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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Bill in the US Regarding Traveling Circuses

This piece on circus animals by Marc Bekoff speaks for itself:

Marc is a world-reknown biologist based out of Colorado, USA, and has done extensive work on animal behavior and emotion. With Jane Goodall, he co-founded "Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals."

I also applaud the sponsors of the bill here in the USA, particularly Rep. James Moran of Virginia who said:

"Based upon publicly available research, including video and photographic evidence, it is clear that traveling circuses cannot provide the proper living conditions for exotic animals ... Keeping elephants in chains, confining lions and tigers in small cages, forcing them to perform unnatural tricks for the sole purpose of human amusement is increasingly difficult to justify the more we learn about these intelligent, social creatures."

I rememer seeing my first traveling circus when I was about 8 years old. Before the show, my mom took me and my little sister out in back of the tents to see the animals. I cried when I saw the bears and lions and tigers kept in cages barely big enough for them to lay down, and the elephants chained to stakes in the ground, unable to move. I also wasn't that impressed with the show itself, honestly, and I haven't been to a circus since. However, that experience has led me to actively support orginizations that work to give abused circus animals permanent, safe, and sane places to live.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary:

The Elephant Sanctuary:

Monday, October 17, 2011

One or Two People Can Make a Difference - Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver

Last weekend I spent a fabulous hour at the local farmer's market (Crystal Springs, Brunswick, Maine). The market was packed - it was a sunny Saturday morning, the farmers beautifully displayed their fruits, vegetables, meats, and eggs, and hoards of shoppers crowded the stalls trying to get their pick of the bounty before everything sold out. I love seeing this kind of activity over locally raised foods - by purchasing directly from farmers, more $ are going directly into their pockets. This means that our money stays local rather than being sent to wealthy corporations several states away.

I realized that a good portion of the sudden rise in popularity of farmer's markets is due to two American authors: Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma).

Granted, in many of the more rural areas of the country, farmer's markets and farmstands seem to have always been a part of the landscape. Growing up in rural northern Illinois, what we didn't grow ourselves we often bought from the Schulz Family Farm down the road. Besides raising pigs, cows, and chickens, they had a large market garden that produced the most delectable cantaloupe and sweet corn I've ever tasted.

But I left Illinois in my early 20s and moved west. In many of the western states in the mid to late 90s, farmer's markets were almost unheard of. You bought your food at a grocery store where the lettuce was trucked in from California and the corn from Kansas. In some areas I could buy local peaches or apples certain times of the year, but the season for local food was limited and little to none was organic.

Fast forward to today. Local food is the "in" thing in many areas of the country. New England is home to many fine restaurants who buy as much locally as possible. Portland, Maine, is a foodie's dream-come-true in that regard. Supporting the New England economy is just what we do, and the farmer's markets and farmstands do a pretty good business. While maybe not the most glamorous of professions, most small farmers find it very rewarding to make a living off the land by supplying townsfolk like me with good-tasting, nutritious food.

But the movement is also taking hold in other areas - Portland Oregon and the Hood River are becoming quite the local foodies' hotspots. The farmer's market in Boulder, CO, is one of the largest I've ever seen. Festivals of locally grown food are starting to happen across the country, and more restaurants are realizing that buying locally means fresher, and often more tasty, ingredients. The farmer's market in Olympia, WA is open all year is housed in a dedicated building at the center of the waterfront.

According to the USDA, the number of farmer's markets grew 18% in the two years between 2004 and 2006. To date, there are over 7,000 farmer's markets across the country, up from 4,300 in 2006.

Kingsolver's and Pollan's books, both published in 2007, undoubtedly helped to spur this more recent growth in market numbers. But I believe it's more than just two books. I think these authors helped give many of us a good reason to buy locally whenever possible - they were able to answer questions that many of us have wondered about for so long. Does it make a difference where my lettuce comes from? Why does that store-bought tomato taste like cardboard...and does anyone sell a decent tomato these days? And why should we care about small family farms anyway? Kingsolver and Pollan also prompted many of us to think a little more about our food choices - not only what we eat, but where does it come from? How many miles was that lettuce on a truck before it became part of my salad?

The more we think about our choices, the more we will make conscious rather than unconscious decisions about how to spend our money. And the more consciously we spend our money, the more we as consumers will have our voices heard. Remember, every time you shop you vote with your wallet.

Friday, September 23, 2011

One Person Can Make a Difference: Pat Craig

Did you know that in the United States, 15,000 tigers live outside of the zoo system under private ownership? That's more than double the world population of wild tigers, estimated to be around 7,000!

