Friday, December 21, 2007

Not-So-Green Christmas

The environmentalist in me dreams of defying the Christmas monster, but for the second consecutive year I have caved and fed the beast. I want Christmas to be about family togetherness, not gift exchanges, but I can’t quite bring myself to risk being considered the Grinch.

Last year, when my siblings’ families and I gathered for a family Christmas at my parents’ place, I vowed to buy one gift apiece for my 1- and 2- year old nieces. But after seeing the piles of presents for the little ones under my parents’ Christmas tree, I feared being seen as the disinterested aunt. I rushed out to the mall for gifts to add to the piles.

Claire and Annika were too little to understand the concept of Christmas. The gift opening went on for hours; the girls became bored and stopped wanting to open presents. The toddlers had no clue about who had given what gift to them, and most of the presents were glanced at once, then thrown aside in the rush to open more.

So what were we adults competing for? To be seen as the most generous to the little girls? Instead of basking in reflected joy from the toddlers, as I had hoped, I felt dispirited with the pointless waste.

This year I vowed not to get caught up in Christmas consumerism. Then my husband booked a trip to Barbados as a way to spend time with his adult children. His daughter, 23, was thrilled at the gift of plane tickets to a tropical island. I hoped that being together for Christmas in an exotic location would be enough. But then I heard she was buying gifts for a gift exchange. Now the pressure was on again.

I considered a Heifer International donation for my stepson and his wife. As I perused the website, mulling buying a cow or a flock of chicks for a family in Africa, all I could think was Grinch, Grinch, Grinch. A recent New York Times article on green givers kept returning to mind.

The holidays have always been an emotionally combustible time for families, bringing together a sometimes volatile mix of siblings, crotchety grandparents and ill-behaved children. But in recent years, a new figure has joined the celebration, to complicate the proceedings even further: the green evangelist of the family — the impassioned activist bent on eradicating the wasteful materialism of the holidays.

Otherwise known, at least to skeptical traditionalists, as the new Grinch.

How dare I impose my values on others at Christmas? Wouldn’t these gifts to Heifer really be for me, an assuaging of my guilt for living in a materialist culture? So, instead of making a statement about my values, I gave in again to what I imagined were other's values. Everyone’s getting a gift, and some are expensive and trendy.

Apparently I want to be liked more than I want to avoid pointless buying. It’s in moments like this that I long to feel a part of a environmental movement.

It’s not enough to read on the Internet about others who say they are making sacrifices to live less materialistic lives. I long for the support of others in my community who also are trying to make the difficult decisions to avoid materialism. I dream of the day in which the standard post-Christmas question will be, “What did you do for Christmas?,” not “What did you get for Christmas?”

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Brown Place

Ten days ago, I returned from vacation on a Maine island favored by cool sea breezes to a landscape blasted by heat. When I left, my woodland garden was green and thriving. Now many of the plants are browning and crispy. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given an August of both record heat and drought in North Carolina. Being outside in the 100-degree heat feels like standing too close to a fire you can’t get away from, and the plants, unlike us, can’t move indoors to air conditioning. Still, the rapidity of my plants’ decline is a bit of a shock.

In our Maine cottage, some of the evenings were cold enough that we built fires and wore sweatshirts. In Chapel Hill these days, anything I step outside in becomes a sweatshirt.

The garden looks so pathetic I can barely muster the initiative to keep watering the plants in my high priority zone. This zone consists of the plants in garden beds, mainly close to the house, that I have put a lot of effort into designing. I have adopted a tough love approach toward the rest of the landscape. Whatever survives is a winner, and whatever dies doesn’t deserve to be there. Rationalization is a wonderful ability.

I am proving once again that I am a fair weather gardener. Each year I begin to get enthusiastic about gardening in early February, become discouraged by August as it becomes clear the garden has passed its peak, and am tired by November of the physical labor involved in the fall spurt of planting trees and shrubs and raking leaves. At the moment I am wondering what it is about gardening that I was so enamored with just a few weeks ago. Growing vegetables has a clear benefit, but growing perennials and woodland plants has no utility. And when those plants die, failing to conform to my plans for beauty, I am confronted once again with the harshness of nature and its disinterest in my projects.

