Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eating Out the Cupboards

From the bean of Green Bean.

Despite giving up recreational shopping, I'm still been prey to the occasional impulse buy. Of course, all those impulses tend to be of a consumable bent. You know the type. The luminous green cauliflower at the farmers market that languishes in the crisper drawer, losing its luster with each passing day. The packaged organic sun dried tomato risotto which you figured would be good in a pinch - but that pinch never came. The oxidized fair trade, organic chocolate bar that even the ants wouldn't touch. A local dairy's raw butter - starting to smell just a tad off. The list goes on and on.

I'm often quite successful at ignoring most of my kitchen's guests but this week the fates conspired against me. Or against food waste.

We had returned from a week away last Sunday and I'd missed my weekly farmers' market. I was overcome by a mad desire to spring clean. I contemplated how my habits have changed since signing up for Crunchy's Food Waste Reduction Challenge and realized they hadn't. And, like most of us these days, I am struck by the urge to squirrel away as much cash as possible.

Fortunately, one action was the cure to all my woes. Eating out the cupboards . . . and the fridge and the pantry too.

I kicked the week off with this ultimate brownie recipe which ate up the old butter, the oxidized chocolate bar and my embarrassing riches of eggs from a farm near my parents' home. Quite a sacrifice I must tell you, as I wipe the crumbs from my keyboard.

I then moved through the pumpkins shriveling on the front porch. After hacking and seeding those puppies, I cooked and pureed the squash and added it to the vegetable scraps lurking just inside the freezer door, and the hardened baguette that I forgot to cut up and bag last week. Combined, all three made one of the best pumpkin soups I've ever eaten. My oldest swore it tasted like pumpkin pie. I tend to agree. Check out the recipe below.

Two almost blackened apples and some of the pumpkin puree morphed into Pumpkin Apple Streusel Muffins that just as quickly disappeared.

We've also delighted in a pizza after raiding the freezer - pasta sauce I made and froze last summer, last falls' farmers' market corn and peppers, and some random Trader Joe's pizza dough from who knows when. Once thawed, we emptied out the sauce on pasta then turned back to the freezer. Huddled in the back were two frozen pie crusts from two years ago. Still edible, I filled them with Abbie's butternut squash recipe - substituting the puree from my front porch pumpkins.

We did finally suck down the packaged risotto (and after a year and a half of holding on to it, I won't be making that impulse buy again - no matter how much my husband enjoyed it) and I figured out the easiest way to cook year old steel cut oats - in my crockpot.

We've cleared so much space, saved so much money, and gained only a few pounds that I suspect we'll be eating out the cupboards more often. Now if only I can figure out what to do with the cauliflower peeking out of the crisper . . . Hmm.


Pumpkin Soup with Spiced Croutons
* From Better Homes & Gardens, Feb. 2009

2 medium carrots, sliced
2 Tbsp. butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
30 oz of pumpkin puree
32 oz of chicken stock (I cooked my frozen veggie scraps for 1 hr, drained and used the broth)
1/2 cup half and half or light cream (I used a can of evaporated skim milk from the pantry)
3 Tbsp. maple syrup (I used a dash more)
1 tsp. pumpkin spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger)
1 recipe for spiced croutons, see below
Salt and pepper to taste

1) In large saucepan, cook carrots in hot butter over medium heat for 2 minutes; add onion, celery and garlic. Cook for 10 minutes or so until tender.

2) Stir pumpkin, broth, cream, syrup and spices in. Heat through. Season with salt and pepper.

3) To serve, top soup with croutons.

Serves 8.

Spiced croutons: In a bowl, toss 3 cups 1 inch bread cubes with 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice. In a large skillet, cook bread cubes in 2 Tbsp butter for 8 minutes or until toasted, turning occasionally.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Today's poll is about the politics of our language.

I've been thinking a lot about what words we use--and what words the folks who disagree with us use. Over the last few years, I've become comfortable with certain usages--and I was shocked out of that complacency yesterday when I heard really good reasoning why I should use the term I had discarded. Before I tell you my own thinking on this issue, I would love to hear from you.


Global Warming.
Climate Change.
Climate Chaos.
Global Meltdown.
Something else?

What do you say? Why? Why do you think other people (who believe or don't believe what you believe) choose to use different words?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bottomfeeder Book Review

JessTrev with a book review of a fabulous guide to eating sustainably-sourced fish (skip the cheap farmed shrimp; it's no bargain).

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe is right up my alley. Author Grescoe is game for eating just about anything that lives in water, and he clearly relishes the salty little critters I scarf alone in this house: anchovies. So, from the title, I was pretty sure the book was going to be one ringing endorsement of my side of the pizza. I was also hopeful heading in that Grescoe might help me figure out how to order sushi and keep the omega-3s flowing into my family without driving fish to extinction or sucking down boatloads of mercury.

The last time we went out to our favorite Japanese restaurant, my husband just handed over the menu and let me puzzle over the printed sushi guides I'd brought along. Dude! I shoulda texted FishPhone. It was nearly impossible for me to decipher the menu even with lists in hand. But I'm no Jeremy Piven; I really don't eat that much of the raw stuff. Mostly, I just wanted Grescoe to rescue my family from the boring, revolving fate of the three fishes I can remember off the top of my head that I thought were sustainably fished and low in mercury all in one (trout, sole, and catfish).

How did Grescoe's tome rate? Well, he's done his homework and is an entertaining fellow fish-lover. I 100% recommend reserving his book at your nearest library pronto (or, if you're lazy like me, just slap the title on your Amazon wishlist to keep track of what you want to read and then use interlibrary loan online every couple of weeks).

Grescoe's book (and his website) offer up a shortlist of his personal choices, made based upon his firsthand observations of fishing practices around the world. The number in parentheses is the fish's trophic scale (how high up on the food chain the fish is, 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest).

No, Never
Bluefin tuna. Overfished. Mercury. (4.43)
Cod, Atlantic. Fished by pirate vessels. Bottom-trawled. (4.42)
Halibut, Atlantic. Mercury. Bottom-trawled. (4.53)
Chilean sea bass. Longlines, bottom-trawls. Mercury. Pirate vessels. (3.96)
Grouper. Longlined. Mercury. (3.60)

Depends, Sometimes
Abalone. Illegally fished. (2.00)
Anchovy.* Overfished. (3.11)
Catfish. Antibiotics. (3.87)
Clams. Dredged. (2.00)
Cod, Pacific. Trawled. (4.01)
Crab. (Blue crab, 2.60)
Haddock. (4.09)

Absolutely, Always
Arctic char; barramundi. (4.26; 4.35)
Halibut, Pacific. (4.13)
Herring. (3.23)
Jellyfish. (2.00)
Mackerel. (3.65)
Mullet. (2.13)
Oysters, mussels... and many more.

*Aaaaaaaigh! I must sorrowfully report that anchovies are now off my sustainably-fished list for the moment (huge sigh here - no tastier salt-bearing omega-3 devices, in my book). My family is high-fiving right now and chanting "mushroom 'za! mushroom 'za!" by the by.

There's much more detailed info in the appendix of Bottomfeeder giving Grescoe's guidelines for eating fish sustainably (I personally copied it and am keeping it in my purse for reference). But, I'd argue that you need to do some homework even off of his recs (reinforcing that buying sustainably and avoiding mercury are separate issues - it's common for fish guides to emphasize one over the other). For instance, the "absolutely-always" rec for Pacific halibut? Might need to be tempered by the fact that if I fed my 30-lb toddler even 2 oz of halibut this week? He'd get 150% of the EPA's limit for mercury exposure. Test your fish out for yourself (Grescoe's rec - he's sensitive to the issue) at Got Mercury?

Some common favorite choices that are verboten after reading the Bottomfeeder lowdown? Shrimp, all farmed salmon (no surprise there), swordfish (mega mercury, for starters), Atlantic sole (trawled). Soooo...bottom line for my personal short list that I need to embed into my brain = T-H-O-M-M-P-S.

Trout=good (whew! farmed but minimal impact).

Herring=good. Bring on the jars 'o pickled goodness.

