time for what?

Why ever little locavore knows. Time to put up food for winter. (I love writing that. It makes me feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder). If you want to eat seasonally, but can't let go of the strawberries of spring, the cucumbers of summer or the winter squash of fall, you stock up. Freeze. Can. Dehydrate.
Heather has been canning tomato sauce. Abbie is freezing corn. Eco Burban Mom made pickles. Jennconspiracy made apricot chutney and all kinds of alcoholic delights (for those really cold nights). And I've been jamming.

Last year, I made an amateur's effort at stocking up for the dark days. I ran out of dried strawberries and dried tomatoes within a month. The frozen corn ended up mushy and hardly edible - though we did eat it . . . on top of pizza. I froze pasta sauce that was beyond delicious and gone by January. I've missed my homemade chutney for months now. However, I managed to hit it just right with jams and dried apples. Just right.

And then there's the squash.

Here is where I claim some experience in prepping for colder weather and where I issue a warning to you first timers out there. When you find yourself - cheeks stung by fall's first frosts, hair blown by its gusty winds - romantically wandering through the farmers' market, ogling the jewel toned array of winter squash, buy less.

That's right. Less.

Less pumpkins. Fewer candy roasters. Not so many butternuts. A tad less banana squash and Sibleys. Pass on a few of those Potimorrans. And skip some of the Hubbards.

Sure. They were wonderful. Last year, I decorated my kitchen, my front steps, my porch with these autumnal beauties. Once Halloween and Thanksgiving slipped away, I hacked them open, one by one, baking and pureeing the rich coral colored flesh and incorporating the seeds into my homemade granola. I stocked a full dorm-sized freezer full of squash last winter.

Gradually, we ate through some of it. Savoring the rich soups and souffles. Plumping up on pumpkin pies, pancakes and baked pasta. Munching on muffins. The frozen squash stores shrank and eventually migrated into the kitchen freezer so that I could turn the other one off, save a few kilowatts.

But guess what. It's still there! Last night, I opened the freezer, digging for room and found four huge containers full of lurking squash. Count 'em. One, two, three, four. So even though summer is not a time when you'd normally revel in winter squash, that's we're doing it. We've got to eat it up before those toddler sized delights lounge once again under my favorite farmers' canopy.

I won't make the same mistake, though, this year. I won't let myself be seduced by something pretty. By the warm oranges, auburns and greens. By their stocky comfort. By their seasonal sex appeal. I will resist. I will be strong. I will not be squashed this year. . . . I think.


One Local Summer Meal: Pumpkin Mac & Cheese

The pasta wasn't local but everything else is both local and organic. The pumpkin cheese sauce is easy (and thankfully uses a fair amount for pureed pumpkin). I do everything on the stove top instead of the oven as it uses significantly less energy. I don't have a recipe but here are basic directions: Melt 2 Tablespoons local butter, whisk in 2 Tablespoons of flour and cook for about 1 minute. Gradually add a splash of milk, some squash puree and shredded cheese until the mixture reaches a consistency and flavor you like. Flavor with salt and pepper. Feed to my kids - who not only eat this but love it.





Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Daily Grind

We live with an economy whose health is measured by consumer spending, by the amount of material goods bought and sold. Yet everything we read and watch - Affluenza, Simple Prosperity, The Story of Stuff - tell us that those days must come to an end. That we are consuming more than our planet can handle, more than our fair share globally and running out of cheap oil while we do it. Pulling the plug on our consumer lifestyle, however, will plunge the economy into a tailspin - or at least that's the argument.

As experts debate what can and may and should happen, a new economy is sprouting up around us. I'm talking about green jobs. Not the kind you initially think of. Not ones funded by Kleiner Perkins. Not the solar industry's efforts to keep up with skyrocketing demands by frantically hiring anyone with a brain and a couple limbs.

I'm talking about the little guys. You and me. Entrepreneurs. Average folks combining their skills and interests, their desire to do good with their need to earn a paycheck, their hope for a more sustainable future with the goal of a more fulfilling lifestyle.

I'm talking about Trevor Paque, a landscape gardener who grows organic produce - instead of ornamental flowers - for his homeowner clients. Mr. Paque was discussed on No Impact Man yesterday. Many people would love to have an organic vegetable garden in their yard but lack time and/or skill. Mr. Paque offers them what they desire and supports himself in the process. He is able to have a job he loves, that is fulfilling and provide a service that allows others to become more aware of where food comes from, reduce their food miles and pesticide use and enjoy delicious food.

Mr. Paque is not unique. A farmers' market friend, who is at risk of losing her farm, has mentioned the same service idea to me. Our own Beany has apparently considered starting up an organic, local ingredient meal delivery service. And the Wall Street Journal featured suburban farmers, replacing their own and neighbor's lawns with vegetable gardens in exchange for a CSA share of the produce grown.



Not all eco-entrepreneurs can devote their time as completely as Mr. Paque, at least initially. Many, however, are starting side businesses in the hopes of one day earning their living entirely from something they believe in.

People with green skills are increasingly paid to teach classes ranging from the Backyard Chickens class I took last month, to classes on solar cooking, canning, and bicycle maintenance. Last weekend, at the Blogher conference, I met a very smart Smart Mama who has launched her own business testing toys to determine whether they contain toxins, helping clients create a non-toxic nursery or home, and teaching classes on how to make green cleaning and beauty products. If rumors are true, she's got a few other green business models up her sleeve. Eco Burban Mom reported on a couple selling homemade lemonade and limeade at her farmers' market. Closer to home, I have a friend who collects old textiles and transforms them into trendy handbags for a local boutique. Another friend is exploring the idea of a consignment store specializing in used nursery items. Yet another friend gave up her career as an attorney to create a company specializing in energy efficiency audits for homes and businesses. I've even had a few blogger friends share some green business ideas with me.

