Archive for the 'Environment' Category

AND she can use a drill!

One (two?) more frame(s) to go, and then I have to put the plastic on… it’s actually incredibly simple to build these things! Maybe I’ll even post step-by-step instructions… 😉

It’s rainy out right now, so I may have to wait until it slows (so the drill doesn’t go haywire, ya know?).






Growing Things

When I was a little kid, in about 5th grade, I planted a pumpkin patch in the side yard.  The back yard (though really big) was heavily wooded and had all sorts of viney things that were not conducive to growing the traditional vegetable patch. The side yard was less-so, though there were patches of poison ivy lurking.

The pumpkin vines grew really well, and produced big orange flowers, but never any pumpkin fruits. I was sad, and concluded that I generally fail at growing things.

That, however, did not deter me. I grew herbs indoors (also largely a failure), and even tried corn in buckets set out on the driveway (my parents humored me and my little projects).  Needless to say, we did not harvest much bounty from my early suburban gardening experiments.

Now older and (slightly) wiser to the ways of plants (pollination, anyone?), I have a big backyard that gets full sun for the majority of the day.  Shortly after moving in, my mom came to visit and helped me build six 3×3′ raised beds for vegetables.

Unfortunately, my current occupation (graduate student) means that I’m out of town for 3-4 months of the growing season.  In Michigan, that’s pretty much the entire growing season.  So I’m experimenting again with some indoor herbs. I planted lemon basil, parsley, and chive seeds in small pots, and bought sweet basil, lemon balm, and thyme seedlings.  My seeds took ages to germinate, and I was afraid that I had failed again. But no! They are now thriving (relatively) in the ample sun provided by my sliding glass door.  The cats love it, because it makes them feel like they’re outside (or so I tell them):


Outside, my last roommate planted a killer summer veg garden while I was out of town. The broccoli is still growing:


I’m also experimenting with a winter greens garden… My friend Shannon Brines lives around the corner and helped me out by planting some kale (last year, still going crazy!) and a mix of arugula, mache/ vit, and escarole (this year).  The arugula has just sprouted, and I’m hoping it will get a root system established before the heavy frosts roll ’round.  That way, it will over-winter and I can have a small harvest come April:


I planted some chard, beets, garlic, and carrots myself, and plan to put in some cabbage soon.  All of these plants are cold-tolerant and can withstand mild frosts (some even improve in flavor with the frost!) but would stop growing soon due to cold temps and short days.  To help these little guys out (and to prolong the growing season until the end of November-ish) I’m building passive solar greenhouses of the sort that Shannon describes on his website.

I’ve spent weeks planning and procrastinating these darned things.  After some careful calculations, it was determined that I’d need about 9 feet of “bendy material” for each rib to build the frames over each of the raised beds. I went to Home Depot and checked out their PVC piping… my stepdad had recommended 1/2″-inch as being reasonably bendable.

It only came in 10′ pieces. No, they couldn’t cut it. Okay! 10 feet it was.

I’m sure the guys at Home Depot had a pretty good laugh at the chick who crammed 21 pieces of 10’x 1/2″ PVC pipe into her little hatchback.


I was thrilled, when I got home, to see that the carrots had sprouted:


Now I’m off to measure and drill and cut and nail these things into frames over which I can drape my 6mil clear plastic sheeting! This may end up being a multi-person job, but I’m going to give it a shot.  Will update as I go, with photo documentation of what I am sure will be some amusingly frustrating exploits.

Killing the Lawn

The doorbell rang as I was getting dressed this morning (okay, okay… this afternoon. I was up early, but dawdled). TruGreen Chemlawn was at the door, but the guy was in a “Bob’s Roofing” truck. Interesting.

It should be noted that “TruGreen” has in fact dropped the name “Chemlawn” from their title. Nevertheless, in the following imaginary conversation, which is based on the real-life characteristics and themes pertaining to Mr. TruGreen Rep and his spiel, and what I should have said in response, Mr. TruGreen Rep will be referred to as “TGCL” for “TruGreen Chemlawn.”


I open the door several minutes after the guy rang the bell. He’s wandering around the front yard with a clipboard. He approaches the front steps, but does not come up on the porch. The only thing that identifies him with “TruGreen” is his hat, which I only notice after he starts talking. Seeing the “Bob’s Roofing” truck, I think maybe Kyle called the roofing guys about the green stuff over the porch. But that’s silly– why would Kyle do that? It’s even sillier, as anyone who has seen the lawn will agree, that TruGreen thinks for a second that we give a tiny rat’s @$$ about what the grass looks like.

