Archive for October, 2009

The Heat and the Help: 6 Useful Global Warming Websites

I’m working on an article for a local publication on what climate change is going to mean in this area, and in the process I search through a lot of blogs on global warming.  It’s disheartening.  In the face of incredible advance scientific understanding of climate change that is being confirmed by researchers around the world, there seems to be growing tide of climate change scoffers who listen uncritically to “experts” whose data has no factual basis.(photo credit: Felix Francis Flickr)

I like to check out two kinds of Global Warming Blogs.  Those that are both carefully researched about what is happening and those where people are putting their heads together to share strategies to make a positive difference.  Here are 3 I like in each category.



October 30, 2009 at 10:01 am 7 comments

Oak Wilt – Dead Woods Walking

Shortly after we had taken charge of our 44 acres, I asked my husband what was his favorite thing about our land.  Doug said, “That young red oak across from the house site.”  I knew immediately which one he meant.

It was about 15 years old — a robust, teenage tree maybe 20 feet tall, vibrant and full.  It was a joy to behold.  It was a monument to the promise of life. In fall, its leaves had turned a luminous barn red that just made you smile to see it.

The next year, in the middle of a gorgeous August, every leaf on that tree turned paper bag brown.  It was dead, and we were horrified to realize that other, older oaks in the woods on our hill had dying branches.

...Oak wilt on the edge of our woods.

...Oak wilt strikes on the edge of our woods.

The arborist diagnosed oak wilt.  Learn more here and here.

Oak wilt occurs when a fungus, Ceratocystis fagacearu, gets into a tree’s tubing and plugs up its water-conducting vessels.  An infected tree can’t get water from its roots to its leaves, and it doesn’t take the leaves long to die.  The tree is a gonner. (more…)

October 27, 2009 at 10:41 am Leave a comment

Octuber: The Magic of Fresh-dug Potatoes in Fall

The Dutch word for potato is aardapel, which means earth apple.  Apples and potatoes have long been a staple because both can be stored long after harvesting in root cellars and apple barrels.

...van Gogh's Potato Eaters chowing down on my favorite fall food.

...van Gogh's Potato Eaters chowing down on my favorite fall food.

But they are also alike in that, though they remain quite edible, they are beyond delicious when actually fresh.

What a happy combination: potato texture achieving this supreme consistency with flavors so pure and substantial just as the bracing wind, and fall rain make hearty fare like potatoes feel like the ideal meal.

Wisconsin cranked out 2.3 billion pounds of potatoes in 2008, ranking us as the third biggest potato producer in the country.  And when I visit my in-laws in the Stevens Point area, I drive through miles and miles of flat, sandy potato country where most of them are grown.  But I feel very lucky to be a potato lover and not live there.

I get my potatoes in my food share in the Vermont Valley Community Farm and at the Dane County Farmers Market from organic growers who have stepped away from the standard supermarket varieties produced by the billions of pounds.  ( Potato Fast Facts :  34% of the U.S. crop is used for frozen food, 28% for fresh market, 12% for potato chips, 10 % for dehydration and 16 % for livestock feed, and potato seed.)


For David Perkins at Vermont Valley, potatoes are just one of many crops he grows for his CSA members, but he still grows several varieties:  Dark Red Norland, big white Kennebec, Adirondack Red and Adirondack Blue, Yukon Gold with yellow skin and flesh, Corolla and small, moist French Fingerlings.
“They all have their own special qualities,” David says.  “But we can only grow so many.”

There are thousands of varieties of potato grown around the world.

...(photo credit freeranglifes-photostream flickr)

...(photo credit freeranglifes-photostream flickr)

“It’s funny that in the U.S. we have gotten used to just a few varieties, whether we live in Main or California – everyone is growing the same white potatoes – Russets or Reds,” says John Aue who grows potatoes at his Butter Mountain Farm near Richland Center and sells them at the farmers market.

John got interested in potatoes when he was in grad school studying entymology in the 1980s at UW-Madison screening different potato varieties for resistance to insects and disease.  “A professor I knew, Doug Rouse, had just done a study for dairy farmers in western Wisconsin who had tobacco allotments,” John remembers.  “He was looking for other things they could grow in that acreage, and found you can grow potatoes on these upland hill soils.  You can grow potatoes  on loam, silt loam or clay loam.  That’s what we have here at Butter Mountain.  I knew it could be done, and I knew how to do it!”

John and his family are always exploring new varieties. Every year they drop the ones they didn’t like and try new ones.  “We are looking to see if there is something unique about their taste that we can use. We settle on about 10 varieties each year that we like, and that seem to grow fairly well here.”  The exception being Rose Fin Apple potato, which John says, “is hard to grow, but it’s so good we grow it anyway.”