Is this the local economy Bill McKibben dreamed of when he penned Deep Economy? Is this the key to a sustainable future? A means for people to do good and live well? I'm going to say yes. Are you inspired to search out a path that combines earning income with a more fulfilling life?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

APLS and Oranges


How great is The Bushel Basket? Overflowing with a variety of wonderfully crunchy apples? Have you picked an apple yet? I've managed to nibble here and there and I look forward to eating my way through the whole darn basket.

Nothing is better than connecting with like-minded folks. I truly believe that, to grow the green movement, preserve our own sanity and find a place of belonging, we need to continue to find ways to connect APLS to APLS. In addition to The Bushel Basket, you can join the APLS Facebook group, the Going Green with Burbanmom Yahoo Group or, if you are in the North West, attend a blogger meet up organized by Crunchy Chicken and Melinda.

Last weekend, I connected with four super APLS, MamaBird from Surely You Nest, Beth from Fake Plastic Fish, Jenn from Tiny Choices and Jennifer from The Smart Mama, at the Blogher conference. We hung out, went to a seminar together, ate lunch (plastic free, of course!). I learned far more in my time with those gals than at the rest of the conference. We shared a hug when we parted and looked forward to our next connection, even if it was only online.

So, when Beth, recounting her experience at the same conference, asked: "Should we get more involved in Blogher greening or create our own green bloggers conference?", I wanted to shout "CREATE OUR OWN GREEN CONFERENCE!"

But I didn't.

Because as wonderful as it is to be surrounded by people like yourself - the validation, the sense of belonging, the feeling of connection and support - it is also nice to toss an orange into the basket.

In Achieving Success Through Social Capital, Wayne Baker wrote:

Generally speaking, people tend to associate with others like themselves. The "similarity principle" is a powerful driver of human interaction. For these and other reasons, networks are prone to form within clumps, not between them. . . . Clumpiness means that networks tend to fold back on themselves. For example, friends of friends tend to be friends. (82)

Many months ago, Charles at Car(bon) Free in California noted essentially the same thing. In exploring how to build an effective platform from which to "spread the word", he noted "I need to comment on other blogs and build traffic. But the risk is that we echo chamber." By adding oranges, we can stretch our words, thoughts and beliefs beyond our own sustainable circle.

More diverse networks - where APLS connect with other apples as well as oranges - "extend out into the world instead of folding back on themselves." (Achieving Success Through Social Capital, 82). By adding the occasional orange, we create a stronger network that is more likely grow. Indeed, no movement ever succeeded without a diversity of viewpoint and dissident voices, without an infusion of new thoughts and connections. In addition, an occasional orange can make life a lot more interesting. As No Impact Man expressed when he met Australian fashionista blogger, Gala Darling, connecting with someone not obviously like yourself and "together looking for and finding . . . commonalities, . . . building human bridges . . . make[s life] . . . a little better by simply being human."

That's why The Bushel Basket, Going Green Yahoo Group and the Facebook Group are open to everyone. To those who say they are new to the movement. To those who are just learning about climate change. To those who have not yet embarked on a more sustainable path. To those who don't write or often think about sustainable living but who are interested. And to everyone in between. Jump in.

There is room in this bushel basket for apples, oranges and even an occasional non-local, organic banana.

UPDATED: to add Burbanmom's Going Green Yahoo Group. Don't know why I blanked on that the first time but Burbs' group is a great way to connect with other APLS and share advice for living lighter.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stop, Look and Listen


The bench sits underneath an old oak tree. It looks out over the street, vineyards and hills dotted with oaks and an abandoned old schoolhouse. Behind it rests an organic vineyard, wooden birdhouses offer shelter - and encourage nibbling of insects - between the rows. Small wildflower gardens, designed to attract pests away from the vines, sprawl along the fences.


One warm morning, as the sun stretched and yawned over the hillside, we walked the path that leads by the bench. This morning, for some reason, we actually stopped and read the inscription. Dedicated to a long time resident who had since passed, the bench instructed "come, sit and listen to nature's songs."

Because we weren't in a hurry to be in anywhere, because we were feeling relaxed and lazy, because an entire day of entertaining children in 107 degree weather loomed before us, we obeyed the bench's orders. We stopped. We sat. We listened.

We heard the call of a quail. Across the street, a male roosted in an olive tree. There, he surveyed his family as they toddled through the vineyard.

The saccharine chirp of songbirds that dove in and out of the vines echoed through the valley.

Lizards rustled in the underbrush and emerged from holes to soak in the morning sun's rays.

A tiny breeze cosseted the leaves of the ancient tree overhead and carried soft, warming clucks in our direction. A dozen hens emerged from under the vines, shuffling companionably along and then, every so often, breaking apart to peck here and or digest a bug there. We waited, unmoving, while they pattered toward the fence.



In that moment, I felt at peace, regenerated, centered and still.

