Archive for September, 2008

Time for a Sabbatical

Maggie contemplates a waterfallAfter much deliberation, Will and I have decided to take a sabbatical from blogging during the month of October.  Between the wedding and all that other stuff that has to get done even though we’re working on the wedding, we feel it would be best to take a break and recharge our greencouple engines.  We also want to spend a little time planning for our married blogger future.  I am interested in cutting back on the number of posts we do in an effort to improve the quality.  Will has a vision of creating little “how-to” guides on various topics for anyone who wants to take some of our ideas and implement them at home.  (We’ve been doing some of that already but have dreams of making it a little more formal and perhaps eventually crafting a book or guide.  Maybe cash in for mega-bucks?)

There’s a chance we’ll pop in for a post or two over the next month if we just can’t hold in our excitement (I just built a cardboard-and-tinfoil solar oven and I’m really eager to try it out!) but we won’t be back officially until November 3rd.  Send us happy wedding thoughts and remember to come back and see us right after you switch your clocks in accordance with daylight savings time….

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Pre-wedding picnic and presidential debates for tonight, so no real post.  I’m very glad that the candidates brought up energy independence, though!

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Eco Cheapo Leftover Kit

Dinner Kit from Bocadorada at flickr.comOne of the downsides of going to conferences is that although the food is free, it’s often not the best quality (even at a conference about food!) and it is almost always served on disposable dishes.   I tried to minimize my trash generation this week by reusing napkins and drinking out of  a waterbottle but I was super impressed by a fellow conference attendee who brought his own little tupperware container and metal utensils to eat with.  (Lunches were served buffet-style so he was able to pass up all the plastic dishes and silverware quite easily.)

It’s something I’ve thought about a lot and Will and I do make an effort to take our own leftover containers to restaurants, especially Bajio, but I’m always looking to do more.  I was telling Will the other day that what I really need is a handy little kit to take with me that would include a cloth napkin, reusable silverware, and a leak-proof container (or two) for leftovers.  This would also allow me to avoid using plastic silverware or paper napkins at restaurants.  The biggest challenge is to make it small enough to be handy.  It would also be great to keep it plastic free, although that’s rather a hard one.  I’m very intrigued by the wrap-n-mat foldable sandwich holders but they are made with PVC, LDPE, or PEVA which they claim are on the FDA food-safe list but don’t sound especially safe to me.

I told him a couple weeks ago that I think there’s a market out there for someone who can create a product like this that people could carry around to restaurants.  I came up with the name “Eco Cheapo Leftover Kit” but Will cringed and suggested I leave the marketing to someone else.  I started thinking about names that play off “doggy bag” but it really didn’t get any less cringeworthy.

Do any of you know if there’s already a product like this out there or have aspirations to make one?  I’d buy a few, and I’m sure they’d make great gifts.

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The history of bees

A man at the 2008 NC BugFest wearing a bee \"hoodie\"This weekend, Maggie and I went to a beekeeping workshop at the NC Museum of Natural History as part of BugFest 2008. The theme this year was bees, wasps, and hornets–with an emphasis on bees, since they’re the most sympathetic. It was fun to see a guy with a bee “hoodie” (like a bee beard, but placed differently) and the kids pushing around a giant ball (as dung beetles), but the crowds were overwhelming. Luckily, the workshop was in a private classroom so the only distraction was the small hive in the corner buzzing away.

Even though the class was less than two hours long, we really learned a lot. The instructor took a very organic approach to beekeeping, recommending that we avoid chemicals and pre-made foundations. His favorite solution to get rid of mites, apart from prevention, was powdered sugar! You dust the bees with it and it not only makes it harder for the mites to hang on but it also activates the bees’ grooming behavior (and who can blame them)!

Historically, he talked a bit about the three stages of bee cultivation or, as he put them, bee killing, bee having, and bee keeping. The first stage required finding a wild bee hive, killing all the bees, and taking their wax and honey. During the bee having stage, people would build upside-down baskets for the bees to inhabit. When a basket was full, they’d kill the bees in that basket and take the wax. They didn’t get much honey this way, so honey was rare, but the bees from other baskets would move into the empty one and soon fill it again so it was an improvement.

Then, in the late 1800s, L L Langstroth discovered that bees would create hives in rows if the space between layers was exactly 3/8″. If it were less, they’d seal it up and if it were more, they’d build a bridge between the layers. With this knowledge, he created the Langstroth hive, where bees build their layers in wooden frames that can be easily removed without harming the rest of the hive.

