Posts filed under ‘Eco activism’


Doug and I have just returned from a week of visiting his mom in Seattle.

Our daughter, Della, took this photo a few years ago when visiting her grandmother.

Our daughter, Della, took this photo a few years ago when visiting her grandmother.

Dorothy loves flowers, and when she lived in Wisconsin, we used to bring her bouquets from the Dane County Farmers Market throughout the growing season.

I normally do not buy flowers through commercial outlets because the pretty flowers in your grocery produce section or local flower shop can be breathtakingly toxic.  They are mostly grown in less developed countries where pesticide regulations are lax.  The workers are exposed to a lot of toxins, and their local water supplies are often polluted with runoff.  Shipping them here in refrigerated planes and trucks creates a huge carbon footprint.  If you want to know more , here is a link to one of the many articles on the topic of imported flowers.

No, I can’t in good conscience ever buy commercial cut flowers, BUT Doug’s mom is very ill and does not have many more days on this earth.

They looked harmless enough.

They looked harmless enough.

Doug and I were in a local food co-op, and I saw some cheery, yellow blooms  that said, “grown in Washington” on their brown paper wrapping.  I wanted to brighten Dorothy’s day.  Some lovely, local blossoms didn’t seem like too bad a choice.

When we got them home, my sister-in-law dug out her flower ID book to see what they were.  We couldn’t find the gorgeous yellow puffs in her book.

We found them online under  “invasive plants”.

I had purchased a bouquet of Bighead Knapweed!

A bouquet of wolves in sheeps' clothing!

A bouquet of wolves in sheeps’ clothing!

I was horrified to learn that this flower, brought here from Turkey and Romania as a garden ornamental, and prized for its showy flowers, is escaping from gardens, spreading to pasture and wild areas – where it does great harm.

According to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, knapweeds are aggressive, invasive noxious weeds of pastures, cultivated fields, travel corridors, and any bare ground sites.

  1. They increase soil erosion, consume soil nutrients and crowd out native vegetation.
  2. They release a natural herbicide that kills neighboring plants.

This enables these weeds to quickly and effectively take over an area once introduced.

Knapweed infestations  increase production costs for ranchers, impair the quality of wildlife habitat, decrease plant diversity, increase soil erosion rates, and pose fire hazards. Knapweed has little value as forage for cattle and wildlife and some types can cause chewing disease in animals who try to eat it.


Seattle has an amazing climate for growing lush, spectacular flower gardens, and just about every yard in the neighborhood we walked each day was gorgeous.

Sadly, once we had identified the knapweed, my brother-in-law noted that he has seen in it planted of the flower gardens nearby.  He snapped a photo on his next walk.

It doesn't even look good here -- it's obviously very aggressive.

It doesn’t even look good here — it’s obviously very aggressive.

If you find this plant growing on your land, here is a link on how to eradicate it.

I am feeling very chagrined to have supported the dispersal of a nasty invasive that is damaging the native environment in Washington.   It was so easy to give in and indulge a wish to cheer up a few of my sweet mother-in-law’s last days with something “local” I got at a co-op.

I’m not going to beat myself up about this, but I am going to redouble my determination not to feed the ugly flower industry.

I realize some people probably think I’m the flower Grinch.  What’s your take on cut flowers? 

July 1, 2013 at 2:29 pm 3 comments


Living in Underhill House is a many-faceted experience.  Moving about among its unmilled, branching timbers never seems to lose its charm, and gradually working my way through all the finishing projects is very satisfying.

But what we are loving best is that now we are living on our land and can get outside in a snap to care for the 44 acres around us.

The glade has been one of our favorite work sites for many years.  Now we can walk there in a few minutes.

The glade has been one of our favorite work sites for many years. Now we can walk there in a few minutes.

For many years we have been pouring our vacation time and most of our “non-working” waking hours to getting ourselves out here as much as possible to help heal our little patch of land.  I don’t even want to think about the hundreds and hundreds of hours spent packing the car, driving here and then back to town and unloading everything again.  In the summer we hauled water and food along with changes of clothes and the tools du jour.  In the winter time, all of that plus enough clothes to keep warm and snow shoes.

And I don’t want to count how many times we have found ourselves on the land or back in town only to realize that the tool we needed for the task at hand was on the other end of the commute.

Now we just step out to the porch to check the weather, pull on the appropriate overclothes in the front hall, stride off the porch, strap on snow shoes and head out for an hour or two.  It is so wonderfully spontaneous and free flowing.  It seems like heaven.

We have been opening this prairie jewel box wider each year.

