We didn’t have the green thing back then

My brother sent me the provocative little story below.   It’s been zinging around the internet for a while with no writer’s credit.

Overall I find it equal parts cranky and clever–a combination of “good old days” hagiography and the kind of pre-21st century ingenuity that Eric Sloane documented so brilliantly.

I chose 4 of the green things it cites from “back then.” Then I searched for companies & ideas that are providing us with “right now” marketplace solutions:  what you might call retro-tech.

Read on to see what I found.

The Story:  We Didn’t Have the Green Thing Back Then

In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman that plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized to her and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”

That’s right; they didn’t have the green thing in her day.

Back then, they returned their milk bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty, instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water….

Filling Stations

British humor: How not to drink from a fountain

In some public spaces, it’s as hard to find a water fountain (or “bubbler” or “drinking fountain,” depending on your local lexicon) as it is to track down a pay-phone.

Thames Water, Britain’s biggest water utility, has installed water-bottle refilling stations—called HydraChills—at the Hammersmith bus station and at the Tower Bridge museum. The idea is to test out the dispensers on the public. If they are well-used, the city will make them permanent fixtures in transit stations across London before the 2012 Olympics. [From Triple Pundit (“People, Planet, Profit”)]

But they didn’t have the green thing back in her day. 

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks….

Walkabout

Town Center?

  “Walkable Communities are designed around the human foot.  They are the oldest, and until quite recently, the only towns or cities in the world.  Increased walkability contributes to sustained prosperity, resource responsibility, safety, physical fitness and social interaction.”

Economic benefits of a walkable community (partial list):

    • Housing values are higher where it’s walkable
    • Walkable communities attract “new economy” workers
    • Walkable communities are a business relocation alternative
    • Walkable communities reduce commuting costs
    • Walkable communities cost taxpayers less
    • Tourists are attracted to walkable communities

[From Walkable.org]

***
…but she’s right. They didn’t have the green thing in her day.

Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. They washed the baby’s diapers because they didn’t have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts – wind and solar power really did dry the clothes….

The Artful Clothes Line

Wooden clothes pins in Oregon...in January

Levi Strauss & Co. launched the “Care to Air” Design Challenge in June, 2010 to find innovative, covetable and sustainable ways for people to air dry their clothes. Nearly 140 designs from around the world were submitted for the chance to win up to $10,000 in prizes – and change the way people think about line drying.

The winning design, “Nothing Is What It Seems,” combines art and function to create an environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing way to dry clothes. The runner-up is “The Evaporation Station”, which uses a series of nested stainless steel racks, meant for urban dwellers with limited space.

***

…but she’s right; they didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, they had one TV, or radio, in the house – not a TV in every room.  And the TV had a small screen the size of a pizza dish, not a screen the size of the state of Montana . In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn’t have electric machines to do everything for you.

Back then, they exercised by working so they didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. They didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power….

The Reel Push

A cornucopia of British made domestic paraphernalia of 20th century on display at the Greenford Heritage Centre

You may search the internet for “push mowers”, thinking that’s what a human-powered lawnmower is called.  Not so:  the term merely distinguishes walk-behind power mowers from riding mowers.

Turns out “reel lawn mowers” is the term you need.  Here’s the link to Reel Mowers Review.  Many manufacturers (Scott and Sunlawn) and models (“Classic Push” and “Silent Cut”) to choose from, and an excellent Q & A  page with straight-forward advice, i.e., “Reel mowers often get stopped by sticks.”

***

…but she’s right; they didn’t have the green thing back then.

When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used wadded up newspaper to cushion it, not styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, people took the streetcar and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus, instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service….  

A streetcar named Peachtree

Atlanta: “At the vanguard of America’s streetcar renaissance”

ATLANTA, May 19, 2011 /PRNewswire/ — Siemens Industry Inc. today announced that it has been awarded a $17.2 million contract from Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), on behalf of the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, to provide Atlanta with four new streetcars. The first car is expected to be delivered in September 2012 with revenue service beginning in early 2013. These will be the first streetcars in Atlanta since 1949 and will mark Siemens entry into the streetcar market in the United States.