Last winter, we watched Frontier House at Crunchy Chicken's suggestion. A worthwhile PBS reality show, it followed three families for five months in an isolated stretch of Montana. The participants lived as if they were in 1883 - without electricity, running water, heat or other modern conveniences. The participants' overwhelming response, once they returned to the present day, was how much we have. We have too much. Too many choices. Too many things competing for our attention. Too much stimulation. It overwhelms the quiet of nature, the stillness of the soul, the opening through which we can know ourselves.

In modern America, it is difficult to treasure silence, to unleash imagination, to embrace the healing power of a simple morning at the vineyard's.

How long I can keep that moment, that morning's sense of being, with me? How many movies can I watch? How much can I stare at ? How many texted messages? How long can that feeling survive the competing and much louder din of technology?

I struggle with this the only ways I know how. By turning off the TV and the radio. By recreating safe places in my yard, planting to lure the quiet creatures in, leaving a back corner untamed for birds and bees, newts and beetles. By vacationing in places where there is less - less stimulation, less competition, fewer choices. By re-discovering our county's hikes and preserves. By cherishing a moment of stillness under an old oak tree. By heeding a bench's reminder to stop, look and listen to nature's songs.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pick Me a Blackberry


There was one other car in the parking lot - a minivan - when we pulled in. A sedan followed us, dust billowing up behind it on the rocky dirt road. We met under the blue canopy, interrupting the chatting teenagers who weighed our buckets and pointed us toward the back of the field.

We donned hats and headed out, bowing our heads against the already bristling sun. Our collective posse of kids ran ahead, and then up and down the aisles, disappearing behind brambles and then reappearing with berry-stained chins. They became quick friends, calling each other's names out, playing hide and seek and loosely supervised by the husbands.

We women were too busy to watch. We worked slowly, avoiding thorns, sampling berries. We talked about schools, the water table, peach chutney. One of us was determined to pick enough blackberries to make her diabetic father sugar free jam. Another had out of town guests coming and wanted to show off our hard won berries (now we understand why they are so expensive!!). I didn't know what I would do with our haul.

I ended up baking like a mad woman.

I made a blackberry crisp with locally milled flour, bulk oats, homemade butter, and fair trade sugar. I served that up with a homemade pizza made from all locally grown or produced ingredients. But the crisp, with it's 4 cups of berries did not make a dent in our bucket.

I saw no choice but to bake more. And so I did. Following this recipe, I mixed up our U-Pick berries, locally milled flour, local butter, cinnamon, homemade buttermilk (you know, what's left over after you make butter), and fair trade sugar. We devoured the scones with some farmers' market corn, peas and tomatoes, the latter served with fresh locally made mozzarella.



Was my berry bucket empty? Not by a long shot. Last night, I mixed the dregs of blackberries, with some old farmers' market strawberries and some new farmer's market blueberries to make triple berry crisp. It contained much of the same ingredients as the blackberry crisp, above, though we ate it after roasted, homegrown potatoes and salads.

Was that the end of my berry bucket? Yes. Yes, it was. But not the end of the post.

Is it possible to connect with other APLS with no fruit involved? No tart green apples as our mascot? No overflowing bushel baskets? No sumptuous blackberries mashed into jam? No blood, sweat and tear berries accompanied by a week's worth of scratches and a month's worth of memories? I suppose it is possible but why fight a good thing?


** All food is organic unless noted otherwise.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Little Green Wallet

With two canvas bags slung over my shoulder, I twist the key in the lock. The door opens with a creak. Trotting into my bedroom, I pour the contents of my bags on to the bed. A cute white peasant shirt with beads around the neck. An embroidered black blouse for nights out. A linen button up for cooler summer nights. And more.

My clothes haven't been feeling quite so flattering these days. So I went on a shopping spree. Not a spree, really, because it didn't have the emotional charge, the feeling of losing control, the high that I used to get when I shopped recreationally. Actually, I guess I just went and bought some clothes.

At my local thrift shop.

I'm not a non-consumer. I've never done the Compact, either. It's just not my style.

Instead, I buy used. In the past year, I've only bought myself one new article of clothing. Everything else comes from my favorite second-hand stores.

Ever since I realized the impact of new items on the environment - that fact that for every 100 pounds of product that hits the store shelves at least 3,200 pounds of waste are generated - I've seized on second-hand as the environmental choice. No resources were used to make the new-to-me items. Unless I purchased it off of Ebay, which I usually don't, few resources were consumed in transport as used items tend to stay local. Further, it is important to create a market for used items so they find homes that do not include the landfill. And, best yet, I can usually find whatever I want second-hand for a fraction of the price new.

Over the past year, I've purchased new wardrobes for my kids, dishes to replace the ones they broke, drinking glasses to replace the ones they broke, toys to replace the ones they broke, games, a bike, and new clothes for myself. All of those purchases have been inexpensive and guilt free. Every now and then, though, I've been unable to find something I want used. On those occasions, I've sat back and wondered if I truly *needed* it, if I could make do with something else, if I could borrow it from a friend. If, after all that thought, I decided I had no alternative but to buy new, I would carefully research the most sustainable choice. Once I reached a decision, I'd moan and groan for a few more weeks or months and then, eventually, jump in and buy.

While I revel in the environmental correctness of my purchasing decisions, my husband does not.

He has always been a more mindful consumer than I, buying only after months of deliberation. Now that we've "gone green", he'll occasionally dabble in used goods, scoping out a bike trailer or a desk out on Craigslist. He believes just as passionately, though, in supporting small companies that strive to create a sustainable product. He argues that big business will never be incited to change if they do not lose market share to companies offering true environmental products, if those of us who care about the planet don't create a demand for such goods. (He also throws in a whole bunch of economics talk that I don't really understand and therefore cannot repeat.)