Last week the yellowed leaves of tulip poplars were falling so rapidly that it seemed like autumn when I glanced out the window. Nearly all of the Christmas ferns I “rescued” in early July appear to have bitten the dust, except for a few in deeper shade that received water from a soaker hose on a timer. The fothergilla shrubs that had been thriving in dry part-shade are half browned. The year-old serviceberry has dieback on two of its six branches.

The only bright spot, literally, is the bed of drought-tolerant sun perennials that I planted three years ago. Purple coneflowers are still blooming, Joe Pye weed and summer phlox add pink and white accents to the back of the border, and Heliopsis helianthoides has dozens of small yellow blooms. Salvia ‘May Night,’ Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam,’ and catmint are no longer flowering, but they are alive. Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is about to flower, and verbena, with its magenta flowers, is spilling over the edges of the bed.

Each year that I garden, my admiration for farmers grows. I have not lost much to the drought—just a few plants that I can replace if I choose to do so. I don’t know how farmers can stand to see the crops that they work so hard to plant and tend wither and die, knowing that thousands of hoped-for dollars are disappearing. Farming seems like such a gamble, such an act of faith.

As I sit at my laptop at Caffe Driade searching for a suitable ending for this rather depressing post, a beer bottle on display suddenly explodes, splattering beer all over the room. We live in strange and uncertain times. How do we tell if record August heat and dryness is part of natural variability in our weather, or a shattering of our previous assumptions about North Carolina climate? As a fan of native plants, I hesitate to mention that my tropical plants are the ones that are thriving: banana plant, elephant ears, canna lilies, ficus.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bottling Summer

I had a new experience this weekend, one that until recently I never would have imagined myself doing, much less enjoying. My husband and I converted 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes into tomato sauce and then bottled the sauce. We are as proud as little children who have learned a new trick. The eight pints of tomato sauce still sit in two neat rows on the kitchen counter where we can admire them.

The seed of an idea for this project came when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few weeks ago. She makes living off the harvest of her garden for a year seem almost fun. The book includes a recipe for homemade tomato sauce, homey descriptions of August afternoons spent socializing with friends while putting up tomatoes, and even reflections by her daughter on how processing tomatoes results in a kind of mindfulness, where nothing else exists except for attending to stirring the sauce.

The opportunity came when I saw 20-pound boxes of ripe tomatoes for sale for $20 at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. My husband bought a 3-gallon pot and glass Ball jars and we were ready to go. I will admit I was a little apprehensive about the work involved in bottling. I come from a line of women who viewed working in the kitchen as drudgery and had limited imaginations when it came to food. The comment about cooking I remember most often hearing from my mother was “slaving in the kitchen.”

But playing with the tomatoes was fun from beginning to end. They were beautiful to look at, red and firm, about the size of baseballs. We dipped them in hot water for 45 seconds to loosen the skins, then peeled them and seeded them. I felt like a little kid during this part of the process—there was something so satisfyingly tactile about peeling and then squeezing the tomatoes. We then pureed them, stirred together seasonings (following Barbara Kingsolver’s no-longer-secret family recipe), and cooked the sauce.

I had to stay near the kitchen during the three hours the sauce was simmering, to stir it and make sure it didn’t burn. It was a pleasure—an excuse to sit reading Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist, one of the better and funnier novels I have read in awhile, getting up from time to time to stir the sauce that smelled heavenly.

The Egyptologist, amidst its satire, is provoking in its reflections on immortality. It occurred to me that our project was in its own way an effort to cheat time. We took a product of summer--ripe tomatoes that would have been destined for compost if not eaten within a couple of days--and preserved them to pour over winter pasta or chicken parmigiana. This seems like a small miracle to a woman who has spent her life in suburbs and urban areas, dining out and making meals using factory-made sauces. We bottled summer.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Plant Rescue

I have never been so glad to see rain as I was Tuesday afternoon. I finally got some help in trying to keep alive the native plants my husband and I had dug up and transplanted this weekend, one day ahead of the bulldozers that are leveling most of a 70-acre woods to create soccer fields and a swimming pool at Southern Community Park. My hope that these plants would readily adapt to their new home was wilting as fast as the 98-degree afternoon sun scorched the leaves of two little dogwoods. (I know transplanting dogwoods in July was an act of either foolhardiness or optimism, but they would have died anyway, so there was nothing to lose.)