Did you also know that another 15,000 non-tiger wild predators (bears, lions, lynx, wolves, etc.) also live in the US under private ownership?

What do I mean by private ownership? These are animals owned by people like you and I, people who breed and raise these wild predators as "pets," showpieces, or even status symbols. Your neighbor down the road may have a tiger or two kept in small cages on his property, or someone a few miles away may be keeping a grizzly bear as a "pet" in a small shed in her backyard. Still another might have a wolf tied to a stake, living out its life in solitude and misery at the end of a 10 foot chain.

These animals are often abused, neglected, and live lives of pain, suffering, and anguish all because someone thinks it's cool to have a wild predator for a pet. Well, one man doesn't think it's cool and for the last 30 years has been doing something about it. His name is Pat Craig.

Pat grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and at an early age became aware of the captive wildlife crisis in the US. And it is a true crisis. With over 30,000 wild predators kept by private citizens (over 575 animals per state) in spotty, often dangerous and abusive conditions, it's a true crisis. Right now, the illegal trade in exotic wildlife in the US is third only to drugs and weapons in scope.

Pat hopes to change all of this. He had an early start by legally rescuing and giving sanctuary to his first animal, a jaguar cub, when he was a college student of 19 years old. Today, Pat's passion and vision has become the 700+ acre Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keensburg, Colorado.

Pat continues to lead the nation in bringing attention to the captive wildlife crisis in this country. He has pioneered how we go about rescuing and rehabilitating these animals, how best to give them long-term sanctuary so they can live out their lives in peace, and also the use of truly large enclosures (10-20 acres or more) combined with a stimulating environment to allow these predators room to roam and a chance to remain mentally sound (or in some cases, regain sanity).

The circumstances he and his team rescue these animals from are often horrific. I won't recount all of the stories here but you can read about many of them on their website:

Most of the animals Pat rescues have come from situations of extreme abuse and neglect - a pair of adult African Lions kept as "pets" in the back of a horse trailer....a female black leopard caged on a fur farm in Minnesota...a mountain lion chained by the neck in the backyard of a Montana man....a pair of grizzly bears who were housed in a truck and were kept addicted to nicotine (used as a training aid)....I guarantee that if you have any kind of heart at all and read some of these stories, you will feel sadness and disbelief - probably a healthy dose of anger too. And perhaps you'll also be left with a need to help in some small way.

While Pat and his team have a passion for rescuing these animals and giving them a loving, safe place to live out their lives, his main goal is to make himself and the sanctuary obsolete.

Yes, you read that right!

His hope is that someday soon, his educational efforts will help everyone realize that keeping wild animals, especially wild predators, as pets is just not a good idea...that we as a society will give up our need to have these animals in unsafe and inhumane conditions  and prefer to see them as part of thriving, wild populations: free, in the wild, where they belong.

Pat's leading the way but you can help: support his efforts at the sanctuary; teach your kids and their friends that domestic cats and dogs are fine as pets but tigers and bears are not; support the passage of laws that restrict or eliminate the keeping of wild predators by private citizens.

He wants his sanctuary to be unnecessary. Soon.

We can all help him. Start by educating your own family and friends and see where that takes you.

Friday, September 9, 2011

One person CAN make a difference!

Several weeks ago, one of my acquaintances was feeling pretty low about the state of the environment. She said that it seemed as though all of the environmental news kept getting worse, and did our efforts actually have a positive influence at all? I've heard similar sentiments from other environmentally-conscious people I know. These are folks with their hearts in the right place who want to make a difference for future generations, but get discouraged at the overwhelming negative news.

Can one person really make a difference?

Yes, I can honestly say that one person CAN make a difference. I'm going to explore this question for a few posts to, I hope, encourage and inspire everyone to continue efforts to make a difference for their chosen causes. My primary concerns are wildlife & the environment, as well as the treatment of women & children worldwide. Your causes are probably different but the message is the same: one person can be a catalyst for positive changes.

Instead of profiling well-known motivators like Rachel Carson, Rev. Martin Luther king Jr., or the Dalai Lama, I'll focus on people who could easily be your neighbors - people like you and me who have decided to forward a cause and whose passion and persistence has made a difference.

Bicycle Shop Owner, Environmental Activist, Catalyst for Change

Let me introduce you first to a humble man from Colorado Springs, Colorado, whose quiet leadership has helped to spur positive change locally.