Every time, my husband opts to buy something new, I cringe. We've gone around and around on this topic but have never seen eye to eye. I knew I was right. When I told him I was going to write a post about this, he responded, "I'm right. I know I am." We agreed to disagree.

Until I read Garbage Land.

Among many other things, the book highlights the need for a market for recycled products - something we've heard time and again since the 1970's. What does it matter if we diligently separate our milk carton or beer bottle in the recycle bin if it is always cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin materials (due to subsidies)? If there is no market for recycled goods? How can recycling be "environmental" if no one demands products made from recycled material? If the only countries willing to recycle our cast-offs are on the other side of the ocean? As Arduous asked last spring, "what would happen if every eco-conscious person decided to get off the grid?" What if that "grid" is the marketplace? Isn't it incumbent upon someone to provide a market for these materials?

I've always assumed that the "someone" would be someone else. Someone "less green" than I with my second hand shoes and my pre-owned purse. But maybe . . . that someone is me?

At our breakfast meeting, Arduous talked about a hypothetical MP3 player (I think?) that was made entirely out of recycled materials and at the end of its useful life could easily be remade into something else. Would I buy that? If all of us who are "green" only buy used, who would such a product appeal to? Certainly people who are not environmentally aware wouldn't get excited over such a product? And if no one would buy it, then why make it?

I'm not advocating an all out buy-a-thon. Not by a long shot. I still shudder at the thought of buying something that is new and not just new-to-me and still believe we should consume less, far less than the average American. But I am wondering where to draw the line. Instead of buying newly but sustainably manufactured products only once I've run out of alternatives, do I move those products up the ladder? Even if they are sustainably-produced, energy is still used to make them and, in all likelihood, waste generated? Is that offset when the product includes recycled content that would otherwise be headed to landfill? When the company uses renewable energy to build the reclaimed or recycled product? When that product is something we would actually use and, even "need," rather than some eco-gadget?

I don't know what the answer is but I do think it is a valid question.

I don't know if I have a Big Green Purse. But maybe I have a little green wallet.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Feasting in the Front Yard


To my left, a vineyard spills off the road and up the hillside. A single hawk patrols overhead and bees burrow into the wildflowers at the vineyard's edge.

On the other side of the street, a gangly tomato bush leans over its cage to nuzzle the watermelon vine that sprints toward the sidewalk. Carrot tops and beet greens line the path to the Craftsman front door, gaily waving at passersby and the ubiquitous grape vine hangs over the fence top. Next door, a newly built French Country style home meets the street with rows of strawberry plants. Further down, a zucchini plant struggles under its weight . . . and the realization that it will soon be baked into bread.


Wine country is a bit more country than my suburban haunts. Here, as in Joyce's neighborhood, no one blinks at front yard feasting. Indeed, every lot proudly boasts at least one persimmon tree and many also host apple and plum trees. Fig trees are espaliered along the edges of homes and potatoes, eggplants and peppers greet the street.


Back in the 'burbs, I'll spy the occasional citrus tree in the front yard or an ornamental - not edible - plum. People won't look askance at an exposed sunflower but they do trot by weekly to examine my crawling pumpkin vines, over-wintered Swiss chard, slithering runner beans and dying tomato plants.

I'm not sure why we hide our fruits and vegetables. Snap peas are as beautiful as sweet peas with the added benefit that my kids can skip dinner after gorging on their offerings. The T-Rex sized pumpkin leaves are a study in greens and textures and potato plants? My friend swears they look like peonies. I rather think she's right.



I'm proud of my pumpkins and peas, my ailing cucumbers and fumbling borage. They offer depth and dimension to a street otherwise lined with manicured lawns. They also offer a chance to get to know my neighbors, to share the surprise of a potato in the flower beds, and even spread some "greenness" in an otherwise grass-filled world. Perhaps I have a little country and a little Gavin Newsom in me for I'll happily feast in my front yard any day.

* San Francisco City Hall photo from Slow Food Nation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A is for Apple


A is for Apple. It is also for Affluent.

I'm talking about the acronym APLS that I've been throwing around here lately. Affluent Persons Living Simply.

Everyone likes the moniker. It's cute. It sounds like a piece of fruit. It beats the pants off of Greenfluencers and YAWNs but it's got that one piece, that first letter, that we're just not quite sure about.

Our first reaction, including mine, is that we're not rich. We're not Oprah. Our home is small, our car old, our bank account dwindling. Our first reaction is to think of "Affluent" in terms of dollars and cents.

Financially speaking, though, we are affluent. Every last one of us living here in the developed world. We're loaded . . . relative to our friends on the other side of the globe. Three billion people live on less than $2 a day. 1.3 billion live on less than $1 a day. Check out the Global Rich List to see where you fall. I guarantee you'll be in the top tenth, or at least the top quarter, of the world in terms of material wealth.

Even if we hesitate at being labeled "Affluent" as an individual, none of us can dispute that the countries we call home are wealthy. Just living here, we've all benefited from the advantages only citizens of affluent countries enjoy - paved streets patrolled by police officers and firefighters, schools, libraries, parks.