“The Atlanta Streetcar project will keep the City of Atlanta competitive with other cities by improving our transit connectivity, boosting our tourism industry, helping local businesses, and building a more sustainable future,” Mayor Reed said.

But they didn’t have the green thing back then!

  • From the New Urban Dictionary:  Retro Tech (n.) Like steampunk, but better. Victorian-era technology used to make crazy-assed shit.
  • See also: Retrocomputing (n.) Refers to emulations of way-behind-the-state-of-the-art hardware or software, or implementations of never-was-state-of-the-art; especially if such implementations are elaborate practical jokes and/or parodies.
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Fire on the Mountain

I am back from an epic 5-day, fifteen-mile solo hike on the Appalachian Trail.

That is correct: I made about 3 miles a day.  Damned impressive, I know.

I consider this an accomplishment–and here is why:  along the way I looked at everything that interested me.  I stopped to read a chapter in my book whenever I felt like it.  I did  not tear up my feet.  I camped in pockets of beauty well off the beaten path.  I felt at home in the woods.

Where there’s smoke

Five days after my return, a friend asked me if I’d heard about the forest fire on the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut.  Wasn’t that where I’d been hiking?

Photo taken by Joseph Meehan at 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday May 10. The flames were extinguished by early afternoon.

A quick search brought up the Channel 8 news story:  a fire on the mountain north of Salisbury CT burned for two days.  Fire fighters from nine surrounding towns brought it under control.  The blaze was traced to an illegal campfire.

I was filled with dread.  Several days earlier, I’d had a campfire up there.  Time stopped until I was able to get a fix on exactly where the fire had been.

Hikers who know the area had been posting on WhiteBlaze.net.  They were calling it a brush fire.  It scorched 73 acres of forest floor and brush, but it was not hot enough to burn mature trees.

A day later, one hiker put together a map of the burn perimeter.  The fire started at the Ball Brook campsite, more than a mile from where I camped.

How to build a fire

The campfires I make are what hikers call a twig fire–just large enough to boil water for dinner and tea.  You don’t burn wood much thicker than your thumb.  You do not drag over tree limbs.  No cutting is involved.

Not a "twig fire"

But yes, because a campfire is the soul of camping, you feed it sticks til you go to sleep.  It burns to fine ash.

When you break camp the next morning, you drown the fire.  You make the ground a saturated soup.  Then you scoop up the ashes (clean carbon) and scatter them over a wide area.

A hot spot can survive in a buried root, smolder underground and flare up days later.  I know this, and my fear was that I might have somehow been over-confident when I “left no trace” at my campsite below Bear Mountain.

Ninja Vanish

As Boy Scouts we would always “police the campsite.”  It was at Outward Bound in Colorado, as both a student and a sherpa, that I learned the “leave no trace” ethic.

It is a kind of skill game:  you camp in a place where no one has before you, and you leave it as if you had never been there.  You camoflage the ground that you cleared for your tent and sleeping bag.  There is no trace of the fire you made.  You rake back sticks & stones, and sprinkle leaves here and there.  Like an artist composing a landscape painting, you stand back and judge the full effect.  It is as if you were never there.  This is a game my daughter particularly loved on our trips into the White Mountains.

Well-met on the trail

After crossing over into Massachusetts at Sages Ravine, I met up with two hikers, Don Hagstrom and Bill Heath, out for a quick overnight.  They are senior to me by a few years and, in Don’s case, a few thousand miles hiked.  He’s active with the Green Mountain Club, leads hikes in all seasons, and logs 600+ miles a year.

The Appalachian Trail at Race Mountain

It was an easy decision to camp with them that night at the designated Laurel Ridge site: tent platforms, a moldering privy and a steel “bear box” to protect our food overnight.  I boiled my cook water on Bill’s primus stove, and after dinner we walked over to Bear Rock Falls to watch the evening shadows swallow the Housatonic Valley (“Better than TV” says Don).