Pike's Peak looms over Old Town Bike Shop, owned by John Crandall. Although he looks 20 years younger, John is somewhere between 65 and 70 years old and has owned his shop since the early 70s. John is the neighbor we all wish we had: quiet, kind, accepting, energetic, logical, rational, positive, outspoken, encouraging, and inspiring.

His shop serves as an informal meeting place for like-minded, rational, environmentally-concerned citizens of this small city. One day I might find John speaking with a retired PhD chemist who was instrumental in having CFCs removed from aerosol propellants. Another time it's a congressional candidate who's also a retired USAF Captain, or perhaps a Native American healer, or even a recently-graduated college student who has convinced her new employer to remodel their offices to LEED standards (and helped them make it a reality). I know I'm not alone in having had many thought-provoking, insightful, and mind-bending discussions in John's shop while overlooking racks of shiny, new, road and mountain bikes.

John quietly influences the community through action, not through hateful rhetoric or fear. His was the first business in Colorado Springs to install PV panels because "it was the right thing to do," and he's happy to give tours of the installation to anyone interested. He leads by gently showing what's possible. Being able to back up his stance with logic and data doesn't hurt either.

He is also a tireless letter-writer whose well-researched content is an example for any of us who wish to influence others through our writing. John knows that emotional appeals don't consistently create positive change for the environment. Science, research, and data go much further in influencing thinking and action than do purely emotional appeals.

Another thing I admire in John is his unflagging example of patience and persistence. He knows that change is often measured in baby steps, and that patience and persistence will often "win" where fear-based appeals fail. He also knows and demonstrates that small changes over time do make a difference. After being quietly vocal about renewable energy for many years, and backing up his words with actions (installing the PV panels and choosing to have his electricity sourced 100% through renewable sources), one by one other businesses in Colorado Springs are beginning to follow his example.

Perhaps John's most important contribution to the community is in his encouragement and support of both individuals and local sustainability projects. John is a great sounding board, encouraging each person to make a difference and inspiring each of us to think beyond limitations or boundaries. He very willingly shares his experience, knowledge, lessons learned, and often personal contacts in order to make a project or an idea a success. He sponsors causes and events that further his environmental interests. And many times he has put me in touch with just the person I needed to speak with in order to finish a bit of research or make a decision on a project.

John and his business have been recognized locally and throughout the state of Colorado for lifetime achievement in Green Initiatives and Sustainability, but that's not why he does what he does. To him, making a difference AND helping others to make a difference are just the right things to do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Prairie Dreams - Restoring Prairies to Conserve Water

Let's consider another reason to restore prairies: water conservation.

When comparing how bison and cattle graze and use water, it's apparent that bison are much more adapted to drier rangeland than cattle, and are a bit lighter on the land as well.

Bison have been shown to move from area to area more frequently than cattle, and sometimes considerable distances. Studies done in Canada, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado show that even with a preferred  home territory, bison move frequently, seldom staying in the same area for more than 48 hours. Some movements were up to 32 km in a short amount of time.

Bison also spend much less time near water than cattle, usually only heading for water once a day and spending an hour or less at or near the watering hole. In contrast, the ancestors of moden cattle evolved in moister, more tropical woodlands and still retain an affinity for water and wetter areas. Cattle are less efficient water users and have been shown to spend 75% or more of their time within a few hundred yards of water or wetter (riparian) areas when they are available.

What does this mean for the west? Since only about 1% of the area of the prairie is riparian, this means that cattle tend to concentrate around water sources and negatively impact the wetlands much more than the same number of bison would. On the other hand, it's unclear as to whether bison actually consume less water than cattle on the range - I haven't been able to find any definitive studies either way. What IS clear is that feedlot cattle consume about double the water of their rangeland counterparts.

But the most significant water conservation comes not from the introduction of bison, but from the restoration of the prairie itself.

Much of the Great Plains were plowed under and turned to farmland because the native priarie soil was rich and deep. Anyone driving across the Midwest can recount stories about driving across hundreds of miles of cornfields, wheat farms, or soybeans. Agricultural crops grow well here as long as there is enough water - but that's the problem. There often isn't enough rainfall to grow crops so often these miles and miles of fields are irrigated.

The main reason the Great Plains were prairie and  not forest is that they are in the rainshadow of the Rocky Mountains. Rain and snow are relatively scarce and unpredictable. Grasses and prairie plants evolved to need less water than trees and shrubs. It's not until we approach the area of the Mississippi River that there is consistent-enough rainfall for crops. Average yearly precipitation in Denver, CO (the western edge of the Great Plains) is less than 18 inches per year (rain and water-equivalent of snow combined)...average precipitation in Chicago is over 35 inches per year at the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

Serveral of the aquifers (groundwater systems) that underlie the Great Plains are in serious decline or locally dry due in large part to crop irrigation. It's becoming clear that we need to deal with this issue now while we have time to plan, rather than waiting for another dustbowl.