Moreover, in the green movement, we spend a great deal of time discussing local living, supporting local businesses, eating locally grown food, and building a local support system. While all of those activities are fulfilling personally and meaningful in the fight against global warming, global warming is just that. Global. It is not a problem that will affect only us. Or only Africa. Or only South America. It is impacting us all and we must work globally to find solutions. If our nations, the ones with the resources, do not step in, offer sustainable alternatives and help people in third world countries do more than just survive the day, we cannot win.

But wealth is not just calculated in terms of money. It is more than dollars and cents. Cars and clothes. Jets and jewelry. Much more.

Since I embarked on a lighter lifestyle, I've grown wealthy beyond measure. Today, I ate a home cooked meal from blackberries I picked with friends and potatoes I grew in my backyard. I watched butterflies cavort through my flower garden and my children scoot up and down the sidewalk. I hung clean clothes on a clothesline bordered by morning glories and raspberry bushes. I sat under a tree and read library books to my boys. My last medical check up with smiles and congratulations on healthful living. I have a calendar so full with events with newly found friends - APLS most of them - that I can hardly find time to garden.

I am living richly. I am experiencing real wealth.

No matter how you look at it, I am affluent.

A is for Affluent.

Continue the discussion on the APLS facebook group that Melissa set up.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Bushel Basket


Last week, I wrote about connecting APLS to apples, about finding like minded people and building relationships with them, about constructing the foundation of a green social movement. It occurred to me that, while blog land is chock full of APLS, many of us are unaware of the other's existence. We cross paths without a comment or reside in different blog circles. Even after inhabiting the blog-o-sphere for a year, I occasionally stumble on a blog I've never read or I encounter a newly grown apple.

In an effort to help us APLS connect a bit more online, if not in person - though that can happen too! - I'm setting up a Bushel Basket on my sidebar where I'll list all APLS, blogging and non-blogging, so that we can get to know each other a bit more.

If you are an APLS (with or without a blog), please leave a comment so that I can add you to my virtual Bushel Basket.

I'll keep the Bushel Basket up for a month so please come back to take a peek. Select an APLS and take a bite. All are guaranteed to be homegrown and crunchy.

For those of you wondering what an APLS is, the short answer is someone who cares about the state of the planet and folks living on it, who lives beneath their means, gives to charity and enjoys a lighter lifestyle. If you read this blog, you are probably an apple. For the longer answer, visit my prior post.

Many of you have commented that you are working on it but are not yet officially an APLS. Close enough!!! All you need is the desire to be an APLS. We're all working on it.

Finally, with regard to the Affluent ("A" part of the acronym), it refers to affluence worldwide. Check out where you fall on
the global rich list.

Please jump in. None of us are truly ripe, some of us are a bit rotten but all of us are moving in the right direction.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Tree City USA


I noticed the sign when we trundled into town. Tree City USA. I had heard that title before. A fellow member of my city's green task force wanted our city to earn the distinction as well. Awarded by the charmingly old-fashioned Arbor Day Foundation, qualifying cities received some sort of benefits - free trees or a boost in image or something like that. I'd never thought much about trees. They're great and all but Tree City USA?

The next morning, with the temperature climbing quickly, my husband and I decided to bike down to the local park. We'd let the boys burn off energy before this summer's record heat forced everyone inside.

We climbed onto our bikes and wheeled out of the driveway. Instead of turning left toward the park, my husband gestured right - up the hill. We'd biked there last night - with the sun setting and my parents watching our sleeping children. It narrowed to a one lane country road, bordered by blackberry bushes and rustling with unseen lizards and deer.

It was beautiful. It was also uphill . . . and hot.

Because my boys had never nibbled berries from wild brambles and because my husband was already a block ahead, I decided to suck it up. I turned right and, towing my three year old in a bike trailer, pumped into the hills.

Halfway to the blackberries, I caught up with my husband and oldest son. A breeze sifted through the towering oaks and shook the clambering vines. "It's downright cool back here," my husband looked back at me. Gazing up, into a forest of lichen-coated oaks, I realized he was right. I had not broken a sweat and it had nothing to do with the sort of shape I'm in. The trees shaded the road, the bikes, us, and, best of all, the blackberry bushes.

That afternoon, the thermometer staggered toward the 105 mark. Sitting in the cool shade of my parents' persimmon tree as my oldest monkeyed up their ancient fig tree, I thought about trees.

Tree provide shade. They make a hot day more bearable, magically sucking up the sun's heat and offering a leaf-strewn canopy instead. Trees also supply habitat for birds, insects and small mammals. For humans, they offer beauty and dimension to a landscape and, if of the right variety, more fruit than one family can possibly consume. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, store carbon in their trunks and soil and release oxygen into the atmosphere. "Trees fight soil erosion, conserve rainwater, and reduce water runoff and sediment deposit after storms." Viewed in that light, trees are the true environmental superheroes.

Long lauded as an antidote to climate change, recent studies have shown that planting trees in the Northern Hemisphere will not slow down global warming. However, with an ice free Arctic possible this summer, we must think about adapting to climate change - not just abating it. On a hotter planet, where wildlife struggles to find a home, where rainfall dwindles and food becomes scare, we'd all be better off with another tree or two. We'd all be better off in a Tree City USA.


* photograph courtesy of Arbor Day Foundation.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

It is Better to Borrow . . .


I have a tumultuous past with ice cream makers. I buy them used off of Ebay. They come missing pieces. Those pieces are obsolete. I buy another used ice cream maker to scavage for replacement parts. The cycle continues.