...This is a beautiful spud!

...This Purple Viking is a beautiful spud!

When I stop at the Butter Mountain stand at the farmer’s market, it’s never easy to decide.

I am particularly fond of the Purple Viking, which has flesh as pure white as the driven snow but skin of flaking mottled shades of purple and pink that I would like to recreate on a wall.  It is sweet and moist and firm.

I believe teeth were made to bite into a potato like this.  John tells me Purple Vikings make the world’s best mashed potatoes,  but generally I eat them unmashed just for the fun of sinking my teeth into them.

And then there are the German Butter Balls, which run drier and are deep yellow this year.  For other color, there is the Adirondack Blue.  And Butter Mountain offers an odd little deep, blue potato called Purple Peruvian Fingerling.  John doesn’t care for the Purple Peruvian, but his son loves it, and evidently so do some customers.  The list goes on and on.

For the moment, while potatoes are at their peak, I slip them into the meal many times a week.

A favorite is hearty salad entirely from the farmers market:  Mixed greens, microwaved Purple Vikings, and feta cheese, along with what ever else catches my eye in the fridge.   Alas, my dressing isn’t totally local.  I use local sunflower seed oil, vinegar from who knows where, along with local garlic, homemade, but non-local humus and Wisconsin cranberry mustard.  This makes a thick, nutritious coating that I never tire of.

Another favorite is  potato soup simply made by boiling potatoes –  and when they are almost done, I drop broccoli and spinach in with them.  Then I blend it all into a creamy, green goodness and stir in caramelized onions (along with whatever else I sauteed with the onions like carrots or corn or celeriac).  And top each bowl  with grated 6-year-old cheddar from Hooks Cheese .

...(photo credit dr-hemmerts-photostream flickr)

...(photo credit dr-hemmerts-photostream flickr)

Fabulous local potatoes will stay on my menu all winter.  Vermont Valley offers them in their fall share, and Butter Mountain will be bringing them to the winter farmers market for me every week from their glorified root cellar.  “We dug a hole in the side of the hill and poured concrete on three sides with a dirt floor and put a roof on it.  It’s a passive storage facility,” John explains.

David advises that your home fridge is a perfect potato keeper, in which tubers can last for up to 6 months.  “They actually get sweeter as starch converts to sugars over time,” David says.  “They may not look as pretty, but they taste good. If they feel soft — that’s not bad.”

So some day, as spring nears, I’ll be enjoying softer, sweeter potatoes, but for now, October means crisp, juicy apples and firm, moist earth apples.

What a celebration!

“Potatoes are a magical thing for me,” says John.  “On a late October harvest day, the leaves are off the trees.  It’s all gray, and everything looks dead and brown – and then you pull this harvester through seemingly dead ground, and all these colors of potatoes appear.  It makes you feel good about going into winter. ”

October 23, 2009 at 9:40 am Leave a comment

Two Gentians Join the Crowd

Our prairie remnant on a sunny, south-facing slope just off the top of a ridge had been farmed for years and then planted by the owner before us in rows of pine and spruce.  Some of the trees were 5 years old.  Some were nearer 15.  The older trees were starting to knit their branches together to block the sky, and their needles were beginning to blanket the ground when a naturalist walked through them with us and noted a few straggling cone flowers and other prairie stragglers were hanging in there.

Time was when I thought that land just needed to be left alone so that nature could “do her thing.”  But you can’t just let a disappearing native environment take care of itself anymore than you would leave a hit and run victim by the side of the road.

Drawing a line around the acre and a half that had the most prairie plants poking through the pines, we cut down those evergreens (may the tree gods have mercy on my soul), began to burn each spring and waited to see what would happen.

Every summer we walk the remnant repeatedly to cull out the invasives we can identify; surgically removing the wild parsnip and multiflora rose and little pink-handled umbrellas of sumac and Canada thistle and white and red sweet clover – the list seems to grow.

...Autumn in the prairie is a study of possibility.

...Autumn in the prairie is a study of possibility.

But so does the list of fresh native faces that are reappearing in what was once a place of prairie as far as the eye could see.

Now that almost all the prairie life has dropped back down into its roots leaving a waving sea of sentinel stalks, we had a double treat last Saturday.

There is a plant that we had been puzzling over for weeks.  I had tried to key it out by its pale lavender color, but no luck.  Then I bought a set of note cards with pen-and-ink drawings of prairie flowers at the UW Arboretum book store.  (Drawn especially for the Friends of the Arboretum by Elizabeth de Boor.  Thanks Elizabeth!) Without the color to distract me, I realized my mystery plant is a member of the gentian family.

...Mystery solved.  It's a Fringed-tipped Closed Gentian.