Oysters=good. Although, since they literally clean out our waterways? And, just between you and me? I don't always want to imbibe what's in our waterways? I'm going to follow Grescoe's advice and eat them cooked instead of on the halfshell. Big sigh. I do love me some oyster stuffing, though.

Mackerel=good. Hmmm. Holy m- this one might be tough to find fresh.

Mussels= good. Ooh, yes! garlicky mussels on linguini much?

Pollock=good. Believe it or not, most fish sticks and Mickey D's fish sammies are a-ok in that they're not from an overfished species.

Sole=good if it's not Atlantic. Pacific sole=ok, including Dover and English sole.

THOMMPS! Good to have a few more choices! As Bottomfeeder's Intro notes:
"The good news is that there is a way to reconcile conservation, flavor, and health -- even when it comes to the complex, multispecies cuisine that is seafood. And it can be done without leaving the oceans, or our plates, empty."
Obviously, you're going to have to do your own homework to figure out which of the fish you find tasty are also low in mercury and sustainable to eat.

Since I also very much appreciated the specificity of Grescoe's call to action to protect the oceans, here's the Bottomfeeder to-do list for all of us hoping against hope that our grandkids will be able to eat some of our favorite seaborne delights:

Immediate action:
  • Ban bottom-trawling
  • Require cargo ships to change ballast at sea to limit the spread of invasive species
  • Stop boats from tossing bycatch (extra fish - usually chucked overboard, dead)
  • Stop Europe/Asia from overfishing the African coast
  • Protect bluefin tuna/sharks/the fish at the top of the food chain
  • Provide better enforcement tools for those trying to stop "pirate fishing" (people who ignore international limits and bans)
  • Initiate independent setting of fishing quotas (no more self-regulation by fishing industry)
  • Begin better food safety monitoring of seafood
  • Limit or cease industrial aquaculture (especially when it threatens native species and/or requires massive influx of animal protein as feed)
  • Protect the ocean with more marine preserves
  • Require those selling fish to provide more information about how and where the fish was caught
Long-term issues that need to be addressed:
  • Sewage
  • Agricultural runoff
  • Acidification
  • Rising temperatures
  • Dead zones (caused by above)
Seriously, read Grescoe's book and educate yourself about a critical issue: keeping the oceans alive with more than jellyfish. Read a Salon interview with Grescoe to hear his thoughts on "food porn" -- his "'Fuck you' to the food-writing world" that idealizes chefs who ignore that they're popularizing ingredients that are already decimated. Check out Oceana and the Natural Resources Defense Council's work on protecting ocean life, and consult the Marine Stewardship Council or MSC for the best independent certification of seafood. Me? I'm going to keep a copy of Grescoe's buying guide (from the book's appendix) in my purse to help me the next time I order.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Desperately Seeking Reliable (Green!) Transportation

A wondering from the EcoWonder...


Busy working mom of 4 boys, 2 dogs and 1 husband seeks a new set of wheels. Fuel efficiency is a must, a DVD player and lots of cup holders will be considered a plus. Must be willing to work long hours and be ready on a moment's notice to haul 5 or 6 kids to the movies, sleepovers and to sporting events. Experience with lots of snow, some ice and pot hole dodging is required. Candidate must not have allergies to dog hair, grass, dirt or mold and should be comfortable with dog poop on the bottom of shoes and the smell of 4 sweaty boys on a 96 degree day.

Yep, I'm in the market for a new car/van/SUV. I know, I just said a dirty word. SUV. I have four kids, three of whom now weigh more than I do and will soon tower over me by almost a good half foot. I still have one boy in a car seat, two large dogs and a husband who needs leg room. My car needs to be super sized, not because I want to, but because I don't have a choice.

My mother owns a teeny, tiny hybrid. My sister has a neat little sedan for her two teeny, tiny boys. My other sister still drives a sporty little two door with a stick shift, no car seat in sight. Me? I need something just short of a school bus or a cargo van. The story goes like this...

Two years ago I gave up the suburban prerequisite mode of transportation, the hulking SUV. I traded it for a much greener mini-van with power doors, a DVD player and climate control. Pretty nifty features and it got better gas mileage and even fit into my garage with room to walk around it on all four sides! Until it went into the shop at 3,000 miles. Again at 10,000 and then again at 11,000 for an entire new transmission. And then it snowed and I couldn't get up my driveway or down my street. Now, my lease is up and I am looking for a new ride. New or used? Lease or buy? SUV or mini van or crossover?

I need three full rows of seating, lots of cargo space and air conditioning. I would like to get decent city mileage, 95% of my driving is around town, so those inflated highway mileage numbers mean nothing to me. So far I have three candidates that have answered my want ad, but maybe you all know of a better, greener option for big families? I feel that this is a segment of the market ignored by the automakers, both domestic and foreign.

Candidate #1 - The mini-van by Chrysler. Mileage is pretty poor, 16 city and 24 highway. My older van gets 18 mpg city, so I am disappointed they actually decreased performance in this day in age. Features and price are a big benefit, it's affordable, it's easy to drive, I can have power doors, a DVD player and leather seats in my price range. Another big draw back? It's what I own now and haven't had stellar luck with quality or winter driving. And, after my screaming and yelling and cursing episode in the service department when they told me my current van needed a new transmission, the day before we were leaving on vacation? Let's just say I am pretty sure I would have to find a new dealership...

Candidate #2 - The SUV. I have been stalking two used Tahoe Hybrid SUVs by Chevrolet. The size is ridiculous, the highway mileage is pretty bad and I think the wacky sticker running down the side that proclaims "HYBRID" is absurd. However, it gets 20 mpg in the city, which is key for me and it has tons of space and the price on these used models? A screaming deal. And, it will offer me better traction and safer travel in the winter. We've had 60 inches so far this winter, so my patience is wearing thin driving around town in my mini-van. But really? After all this talk about going green and I go back to a SUV? And what will I have to take out of my garage to fit the monster inside? What about hybrid driving? The batteries, the maintenance? Will it end up costing me more than a basic mini-van?

Candidate #3 - The crossover Flex by Ford. The mileage in the city sucks here too. 16 mpg around town, 24 on the highway. And, I sort of think it looks like someone squashed it flat on top and it's a little skimpy on storage space. However, I can get an AWD model that will handle much better in the snow and the prices are pretty reasonable for both a new or a used model with the features (DVD player!) that I really want / need. And Ford seems to be holding their own in this economy, so no fear about them going bankrupt in the middle of the night...

So, I'm stuck. I have a little time to make my decision, but the Type-A personality in me means that I must research every option, track down every rebate and test drive every model. I plan to buy this one and keep it for years and years, so I need to make the right decision for both my family and the environment.

Do you have a greener, cleaner, more spacious and reliable vehicle suggestion for a big family?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Conscious Consumption

From the bean of Green Bean.

If you've been around the green circuit for a while, you've come face to face with the realization that conspicious consumption is not such a great thing. The Compact, Riot for Austerity, The Story of Stuff all bring home the basic green tenet. Buying new stuff=bad.

Buying used stuff, however, is not so bad. In fact, sometimes it can be downright good. Like when you keep an item out of the landfill. When you breathe new life into something headed to the dump.

I am quite the fan of second hand. Indeed, long before I was "green", I spent a couple years as an Ebayer and antique dealer, stalking estate sales and flea markets, cleaning up my treasures and putting them back into use through a booth at a local antique store. Even before then, I shopped garage sales to furnish my first home, find treasures for my garden, and toys and clothing for my children.

As a confirmed lover of used goods, here is a list of my favorite ways to save resources - natural and economic - by acquiring second hand.

1) Thrift stores:

PROS: Benefits charities; usually good prices; new to you items year round

CONS: You'll be most successful if you visit regularly and look for general items of need rather than a very specific item.

WHAT YOU FIND: Clothes, toys, games, bedding, yarn, backpacks, lunchboxes, books, furniture, the list is endless.

THOUGHTS: Not all thrift stores are created equal. Scout out different ones in your area and when you visit friends and family. Some are overpriced, dirty and/or full of junk. Some are great for one type of goods but not another. I have a favorite thrift store for clothes, especially kids clothes, and another favorite for everything else.

2) Resale and consignment stores:

PROS: Higher quality and a consistently better selection than thrift stores. A lot less sifting through junk.