I had not expected to spend much of a brutally hot July weekend digging and transplanting plants. By mid-June, I was burned out after spring planting, as I am each year. I was tired of imagining combinations of plants in my garden and researching what might do well in part shade and clay soil while also being unpalatable to deer. I was tired of digging and amending the soil and mulching. I was even tired of watering and had been doing it somewhat grudgingly during the recent days of drought. I vowed I was done with planting until fall. Then I read on Saturday over breakfast about the plant rescue and decided I needed some Christmas ferns.

I adore Christmas ferns. They stay green year-round and thrive in the woods in Piedmont North Carolina. Deer don’t eat them, they don’t need special watering, and they seem to like our clayey soil. But despite their commonness in the wild, they are somewhat difficult to find in nurseries and are priced high, usually at more than $8 per plant.

On Saturday, when my husband and I arrived at the site, I was surprised not to find hordes of other plant enthusiasts competing for free plants. I half-imagined the woods would attract crowds of early risers, as would a closeout sale or garage sale. But we had the area to ourselves.

Despite the heat and humidity, we had fun hunting for plants. We dug dogwoods, what I think are arrowwood viburnums, and the Christmas ferns I craved. They lost many roots in being dug up, so we transplanted them immediately when we got home (ignoring the hot mid-afternoon sun), watered them, and hoped for the best. We enjoyed the experience so much that we went back on Sunday. This time we went to a different part of the site and ran into several others rescuing plants--as well as several handwritten signs saying “Tree Rape in Progress.” I don’t have anything against community parks, but I still feel sad for the loss of one more patch of Carolina woods.

Tuesday’s rain temporarily revived one dogwood, but today its leaves are just as crispy as those of the other two. I remain hopeful about the 18 Christmas ferns, although many of their fronds were flattened by the wind while they rode in the back of the pickup. One arrowwood viburnum looks likely to survive, and the American hollies are looking okay. The vaccinium immediately died, but surprisingly a clump of running cedar (supposedly difficult to transplant) has not yet wilted.

My garden burnout has evaporated, and I have resumed doing rounds in the garden several times a day to check on my plants’ health. My new plants don’t yet look enthusiastic to be in my garden, but once again I am.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Shopping Green

At last, recognition by a prominent mainstream media outlet of the contradictions inherent in the “Buy Green” movement. This New York Times article describes the limitations of green consumerism as a solution to global warming, while pointing out why many major environmental groups have been hesitant to criticize green products: they see them as a small first step in the right direction. “After you buy the compact fluorescent bulbs,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, told the Times, “you can move on to greater goals like banding together politically to shut down coal-fired power plants.” Let’s hope.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Prius Envy

I want a Toyota Prius. I drove a Prius. I liked the Prius. The Prius would cut our car-related carbon emissions by more than half. Our most efficient car gets 24 miles to the gallon and the Prius gets between 50 and 60 miles per gallon.

More importantly, the Prius would cut my guilt over having such a large carbon footprint.

How much is it worth to reduce my carbon guilt? The Prius is not nearly as expensive as I thought it would be, with the lowest priced variant starting at about $23,500. Still, we calculated that after a down payment we'd pay about $400 per month for 5 years for the Prius. Hmmm... $400 per month compared to $0 (our cars are paid off.) I feel guilty over my energy use---but not that guilty.

I have been musing about the money aspects of the green technology movement. I will be starting graduate school in the fall and my income will drop in half. So even though I have a husband with a decent income, we're not exactly in a place where we can afford to make large capital outlays to replace energy-hogging cars and appliances. As with most things in America, we are free to make green choices--if we have the money to do it.