We spotted a huge porcupine (nature’s fat man) as it waddled unhurriedly away from us.  The silver-slipper of moon was setting, and a pair of owls put on a noisy mating display on the ridge above us.  A fantabulous night for a moondance.  We talked for a while sitting on our tent platforms.  There is a fire ring in front of us, but the rules are posted: No open fires, and we abide.  It is early May, and several groups have already signed the campsite logbook.  At this rate, the surrounding woods would soon be stripped and abused of every burnable branch.

And yet, the existential question:  What is camping without a campfire?

Un-doing

Of the thirteen states through which the Appalachian Trail passes, Connecticut is the only one that does not allow open fires anywhere.  Adam Brown of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy told me that it was a condition set by the property owners who sold or granted easements to their land.  Nonetheless, during my five-day trek, I came upon several old campsites.  Un-doing them is always part of my mission:  I dismantle the circle of blackened rocks, disperse charcoal and blackened tree limbs, pack out trash.  Cans, tin foil and plastic bottles mostly.  Who wants to see any of that after a day’s hike?

Leave no trace

Through the years the number of hikers has grown with the population.  A good thing; but the impact along popular trails can be extensive, and so the kind of rules that prevail at picnic grounds reach further and further into the woods.  It is of course the classic tension between freedom and responsibility.  It is human nature.

In 1994, Leave No Trace was founded in Boulder, CO.  The organization fosters outdoor ethics and environmental stewardship through a remarkable outreach & awareness program.

But of all the transgressions we might commit in the wild, none is more destructive than causing a forest fire (even given the ecological benefits of natural fires).  Every tree stores about half its weight in carbon, and protecting forests and replanting trees is probably the most effective strategy of all for reducing green house gases in the atmosphere.

And yet…and yet…the experience of sitting around a campfire is primal and soul-restoring.  It is our connection to deep time, the instant of creation and s’mores.  There must always be a place for it.

And isn’t it even more important now that the electronic fire in our hand is so seductive?

***

The “Salisbury fire” photo by Joseph Meehan is used with permission.  Visit his website to see his astonishing portfolio.

A fascinating article about the anthropology of campfires is in this issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

The fire did not reach the top of Bear Mountain–which is a good thing because it, and other peaks along the Appalachian Trail in this area, are home to Dwarf Pitch Pines averaging a hundred years old, and some more than 200 years old.   This paper by Harvard forest ecologists states: “We consider the complex of dwarf communities on the summits of the southern Taconics to be exemplary and worthy of the most stringent of conservation measures.”

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Bees by the Truckload

Wenceslas Hollar (17th c.)

“When you’re ready, I have a honey bee story that should blow you away.”

That was Don Fowler writing to me in January. He’s a forestry consultant who lives in British Columbia and travels frequently. Mostly on the trail of pine bark beetles in the Rocky Mountains—as he says, “Possibly the largest insect infestation in recorded history.”

Now Don is adding honey bees to his portfolio.

He was getting ready to leave for Bakersfield, California to hang out with the bee keepers. “A million and a half beehives will be arriving in the almond groves there in the next couple of weeks.”

At the time, I couldn’t quite imagine what he was talking about. Semis loaded with bees from Nebraska, Texas, Florida? Trucked to the Central Valley to pollinate almond trees? Doesn’t California have its own bees?

The answer is:  not nearly enough. Not in a monoculture like this–tens of thousands of acres planted with row after row after row of just one thing. No other plants allowed. Bees can’t live there year-round. And as Don says: No bees…no almonds.

The solution? Truck in massive numbers of migrant worker bees. By mid-February, when the almond trees are brilliant with blossoms, the bees have five weeks to get the job done.

Something in the way she moves

Earlier this month, I’m at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale, and there on a big screen is exactly what Don was telling me about. Endless acres of almond trees and truckloads of migrant bees.

The Queen?

The movie is Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?  

The opening is captivating. A lithe woman moves slowly with her arms stretched to the sky. Her hair is braided to form a crown. Her upper body appears to be naked—except for a skin of honey bees. The bees are a living garment—covering her breasts and body perfectly.

The film draws you in like CSI: In 2006, beekeepers around the world began reporting a strange and troubling phenomenon — the population of their hives was shrinking dramatically, with the insects disappearing for reasons unknown to their minders, and in time close to a third of the world’s honeybee population had seemingly vanished.