CONS: More expensive than thrift stores; for profit instead of benefitting charities

WHAT YOU FIND: You can sometimes find shops the specialize in certain categories: used books, used CDs, used clothing, used sports equipment, and so on.

THOUGHTS: These are often independent, locally owned stores that reinvest their funds in the community. Double bonus for shopping here. Just this weekend, I scored a new outfit for a school fundraiser and some shirts for $20. All brand name and super stylish.

3) Garage sales, rummage sales and estate sales:

PROS: Cheap, cheap, cheap. Lots of selection though you never know what you'll find.

CONS: Requires a bit of planning and driving. Seasonal.

WHAT YOU FIND: You name it.

THOUGHTS: Hit city-wide garage sales or block sales if you have the chance. Saves time and gas to be able to cover several sales on the same day. As for estate sales and some rummage sales, you may need to sign up the night before or line up an hour or so early if you want the best selection. Best deals, however, come at the end of the day.

4) Craigslist:

PROS: Great for locating specific items; local.

CONS: Often more expensive than yard sales and thrift stores.

WHAT YOU FIND: Bigger ticket items like furniture, bikes, sandboxes, strollers, etc. Any smaller items, such as clothes, tend to be sold in lots or more expensive, designer labels.

THOUGHTS: I've not had much luck with the "Wanted" section. If you are patient, however, you can find virtually anything. Follow Beth at Fake Plastic Fish's directions for subscribing to a particular search. And, if you want to get rid of something and cannot donate it to a charity or find any Freecycle takers, I swear by the Craigslist Free section. Rather than setting up a time for pick up, though, I've had much better luck leaving an item at the curb and listing it on Free section, indicating that the listing will be removed once the item is gone.

5) Freecycle:

PROS: Free; can put up Wanted posts; local so easy to pick up.

CONS: Limited to what people willing to give away for free - which is more than you might think.

WHAT YOU FIND: Nothing super upscale. I doubt there are any new iPods on there and the Freecycle moderators get a bit irritable if you ask for that kind of stuff.

THOUGHTS: I turn to Freecycle first whenever I have a need. I very frequently find what I need.

6) Listservs and yahoo groups:

Tap into email lists for your kids' school, local mothers' club, work, and other groups for specific items. I usually post a WTB - wanted to buy or borrow.

PROS: You can locate very specific items when Craiglist searches and thrift store haunts leave you empty handed; get items from people you have some sort of connection with and can usually trust.

CONS: Sometimes, you'll pay a bit more than you would at yard sales and thrift stores. Of course, sometimes, you'll find exactly what you need for free.

WHAT YOU FIND: I outfitted my kids for the snow for free this year, bought a like new breadmaker, a bike trailer and was given soccer cleats for the boys. Items tend to be more focused on stuff people on the list would use. For instance, schools and mothers' club boards will yield more in the way of kid stuff than tile for your bathroom remodel - though it's worth asking.

7) Ebay:

PROS: Great for specific or hard to find items.

CONS: As these are national listings, the deals are a bit less. You need to pay for shipping and consider the emissions related to shipping an item. You have to rely on a photo and the seller's feedback rating - though I've only been burned a couple times.

WHAT YOU FIND: You really can find anything but, as most stuff will need to be shipped, smaller items are better. They cost less to ship.

THOUGHTS: Ebay is one of my last resorts because shipping usually renders an otherwise great deal unaffordable.

8) Swap Sites:

Paperback Swap, Book Mooch, Title Trader, What's On My Bookshelf, Swap A CD, Swap A DVD, Swap Tree, and the like. These sites allow you to build up credits by sending the item type (book, CD, etc) to someone else in the service. You can then use your credits to request particular books from other club members.

PROS: Free.

CONS: Takes time to build up credits and shipping is often media mail (e.g., VERY slow). Limited availaility but you can put things on a wish list and be notified when the item you are looking for is listed. The shipper pays out of pocket for shipment.

WHAT YOU FIND: Most often limited to items that can be sent economically - books, DVDs, CDs, video games.

THOUGHTS: I've used this service to supplement cirriculum for a parent taught class at my son's school when it became too difficult to keep requesting and renewing the books from the library.

9) Library:

PROS: Free or a small reserve fee.

CONS Limited to what the library has in stock or can acquire through inter library loan. A blogger librarian friend suggests putting in requests for libraries to purchase the item you're seeking.

WHAT YOU FIND: Books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, VHS.

THOUGHTS: I love love love the library. I almost always get a book at the library before deciding whether to buy it. We also canceled Netflix and rely on the library for most of our movies, and have they got some good ones!

10) Online Resale Shops:

PROS: Very targeted searches; huge selection; some of these lists enable thrift stores and others to sell items for more than they would sell for in the store and/or to move merchandise more quickly.

CONS: Shipment costs; time for items to ship which is often via media mail.

WHAT YOU FIND: Abe's Books is a good independent site for used books and lists items at thrift stores and resale shops around the country. SecondSpin is the place for used DVDs and CDs.

THOUGHTS: Amazon also offers used items but I prefer to purchase from littler guys. Amazon, in my opinon, packs stuff in too big of packages using too much plastic though they are supposed to be working on that. After reading Big Box Swindle (review coming soon), I'm biased for the smaller guy in almost every respect.

11) Borrowing:

PROS: Free; you don't have to store the item.

CONS: You may feel beholden to the lender; you can only keep the item for a limited period of time.

WHAT YOU FIND: Ideal for items that you don't use often or will only use once like tools, sewing machine, targeted small appliances (ice cream maker), specific cake pan, books, snow equipment, etc.

THOUGHTS: Tap into your network of friends, family and neighbors. You can even sign up with Neighborrow if you want to get serious about borrowing and lending in your community.

12) Bartering:
PROS: Often free or close to it; tax free.

CONS: You have to have specific skills or goods that someone would be interested in trading for; often you need to be close enough with the other party to broach the subject.

WHAT YOU FIND: I've come across quite a few babysitting co-ops. I have a friend who bartered clothes from her boutique for yoga lessons, a family member who bartered dental services for plumbing and accounting services, and another family member who barters her homegrown lemons for credit at a local restaurant.

THOUGHTS: Aside from trading play dates, I've never done it. I guess I don't feel that I've got unique enough skills to offer and I'm shy about trading stuff.

13) Flea Markets:

PROS: Inexpensive; often "under the table".

CONS: Many flea markets are full of cheap knock offs but some offer vintage or other used goods.

WHAT YOU FIND: I've mostly found antique or collectible goods but have also seen clothes and household goods.

THOUGHTS: Ask around before schlepping down to a flea market to make sure it's one that will carry second hand items.

There's a peek into my second hand but very well cared for little black book. Do you have any great resources for saving resources to share?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Imprinting Green

Bleatings from EnviRambo.

Last week Wednesday the unthinkable happened. My printer died. A horrible screeching, grinding, inky black death. Ink that I had just purchased black death. Tragedy always strikes at the most inopportune time. I was in the middle of two crucial Earth Week projects with a Sunday deadline. Both required the printer. Not now, pleeaase. Damn.

I spent all spare time between meetings bouncing from Best Buy to Office Max; asking questions, deciding on features, comparing prices, and giving myself a headache. Life is complicated enough, throw in an environmental conscience and you can tack on an extra hundred or so decisions that need to be made. My head hurts.

I also have a scanner that died shortly after its purchase several years ago. I have missed its use ever since. The past few years have been riddled with trips to the print shop to make copies and send faxes. In an effort to save time, fuel, and my sanity I decided I would purchase an all-in-one photo/print/copy/fax machine. Have you seen the size of these things?! That is one helluva hunk of plastic. Not to mention the hunk of lifeless junk sitting on my desk that needs to be disposed of. Disappointing to say the least. What do you do with such things?

After some debate with the salesmen and internal wrestling I narrowed my choices down to two: the Epson Artisan 800 and a HP Photosmart C7280. I went home with some literature and a migraine to think about it. After hours of internet research reading reviews and comments left by previous owners it all came down to the ink. Both were energy star qualified, used six (six!) ink cartridges that cost roughly the same to replace and gave roughly the same output per color, but only one was recyclable. The HP. I so wanted the Epson with its sleek black exterior, cool 7.8" touch panel, and 3.5" color LCD screen. sigh My Office Max store does not recycle Epson ink cartridges. It does however recycle HP cartridges and gives me $3.00 for every one I turn in. I use a lot of ink. Printing invitations, rsvp, brochures, flyers, posters, programs, menus, table numbers, escort cards, name tags, proposals, invoices... running my event business has made me a slave to my printer. Getting $3.00 back for every cartridge helps me to purchase all that recycled paper to print on!

