A Walk in the Woods and a Poem

IMG_1211When I walk with my daughter Maya in the woods, I’m often torn between two competing impulses. The urge to discover together and to explain — to point out the wonders of a worm or seed or changing leaf — does battle with the need for silence, for soaking it all in.

Letting Maya lead the way is a solution of sorts — she darts about, looking and poking, asking questions or not. Unlike the Waldorf teacher I spoke with this week, I don’t think facts about nature are a burden to the mind, and try to answer her — or look up new information — as I can. She is a budding naturalist, at any rate, always wondering what different animals eat, where seeds live in the dirt, and which sprouts in the lawn are the onion grass she knows she can munch on.

Amidst the lessons, though, there is still the mysterious mystery, as she put it the other day. There is a quiet place where information is not the point. And ensuring that children get into the woods in an unmediated way — and have a direct confrontation with Life (and our relevance or irrelevance to its systems) — is essential.

Years back, I wrote a poetic response to Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem, Wild Geese, that hits upon these themes, and I thought of it again recently as the spring weather has brought us more time playing outdoors.

The argument from design

begins with meticulous veins in this mulberry leaf
and ends with God.  But I say it’s a long way from
lichen to leaf to omniscience, and in that journey one must account

for sea creatures that reproduce without sex, whatever sense that makes,
and for mass extinctions, the great blow-ups and die-offs,
and where does silliness come from in this telling?

It’s so serious to look at an oak and find the how
and why we’re here that I can’t bear to live in such a place,
under a heavy hand signing itself by virtue of its own complexity

mistaking a system which lives and dies with reasons
for living and dying — origins, organs knit together,
entangled like only tautologies are. Too easy lessons stolen

from the absent quiet of the woods, or unwitting peace
of geese and wind above a pond. I fail
to see how it explains the central flaw of us, our

pained self-consciousness.
A garden without us is no feat at all, yet there’s
no hint of plans for us inside

that vague, enormous mind. Instead, the delicate
web, reliant on knowing all reasons.
And why make something so delightful just to hand it,

thoughtlessly, to children,
with our violence, our near-total lack of knowing,
our terrible need to know.

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One-Day Drab-to-Fab Bathroom Makeover with Chalk Paint

IMG_2305Our basement bathroom was until recently a rather drab affair.

Since it’s not an area we often use, though, I really didn’t want to spend any significant amount of money to make it more cheerful. Instead, I was on the hunt for more modest upgrades: When a friend, awhile back, was looking to sell a sleek new sink fixture set she chose not to use in her own renovation, I replaced the rusty drain plug and awful plastic knobs.

But I was stymied for a long time by the cheap finish on the fake-oak vanity and built-in medicine cabinet, which was not even a wood-like veneer but was, on the sides anyway, a wood-image sticker. The deadly dull, cheap light fixture also did nothing to improve the room.

IMG_1644IMG_1643(Sorry for the cloudy pictures. It’s not an attempt to make it look worse, I swear! My camera got jammed and needed repairs, so these were done with my phone. Anyway, you get the gist: fugly and totally uninteresting.)

Then I discovered chalk paint. Because it sticks to most surfaces, is low-emissions and relatively green, and can be sealed for repeated use with wax, it can be used to create a fresh look for little cost.

And obviously, this is far less hassle, dust and expense than replacing the vanity, cabinet and light. Most vanities and cabinets are press-board and composite woods anyway, which off-gas glues and just generally annoy me. And repainting saves our current stuff from becoming trash.

I chose a green-blue tone for the vanity and light, Florence, from Annie Sloan because its intensity was a nice pairing with the navy tiles in the standing shower, but was still bright enough to create interest and pop. For the medicine cabinet, I used a bright white, called Pure. Because the fixtures couldn’t be easily fixed if I made a mistake, I also enlisted some help from a friend, also named Laura, who knows what she is doing and has done a ton of work refinishing pieces with chalk paint.

In terms of equipment, I used:

We started by washing all the dust off the vanity, light and cabinet. After that dried, we removed the handles from the door and other fixtures and began painting.

Laura showed me how to thin the paint with water by dipping it in a cup of a water prior to dipping it in the paint. A small amount goes a long way.

IMG_1647We did three coats on both the vanity and cabinet. When it was dry (which took only 20 minutes or so), we used a fine-grade sandpaper block in between coats to smooth the paint out further.

Multiple coats make a real difference, and, as Laura told me, thin layers sit better than laying it on thick. Laura had a much more meticulous eye than I do for uneven areas that required more sanding as well as spots missing paint.

IMG_1652 IMG_1656IMG_1658The light fixture was tricky, because the paint didn’t go on in layers easily. The chrome kept popping through, and all of the corners and edges required a careful touch-up.

But after a few layers dried, and with lots of angling of the brush, the paint eventually held on. I originally had in mind to distress it a bit to see the silver. We tried that, then decided it looked better with the color uniform.

IMG_1659IMG_1663 IMG_1660After we were happy with the colors and when the paint had dried, we moved to the wax stage. Using a dry round brush designed for wax application, we added a fairly thin coat of clear wax to the entire surface of the vanity, cabinet and light. We let it sit for just a few minutes, and then buffed it using a large round brush as a drill attachment. (For the sides that were closest to the wall and unreachable with the drill, we didn’t bother buffing the wax.)

IMG_1662 Last, we cured the wax for a few days by cutting several large garbage bags along the seam and taping them along the edges of the sink to protect it from water.

I was very pleased about the result. And with the cost. Because I had help from Laura, who brought along her drill brush attachment, the cost for the new-but-used sink fixtures, paint, some tape and my brushes kept the whole project under $100. Which helped to pay for the new camera!