We have been opening this prairie jewel box wider each year.

This past weekend, we prepared the glade for a prairie burn.

The glade is the heart of our 44.  When we bought our land, a truck trail wound from the bottom of the valley all the way to the top.  We named it Lloyd’s Lane after the previous owner, who blazed that trail.  About half way up, there was a level section with pines to the north and an overgrown woods to the south.

Hoary Puccoon Lithospermum canescens, aren't they gorgeous?

Hoary Puccoon Lithospermum canescens, aren’t they gorgeous?

Our second spring, we noticed some vivid, orange flowers in the lane that turned out to be Hoary Puccoon Lithospermum canescens.

Then we learned about the Coefficient of Conservation Concept.

Which is based on the observation that individual plant species tolerate disturbance differently. Coefficients range from 0 (highly tolerant of disturbance, little fidelity to any natural community) to 10 (highly intolerant of disturbance, restricted to pre-settlement remnants).

Those bright orange flowers that had caught our eye have a C value of 10!

We invited some area naturalists out to evaluate the site and were told that we were looking at a very rich remnant in and around the truck trail at that point.  Lloyd’s Lane ran right over a jewel box of vanishing native plants that was rapidly degrading as the pines that had been planted on the north side of it were maturing, and the oaks, black walnuts and other encroached from the south.

Lloyd's Lane no more.

Lloyd’s Lane no more.

We began work on a bypass immediately.

We’ve been working to open up the glade to sun ever since and protect this treasure trove — which is now just a few minutes’ climb up the lane from our back door.

Some of the encroaching hardwoods are now timbers that hold up our rafters.  Most of their branches have been dragged into the woods to form brush pile habitat and melt back into the forest floor.

Some of those out-of-place pines have ended up as rafters in our house, and their tops and branches were piled on the edge of the glade last winter when the trees were felled.

You can’t safely have big brush piles in or near a prairie burn, so we spent last weekend stacking up and then burning the lot.

I admit it.  I love to play with fire and having a legitimate reason to do so.

I admit it. I love to play with fire and having a legitimate reason to do so.

We have had bonfires in the glade before, and they are a real win-win-win situation!

  1. We have opened up the sky again for the sun-loving plants who have been calling this spot home since pre-settlement times.
  2. The intense heat of the bonfire sterilizes the ground beneath it.  We always place these burns on spots where the invasive plants have become fierce.  The fire creates a tabula rasa, and into that pristine place, we plant native seedlings that we purchase from the UW Arboretum spring plant sale.
  3. The plant sale is an arboretum fund-raiser.
We are done packing with this paper.

We are done packing with this paper.

It was a wonderful weekend.  We prepared the site Saturday and set it alight on Sunday.  We started the fire with some of our packing paper.  This is the same paper that we used when we moved to Madison over 10 years ago, and used again to move to Mineral Point last September, then saved and used once more to move to Underhill House.

The newsprint packing paper has gotten a little the worse for wear each time we smooth it out, and, as we have no more plans to move, it seemed very proper to crunch some of  it into little spheres and tuck it under the pine branches.

Then we spent the day feeding a very well-behaved little blaze till the site was ready to be a non-problematic part of a little prairie burn as soon as the time is right.

Then we will populate it with a few native plants.  I’m thinking Prairie Smoke Geum triflorumCardinal Flower Lobelia cardinalis  and Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium .

March 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm 2 comments



Here’s an interesting press release I just got from the University of Wisconsin-Madison

MADISON – Using the meticulous phenological records of two iconic American naturalists, Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, scientists have demonstrated that native plants in the eastern United States are flowering as much as a month earlier in response to a warming climate.

The new study is important because it gives scientists a peek inside the black box of ecological change. The work may also help predict effects on important agricultural crops, which depend on flowering to produce fruit.

The study was published online today (Jan. 16, 2013) in the Public Library of Science One (PLoS One) by a team of researchers from Boston and Harvard Universities and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

4600125469_98000bf0d0_bCompared to the timing of spring flowering in Thoreau’s day, native plants such as serviceberry and nodding trillium are blooming 11 days earlier, on average, in the area around Concord, Mass., where Thoreau famously lived and worked. Nearly a thousand miles away in Wisconsin, where Leopold gathered his records of blooming plants like wild geranium and marsh marigold, the change is even more striking. In 2012, the warmest spring on record for Wisconsin, plants bloomed on average nearly a month earlier than they did just 67 years earlier when Leopold made his last entry.