...Mystery solved. It's a Fringed-tipped Closed Gentian.

Gentian blooms in the fall, and tend to be bluish purple.  This one was much paler, but clearly a Fringed-tipped Closed Gentian, also known as bottle gentian, or formally as Gentiana andrewsii. (I wonder who discovered this variety.) Check out the details here This is the every useful website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (see my post on  Four Fabulous Wildflower Sanctuaries here. )

It’s a rugged individualist.  Not only does it flower late in the fall, but it plays hard to get.  It’s buds, rich with pollen, never open, and the only insects strong enough to get inside are burly big bumblebees.  This gives the bumblers a special cache of pollen and provides the “bottle” of gentian with true fans.  One of those little win-win scenarios that make your heart beat fast.

This tiny colony of three plants is camping exactly at the point where our trail comes out of the woods and enters the prairie, and I hope it will greet us there from now on.

As we continued our turn about the prairie, as we often do when we first arrive from town, I was feeling almost dizzy with the excitement of discovery when several hundred yards further we saw more purple coming up in the path in front of us.  Yet another gentian species!  Stiff Gentian, or Gentianella quinqefoli.  Check out this website for the dirty details. 

...We found this Stiff Gentian in the trail.  We'll be moving the trail!

...We found this Stiff Gentian in the trail. We'll be moving the trail

This is the first time we have seen either of these in our prairie, and every new returnee merits emotional fireworks and hypothetical decorated cake.

I have read that Native Americans used Gentian’s bitter root for a tonic.  And Doug always likes to know the Floristic Quality Index Coefficient of Conservatism which is a number from 0 to 10 indicating how likely this plant species is to occur in any spot that was lucky enough to survive untouched since pre-settlement times.

Plants with high C value are very specialized and only found in restricted environments.  Obviously anything that can make a comeback in our much degraded prairie is not likely to be very picky.  I like to think of them as more plucky.

So I was surprised to find that the stiff gentian has a C of 7 and bottle gentian 6.  .  Now that I have found this useful site, I plan to figure out what the “mean coefficient of conservatism” for our little remnant is.  But medical uses and numerical grades aside, my eyes now recognize and will constantly be scouting for and always trying to protect two more members of our prairie family.

Our ongoing restoration of a prairie, a glade and their surrounding woods and savanna sometimes feels like an ark to me.  But that analogy breaks down in that a real boat would be prone to sink – the more species it contained.  But actually, the more species that we can protect, the more vital and safe the whole becomes.

So welcome aboard, my dear Cousins Gentian.  Welcome aboard!

October 20, 2009 at 9:55 am 2 comments

Cooking between Classes: a college cooking blog is born

I proudly add a new link to my Blogroll.

My younger daughter, a senior at UW-Madison double majoring in journalism and biological aspects of conservation, just started blogging  – Cooking between Classes aimed at empowering her fellow college students to take charge of what they eat.

For fun, I interviewed her on her background and motives.

Because the stove was broken when she moved into her apartment this fall, the landlord put in a brand new one!  It's getting a workout.

Because the stove was broken when she moved into her apartment this fall, the landlord put in a brand new one! It's getting a workout.

Describe the evolution of your attitude to food based on growing up in a home where “whole-grain goodness” was the rule of the kitchen to your current position.

When I lived at home, I didn’t really think that much about being healthy.  I didn’t think that what I was eating was stranger than what other people ate.  I mean I knew there was junk food, but I didn’t worry about getting a nutritious meal.

When I got to college, I tried to think about nutrition in the dorm cafeteria.  I was always reading the fiber and fat content on the food, but I was also getting into the sugary cereals they had there.  I think my favorite was Golden Grahams — basically snack food without any nutritional value at all.

By the time I moved into my first apartment where there wasn’t a cafeteria, and the only person preparing my food was me — I didn’t really know what to eat. I didn’t even know what to buy at the grocery store.  I remember feeling really overwhelmed.  I bought a lot of frozen dinners and things like that.  But soon I was eating really badly.  Sometimes I would have a bag of potato chips for dinner.

Eating that kind of food I shot way past the Freshman 15 that students tend to gain when they hit college, and that made me aware that I needed to start eating better.

And so I started doing Weight Watchers on line and preparing meals based on their recipes, which were really simple– always trying to find short cuts like buying pre-shredded cheese and canned tuna.  That’s what really got me cooking.

From there I guess I’ve always been interested in trying to eat organic.  And I learned about food issues this past year.  About the fossil fuels that go into transporting food and destructive practices that go into growing and harvesting food on a massive scale.  So I became interested in buying local.

...Locally-grown chard trumps Golen Grahams!  A mother rejoices.

...Locally-grown chard trumps Golen Grahams! A mother rejoices.