IMG_2301IMG_2306

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DIY Furniture Re-Do: Breathing New Life into Furniture with Chalk Paint

IMG_2294One of my beefs with cheaper types of new furniture is that it’s more or less designed to end up pretty quickly in a landfill. Some of the press-board stuff that you have to assemble can’t even be moved once!

Other pieces, even from higher-end stores, have press-board backs as well as drawer bottoms and sides. Under current law, sadly, companies can call things “solid wood” even when they are made of medium density fibreboard (MDF), particle board or other types of composite materials, yet this stuff is basically chemicals and pressed sawdust, and off-gasses formaldehyde, glues and other nastiness.

Enter chalk paint. With a can of this low-VOC paint and a little wax, even the most dinged-up old wooden pieces can get a new lease on life. The paint is self-priming, so there’s no need to strip the finish from furniture beforehand. It could also be used to seal exposed parts of pieces that have dubious materials inside, to prevent more off-gassing.

Needless to say, this is a huge problem solver for me. Although I have a soft spot for some mid-century design, pieces that are in great condition are expensive. Furniture strippers and refinishing materials are aromatic solvents and are generally toxic, so I don’t really want to mess with them. And nothing’s more green, potentially funkier, or easier on the wallet than upcycling lovely old real wood furniture.

There are a couple of high-end brands of chalk paint, like Annie Sloan and CeCe Caldwell, and there are also recipes online to make your own with a variety of additions to any paint. If you decide to make your own and use the Plaster of Paris method, be sure to follow all safety precautions and do not inhale it. Also, it may help to ensure the base paint is a truly zero-VOC paint like Mythic. One furniture redo diva I spoke with uses baking soda in regular paint as in this how-to, and claims it works like a charm, though others think it’s best for distressed finishes.

I originally played around with some Annie Sloan paint and wax, because I found a local “stockist” for it. It isn’t cheap, though, and the colors are limited (though gorgeous). In addition, the wax comes with a troubling warning under Prop 65, California’s labeling law for hazardous substances, and has a bit of an odor at first. I turned on a fan, opened the window, and wouldn’t let the two-year-old near the final project until the wax was cured.

Since my experiments below, I’ve found a company selling their own DIY chalk paint powder that claims to have a greener wax, Fiddes & Sons. I’m not thrilled with their vagueness about their ingredients, but I’m inclined to give it a go. They also have some helpful supplies, like a wax brush attachment to use on a drill that finishes larger projects in no time. I haven’t yet tried their stuff, so I’ll keep you posted.

Since I discovered the magically transformative properties of chalk paint, I’ve purchased two painted pieces made by local furniture folks (one found on my favorite new mid-century furniture site, Krrrb, and another from Craigslist). The pictures are here to give you an idea of the “looks” that are possible with painted pieces.

Here’s a romantically shabby chic drop-leaf desk that fit perfectly in a small corner of the bedroom:

IMG_2296And a groovy re-do of a mid-century dresser in which the new white paint covers over numerous scratches flawlessly and makes the piece pop, from Salvage Modern, a mom-owned local business whose owners are just lovely:

IMG_2287 IMG_2289I also used chalk paint to add a more fun and decorative element to the elephant insets on my nightstand (matching it to the drop desk). The insets were dull, and no one could see the elephants on the piece as they were too dark. I decided it would be funky to add a bit of relaxed color. The new friend who sold me the desk was kind enough to donate a small amount of the chalk paint she used, and some wax, for the project.

First, I taped up the back area. Then I added two coats of paint and a very light coat of wax, just using a paper towel. Next, I buffed the wax for a good little while with an old cloth diaper, and last, I distressed it lightly with fine sandpaper.

Another easy project was to use chalk paint to jazz up a small, cheap thrift store purchase of a bookshelf for the playroom. For this, I involved my trusty assistant, and we yukked it up while making potato stamps in a star and heart shape, and dipping them into contrasting white paint after painting a few base coats in Annie Sloan‘s Florence paint.

The end result was cute and gives me a little storage for art supplies.

The upshot? Chalk paint provides a fun and easy way to upgrade your existing or used furniture, saving it from an untimely trip to the landfill and making it your own.

As I’ll explain in my next post, I also recently used chalk paint to add a pop of color to a basement bathroom by refinishing and updating a hideous faux-wood bathroom vanity and light fixtures, saving tons of money and giving the whole room a much fresher look. I can’t wait to show this to you, as I’m so happy with the “renovation.” More coming soon!

While you’re waiting, here are a few other posts you may like:

One Actual Use for Children’s Artwork

Parenting as infographic, #5.

My daughter churns out artwork like she’s competing in a toddler Olympics event called Synchronized Scribbling. I chuck the stuff to which she’s most attached into a large portfolio for future historians to study.

In order to make at least some of the output Someone Else’s Problem, I’ve also hatched the idea of using it for giftwrap for birthdays, which we seem to attend at least twice a month. I sometimes have to use industrial tape, but it works, generally speaking. We cut a card to match, which she “signs.”

If all goes well (i.e., so long as I’ve chosen art she is ready to, er, re-gift) it also seems to add to her pride in gift-giving. With this, I’m basically set for life on gift-wrap, which is just fine with me, as giftwrap is about as single-use and pointless as it gets.

Slide1Please forward through the interwebs as you like — maybe we can even start a movement. Moms for upcycled child artwork, or something.

If you are determined to do something more elegant but still eco-friendly, you might consider using furoshiki, or Japanese wrapping cloth, which gift receivers can always reuse. And here’s anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry’s post on wrapping gifts without plastic or glue.