“These historical records provide a snapshot in time and a baseline of sorts against which we can compare more recent records from the period in which climate change has accelerated,” explains Stan Temple, a co-author of the study and an emeritus UW-Madison professor of wildlife ecology. Temple is also a senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., a stone’s throw from the iconic shack where Leopold made many of his observations.

Although the new study is not the first to document the relationship between temperature and flowering dates and the trend toward climate-driven early blooming, it is the first to suggest that the trend in flowering plants may continue beyond what has been observed in controlled studies. The work thus has important implications for predicting plant responses to changing climate, essential for plants such as fruit trees, which are highly susceptible to the vagaries of climate and weather.

“We used relationships revealed in historical records to predict how 47 species of native plants would respond to unprecedented spring temperatures, but that has only been possible because naturalists, past and present, kept good records of what they observed in nature,” Temple avers.

Mountain DaisiesImportantly, the results give scientists a peek into the subtleties of ecological change in response to climate change. Flowering of native plants, a harbinger of spring in the world’s temperate regions, signals the start of the growing season. Changes in the timing of flowering have broad implications for the animals and insects that depend on the plants.

“Earlier blooming exposes plants to a greater risk of experiencing cold snaps that can damage blossoms and prevent fruiting,” says Temple. “The Door County (Wisconsin) cherry crop was ruined in 2012 because the trees bloomed very early in response to record-breaking warmth only to be hit by subsequent frost.”

The new study keyed on the detailed phenological records of 32 native plant species in Concord, Mass., kept between 1852 and 1858 by Thoreau, a pioneering naturalist best known as the author of “Walden,” as well as later records. A second data set of flowering times for 23 species in southern Wisconsin was compiled by Leopold, a renowned wildlife ecologist at the University of Wisconsin and author of “A Sand County Almanac.” Leopold and his students gathered their data in Dane and Sauk Counties between 1935 and 1945. From 1977 until she died in 2011, Aldo Leopold’s daughter Nina Leopold Bradley resumed the collection of phenological records near the Leopold Shack.

“Both Thoreau and Leopold were part of the 19th century naturalist movement in which individuals often kept meticulous daily journals recording the things they observed in nature,” notes Temple. “Most of those journals have been lost over time, but Thoreau and Leopold were famous writers, and their journals have been preserved, providing us with unparalleled historical data.”

Comparing modern observations with those gathered by Leopold shows that in 1942, when the mean spring temperature in southern Wisconsin was 48 degrees Fahrenheit, black cherry bloomed on May 31. In 2012, with a mean spring temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit, black cherry blooms were observed as early as May 6. In 1942, Leopold’s notes show the woodland wildflower bloodroot blooming on April 12. In 2012, bloodroot was first observed blossoming March 17.

Together, these two data sets provide a unique record of flowering trends in the eastern United States over a 161-year period, says Temple.

“Leopold and Thoreau had no idea their observations would help us understand responses to human-caused climate change,” says Temple. “But Leopold knew his records might be useful in retrospect when he wrote: ‘Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search, and the chance of finding order and meaning in these events.’”

January 16, 2013 at 11:08 pm Leave a comment


When you build a house, you find yourself in the market for a lot of light bulbs.

Prepare to be blinded by the light, because the range of bulbs on the market is both dazzling and disappointing.

Running into the store for a light blub?  Be prepared for a slog.

Running into the store for a light blub? Be prepared for a slog.

Still using Edison's original plan.

Still using Edison’s original plan.

According to the U.S. Lighting Energy Policy website, incandescent bulbs still account for about 85% of today’s household illumination.   But the electric light bulb, as we have known it has not changed substantially since Thomas Edison’s invention, and these old incandescent are sucking up way too much power per lumen (the standard unit for the amount of light cast).

To produce light, incandescent light bulbs convert heat to light. The conversion requires a filament to be heated to high temperature, typically > 3000° K. Incandescent lamps have a low luminous efficiency, 10-22 lumens per watt, and a short average operating life of just 750–2500 hours. They may be the least expensive bulbs to buy, but their relative inefficiency and short lifespans make them more expensive to operate than other lighting options.

Untitled-1These old energy hogs are being phased out and replaced with more efficient lighting options all over the world.  Here in the U.S., energy efficiency legislation was adopted by Congress and signed by former President George W. Bush in 2007.  Last year, the government pulled the plug on the 100 watt incandescent bulb, and starting January 1st, the 75 watt incandescent bulb will soon be phased out.  Retailers can continue to sell their remaining stock, but they can’t add more.

Under the federal law, screw-in based bulbs are required to use on average, at least 27% less energy by 2014, which means the 60 and 40 watt incandescent bulbs will be the next ones to go.