Biologists and agriculturalists call it CCD—Colony Collapse Disorder—and the causes continue to elude researchers. The great fear is that honey bees are the canary in the coal mine. To treat bees as a commodity is to call down an ancient curse upon our heads.

Modify the monoculture

Don’s company [Contech] does innovative green tech R&D. He went to Bakersfield to test a new product in the almond orchards of a family owned empire—Paramount Farms. (Their website splash page features an iconic image of monoculture).  Almonds are a $2 billion-plus-a year industry in the U.S.–and it is almost entirely dependent on honey bees.  A very risky position to be in, so Paramount is investing in sustainable alternatives.

In February, Don and his team put their new product—called SuperBoost—into 4,600 migrant honey bee hives.  The name has obvious marketing punch–but it also refers to what beekeepers call the top part of a hive: the “super.”

He sends me a scientific paper that summarizes the way it works: In nature, honey bee larvae produce a pheromone which tells worker bees “we’re here, and we’re hungry.” SuperBoost… precisely reproduces the composition of the natural honey bee brood pheromone. In turn, the workers forage with increased intensity for pollen and nectar.   Nutrition of the larvae and the queen improves, the queen lays more eggs, and colony vigor is enhanced.

As Don says, in a time when CCD world wide is a huge problem, this has vast potential.

Apiarists after dark: a contest to see how many old (& empty) bee 'supers' they can stack and burn. New record: 23

“Honey bees love almond blossoms. If they arrive here in good shape they’ll  “spring build up” (population) fast. So much so, some of the keepers will  split their hives in the almond fields after bloom.  Then it’s off to the next stop on the HB highway. It’s a tough life. One of the bee keepers says they work them to death. There probably is some truth to that. Possibly contributing to CCD.”

What, then, is a sustainable solution?  Take out every tenth row or so of almond trees, and plant foliage that will support native bees year-round.  Modify the monoculture.

What are the bees telling us?

At the environmental film festival at Yale, Taggart Siegel–the director of Queen of the Sun–was on hand for a post-screening discussion. He defended his film’s combination of  mysticism and science.  He said he wants to show the film in Bakersfield–where everyone has a stake in the future of honey bees. [Find out where the film is playing here.]

It played at the Roxy Theatre on Gabriola Island on Earth Day eve–a ferry ride from Vancouver Island–which experienced devastating honey bee losses of 90% in 2009.

Don hasn’t seen the film yet, but he makes an observation that could well be in it:  The bee keepers that really manage their hives well…have less losses. Those that do this for the money and expect more with less…don’t do very well. I am beginning to understand that good bee keeping is an art.

Honey bees and Humans are equally complex.

The San Joaquin Valley, California

***

  • Photos courtesy Don Fowler (except Queen of the Sun & San Joaquin)
  • A new article in Science News delves into the search for “back-up bees” and other alternative pollinators.
  • Article from England: “Bees Facing Poisonous Spring”
  • See photographer Eric Tourneret’s website The Bee Photographer for a fascinating slide show of migrant bee truckers.
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First Frost/Last Frost

Croci Waiting for Their Time in the Sun

On April 1st it snowed in Connecticut. Some got the joke, some didn’t. If I had a dollar for every complaint I’ve heard about our unpredictable, unreliable, unbearable spring weather…uh, I might be able to buy a tank of gas.

We had some serious snowfall in New England this winter, so I am not unsympathetic. But no one who lives here should be surprised.

That’s weather, not climate.  However…this might be a surprise:

Dying Soldiers 3/30/11 6:37am

In the United States, spring now arrives an average of ten days to two weeks earlier than it did twenty years ago. Many migratory bird species are arriving earlier…. Snow cover is melting earlier. Plants are blooming almost two weeks earlier in spring.
The Weather of the Future by Heidi Cullen

That’s climate, not weather.

Circa 1986

Last fall, I found an isotherm map printed in a 1986 “Backyard Gardener Calendar.” I became curious about the dates of the first frost/last frost. Have planting zones migrated? Is spring coming earlier?