Upon setting up my new office machine I was surprised by two things. After installing the ink cartridges it needed to print a test sheet for alignment. When finished printing the LCD display prompted me to recycle or reuse the sheet it had just printed. Hmm... interesting. I would have done this anyway. Not a scrap of paper reaches the shredder until every square inch has been written or printed on, sometimes multiple times. The fact that this feature was built in gives me hope. Someone is taking notice. Something as simple as a one line prompt may get others to take notice, too. It is too bad it has to come from a machine though. You would think recycling, reuse, and conservation would be common sense.

The second surprise came from the basic guide. In the list of control panel features, #15 points to the On button and gives this description:

On: Turns the HP All-in-One on or off. When the HP All-in-One is off, a minimal amount of power is still supplied to the device. You can further reduce power supply by holding down the On button for 3 seconds. This places the HP All-in-One in Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) mode. To completely remove power, turn the HP All-in-One off, and then unplug the power cord.

Wow. I wasn't expecting that one. Remember when it was considered better to keep our computers on all the time rather than shut down and reboot? I do. Now they are telling us not only to turn electronics off, but to unplug them as well.

Is this a sign of changing times? Does it signal "green" becoming mainstream? I do not know, but it is a step in the right direction. A small step towards the day when we no longer need an instructional manual on sustainability. When environmental preservation becomes the norm and we do not require a conscious effort to reduce, reuse, recycle. We just do it. Out of common sense, habit, instinct - because it is our way of life.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Parent Power

The Green Phone Booth welcomes Lisa Frack from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). If you've not visited EWG, among other things, they offer a wealth of information for living a less toxic, more healthful and sustainable life - especially for our little ones. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your thoughts on protecting our children and the power of parenting.

Long before working with EWG, I often visited our "For Parents" page. I appreciated and trusted the information there (still do!), but truth be told, what I really appreciated was that it was designed for parents, for me!

It let me know that someone understands how concerned we parents are, how very much we want our children to be healthy, how important we are in triumphing over this whole chemical mess.

So now, from the "inside," working alongside a bunch of other equally concerned parents at EWG (27 young kids among us!), I get to work within the American parent community to encourage environmentally healthy choices at home by sharing our research and guidance, and - closer to my heart - empowering them to speak up for policy change that will make all of our families healthier, from the very, very beginning.

Why are we parents so important, you ask? Easy.

1: We establish practices and make purchases for our households that directly affect the environmental health of young children and pregnant women. Do we leave our shoes at the door, or track in toxins? Do we wash our hands often, and with what? Do we use green cleaners? Non-stick or cast-iron? And the choices go on - many of them critical to our environmental health.

2: We are constituents who can speak up for policy change. Strong, persistent constituent voices are often critical to policy change, since lawmakers, of course, serve at our pleasure. Because it's parents (really) who are uniquely poised to create the momentum we need to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act, the existing law that (barely) regulates industrial chemicals in the U.S. - chemicals like bisphenol-A, phthalates, and Teflon, among many, many thousands of others.

About a year ago, Barbara Ehrenreich reminded me in a short piece she wrote that the 'Great People theory of history' isn't how change really happens. Nope. It's the rest of us. You. Me. Your moms group. Your children's classmates' families. Concerned grandmas. As Ehrenreich wrote, using one historical example:

Women's rights, for example, weren't brokered by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem over tea. As Steinem would be the first to acknowledge, the feminist movement of the '70s took root around kitchen tables and coffee tables, ignited by hundreds of thousands of now-anonymous women who were sick of being called "honey" at work and excluded from "men's" jobs. Media stars such as Friedan and Steinem did a brilliant job of proselytizing, but it took an army of unsung heroines to stage the protests, organize the conferences, hand out the fliers and spread the word to their neighbors and co-workers.

This reminder from one of our country's great social movements heartens me as parents from Seattle to Nashville, Pittsburgh to L.A. lift up their voices and demand change: we want safe products for our children and ourselves. We want to birth newborns without additives, nurse our babies with chemical-free breastmilk, and trust our government's now very broken consumer safety system. For starters!

So my goal for 2009, as a parent and EWG staffer, is parent power. I want to help foster it, support it, nurture it, partner with it, you name it. All to pass the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act. It won't be easy or quick, but we can do it. And it'll be very, very worth it. So start now by learning about Kid-Safe, signing and spreading The Declaration for kid-safe chemicals, and hosting a Kid-Safe house party. We need all hands on deck to make this happen - yours included.

Friday, February 20, 2009

APLS in Eden: A Carnival of Nature

A recent Newsweek article, pointed out to me by Stephanie, posits that human experiences in nature are of tremendous psychological value to us. For example, after a stressful event at work, even the view out of a window seems to have the ability to help us calm down. But the Newsweek story has a frightening part as well: the idea that our children's lack of experiences in nature may determine how humans treat the planet. "With every generation, kids are lowering their knowledge and expectations for what is a normal interaction with nature," argues the author, "creating a kind of generational amnesia about the natural world. City kids know about pollution in the abstract, for example, but have no idea that their air is a far cry from the clean air their grandparents breathed."

For this month's APLS carnival, I asked participants to address the issue of how their environmentalism and their connection to nature might be related. I am pleased to present this collection here for your reading pleasure and edification.

An excellent place to start your reading is Sherry's beautiful blog, Quiet Nature, devoted entirely to the subject of the environment. Her posts range from suggestions for action to meditations on our connection to to the world.

In her post for this carnival, Heather is thinking about the power of Big Nature--from the Grand Canyon to giant sequoias-- to make us see "how small we truly are." It is through this realization that we can become "awed, inspired, and moved to revere" the planet, "to care for and protect as it has cared for and protected us." Recognizing humanity's part in the larger world can lead us to reject the idea of humans having dominion over nature. As the old song says, the earth is our mother who bore us, and who will take us back when we die.

Robbie tells of her adventure at Yellowstone National Park, complete with memories of the soundtrack on the car stereo. She was awestruck by the beauty of the geyser and the thermal pool--but also stunned that visitors had turned these natural wonders into trash dumps: "If we can't look nature straight in the eye and appreciate and respect God's creation, what is wrong with us as a people?"

(For a more extensive discussion about the damage humans can do to wild areas, see Mike Vandeman's extended response to my initial call for posts.)

Cath explains that when she was a child, she "loved all things furry, feathery and blubbery" and was moved by environmentalist organizations' pleas to save individual species. While she has "never lost this passion for the natural world," she is now troubled by that very kind of activism. "I've become much more aware of the importance of an animal's habitat and ecosystem," she explains. "The glamorous, photogenic species are just the tip of the iceberg; we can't save the whales while ignoring the plankton. Systemic changes such as the warming of the air and acidification of the oceans are a threat at all levels." She calls on us to think about those larger questions instead of the romanticized portrayals designed to appeal to our emotions. She answers these campaigns by changing the message: "The entire planet is in crisis--And you're worrying about a few seals."

Citizen Green asks us to consider the question "What is nature?" As she states, nature "does not have to be jaw-dropping to have an impact on someone." Whether she spots snakes or baby birds while going about her day, she is always thrilled to see "nature going about her business paying no attention to me or mankind."

Nature on this smaller scale is the subject of many of this carnival's posts. Jenni points out that learning to see nature needn't be anything major. It "doesn’t need to be a marathon of hiking while dragging whiny, overtired children along behind you," she writes. "It can be as simple as setting up base camp on a picnic blanket and allowing your children to satellite out and explore around you." Watching nature videos might teach us details of life in the wild, but Jenni is hoping for something else--something both simpler and deeper--when she takes youngsters out: "These moments aren’t really exotic or exciting. But unlike what we experience on our screens, they are real."