Am I suggesting eliminating all of the farmlands on the Great Plains and converting it all to prairie?

No, obviously we need to eat, and the Great Plains is where much of our wheat, corn, and beans are grown. What I will suggest is a three-pronged approach:

  • Eat food from as close to your home as possible (covered in another post).
  • As a continent, the US and Canada need to develop better dryland farming practices that allow us to farm with little or no irrigation.
  • And, as a part of the plan, restore some of the most sensitive or problematic areas of the Great Plains to prairie and raise bison on these restored area to both maintain the prairie and as a source of high-quality, grass-fed meat.
To be continued...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Prairie Dreams: Restoring Prairie Ecosystems

So why is now a good time to be restoring these prairie ecosystems?

Several factors are coming together to make NOW a great time to start this effort to restore large prairie ecosystems. Carbon. Water. Wildlife. Land Use. Economics. Ecotourism. 

Let's consider carbon first - carbon dioxide to be precise.

Mature prairies, or more specifically, the soils under a mature prairie, are the subject of serious interest as a possible carbon sink in the reduction of atmospheric CO2. These soils have the ability to store large amounts of carbon pulled from the atmosphere via the prairie grasses and forbs.

In fact, the tilling of native prairie to grow biofuels appears to a losing battle in terms of CO2 emissions. If a farmer tills under a mature native prairie to grow corn for biofuel, it would take 93 years of constant corn & biofuel production on that plot to regain the CO2 emitted from the soil in the destruction of that prairie. In essence, the prairie is much more efficient at trapping and storing carbon – moreso than the corn plus emission gains from using the corn biofuel. It’s better to keep the prairie in prairie than to convert it to biofuels production, and then use the biofuels to power our vehicles.

Perhaps we could figure out a happy medium for some areas of prairie. Perhaps convert farmland to prairie? Let bison and other wildlife roam that converted farmland for a few years once that prairie becomes established, then every few years after that, harvest the mature grasses for biofuel. This might only be feasible in areas where switchgrass (a native Prairie grass) can grow as it’s a premiere source of biofuels. 

Once an area is harvested, put it on a several year cycle of growth/pasturage alternated with harvest. Add a fire in every several years if needed to keep the prairie close to its natural state (this could be done after a harvest) and it seems like we have a more sustainable “cropland”. Let the prairie give us its gifts rather than forcing it to be something less.

This type of land management would accomplish several goals: aid in the re-establishment of prairie wildlife, in turn the wildlife would help naturally “manage” the land by adding fertilizer, cropping the grasses and aerating the soil (prairie dogs, badgers, ground squirrels), and the grasses would periodically be converted to biofuels to power vehicles. 

If we choose the land wisely, we might obtain other benefits from this alternative management scheme. Marginal areas (land not easily farmed, or those prone to flooding) seem prime candidates for prairie restoration and biofuels production. Lands that would normally flood often, destroying crops, would make sense to convert to prairie. The prairie doesn’t care if it gets periodically flooded, but corn, soy, or wheat crops often don’t survive moderate to severe flooding. We’d also drastically cut down on the amounts of fertilizers and pesticides running off into our rivers because prairies don’t need these amendments.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Prairie Dreams

I admit to being a bit of an odd duck when I was a kid. Instead of playing with dolls or mom's make-up, I spent as much time as I could outside, roaming the woods, farmlands, and the leftover bits of prairie around our home in rural northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. I spent my days watching deer, birds, and squirrels, but dreamed of being able to see that land, the tallgrass prairie, before the European settlers arrived.

What did it look like with grasses eight or more feet tall in places? What did it sound like to have the wind rustle the stalks or to have thousands of bison trying to outrun a prairie fire? Were there more birds, and was spring the raucous chorus that some folks claim it was?

It's unfortunate that I was born about 250 years too late to experience the real tallgrass prairie.

By the time I started walking, most folks had forgotten that northern Illinois even had bison in the past, let alone wolves, elk, black bear, and even cougar. But I knew, even if others had forgotten, and I dreamed of someday being able to recreate that healthy tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Unfortunately the dream died a slow death the older I became - the ever-expanding cities of Chicago and Milwaukee devoured the once-rural areas I called home. I didn't think I could convince the residents of the Chicago suburbs to abandon their homes so bison and 8 ft tall grasses could take over what once were their backyards!

