Archive for February, 2012

Here is another selection of photos from my travels in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. This selection focuses more on landscapes and scenes. This series is also featured in my calendars in my store. Enjoy!

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This slide show selection is of photographs taken by me during my travels in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and is themed around the faces and people I saw and interacted with. They were taken during the year off I took between high school and college from fall 2007 to spring 2008. I had taken a few photography classes in high school and was greatly enjoying using photography as a way to capture some of my experience. At the time I wanted to put together a show of some of my photographs but life got busy and I have only recently been revisiting them. This particular series of twelve photographs is now featured in one  of my calendars in my store. I hope you enjoy them!

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The Importance of Food

I just finished watching a great TEDTalk featuring Roger Doiron talking about gardening. It was sent to me by a dear friend who was in my Permaculture Design Course this summer, and came at the perfect time as I had just been drawing up plans and ideas for my parents garden that I will get a chance to work on this spring. Doiron Makes the argument that gardening is a subversive act. It is subversive because if people can grow their own food it is putting power back into the people’s hands and taking power away from big corporations. It is putting power back in your hands by giving you more control over your health, diet, and wallet.

Over the past several years food has become an increasingly important subject in my life. I myself am not what I would call a foodie; I will eat just about anything you put in front of me whether it is fast, slow, greasy, fresh, meaty, or vegan, and am probably only a little better than the average American, and far worse then my many foodie friends, when it comes to cooking and kitchen know how. But I do appreciate and highly enjoy good food, which is perhaps why I tend to find myself surrounded by foodie friends.

But beyond that, as I have been wrestling with the ideas of sustainability, community, and social change each strand I follow seems to bring me back to food.

  • If we can grow food sustainably that will be a huge step towards a sustainable earth.
  • In every community I have been in meal times are what literally feed the community.
  • If we want to create social change we first need to make sure that everyone has access to healthy, affordable food.

Food is a basic necessity of every single individual. Therefore, even if you are a microwave meal or McDonalds kind of person, you must interact with food each and every day. It may in fact be this, that food is a necessity, that is the ingenuity behind huge money making corporations like McDonalds.

And amazingly, it isn’t just the food industry that has found a way to make a profit off of our need for food; For every food calorie we eat it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce that 1 calorie. This is in our highly industrialized food system of course, where petroleum based fertilizers are the norm and gas guzzling machines and trucks are used to process and get our food to us from thousands of miles away.

(Image taken from Roger Doiron's TEDTalk) Michelle Obama's White House Garden. Compare this to the image below...

(Image taken from Roger Doiron's TEDTalk) If the White House Garden were to be representative of our industrialized agricultural system this is what it would look like. Yes, we are subsidizing a system that is 80% soy, wheat, cotton, and corn and only 20% fruits and vegetables.

It seems that if we change our food system we would inevitably change much more than just our food system; We would effect global economics, global health, global happiness, and global sustainability.

So how can we change the food system to create positive change in all these areas? Doiron thinks the key is in encouraging and inspiring more people to grow their own food. That’s right, it might be as simple as growing your very own kitchen garden. You will eat healthier, feel healthier, save money, and be sticking it to the big bureaucratic corporate machine  all at the same time. And, you will probably be happier as being involved in your food tends to encourage community and connection to other humans and the natural world, which tends to lead to greater overall happiness.

I think this last part about community and overall happiness is why I have found myself continually coming back to food.

For me, being someone who grew up with a phenomenal cook as a mother and a father who refused to go to a fast food joint even on the longest, most remote stretches of highway where nothing else was available, I grew to desire and expect good quality, healthy, fresh meals. Perhaps it was this desire that led me to live in coop in college where home cooked dinners were part of every evening. Also, growing up with no TV dinners and coming from a Jewish family where holidays and celebrations often included large, elaborate, and delicious meals I was conditioned to associate food with good company and a time to connect.

For me, the kitchen always seems to be the center of the house. Whether you are preparing a meal, cleaning up after a meal, or chatting with the those who are cooking and cleaning while you wait for some tasty morsels to come your way, the kitchen is where people gravitate. The kitchen and food is also often where conflict arises; people have different dietary preferences, someone doesn’t clean up their dishes, and oh no! My leftovers that I was going to have for lunch are gone! But working through and resolving these issues provide important real life lessons in conflict resolution, community building, budgeting, cooking, cleanliness and more.

Well, this has been the case for me and the kinds of people I have gravitated to in my life. But this apparently is NOT the norm. In Doiron’s talk on TEDTalks he gave the astonishing statistic that the average american now spends only 31 minutes doing food related activities each day. This means 31 minutes a day cooking, eating, and cleaning up after meals! It seems a stretch to me to  even fit just eating 3 meals in that time, let alone preparing and cleaning up.

There is another reality out there where the TV room is the center of the house. In this scenario food is quickly taken from the freezer, microwaved and individuals sit silently eating their food in front of the mind numbing television. No time for family discussions of politics, news or current events, or for sharing of the trials and tribulations of one’s day.