Pick Stamford. Twenty-five years ago the map pegged the last frost for April 15, and the first frost for October 25–about 28 weeks between them. Frost is defined as temps below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, “destructive to most vegetation.” But the probability is not given: are those dates 10%, 50% or 90% likely?

I contacted the CT State Climate Center at UConn to ask about comparable figures for this year. Would they show a two-week difference since 1986?

A climate scientist named Zhao Xue, very helpful on the phone, emailed me a raft of information, including a NOAA link for isotherm maps with data from 1951 to 1980.

Place your bet here

The comparison with 25 years ago hinges entirely on probability.

Zhao sent me a NOAA link with freeze/frost dates for this year (U.S. Climate Normals). The “freeze free period” this year is highly likely (90% probability) to be longer than 25 weeks.  And it is highly unlikely (10% probability) to be as long as 30 weeks.

Do my 1986 “Backyard Gardener” dates fall within that range?  Yes they do–smack dab in the middle–50% probability.

Which is why the term “exact science” is a misnomer.  Science always deals in probabilities and ranges, and is always subject to later revision.

Indeed, Zhao emphasized: “I believe the dates are based on probability calculation (from previous experience)–not on real observation.”

Whose frost first?

For some real observation, I called Ted Mankovich:  computer scientist, horticulturist, photographer and mainstay of the Guilford Land Conservation Trust. Ted created a program that’s been recording the temperatures at his house every 10 minutes for the last 5 years. Who else does that?

Snow Tulips to Be 3/24/11 7:08am

But translating temperatures into frosts is not as simple as it sounds. We exchanged ideas, and Ted followed up with a blog post titled ‘Frost & Textures.’ Very entertaining—you can read it and see his great pictures here—but I will skip ahead to his conclusion:

We started with a question of whether I recorded the day of the first and last frost. We end with two new questions. What is your definition of first and last frost? How can you go from temperature readings to determining first and last frost? And we haven’t mentioned that frost is very territorial. My first frost isn’t your first frost even if we agree on what that is.

Groundhog Day in January!

On April 1st I also received this email:

The Union of Concerned Scientists and the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania announced today that Groundhog Day will be pushed forward eight days to January 25 in 2012 in recognition of the impact climate change has had in the region.

The change is based on analysis by UCS scientists who found that, since 1997, spring has come an average of eight days earlier to western Pennsylvania.

But when I clicked through….
You just fell for an April Fool’s Day joke from the Union of Concerned Scientists! We hope you got a good chuckle out of it. But while these jokes may be funny, some people are trying to fool the public about climate change science every day of the year…

The UCS (of which I’ve been a member for some years) didn’t say whether they’ve actually documented a change in the arrival of spring in Western Pennsylvania.

I’ll give the last word to Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research: “It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.”

Frosty Phragmites et al 12/17/10 9:12am

Note: All photos and captions (‘cept Punxsutawney) in this post are taken from Ted Mankovich’s excellent blog Olmsted Irregulars, and used with his permission. They were taken at Olmsted Outlook: a special one-half acre parcel located on the West River that was given to the Guilford Land Conservation Trust in 1981 by Howard and Deborah Weaver. The park and other GLCT lands are cared for by the Olmsted Irregulars with Ted’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable leadership.

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Deep Ecology on a high ridge

David Sengel and I were college roommates and I can attest to his talent for making art out of almost anything. Now his extraordinary work is in museum collections from the Smithsonian to Honolulu.

35 years ago David moved up to the North Carolina Blue Ridge, first Blowing Rock and then Boone.  He perfected his craft as a woodturner, using woods on his land:  black walnut, laurel root, hazelnut husks, box elder and most unusually, honey locust thorns.

David has the sensibility of an artist living on a high ridge with wild weather; no mild valley for him.  After a while I started seeing his name on lists of contemporary “masters.”  He also learned to play banjo–and married his banjo teacher.

"Chamber of Woo"

The artist’s statement published by the del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles, which represents David, says:  “Having become a part time farmer these past few years, I have come back to a point of valuing the more functional aspects of beauty, be it with vegetables or art.”