The class instructor favored a modified version of a Langstroth hive called a top-bar hive. It’s basically the same except that instead of a full frame, you just put in wooden slats on the top of the hive. The bees then build down from those however they like, leaving you with triangular comb (with a point facing down).

I also learned that Langstroth hives, and the introduction of beekeeping rather than bee having) revolutionized the agriculture industry. Most of the vegetables and fruits we eat today wouldn’t grow properly in the US without the active pollination of honey bees. Cultivating bees allowed farmers to grow more crops in the same space.

Our next step is to talk to some beekeepers in Indiana and see what’s different. I figure that it’d cost about $500 to get started if we purchase everything, but we might be able to knock that figure down by doing more of the prep work ourselves. Either way, we’ll have to decide if it’s something we want to spend money on, because now is the time of year to start setting things up. We were told that if we order now, we might get a queen and her colony in time for spring.

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Paint me a Picture of Sustainable Business

Today I attended the first day of “The Politics of Food”, a conference organized by the Environmental Leadership Program.  The goal of the conference is to bring together young leaders who have different causes they are working for (workers’ rights, environmental protection, hunger relief, nutrition education,  etc.) so they can rally around the idea of changing our food system to address all these issues.

So far it has been fascinating but a bit overwhelming.  How do you create a food system that is fair to all the workers who make it (including farmers, processors, transporters, cooks, and waiters) and that protects the environment (in production, transportation, processing, and distribution) and is accessible to everyone (by price, location of retail outlets, timing)?

I also must confess I got a little worn out by all the strong opinions and the cries for action.  I deeply respect people who dedicate their lives to improving the world and work hard for positive social change but it seems sometimes activists are unable to switch off their rallying cry and well-rehearsed rant.  Even when I agree with the topic at hand, sometimes I just get tired of hearing it.

Overall, the first day of the conference is great but I haven’t had time to process it into a nice concise post.  I was most intrigued by the afternoon session, which was a panel discussion about sustainable business.  There were three businesses profiled – Honest Tea (low sugar organic beverages), Niman Ranch (naturally raised meat products from family farms), and Equal Exchange (fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and snacks).  All three talked about their core values and how they structured and ran their companies to achieve them.

There were two big questions raised that I am still mulling over.

1. What does a sustainable business look like?  (What parts need to be sustainable?  How would you judge them?)

2. Does a traditional corporate structure make it impossible to have a sustainable business?  (This partly came up because HonesTea is now partially owned by Coca-Cola and may eventually be bought out, as happened with Stonyfield Farms and Burt’s Bees.  It also partly came up because Equal Exchange set up their business with a totally different structure to make it (they believe) more democratic.)

I hope to craft my thoughts into a coherent educated post later this week but for now I have only questions.  Have any answers?

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Annoying Nathan about cars

A sketch of a Model T on cardboardIt’s hard to stop thinking about cars. The current situation in the US is obviously not working long-term and probably not even medium-term but it’s hard to switch away. With gas prices the way they are it’s becoming easier, but you still have to change your thinking about transportation before it starts making sense (sort of like switching from Blockbuster to Netflix). Part of the problem is that most of us already have cars, so that’s a sunk cost.

My friend Nathan just found out that his car has transmission trouble that’ll cost as much as his car is worth. Obviously, he can’t sell the car for much (maybe a couple hundred bucks to a junk dealer) and a new car would cost more cash on hand than he’s willing to put up. So Nathan is looking into other solutions. For now, he’s biking to aikido and using our car for other errands. Once we’re back in town and using it ourselves, that’ll be less useful. That got me wondering how much it’d cost to go entirely car free for those of us like Nathan, who go a couple of places around town but also take long car trips several times a year. I keep telling him that he should try it out, but I haven’t had any hard numbers to back myself up

We already have bikes, so that’s a sunk cost too. Maintenance costs will increase with increased usage, but I’d guess not by much. Maybe $50 a year to keep everything in working order. For longer trips or trips in bad weather, we’ll want a bus pass. The buses around here have spots on front for a bike, so combining the two is possible as well. A month’s pass costs $30 or $25 if you buy 6 months at a time. That covers in-town transportation and isn’t really much less convenient than driving since you no longer have to find a place to park or buy gas.