Abbie, too, appreciates her immediate outdoor world. She grew up on her family's farm where nature was always a big part of her life. She spent a lot of time "outside with [her] family, working and playing" which she feels helped her "feel more connected to the rest of the world." In her post, she provides a list of ideas for enjoying time outside--from rollerblading in parks and swimming in the town reservoir to grading papers outside and shopping at the farmer's market.

Carmen agrees with Abbie that daily interaction with nature shaped her current thinking. As she writes, "When I look back at my own childhood, it is those simple experiences with nature shared with my friends and family that have had the biggest impact on my desire to preserve and care for the world." She shares her love of the outdoors with her own children by doing everything from camping to rock climbing to going on picnics--and even to composting their food wastes for next year's garden.

Encounters with the natural world "have a powerfully magnetic effect on my girls," writes Steph. "A part of them hears the call of the wild." She recognizes that the relationship to nature is so elemental that it cannot be denied. "It is faster to stop and take in the connection to nature than it is to try and hurry them along," she acknowledges--but even when she does not want to stop to appreciate the surrounding natural world, she often discovers that it speaks to her soul. "Thank you, girls," she says, "for patching these calls through to me."

JessTrev also resists the romantic "fuzzy polar bear cub" version of nature. Instead, our love of nature can be expressed by everything from gardening to running around with the family dogs. The part that seems most essential to her is how nature encourages the expression of some fundamental part of our humanness: the need to run free. "Kids should be able to putter and daydream for hours on end all by themselves," she argues, "without being monitored." This confidence that one can be "alone in the woods may be a prerequisite for happiness and self-sufficiency,"--both for children and adults. Joyce recognizes that this theme weaves through many of the Carnival posts. As she notes in the comments to JessTrev's post, "As I've been reading all the posts people are putting up for the APLS Carnival, I'm struck by a common theme: [the importance of] unstructured time for children."

EcoBurban suspects that the economic crisis might encourage us to spend more time with our children in the outdoors. Although in previous years her family might have taken a midwinter vacation at Disney or a ski resort, this year they are saving money--and building family relationships--by having the children spend a week off from school with their grandfather having an informal adventure in the woods of Michigan. She imagines that other families may also find that economic restrictions might actually strengthen their connections to their fellow humans and to the natural world at large.

Daphne is grateful for the fact that she has lived in places that allowed her to enjoy wild areas. As she writes, "The neighborhood is safe. It is not close to public transportation or major roads, so the only people that come here live here. It was an idyllic place to bring up kids." But she grapples with the negatives of the area as well: "Green it was not. Not being on public transportation has caused a lot of issues. This means longer car trips, tearing down more trees for homes in the wild, building more roads." Her essay concludes, "I think the love of nature often causes more problems to nature than it solves."

Green Bean has been thinking about similar issues, but from the other side. As she points out that in an urban environment, dense populations of people "living in close proximity to shops, jobs and public transportation produce a smaller carbon footprint." Although this lifestyle might have fewer immediate negative effects on the environment, there also seem to be some risks. An urban lifestyle can separate us from easy experiences in nature--and children raised without a sense of connection with the natural world might be more susceptible to both consumerism and a plugged-in life.

Experiencing nature can happen everywhere, even in "the warmth and safety of a store," writes Tina. Her family saw emu eggs on the shelf and "it transported us to thoughts of a distant environment." In all the times she sees nature, however, Tina recognizes that human intervention has the power to destroy. "Whether it be a distant creature I've never encountered or the forests that surround my neighborhood, I want nature to continue running its course uninterrupted," she writes. "I want to make sure that no one has to infringe on what land is left near me. I'm selfish, and I want my forests to stay forests, so I try to do what I can to keep everyone else from needing them for lumber, farming or building."

I think Beth might disagree, at least in part. "Nature isn't something out there to be saved," she writes. "It's us. Right here. Wherever we are." She argues that "every breath reminds me that there is nothing separating me from anything else." We need to use this sense of connectedness to each other and to the earth as we go forward.

Not everyone feels that nature directs their environmentalism. I am Some of us are really glad we grew up with indoor plumbing, mosquito netting (to separate us from the wild insects), and maybe even climate-controlled cafes.

Like me, Jaime writes that although she had a childhood full of experiences in the wild, she is now quite content to stay home. As she says, "I'm fine curling up with a good book." Throughout her early years when she was spending more time in outside world, she "was clueless about sustainability," as she says. "I started learning about sustainability after I moved to the suburbs, miles from a major interstate and minutes from a major city." Interestingly, her quest for a more sustainable life has led her to an enjoyment of gardening and an increased connection to the bounties of nature.

Finally, Ruchi reminds us that if nature is the world out there, it can never be as meaningful as what is right here around us and part of us. "I am an environmentalist," she writes, "but I don't care much about 'nature.'" that is, the world without humans. "So today, instead of celebrating nature, I'd like to celebrate our world as a whole. Some of it green and filled with trees, some of it is made of tall concrete buildings. But it is all of it...our world. And I love every bit of this world, and its delights and imperfections, dearly."

* * *

Jaime will host the next APLS carnival over at Green Resolutions. She is calling on us to share information about our favorite charities. What an important time to address this topic! I can't wait to read everybody's thoughts. Send in your posts to aplscarnival (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks, everybody!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life Birds: Love of Nature From Parent to Child

JessTrev muses about one of the APLS questions of the month: Have you found ways to share a connection to nature with your loved ones, young and old?

When I think about my relationship with nature, it's hard not to think about my father. He's been an avid birdwatcher for the past sixty years, and his naturalist tendencies were 100% responsible for me winning the Golden Guide to Cacti at science camp in the 3rd grade (they tossed up a softball mystery item for us to identify: coral mushrooms, which my dad liked to gather and then saute in butter for us after a nice woods walk).

Lest you think I grew up in some grand expanse of wilderness, let me disabuse you of that notion: 100% suburban upbringing. But my dad, because he liked to be outside with his binoculars, and because he loved our dogs so much, made sure our house was within walking distance of the woods. Not just green space, but woods. Interesting, because, although it's a lucky break that we have decent schools (yay, kids!) we (my husband and I) really moved to our place so that our dog, may he rest in peace, could romp through Rock Creek Park.

So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a healthy relationship with nature, for me, has been interwoven with a number of things:
  • learning to love being outside by getting to play for hours in my backyard and the woods
  • being outside with knowledgeable people who could identify plants, animals, insects, constellations...
  • learning to garden and to love eating food I'd grown (and mushrooms + Jerusalem artichokes foraged from the woods!)
  • loving dogs and recognizing their need for open space
  • learning to exercise and play sports outside
  • going camping, especially at national parks, as a child
  • going backcounty camping as an adult.
My father played a big role in introducing a respect for the natural world to me; I wish I could say I inherited his eye for detail. Luckily, my sister-in-law's a master organic gardener with an encyclopedic grasp of flora so my kids will get to experience some of her wonder on family trips. Me? I'm more of a creative writer type than a scientist, so I can't tell you the names of all that I see (and I don't think I'm as attuned with my surroundings as my dad and SIL -- I think I literally see less). But I love and want to preserve the natural world in large part because those I love have shared with me what they see on our dogwalks and family hikes (gotta love those grandpas).

I'd like to say here to boot that somehow prior generations seem to have romanticized nature less than we do nowadays with our fuzzy polar bear cubs. My dad was a big Alpha-Wolf-talkin', nature-is-ferocious kinda guy. And he was pretty interested in taxidermy as a kid, enough so that my sweet grandmother used to save dead birds in her freezer for the neighborhood kids long after that childhood hobby went out of vogue!

As I raise my children in a city, the element I think about the most is having access to (an unromanticized) space in which animals (including my kids) can run free. Not the fact that they're in a walkable, dense, little urban community. I love that! We can skip on down to our own woods to feel a little closer to those trees and birds. What I don't want them to miss out on is the ability to run free (or study cicadas) for hours on end.

A love of nature that will lead to environmentalism? I think that will come simply from my daughter's boundless empathy and her genuine interest in critters (and her little bro's too young to peg). If not from empathy, though, it might come from that expansiveness that comes from a visceral reaction to wilderness -- and wanting to protect that experience. That feeling of freedom, of peace within nature? May have to come when they are adults, perhaps following in my brother's and my footsteps and taking a 3 month backcountry trip with each other! I know if I lived in a more rural area, my kids could have this freedom routinely. When I think about my friends who live in Vermont, it's not the rolling meadows or the pond with a canoe or even the cross country trails out their back door that make me daydream about packing up my house. It's the thought (that others have voiced) that kids should be able to putter and daydream for hours on end all by themselves, without being monitored.