We’ve never been long out of touch.   On Saturday, David sent me this message:

Last week was hard at Fog Likely Farm.  Lily Dog was lethargic and not eating for a couple of days so I took her to the vet.  She was anemic, which is often a sign of something more serious.  She just faded away peacefully a couple of nights later. That was the first time I had chosen to stick with an animal to the end instead of letting the vet do it, and though emotionally wrenching, it was the right choice.  I would covet that easy a death for anyone.

So we are left with a solo rock chasing dog.  Bela, the sister, seems in good health for her age, almost 15.  It is yet to be determined how she will fare without her running mate and alpha  sister.

"Hummingbird Box"

Our friend Mathew had just about finished fencing in a couple of acres and building a stall onto our barn so he could bring his horse and hinny up here.  His father sold an airplane he had, bought a 35 acre farm in North Georgia, and now Mathew is headed back south.  What shall we get?  Pony?  Goats?  Leaning towards giraffes myself.

David and his wife Susie Winters grow stuff year-round and are mainstays of the farmer’s market in Boone.  Last year, he built a substantial greenhouse.

February was 3 degrees milder than normal, but the next two months are always a roller coaster here.  So many frogs croaking in the ponds today it sounds like a gaggle of geese.  I am still impressed that they see you walking from as much as 40 feet away and shut up.

David also serves on the Watauga County Farmers’ Market Board.  At issue last week:  the membership eligibility of a local non-profit.  David was fighting for their inclusion.

Putting on the gloves to go to yet another farmers market board meeting.  Didn’t get much sleep last night after dueling emails all afternoon.  Hopefully some resolution today but a sneaky Louisiana lawyer is an exhausting fight.

Author: John Ruskin (1875)

Ethics of the Dust is the title of an interesting little book I found in the house on Carvin’s Cove Road years ago.  I think I still have it.  I took the gloves off at the board meeting Friday and ground the opposition into dust.  Had to use Roberts Rules to get my topic on the agenda after the pres said it wouldn’t be.  He doesn’t lose gracefully, but no blood was shed.

The aftershocks no doubt will be interesting however.  I did actually sleep well that night.  Small victories sometimes have you looking for larger ones?

***

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A river runs through it: the Bronx

 

The River at Woodlawn, stereoscopic by Robert N. Dennis, circa 1900

Last Thursday night, I went with my good friend Hank Stroobants to Hunt’s Point, South Bronx for the Winter Assembly of the Bronx River Alliance.

I should say the Mighty Bronx River Alliance. These are the people who continue the work begun nearly 40 years ago to reclaim the river that flows through–and connects–their neighborhoods.

The Duncomb Arched Bridges

“Who’s in the room?” asked David Shuffler, Executive Director of Youth Ministries of Peace and Justice.  Shout outs came from Soundview, West Farms, East Tremont and Belmont, Van Nest, Bronxdale, Williams Bridge and Wakefield.

“We know, we know…water is life,” he said.

David was one of the guys who, not so long ago, identified the location of sunk cars so the National Guard could pull them out.  One by one, other activists stepped up to tell another piece of the story.

Concrete Plant Park: silos and mixing bins as sculpture

NYC Parks workers and volunteers also pulled out a few tires (18,500 more or less) and trash (say, 30 tons).  They planted Spartina grass to stabilize the riverbanks near the Sound.  And re-imagined the blighted concrete plant as a sculpture park.

You know the drill:  countless hours of community meetings, public hearings and strategy sessions.  Patience and persistence, over and over.

Now, canoers are a common sight spring through autumn.  Egrets are back; alewife herring were reintroduced in 2006.  And in 2007, the first wild beaver in 200 years made a home near the East Tremont Bridge; now there are a pair.

Mildred Torres with an alewife

As the NY Daily News says: the Bronx River has been transformed from a grimy waterway to the jewel of the Bronx.

The Alliance’s Winter Assembly was held at The Point, the Community Development organization in Hunt’s Point.  It was a celebration.  Their kitchen put out two kinds of  chili.  A bunch of their teenagers showed up–kids on the team that patrols the river year-round to monitor conditions.  These kids are involved–they have nature in their lives.

I grew up in Eastchester, a half-mile from the Bronx River, maybe 10 miles upstream from Hunt’s Point.  A world apart, sure, but same river, same bloodline.