But we don’t need to wait until 2014.

If we have any hopes of reducing our carbon footprint, it doesn’t get any easier than switching out our light bulbs.

So what should you switch to today?

The options are daunting.

If you’re like Doug and me, you may have appreciated the ability to dim bulbs down from their brightest illumination to a more muted level at the end of the evening.

We think dimming is great for ambiance, but it turns out to be an incredibly inefficient use of incandescent bulbs.  While you can dial down the number of lumens with a standard dimmer switch, the wattage (or unit of power used) does not drop proportionally.  When you dim an incandescent bulb to half its brightness, you’re still using 80% of the full wattage.  The more you dim, the less bang for your already sky-high incandescent lighting buck.

 Enter compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs)  

CFLs have come a long way!

CFLFluorescent lighting converts ultraviolet light to visible light. In order to produce ultraviolet light, electrons flow through a fluorescent lamp and collide with mercury atoms. The collision causes photons of UV light to be released; the UV light is then converted to visible light as it passes through the phosphor coating in the glass tube.

The conversion process for fluorescent lighting is more efficient than the incandescent process, resulting in 75% reduction of the total energy consumed and a 10,000 hour typical lifetime.

Older generation CFLs used to cast a harsh, unflattering light, but improvements in technology have yielded fluorescent lamps with color temperature and color rendition comparable to incandescent lighting.  Also, older generation fluorescent bulbs used to have to think about it for a second before they started to shine, and they tended to be sized much longer than corresponding incandescent bulbs, so they did not fit nicely into conventional lamps.

But these problems have been solved.  You can now get instant-on CFLs that put out a warm, light from a compact device.  While they cost a good bit more than incandescents, they last much longer.  All this while using just a quarter of the watts for the same brightness of an incandescent bulb.

The energy savings is so big that a high-use fluorescent bulb that is kept on for an average of 5 hours per day will save you more than $8.00 per year on your electric bill if it is replacing an equivalently bright 60 watt incandescent.  Since you can buy these CFLs for about $1.00 a piece these days, it’s just a matter of months before the purchase to pay for itself.

 So, what’s not to like about a CFL?

 For one, they all contain mercury, which is a hazard to our health and that of the environment.  And because they are still relatively new, and they last a long time, the jury is still out on how that mercury is going to get dispersed as more and more of these bulbs find their way to the landfill.

 Also, from a usage point of view, they are not dimmer friendly!  They don’t dim smoothly and they don’t dim much.  And if you turn them too low, they start to flicker annoyingly.  While they do decrease in wattage almost proportionally to the amount the light is dimmed, from what we’ve read and what we are told by people who have tried them,dimmable CFLs don’t last nearly as long as advertised.

Untitled-2What CFLs are very good for –

Standard, non-dimming CFLs have gotten a seal of approval from organizations like Focus on Energy who are now helping to subsidize their cost.  So while they are still more expensive than equivalently bright incandescents at the checkout counter, it’s fairly easy to justify their purchase when you factor in the energy savings that will build up in a reasonably short time frame.


Light Emitting Diode bulbs (LEDs) have a number of technical advantages. LEDs are the gizmos that have been around for years lighting up digital clocks and calculators. They produce the glowing red light that indicates our TV and other electronic devices are on.

LEDs use semiconductors that emit light when electrons move around. More recent innovation has allowed engineers to make them white and bright enough for light bulbs.  They transform the light bulb into a rugged gadget that can withstand mishandling and accidental damage much better than either incandescent or compact fluorescents.  You can put away your kid gloves when handling LEDs.

LED Not only do they lower the power consumption per lumen even further than CFLs, they also run significantly cooler to the touch, which can be a safety as well as a comfort advantage.  Have you ever burned your fingers trying to remove a recently-lit incandescent light bulb?  While CFLs emit about a third the amount of heat relative to the equivalent incandescent, LEDs emit only 5% as much.

Unfortunately, while LEDs are capable of dimming

they don’t seem to dim nearly as nicely as our warm old friend the incandescent bulb.  We are finding that a conventional wall-mounted dimmer will start to lower the light output from a dimmable LED, but by the time you have turned the dimmer half way down, the light goes completely out very abruptly.  It’s annoying.  There doesn’t seem to be any low end dimming capability.

 There is some good news here.  When you successfully dim an LED light bulb down to its minimum of perhaps half of its full output of light, you also use only half the watts to produce that light.  That’s a feature that incandescents can’t come close to matching.