Finally, I realized I'd either need to go new or forgo the pleasure of homemade ice cream. As I'd only use the sucker a couple times a year, it would be the latter. It's not like I actually *need* homemade ice cream. Or do I???

One of my closest friends came to the rescue, offering to lend me her ice cream maker. Borrow? Even though I've lauded borrowing as a great way to reduce consumption, it never occured to me to borrow an ice cream maker. Truth be told, although I know how great it is to borrow stuff and reduce duplicates - we don't all need our own lawn mower, dehydrator, cupcake carrier - I rarely do it. Sometimes, I forget. Sometimes, it just feels awkard to ask someone to borrow something. It shouldn't! Borrowing not only saves resources. It keeps clutter out of our homes and offers the opportunity for connecting with a friend or neighbor.

Thanks to my friend, this fourth of July, we enjoyed purely local ice cream. How was it? Delicious! And it tasted even better without the guilt of buying new or the pain of storing yet another appliance.

One Local Fourth of July Dinner:

farmers' market organic bi-color corn
locally baked baguette
local organic cheese
farmers' market organic heirloom tomatoes
farmers' market organic cheddar cauliflower
homegrown organic potatoes, roasted in local olive oil and backyard herbs
fresh lemonade from backyard lemons
vanilla ice cream (local organic cream, local organic pastured eggs,
free trade organic sugar, and free trade organic vanilla)


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Are You Chicken?


It was a warm Saturday morning. A good friend and I foisted our children off on our respective husbands and headed out for a Backyard Chickens class at Common Ground. At the Palo Alto headquarters, we were redirected to a house fifteen minutes away. Wending past wildflower encrusted hills and soaring oaks, we arrived at our destination - an old farmhouse roosting on the edge of a cliff. A large hen house lounged in the middle of an edible garden. Bolted lettuce, grape vines and tomatoes sidled up with poppies, apricot trees and lavender. Straw paths slinked between beds filled with soil the color of chocolate.

We wandered through the gardens, reaching to touch a raspberry bush here, savor the tousled beauty of intermingled vegetables, herbs and "weeds" there. Four rows of white plastic chairs fanned out in front of the chicken coop. We scooted into the shade of a plum tree and awaited our host, Jody Main.
Over the next two hours, Jody alternately instructed us on feeding chickens (in addition to their feed all green waste goes through the chickens before landing in the compost pile), building and cleaning a chicken coop, explained how to store eggs, and charmed us with chicken lore. All takers, including yours truly, plucked a dinosaur sized leaf of Swiss chard and ventured into the coop to feed the feathered fowl.

Soon, the two hours were over. Reluctantly, my friend and I finished our homemade egg pate and emptied the ice tea with home grown spearmint. We shuttled past the chicken coop one last time, peering in at the girls as they pecked at chard leaves and comfrey. Jody waved good bye and we trundled back to the car, to our own small yards - where fruit trees don't yet sprawl into the street, wheat doesn't sprout from well manured mounds and the air isn't peppered with contented clucks. On the ride home, my friend vowed to get chicks next spring. She had just the spot - at the back of her property where it borders open space. The prior owners had had chickens there, she disclosed, and her husband was raised on a farm.
A couple weeks later, I visited my sister, who has likewise gone to the birds. She and her family recently adopted three heritage breed chicks and are well on their way to backyard eggs.



As for me, am I chicken? I am afraid I am. A bit. My yard is smaller than my friend's, more narrow than my sister's, my boys more boisterous than any of their children. Can I eek out a corner somewhere, big enough for hens but not so big as to encroach on the little play space we have left in our yard? Will we end up with a backyard farm of our own? Stay tuned.
How about you? Are you chicken?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Apples to Apples


I am an APLS. I spend less money than I have. Haunt thrift stores instead of Target. Cook from scratch instead of order take out. Bike when I can. Give what I can. It feels great to be an APLS. I feel lighter ditching stuff that would only clutter my home and my consciousness. I embrace experiences instead of things, revel in the peace of a bike ride, the meditation of hanging laundry.

As grounding as it is to be an APLS, there have been times when I felt like the only apple in the basket. Those times, being an APLS didn't feel so good. I felt lonely and eco-freakish. The solution, though, was not to abandon APLS-dom but to connect apples to apples. Over the past year, I've slowly found and connected to like-minded folks and have gradually moved from a sense of isolation to a place of belonging and community.

Growing a green community is as easy as picking apples from an apple tree. It requires only a ladder, a bushel basket and the will to pick.

ON THE LADDER:

- Join a group and become active: "Green" organizations, while perhaps the first choice, are not necessary. The PTA for your kids' school, a gardening club, a local mothers' club, a sports league, a church, a bicycling group, a neighborhood bunco group - almost anything will do. The only catch is that you must actually be interested in the focus of the group you are joining and not joining solely to meet others. Research repeatedly demonstrates that we are happier and healthier when we connect with others. The more people you come across, the more likely you are to eventually cross paths with another APLS.

- Go Out on a Limb: Once you are in some sort of organization, you can put your feelers out for other APLS. Offer to start a sub-group - maybe an edible gardening club, a cooking club, a hiking group, a stitch 'n bitch, a local food buying club, a green book club or a simplicity circle. If you are near a school, community education organization, or non profit center, attend a class or offer to teach one. It doesn't have to be an economics class. I recently attended a class on raising chickens put on by a local gardening supply and education center. While there, attendees were clamoring for more classes - ones on canning, edible gardening, composting. The topics are endless as the opportunities for connecting with other like-minded folks and, once we departed, the instructor had twenty new friends.