As their childhood experiences shape them, I hope that a sense of independence from needing to be entertained can come for my kids even if my eyes are ever-present. Somehow, I think that, in my psyche, being able to be alone in the woods may be a prerequisite for happiness and self-sufficiency, and certainly for self-directed learning. Gotta get those kids on some camping trips!

P.S. My dad's kept detailed notes of all the wildlife he's seen since he was a kid. When I lived in California, it was fascinating to go to Tilden Park in Berkeley with him 'cause he could compare his wildlife trackings from the early sixties (when he was in grad school there) to what he saw in the beginning of this century. Suffice it to say that when he sees a new bird, it's pretty huge. So the picture at the top? Is what he would call a Life Bird: an Ivory Gull (he emailed the photo tomy daughter). As he says of these sightings: "These are spiritual moments for me." I think that pretty much sums up his legacy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My Children in the Woods (with Grandpa)

This week is mid-winter break here in Southeastern Michigan. A funny week off from school once devoted to going to Disney, or going skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing. Since the economic down turn? It's more of a "freak out because I don't have anyone to keep their eye on the kids 'cause I'm working like crazy so I don't end up out of a job - week". As it turns out, this phenomenon means my children are in the woods - with Grandpa.

Grandpa stepped up to the plate and offered to take the oldest three boys Up North. If you are from Michigan you know what I mean when I say Up North. It's not a town or even a specific local it's just anywhere north-ish of the middle of the mitten. OK - for those who don't know what I mean by mitten... Hold up your right hand, palm facing you, thumb sticking out just a bit... See the mitten? That's Michigan.
My parents are lucky enough to have a summer home "Up North" right smack on the side of a 130 ft. bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. We visit in the summer time (read... less snow) and let the boys sleep outside in their tree house they helped grandpa build. They look for Petosky stones on the beach. Grandpa makes them hike along the beach to look at the bald eagle nest in the big tree. They swing from a tree swing until their hands are rope burned beyond recognition. Grandma cooks white fish caught that morning from local fishermen right out in the lake - and the boys swear it's the only fish they like. It's darker there at night than any place they've ever seen and they like to play tricks on the neighbors down the lane using laser pointers and bird calls. My children are in the woods, thanks to Grandpa!
This week my boys aren't at Disneyworld, or skiing at the local ski hill and hanging out at the mall and the movies. They are getting lessons from Grandpa in ice castles and how they form along the freezing lake shore. They road a toboggan for the very first time and checked their tree house to make sure it wasn't harboring winter critters. Unbeknown to dear old Mom, Grandpa found a kid's archery set at a garage sale and he's teaching them the art. Thank goodness I'm not there, my heart might stop. I've talked to them a couple of times and they sound giddier than the last time we went to Disney. Really, I was surprised, but they're thrilled to be at the summer house in winter with just Grandpa. Having a "boy's week".

Maybe the economy will mean more vacations like this, more time with family, more time in the woods. Maybe the souring job market will mean we spend more time outdoors, enjoying nature (hey, it's free!) and spending time with our kids. (Who knew!?! They actually like it!) Maybe the lessons we have learned from global warming, the economy and the job market will turn things around and my boys will value the opportunity to take their children Up North to check in on the tree house, see the ice castles and contemplate whether or not archery is a safe sport for kids. I think so and I hope Grandpa is there to see it.
This is (another!) Green Phone Booth submission for the February APLS Carnival to be hosted here, at The Green Phone Booth, on Friday, February 20th by The Green Raven. If you would like to participate in the carnival, please send a link to your "nature" post to aplscarnival(at)gmail(dot)com by Wednesday, February 18. - THAT'S TODAY! Please send your submissions in to the Green Raven!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Our Stimulus Package

From the bean of Green Bean.

Digging through the name labels, I located my son's and separated the folder to pull out a teal blue flier. Bold letters across the top screamed "CHANGE FOR OUR SCHOOLS" and piles of coins were pictured below. Pulling back from the family folders, I slouched against the Principal's wall and read:
My name is Sam and I am a fourth grader at [a school in the district]. For my
ROPES project, I am trying to raise money for our schools. This year we need to
make budget cuts, and we may not have enough money to keep all of our teachers,
our librarians, our PE teachers and our music programs. I want all of you to
join me and go home to get all of your change.
I felt my eyes well up with pride for a fourth grader I would never know. A fourth grader who knew that trying times call for heroes of all sizes and sorts. A fourth grader who asked his fellow students to go home and "get loose change from your piggy banks."

I don't know about your states, but mine is hard hit by this economy. With some of the most underfunded schools in the country, our schools face even deeper cuts and tense decisions. With unemployment rampant, parents I know spend the day in search of a job or the night worrying that they'll lose their job.

Nothing demonstrates who we truly are, though, than hard times. It requires little to be generous when we're flush. It's sharing when we have little. Working harder when we're already exhausted. Volunteering for longer hours, giving what we can, attending one more meeting, being one body that agrees to help.

The flier in my son's box is proof.

So is the substitute teacher who stood up in this morning's budget meeting and pledged to work 10 days next year for free.

And the single mom who works full time but finds time after she tucks her kids under the covers to create a cooking program based on "real food" or to sign the school up for a green fundraiser.

And the father working two jobs who started a bottle and can drive to encourage recycling and raise money for the school.

And each and every parent who hauls recycling to the curb when it's cheaper to just throw it in the trash because we want to teach our children the importance of responsibility, of treading lightly on our planet.

So too is the family that splurges on one dinner out a month but makes sure to tip the waiter extra to help him through hard times.

And the farmer at the farmers' market who, despite the possibility of losing her farm next month, hands my son a couple extra oranges.

And also the graphic designer who, when laid off, offers her services to a local green group for free.

The truth is, as much as they bickered and traded up on Capitol Hill, the real stimulus package will not come from the people we elect. It is not a matter of billions spent here or tax cuts made there.

The real stimulus package is us. Our generosity. Our dedication. Our creativity. Our willingness to think not of "me" and "you", but of the collective.

There's only one way we come out whole on the other side of this economy, this ecological crises. Clutching the flier in my hand, I head home determined to start tomorrow with a jar full of coins and a heart full of hope.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Trash to Trophy

Bleatings from EnviRambo.

It is the end of a crazy week of meetings; you have one more event on Monday; if you can just get through the weekend...

"Rebecca J Brown" (revealing my true identity), I answer in my usual office greeting.

"Hey, Rebecca J Brown. This is Matt XXXX from XXX Catering," says the voice on the other end of the line.

"Hey, Matt. What's up?" Thinking to myself that he is returning my call about the Organic Chicken-Q for Earth Week.

"Well, I have an event I was wondering if you could help me out with?" he asks nonchalantly.

"Sure. What do you need?" I ask, eager to book a future job.

"35 table centerpieces, no more than $5.00 each, Harmon Killebrew is the keynote speaker, February 15," he chirps.

"Got it." I automatically reply, scribbling down the details.

It was not until I hung up that reality set in. Looking over the little piece of paper full of scribbles: 35 centerpieces, good size job; $5.00 each, $5.00 each? What the hell can I make for under $5.00? You can't even buy flowers at Walmart for that price!; Harmon Killebrew, I wonder who that is?; February 15, looking at the calendar, counting the days. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Oh shit. Nine days, no budget, no details, and no idea what the hell I got myself into.

What would you do?

Before breaking into hysterics, okay after breaking into hysterics, I took a deep breath and reassessed the situation. Nine days. Monday is completely booked with meetings and another event. Tuesday is also back to back meetings. The rest of the week is clear. Seven days. No time to order supplies. I will have to use what is available locally. After a weekend scouring the internet for ideas - I discovered Harmon Killebrew is a baseball Hall of Famer who played for the first Minnesota Twins team and the event was a sports award banquet, wandering the store aisles aimlessly for inspiration, and racking my brain in the shower I had an Eureka moment. What is cheap and abundantly available? PLASTIC.