Occasionally, it’s nice to be able to haul stuff around too, like when we got our new mattress. That cost us about $30 but would have been more like $50 if the Sam’s Club had been further away. With bike maintenance and a bus pass, that adds up to $400 a year, about what I pay in gas and car insurance.

I’d always assumed that long-distance travel would be the sticking point. Maggie and I go to North Carolina several times a year and Nathan visits his family in Goshen even more often. According to Avis, we can rent a car for the trip from Bloomington to Raleigh for $80. Bloomington to Goshen is only $30! Since we have to pay for gas whether or not we own the car, that makes the marginal cost $160 per trip ($60 for Nathan, lucky guy).

We can assume that Maggie and I visit Raleigh about twice a year, which would make our travel costs $320 a year. That’s a lot, but not too much more than we spend on maintenance (it’s less than Maggie spent on maintenance but more than I have). I’m going to guess that Nathan goes up to Goshen five times a year, since it’s a lot closer. That makes his annual cost $300.

Renting a car certainly isn’t as convenient as owning but it looks like the costs are comparable, at least in our area. I’m not sure if that’ll work for Maggie, since she makes a lot of medium-range trips, but if it were just me I’d probably get rid of my car. I didn’t have one in college and it worked pretty well, especially since I was able to borrow when necessary. I feel like I have enough of a support network in Bloomington now that I think that’s true again.

Now all I have to do is convince Nathan that he can do it too!

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Fried Green Tomatillos

TomatillosHow often do you discover a new vegetable?  I’m generally not too adventurous but this year I’ve made a few delicious discoveries thanks to Lost Pond Farm CSA.  CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture” and the idea behind it is that a group of consumers give money (and sometimes labor) to a farmer at the beginning of the growing season in exchange for a cut of the farm’s production.  In our case, we signed up to get a weekly delivery of about a quarter bushel of produce, enough for a family of two for a week.

We never know what we’re going to get but it’s always in season and it’s always fresh.  I’ve been working with Pete Johnson for awhile through the Local Growers’ Guild and I love his passion for organic growing and special varieties.  So far I think my favorite item has been the blue potatoes.  They’re pretty recognizable as potatoes but they’re a fantastic shade of blue and also exceptionally tasty.   I’ve also enjoyed being introduced to new and different produce options.  One week we received tiny Mexican cucumbers that are just a little bigger than jellybeans and taste like they’ve been pickled.  Another week it was a plant somewhere between broccoli and kale that provides the texture of broccoli heads while withstanding hot Indiana summers.  (Around here, you can get broccoli and brussel sprouts in the fall or in the spring if you start ’em early but they wilt during the summer.)

More recently, we received a bag full of tomatillos (pictured above).  They’re similar to tomatoes but fairly small, fairly tart, and you’re supposed to eat them before they get too ripe.  You also have to peel the husks off first, which is kinda fun although they get a little sticky.  I have only found a couple of tomatillo recipes, many of them variations on salsa verde, but decided to stick with fried green tomatillos, especially since we’re here in the South.  The recipe is pretty simple – mix cornmeal, eggs, herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper as a batter.  Dip the tomatillo slices in and fry them in oil.  The batch I made this evening wasn’t quite as good as I’ve had in the past (I didn’t include quite enough spices) but they were still pretty good.

I must confess, though, my tastes are alread turning to autumn.  This afternoon I made applesauce bread with the last bit of applesauce from 2007.  It’s about time to cook up some of this year’s orchard crop.  Applesauce, apple butter, dried apples, frozen apples, apple cider, apple soda….   Mmmmm.   I’m  excited to see what other exciting fall goodies will be in our CSA basket this fall.  Only time will tell.

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Environmental eating out

Paper straws from Ted\'s Montana GrillFor dinner tonight, we went out to Ted’s Montana Grill. Even though we only picked it because we were fainting with hunger by the time we passed near, it turned out to be an appropriate choice. In addition to serving bison (burgers, pot roast, and meatloaf), which is healthier and usually more organically-raised than beef, they attempt to be environmentally friendly.

The soda (Maggie had Jackson Hole Sarsaparilla) is all served in glass bottles and presumably recycled. None of the food is frozen. The doggie bag containers are made from recycled material.

Of course, it’s not all good. They still have a big neon sign, which has to use lots of electricity. Worse, they ship their food around the country. It’s nice that they don’t freeze the food, but they’re still creating quite the carbon deficit.