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Crafting and Upcycling Ideas for Greener, More Sustainable Living:

Is Gardening Actually Green? Some Considerations for the Aspiring Gardener

IMG_0396Far too late this spring for efficient planning, I got bitten by a gardening bug. You know the kind: a large beetle-like apparition that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear about hydrangeas until you find yourself wandering, dazed, through what seems like acres of plant nurseries, credit card in hand.

Or perhaps that sort of thing just happens to me. At any rate, given my lack of actual information about growing things, after spending a penny or two on some fancy and not-so-fancy plants, I panicked and decided I’d better bone up on how not to kill them right away.

I’ll be first to admit I’m an inconsistent, mostly aspirational, green-to-black thumber. Indeed, it should be stipulated that I spent much of my wayward adolescence brattily refusing to assist my parents as they toiled about our yard. I was too busy watching reruns of Three’s Company reading War and Peace. So I’ll forgive their incredulity now as I plumb the soil, or gad about with my trowel like a dowsing rod that could point the way to my misspent youth.

As a semi-grown-up, I first got interested in gardening during the all-too-brief period in which I lived — believe it — in Manhattan. We paid literally one million dollars per month for 600 square feet on the Upper West Side, at garden level, and had our own tiny patch of ground. It was such a luxury to have a patio “area” that I wanted to try at least to make it nicer than the patch of scrubby dirt that greeted us with appropriate NYC diffidence.

But I knew nothing, and knew I knew nothing. My folks — ever willing to assist in my flights of fancy on the cheap, bless’em — actually drove up from Virginia with patches of sod and spare hostas and other plants liberated from their own yard. And friends came by to help us dig and install (thanks, Steve!). A few days of work, and this:

Eventually became this:

IMG_0516
IMG_0533IMG_0517It was bliss. And then, sadly, we moved. And then, happily, had a baby. Two years after being installed in a house with a postage stamp yard in Takoma Park, I had barely lifted a three-pronged diggy thing. Sometime this past April, I looked around in despair and decided change had to come, and that change was me.

But since my last short-lived pass at gardening, I had a green awakening and started this blog. So I resolved to look into what I was doing to the yard and why, rather than just purchasing some pretty flowers and plopping them in as before.

Here’s the upshot (get ready to be shocked, I tell you, shocked…): while it’s possible to do gardening with environmental concerns in mind, it’s not always as easy as it should be.

There’s actually a ton of greenwashing in gardening. As I discovered, the garden sections of stores are filled with poorly labeled plants  — most do not say whether they are native or not (hint: most are not) — while the shelves are filled with (Monsanto‘s) chemical solutions to common gardening problems, lead- and PVC-laden garden hoses, “organic” potting soil that uses both chicken parts from who-knows-where and peat moss from our rapidly depleting carbon-sink bogs, and plastic, lots of plastic.

Although I’m a newbie gardener, below I offer some resources as I’ve discovered them to date. I also hope for your assistance as people who actually Know Things About Plants in sharpening the list and offering more tips.

IMG_0400Un-Greenwash Your Gardening: A Few Basics

Don’t Get Soiled

Soil is home for your plants. Just like your home, you’ll want it to be free of nasty chemicals. Most gardening store have an array of options, many of them proclaiming themselves to be organic in large fonts and bright colors.

It’d be nice if we could believe these eye-catching appeals to eco-sensitivity, but it’s just not that easy. There are actually no labeling rules that define “organic” with regard to soil, so that “organic” in this context can just mean, well, organic matter. Duh.

The upshot is that it takes some work to figure out what you’re feeding your plants. Be sure to eyeball the list of ingredients on the back of the bag. Of concern are the fertilizers, in particular something called “poultry litter.” The name is vague, but poultry litter, to put it simply, is everything that can be shoveled from the floor of a poultry farm, including excrement, bedding, feathers and feed.

Some manufactures purchase their litter from big factory farms like Perdue, and while the soil may be advertised as organic, Perdue doesn’t observe organic practices. It stands to reason that if the source of the litter isn’t organic, the litter isn’t organic either. The easiest way to know if your “organic” soil is actually organic is to look for a label from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

My personal faves are Organic Mechanic (which is a company with major ambitions to do this right) and Black Gold. There’s also the option of making your own soil at home, which requires a robust compost and likely some experimentation to get it right. We’ve just started composting at home, using lawn clippings and kitchen scraps, and I can’t wait to work it into the heavy clay soil around the house next spring.
IMG_3894Harry Potting (Mix)

Potting mix is the way to go if using containers for your plants inside or out or need to root seeds. But watch for vermiculite, a mineral that comes with a sordid past.

For decades, the primary source of vermiculite sold in the United States was a mine in Libby, Montana. The mine had a natural deposit of asbestos, and much of the vermiculite extracted from the mine was badly contaminated. Asbestos-tainted vermiculite is less of a concern now, because the mine closed in 1990, but vermiculite is still not risk-free, and even a tiny amount of asbestos can be harmful if it gets into your lungs. According to a piece on Eartheasy:

Today, most vermiculite is safe. However, that is not to say it cannot contain asbestos. Vermiculite which is accompanied by a great deal of dust likely has residual asbestos in its contents and should be used with caution. Current EPA regulations ban products which contain 1% or more asbestos. Unfortunately even products containing less that 1% asbestos are still extremely hazardous, particularly when in loose dust form as vermiculite often is manufactured.

