Sunday, May 16, 2010

Saving the World, One Dandelion at a Time

I'm really trying not to get all discouraged and pessimistic about the news coming out of the southern Gulf coast, even as things get worse and the images look more and more like blood oozing from Mother Earth herself. I spend as much time as I can enjoying the peculiar mix of nature and culture that defines my half-acre of suburbia, and few things are more smile-provoking than "puppies" lounging amidst the stand of wild gladiolus I'm naturalizing near the vegetables.

My original intention today was to offer an annotated list of things we can do to wean ourselves from dependence on petroleum products, so I was encouraged when the Daily Poop ran a back-page story in the Points section on letting nature have her way with the front yard. Of course, it was too good to be true to think I'd found a fellow local supporter of laissez-faire gardening; the article is a reprint from today's New York Times: The Dandelion King, by Robert Wright.

What the folks who walk by my house and scowl at my sort-of-tidy, but unorthodox, front lawn don't realize is that they benefit personally from my refusal to use chemicals on my lawn to kill perfectly legitimate plants that don't have societies devoted to them. I do have roses and irises and the like, but I also have what most people regard as weeds. Just the other day, when the Beloved Spouse was preparing to mow (with our electric lawn mower, 150 ft. cord and all), he asked me to show him what to leave: the morning primroses, blue-eyed grass, and yellow something-or-others that I intend to transplant to a particular portion of the front spread that I'm planning to de-grass.

Actually, there's not much grass anyway. A few stray strands of Bermuda grass cling to their very lives (leftover from the previous owner's attempt to deal with the one really sunny patch at the front of the house; most of it's shaded for most of the day), but the variegated Artemesia and Greek oregano I planted in the border last year are about to do them in.

I'm also trying not to be smug about my efforts to reduce my own dependence on stinky black goo. My environmental science-teacher colleague laughed last week when I told her I'd bought a Honda Insight, and told me that there'd been an entire South Park episode devoted to the quality shared by many of us who drive hybrid vehicles: our sense of moral superiority over lesser mortals.

Alas, I don't watch South Park (or much else besides baseball), so I missed it, but I get her point--although I'm still not going to take the "I support clean energy" magnet off my bumper.

In my neck of the woods tree-hugging in any form has not usually been seen as an admirable activity. If, however, the publication of the Robert Wright article (and the brief bit that ran below it, by Scott McElwain on organic lawn care) is a harbinger of things to come, things may be looking up.

Home landscaping, in the end, offers us the quickest and easiest way to initiate change. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and other garden products are completely unnecessary. Organic gardening is neither difficult, nor expensive--although it can be time-consuming if you make all of your products yourself. But compost is easy to make, worm bins are easy to maintain, pest deterrents are simple and cheap to concoct, and none of this is rocket science.

If your yard is small enough, a push-reel lawn mower can do the job and provide you with exercise. For larger spaces, electric mowers (battery-powered ones omit the need for the long cord) are quiet and efficient and (considering the price of gasoline) relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain. There is no earthly reason to use gas-powered tools at all, since trimmers and chain saws come in electric models and nobody needs a leaf blower for any reason (even though they come in electric varieties as well).

If everybody who is physically capable of doing so were to pick up a rake, a broom, a dandelion puller-outer (if you simply cannot abide those pretty yellow blossoms and seed-heads that children love so much, and the leaves that taste so good in salads), we'd all breathe easier and weigh less.

One man's weed, as they say, is another man's bouquet. If I had pulled up that single wild gladiolus ten years ago and pitched it in the compost bin, I wouldn't be blessed each year with a growing field of them, taller and taller every season. Nor would I have generated a mullein farm, or mounds of Virginia creeper and honeysuckle that cover ugly bits of old fence. The scented garden I'm blessed with each spring and summer wouldn't be nearly as sweet. Of course, I also wouldn't be plagued by poopy Cedar Waxwings either, but those I can live with.

Letting unidentified plants grow has led to some magical moments in the Accidental Garden, including the basketflower that pops up every other year or so near the woodpile. Or the blue-eyed grass that makes its way around the property, year by year. Or the occasional wild flower that finds a happy home amidst the leaf-mold in heavily treed spots.

And now, thanks to Robert Wright, I can smile smugly every time I save the life of a dandelion.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why Are We Still Talking About This?