I have a stockpile of plastic trash in my basement that I just cannot bring myself to dump in the landfill. Yes! It is perfect.

Behold the trophy cup.

A yogurt container hot glued onto a solo cup with model magic handles, all things I have laying around the house. Coated in a layer of gold spray paint, it transforms from trash to trophy.

Throw in a few flowers - the only thing I actually had to buy other than the paint - topped off with a custom pennant featuring the event logo and you have yourself a centerpiece.

35 table centerpieces, $5.00 each, Harmon Killebrew is the keynote speaker, February 15

Got it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wild at Heart

From the bean of Green Bean.

When I read the latest topic for the February APLS Carnival, my heart dropped. A "Carnival of Nature" to be hosted here at The Green Phone Booth by fellow eco-hero, Green Raven, aka The Purloined Letter.

I read on. The topic was inspired by Raven's enjoyment of Last Child in the Woods, a groundbreaking and, to me, heart-breaking book about the current generation's disconnection with nature. The author, Robert Louv, argues that many of the "syndromes" we see in our children today - ADD, ADHD, autism, OCD, obesity - stem from the fact that our children spend so little unstructured time out in the wild. He terms it "nature deficit disorder." I mostly read the book last year. I say mostly because I couldn't finish it. Part of the reason was because it was dense and, in my opinion, longer than it needed to be. And part of the reason was because it struck such a chord in me, such fear, such anxiety, that I simply couldn't face it.

Without a doubt, we are raising a generation of "denatured children." Our kids spend most of their time inside because "that's where the electric outlets are." Of course, that's also where mom spends her time. More of it typing on this computer than she should.

But we are also raising our kids in a different environment than we were raised or than our parents and their parents were raised. Not just because of the paranoia regarding stranger abductions and the like, the rates of such seem to be holding steady for the last several generations. Not simply because there are more cars on the road, though there are.

No, we are in a different environment because, at least where I live, there is no nature left.

I make my home on the edge of Silicon Valley. We live tucked between neighbors with neat sidewalks and crisp green lawns separating the homes and the street. Street trees are efficiently lopped off or replaced with trim little varieties that don't drop a colorful show of leaves in the fall. Our downtown is a mix of shops and restaurants that perches only a short walk from home.

Technically, it is called a suburb but it is nothing like those suburbs featured in documentaries and news articles. I cannot remember the last time I saw a vacant lot. Open space does border our town but it is a good ten minute drive and fifteen minute hike through a beer bottle littered park to access.

Do I think nature makes a difference? Does just looking at a wild place cool the blood and calm the heart? Would my overly active, impulsive and inattentive six year old benefit from hours of free time constructing dams and clambering up trees in some mystical forest inhabited by more than some overfed squirrels? Of course.

Do I make valiant efforts to reconnect with those wild places? Sometimes. Sometimes, we get out in nature or what's left of it. Sometimes, we ogle brochures for summer camps set on a farm or in open space. Sometimes, we plan vacations and revel in nature's unruly magnificence. Sometimes, we work to regenerate nature in our yard. And sometimes, like when I'm trying to write on a topic for a carnival hosted at my own blog, I have to admit that reconnecting our children with nature is harder than it should be.

It is harder than is ecologically appropriate as well. Most environmentalists will tell you that dense populations, living in close proximity to shops, jobs and public transportation produce a slimmer carbon footprint. But such a lifestyle also sets our children apart from that the all purpose tonic of nature. It removes them, makes them more susceptible to consumerism and places "where the electrical outlets are". It tries to tame those who are wild at heart.

I'm not sure what the answer is. Whether "growing nature" in our urban parks and yards is enough for our children. Whether the yearly trip to a national park or a summer camp adventure can heal. Whether my exhausted effort to squeeze in a hike once a month can regenerate. Whether the planetary benefits of a more urban lifestyle offset the sacrifice. I don't know. But, for my kids' sake, I hope someone does.

This is The Green Phone Booth's submission for the February APLS Carnival to be hosted here, at The Green Phone Booth, on Friday, February 20th by The Green Raven. If you would like to participate in the carnival, please send a link to your "nature" post to aplscarnival(at)gmail(dot)com by Wednesday, February 18.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bubbly Bathtub Hearts

JessTrev with a Valentine's Day DIY craft....

OK, the interlibrary loan geekiness is so paying off in spades. For Valentine's Day in my kid's kinder class, we had to send each little person a Valentine. As Green Bean's mentioned, if you haven't been around a classroom lately, you would have no idea the amount of candy and trinkety plastic junkiness that's being thrown around in the name of holidays, the red-hearty one included.

That's why I'm pleased as punch to say that I figured out a great recipe for bathtub hearts. Back to the liberry -- I got out the handmade soap book (by melinda coss) and browsed it a couple weeks ago. Lye? Meh. Around my 2 year old? Not so much. But wait! Tucked away near the end of the book (yes, I did indeed read it cover to cover even though I don't intend to make soap) was a recipe for bath fizzies.

I've adapted it below (successfully!) based on ingredients I actually had and could find locally since I just started yesterday. We changed the name 'cause, compared to the Lush stuff Santa brought and the homemade bath bombs we like to whip up (I'll save that recipe for another day), the word fizzy's not the one that comes to mind! But ooooooh, they are super-moisturizing! My daughter keeps having me run over and rub her arm, cause it's "sooo soft!"

Bubbly Bathtub Hearts

2 oz shea butter (Coss uses cocoa butter)
2 oz baking soda
1 oz citric acid (I already had this on hand - don't bother racing around looking for it, you need to get it online -- and may I note that you probably shouldn't buy the 15 lb bucket of it, even if it does cost out to less per pound? I'll be making bath fizzies for my grandchildren)
3 tbsp cornmeal
6 drops food coloring (I tried a small amount of beet juice which failed spectacularly to influence the color of the cornmeal-hued final product)
6 drops of essential oil of your choice (that would be none, thanks!)

Grease some small molds or an ice cube tray with non-stick cooking spray (I sprayed mine with olive oil -- and used the very same old IKEA heart icecube mold that GreenBean did to make her crayon hearts -- what else is a mom to do with a food prep item made of #7 plastic?!). Melt the shea butter in a double boiler over low heat. Remove from heat, add baking soda, citric acid, and cornmeal and stir thoroughly. Add coloring and essential oils if you're using em, and stir. Spoon into molds (I spooned and then mashed them down with my fingers to get them firmly into the ice cube tray). Sprinkle some cinnamon on top. Stick them into the freezer to set. When hard, turn out of molds.

Put in a wax paper bag, and staple a little heart-shaped note to each baggie that says, "Be my rub-a-dub-Valentine!" Warn small people who might be inclined to pop them in their mouths that these are not food, even if they look exactly like shortbread.

Have a good one! May your skin be soooper soft this Valentine's Day!

*I know, I know, I should have a picture of these. But by the time I figure out where the cord is to upload my photos of these adorable little hearts? It will be St. Patty's Day.

**No, it's not my foot. You think I have time to paint my toenails?!

Friday, February 13, 2009


You know when people talk about all those problems coming from "inside the beltway"?

They are talking about us. We live in an inner suburb of DC in a little house built in 1935. Our home has plaster walls, hardwood floors, beautiful radiators, and a lot of authentic charm. Things feel real here, and lasting.


maybe not lasting.

We're trying to learn how to live in a house with plumbing that resists running the dishwasher on the same day that one runs the washing machine. Unless we are prepared to mop the basement, we are limited to one cycle a day.

We've also spent the last decade listening to wind whistle through the crack in the front door and enjoying the slit of sunlight shine through that crack and reflect on the gleaming pine floor.

Our house was built before air conditioning and we have chosen to keep it that way. To keep cool, we run fans and keep the air moving through our house by opening our windows. These ancient windows were constructed with lead weights counterbalancing the weight of the sash. By pulling a cord over a pulley at the top of the casement, windows such as these could be raised and lowered.

However, as is very common in old houses, our sash cords wore out and the weights dropped to the bottom of their wells. At that point, the windows stopped working properly and could no longer be held open normally. Each summer for years, we risked amputating our fingers by unlatching our window hardware and trying to get out of the way as both the original window frames and the storms guillotined downward. We then propped them up with sticks, toys, or shoe boxes to let the air come in.