Later as a college student I studied geology, but at every opportunity I took conservation biology classes and volunteered on small scale prairie restoration projects in central Illinois. The prairie snippets we restored were small - 30 acres to 300 acres - enough to give a visitor a glimpse of some native birds, prairie plants, and maybe a fox or coyote. Not large enough to host a herd of bison. And frankly, some of my fellow students thought I was crazy for even suggesting the return of large portions of the prairie, and its most famous resident, the bison.

I didn't think it was crazy at all to bring back the herds - it just made sense from my viewpoint (more about that later).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Native Birds vs Domestic Cats

U.S. wild bird losses to domestic, free-roaming cats may very well blow your mind. Scientific studies have estimated approximately 500 million birds in the U.S. alone are killed every year by both feline house pets and feral domestic cats. That's about 500,000,000 bird deaths per year.

Let's put that into perspective.

The human population of the U.S. is just over 300 million people as of 2010.

Or how about this...there are about 72 million pet dogs in the U.S. and about 82 million pet cats, for a total of about 154 million canine and feline pets currently (numbers of feral cats are unknown).

It's hard to say how many of these half a billion bird deaths are of introduced species such as starlings and some types of sparrow rather than our native birds (American Robins, warblers, Mourning Doves, etc.) - or how many are unfledged baby birds rather than adults. Perhaps the 0verall numbers are a bit lower as well - I've seen lower-end estimates put at about 300,000,000 bird deaths per year in the U.S. as a result of the tabby cat. In my mind, whether the real number is 250 million or 500 million per year, it doesn't matter. We still have a problem to face and issues to consider.

In comparison, wind turbines have been documented to kill less than 500,000 birds per year and as a nation we seem very worried about those losses. In fact I've seen this number used as reasoning against the use of wind turbines as alternative sources of electricity. Don't get me wrong, I want to see bird deaths from turbines minimized or eliminated as well, but my point is that we have an even bigger issue than wind turbines.

The ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to "domesticate" cats from a wild species in Africa so in no way are our pets "native" on this continent. Our domestic cats were brought to North America with the first European settlers just a few hundred years ago, so the native populations of wild birds have not had a chance to evolve to evade these very effective, silent predators.

Some might say "survival of the fittest." Perhaps, but are we mentally and emotionally prepared to lose many of the unique bird species that make this continent what it is? Or are we OK instead with it looking and feeling like Europe with only house sparrows and starlings at our feeders? Our native sparrows, finches, meadowlarks, buntings, warblers, wrens, robins, and wading birds (among others) have taken a huge hit from cats - are we OK with these losses?

If you think extinction can't possibly happen I'll say this one thing to you:

Remember the passenger pigeon?

I love cats, I really do. I love dogs too. But I love our native wild birds and mammals at least as much as I love domestic pets. With the kind of onslaught birds are having to contend with from our pets (and feral animals), our native wild birds don't stand a chance. When the wild birds are gone, they're gone. There is no getting them back. I know I am not prepared for a springtime with no bird songs, nor would I be thrilled with the loss of the variety of birds we have. I can't imagine going on a walk and seeing only starlings and European sparrows. I love seeing robins, warblers, thrushes, shorebirds, and so much more. The great variety of birds we have here on this continent is truly amazing - a gift from Nature. I'd like to give that same gift to the next several generations of Americans as well.

When I walk my dogs, I'm a responsible dog owner and keep my canines leashed so they don't scare other people or chase other animals. Please, do the same with your cats - keep them indoors or somehow under control. Don't let them roam (I can hear the objections already). Besides preventing them from killing birds and small mammals (and dropping them on your pillow as an offering), keeping your cats indoors prevents them from being run over by cars, eaten by coyotes, or poisoned by chemicals or rodent poisons.

Bells firmly attached to a cat's collar might be another option. There is conflicting evidence as to whether it really works to scare off birds but it may be worth a try.

If an indoor cat needs outdoor time and you have the space, you could build an outdoor enclosure for her - something similar to a large aviary, but to keep the cat in rather than a bird. Another option is to walk your cat on a leash. While walking a cat on a leash may sound silly I've seen this done many times. Yes, cats get used to it. One of my neighbors here in Maine does this a few times a day with her tabby. Granted, this isn't a fitness-excursion for the owner, but it gives her cat some quality time outdoors while keeping birds safe.