The coolest thing is that they’ve reintroduced the paper straw (according to their website, they hadn’t been made in the US since 1970). My parents remember using paper straws as kids but Maggie and I had never heard of them. They seem pretty robust; even after sitting in a glass of water for the whole meal, they weren’t soggy.

It’s neat what eco-conscious companies can come up with (or rediscover) with a little imagination!

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The Perfect Garden

It’s raining today and I’m thinking about gardens.  Often when I think about gardens I think about vegetables and all the good things I could grow to eat.  Today I’m thinking about a different kind of garden, a garden that draws people outside and invites them to enjoy the out-of-doors.  I’ve been reading a lot of landscape and garden design books lately in preparation for designing a new look for our yard, for helping design a courtyard garden at a local school, and for starting a business creating beautiful vegetable gardens for paying customers.

There’s a lot to learn!  I believe my biggest challenge will be improving my drawing skills to a point where I can communicate my ideas on paper.  Both my grandmothers were fantastic painters so I keep waiting for those artistic genes to kick in but right now I’m still at the stick figure level.  I especially want to learn how to draw good maps and plans.  I love sketches of neighborhoods or houses or landscapes – even more so when they show how to change a somewhat drab building or yard into a fantasy wonderland.

I’m also anxious to get started so part of me is ready to jump in and start making changes without worrying too much about the plan.  I have dreams of creating a large mosaic welcoming path but I know it will take a lot of work so in the meantime I’m looking around at elements that would be easy to install.  Will keeps suggesting we purchase a concrete hippo for the front yard but I think we should start with a garden gate, or perhaps a bridge.  Something to add a little mystique, a little invitation to walk through.

Where do you find inspiration for your perfect garden?

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Paste or powder?

Toothpaste and tooth powder in front of their boxesAs long as I can remember, I’ve always had intermittent trouble with canker sores. I’d never get more than one at a time, but they tended to cluster so that as soon as one healed I’d get another. Then, I’d go months or years without another. They were usually along the inside of my cheeks, although sometimes they’d appear on the inner surface my lower lip. They never hurt much and they always went away, so I didn’t think much about them.

Then, last month, I got a canker sore on my tongue. It was extremely painful and made eating difficult. It was so much worse than previous ones that I thought it was something completely different at first. Luckily, it cleared up in less than a week, so I didn’t waste time going to the doctor.

I did have plenty of time to check out research online, though. Unfortunately, canker sores are like pimples or hangnails. Nobody’s sure what causes them, but there seem to be a million different theories. Unlike the others, though, there’s one major possible cause of canker sores: sodium lauryl sulfate.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a foaming agent often used in detergents, shampoos, and even bubble bath. More important to me is that SLS is used in most toothpastes to make them froth. We’re visiting my parents, so I took this opportunity to visit their local Whole Foods to find a toothpaste without SLS (all the major brands, including Tom’s of Maine, use SLS).

We ended up with two very different types. A third, J/A/S/O/N, had so many ingredients that I didn’t feel comfortable using it. The first type is a normal toothpaste that contains peelu fibers, apparently gathered from some Indian tree. The other, more interesting option, is Ipsab tooth powder.

My dad remembers using tooth powder as a kid, but I’d never heard of it. It looks (and tastes) a bit like table salt. You just pour a little bit on your toothbrush, add a little water, and brush like normal. It’s hard to say exactly, but I think that I use less tooth powder than toothpaste by volume, so I think the 4oz bottle will outlast the 6oz toothpaste. I assume that, since it’s not a liquid, you can take it on planes too, which is nice.

It’s too soon to tell about canker sores, but the tooth powder certainly seems to clean my teeth well. On the other hand, there’s no strong flavor associated with it, so it doesn’t do much for bad breath. I’m also a bit worried that this brand is based on the psychic advice of Edgar Cayce.

The peelu toothpaste doesn’t have a strong smell, but does have a strong taste (of peelu, I assume). My teeth don’t feel as clean after using it, but I can’t tell if it’s because it cleans less well or because I rush through brushing because it tastes so bad.

Both tooth cleaners foam enough for me, so I’m not sure why SLS is so common. Neither have fluoride, but I think I get enough of that from all of the tap water that I drink (I am perhaps the most hydrated man alive).

Overall, I think we’ll leave the peelu toothpaste with my parents and use the tooth powder until we run out. At that point, I’ll try looking for something a little better that still won’t aggravate my cankers.

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