IMG_0391Mulch, Smulch

Mulch is great for your garden. It helps soil retain water, suppresses weeds and prevents compaction. There are a variety of kinds available, each offering its own unique benefits.  As you decide which one best suits the needs of your garden, keep a few things in mind.

Peat Moss

Peat moss, which is made up of partially decomposed plants, has a great earthy aroma and supplies nutrients to plants as they need them. However, it accumulates in peat bogs, and to remove the peat, the bogs must be drained, contributing to wetland degradation. Additionally, peat bogs are one of Mother Nature’s most effective tools to combat climate change. The peat acts like a sponge, absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When peat moss is removed, not only is a natural carbon sponge lost, but the harvested peat actually releases carbon dioxide back into the environment.

Cypress

Cypress mulch is another popular mulch that comes at a high cost to the environment. To produce the mulch, manufacturers have destroyed vast swaths of cypress forests in Florida and Louisiana. The forests are home to all sorts of creatures but also act as natural buffers against storms and hurricanes.  Once destroyed, the majority of them won’t grow back.

Wood mulches

Be careful when buying wood mulches. It’s possible, though not likely today, that the wood was treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate and can leach arsenic. To make sure the mulch you’re buying is safe, look for a label indicating that it’s been certified by the Mulch and Soil Council, which tests products for the presence of treated wood.

Plastic mulch

Plastic mulch is made from polyethylene, which is considered one of the safer types of plastic out there, but why use it, given the many alternatives? Plastic mulch isn’t biodegradable and will eventually end up in a landfill or the ocean, where it harms sea life. It also blocks water from penetrating the soil and can cause runoff.

Cocoa hulls

Cocoa hulls add nutrients to your soil and will make your garden smell like chocolate, but choose another mulch if you have a dog. Chocolate is toxic to dogs, and cocoa hulls can make your pooch very sick if ingested.

Leaf Mulch

Many municipalities and counties now collect leaves and other garden waste for mulching, which can be less expensive than other mulches. Leaf mulch is excellent for soil development, but not as good at suppressing weeds as wood or other types of mulch. The drawback is that yard waste can contain pesticides and other chemicals used on lawns. As it’s impossible to tell what’s in it, locally-made mulch is not the best choice for organic food gardens, but it may be perfect for flower beds.

IMG_1627A Highly Liquid Proposition: Your H2O

Keeping a garden watered over the hot summer months can be a demanding proposition, so there are a couple ways to reduce the impact your garden has on the water supply. To conserve, water at night and early in the morning, when the temperatures are cooler and the water is less likely to evaporate right away. Just be sure to keep an eye out for rot and fungus, and switch to early mornings if the water is sitting overnight.

You can also set up a rain barrel to collect water that runs off your roof. After the initial investment in the barrel, the water comes at no cost. Montgomery County, near where I live, has a substantial tax credit for “rainscaping,” including rain barrels, porous paving and rain gardens (the program unfortunately excludes Takoma Park. Grr…).

Rain barrels are easily found at most gardening stores, but you can also build them yourself. Be aware that unless you rig up a pump, the water will best be used in irrigation-style drip hoses dug into the ground.

Unfortunately, the common garden hose also has a problem, besides the ubiquitous kinks. Many are made of PVC, include harmful pthalates, and have lead in the fittings and other parts, as an environmental investigation by Healthy Stuff found. As I use ours to water our ostensibly organic garden and to fill various water play stations for Maya, as well as with the sprinkler she plays in, I searched high and low for a better option. I found this rubber hose, which does appear to be lead free. Once you learn to lay it out flat, it works just fine, and no lead or other issues of concern!

IMG_0408Pollinator defense: Invasives, native plants and crowd-sourcing your clippings

Non-native species are sold at many gardening stores, and the more aggressive among them out-compete their native counterparts and spread, so checking on pedigree a bit before you plant is a good idea for both planning your yard and the planet. Some plants, like the butterfly bush running wild in my yard in the picture above, have both more and less invasive versions, or are considered invasive in certain zones of the country, so be sure you know what you’re getting into.

I’ve found gardening stores to be, well, less than forthcoming on these grounds, and even the better ones tend to hide their less showy native plants in a back corner somewhere. But perseverance and research pay off, especially if you invest in perennials that return each year. Be sure to “amend” your soil generously if needed to assist a new planting, and to monitor how plants are doing to be sure that they are happy in their new homes.

To learn if you are unwittingly introducing a hostile species into your ecosystem, do a little research before buying. Here’s a list of problem plants and native alternatives in the Mid-Atlantic region and here’s another helpful source for native plants and garden design (pdf), as well as a list of resources from Montgomery County’s Rainscapes program. You can also find a list of solutions specific to your state here and a list of attractive native substitutes here (pdf). Native species are wonderful to mix in with other plants, as I have, or to plant exclusively as purists do, because they help to sustain the local ecosystem and nurture bumblebees, which are fighting a terrible battle with colony collapse, as well as butterflies and other species.

If you feel overwhelmed, you can always call in a professional, but be sure that they are on the same wavelength. Where I live has a small but very nice community of folks who are more eco-minded, including a specialist in local wild edibles and a local expert in creating kitchen gardens and children’s natural discovery areas. Another easy way to avoid invasive plants and learn about native options is to participate in a plant swap and solicit the advice of knowledgeable gardeners in your area. There are a ton of online exchange communities and list servs in which real gardeners swap plants and trade knowledge, all for free or for a low cost to join.

Plant swaps are another great way to expand your garden, pick up tips and connect with your community. The native plant swap school fundraiser I attended last spring was the beginning of my gardening obsession and a great way to give back to the community. Plants like bee balm, native ferns, and wildflowers (some of which are edible) are wonderful additions to gardens. If you discover that your area doesn’t have a swap, here’s how to organize one yourself….