 The elephant in the room with LEDs is their high price tag.  These puppies can cost 50 times what an incandescent bulb does.  The cost of one LED may exceed the cost of screwing an incandescent bulb into every fixture in our entire house.  We figure we’ll use 48 bulbs to light every room, closet and outdoor socket.

piggy-bank With an expected lifespan of 22 years, this high LED cost may one day be fully recovered, but it’s a lot to ask of most consumers to show that much patience before payback.

Initially we were planning to install dimmers in 10 of our light switches, but as we have researched what bulbs are available to us, we decided that all things considered, we are going to go with mostly low wattage, non-dimming CFL bulbs in our new house.

There are 3 lights though, that will hang from the ceiling of our main room that we are still determined to dim.  In those spots, we intend to install an LED bulb.  And while the initial cost will be pretty high, these three fixtures will be turned on more than most of the others in our house.

The big one on the left will get an LED, the small one on the right will get a CFL.

The big one on the left will get an LED, the small one on the right will get a CFL.

Assuming that one of these high-use LED bulbs is kept on for an average of 5 hours per day, it’ll save us perhaps $10.00 per year on our electric bill if it is replacing an equivalently bright 60 watt incandescent.  So the payback should still occur within a few years, and we’ll really enjoy the ability to choose the brightness level in our main room fixtures.

How are you lighting your world these days? 

How do you balance all these new choices?

January 1, 2013 at 11:24 pm 6 comments


The health care industry uses enormous amount of energy and generates a vast amount of waste.  What is going to turn this power-hungry, polluting ship around?

Hopefully the next generation of medical care providers.

If you would like to follow the progress of a new medical student who is focused on community health and greener medical delivery systems, check out my daughter’s new blog, The Green Stethoscope.

Doug, KJ, Della and me at KJ’s White Coat Ceremony.

We recently attended her White Coat Ceremony (see her blog post The Coat You’ll Never Take Off )

KJ is enrolled simultaneously at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and their masters program in public health.  She completed a journalism degree at UW-Madison, heavy in science curriculum and is entering medical school with a very developed environmental awareness.  This summer she took a course in Environmental Medicine for her public health degree and her medical school curriculum includes a section on Health and Society.

It is this mother’s opinion that her journey is going to be well worth following.

Here is a sample post:


In a few short weeks I will begin medical school. I have applied to medical schools, interviewed at medical schools, been accepted to medical schools and even started taking courses for a Masters in Public Health program at a medical school. And in some ways I already think of myself a medical student. But I still haven’t quite crossed the threshold. There is a Grand Canyon of a gap between pre-med and medical student. I have not crossed over (yet). And let me just say, I am so aware of it.

Whether you’re mining this blog for some tips and pointers for the daunting med school application process or curious as to how a carefree twenty-something transmogrifies into the person tapping your knees with a reflex hammer and telling you to say “ah,” let me introduce myself.

Seventh grade biology gave me the chance to dissect frogs and hold cows hearts in my bare (ok, fine, rubber-gloved) hands and from that point on, I was hooked — fascinated by the inner workings of the human body. In high school I set myself on a course to pre-med-dom and eagerly anticipated a lifetime of technical and advanced higher learning and academic and professional accomplishment.  I’ll be the first to admit that I have my Type A tendencies,

When I started college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006 I was ready to jump right into my carefully planned pre-med track. During Welcome Week, I attended every student org kickoff meeting that sounded remotely interesting, but it wasn’t the premedical honor society that got my toes tapping.

Read more here

September 21, 2012 at 12:25 am 5 comments


The Xerces Society has just released the report, Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees? A Review of Research into the Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Bees, with Recommendations for Action.

According to a report from Penn State,  The neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that impact the central nervous system of insects. They act either as contact insecticides or applied to plants, they are translocated throughout the plant tissue, making all parts of the plant toxic to pests that feed on the plants.

Their use has increased dramatically over the past few years and they are now the most widely used group of insecticides in the US. Their uses include: seed treatments for corn, cotton, canola and sunflowers; foliar sprays of fruit, nut and coffee crops; granular, and liquid drench applications in turf, ornamentals, fruit crops and in forests.

Potato plants in blossom.  Watch out, bees!  A report by the National Potato Council states that it is used on more than half the potato crops in this country and that the pests they are trying to kill are starting to develop resistance already.

Neonicotinoid (so named because it is similar to nicotine) hit the market in the mid 1990s and were popular because they are absorbed into the treated plant and protect it from insects who suck its sap of chew on it.

They have been promoted as being safer for wildlife because they were less toxic to birds and mammals than previous classes of insecticides.  Neonicotinoids are sold at garden centers and agricultural supply stores, and millions of acres of farmlands, gardens and city yards have been treated.

