Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day 2018: Doing More, And Less

Volunteer wild gladioli, the bee bath, and a broken pot as a snake refuge
Every year I try to post on Earth Day and reflect on what we've been doing to try to improve the state of the planet on a very local level. And I always wonder if we'll ever do anything really significant.

Some concerned folk may wonder how much more we can do to lower our carbon footprints and help change things, especially given the current political climate. So far I'm really doing all I have the psychic energy for, even though it's still not nearly enough.  And since much of the news just seems to get worse, one really does tend to wonder if small gestures can help at all.

Despite all my grousing on this platform, though, I really do think they can. And, as the years go by, I seem to be noticing that more people are tuning in, becoming aware of at least some of the problems. Even the local barbecue joint has started sourcing their meat from sustainable and humane farms, and packaging their takeout food in compressed cardboard and paper: not bad for a Texas-grown business that prides itself on maintaining tradition.

In the news this week is plastic. This is to some extent because the Earth Day people are focusing on eliminating plastic pollution as the central theme this year. It's actually difficult to remember a world before plastic became a problem. Once upon a time it was tin cans and paper on the roadway that got folks riled up about messing with Texas and got the anti-litter campaigns started. Some of us may recall the famous scene in The Graduate, where Mr. McGuire pulls Benjamin aside and offers him one word of advice ("Plastics!"), which then sounded preposterous. Really? Plastics were the future? (Thought she who wanted a Greek-patterned set of Melmac as a wedding gift in 1968. And probably a set of Tupperware, too.) But those were the days before ubiquitous plastic packaging, bubble wrap, blister packs, and bottled water.

Throwaway plastics have become the symbol of an impending dystopic future. Shredded plastic bags float out from shrubs, trees, and fences along highways, and blow about like sad, limp balloons through the air; plastic water bottles show up everywhere (including along my back fence, where people who walk through the alley behind the house toss them); and gyres of plastic garbage the size of islands collect in the oceans. David Mastio of USA Today (apparently I wasn't the only one to connect The Graduate scene to this topic) and several science-related organizations blame this on Asian countries and untidy fishermen; Mastio suggests that we not feel guilty about our part in the mess and points out that a large proportions of medical advances have been facilitated by plastics. But those aren't the plastics that get tossed into rivers, streams, and oceans. And I've seen enough gulls flying around over landfills to know that we do indeed have something to do with the presence of plastic trash in the oceans.

So there's plenty of guilt to go around. It's not just fishing buoys and lines and tsunami-transported trash that fill the piles. A trip to the local park pond indicates that people still think nothing of tossing their plastic food containers when they're finished with them, or stuffing them haphazardly into open trash bins that allow the ultra light-weight containers to blow about or get scattered by foraging wildlife. It shouldn't be that difficult for us to stop buying water in plastic bottles.  We could also boycott polystyrene cups and give up plastic straws.

For some time now, efforts to upcycle plastic bags and bottles have produced reusable tote bags with store logos on them. But just the other day I stopped in at a grocery store I used to frequent (before the appearance of Trader Joe's in the neighborhood). The clerk was amazed by my recycled-plastic-water-bottle wine bag, and by the fact that everything I bought besides wine fit into two canvas totes. The guy behind me bought about ten (doubled) plastic bags worth of food and other stuff, so it's clear that not everyone's a convert.  But it's really easy to avoid some of the plastic crap by using alternatives: mesh bags for produce, stainless steel water bottles, glass and ceramic fridge and freezer storage containers.

Locating alternatives to plastics has become a minor obsession in this family. With the exception of storage containers for the garage and closets to keep out mice and silverfish (nothing else seems to work), we try really hard to avoid bringing any plastics home. The apparently unavoidable ketchup bottle or yogurt tub goes into the recycle bin. But I could even remedy this necessity by making my own ketchup and yogurt, or buying Bulgarian yogurt in glass jars; at some point I probably will. And we have managed to reduce the setting out of blue recycle bins to once or twice a month, and the big green trash bins to less than once a month.  Mostly what gets recycled now is paper and wine bottles, a we've been trying not to accumulate much throwaway trash at all. If we could get Costco to stop over-packaging so many of the staples we buy, we might be able to become like those folks whose monthly non-recyclable debris can fit in a mayonnaise jar.

The reduction in trash goes hand in hand with a reduction in buying. This has engendered a bit of a political labeling paradox in our house. We're not particularly progressive, since we're not all that fond of progress for its own sake (except in social equality and fairness), and I've become especially conservative when it comes to my innate materialism. I still buy stuff, but--except for food--it's mostly "pre-owned." Or when it's new, like the big quilt I bought yesterday, it's to make something old last longer--like the chair I bought the quilt to cover. Were I a better person, I'd have used my stash of old fabrics to make a quilt, but I still haven't managed to learn to manage my time better. The quilt-making will follow planned mending of existing quilts and blankets, and cushion recovering, and the repurposing of various objects to use in the garden.