You can also offer unwanted plants from your yard (and sometimes even get others to dig them up for you!), or ask for cuttings on neighborhood list servs, which is how I got several new hydrangeas and rose plants this year. Friendly folks actually allowed me to prowl their yard at will, and about a third of the plants actually survived my clumsy attempts to root them.

To deal with cuttings properly, just strip the bottom leaf nodes and plant. Be sure to grow more delicate plants like hydrangeas under old, large glass jars to protect them as they learn to root. A rooting mix works nicely for these, and you can even use disposable cups you have hanging around, as I did. You can also plant seeds and scraps from your kitchen, like avocado pits (but don’t expect fruit for years, if ever!) and even pineapple tops.

IMG_6545The same process worked with this rosemary from a friend’s large and healthy plant. I rooted it in water for three weeks or so, without any cover, and when it sprouted, I planted it. More rosemary for the garden!

Your Lawn, by Monsanto

Here’s the bottom line on pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Don’t use them. They contain neurotoxins, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. They kill insects and animals besides those you’re targeting, including honeybees, according to the current research and the European Union’s ban on a certain classes of pesticides. They also contaminate the watershed when they’re swept away in runoff. And children are exposed whenever they play outside.

Here’s just one write-up of a single product, in a Forbes article on “green-ish” efforts by the folks who brought us Miracle-Gro:

The active ingredient in Scotts Turf Builder with Plus 2 Weed Control is 2,4-d, which is made from dichlorophenol and acetic acid. It can kill dandelions, but it’s nasty stuff, capable of causing nervous system, kidney and liver damage in humans.

Need more evidence? Here’s the excellent Beyond Pesticides site:

Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are possible and/or known carcinogens,  18 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system, 19 are linked to reproductive effects and sexual dysfunction, 11 have been linked to birth defects, 14 are neurotoxic, 24 can cause kidney or liver damage, and 25 are sensitizers and/or irritants. Children are especially sensitive to pesticide exposure as they take in more pesticides relative to their body weight than adults and have developing organ systems that are more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxic chemicals.

My own fair city of Takoma Park is one of the first larger local jurisdictions in the U.S. to ban lawn pesticides earlier this month, a fact about which I am unduly proud despite the fact that I was not at all involved. Yay us.

By taking steps to promote a healthy garden, you can minimize problems with pests and weeds. You can use mulch, edge your garden beds well, and use ground covers and competing plants to suppress weeds, and when buying plants, choose ones that are pest-resistant. There are also natural weed-killers you can mix up from dish-soap, vinegar, salt and related ordinary ingredients.

Of course, the most direct way is to get on your knees and pull them out. While you are cursing them, you can reflect on the fact that gardening — and actual contact with soil — is an effective way to replenish your microbial health. And if you feel like giving up or giving in, you could always eat your dandelions. Jo Robinson’s new book, Eat Wild, is my vacation reading for next week. I’m so excited to start nibbling what I find on the lawn!

IMG_0393Raising the stakes on garden beds

Raised garden beds are one of the most common sources of toxins in a garden. The wood that’s used to retain the soil is sometimes treated with chromated copper arsenate, which prevents rot but also leaches arsenic, or copper azole, which includes a potent fungicide. If you’ve inherited one of these beds, remove the wood and transfer the soil to somewhere children and pets won’t contact it.

When building a new bed or replacing one, choose types of wood that are naturally rot-resistant like juniper or cedar. Some companies offer pre-made beds as well, though I don’t think the information on the sealant this company uses is very clear. For greater rot resistance, you can use milk paint, which is naturally non-toxic. Milk paint is available in stores but it requires only a few ingredients, and if you’re feeling particularly crafty, you can make it at home.

Last, as summer turns to fall, don’t forget the many indoor gardening options. If you’re feeling hip, you could always order up one of these new super cool miniature fish-tank-herb-gardens from Back to the Roots, which are a closed-loop waste cycle as well as a meditative design element for your living room.

If you have other tips, please let me know! And feel free to check out my Pinterest page on gardening, which has many, many more design ideas. Happy growing!

A Shrinking Ocean: Parenting in an Era of Climate Crisis

Ocean Acidification and Coral ReefsOn this morning’s commute, I happened to tune in to NPR’s story about the impact on coral reefs from climate change. Scientists off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, on Heron Island, are conducting a kind of no-duh experiment on the subject of ocean acidification from carbon emissions. They set up a series of tanks to mimic various climate change scenarios from before the present day to now, and into the not-nearly-distant-enough future.

Richard Harris, NPR’s reporter, described one tank as “what the world’s oceans are likely to look like later in this century when the schoolchildren visiting this island today reach middle age.” So what was in that tank? Well, brace yourself.

By comparison with the “present-day” tank, which showed some continuing growth in the coral, or with the pre-industrial tank which contained a more vibrant eco-system, the future is a place we wouldn’t really want to inhabit, filled as it will be with swirling masses of bacterial detritus and dead rock:

DOVE: OK. So there’s lot of this slimy, yucky mess(ph) of cynobacteria.

HARRIS: Clumps of black gunk swirl along the surface of the tank.

DOVE: We find that cynobacteria tend to do really well in the future. The slippery slope to slime seems to be the way to go.

HARRIS: Not so for the coral. Most of it has either died or turned white, which means the organisms that live inside the coral have moved out.

The “skeptic” quoted for the program did complain that the experiment imposed these dramatic changes suddenly, saying that species could potentially adapt. But Dove, the scientist who set up the tanks, doesn’t see any evidence of the capacity for such adaptive changes in the fragile corals.