Sometimes I wonder what I'm feeling so guilty about. I was raised in the sprawl of suburban Detroit, born into a middle-class culture that unthinkingly relies on the car for all transportation. Sure, I would love to buy a home close to an urban center, but those tend to be too expensive for a social worker and freelance journalist to afford. I have been trying to ride my bike as much as possible, but there are limits imposed by dangerous roads. There are huge barriers to what an individual alone can accomplish with voluntary efforts to reduce carbon emissions. I am implicated in global warming, in a small way, but this problem is not my fault. Buying a Prius I can't afford is not a reasonable solution to an environmental problem with economic, social, and cultural roots.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Trash Economy

The New York Times’ recent article on freegans is a fascinating look at people who are opting out of the capitalist system, living instead as scavengers off the food and consumer items that restaurants, stores, and the rich throw away. I admire the freegans’ courage in living in a manner consistent with their convictions about the greed that characterizes modern consumer society--and the needless environmental destruction that results. I wouldn’t dare—yet. I am still seeking a middle ground, a way to live more sustainably and still participate in the benefits of capitalism.

Some of my motives for wanting to find a happy medium are personal, while others are intellectual. I’m afraid of the social consequences of being too radical in my criticisms of our consumer culture. I want to be liked and not be seen as weird or far out. And I admit: I enjoy buying new things now and then. I’m willing to buy less, but am nowhere close to being willing to live off of others’ trash.

My bigger concern is that the freegans’ lifestyle is by definition unsustainable. If all of us tried to live that way there would be no consumer surplus to sustain us. The only way for masses of people to avoid consumer products is to return to an agrarian lifestyle, raising our own food and living off the land. That is highly unlikely for a host of reasons, not least of which is that the vast majority of people do not own farmable land. So I’m looking for reasonable alternatives to reforming our consumer culture. As part of that search, I’m looking forward to reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Yesterday, I Drove

Ok, I cheated. After 14 days of no driving locally, I drove to a salon for a haircut. The combination of 97-degree heat and a desire to be socially acceptable (i.e., not arrive drenched in sweat) won out over my resolution to go 30 days without using the car to run errands. The good news is that I now have a hair stylist I like 3 miles from my home in Chapel Hill, rather than 12 miles away in Durham.

Although I ended my car-free experiment early, I am more committed than ever to working to reduce my use of the car. And I learned a few things that I’d like to share.

Biking for transportation is a great workout. When I ride to work, I arrive more awake and less in need of coffee. My energy level improves, too, every time I get on the bike. Although it’s been hot, I find I am more acclimated to the heat the more time I spend outdoors. One extra incentive: My husband said yesterday, “Do you realize how great you look since you started biking?”

Going without a car in suburban Chapel Hill is feasible, but not easy. I live between 2 and 3 miles from shopping centers and 3.5 miles from downtown Chapel Hill. These are fairly short distances via bike, but riding in this area is made more difficult by hills and more dangerous by fast traffic and lack of consistent bike lanes on major roads. I consider Estes Dr. to be too dangerous to ride on, and while I will ride on MLK Blvd. and Franklin St., I don’t particularly enjoy it because of the traffic. I appreciate the free bus system and often take the bus to work at UNC Hospitals. However, because I would need to change buses unless I’m going to campus or downtown, I don’t see the bus system as a great alternative for running errands.

Before starting this experiment, I had no idea how much I drove. Basically, I gave no thought to my use of the car. (I suspect that is true for most of us who can still afford gas despite recent price increases.) I took it for granted that when I wanted to drive somewhere, I could hop in the car and go. Usually I did not even bother to combine errands-- planning and organizing activities is not my strong point. I have taken quizzes online to calculate my carbon footprint and would inevitably be stumped by the question on how many miles I drive annually. 5,000? 10,000? 12,000? I had no clue. Finally, I looked up my mileage at the last time I recorded an oil change and was able to deduce that I drive approximately 8,000 miles per year.

Driving less requires making the decision to support local businesses. I already supported this view philosophically, because I believe that local businesses give a community its identity and help keep town centers strong. Going without a car for awhile narrowed the range to which I ventured from my home to about four miles. During that time, I realized that pretty much everything I need is available in Chapel Hill or Carrboro--coffee shops, a variety of restaurants, libraries, book stores, several grocery stores, farmer’s market, hardware store, garden centers. I am much less likely now to drive to a chain store outside of town to save a few bucks, because I am so much more conscious of the hidden costs in carbon emissions and to the viability of local stores.