That’s too bad for pollinating insects who are poisoned by the neonicotinoid present in nectar and pollen of treated plants.  That includes bees, butterflies, beetles and flies.  And Unfortunately the bees, butterflies and other pollinators don’t seem to be bouncing back as well as the Potato Beetle.

Some of the major findings of the Xeerces report include:

-  Several of these insecticides are highly toxic to honey bees and bumblebees.
-  Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.

-  Many neonicotinoid pesticides that are sold to homeowners for use on lawns and gardens do not have any mention of the risks of these products to bees, and the label guidance for products used in agriculture is not always clear or consistent.

-  Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.

-  Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.

-  Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.

-  There is no direct link demonstrated between neonicotinoids and the honey bee syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). However, recent research suggests that neonicotinoids may make honey bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens, including the intestinal parasite Nosema, which has been implicated as one causative factor in CCD.

If you want to avoid contaminating the world with neonicotinoids, here are some of the brand names it is sold under:

Actara, Platinum, Helix, Cruiser, Adage, Meridian, Centric, Flagship, Poncho, Titan, Clutch, Belay, Arena, Confidor, Merit, Admire, Ledgend, Pravado, Encore, Goucho, Premise, Assail, Intruder, Adjust and Calypso (This list was generated by The Senior Extension Associate at Penn State)

April 13, 2012 at 12:32 am 2 comments


I have built hundreds of fires in my life.  For 12 years we partially heated our house in Illinois with a wood-burning stove, and I have made more than my share of campfires and bonfires.  While we were living in exile in the northern Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Doug and I would drive up to the Richard Bong State Recreation Area on our anniversary in April just so we could make a fire and spend the evening watching flames dance and sparks leap up to the stars till the fire was reduced to orange-red embers.  What is there about a fire circle that draws people close?

I thought I knew everything I needed to know about how to build a fire, but while researching masonry stoves recently I watched a you-tube that showed a different way to make a fire so it would burn from the top down.  And yesterday I came across this radical method again while checking out

If you make fires, check this you-tube out.  This is evidently a very simple way to build a fire.  There are a number of you-tubes illustrating the process, but this one is my favorite.  Evidently an upside down fire is a more clean, efficient way to make a fire which burns hot and smokes as little as possible.

Reducing smoke is a very good idea.  Even though I love that smell, wood smoke is a major source of pollution.  According to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ very informative website, breathing in a snout full of campfire smoke is much worse than taking a drag on a cigarette.  Tobacco smoke causes damage in the body for approximately 30 seconds after it is inhaled. Wood smoke, however, continues to be chemically active and cause damage to cells in the body for up to 20 minutes, or 40 times longer.

Some of the components in wood smoke are free radicals, which steal electrons from the body, leaving cells unstable or injured. Some of these cells may die, while others may be altered and take on different functions. These changes lead to inflammation, which causes stress on the body. EPA researchers suggest that the lifetime cancer risk from wood stove emissions may be 12 times greater than the lifetime cancer risk from exposure to an equal amount of cigarette smoke. (Rozenberg 2001, What’s in Wood Smoke and Other Emissions).

So try out an upside down fire the next time you strike a match.

Here are a few more tips on burning clean

from the British Columbia Lung Association:

  • Burn small, hot, and controlled fires with good air ventilation;
  • Burn only dry seasoned organic materials;
  • Never burn garbage or prohibited materials such as plastic, treated wood, and tires;
  • Do not burn wet materials such as leaves or branches, as they produce more smoke;
  • Avoid starting fires with diesel or other fuels; and MOST IMPORTANTLY –
  • When campfire time is over, make sure your fire is out!

Have you got any tips to share on how to minimize pollution while enjoying a the crackling warmth of wood?

March 13, 2012 at 12:31 am 6 comments


We have all heard about the collapse of the honey bee population, and if you aren’t scared – you should be.  Pollinators make it possible for more than 70% of the plants on earth to set seed.  You can thank pollinators for one in three mouthfuls of food you eat each day.

Honey bees can't do it all.

Modern agribusiness depends on hives of honey bees that are shipped to their fields.  Right now the bees are all in California pollinating 750,000 acres of almond groves.  It’s a heck of a life for those bees.  Treating them like a product it taking its toll.  Since the 1950s we have seen a 50% decline in managed honey bees in the U.S.

If you wonder why food prices are going up, honey bees can be a factor.  Almond growers need 2 hives per acres, and they are being forced to fly in honey bees from as far away as Australia.