Having grown up in a household and in communities where food and meal times were not undervalued I have been attracted to local food cooperatives and farmers markets to do my shopping; another social and festive way in which to interact with food. This of course got me thinking more on where my food comes from and issues of food justice.

The conclusion I have come to is that we need localized food systems. We need more people involved in their food, growing a more diverse array of food that celebrates and preserves more cultural diversity and holds communities together.

Having come to this conclusion I have decided to join the subversive gardening movement and start growing food in my parents yard this spring. I encourage you to do the same! Having taken a permaculture design course and studied agriculture at Cornell University I am well aware that growing food can be quite complex. But it can also be quite simple and you have to start somewhere. I myself have become a bit intimidated by complexity of academic analysis of growing food and “right” and “wrong” ways to do it but I have decided I have to start somewhere, so why not start with putting a few seeds in the ground? Maybe I will start a trend and before I know it the whole block will be filled with front yard gardens. And then before you know it neighbors will be interacting again we all find yourselves out on a sunny Saturday afternoon eating fresh veggies and pulling weeds. This could indeed be the way to revitalize community…

Spring Quickening

Never have I felt quite so acutely aware of the arrival of spring. Driving down the same roads every day, walking on the same paths, and working at the same site, a site incorporated so very carefully into it surroundings, makes change around oneself stand out.

It seems that just yesterday bird calls were scarce. Today they are abundant. Yesterday the ducks, geese, and swans filled the ponds. Today they are flying overhead to their summer haunts.  Yesterday the air still had a cold, bitter bite. Today the air is warm and moist and I ride happily down the drive hanging off the side of Ryan’s car.

There are buds on the trees and stinging nettle is sending its spring shoots up.  Foraging season has arrived as many plants are tastiest when still young in early spring.

The sun wakes me up a little bit earlier each day and we can work a little bit later each evening before twilight tells us it is time to retire.

It may seem early but all of nature’s signs are pointing to spring. There is a quickening in the air. And so we too are busy transplanting trees and preparing garden beds.

What will this spring quickening bring for you?

Our pile of salvaged styrofoam is quickly dwindling as we are insulating the roof and the remainder of the floor. In case you don’t remember the pile, here is a reminder:

Styrofoam that was on the way to the dump, dumped instead in the cob house living room.

And where is this styrofoam now? Here are a few pictures….

The bedroom ceiling all insulated with salvaged rigid foam.

The bedroom bedroom again from a different angle. This will be covered with lathe and plaster, but the madrona branches will remain exposed.

Insulation cut and fit into the kitchen ceiling. This will be covered with Lathe and plaster as well, leaving the wood rafters exposed.

I can proudly say that all this ceiling work is mine. Next I will be cutting the lathe to fit and screwing that in place. And lastly, here is the kitchen floor, where we have also laid some of the rigid foam insulation:

Insulation in the floor (on top of a vapor barrier) with some boards laid temporarily so we have something to walk on in the kitchen.

Thanks to this salvaged insulation we shouldn’t need to buy any insulation for this whole house. Not too shabby, I’d say!

I recently finished a book called Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan. Reading this book made me think twice about many things, including how much toilet paper I take to wipe my bum after taking a dump.

According to, “Twenty nine million, eight hundred thousand trees (29,800,000) are cut down every day in the world.” That is 3720 acres an hour, 62 acres a minute or 1 acre every second! For reference, an American football field is 1.32 acres is size. And these are using the official numbers from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 2005 reports. The numbers have since gone up. Even in 2005 these far under estimated the real numbers which would include illegal logging, muchof which is done within the timber industry itself.

So why am I telling you all these depressing statistics? Well, for me as an aspiring builder, this book has made me think hard about the building industry’s use of wood and it has increased my opinion of the merits of building with earth and other alternative, non energy intensive materials. Yes, wood is a beautiful and practical building material for many of us but do we really need to build McMansions that use clear cedar (cedar with no knots in it, and therefore of higher aesthetic and structural quality) in places where it serves little to no structural purpose and may not even be visible? Do we need to use exotic amazon wood to make furniture that to the untrained eye looks just like a native oak desk?

In terms of my own building practices I am setting an intention right now to only use wood that comes from a local, known source, because as Derrick Jensen says “…in the end, only low-tech forestry operations for local consumption will ever be truly sustainable.” (pg. 130), My preferred wood will actually be wood that has been salvaged from construction sites  or structures being demolished. I also will not build bigger then I need to and I will always weigh the full embodied energy of possible building materials and only use wood where other materials don’t make sense.