Although I failed to meet my goal of 30 days car-free, I think I gained what I was looking for—a step back that forced me to think hard about my use of the car. I will definitely continue to bike for transportation as much as possible to help me meet a new goal: 30 percent annual reduction in miles driven.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Shallow New Environmentalism?

The June issue of Harper’s has two pieces that make some excellent points about the shallowness of much of the new green movement. One, by Edward Hoagland, laments our destruction of wild places as well as the loss of our ability to appreciate their wildness. Instead of seeing ourselves as part of a creation that is still largely a mystery, the modern American sees everything in terms of what serves our own imagined needs.

Hoagland writes with distaste of the trend of city people buying remote acres in Vermont to use as weekend hideouts or even full-time escapes, indulging fantasies of having land to farm in case of the collapse of civilization. He also pricks the self-indulgent concerns of the new environmentalism. Hoagland describes the new green movement as more concerned about managing the environment, so that it is safe for people to go on living and using resources in the ways we already do, than in conserving wild spaces for their inherent value, which may have little to do with humans. He writes,

“Conservation, which used to embrace national parks and forests, wild rivers, and the like, has blurred into a new term, Environmentalism, concerned with petroleum efficiency, groundwater quality, ozone statistics, sea-level maintenance, tradewinds pollution, recycling yardsticks, climate stabilization. People want mobility, yet a hideaway ‘off the grid,’ and to have the heart muscles of a hunter-gatherer, attained in a gym, though practically living in cyberspace, but still touch the earthly verities through yoga. Meanwhile, the pace and enormity of destruction is paralyzing, as is our general indifference.”

Ooofff. It’s criticism that is a bit hard to take, but in its way is a refreshing blast of reality. I partly fit the image of the type of person Hoagland is criticizing, the type who wants it all—my modern comforts and conveniences yet the weekend retreat in the wilderness. My husband and I have even talked about our fantasy of buying a few acres in the country and living off the land. But I am too much of a realist to indulge this fantasy for long. I support the idea of living in harmony with the land, of being self-sufficient with food, of not being dependent on the modern grid of systems that seem increasingly fragile and out of control. Yet, aside from knowing that I would not prosper as a full-time farmer, the idea is not realistic for broader social reasons. A movement of a few people indulging their wishes to withdraw from a corrupt society and have an Armageddon back-up plan isn’t going to solve a planetary crisis involving overpopulation, widespread destruction of land, and unpredictable changes in climate.

The only approach that could work to head off a global environmental crisis is collective sacrifice of “staggering” proportions, writes Garrett Keizer. A call for collective sacrifice is highly unlikely in the current American political climate, in which the political agenda is dominated by affluent elites who believe green technology will be our savior. We need to acknowledge that it is precisely our misguided worship of technology that has brought on the climate change crisis. Keizer writes,

“It is not enough to acknowledge that global warming exists; we also need to ask what global warming means. Surely one thing it means is that a culture that has as its highest aim the avoidance of anything remotely resembling physical work must change its life. If you want an inconvenient truth, there it is: that the very notion of convenience upon which our civilization rests is a lie that is killing us. And if you want to see how quickly green can turn yellow, make mention of that abundant, renewable fuel source whose chief emission is human sweat.”

I have been thinking a lot about convenience this week, living without driving. Convenience is growing to seem more like a euphemism for laziness or self-indulgence. The excuses I make to myself in times I don’t feel like riding my bike two miles to buy food or run errands are just childish. I don’t want to get hot. Get sweaty. Exert myself. My attitude at these moments boils down to a child whining, “But I don’t waaant toooo.!!”

When did convenience become a politically untouchable American right? Why was it ok for Roosevelt to call on Americans to make large, inconvenient collective sacrifices during World War II but not for our leaders today to invoke the notion of collective sacrifice to combat climate change?