TGCL: [in a soft, somewhat pervert-y voice] Hi, I’m from TruGreen, and we do some of your neighbor’s lawns. I was just wondering what your guys’ plans are for, um… [looks around at the spotty, brown grass] your lawn?

Me: Oh, my, um, [should I lie and say boyfriend? husband?] roommate mows the lawn.

TGCL: [with a note of disdain] Really? Because it looks like you just let a hamster chew on it.

Me: Funny, my roommate said the same thing when I mowed it. Once. I think it’s the reel mower. But we’re all set, thanks.

TGCL: But what about fertilizers and weed control?

Me: We don’t do fertilizers. Thanks, bye.

TGCL: Why not?

Me: We’re both environmentalists. We don’t like the thought of killing fishes in the Huron River just so we can have a lawn that looks like it was spray-painted green. In fact, I think we’d rather just spray-paint the damn thing.

TGCL: But we have an All-Natural program we can do.

Me: In fact, we’re trying to kill the lawn. I hate grass. I think it’s a drain on the ecosystem and provides next to no benefit for native wildlife. We’re waiting for it to die, slowly and painfully, so that we can plant wildflowers and native ground-cover instead.

TGCL: But grass is so easy to take care of. You just have to mow it weekly (sometimes bi-weekly in the summer) and dump a bunch of chemicals on it and set a sprinkler on high in the middle of it during the hottest, driest months of the year. It’s great!

Me: I’m allergic to grass pollen. It makes my life a living nightmare during the month of May. I hate grass. Bye.

Shuts and locks door with deadbolt.

A different sort of landscape photograph

I know I haven’t posted on The Graphic Imperative yet… but it’s coming. Really. I think I’m going to go back to the exhibit this week for another look.

In the meantime, I heard about this photographer on Weekend America today. He’s taking a really interesting angle on landscape photography, and putting a distinctly social-activist spin on it.

Ken Gonzales-Day wandered around California taking pictures of trees for his series Hang Trees. These trees were (or might have been) used in lynchings in the 19th century. Landscape photographs often neglect considerations of human interaction and influence, reproducing the classic definition of Nature as “a place without humans.” Therefore, the places where humans are is not part of Nature. By focusing on trees used in lynchings, Gonzales-Day is taking an image generally taken to symbolize natural beauty, peace, and strength and reconstructing the landscape as a point of social conflict between human beings, and a point of interaction between human beings and their environment.

He told Weekend America, “…when you think about the landscape in California, you probably think of the very pastoral, beautiful image. And it’s probably taken by a number of Weston or Adams, or a number of photographers that are well known in their fields. They construct this idea of a landscape that is race neutral, in which there are no people, there are no races and there is no conflict. And part of my photographic journey has been to go back and look for these sites. They’re still beautiful photographs. They’re still beautiful trees, but I hope that the viewer will rethink their assumptions about how they look at photographs of landscapes.”

While not exactly “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) posters, or even part of the “Environmental Justice” movement, Gonzales-Day’s photos irrefutably link landscape and human injustice. They provide a space for considering environmental influence on human action (note the use of native trees in the lynchings, with the low twisted branches). His photos also contemplate the erasure of human action upon the environment, by suggesting a reconceptualization of [peaceful, beautiful] landscapes as places of social conflict.

Although Gonzales-Day’s point is to draw attention to the marginalized racial conflicts in the 19th-century West, he is also reconceptualizing human- environment interactions. In considering human effects on the environment, we often neglect the social implications of using Nature, and the environmental implications of social injustice. There are countless ways in which the Human and Natural spheres pervade each other.


In Traditions I (the first of two ethnology core courses for anthrogeeks), we read an edited volume called Reinventing Anthropology, which had a number of radical-at-the-time (and still arguably radical– in some circles) articles written in the 1970s, largely at/from Berkeley. One that really grabbed me was “The Life and Culture of Eco-Topia” by E.N. Anderson.

In it, Anderson both details a concept of an ‘ecotopian’ society, as well as poses a call-to-action for anthropologists to address pressing environmental issues. He argues that environmental concerns such as pollution and scarcity of resources are in fact facets of social and economic oppression, both favorite topics of anthropologists. In 1972, these were new, radical ideas! It was just two years after the first Earth Day, and in the midst of the Viet Nam conflict and associated civil unrest, student protests, and educational reforms. He was bold, claiming that it was the duty of anthropologists to take up environmental oppression as a facet of social oppression, and not ‘just’ adopting social oppression (which even now continues to be a more common cause).