Actually, the title ought to read, "Why are we still talking about this?" Rather than doing something about it? Because we're getting stupider and stupider; that's why. Stupider (I know my grammar's off, but that's the result of getting stupider) in the sense that we aren't ignorant (the answers are out there and we know about them), but we collectively, and willfully, seem to be making really uninformed, unwise choices about very important problems.

For the last couple of weeks the news from the Gulf of Mexico has gone from horrific to potentially disastrous. The economies of all Gulf coast states--not to mention the economies of nations to the south, west, and east of the spill--are at risk of collapse as the mess inches toward vital fisheries, oyster beds, wetlands, and beaches. The coverage from the New York Times alone demonstrates the seriousness of the situation, and the potential for environmental apocalypse.

Back in March, President Obama caved into Big Oil in a compromise effort to convince bidness-folk that he isn't a tree-hugger, and so they should come on board with his pragmatic energy policy that will use oil, natural gas, and nukes to wean ourselves from foreign oil dependence and give us a chance to build alternative energy sources.

Trouble is, what makes the compromise necessary at all is that the United States is so mired in fossil fuel dependence we're like oil junkies who can't bring themselves to go into treatment. Withdrawal is too scary, and we're afraid to even try.

The oil industry is, as Joe Romm points out on his Climate Progress blog, one of those "too big to fail" operations--and BP is rather like the Goldman Sachs of fossil fuel production.

The reason we need to wean ourselves from this who approach to energy now is precisely because it's too big to manage, it's too destructive to the environment, and it's completely unsustainable.

People who scream at anti-Obama rallies that we're leaving our grandchildren trillions of dollars of debt don't seem to mind that we're also leaving them a substantially damaged planet and atmosphere, and we're failing to educate our kids well enough for them to be able to solve the problems we're bequeathing them.

Just this morning I read in the Daily Poop about Neil Armstrong's claim that President Obama's new space policy will remove us from our position as the leader in space exploration, and we'll end up taking a back seat to foreign countries' efforts in the development of big space-related projects. But as much as I love the space program, I don't particularly see why we have to be the biggest players. If the Russians, the Chinese, the European Space Agency, or private investors can do the job, I don't have a problem with that. We're not exactly preparing our own kids to go mine asteroids or visit Mars, anyway, so why not let somebody who can steer take the helm.

Where we should be striving to be first and best is in the area of energy policy, innovation, and transformation. We use huge amounts of energy (take a look at the World Bank's data to see how we compare to others, using several indicators), and we emit pollutants of all varieties at an alarming rate, so we should be the ones who focus our remaining big brains on this issue. If this country can't properly manage offshore oil wells, I'm not really all that confident that we won't screw up something in space.

Alternative energy sources already exist, and the technological means to design, manufacture, and distribute non-petroleum-based power is available. There are still smart scientists and engineers out there perfectly capable of coming up with ways to fix things. But we, as a voting populace, lack the political will to loosen the hold oil companies and related businesses have on the national economy.

Perhaps the gulf spill will open some eyes. The oil execs sitting in their posh office towers and lounging by the pristine pools in their mansions aren't really the ones being hurt here. BP will end up shelling out a huge chunk of change to help mitigate what it's unleashed, but the fisherman, the tourist industry, the retirement communities, the beach lovers, the shrimpers, the oystermen, the brown pelicans, the wetlands, the estuaries, and the cities all along the perimeter of the Gulf will suffer the impact of this mess for years.

Forty years ago, Earth Day was born in part as a result of an oil spill near Santa Barbara. We should have really learned our lesson after the Exxon Valdez disaster, and after several decades of fighting oil-related wars in the Middle East. We know what oil dependence costs. But in spite of all this, the word out today is that the problems in the Gulf notwithstanding, gasoline prices will be going down over the summer, encouraging more and more people to drive their Hummers around town.

Even if going cold turkey isn't an option, we should now be doing everything we can to wean ourselves not only from oil itself, but from an economy that is clearly doing more harm than good. If alternatives did not exist, the situation would be different; but they do, and investors need to start pulling their money out of petroleum and using it to build a home-grown, future-conscious alternative to messy gobs of crud, toxic fumes, dead birds, ruined lives, and environmental degradation.

One doesn't have to be a Peak Oil "believer" to see that we're in trouble. I'm not naive enough to think that choosing a 100% wind-based source of electricity is going to change the world. But the more subscribers sign up companies like Green Mountain, or with "green plans" through other local distributors, the faster distributors and politicians get the idea that we want out of the oil business.