When I started buying things from the Farmers Market, they all tasted really good, so I got more into cooking.  I had always liked to bake deserts. I liked playing around with recipes and trying my own variations.    (Proud mom’s note:  She won our neighborhood Blueberry Hill’s blueberry baking contest twice in the kid’s category and twice  in the adult category before entering high school!)

At this point I know I spend more time cooking than the average college student, but I enjoy it.  I like using it as a study break.

I make several meals worth at a time and freeze it.  I like knowing that I’m spending time on a healthy dinner  that I am probably going to eat for 3-4 nights of the week.

I get up before 6 most week day mornings.  I know I could get up later if I were just pouring myself a bowl of cereal, but I like to eat pancakes made from scratch.  I can trace the origins of almost all of the ingredients in that breakfast.  I’m using local flour, eggs and jelly.

(I don’t really know where baking power and baking soda come from, but I don’t know how I would live life without them either.)

At this point cooking is one of my daily activities.  It’s something that I incorporate.  It’s like a recreation for me.  Some people are in glee club.  I cook.

So, what else are you doing this semester besides cooking?

Taking 16 credits

Working 15 hours a week

Training for a half marathon 4-8 hours a week

Practicing piano about 5 hours a week

Do you have time to socialize?

Oh yeah.  And my friends don’t mind eating my Oatmeal Pumpkin Chocolate Chunk Cookies either.

What made you add blogging to that schedule?

I began this blog as an honors project for environmental studies class project.  I’m getting extra credit for it, but it seems like a cool way to share with my fellow college students about how easy it is to buy food at the farmers market.

Or cook dinner for yourself once a week.

Or just make yourself a healthy treat from local ingredients.

I haven’t started to publicize it yet because I only have a few posts.

Once I get it a little more established I will start sending it out to my friends and promoting it in my class and see where it goes.

...This is what fuels one busy student.

...This is what fuels one busy student.

I feel like a lot of college students end up eating ramen for dinner.  But if you treat fast food like it’s not an option, you open up a world of possibilities.  If you don’t fall back on frozen pizza but instead think I’ll just whip up some whole grain pasta with tomato sauce and cheese on top of it – it can make a big change in your life in a lot of ways.

October 16, 2009 at 8:48 am 6 comments

Milkweed, Monarchs and Me

One of the first plants I think I could identify as a child was milkweed.  That was before I even associated its fireworks flowers with its flying fairy seeds.  I was attracted to its dramatic pods that could be opened to reveal the precise rows of seeds sleeping with their folded parachutes waiting to awaken and catch the wind.  I liked to help them start their mysterious journeys.  I would crack their case, wave them high and wish them well.

...They still look like fairies to me.

...They still look like fairies to me.

Just about the time I found out that they weren’t fairies, I learned they were essential for Monarch butterflies, and who can resist their saga?  These amazing butterflies actually go through four generations each year with the last generation living up to 8 months so it flap as far as 2,500 miles.  Neat site on their migration here.

The gorgeous monarch butterflies we see flitting from flower to flower don’t need milkweed.  Adults can sip nectar from any flower, but without milkweed, they would never make it to adulthood, or survive in the cold, cruel world.  Monarchs wear their vivid orange and black patterns we call beautiful as a warning sign to frogs, birds, mice and lizards they meet on their journey.  They are poisonous, and their predators know it.  They  get their poison from chemicals the butterfly larva consume as they eat the milkweed plants they grow up on.

...Milkweeds making themselves at home along my lane.

...Milkweeds making themselves at home along my lane.

So, back to the milkweed.  I was really happy to find a few plants growing on our 44 acres, and I have encouraged them for five years.  When I’m scything out wild parsnip (See my post, Warning It’s Parsnip Season here )  and other invasives, I always take a minute to open up the area around the milkweed, and I have watched their populations increasing.  I haven’t gone so far as to plant them anywhere yet, but that time is coming.

What I am not quite sure of is exactly which milkweed plant is growing on my land.  It may be common milkweed (asclepias syriaca) or it may be prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivanti).  They seem very similar to me

I don’t care if it is merely “common.”  I don’t think the Monarch butterflies do either.

Common milkweed can benefit humans as well as butterflies, and I have plans for making more use of my milkweed.  This fall I am going to collect the fluff and keep it in the barn.  Then put it out in the spring for birds who are looking for nesting materials.  (I’m keeping my Golden Retriever, Tombo’s, prolific fur for the same reason.)  I found a site that sells a special nesting material holder here.  And I’m thinking about getting one.

...About to flower.  I now know these not only look good enough to eat -- they are!

...About to flower. I now know these not only look good enough to eat -- they are!