The good news is that European honey bees aren’t the only pollinators out there.  We have 4,000 native bee species in North America.

The bad news is that our native bee populations are declining too, and some are teetering on the brink of extinction.  Some may already be gone.  They are disappearing as we plow up and pave their habitat.

Fortunately there is a little more good news, and it comes from the Xerces Society.

At the Midwest Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, WI,  last week, I had to choose 6 of their 65 workshops from Building Soils for Urban Agriculture to Visual Assessment of Mineral Deficiencies in Vegetable Crops, and I chose 2 workshops on native pollinators and the native plants to support them.  The classes were led by Eric Mader and Jennifer Hopwood of the Xerces Society.

The Xerces Society  is like the Audubon Society for insects, and aquatic invertebrates –which constitute 99% of life on earth. We depend on them in ways we don’t even understand yet.  The society gets its quirky name from a beautiful, blue North American butterfly that went extinct when its habitat was paved as part of the World War II effort.

Back to bees.

Mader said that even as bee populations are declining, the crop acreage that needs those bees is growing.  Since 1960 there has been a 300% increase in global cropland requiring bee pollination.

Among native bees, there are three basic groups:  ground nesting and wood nesting and bumble bees.  I’m going to focus here on bumble bees because they are so valuable and so endangered.

Bumble bees pollinate many important crops – red clover, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and cranberries, to name a few.

They are active at cooler temperatures than other bees because they can warm up by shivering their flight wings.  This can be crucial during cool spells in spring.  They are the first bees out in the morning and the last to quit at night.

Bumble bees are social, like honey bees.  They form colonies founded by a queen.  If you see a bumble bee in April or May, you are looking at a queen.  Later the queen stays home, and you see her team of up to 300 worker bees.  They are strong flyers, able to travel as much as a mile and a half, but they live for only one season.  In the fall, newly hatched queens mate, and store enough body fat to find a hiding place and hibernate till spring.

Let's help bumble bees get back on top! photo credit:

Because bumble bees are so valuable, we have been trying to domesticate them.  The Dutch succeeded, and we sent American bumble bees to Europe to be domesticated and returned.  Unfortunately, they picked up a European pathogen and carried it back to the U.S.

It’s been a tough go for bumble bees when you add this European pathogen to habitat habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change.

That’s where we can step in and make a difference.  We can make spaces where bumble bees can thrive, and these same spaces will also become a haven for other helpful insects.


  1.  If we want bumble bees to be there when the cranberries and tomato plants bloom, we need to provide a succession of blooming flowers – spring, summer and fall.  They need a minimum of three blooming plants at any moment in their season.
  2. Don’t use insecticides.
  3. Encourage a natural landscape where bumble bees can find abandoned rodent burrows and tussocks of grass for their nests.
  4. Don’t till or mow in areas where bumble bees might nest.
  5. Get to know your area bumble bees.

Guides are available from Elaine Evans and the Xerces Society for the following species because they are very endangered.

  • the rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) – download PDF
  • the western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) – download PDF
  • the yellowbanded bumble bee (Bombus terricola) – download PDF

Or check out  really a comprehensive guide at

March 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm 8 comments


2012 has started off a little ruggedly for me.  In mid-January my appendix and part of my colon were removed, and at the end of my 3-week recuperation, I had one great day where I worked out on our land with the house-building team.  The next day, I succumbed to further illness.  My compromised immune system made me vulnerable to influenza and then to pneumonia.  As I healed with frustrating slowness from pneumonia, I hoped I would be strong enough to attend the Midwest Organic Farming Conference – and I was (just barely).

I got to La Crosse, WI in time for the Thursday afternoon MOSES Rural Women’s Project on the tools and techniques that women can use to leverage their smaller body size and more minimal musculature to accomplish the farming tasks we want and need to.

The workshop was led by Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger of Green Heron Tools.  Ann brings a background in nursing and Liz has worked in public health before they both got into commercial gardening.  They searched for tools designed for women and found none, so they got a USDA grant to design some.


Why Do Women Need their own Tools?  Because we have:

  • 40-75% less upper-body strength
  • 5-30% less lower-body strength
  • Smaller stature
  • More adipose (fatty) tissue
  • Narrower shoulders
  • Wider hips
  • Proportionally shorter legs & arms
  • Smaller grips

Ann and Liz brought their first product to the demonstration:  the world’s first HERgonomic Shovel-spade hybrid designed scientifically and specifically for women.  I intend to order one of these puppies right away.