Three years later, also at Berkeley, a UCal Press editor and UChicago film grad named Ernest Callenbach wrote the novel Ecotopia: The Notes and Reports of William Weston. Despite initial difficulty in getting it published, it eventually became a best-seller.

The premise of the book is the visit of journalist William Weston to the country Ecotopia (in fact the states of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California). Weston is the first American to visit Ecotopia since its Independence from the United States 20 years prior.

Callenbach describes in great detail the layout of Ecotopian cities, the structure of their societies and interpersonal relationships, and their quotidian comings and goings. The book could almost be called ethnographic, in the same way that other fictional works (such as Vargas Llosa’s El hablador and Rojas González’s Lola Casanova) use a familiar primary character (ie: the ethnographer) to explore and explain an unfamiliar group of people. In this case, however, the group of people is also fictional (not so in the two novels cited above) and the ethnographic ‘data’ all just a product of the author’s imagination.

The book is still so entertaining to read, 30+ years later, because Callenbach addresses ideas which could still be called novel and radical. Then again, some of his ideas are in fact just crazy. Really, really crazy. I’ll take issue with them below. I promise.

William Weston, the narrator and ‘ethnographer’ (if we’re going with that framework), happens to be a chauvinistic pig. At least at the beginning of the story. Divorced, he essentially abandoned his two kids and is just looking for some chick to fawn over the big important newsman (and then to sleep with him). He spends his first several days in Ecotopia trying to pick up women on the street, and is increasingly frustrated. But we’ll get back to that.

Ecotopian cities, Weston finds, are designed with pedestrians in mind. The wide streets of San Francisco have been turned into pedestrian malls, with ample bike lanes and free trolleys for trips longer than a couple of blocks. Furthermore, cities are steadily being decentralized into small communities linked by light (and pollution-free) electric rail lines.

Wait a minute, you might say. Electricity is NOT pollution- free. Ah, but in Ecotopia it is. Ecotopians have managed to improve the efficiency of solar and geothermal energy options, as well as eliminate the environmental impact caused by hydroelectric (by suspending a wheel above a river, rather than building a dam). Hence, pollution-free electricity.

Consumerism is dead. At least, people only purchase generic necessities, even going so far as to dye their own clothing. People grow much of their own food, and hunt for deer and other animals right on the outskirts of town. Trees are worshiped (almost) and much ritual surrounds the harvesting of wood.

Artists are able to pursue their craft without fear of starvation, everyone is guaranteed a minimum income level (while some people do make more money in skilled trades such as medicine…)

Most importantly, people are laid-back, un-stressed, playful, and completely comfortable cavorting with each other. He reiterates this quite frequently.  In fact, the reader starts to wonder if this guy is seriously repressed.

And then the reader realizes that he must be seriously repressed. I started counting how many times sex is mentioned, seemingly out-of-context, but then I gave up.  C’mon, the main character’s medical nurse has sex with him as part of the ‘healing process’?! Seriously?!

I suppose the author would argue that it is I, in fact, that is repressed, because I’m not comfortable with how often he talks about a ‘natural human activity’? Am I right?

Sure. That’s the major problem with our society. Okay.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps if we allowed our hormones free reign and did just what they’re telling us to do, we’d be much happier people, our society would function more smoothly, and men and women would be on truly equal footing.

I think the author is overestimating just how ‘oppressed’ women are, and that’s where his wishful thinking comes in.

So, in conclusion, I could have done with a lot more ‘science fiction’ imagining how this society came about, rather than the characters’ sex lives. But if you can read around that, the book is really pretty fascinating.  The author brings up some important philosophical ideas that still aren’t widely appreciated 30 years after the book was published.

The End.

Geeked Out

I’m feeling kinda giddy about these two things:

The Graphic Imperative – On UM’s campus this week and next, a series of activist posters (created between 1965 and 2005) on social justice, peace, and the environment (!!). I’m planning to go to the reception this Friday, and will report back.

Tales from Planet Earth – I’m very bummed I just now found out about this film festival… it was back in November on UW Madison’s campus (so close, too!!). I’m hoping that they’ll hold another next year! The films all look fascinating, and the premise behind them is equally fascinating to think about (film as social [environmental] action).