- Branch Out on the Web: While meeting other APLS in person is great, there is no reason not to connect more via the Internet. If you are reading this, you likely read and/or have a blog. Blogs and Yahoo groups are great for jump-starting communities and the warm, supportive blog community has served as home base to me for nearly a year. But connections can go deeper than posts and comments. They can start as simply as sending an email.


IN THE BUSHEL BASKET:

- Web-based APLS: I count Arduous as a good friend. It started with me emailing her a petition to sign for her Armchair Activism challenge. A month later, she emailed me to ask for advice about a birthday gift for a child my son's age. Next thing I knew, we were emailing regularly, starting a joint blog and eating strawberry crepes together. Not every email sent to a fellow blogger has yielded a breakfast meeting. A good number, however, have yielded a real connection - a collaborative blog, shared ideas on beating blogger burnout or simply common joy in a pair of sustainable flip flops (you might be surprised who bought hot pink ones). Melinda at Elements in Time rightly encourages meeting fellow bloggers. She's done it on several occasions and now regularly hits the farmers' market with same city bloggers. The APLS who inhabit the blogosphere can become more than fellow bloggers. They can become friends.

- APLS in the Neighborhood: CindyW at Organic Picks recently offered up a fantastic list for getting to know your neighbors. Nothing builds sustainable communities like close ties within a neighborhood. As Cindy suggests, it is easy to start small - borrowing a cup of milk, hanging out on your front porch, working in your garden. Everyone in town knows my next door neighbor. She makes the neighborhood a small place by doing each one of the things on Cindy's list. And, the more I get to know her, I realize that she's more apple than orange.

- Community APLS: A year ago, I was a fledgling member of my mothers' club. I lurked on the message board, rarely posting, and fled from anything resembling a physical meeting. I am a bookworm - shocking, I know. After months of rumination, I sent out a tentative email on the mothers' club bulletin board and launched a green book club with a handful of interested moms - none of whom I'd ever met. Over the past 8 months, we added a few members, discussed a number of books, and have moved beyond books to the beginning of real friendships.

PICKING THE APPLES:

Many of us own a ladder and long for a basket overflowing with apples. Sometimes, though, it's downright hard to climb and pick. I recently read Achieving Success Through Social Capital a book not about the environment but about social networking. The author argues that consciously expanding your network "requires a change of behavior on your part. There is no way around it. To implement a practice you have to move out of your comfort zone, change your daily routines, and step outside the normal rounds of your life." (126). He lays out the following motivating tenets:

1) Embrace discomfort: "Most people interpret discomfort as a warning sign telling them to avoid something. The opposite is true for networking. Discomfort is a sign that you are doing something right." (Id.) When I first started my book club, emailed a fellow blogger for the first time, or met the first member of my local food buying club, I felt unsure, nervous, intimidated. Even now, I'll end a book club meeting wondering if I talked too much, gave too many "jam" directions, cleaned my house too much or not enough. I'm willing to bet Eco 'Burban mom was a little nervous when she first launched her Little League recycling program and I'll bet being labeled "The Trash Lady" didn't feel all that comfortable. Discomfort pays off in dividends, though, when you spot a familiar face at a city council meeting or have a friend - whom you've connected with only by blogs and emails - cajole you out of a climate change funk.

2) Act as if: "New attitudes don't precede new behaviors; the reverse is true - new behaviors create new attitudes. . . . [S]tride forth and build networks; only then will you develop the attitude of a network builder." (Id.) I've always longed to be a social butterfly - someone like my next door neighbor who can connect with a stranger at the park and end up having coffee with that person the next day. In trying to connect with other APLS, I've forced myself act more like a butterfly than a moth. I've extended invitations for the book club and pimped my buying club on local boards. Gradually, I've become a bit more comfortable, slightly smoother in my responses, and, as the number of greenies I know expand, more capable of hooking people up.

3) Start small: Send an email to another blogger. Ask a friend to attend a class with you. Find a local business or restaurant, go regularly and get to know the people who work there. Chat with the farmers at the farmers' market. Eat family dinners more. Make connections in your life - even if it is as simple as saying hi to a neighbor or calling your sister.

4) Make a commitment to yourself: "Good intentions don't lead to action; commitments do. Make a contract with yourself . . . [b]e specific and write it down." Keeping a blog, putting your words out there for the world to read, far exceeds any written contract in my book. If I could not write about my community building efforts here, feel answering support in comments and posts, I likely would have crawled back to the couch and the bag of Doritos months ago.

Life is much more delicious this way - with blogger friends to email and visit, book club meetings to prepare for, edible gardening tours to attend with friends, and neighbors with whom to share gardening discoveries. Life is more delicious when you connect apples to apples.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Forget Me Not


I stand eye to eye with a Cosmos. It's fuzzed yellow center winks at me like a cyclops. Watching the pink petals sashay in the breeze, I realized that I've only grown Cosmos this tall twice in my life. Both times I've forsworn the nursery's plastic pots with seedlings neatly tucked inside and tossed a bunch of seeds on to the ground, hoping for the best, the best came.

Snip.

The spent blossom falls to the ground. I watch a bee skim over the Cosmos and bury itself in borage.

Snip.

The day is perfect for gardening, really. The bluest sky. The quiet neighborhood. A tiny blue butterfly drops down onto the Queen Anne's lace for the briefest second, before waving behind my morning glories and disappearing over the top of the house.