More to the point, the levels of carbon and heat in the tank were modeled on scenarios for this century, so the adaptation argument makes little sense. We just don’t have the time for transformation on an evolutionary scale, which takes thousands of years, to allow creatures to transform over generations to suit their new environment.

Instead, the future is almost upon us. Science has now advanced to the point where we can clearly see where this — namely, the fossil fuel economy — is headed. Given the revelations that the pace of change is likely sooner that anyone guessed, we’re way past “inconvenient” all the way to panic button. But our political institutions evidently lack the willpower to do much about this dystopian future in which Maya and all of our children — and certainly our grandchildren — will live.

When I imagine the oceans as dead, full of floating slime chunks of bacteria, I get both angry and panicked in more-or-less equal portions. There will little fish in that world, no snorkeling worth the time and expense, and few startlingly gorgeous sea-creatures flashing their brilliant colors. The millions of people all around the world who make their living from the reefs or the oceans will have to find something else to do.

I also wonder what it will mean to Maya and her peers: the uncomfortable fact that we have destroyed the life-sustaining capacities of these vast and complex ocean systems. Like the view of the planet from space, or the development of nuclear weapons that could obliterate the planet, our self-regard as a species will be inevitably and deeply altered by this enormous hubris. How will this unmistakeable evidence of our tragic inability to act impact my daughter’s view of what it is to be human?

It has always seemed obvious to me that the predators from outer space in movies like Alien are based on a deep concern about our own relationship with the planet. After all, we are the species out-of-line with the natural order. We are the ones that — as Avatar brilliantly showed — take without any thought of giving back. In Louie C.K.‘s hilarious new HBO show, he celebrates the fact that we got “out of the food chain” and are therefore not subject to attacks from say, cheetahs, while waiting for our morning train. This is doubtless reason to cheer.

Nonetheless, as I try to raise my daughter with a sense of her own power to shape her world, and as someone who chooses to take responsibility for her actions, I can’t help but think that the patent irresponsibility around her will create a world — literally — of depressing limitations. Once we’ve killed the oceans, how is it again that our self-concept as an empowered — or at least benign — part of life on earth survives? I don’t see it.

Another story on NPR a few weeks back discussed the challenge of adding climate change materials to high school science classes. The major problem, it seems, beyond the predictable non-sequiter from (non-scientist) deniers, was that high school kids, with their optimism and sense-making, truly struggled once aware of the facts with the level of puzzling inaction by politicians, as well as with their own complicity in a fossil-fuel system to, say, get to soccer practice.

You’ve got to love them for it. Once their attention is raised, these kids would like to get something done about the issue, given the alarming nature of the information. So our lack of a forthright response to the problem is already impacting our children, who are rightly struggling to reconcile their sense of moral right with the reality of our deep political dysfunction.

One of the great pleasures of going to the shore — where we all take our families — is of course to stand at the water’s edge and contemplate how small we are in the place of things, how vast and mysterious the expanse of water is as it stretches on forever.

Whether from exotic invaders, pollution and plastic, chemicals and oil spills, or rapid acidification from excess carbon, it seems certain that without decisive action, for our children and grandchildren in the foreseeable future the ocean will be smaller, far less full of life, and considerably more dangerous and dirty.

It breaks my heart, as both a parent and a person, that this moment, for Maya and others of her generation, will someday perhaps no longer be this essential experience of breathing in the fresh air of limitless possibility, and thereby finding our proper place in the order of things. Sadly, for our children, the ocean may — or will? — instead be tragic, like a crime scene or an horizon of another kind: a place where something important about who we are to ourselves, and to each other, was — perhaps irretrievably — lost.

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I’ll note that it is already difficult to responsibly eat from the oceans, due to both over-fishing and the gross levels of chemicals found in farmed fish (including dyes, PCBs, and antibiotics). The dearth of certifiably sustainably raised fish, healthy as it can be to eat, in both grocery stores and restaurants, is a real problem. We order bulk salmon from a certified sustainable seafood buying club, delivered locally directly from the fisherfolk who maintain a wild reefnet fishery around twice a year. They keep all of the mark-up, and we get a better source of Omegas.

And at least our stuff is never mislabeled! The enormous fakery around seafood, sadly, also conceals the ways in which we are strip-mining the oceans of the most valuable fish and other creatures.

I also try to harass restaurants with farmed fish or less sustainable fish on their menus into changing their offerings. And I won’t touch shrimp, due to both the chemicals in both Gulf and imported shrimp as well as the grotesque overseas working conditions.

It’s deplorable that such enjoyable aspects of living — and our connection with the ocean from which all life came — is now fraught with this sadness and human greed.

Update (4/26/13):

A few restaurant chains in my area — including Blacks, which is opening a location right here in Takoma Park, Maryland — are kicking off a traceability program to verify the sustainability of their seafood. (How I forgot to reference the This American Life piece above defies explanation, as pig bung now comes to my mind every time squid appears on the menu!). The program is called “REEF.” From an article about it:

Are you suspicious of seafood these days? It’s understandable. In January, a This American Life investigation questioned whether some “imitation calamari” is actually sliced pig rectum; not long after, an Oceana report revealed rampant fish mislabeling.

D.C.-based Black Restaurant Group and the Congressional Seafood Co. last week launched The REEL Story, a seafood traceability program, to address these concerns. The concept is simple: each menu item is associated with a QR code; scan the code with your smartphone to see a complete history of your dinner, from information on where and how it was harvested, to recipe ideas and cooking methods.