Then, it would begin to rain. We'd frantically try to close the windows (which required re-latching the windows in order to prevent the top frames from falling) without more than a few bloody fingertips.

This process was not safe. But these old and inefficient windows had another problem: when we turned on our heat, we were heating up not just our home but the entire neighborhood. In fact, I sometimes wondered if my family and our inefficient house might have been the real cause of global warming...

Although I am usually a firm believer in repairing rather than replacing the material things in our life, we eventually decided to replace our windows with highly efficient windows rather than repairing the weighted sashes and then replacing the storm windows.

After looking into various possibilities, my family chose wood composite windows rather than vinyl or aluminum. We sought out windows supported by both Energy Star and the Forest Stewardship Council.

On the day of installation, my son and I enjoyed watching the young workers knock out all our windows and open the whole house up to the sunny day. Within just a few hours, everything was back together. They then replaced the door—with one far less charming than the original door but much less, um, breezy.

Our house is now quieter, warmer, and full of light. (And our pocketbook is quite a bit lighter as well…)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mindful Moving, Mindful Eating: Good for Me, Good for the Planet

JessTrev's determined to exercise and finds herself living more lightly (!) while she's at it.

I've been exercising for the past few weeks, trying to get back into shape. It's pretty rough restarting that engine (mentally as well as physically) and I'm trying to figure out ways to make it through these excruciating stiff-legged, creaky-kneed first miles. Music is figuring in heavily, as is eating delicious, healthy food, and finding ways to work out that don't involve a 32-pound boy hanging onto my back while I contort into a yoga pose. Somehow, I've also tacked on wearing sunscreen and eating my vitamins into this whole being-healthy mix. What's next? Am I going to start flossing or what?

It's occurring to me that lots of what I'm doing to try to be healthier is actually lighter on the planet: walking to the gym and back; making sure I always have that water bottle with me (no sugary drinks to weigh me down, plus no bottles or cans to ditch); and eating healthier (veggies and fruits galore). I'm obviously going to have to go for the unwaxed, nat'ral floss, huh?

The eating, of course, is the best part. We had such fun at the farmer's market last weekend! Healthy snack fulla fiber and fulla fun? Corncobs with the kernels dried right on them that were meant to be popped in a brown bag in the microwave. My kids looooved em. (Floss woulda come in handy, no?) Plain yogurt to eat with honeycrisp apples (my 5 year old's been saying that approvingly all week: mmm, honey apples). Beets (I ate the greens for breakfast, sauteed in garlic and olive oil, with a couple of fried local eggs for protein) to slice up over my beautiful arugula and butter lettuce. It was so cute, the woman selling my lettuce to me squealed when I exclaimed aloud about how exquisite the head of lettuce was: "I know," she said. "I look at lettuce all day but I swear, I was thinking the very same thing!"

I'm sort of amused at how much more time it takes to be healthy. I am not a vegetarian now, but have been in the past. I like vegetables. But basically, I'm a lazy human who likes quick food, even if I do like to cook. It's really speedy to throw a slab of cheese onto a hunk of bread. Wham, bam, full belly. Peeling carrots, slicing them, whipping up a quick vinaigrette? All takes time. And then the chewing! Sheesh. I could spend my whole day just exercising and eating these vegetables (and then lying on the sofa moaning, but I'm hoping that's a passing phase).

Luckily, I read something a ways back about how you actually digest your food better, get more nutrients out of it? If you are mindfully eating. You know, not multi-tasking. So I'm living in the moment of all that carrot prep and chewing. {You better believe I'm peeling a bunch extra and sticking them in the fridge, though!} You should see the carrots we got at the farmer's market this weekend -- so fat and adorable. My kids ate some right there in the stroller, dirt, peel and all.

Living mindfully. That really captures it all. In order to do it right, this life, I've need to try to be mindful. Thinking about the crisp goodness of my carrots and the smile of the woman who grew my lettuce. Drinking my water. Being a little hungry and a little sore and knowing that it's all a good thing.

Here's my grandmother's vinaigrette recipe (which makes me smile every time I drizzle it over my salad, since it's what she had every day for lunch! and she lived into her nineties):

GrandMollie's Dressing

a few garlic cloves, chopped
olive oil
red wine vinegar
bay leaf
freshly ground pepper
kosher salt
sploosh of ketchup

Stir it up and spoon some on. Keeps for 3-4 days in the fridge in a screw-top jar you've saved.

I hope you all are feeling healthy and that the choices you're making to be true to your goals are also bringing you closer to living simply as well. Happy trails!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Snakes & Snails & Puppy Dog Tails

A wondering from the EcoWonder...

That's what boys are made of... And dirt. And sweat. And a couple of words they probably shouldn't use, much less know and a hairbrush they really don't care to use at all. That pretty much sums it up.

(photo: Flickr / Sharon918)

I have a little boy (he's four) but I also have three big boys (11, 13 & 13) and by big I mean they eat big meals, wear big clothes, carry big backpacks and play big sports. It's costly, and if you're not careful, it can be a big green pitfall. Going green was certainly an adjustment, not only for me, but a big one for the boys. Some of my favorite lines from the past year, some funny, some annoying, but all part of the journey!

"I can't live without Gatorade! I just can't. Seriously. I play better if I have the blue Gatorade! I do!" It didn't matter. We went cold turkey. No more bottled tea for me, no more gatorade for them. SIGGs fill of lemonade or water all around. After a month or two, we forgot all about it and it became habit.

"No offense Mom, but this lemonade tastes rancid." OK, note to self, getting A's in grammar isn't always a good thing. When did they learn the word "rancid"?!? And, why does my homemade lemonade taste rancid? I taste it. OMG, I think it fermented or something. Are they drinking a homemade version of moonshine Limoncello? Well, at least they didn't like it, that's something, right?

"Don't we have any fruit roll ups? Um, yeah. I'm just not that into fruit leather, OK?" Yeah, well you're eating it. Funny enough, after a couple of weeks they were all scrabbling over the green apple flavor, so it seems they just might be into fruit leather after all...

"Did you make this pie? Oh, OK. Never mind." So, they're getting smarter. Don't tell Mom who slaved all last summer putting away bushel after bushel after box of freakin' peaches that her pie is runny. Or you might get the ice cream scoop chucked at your head. They learn fast. Or they learned to duck. Whatever.

"My laptop / cell phone / PSP is just chaaarging. OK. I'm just leaving it there until it's done. I swear, I'll be back to unplug it in a sec. Promise." Fast forward to 11:27 p.m. I wearily wander from room to room yanking cords, pulling wires and muttering under my breath like a crazy woman. The dog follows behind me wondering who I am talking to... Maybe I could train him to yank cords when the little green lights go off!

"Why do we have to eat this gross peanut butter? Where's the Jif? Why does this stuff have seeds in it? There are NO seeds in peanut butter!" I did cave a little on this one, going back to basic store brand organic peanut butter, foregoing the locally made PB with flaxseed and such. They win. Secretly, I really don't mind. I don't have to admit that I really didn't like the flaxseed either.

"Ooooh, great. Crunchy towels. I just luuuuv crunchy towels Mom." Said with a grin, of course. Yeah, you're real funny, OK!?!

"Awesome, I don't have to take a shower today? Yes!! That rocks!" Hmmm, I am not sure how this "saving water" plan of mine is really working out. It's beginning to stink... I might have to abandon this one come summer time!

However, I'm making my mark. These boys of mine pick up random plastic bottles they find at the park and bring them home for our recycling bin. They haul water from our basement dehumidifier to water my containers of flowers in the summer. They save empty cartons, their old sports magazines and empty shoe boxes for their little brother's preschool classroom. The chilly winter temps inside our house don't faze them, they wear slippers and sweatshirts like tough guys. They have learned that words like Farmer's Market, food club and local all mean food - and lots of it! And, they eat with gusto.

Yes, it's hard to go green, making that first step is treacherous. It's hard to change, but it's actually easier than you might think. Hey, did you know? You CAN win a baseball game without blue Gatorade. Apparently regular old tap water on ice does the trick just fine.


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