But beyond just how I plan to build I also plan to be more aware of my use of other paper products, such as paper and tissue. Its amazing how much of the forests that are cut down end up being pulped and made into these products. According to Derreck Jensen “more than a third of the trees cut are pulped for paper” (pg. 104). Can you imagine huge old growth trees, perhaps even the infamous red woods, being cut and pulped to make measly rolls of toilet paper? There has got to be a better way. And there is. Historically, paper was made from other plant fibers such as flax and cotton (plants that don’t take hundred of years to reach maturity and don’t support some of the most diverse, complex, and precious ecosystems on our planet) and recycled materials like old rags and waste paper. Paper can also been made from agricultural waste products of crops such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, rice, and sugarcane. So there are alternatives, but logging corporations are powerful money making machines with shrewd propaganda tricks that I won’t get into here (read the book if you want to know more)  that seem to have successfully convinced us that we must consume more and more tree products. As a result, America, being the overconsumption capital of the world, “With less than 5 percent of the world’s population… consumes between 25 and 38 percent of the world’s wood and paper products,” (pg. 102).

Yup, thats right. “The average person in America consumes almost 700 pounds of paper per year; the average in Great Britain and Japan is 330 pounds per year; the average in the non industrialized world is 12 pounds per year,” (pg. 122). That means me and you, as individuals can do a LOT to improve. And, that may not even mean lowering your wonderful standard of life. I mean Great Britain is just as modern and industrialized us as by most standards and the average person there consumes less than half of what we consume in paper products! The amount of paper consumed in the U.S. has increased fivefold from 1920 to 1990 (pg. 105). What happened?
So what can you do? A bunch of things. Here are some ideas:
  1. Set your printer to print double sided by default. Or if your printer won’t do that, like mine, go through the 2 minutes extra effort of printing “odd pages only” first (You do this in “paper handling,” which is one of the drop down options before you hit print) and then restack the pages from last to first and print again “even pages only.” So, it took me a few times to figure out how to order the pages to get this right but then I put the steps on a sticky note and put that right on my printer so if I ever forget there it is telling me odd numbers, last to first, face up, even numbers.
  2. Or, are you printing something like a powerpoint or graphs that don’t need to be the size of the full page? Go to layout (another drop down options in the printer window) and put 4 or 6 “slides” per a page! If you want to get advanced you can do this and print double sided and quickly save hundreds of pages.
  3. That stack of one side used paper that you have been saving but not actually using? Start using it! Print on the other side, make note pads with it for shopping lists and household notes, or notebooks to take notes on in class (its fun to read the printed on side when you are bored…. its like having a magazine hidden in your notebook!). If you really get into this and want more one side used paper try asking you local library or office. Many places are either throwing this one side used stuff away or just recycling it, but we should always reuse as much as we can before we recycle. The saying is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and its in that order for a reason.
  4. When you have reduced the amount of paper you use and and reused every single sided sheet so that both sides and every corner are used then…. recycle it! It does make a difference. “In the United States, every 10 percent of recovered waste paper saves a million acres of forest from being cut” (pg. 45). One Million Acres!!
  5. And, when you go to the store to buy paper products look to see if they have recycled goods. If not demand it! I get wanting soft toilet and tissue paper but do you really need baby soft paper towels?
  6. Building a house or doing a home improvement project? Think about the materials you are using and where they are coming from. Demand local, sustainably forested wood when wood must be used. Or even better, find salvaged wood. Places like Restore that do “green demolition” salvage still usable wood, appliances, sinks, etc. from old buildings. These places are becoming more popular. Ithaca has the ReUse center, and I’ve seen other similar things popping up elsewhere. Goodwill, consignment stores, and other second hand stores are great places to find furniture, clothes, and more. These places help reduce  consumption of virgin resources and will help you save money.
There are some places to start. On a larger scale where should our logging industry be headed? Well, Derrick Jensen talks about restoration forestry which helps being forests back to states of biological productivity, biodiversity, ecological stability and resilience. And, unlike the timber industry would like us to believe, this does not mean choosing owls over jobs.
“‘It means that many more people will have to be employed in the woods, not less; using smaller machines and more reliance on draft animals. It means smaller mills… Restoration forestry leads to a steady yield of high value timber. Clear cutting and/or short rotation forestry leads to periodic return of low-quality timber. Restoration forestry makes much better ecological sense and it makes better economic sense.’
           We need to distinguish restoration forestry from restoration ecology. Forestry is for producing a supply of wood. If you are an inteligent forester, you would restore tree stands (such as plantations) to natural, optimal fiber-producing capacity. But you are still a forester, looking for wood fiber, An ecologist would protect or restore fully functioning forest ecosystems, and consider fiber production for human use to be completely subordinate to the full range of natural ecosystem functions…. We must move away from industrial forestry and towards restoration forestry. We must then move away from restoration forestry and towards restoration ecology.” (pg. 131-132)
But getting there will be a long a hard road. The logging industry is full of powerful corporations with lots of money. They know well how to work the revolving door between their corporate world and public office and they have even infiltrated some of the larger environmental groups. But like any change, in the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Note: All quotes with page numbers in this post are taken from Strangely Like War: The global Assault on Forests by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan unless otherwise specified.
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Creating "new" from old has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time, but turned into a full-time adventure in building and living in a tiny "reclaimed" house. Beginning in 2012, I will live in this 120 square foot space for the length of my PhD studies in Literature and the Environment, and perhaps beyond. In this way, I hope to live a little smaller, leave a little lighter, and learn in what ways formal study can be acted in the every day.

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