What really saddens me about the whole situation is that it takes an actual or potential disaster to make us change our ways. We should be altering our way of life significantly because it's the right thing to do, and because it makes moral and practical sense--not just because the economy collapses or because the oil slick is lapping at our front door.

Image sources: Both shots are from NASA; go to the Image Gallery page on the oil spill for more.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Hiding in the Garden

This has been such a bad week for the environment that I've found myself spending every spare moment in the garden. What was once the Accidental Garden and then the Carbon Sink is on its way to becoming a full-fledged, small-scale forest--although we will probably manage it in somewhat the same way that the Germans do theirs. We bought a scythe (not the curvey kind, but the back-and-forth swinging kind that isn't built for short folk and requires the wielder to wear long pants and sturdy boots) for dealing with tall weeds, and will continue to pick up fallen branches. But mostly we'll let it go. At least until we find an old Shasta Airflyte trailer to tuck in there for a guest house.

The true reward is in the air. All the smelly stuff is in bloom: honeysuckle, privet, jasmine, roses, Chinaberry, catalpa. The scent is absolutely intoxicating, and I'm not a great lover of perfume. I cannot abide women (or men, for that matter) who marinate themselves in cologne and then make me breathe it. But when it's a natural component of spring air, I'm a devotee.

Even with all the sources around me, though, nothing overwhelms. One has to breathe deeply to really get it in the lungs; otherwise it simply wafts by, begging noses to follow. And even though the mozzies are already out in full force, it's well worth sitting out with a glass of wine. When the temperature rises just a bit (as it promises to do by the weekend), the night-garden will also light up with fireflies as soon as sunset begins, and the combination is simply magical.

The only way to improve things would be to add lilacs to the mix, but (alas) they don't grow well here, and I'll have to do with the jasmine on the front porch for heavy-duty fragrance.

Yesterday morning I went out to do some veg-drenching (putting Garrett Juice on the cucumbers and tomatoes), and caught the mist on the wild gladiolus plot (they're naturalizing like crazy and are taller this year from all the rain) as the sun rose over the fence.

The first crop of baby sparrows has completely fledged and been kicked out of the nest, but even though they're as big as their parents, you can tell who they are because they raise a ruckus, fighting over food that mum and dad are still catching for them. I saw one mother get tired of it all and enjoy a nice fat caterpillar herself when she couldn't figure out which one of her noisy little brats to feed.

The little Shasta Airflyte bird house my daughter bought me for last Mother's Day is occupied (despite its new location adjacent to the recently-planted heirloom tomatoes, and thus next to a great deal of activity), but there are no signs of squawking babies from its interior yet. I'll actually be surprised if anything hatches, but it's still fun to watch the potential parents stuffing the interior (the hole is on the other side) with bits of straw and fluff.

One of the first apps I bought for the new iPad (yes, we did succumb) was a bird ID with sound clips to help me figure out who's who when I can't see the singers of the songs. But I'm also looking forward to sitting out with the new machine and our portable WiFi unit to use some of my bookmarks out "in the field." I'll have to check to see if a compatible e-book of Peterson's or the Audubon guide are available, too--so I can build a virtual bird education unit to carry about.

Last evening the Beloved Spouse and I were sitting out with iPad and binoculars, trying to figure out what I'd been watching high in the trees lately. Thanks to the yard bird app, we were able to determine that it's probably a Phoebe, particularly notable by its habit of flying out and back to the same branch. This time it was the behavior, rather than its looks, that helped us out.

The backyard life and death drama continues, too. This morning, whilst romping with the pups, I discovered a dead fledgling Cedar Waxwing--about the only way you can catch them up close. Its lower parts were still a bit spotty, but it was pretty much full grown. Since they don't feed on the ground (so the dogs didn't get this one), I wonder if our marauding hawk had dropped his dinner.

This week's Skywatch Friday entries are all scented trees against the sky, except for the one shot of the morning mist. I haven't posted for a while, and will get back to the dismal news at the weekend, but for now, I'll enjoy my day of working at home, sitting in the garden, and hiding away from the world--and visiting other peoples' skies vicariously.

Happy Skywatch Friday, and thanks again to the team for running the show.

Image notes: the opening shot is of the volunteer catalpa tree growing next to the driveway, with the moon in the background. The other sky/tree encounter features the Chinaberry. Both Chinaberry and catalpa are considered by many to be trash trees, but I love them. My grandmother and her mother both nurtured volunteers in their yards, and I'm carrying on the tradition. The Chinaberry reminds me both of Italy and Taiwan, so it's a permanent member of my little forest.