One other reason to keep your cat inside? Life expectancy. The average life expectancy of a pet outdoor cat is about 5 years. Indoor cats' average life expectancy is over 12 years.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wildlands and Wilderness

I want to start this post by saying my heart and thoughts go out to the people in Japan who continue to be affected by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor disasters. I will post more about some of those things at a later time but for now, I send my best wishes to the other side of the planet tonight and move on to the post I had intended to write last week.

I've been living along the east coast of the USA now for a little over a year. I started off in New Jersey, near Parsippany, not too far from the Big Apple, then moved to Maine in June of 2010. Prior to that I'd been living in the western US since 1992 - mostly Colorado, but with stints in Washington (state) and Montana. While I lived in the western states I traveled extensively in the Rocky Mountains. Over time, my favorite places became the wildlands and wilderness areas - places like Indian Peaks Wilderness, the remote areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, the North Cascades, the Rockies in Montana, Banff and Jasper Parks in Canada, and of course, the wilderness of Yellowstone and Teton National Parks. 

The western US is changing, but it still has vast areas of wildland, if not wilderness. Of course Alaska undeniably has the most wilderness of any state. While beautiful and truly wild, it's fairly inaccessible to most folks in the Lower 48. And that's probably a good thing for the Alaskan wilderness!

I guess I'd grown used to being near wild areas or wilderness, perhaps even taken them for granted in some respects. Whenever I wanted to get away, I just picked a wild area and I was there within an hour or two, my spirit once again quiet and restored. But now that I live on the eastern seaboard I realize just what it is that I, and everyone else here, is missing by living in a part of the country that has been well and thoroughly tamed.

We're missing our visceral connection to our roots as humans - our tie to Nature at it deepest level. Being in the wilderness can be meditative, it restores some part of our spirit that we didn't know we had, or had forgotten long ago. And it has a magic that just can't be put into words.

I have watched city kids go from being utterly bored by the concept of Yellowstone to the most avid animal of enthusiasts in the space of about an hour. Show them a bison calf being born, or a wolf taking meat to a den full of cubs, or an elk baby learning to walk, and their attitudes are transformed almost instantly to excitement and awe. Many an adult biologist I know was turned on to the profession as a child - and many while visiting a place such as Yellowstone.

Unfortunately there is nothing like Yellowstone anymore on the east coast.

Locals tell me that the northern areas of Maine are really the only "wild" areas left here. Perhaps. But how wild can they be when all of the large animals have been exterminated? Yes, there may be many acres where not a home is to be seen, but the woods are quiet. Where is the bugling of the male elk in rut? The howl of wolves? And now, even the sound of deer hooves on the forest floor may be a thing of the past in the Pine Tree State. Most people in Maine are surprised to learn that not so long ago, herds of elk and caribou roamed the forests here. They've been completely wiped out in the last several decades due to hunting and development. Gone too are the wolves, sea mink, cougar, timber rattlesnake, Labrador duck, great auk, passenger pigeon, Eskimo curlew, and common murre. And now the white-tailed deer population is being heavily impacted.

Maine has been tamed. Many of the wild animals are gone. Wilderness and human development are mutually exclusive.

What I've come to realize is that for me, the animals really define and personify the wildlands and wilderness. If they are gone, so too is that sense of wilderness. More than simply a gauge to the health of the ecosystem, to me they are much of the life, the energy that makes up a place. What would Yellowstone be without its bison, elk, moose, bear, and wolves? Or Glacier without its mountain goats? Or Rocky Mountain National Park without its bighorns? In my mind, they would just be big, pretty, but empty spaces devoid of their most vibrant living energy.

Many people who have lived in the eastern states for most of their lives, or only in major cities in the west, don't even have a concept of what wilderness is, what it means, and how important it is to us as humans. More than just a vacation spot, for me wilderness reminds me there is more to this planet than just me and my fellow humans. I come to understand that animals (including humans), ecosystems, and even the planet itself are all living, breathing entities just by being in the wilderness and observing. Like us, wild animals are born, they play with their friends, they feel physical and emotional pain, they try to raise their families as best as they can, they sometimes suffer, and eventually, also like us, they die.

We are more like the wild animals than most of us humans care to admit. But being like wild animals makes sense, because we are also a product of Nature...except that we choose to ignore that fact most of the time.

It's scary to realize we're part of the same web of life on Earth that we seem to be intent on dismantling.

It's easier just to ignore our roots in Nature when we're chopping down a forest to get to the tar sands below it, to feed our petroleum addiction for a few more months. It's easier just to ignore our connection to the sea when we're taking krill out of the mouths of whales in order to feed our health food addiction with one more unproven "miracle cure."