My friends and I spent countless hours there.  We wanted to swim, but the river was too shallow and smelled bad.  We wanted to fish, and did:  I was thrilled/horrified when I caught a monstrous bottom-feeder called a sucker.  We fantasized the river as our Mississippi.

Through the years I followed the improvements in the river from a distance.  But it was Hank Stroobants who brought me back.  He’s a local historian, community activist, and a great bringer-together-of-people.  He grew up at 233rd Street but lives in Yonkers now.  Through him, I adopted a small rectangle of orphaned land where Pondfield Road crosses the Bronx River in Bronxville.  Made it a place of hosta, day lily and fern instead of weeds and litter.

This is what I’ve come to learn:  preserve the waterways at all costs.  A tree grows in Brooklyn, but a river flows through the Bronx.

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Tracking “Fracking”

As an undergrad at UW-Madison, my degree program was in Natural Resources Analysis.  I loaded up my schedule with geology classes–my new-found passion.  The most demanding by far was Economic Geology, taught by Eugene Cameron, distinguished professor and co-author of the reigning text book in the field.

Though I won’t brag about my grade (a C+, as I recall)–the course was an eye-opener and continues to inform my perspective on any issue relating to the world beneath our feet–particularly the way water, gas and minerals move through rock.

And so the controversy over hydraulic fracturing–aka fracking–caught my attention early on.

The Marcellus Shale is about a mile deep for most of its extent.

The Marcellus Shale formation cuts a wide swath in the Appalachian basin.  Geologists knew it was gas-bearing, but it wasn’t until early 2008 that a new estimate of the natural gas trapped in the pores of the shale changed the game–the Marcellus Shale is now described as a “super giant” gas field.

Ah, but how to get at it?  Enter hydraulic fracturing:  the extraction process that makes the gas field economically viable to industry–and promises a pay-off to rural landowners.  Battle lines have been drawn between energy independence and economic development in the Great Recession on one side, and the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect public water resources on the other.  ProPublica has been doing great work on all aspects of this issue.

A few days ago I scripted a video about fracking that is now posted on the start-up news website Track180.com.  You can watch the video here.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is now reporting that 32.2 million gallons of diesel fuel or fluids containing diesel fuel were used in fracking operations in 19 states between 2005 and 2009.  The probe did not find evidence of the diesel fuel getting into water supplies, but understandably, some are wondering what diesel fuel in your coffee would taste like.

Submitted for your consideration…

One last note:  during a late-night drive last Summer, I heard an interview with the director of Gasland, the documentary that came out of Sundance and was picked up by  HBO.  The film went on to get an Academy Award nomination this year.

Today, an article in the LA Times reports on an interesting twist:  A group representing oil and natural gas producers, has sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences arguing that “Gasland” should be ineligible for best documentary feature because it contains inaccuracies. While other industries have launched public relations campaigns to discredit documentaries — health insurers targeted Michael Moore‘s “Sicko” in 2007, for instance — this is the first time an industry group has appealed directly to the academy.

Read the article to learn more about the nature of the “inaccuracies.”

Wendell Potter, author of a book called “Deadly Spin” about corporate PR says:  “This kind of action might actually result in more members of the academy voting for it. They’ve given the film another lease on life.”

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Night of the Invasive Plants!

A freshwater aquatic and terrestrial food-web.

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s the trick:  How to coax kids into learning about the web of natural systems–the “hierarchy of complex pattern and process” (as ecology is defined).

Ken Lonnquist has been practicing that sleight-of-hand for years.  He’s a songwriter, and friend, whose creative attack [read: wicked fun sense of humor] is as smart and subversive as can be.  The kind of guy whose mind gushes reams of witty lyrics, seemingly without strain.

Take the subject of invasive plant species.  Ken’s take was to make it into a horror movie soundtrack–complete with creepy theremin sounds.

Ken is widely-known for his environmental residencies in schools, which center around his talent for creating stories and songs with the kids–and so the outcome of every workshop is a slew of new songs.  This was one.

