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.