Our best effort this year has been to eliminate food waste. The smaller fridge has been wonderful for keeping us both aware of what needs using up, and we've had little except pits, skins, seeds, and coffee grounds to pitch into the compost bin. Even the skins and coffee grounds we often use for augmenting garden plantings. In the last year, only one or two things in the fridge have gone off before they were eaten, and at some point I'm wondering where our compost is going to come from, since we mulch our grass and rake leaves into litter piles to make soil.

The big purge will come this summer, when we rid the garage of what we've been stuffing in there so as not to feel like hoarders in the house. What can be recycled or repurposed will be, and as much as possible of we can't use or don't want will be donated. The plan is to eliminate what we don't use and to use the space for more creative endeavors. Beloved Spouse wants to learn about Japanese joinery and accomplish his own repairs on the house, and I want to get back to painting and potting (both plants and ceramics).  And so, perhaps, by the next Earth Day, we'll have found more, and more effective, ways of lightening our footprints, carbon and otherwise.

For anyone who's still trying to figure out where to start, the New York Times is featuring a good series on "A Year of Living Better," with sound advice on How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. The Earth Day network site has a nifty calculator for determining how much plastic you consume, and I'm going to use it to increase our own awareness.

And in case you need reminding about who really got this whole effort started, look back at Rachel Carson's three-part series for the New Yorker, "Silent Spring," which began running in the June 16, 1962 issue.

Happy Earth Day, Folks. We've spent a good chunk of the day working in the garden, fixing things, tidying up, and hanging out with the animal people. So far it's been a good day, and I wish the same to you.

Image information: The bees have taken over the old copper birdbath, and are busy swarming amongst the voluptuous blossoms on the wild gladiolus volunteers that increase yearly. They started out as "found" plants under a shrub, and I've just let them take over. We're working on building habitat for pollinators, including solitary bees, bumble bees, and butterflies. Some mornings are just glorious in the garden.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Phenology 101: Spring 2018 Edition


As I realized last year on this day, I haven't been particularly faithful about celebrating Spring on this blog. But lately I've been thinking about seasonal things more than usual, and have managed to stay aware of changes both small and monumental.

Phenological markers have been delayed a bit, at least compared to the last two years. The wisteria, for example, is only now beginning to bloom out, in contrast with last year's appearance at the beginning of the month. And the redbud (shown above), which last year was already past its prime, is in full flush. The holly flowers outside the dining room and next to the front porch perfume the air so boisterously that the aroma permeates the living room  in the evening, even with the doors closed. The wisteria is beginning to do the same in back, and soon the chinaberry and catalpa will replace it--although neither are even budding yet.

The garden is becoming somewhat less accidental than it was (I have a habit of letting things grow where they want to) because we've been evicted from the north side by the neighbor's noisy pool pump, and I'm giving up on being able to use the area for anything peaceful. As a result, I've cleared out planting space outside the wild gladiolus volunteers, and am adding other flowering plants around a transplanted bird bath.  Since we plan to build a greenhouse over the potager (to hide the unsightly structures added by the neighbor), the converted copper fire basin damaged by the previous neighbor's cowboy tree guy's bad aim and turned into a large, bent, funky bathing pool for bees and cedar waxwings had to be moved anyway. So now it has a new home and the bees are loving it. Having denuded all our tree-berries, the cedar waxwings have moved on to juicier fare elsewhere, and other birds don't seem to have discovered the new location.

Following William Morris's idea that gardens should be made up of outdoor rooms, we've begun to envision a series of these. The first includes the area just outside the trailer door, where I've moved my hammock (it used to be where the pool pump now registers its loudest decibel level), and where we've installed a garden bench and a couple of chairs, as well as some strategically placed tree stumps--of which we have a never-ending supply. Now there are places to put one's feet up or rest a drink, and the hammock gets fairly consistent, dappled shade. The area is bounded on one side by a large, flowering holly tree, and on the other by a small copse of privet, cedar, and some variety of flowering tree I haven't identified yet. We installed a trellis-arbor a few months ago, and completed the sequestering of the area by transporting the remains of an eighteen year-old pile of logs (from an area soon to become a tomato garden) to build a partial wall.

The newest space offers our ageing and gimpy (torn knee ligament) Arlo (he's under the hammock) a nice space to sleep in soft mulch and shade, and we can enjoy an afternoon conversation and tipple after TBS returns from coaching, which he's still doing as a volunteer. The holly tree makes the highway noise seem more distant, and things will be even quieter after the trees all leaf out. When we first moved in, the expressway nearly two miles away consisted of four lanes; now it's ten. Things were somewhat less noisy before progress caught up with us. These days we're thankful for the fact that the more trees come into leaf between us and the main route out of town, the quieter it will become--especially while people who aren't retired are at work.

And so, we're managing to deal with new challenges and to come up with solutions that address them and keep us sane. Soon the pecans will be leafing out and the light will soften. The grass will green up and need mowing. The crisp Spring air has almost made us forget about the two solid weeks of rainy sog we put up with last month (was it only last month?). And all that rain may make things cooler in Summer, although we're not counting on it.