The story is that school children gathered this fluff during World War II to stuff life preservers for the armed forces because the Japanese were occupying Indonesia where the usual filler, kapok , grows.  I have read that milkweed may become an important fiber crop yet. I actually hope not.  It’s too easy to imagine flocks of  Monarchs doing loop-de-loops  for joy as they sight an entire field of milkweek below – only to land on it and be killed by whatever insecticide Monsanto has dreamed to protect their profits.  (oh oh – Do I sound almost as bitter as milkweed sap?)

Speaking of bitter milkweed sap, I have read in many places that milkweed at certain points in its cycle is very edible for humans.  There are also many warnings about its toxic qualities.  Next year I am going to check it out for myself.  Foraging on my land is one of my greatest joys.  (Check out my post, Please Pass the Garlic Mustard here ).

I read that the shoots and tops taste like wild asparagus.  You can find the tips pushing up through the old stalks in late May.  The smaller they are, the better they taste.  Aim for 3-6 inches shoots.  Boil in salted water about 20 minutes or until tender.  (I will, of course, be careful to leave plenty for the Monarchs.)

Later on, I have read you can eat the unopened flower buds.  I saw plenty of those this summer but was too busy photographing them and admiring their beauty to eat them.  I will sample them next year.

...The butterfly buffet is open!

...The butterfly buffet is open!

The next edible stage is the pod.  They appear at the base of the flower stalk as the flowers wither.  I read that the smallest pods, under an inch long are the best, but I’m not going to eat those.  That seems like too little food to make it worth interfering with the milkweed’s life cycle.

...These tiny pods are supposed to be tasty, but I'll pass.

...These tiny pods are supposed to be tasty, but I'll pass.

It’s October

and time for the fairies –I mean fluff

to fly.


Soon they will each have flown, but all winter long I’ll have their gray-brown sculptural cases to admire against the winter landscape –  connecting me to the Monarch butterflies as they quietly continuing their cycle far to the South, and we both wait for spring.milkweed-shell

October 13, 2009 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Paul Ehrlich and Andrew Revkin at UW-Madison: Two Speakers – One Topic

You remember that quote about how the world is going to Hell in a handcart, and we nod our heads wisely – only to find out the quote is from someone in ancient Rome?  It’s a case of chronocentrism: people always believe they are living in the most critical of times.  Yesterday I heard two major minds say that this time it’s true — We are living in a momentous time.

I believe we are.  Yesterday I was told by Both  New York Times Science Reporter Andrew Revkin , at the 15th Annual Fall Ecology Symposium AND Environmentalist Extraordinaire Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and, most recently, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment as he addressed the  Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences at their first annual meeting.

Their two talks hammered home a single message.

Now is the time to get serious about our future.

Andrew C. Revkin

...Andrew C. Revkin speaks at UW Ecology Symposium

...Andrew C. Revkin speaks at UW Ecology Symposium

We are a planetary-scale force, Revkin said.  We are aware that we are a planetary-scale force, and we can communicate about this instantaneously.  So the question is, what do we want to be when we grow up?

How many people can earth hold, Revkin asked.  How much stuff?  It’s not just the number of people but what we do with our lives.   Black Friday times 9 billion?  What is the right level of development?  We are heading towards adding two more Chinas in the next 50 years.  We are at a juncture.  There have never been a billion teenagers on  Planet Earth before.  (Check out I Buy Different – a site that pulls together the connection between teens, shopping and protecting the environment.)

Two Energy Crises

Poor countries – Revkin showed a photo of boys who had walked from nearby slums to sit on the sidewalk of the airport – the only place they could get light to do their homework.  He showed another of a family gathered around a tiny, smoking stove breathing in deadly soot to warm themselves and their food.

Rich countries – the major consumers and polluters.  I don’t think I need to elaborate here.  The U.S. population will grow from 300 million to 400 million in the next 30-40 years, Revkin said.  “100 million more Americans is a big deal!”

To the science writers in the room, Revkin said, Global warming is a story.  It’s about our relationship with energy, and scientists are revealing the consequences of that relationship.  Don’t settle the common practice of journalists:  For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD.  It’s not that simple.

He talked about Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in Alaska, which used to have 200 days a year when you could drive on the ice.  It’s down to 100 days a year now, which means less time to look for and extract oil.  We started to drill oil there in 1968, Revkin said.  In four decades we have turned the arctic coast wilderness into an industrial site.

Revkin’s blog, Dot Earth is a good way to learn more, and it’s not all doom and gloom.

We need people finally to come up with ideas that will work, he said, and he is putting his hope in what he calls Generation E.  He urged science communicators to plug into the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Global warming is a story, Revkin said.  It’s about our relationship with energy, and scientists are revealing the consequences.