The criticism offered by Hoagland and Keizer is sweeping, and it is not easy to respond or come up with pat solutions to the systemic and cultural problems they highlight. It is a relief to me, however, to read serious and provocative pieces that get at the roots of global warming—us and our attitudes—rather than the more typical article pointing the finger at particular polluting industries, or promoting the latest green technology.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Car-Free: Day 4

It’s my fourth day of living car-free. I will begin by stating the obvious: there is a reason they call it Chapel Hill. But I am finding that biking the hills in reality is not as difficult as I make it out to be in my mind when feeling lazy. I am rather enjoying life by bike. It’s slower-paced, but I’m more active. I am forced to think about where I go rather than making impulsive expeditions. I am feeling fitter already and acclimated to the heat.

It helps to look at this month as an athletic challenge as well as a lifestyle change. (My goal is by the end of the month to make it up the big hill on Airport Drive without having to get out of the saddle). I also am finding that my fear of traffic is lessening somewhat, as I get more comfortable being out on the roads. Still, I think Chapel Hill has a long way to go to be the bike-friendly community that local politicians like to talk about.

I think that more people would be tempted to commute by bike in Chapel Hill if safe bike lanes existed on commuter routes. The empty bike racks behind UNC Hospitals are a sad commentary on the lack of safe local bike routes. At a hospital that employees thousands, I usually see two other bikes in the racks during the day.

I commute four miles to UNC Hospitals from North Forest Hills, riding south on MLK Jr. Blvd (aka Airport Drive) and then cutting across campus. MLK Jr. Blvd. has rather dangerous inconsistencies in its bike lanes, transitioning abruptly from a marked bike lane before Estes Drive to a “Share the Road” sign that is hidden behind tree branches until you’re right up on it. Stormwater grates on that section of the road make it particularly dicey, especially when trucks pass at high speeds with little room to spare. Yet there is room along most of the road for sidewalks to be widened to accommodate bike lanes. Town council, do you hear me?

Full disclosure: my husband and I drove to Sewanee, Tennessee this weekend for his high school reunion. It was about 1,000 miles of driving round trip. I began to wonder during the hours sitting in the car about the contradictions inherent in trying to live with a reduced carbon footprint. On one hand, I challenge myself to live without driving for 30 days, but then I take a trip that burns more fuel in a weekend than I would in 30 days of typical driving. So am I a hypocrite? I don’t think so. The many of us trying to live more sustainably are not trying to return to a time in which people lacked material goods, technology, and transportation. We are trying to live thoughtfully, usefully, and with appreciation of what we have, rather than mindlessly, impulsively, and wastefully.

To me, one of the most important parts of living more sustainably is thoughtfulness about how I use resources and for what I use them. This involves daily choices about values—do I need this new shirt or I am experiencing fashion lust? Do I really need five more minutes under the hot water in the shower during a drought? Do we need to travel to my husband’s reunion? The answer in the latter case was yes. It was important to him to reconnect with his classmates and the place where he spent some of his most formative years. Still, it’s disconcerting to do the calculations—660 pounds of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere in just one trip. Living a modern American lifestyle is hard on the environment--and my conscience.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pledge: One Month Without Driving

My bike was not stolen today while it sat unlocked on the bike rack in back of the hospital where I work. I choose to see this as a good omen concerning bike riding for transportation. (Of course, I am deliberately ignoring alternative explanations: the trustworthiness of passersby, the stodgy appearance of my commuter bike, or the general lack of interest in bike riding.)

I also am reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and have been inspired by her description of her family’s year-long experiment in eating only local organic food, much of it grown themselves. Her motivations are the same ones that are driving much of my food choices these days—concern about the vast quantities of fuel used in transporting food, the effect of factory farms on the environment, the tastelessness of most commercial produce, and the unhealthiness of processed food, just to name a few. But much as I love growing plants, I can’t see myself with the stamina (or sunny acres) necessary to grow my own food. I also am going to have to become much more of a cook before I can give up processed food altogether.

What I can emulate is commitment to living according to my principles, although on a much less ambitious scale. Since my number one concern these days is global warming, and most of my carbon footprint is related to driving, I hereby pledge (drum roll, please) I WILL NOT DRIVE FOR ONE MONTH.