What a great idea!

Related posts:

How it Ought to Be, One Dollar at a Time

I was at the park last week, chatting with a friend about how hard it is to figure out what toxic stuff is in our food. An acquaintance of ours within earshot leaned in and said, a little pointedly, “you know, even if you got rid of all the chemicals, you still won’t live forever.”

The jibe stuck with me, because it points back to what the New York Times profile of my alleged hazmat parenting also got completely wrong. While it may be the case that a protective impulse — like getting that cancer-causing couch out of my living room — is a strong motivator, it’s certainly not the only one.

After all, I don’t really want to live forever, and there’s so much potentially harmful stuff in our environment that I harbor no illusion that even my best efforts can address it.

It’s not actually about my health, or even my daughter’s, most of the time. Instead — and I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way — it’s a matter of using my purchasing decisions as another way to express my values: as a way of voting with my dollars for the world I want, and of working hard, and sometimes too hard, to find the companies that are allies in this vision.

It’s also about justice. I remain outraged that companies can keep secrets about the hazards of products in our homes and what they know about their health impacts. I’ve worked with grieving parents who had lost a child or loved one due to a defective product, and you don’t forget their sadness, or the sense that a more caring approach is sorely needed.

In fact, I’ve done advocacy work for progressive causes for years. What sense would it possibly make to use that income to pay companies that do things that are counter to the world I’ve been working for? Of course, I hasten to add, anyone can feel this way about they way they spend their money, regardless of how they made it in the first place.

And there are lots of signs that people do subscribe to conscientious consumption — from the popularity of Annie Leonard’s original Story of Stuff video, to the growth of certification regimes for products from chocolate to lumber, to the burgeoning homesteading movement, to the fact that organic produce, even with its higher price-tag, is now ubiquitous.

As our recession drags on, there is also a sense that all of us with our diminished spending power would like to stop and think a little more before we buy. Obviously, this is not a new idea. As my dad wrote once, Aldo Leopold, the great environmental philosopher, coined the phrase “intelligent consumption” (pdf). I’ll note that this was, sadly, long before much was ever intelligent about it.

As we all know in our hearts, as consumers in this moment of mass-produced commercialization, we participate in so many systems — many global in nature, and many of which are hidden behind a virtual information blockade. We never meet the agricultural workers — including children — here in the U.S. or abroad that pick our food, the factory workers at places like Foxconn in China that make our gadgets or household goods, or the trafficked and enslaved adolescents that provide 40 percent of the world’s cacao beans for chocolate.

Most well-bedecked Western homes likely include hundreds of items. Yet we have no idea how they were made, where they came from, who has handled them, and whether suffering — workers’ or ours — is involved.

But once we acknowledge that we are, in some broad way, responsible for this chain of production, of course, it can be a crushing feeling. The questions multiply, and you must push through the discomfort, relinquish the squishy space you lived in before you asked any probing questions, and look at whatever you find.

Here’s my real point: staying receptive and open, when you can, to asking those hard questions is the only real step needed to engage with the growing movement about the ethics of consumption. We all feel so guilty, whenever we pause to think, that it’s critical to understand that integrating your values into whatever you buy is a process, not an end result.

Given how complicated it is, you’re unlikely to get to a place where you can ever look around your house and feel completely at peace. But that’s no reason not to start digging in. It’s perfectly fine to tackle one thing, and then another, and not everything at once, doing it as you can afford to, and as you can mentally afford to consider the change.

Actually, it’s the orientation to thinking about something that matters: the willingness to have your ears perked up and your nose open to something smelly, and to listen to your gut when a decision feels like less than what you really could do.

And here’s what else I’d really love you to know: if you let one small belief-driven change into your life, and take it seriously, other issues and concerns will also find a way in. The changes you make will grow into a habit over time, and after a little while, your choices will be transformed. The only real trick is to believe that what you do matters in the first place.

And yes, it’s true that we can’t shop our way to a better world. We still need lawmakers to make better rules. To get these rules, all of us must make full use of the still-functioning parts of our democracy. So we should pick up the phone to Congress, write letters and do the organizing it takes to enact chemical reform, improve conditions for workers, end modern slavery, and manage our resources and wildlife sensibly.

That said, most days, all of us also consume. When we do, we can look for ways to buy better stuff, or buy local, certified, organic, hand-made, fair trade, or used goods, or even to make things ourselves. We should tackle what we can, when we can. Shrug it off when we fail, and try again tomorrow.

And if this list sounds like a left-wing snob’s fantasy la-la land, well, so be it. We should be quietly confident about making an effort, rather than self-conscious or awkward. It’s not, actually, about being “holier-than-thou” so much as “this is what I want the world to be.”

It’s about taking some power back from the corporations: replacing “buyer beware” with “buyer believe.” And it’s certainly not about living forever so much as living my hopes for the world, for however long I am around and whenever I can make it work.

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What’s your process of thinking about what matters to you when you buy stuff? What changes have you made that you feel good about? And what’s next on your list?

Rachel Carson’s Unfinished Work: Passing the Safe Chemicals Act

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

— John Keats, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

Several Sundays ago, the fates conspired to give me a gift. A friend proposed we go for an easy hike close to home, and she found the perfect place northwest of Silver Spring, the Rachel Carson Conservation Park, a small, beautiful park marked with easy walking trails and decorated this time of year by gorgeous milkweed pods.