Then I ran four blocks.  Good!  It’s not raining right now!  Into the Union Theater and find a seat near the front.  Just in time.  Sit down and return to regular breathing during lengthy double introduction of

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Tall, and lean, at 76 Ehrlich climbed briskly to the stage and began to pace as he gave the   keynote address at the First Annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences meeting in Madison this week.

Ehrlich has been a professor at Stanford University since 1959.  His book The Population Bomb was published in 1968.  He has written 35 books and over a thousand papers in his career and is still projecting a grim future.  He wasn’t holding his punches last night.

Climate change scenarios that involve warming and rising sea levels, he warned, may be the least of our worries.   Ehrlich warned the most crucial aspect of climate change may be agricultural devastation as precipitation patterns change and the possibility of death by starvation of billions of people.

Areas of China, India, and Pakistan are some of the countries most at risk for agricultural damage, “and they all have nuclear weapons.  Even a tiny nuclear war between India and Pakistan will take us out too.”

overcrowding U.S. National Archives

photo from U.S. National Archives

Plagues:  More than a billion people, he said, are hungry today, Ehrlich said.  Malnutrition compromises your immune system.  The more immune compromised people you have – the greater the chance of novel disease transfer from animals to humans, and our rapid transport spreads these diseases.

Toxic pollution:  He said we have released thousands of synthetic compounds into the environment.  One group is hormone mimics that are already disrupting gender balance and causing cancer.

Then he started to talk directly about population, saying, “The next 2.5 billion people are going to do immensely more damage than the last 2.5 billion.”  Because they will be farming more marginal land, digging deeper for resources and squandering water as it is transported and bickered over.

Ehrlich offered 5 issues to lean into.


Having intervened in the death rate – we have to intervene in the birth rate.  He noted that Europe is starting to get a decline in population.  He noted that again politicians don’t like to see population shrink.  It puts too many people in the above 65 category.  Well, he said.  We can deal with that now, or leave it to our kids, who will have many more problems to deal with at the same time.


Conservation has to be put ahead of consumption.  Advertising drives consumption.  He advises that people try consuming virtually through arenas like Second Life


Ehrlich said we have to do cost-benefit analysis of the substances we invent.  New compounds should be assessed.  If the compound makes eyelash glue a little stronger is not the same as a compound to cure breast cancer.


This is happening, he said.  150 years ago, if your horse or your slave stumbled, you could take a stick and beat it to death in the street.  We are getting more empathetic.  We need to care more about the whole world.  “Nation states cannot solve our problems.”  We are small group animals and we need to expand our pseudo-kin.  We need to get rid of discounting by distance.


We tell people to stop doing things, but we don’t show them how it could be better, Ehrlich said.  Our car-driving society should be made more human.  How about a 3-4 day work week to end unemployment?

Society can change rapidly, he said.  Look what happened to cigarettes.  Look at women’s employment choices.  Look at racial employment opportunities.  Look at the coming down of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union.

The time is ripe.

Things can happen very rapidly.

The challenge is for us to find ways to ripen the time.

Both Revkin and Ehrlich are looking to studies of human behavior and human communication to kickstart the future.  One place to start  is the website Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior This is what Ehrlich is pouring himself into now.

October 9, 2009 at 9:59 am 4 comments

Windows on the Soul: Let the Light Shine In


Lets talk about windows.  Let’s talk about light.


Christopher Alexander explored building design by looking for patterns in existing building styles, and he stresses the importance of natural light – eastern light – in the house, and particularly in bedrooms.  Pattern 138 in his A Pattern Language is “Sleeping to the East.”  Having access to the sunrise allows us to wake more naturally and increases the likelihood that we can wake up in the right part of the sleep cycle.  Also sleeping where you can see the outside allows you to condition your sense of the day.

A human scale (and beautiful) window in the Purcell Cutts house, Minneapolis, MN

A human scale (and beautiful) window in the Purcell Cutts house, Minneapolis, MN, 1913. The opposite of plate glass.

“A good morning window looks out on some kind of constant object or growing thing, which reflects the changes of season and the weather, and allows a person to establish the mood of the day as soon as he wakes up.”

Windows connect us to the natural world while we are inside (where we spend most of every day unless we lead very unusual lives).  In the living memory of our parents and grandparents, every room had natural light and operable windows.  Before electricity was common and cheap, building design demanded that windows illuminate every space.  Wooden and brick buildings needed tall, narrow windows at regular intervals so buildings could structurally transfer the load of the upper stories to the ground.  The result was uniform … but it worked.  Older buildings connect powerfully with our humanity but we don’t build this way anymore. Here’s why.


In the last 70 years, new technology in building materials – steel and glass – has done away with many of these conventions.  We are able to design horizontal glass bands which play with our sense of reality; we can make buildings appear to hover off the ground.