Snip.

The four foot stem is relieved of another tired bloom. I am deadheading. It is a practice I was taught years ago to keep flowers blooming and a garden looking nice. Despite the swelling pumpkin mounds and front lawn littered with makeshift cages to keep the deer from devouring the last of the runner beans, my front yard does look nice.

Snip.

My basket is full and this particular stand of Cosmos looks quite tidy. No flagging flowers. No tightening seed pods ready to spill their seeds into the soil and stop my garden from blooming. I want to save those seeds alright but . . . not yet. It's only just July. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Indian summers proliferate, I've got months of blooming ahead of me.

I gather my deadheaded daisies and head for the green waste bin on the other side of the yard. I dump the spent flowers in and close the lid. A movement from the butterfly garden stops me.

Perched atop a waving bunch of cosmos - the next on my hit list - is a small black and brown bird. The stem bends under its weight as it nuzzles its beak into the bare center of a former flower. Determinedly, it pries out one seed, then two and finally three before flitting away into our front yard tree.

My clippers hang at my side, feeling suddenly heavy. Once again, I'm faced with the realization that we need not work harder to open our hearts and yards to wildlife, to live in harmony with other species, to "be green." In fact, we can work less. We can let nature have her beautiful, tousled way with our gardens. We can put away the lawn mower and enjoy the flowers that spring up in its place, that entice bees to dine next to our picnic blanket. We can clear out ornamentals and let our children dig to their hearts content - connecting with nature at each ant uncovered, each earthworm excavated, and each "apple seed" planted.

It seems a difficult lesson to learn. That standards can be adjusted. That perfection is not necessary. That things don't have to be "pretty" by someone else's standards. I sit down under the maple tree, still and shaded, and watch wildlife use the garden we created for them. It wasn't that I hadn't learned the lesson, I realize. The bird hops back down to another flower, foraging for more seeds. I just needed a reminder.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Of Dragons and Baseballs


It was a Wednesday evening. My boys had joined the neighbor children's endeavor to extract money from anyone brave enough to veer near our street. They were selling organic lemonade. They stood on the sidewalk alternately yelling "Lemonade for Sale" or "A customer! A customer!"

While chatting with my neighbor, I deadheaded my butterfly garden, yanked weeds out of the pumpkin patch (e.g., sidewalk strip) and pulled out a dying potato plant. For some reason, I thought, potatoes never seemed to do well when I planted them on the south side of the house. I made a mental note and smoothed their compost hill along the soil and in between the lavender and pepper plants. My hand struck something solid and round - the size of a baseball. I eased out a large red rose potato.

"Is that a potato?" My neighbor stopped mid-sentence. She gawked as I pulled out two, four, five more baseball sized potatoes. "Sure is," I responded with my own awe. "Whoa, I should plant some of those. My husband would love it." She continued.

Bidding her goodbye, I gathered my babies (the potatoes) up and headed inside. I sliced up those beautiful potatoes. The knife slipped through them easily, the interior creamy and yellow. Splattering them with local olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper, I roasted them for a half an hour.

We ate our front yard potatoes with a locally baked baguette, brushcetta made from heirloom tomatoes, cucumber, radish, balsamic vinegar and olive oil - all courtesy of the farmers' market - and the first homegrown Dragon's Tongue beans of the season.


Baseballs and dragon's tongues, from seed to plate? It is not a fairy tale but it tastes like one.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Planes, Trains and Automobiles


We make our home on the crowded San Francisco Peninsula. Our houses and shops press together like clothes in a too-full closet. Our streets are a flurry of trucks, cars, bicycles, and buses. Farmers markets abound and a pristine, double decker train, CalTrain, totes us up to the City or down to San Jose. When I worked in San Francisco, years ago, I took the train regularly. On the ride, I'd prepare for work, read a book, or close my eyes and listen to the rails click gently past. More recently, I've turned to the train for regeneration as another year ticked by or loaded my boys on it bound for adventure and ball games.

CalTrain is tame. It is less empty than it once was but the seats are spacious, the upper decks peer over the Bay, green fields and scrap yards as the train lumbers toward San Francisco. In Disney-speak, CalTrain is the Monorail. It is clean, considerate, conciliatory.

If CalTrain is the Monorail, then BART is surely the Matterhorn. At least, that is what my boys dubbed it when we boarded BART for the first time last weekend. BART is dark and jerky. It screams and hollers - like the Abominable Snowman - as it rockets through black tunnels. Riders are stuffed together, packed in like thrill-seekers on a roller coaster ride, jolted at each stop and corner. Stations are dimly lit and hint at the dark, mysterious trip ahead. The tunnels stretch further and further until you are thundering under the opaque waters of the Bay and then, mystically, emerge into daylight. Your ears pop and your children wonder when we can ride the BART train again.

It is difficult, after such adventures, to usher everyone back into the car, the strapped seats, the smooth rolling ride where only other cars, not legendary monsters, lurk out of sight. Here, we are shielded from one another with closed windows and separate lanes. There is no people watching, no shared smiles as a boy on the opposite side of the train waves his Thomas toy in your direction, no reading books with two boys snuggled in your lap. You simply move from destination to destination. The journey is not worthy of mention.

Our trips by CalTrain and BART take only moments longer than by car. They yield much more though: gas saved, carbon emissions curbed, a sense of peace that cannot be located behind the wheel, and days of discussion about planes, trains and automobiles.

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