The minute after I got in the car to drive out there, Maya fell asleep, mercifully allowing me to turn the radio on. At just that moment, WAMU was re-broadcasting a re-run of The Diane Rehm Show’s interview with William Souder, an author of a new biography about none other than Rachel Carson entitled On a Farther Shore. The interview was great, filling in a fascinating picture of Rachel Carson as a loner who lived with her mother and had a years-long romantic attachment to a female friend. She lived near Silver Spring, Maryland, when she wasn’t at Woods Hole or a seaside cottage in Maine.

Tragically, and even ironically, despite her status as a biologist, she was deceived by a sexist, paternalistic doctor about the seriousness of her own cancer, and the delay in treatment likely cost years of her life. Even as she faced death, she was savvy enough to keep the news of her illness to herself, fearing that it would cast a shadow of self-interest over the publication of Silent Spring.

It would be hard, today, to underestimate the cultural and political importance of Silent Spring. As Souder noted, it is widely credited with giving birth to the modern environmental movement as an oppositional movement of complaint about the excesses of chemicals, corporations and the lack of protective standards for health. It was the hinge on which the environmental movement turned from a Roosevelt-era conservation and stewardship mindset into a full-blown critique.

The title of the book is a brilliant reference to Keats’ poem, and to our capture by a seductive maiden tinged with death. The book made such an impact on public consciousness, and was so deeply frightening to the chemical industry, in particular, that it also occasioned the first major effort in counter-environmentalism, inspiring companies like Monsanto to organize a comprehensive public relations campaign to discredit both author and book.

In Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton describe how the National Agricultural Chemical Association (now called the American Crop Protection Association (ACPA)), created a multi-layered buffer of pseudo-science front groups and PR offensives to offset the anticipated negative publicity in 1962 from publication of Silent Spring. As the recent Chicago Tribune series on the chemical industry’s use of front groups to scare lawmakers into requirements for flame retardants shows, these kinds of tactics remain stunningly common today.

So we’ve had 50 years of “malarky” on chemicals, really. Fifty years of obfuscation, delay, and ineffectual state and federal efforts to balance the benefits of certain chemicals with the threat to public health that some of them pose. Fifty years of “buyer beware” policies that expose people to chemicals first — sometimes in massive doses, such as in factories — and ask questions about their impact on our health later.

Fifty years of chemical Wac-a-mole, in which we celebrate a product becoming “BPA-Free!” (like in tomato cans) only to find out they are now using vinyl instead, thereby replacing an endocrine disrupter with a known carcinogen. Yay.

Fifty years from today, my hope is that we will look back and think of the twentieth century as the Wild West for chemicals — the painful growing pains we endured before development of a sensible system of safeguards signaled our maturity. When my daughter Maya is my age, I hope that the essentially unregulated use of chemicals throughout our agriculture and households will seem as distant a threat to her as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire seems to us today — an unthinkably wasteful expenditure of human lives in pursuit of easy profits.

And fifty years after the publication of Silent Spring, I can’t help but think that Rachel Carson would be appalled by this state of things. Her scientific faith in rational methods would, it would seem, want us to have arrived upon a more elegant and reasonable solution. As many of her defenders have noted, even as to DDT, Carson’s criticism was balanced with an acknowledgment of its benefits for pest reduction (and malaria prevention). She urged that indiscriminate spraying was not the best use of the chemical, and should be replaced with more targeted and effective use. (Even Wikipedia has a nice write-up on this point.)

In striking such a balance, the most compelling proposals are in a law already pending today, the Safe Chemicals Act. That bill, which passed out of committee over the summer in the Senate, would create important new protections for health, while still allowing many safer chemicals to be sold. It’s similar to a law that is already on the books in Europe, in that it would require chemicals to be shown to be safe before we are all used as guinea pigs by the chemical companies.

From a fact sheet on the bill from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:

  • The Safe Chemicals Act improves chemical safety. For the first time, the chemical industry must develop and provide information on the health and environmental safety of their chemicals, in order to enter or remain on the market. If no information is provided, the chemical would be prohibited from use in products and workplaces. Where there is data that shows potential concern, chemicals must be proven safe before entering commerce, just as is already required of pharmaceuticals and pesticides under other laws.
  • Immediate action on the worst chemicals. EPA must immediately reduce exposure to the “worst of the worst” chemicals, specifically PBTs (chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic). Common PBTs include lead, mercury, flame retardants, and other toxic compounds that build up and persist in our bodies, breast milk and the environment.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act protects our health using the best science. Many toxic chemicals especially threaten the health of pregnant women, developing fetuses, babies, young children and teens. Other uniquely vulnerable groups include the elderly, people with preexisting medical conditions, workers, and low-income communities—predominantly people of color—located near chemical hot spots. When determining a chemical’s safety, EPA would be required to ensure protection of vulnerable sub-populations, such as children, pregnant women and hot-spot communities, from all sources of exposure to that chemical.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act informs the market, consumers and the public. As a consumer you have the right to know the safety of chemicals you encounter everyday. The Safe Chemicals Act requires that basic health and safety information on chemicals be made public.

And here’s how to contact your Members of Congress today to ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act. Even if it may not pass the Senate this term, your support will be duly registered for the next session of Congress.

As we strolled around the small, sparse sanctuary named after Carson, with scratchy mouths from munching on wild persimmons tempered by the sweetness of some late-season blackberries, I couldn’t help thinking about her solitary life and intense privacy, her untimely death, her hard work and courage. As her parting act, Carson gave us all a fundamental critique of carelessness, of our lack of intention in how we do things and who we do them to.

Fifty years out, the least we can do to honor her life and legacy is to enact commonsense standards that protect wildlife and our lives from chemical excess. All politics and spin aside, it seems so simple, really, to do the two things she would ask of us: to care for one another, and to think before we act.