Cheap electric lights and powerful forced air ventilation systems allow us to create larger and larger buildings with rooms that have no access to daylight.  We have developed curtain wall systems – entire buildings covered in glass – but  no actual windows.  In residential design every house must include its great room with walls of glass.  But instead of bringing us closer to the world outside — such walls make us  feel both hermetically sealed and over exposed.


A window is more than a transparent part of the wall.  We need operable windows to connect with all five senses.  Sure you can see out a sheet of plate glass.  But when you fling open a casement window and lean out of it — you can feel the wind on your face, smell the air, hear what’s happening outside and taste a hint of what the neighbors are planning for dinner.


Build up a large view using several smaller windows rather than one large one.  This is my desk at our Whole Trees office.

Build up a large view using several smaller windows rather than one large one. Christopher Alexander states that small panes allow us to connect more intensely with the view out the window. This is my desk at our Whole Trees office.

In Home from Nowhere, James Kunstler points out that humans like to anthropomorphize the objects of everyday life.  The classic house shape, with central door and symmetrical, upright windows (as depicted in every four-year-old’s drawing of “house”) looks cheerful and face like.  Also, “vertical windows frame the standing human figure.  They represent the idea of people standing erect inside the house.”

Horizontal windows on the other hand, suggest the idea that “the inhabitants are either sleeping, having sex, or dead.”  This is hardly an appealing way to visualize one’s neighbors.  We’ve forgotten the importance of how window size, shape and placement affects the way our homes contribute to the social fabric outside the front door.


I am fortunate to have a work space set up in front of a bank of windows which allows me to stay in touch with the weather and the world outside.  I may have a “desk job” but I don’t have to be separated from nature while I do it.

Likewise, although I live on the third floor of an apartment building in a city, and my eastern window fronts an alley, I’ve arranged my bed such that I  can see a maple tree a few blocks away over the intervening rooftops.  Watching the outline of that tree, which I can see even without my glasses, gives me a sense of peace every morning when I wake up and each night when I turn in.  And a few nights each month I get to fall asleep by moonlight.

Of course windows let in and out a lot more than light.  I’ll talk about the thermal properties of windows in a future post.

a view with a tree

My maple tree view - and the full moon shining in.

October 7, 2009 at 9:49 pm 1 comment


Who is going to suffer the most from environmental degradation?


woodleywonderworks-flickr credit woodleywonderworks-flickr

Who is going to have to take over what ever green programs are being implemented today:


If kids don’t learn what’s going on in the environment and care about it today –

we can kiss tomorrow goodbye.

Here are six good green websites for kids I’ve come across while trolling what’s out there.  Ive  arranged them in pairs:  a couple each  for young kids,  middle grades and teens.

1.  WebRangers

Web-RangerThis is the National Park Service’s site for kids of all ages.   This on-line Junior Ranger program is tailored for kids of different ages.  It  includes puzzles, stories, and projects.  It works like  scouts in that you complete activities and earn badges.  You can play games and track your progress.  So far there are 92,202 registered WebRangers and 4,031 have earned their WebRanger patches by completing all the activities.  I am tempted to become a Web Ranger myself.  I would learn a ton about our national parks.  If you’ve been watching Ken Burns PBS series with your kids, steer them to this site!

2.  eekOworld

This site is put together by PBS, so it has wonderful visuals and special effects.  It’s aimed at kids 6-9, and it’s wonderfully interactive. Kids can create and care for their own EekoCreature, then explore EeekoHouse for conservation ideas.  The site is hosted by a creature who is kind of a flying chimpanzee with a grating voice, but there are many voices I find irritating on cartoon shows that kids seem quite engaged by.  I would guess it works.

3.  EEK!

Eek!This is a very cool site from my own state of Wisconsin!

An electronic magazine for kids in grades 4-8, it offers kids many choices to surf around and learn more about the great outdoors.  For example, Go to  Our Earth , from there to Global Warming Is Hot Stuff , where kids can read about the greenhouse effect, what might happen as the world heats up and the site ends suggestions about what kids can do, including conserving electricity, reusing and recycling.  Looking to the future, kids can click on Get a Job , and learn more about the life of a park ranger, a wildlife biologist or a hydro-geologist.

Tell any young artist or writer you know that EEK is on the lookout for kid’s nature artwork and stories about the outdoors. Here’s the link.

4.  Super Natural Adventures

Super-Natural-Brothers“The more you learn about the world, the more you are going to want to take care of it!” say Ryan, Will and Michael,  three American brothers, ages 11-14 who live in Costa Rica and have created their own amazing website.   Their mission is to get kids psyched about nature.  They are launching Operation Planet Earth and are recruiting every kid who watches their adventures.  This stuff is irresistible.  Even if we don’t all live in or travel to exotic locals, their basic message is compelling.  And who could tell kids better than other kids?