This weighs less than 4-1/2 pounds, which is light for a shovel.  The handle gives you many options for hand placement to keep the wrists in neutral position.  The diameter is designed to fit better and create less hand fatigue.  It comes in three lengths, so you can truly fit it to your needs.

Green Heron searches out tools that work well for women.  They have found a pruner maker in Japan, which because people tend to be smaller there, their tools are correspondingly smaller and a better fit for a woman’s hand.

They also have identified a wheel hoe that reduces back strain and adjusts to individual body size.

They also mentioned scythes, which are an amazing tool and can be ordered to fit your body from places like Scythe Supply.

Moving beyond tool selection, women need to redesign their techniques if we want to keep work-related injuries to a minimum.

Ann says the Number One rule is VARY YOUR TASKS.

We all get obsessed with finishing a job, but she says we are much better served by alternating between tasks.  Don’t do any task for hour after hour.  Find ways to break jobs into sections and switch tasks regularly.

We also know the correct way to lift heavy things.  We need to follow the rules about:

  • Using your legs instead of your back
  • Bend at the knees
  • Keep your back straight
  • Lift straight upward
  • Don’t lift when you are really tired
  • Women – try not to lift more than 35 pounds.  Our joints are looser, and we are more prone to sprains and strains.

That same loose joint thing makes us more prone to injury from heavy vibration with tools like rototillers and brush mowers.  Yes, I know, these tools cannot be completely avoided, but try to use break up the amount of time working with them and alternate with soothing, or at least different tasks.

A call for hands in the room found that almost every woman there was already familiar with herniated discs, chronic back pain, carpel tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, bursitis and tendonitis.

Learn some basic principles of body mechanics.

Check out Angie Hissong’s Shoveling 101

Watch Jennifer Hess’s slideshow on Ergonomics for Women in the Trades

Ann urged everyone to start a yoga practice.  I couldn’t agree more.

What are your favorite mantras for good body mechanics?  Have you had work related injuries?  What’s your strategy to avoid more injuries?

February 28, 2012 at 12:52 am 5 comments


The first roundabout I clearly remember was the one where I looked in my rear view window to see the flashing lights of a police car I had unwittingly cut off within its circle as I approached the outskirts of Wellington, New Zealand. I was seriously jet lagged, bemused by my first day of traveling on the left side of the road and not sure how to navigate such a big, busy, circular road.

I had nosed into the roundabout without much sense of what it was or how it was supposed to work,  and come out the other side with a warning ticket.  That was 2003.  I now encounter roundabouts just about every day at some point, and I have learned to love them.

Lucky me.

Roundabouts are becoming almost as common as potholes.

That’s a good thing.

Quite simply, roundabouts provide drivers an efficient, safer alternative to traditional four-way intersections governed by stop signs or traffic signals, says David Noyce, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of civil and environmental engineering.

1.  Roundabouts are Safer.

An expert in transportation safety, Noyce directs the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety (TOPS) Laboratory at UW-Madison. From Jan. 22-26, they discussed their roundabouts research in Washington, D.C., at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting, which draws more than 11,000 transportation professionals from around the world.

“People say they’re unsafe because it’s hard to judge the gap,” says Andrea Bill, TOPS traffic safety engineering research program manager. “But even if something happens, your risk of a fatal crash goes way down. We saw video of a driver traveling the wrong way, but everyone was driving through the roundabout so slowly, people could stop. There’s time to slow down and react.”

“The right-angle crash is one of the most severe crashes,” says Bill. “Roundabouts take away this possibility because drivers are always making a right turn. The crashes are less severe.”

 2.   Roundabouts are cheaper

While the initial construction cost of a roundabout varies site by site, its maintenance is cheaper than for intersections with signals.

I haven’t seen any studies about how much more soil they bury under asphalt, and that ought to be considered too.

 3.  Roundabouts are greener
Every bit as important, roundabouts reduce vehicle emissions and use less gas.  According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, In one study, installing a roundabout in place of an intersection with signals reduced carbon monoxide emissions by 29 percent and nitrous oxide emissions by 21 percent. In another study, replacing traffic signals and stop signs with roundabouts reduced carbon monoxide emissions by 32 percent, nitrous oxide emissions by 34 percent, carbon dioxide emissions by 37 percent, and hydrocarbon emissions by 42 percent.

Constructing roundabouts in place of traffic signals can reduce fuel consumption by about 30 percent. At 10 intersections studied in Virginia, this amounted to more than 200,000 gallons of fuel per year.

What do you think about roundabouts? 

Let us know!

February 14, 2012 at 12:48 am 5 comments

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