I think that giving up driving is feasible, as I live about 1 mile from a grocery store and shopping center and about 3 miles from downtown Chapel Hill. The hardest part will be riding my bike in the heat and humidity of a Southern June, but that is no excuse for one who spent many summers riding bikes and running in the heat of Washington, DC. One caveat: Cookie and I have a long-planned trip to Tennessee for his high school reunion this weekend, so I will have to make an exception for that trip. But I don’t want to use the road trip as an excuse to put off starting to try to live car-free. I will start my experiment tomorrow, May 30, and end it on July 1, so that I have a total of 30 days without driving. Stay tuned for updates on life without driving.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Farmer's Market

Today my husband and I rode our bikes to the farmer’s market in Carrboro to buy our weekend’s worth of vegetables. I have been feeling energized and virtuous ever since. We got a workout riding four hilly miles each way, bought fresh produce from local farmers, and avoided using plastic bags.

Before I began to comprehend the waste of oil involved in shipping produce across country from California (or across continents from South America), I didn’t fully appreciate the farmer’s market. I used to get irritated by the large crowds and high prices. Now, those same crowds make me feel a sense of solidarity. I’m glad that so many people in our community see the value of supporting local small farmers, many of whom farm organically.

The difference freshness and lack of pesticides makes is amazing. Last week we bought pesticide-free strawberries that were the sweetest I’d ever had. They were a little small and irregular in shape but made up for that in flavor. The difference between those strawberries and the typical perfect-appearing but tasteless store strawberries was comparable to the difference between fresh, local tomatoes and their insipid grocery cousins. We also had broccoli that was more tender and sweet than I could have imagined. (I never knew until last week that this is the time of year broccoli is in season locally.) Today we bought onions, turnips, small red potatoes, more broccoli, and pea greens, which we discovered make a pleasantly spicy salad.

The only problem with riding to the farmer’s market is it takes some preparation--and tolerance for risk. Instead of jumping into the car with a wallet and being there in 8 minutes, we have to pump up the bike tires, apply sunscreen, attach panniers to the bike, fill water bottles, and then ride for 25 minutes.

We encountered the usual traffic on Rosemary Street coming into Carrboro, and I had one close call when a driver started to turn left into a parking lot in front of me, nearly forcing me to slam on my brakes. So many drivers don’t behave like bikes have any right to be on the road. But I’m willing to take small risks to live more sustainably, and it’s great to combine transportation with exercise. One of the absurdities of modern life is how we rely on machines to save us labor, then either get fat and out of shape or have to set aside time to workout and money for gym memberships. But that’s a whole other subject. For the moment, I am happy to live in a community with a large and thriving farmer’s market--and to have the option of getting there by bike.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Climate Change in Chapel Hill

Much media attention has been paid in the last year to climate change and some of the more dramatic possible global consequences--sea level rise, drought, and disrupted water supplies, with poor nations bearing much of the burden. But, as a Chapel Hill gardener and frequenter of nature trails, I began to wonder what may happen in my own backyard.

The last 100 years have seen a warming and drying out in piedmont and coastal North Carolina. Temperatures rose significantly in the piedmont and coastal regions, with an increase of 3 degrees F in coastal Carolina between 1911 and 2002, according to a 2006 report by the State Climate Office of North Carolina. Although maximum summer temperatures did not increase significantly in the state in the last century, minimum temperatures rose, particularly in urban areas. As for rainfall, the greatest decrease occurred in Chapel Hill, which saw a decline of 4.1 inches between 1893 and 2002.

Although the International Panel on Climate Change has little to say about global warming’s likely consequences in the Southeastern United States, climate scientists do predict that an increase in temperatures will be accompanied by more frequent storms, more heavy rainfalls, and more frequent droughts.

Flora at the southern end of their distribution range, such as those found in the Appalachian Mountains, will be particularly affected by warming, according to a study by the National Biological Service. Spruces, firs and the rare endemic herbaceous plant, Geum radiatum, are highly vulnerable, says Johnny Randall, assistant director for conservation at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Closer to home, Randall says he worries most about Catawba rhododendrons growing on north-facing slopes of Morgan Creek. These rhodies are not particularly well adapted to warmer temperatures and unpredictable rainfall. “I think we’ll see them drop out relatively quickly,” he says.