5.  TUNZA for Children

Despite the name, this United Nations site has a lot of good material for teens.  Among other things, this site has a great link to Movies on Children and Climate Change.

And it has a really compelling 27-page downloadable pocket guide called The New Climate Deal.  This cuts to the chase, but with a very “we can do something about this” spin.  And if we can’t do something about this, why am I typing and why are you reading?

6.  I Buy Different

This site pulls together the very real connection between teens, shopping and protecting the environment. is part of Be, Live, Buy Different—Make a Difference, a national campaign from World Wildlife Fund  and the Center for a New American Dream. The goal is to help young people learn how they can make a difference by buying differently. For example, did you know that if just one out of every ten middle and high school students each bought just one recycled notebook this year, they would save over 60,000 trees, conserve 25.5 million gallons of water, and stop 5,250,000 pounds of global warming gases from being released?

October 6, 2009 at 7:40 am 2 comments

Michael Pollan: Growing in the Grassroots

Last week Michael Pollan visited Madison (see my posts The Soul of a Carrot – Michael Pollan at UW Madison, Corn: How Do You Like Yours? ,  and In Defense of Food (and Books) Michael Pollan leads “Go Big Read” ), and for many of us it was kind of like Santa Clause coming to town.  Pollan encloses his meticulously researched descriptions of how our national food chain works in elegant word wrapping paper and then ties it with sly curling ribbon bows of humor.

Who can resist?

“It didn’t surprise me that a typical food item on an American’s plate travels some 1,500 miles to get there and is frequently better traveled and more worldly than its eater.”

“People put more effort into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food.”

“Beach Plum Jelly: August on toast.”

......This is the best way to get your corn.

......This is the best way to get your corn.

This Wednesday I had the honor of being on a panel discussing Pollan’s work at Monona Public Library’s wonderful Green Tuesday Lecture and Film Series.  (Yes, I know it was Wednesday no Tuesday, but I can live with a certain amount of enigma in my life.  The library describes it in its website (check it out here ) as a special “Green Wednesday”   I like to see as many green days in the week as possible.  This wonderful library even has special resource section devoted to sustainability!

Green Tuesdays are sponsored by The Natural Step Monona.  Check out their website here.   Natural Step is a sustainable program that works with communities and corporations to speed them on their way to greener ways of doing things that make economic as well as environmental sense.

....That's me on the left (well, really we are all three on the left).

....That's me on the left (well, really we are all three on the left).

Here is the roll of the panelists:  (a restaurateur who serves local food had to cancel.  Too bad.)

Kate Heiber-Cobb founded the Madison Area Permaculture Guild in the summer of 2008. Through her business, Sustainability on Stilts, LLC, she educates about and consults on Permaculture. A leader in the growing movement to establish Permaculture principles as a foundation for urban plantings, Kate is also a board member of The Natural Step Monona, and has training in Transition Towns and Radical Urban Sustainability.  Click here for a quick intro to Permaculture.

Steve Pincus and his wife, Beth Kazmar, grow 45 acres of certified organic vegetables at Tipi Produce located 35 minutes south of Madison. With over 32 years of farming experience, they have a diverse crop selection, which provides produce to natural food stores and co-ops in Madison, Janesville, and Milwaukee.  They also maintain a CSA from May through November. Their goal is to provide an appealing variety of high quality produce so attractive and tasty that families will eat more vegetables than they ever imagined!  For a 4-minute You Tube watching Steve get his hands in the dirt and show how his farm works, click here.

Denise Thornton (That’s me) is a newspaper journalist (South Bend Tribune and Chicago Tribune-Lake County Bureau) turned freelancer focusing on environmental writing.  Recent articles include The Godmother of Goat Cheese for On Wisconsin and Climate Change: What Experts Expect for the Upper Midwest, which appeared in The Organic Broadcaster.  Denise’s environmental blog, , chronicles what she and her husband are doing and learning on their 44 acres west of Madison.

Every bite of food we take is one of the most political acts we can make.

Every day we are voting with our grocery dollars.

...Number 2 commodity corn product

...Number 2 commodity corn product

That was the consensus of the panel and the audience agreed. The common room of Monona Library held about 30 people last night, and almost everyone jumped in.

This seems like what libraries are for at their best.  Not just offering books, but providing a forum to explore them.  Everyone had read Pollan.  Everyone had ideas about it.

This is the way ideas are supposed to grow, and Pollan’s ideas on food seem to be falling on fertile ground around here.  Yeah.

....This is the good stuff!

....This is the good stuff!

October 2, 2009 at 8:18 am 4 comments

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