For now we're enjoying the daily phenological changes.  The date of the equinox doesn't really determine the onset of Spring. It's really the appearance of significant signs, and for us some of these are beginning more or less on time. I doubt if folks in the northeast will be noticing snow drops or forsythia in the immediate future.  But the date does remind us that it shouldn't be all that long until the snow and ice abate up there--and the first supercell thunderstorm appears, a harbinger of tornado season down here. A good reason for us to celebrate while we can, and enjoy this probably all-too-short respite between extremes.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Post on Hope

Several topics have been simmering on the back of the cooker, and I’ve let them set in favor of mouthing off on breast feeding and healthful cooking over on Quora. But the steam is building, and morning conversations over coffee are actually drifting toward a vague optimism brought on by recent events. I should note, however, that one of my recent responses on Quora outlined Elizabeth Fisher's take on human evolution (Woman's Creation), in opposition to most popular conceptions of how "civilization" came about. So I haven't completely taken leave of the real world in favor of espousing utopian notions about eating and child-rearing.

At any rate, the Beloved Spouse and I have been musing that despite the sheer awfulness of increasingly horrific revelations and events (sexual harassment and assault, yet another school shooting), it’s as if the responses to them indicate the possibility of actual change.

Sociologists and economists call the accumulation of particular conditions, those that effect change when they reach a kind of critical mass, “tipping points.” And as we watched the avalanche of women coming forward to call out abusers, and the formation of the “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” initiatives, we began to wonder if, at last, patriarchal attitudes about women would begin to shift.

After the shootings in Lakeland, Florida, and the voluble response from students who survived, and the birth of a new “Never Again” movement, we wondered if now, at last, some meaningful gun legislation might be possible.

And then, a bit late on the scene in one way, after the shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York and the birth of “Black Lives Matter,” the phenomenal reaction to Ryan Coogler’s film, Black Panther, seems to offer an alternative vision for African American kids. Imagine being a little black kid in America having this new, Afro-futurist, anti-colonial conceptual framework to grow up within: from the projects to Wakanda, where Africans are prettier, smarter, more accomplished, and technologically superior to their would-be exploiters.

In a way, “Time’s Up” had its hero(ine) movie last year, with Patti Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, and its sequel will actually put into practice the changes brought about by the movements that have been so prominent in recent entertainment awards shows.  Time magazine's naming "The Silence Breakers" as its Person of the Year punctuated the moment, but certainly didn't put a cap on the momentum.

Of course, the ranks of naysayers and deniers are swelling as I type. (I began working on the post about two weeks ago). Even as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivors spoke out against the lassitude of lawmakers, and planned a march on Washington, their integrity and intelligence were (and still are) being called into question by the very folks who haven’t had the courage to formulate laws that could have prevented the deaths of seventeen people—in this most recent of so many massacres.

Still, I have little doubt that these kids will succeed in making their voices heard. As long as they can keep reminding all parents that their children could be next, they might be able to get the political backing they need to enact commonsense gun legislation. There is no earthly reason for anyone who is not an active service member to own an assault rifle. People who use them for “hunting” are not hunters. They are simply killers.  And that’s what these kids want: to ban the kind of guns that were used to kill their classmates and teachers.  One test will be the outcome, on March 24, of the March For Our Lives events. I do indeed hope that this effort results in an overwhelming response all over the country, and that those in power finally realize that their time is surely up if they don't do something now.

Maybe time’s up for lots of things: gun worship over common sense; misogyny and inequality; culturally embedded racism. I won't add de-nuclearization to this list, because I'm highly skeptical that anything will come of talks with North Korea, even if they do occur.

My natural pessimism and lack of faith in human intelligence do not need to be reinforced by yet another opportunity lost. I can only hope, thanks to a mythical, disobedient woman: Pandora. After she unleashed all the miseries our species suffers through (by exercising native curiosity), hope is what was left. Action born of hope holds the promise of doing profoundly more than politicians’ thoughts and prayers and platitudes—as long as those same politicians and their enablers don’t manage to convince us that the Silence Breakers and the Black Panthers (both old and new) and those who walk away from Lakeland can’t fulfill that promise.

As I was wrapping this up, I began to think of Wendell Berry, whose poetry always seems to inform my ideas about home and place--and hope. I searched the web for text of "A Poem On Hope," and found a YouTube video of Berry reading the poem himself, for an episode of Moyers & Company.  The very first lines evoke the difficulty someone my age has in allowing for hope in a troubled world: "It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old . . . ." It's even harder when we so frequently see the bodies of the young being carted away from schools after yet another incident of unfathomable violence.

Difficult, yes. Increasingly so, it seems. But not impossible, if we remember, as Berry does, that "The young ask the old to hope."

And so we do.  

Image credit: I couldn't resist illustrating this post with one of Dante Gabriel Rosetti's drawings of Jane Morris as Pandora--via, as usual, Wikimedia Commons.