Last week I get an email from Ken–with a youtube video embedded–and this msg:  Here’s a video made by the Invasive Plant Council of British Columbia, using artwork by kids submitted for an awareness-raising contest.  The guy called me up and asked if they could use the song, and… it turned out pretty cool!

How and where did the kids in BC hear Ken’s song?

A group called “IPAW” (Invasive Plants Association of Wisconsin) posted it on their  website (with permission, thanks!) and the other fellow saw it there. The web… is amazing that way, no?

Yes.  Go see the “Night of the Invasive Plants” video!

***

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21st Century Jobs

Here are two excerpts from the January 1st  Washington Post piece by Steven Mufson, titled “Coal’s Burnout”:

The headline news for the coal industry in 2010 was what didn’t happen: Construction did not begin on a single new coal-fired power plant in the United States for the second straight year.

“Coal is a dead man walkin’,” says Kevin Parker, global head of asset management and a member of the executive committee at Deutsche Bank. “Banks won’t finance them. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them. . . . And the economics to make it clean don’t work.”

But now, let’s track this story back about 2 years….

At the start of 2009, Todd Woody, the Green Wombat blogger for Fortune Magazine, wrote that wind jobs had outstripped the coal industry.  He based it on the American Wind Energy Association’s report that wind jobs had increased to 85,000 in 2008—a 70% jump.

According to the Department of Energy, coal jobs came in at about 81,000.

To many, this simple observation seemed to be a historic turning point.  The story took off.

But the assertion turned out to be bogus—that’s the word Eoin O’Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor’s BrightGreen blogger used. The comparison was apples to oranges.

The coal number was miners only, while the wind jobs included everyone directly and indirectly employed, from manufacturing and installation to legal and marketing consultants.

Done right, the comparison should have been about 85,000 wind jobs to 174,000 coal jobs.

Big difference.

But take a step back and a more interesting picture emerges.

Coal jobs have been declining for decades due to technological developments and rising labor costs.  Wind energy’s growth curve has been bumpy, to say the least–but growing.  In 2008, new wind generating capacity in the U.S. equaled the output of fourteen good-sized coal-fired plants.  People started talking about the American West as the Saudi Arabia of Wind Energy.

But the big jump in 2008 was followed by no-growth in 2009. (2010 figures won’t be available until April 2011.)

So I decided to ask one simple question: what if you add wind and solar jobs together?  How does the renewable energy industry, more broadly defined, compare to the coal production?

The Solar Foundation’s most recent jobs report says there were 93,500 solar workers in the U.S. as of mid-year 2010.

Add that to the 85,000 wind sector jobs and you get a total of 178,500 renewable energy jobs. Which edges out coal—and we haven’t even considered the new generation of nuclear energy, or the nascent tidal power industry.

Lest we forget: Upper Big Branch mine disaster, April 2010

Coal will be with us for a while, and a post at Coalblog.org from the American Coal Council, assures us that the coal industry is not opposed to the development of renewable energy.  After all, wind turbines all over the world are made with steel from coal-fired plants.

But consider this: the average age of coal plant workers in the U.S. is reported to be 48. The average age of coal miners in West Virginia is 55.

If you (or your children) had any kind of choice at all, which industry would you choose?

***

See the job description for Coal Miner at the State University careers site, including the comments that follow it.  http://careers.stateuniversity.com/pages/16/Miner-Coal.html

 

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The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (via emergent by design)

In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac wrote about walking through a neighborhood late at night, seeing the blue TV screens through windows; he reflects on the treadmill mantra: “work…produce…consume.”

Economic news is always delivered to us in terms of growth; as the only way forward.

It is exciting to see the concepts of Collaborative Consumption expanding with new impetus and creativity (historically, always revived in times of economic depression).

Here is a recent post from Venessa Miemis’ Emergent by Design blog:

The Rise of Collaborative Consumption A few weeks ago, I got a copy of Rachel Botsman’s new book, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. The general theme of the book is that we’re shifting away from a society of hyper-consumption and equating personal self-worth with amount of material good accumulated, and instead to a world where our ability to access and exchange resources, develop a reputation, and build community and social capital takes precedence in how … Read More

via emergent by design

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