If plants that like cool conditions may be losers, vines may well be winners in a warming climate. This includes the backyard scourge (and native) poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, as well as exotics like Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica. A study by Duke University found that poison ivy grew 2 ½ times faster with increased carbon dioxide.

A changing climate also favors weedy exotics such as Microstegium vimineum, says Randall. Weeds tend to take over disturbed sites because they are highly adaptable and have a lot of genetic diversity, traits that may give them even more of an edge when some native plants begin to struggle.

Some early shifts in vegetation are already detectable in the Piedmont, as wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) and Baccharis halimifolia have begun moving inland from the coast, Randall says. It is unclear, however, whether this is related to global warming or to land disturbance created by development, he says.

What’s a gardener to do in these uncertain times? I began to wonder if my neighbor who created a garden entirely of tropicals had the right idea. But Randall helped abolish these heretical thoughts. “Planting native plants is more important than it ever has been if we want to maintain some biodiversity,” Randall says. Biodiversity is an important component of ecosystems’ resilience to change. Another reason to continue using Southeastern native plants in our gardens is that most of them are already are adapted to extremes of weather—heat, periods of drought, and heavy rainfalls.

So, I’m planting a variety of natives, most of them somewhat drought tolerant. I study the heat zone maps and avoid buying plants that are already at the southern end of their comfort zone. I installed a rain barrel to catch runoff from heavy rains and keep my new plants alive during droughts. And, most important, I’m doing what I can to reduce my carbon footprint.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Organic Lessons

Many years into organic gardening, I find myself reflecting on how a seemingly small decision not to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides has ended up changing how I live my life. When I began my first small flower graden, I was an enthusiastic novice. I could name only the most obvious annuals, the ones my parents had planted year after year—marigolds, petunias, impatiens. I thought weather reports were boring. I referred constantly to Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening for even the most basic tasks, such as how to take a plant out of a plastic pot and get it settled in the ground. I didn’t know anything about soil, water, or temperature and how they interact to determine which plants will do well in a particular place. I didn’t yet view lawns as pointless green chemical sponges, symbols of a misplaced American urge for control of nature. I just wanted pretty flowering plants growing in my yard.

Eight years later, I feel connected to the earth and am more passionate about life. Trying to garden organically forced me to learn about connections between living systems and think deeply about my impact on the earth. Aside from global warming, most environmental damage tends to be fairly local in origin and scope. The fertilizer that my neighbor puts on the lawn prior to a heavy rain tends to run off into local creeks and streams that empty into the reservoir from which we get our drinking water. This seems obvious to me now, after years of reading about environmental processes. But I think most of us avoid making such connections. We’re too busy working so we have money to buy the products--mysteriously manufactured elsewhere from unknown raw materials, using production processes with who-knows-what consequences--that our culture tells us we need to live the good life.

As I have learned more, my approach to gardening has broadened from an anti-chemical impulse to a philosophy of sustainability. I now try to conserve water by planting mostly native plants adapted to Carolina Piedmont patterns of rainfall and summer heat. I have a compost pile. (After one year, it has yet to produce usable compost, but it keeps shrinking, so I am optimistic.)

Nature, in the form of deer and raccoons, voles and squirrels, ants and caterpillars, is teaching me (slowly!) to be tolerant of the needs of animals, even when that comes in the form of munched or dug-up plants. And mostly I feel lucky to live in a heavily wooded neighborhood with an entertaining variety of animal life keeping nature in balance. I can count on owls and snakes to control voles, and raccoons to dig up grubs, and birds to eat countless caterpillars and insects, and bats to eat some (though not nearly enough!) mosquitoes.

I am learning to delay gratification. A new planting bed of perennials, no matter how well-thought out, just doesn’t look that good the first year. Young trees and shrubs take years to mature. Gardening is as much a process of learning about and from the earth as it is about aesthetic results. I am no longer just an environmentalist by intellectual inclination but a person committed to the practice of respecting the earth.

Probably most importantly, through the garden, I have learned to feel deeply attached to place and community, despite being a relative newcomer to Chapel Hill. I no longer think that what is most interesting or important happens elsewhere. I have a deep appreciation for what is happening in my own backyard.