We would do ourselves a huge favor if we as a species made decisions by thinking as the Iroquois Confederacy did - considering the impact of the decision for seven generations to come. And I would add: not just human generations, but also the wilderness and its animal generations as well.

Wilderness should be our benchmark - the standard we measure ourselves against. The standard we keep in mind when we make decisions as a species. Its presence or absence tells us how much we value, and acknowledge, our connection to our roots - our connection to the other life on this planet. If we ignore that connection to Nature, we take a huge risk in my opinion.

It's likely too late to re-create wilderness in the eastern US, but I would love it if, as a country, we make it a priority to preserve the wildlands, wilderness, and wild animals we still have in the west and in Alaska. Our children, grandchildren, and 5 more generations will thank us for allowing them a chance to experience a little bit of Nature as it was when humans were just learning how to make fire from stone.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Financial Responsibility and "Green"

A few weeks ago, the company I work for started sponsoring classes in managing personal finances. About 20 of us signed up for the 13 week course that teaches how to live on a cash-only basis, how to invest wisely in these turbulent economic times, how to get/stay out of debt, how to achieve financial peace, etc., and how to do this without driving yourself crazy.

The course has been wonderfully insightful - I have been wanting to live on cash-only for a while but just didn't know how to make a sane transition away from this world of plastic. The course lays out a way to move to cash in a way that makes sense AND is liveable for the long-term.

One  important thing that I learned both from the class materials and my own personal experience, is that using cash to pay for things rather than plastic really makes me think long and hard about my potential purchases. And because I think more about what I'm considering purchasing, I buy less. According to the author of the program, paying with cash, on average, causes people to spend between 15 and 20% less than they would if they were using plastic or writing checks. The average was 18% less! Having the money in my hands feels "more real", and spending it feels like more of an brings a reality to my cash flow that I just can't get with plastic, even though I do pay off my credit card balances every month.

Having that cash in hand and knowing there is no more influx until next payday made me realize that a lot of my purchases were wants, not needs. And many of them were wants I wondered if I even wanted (like a DVD I'd watch once and never view again). The hardest part of the process was committing to no more credit cards and then structuring a detailed, realistic budget to support that commitment. But once I made the transition, seeing the many different benefits just cements my resolve to keep living this way.

Now I see some of the benefits of going to cash-only that financial folks don't mention -  not only spending less and having more money in the bank, but buying less new stuff which also means leaving a lighter footprint on the Earth. Think about that. Having your finances under control (i.e., being more mindful of your spending) and living on cash can help you buy less stuff and live more "green!"

Some examples....I  have noticed that since I am paying for my gasoline with cash, my driving habits have changed considerably. I no longer drive above the speed limit on the highway (driving at 70 MPH uses 20-30% more gas than driving at 50 MPH as an example). I often walk to do my errands rather than drive (I live in town so walking is an option). I am more mindful of combining trips and putting errands on hold until I CAN combine trips, and I am constantly trying to figure out how I can get better mileage or drive less. And no, I haven't become a total tightwad...I still drive to go skiing or hiking (but less often) and am saving money in advance for vacations and trips rather than pay for them with plastic.

My food bills have also dropped a bit...I am stocking up less and planning my menus more closely. While I still commit to buy organic and local, I buy frivolous items (to me, anyway) less, like tortilla chips or imported cheeses, and focus more on "needs" like local and organic salad greens and vegetables. I am also eating out less, and avoiding expensive beverages at coffee shops. While I still enjoy Sunday mornings at the local cafe, I buy a medium-sized drip coffee for $1.25 rather than a mocha for $4.00 or more. Same cafe experience, but less cash out and fewer calories in!

My book and video purchases have dropped substantially - I rely more on the local library now for books, services like NetFlix and RedBox for DVDs, and when I really do "need" a book or video of my own, which is rare, I either buy it used or wait and make a conscious choice to buy new...after checking it out of the library to see if I really still want it.

The point isn't to live a totally frugal, un-fun, monastic life, but to be mindful of where I am directing my money. Being cash-only can bring a consciousness and mindfulness to spending money, and also acquiring "stuff", that using credit cards may be difficult to achieve.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Green Purchasing - Gently Used Clothes

At the bank a few days ago the teller, a young woman probably of 25, made a complimentary comment to me about the sweater I was wearing. It's a dark green, hooded, wool sweater made in Norway and has a beautiful pattern of black dragons all over it.

I thanked her for her comment and not being able to keep quiet about it, told her I had found it used at Goodwill several years ago. The expression on her face was priceless youth - first she looked horrified, then embarrassed, and quickly moved on to the next customer. She acted as if I'd just told her I had a contagious disease!

By now I'm used to this reaction. During more prosperous times, especially in the more affluent Colorado (my previous home), women were, for the most part, horrified and bewildered that I'd purchase used clothing. But they were also fascinated in some way by what I found...barely-worn cashmere sweaters for $3.99, brand-new designer dresses with tags still on for $6.99, a barely-worn long wool and cashmere winter coat for $9.99, a new wool tartan skirt with original price tag still on for $9.99 (a $200+ skirt).

What I've noted is that after the economic meltdown of the last few years, I'm getting the horrified reaction much less often than during the boom times. Now folks are envious of the gems I find at thrift stores, which to me means I'm making a little progress changing viewpoints.

I do purchase a majority of my clothing gently used - at commercial thrift stores such as Goodwill and at small resale/consignment shops.

Why buy used, especially when I can well afford new?

First, more money stays in my bank account to save for later.

Second, I intensely dislike shopping malls, big box stores, and major retail outlets and avoid them as much as possible. They are a waste of time for me and designed to try to sell you stuff you don't need...which, for me, is almost everything they stock.

Third, at a good thrift or consignment store, the variety of clothing available is much wider than anything you can find at a retail outlet. A thrift store pools the tastes from a wide variety of people, not just one buyer at one store.

Fourth, it's good for the environment. By purchasing gently used clothing, I am part of the Reduce - Reuse - Recycle movement. I am re-using clothing, not demanding that more be manufactured just so I can say I bought new.

I AM very picky with what I purchase used. I only buy top-quality, very gently worn items that I know I will wear for a long time. Everything needs to fit AND look good. I make sure there are no stains, tears, or other blemishes. And before any clothes go into my closet, they either go to the dry cleaner (I know, not the most environmentally-friendly option) or through a commercial laundry - this, I hope anyway, eliminates bringing home those stray critters such as bedbugs that are plaguing urban areas again. By the way, you CAN bring bedbugs home on new clothing if the retail store is infested so it's a good idea to clean or launder ALL clothing, new or used, before bringing it into your home.

I do have some things I exclusively buy new: white dress shirts, dress pants (I'm short and athletic, so hard to fit), athletic clothing (for cycling, skiing, etc.), socks, most shoes, and lingerie (of course).Other than that, the vast majority of what I wear comes to me via recycled routes - which is mildly amusing since I resisted wearing hand-me-downs when I was a kid!

The other thing I ask myself before any clothing purchse (or ANY purchse for that matter) is: do I really need it? Right now I don't need any clothing so I won't be going shopping - for either new OR used clothes. I have enough of everything so why waste time and money and resources buying more?

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Home alone

So many of us are parents of teens so I'm going to pose something for you to think about...

You and your spouse have 18 year old twins, a boy and a girl. They are about ready to go off to college in a few months but still live at home, under your roof, on your dime. They've essentially been able to take care of themselves now for at least a couple of years, maybe more. You think they're adult enough to stay at home by themselves for a long weekend while you and your spouse go to take care of some out-of-town family business. From previous experience of being left for a day or two at a time, they seem to be responsible and listen to your requests to keep the house in good shape, so you think 3 days alone should be OK. After all, you're not going to be that far away - about a 2 hour drive.

I'd think that most of you would tell your kids to take care of the place while you're gone. You've left enough food in the fridge to last a week, and some money in the desk drawer just in case. You tell them that they can have a couple of friends over but no big parties. Both kids drive and will be able to get around on their own. Both kids also have summer jobs so should be busy for all of the 3 days you'll be gone. You have some pets - a dog, two cats, and a couple of parakeets. The kids have been taking care of all of the pets for several years on their own so you're not worried about the animals.

You leave - you know this is a big test for your children but you trust them to do what you've asked since they have been responsible in the past.

Sunday afternoon you come home to find the house almost completely trashed. Furniture destroyed, floors dirty and worn, all of the food gone, refrigerator standing open, no food to be seen, kitchen cabinets smashed in, bathrooms are a mess, garbage all over the house, the pool in the backyard is filthy and smelly with about 1/2 of the water gone. What's worse is that the parakeets are dead, the dog is very ill, and the cats nowhere to be found.

You've left your grown kids in charge of the house for 3 days and they've almost completely trashed the place!

How do you react? Are you angry, disappointed, or something else? What are you going to say to your kids?

"What happened? We left you in charge for 3 days and you've almost destroyed our home?"