Saturday, January 14, 2012

NOFA 25th Annual Winter conference

A big thank-you to my son Yvan and his friend Jay for inviting me on this road trip. I've already attended an interesting session on organic farming. Now we're listening to the keynote address by John Jeavons on bio-intensive farming, which may be the only solution long-term for feeding our planet. (Check out Now I'm thinking about how to turn my yard into a "thriving mini Eco-system." Actually this is making me very hungry...time for a healthy lunch!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Great Swampscott Flood of 2011

The last year or so we have seen some extreme weather conditions in Swampscott. Most recently in August we caught the tail end of Hurricane Irene. In 25 years, I have never seen so many Swampscott boats washed up on King's Beach. On Tuesday, Oct. 4, there was a rainstorm that brought 6 inches of rain in 90 minutes at high tide in a town where storm water drains to the sea.

Think about it - all that water hitting pavement and lawns and draining into storm drains, bringing with it everything lying on the ground, e.g., cigarette butts, plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and any other trash lying in the street, flushing it all into the ocean. If you walk to King's Beach, you can see the outfall pipe at Stacy Brook. Frequently, after heavy rainfall in the summer, the beach is posted for high bacteria levels. This summer while walking on Lynn Shore Drive, I noticed that the beach was posted, then glanced down to see a young couple with a toddler playing in the waves. They were the only ones on the beach. Should I have said something? Had they not seen the sign or had they just decided to ignore it?

At the Town Selectmen's Meeting on Oct. 13, people came to discuss what had happened. Many were upset. Their property had been destroyed by flooding -  basements, furniture, autos - and for a variety of reasons their insurance companies were denying their claims. Some were in areas that repeatedly experienced flooding. Others reported this as a first. However, as one of the victims noted, water levels are rising and we are on the coast. This is not going to improve, and we may well see more of this type of flooding in the future.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Future of Chocolate - is it Endangered?

Since tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and since I just read an interesting article on the subject, I thought I would blog about chocolate.

Like many of the things I talk about here, most of us don't give a lot of thought to where chocolate comes from, and we take for granted that it's going to be around tomorrow. The reality is that the supply of chocolate may be in jeopardy.

Most chocolate used in mass-produced chocolate bars comes from two countries: the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Several factors are contributing to a reduced supply of chocolate in those countries and therefore, rising prices:
  • The Ivory Coast may be on the brink of a civil war
  • Africa is experiencing firsthand the effects of climate change in the form of droughts caused by rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall
  • Cocoa farming as it is practiced in these countries is not currently sustainable: soils are depleted; aging trees are plagued by pests and disease; the process is labor intensive, and farmers make very little. 
The good news is that the crisis is providing the impetus for all parties in the chocolate industry to cooperate on finding a solution. And the solution is to make the process sustainable...otherwise, the "food of the gods" may be affordable only by the very wealthy.

Meanwhile, when you buy chocolates for your sweetie on Valentine's Day, choose wisely - look for the Fair Trade label and for organic chocolate. It's worth it to spend a little more to ensure that cocoa farmers are reasonably compensated to save the planet from toxic fertilizers and pesticides.  

For more info, read Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa by Ă“rla Ryan.

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Friday, December 31, 2010

Good-bye 2010! Hello 2011! Happy New Year to everyone out there.

This is not only a new year, but it's a new decade. Let's make this a good start...begin anew. Out with the old habits, in with the new...

We may be an invasive species but we have a brain. Please don't forget to use it.

Love and peace to all of you!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Tis the Season to be Thoughtful...

Last year we had the giftless Christmas. We just decided that we had no time, no money, and no stomach for buying useless items we didn't really need. It was an extreme response to dealing with the negative aspects of the season. Don't get me wrong; I love Christmas. I just feel that something has been lost along the way. It has come to epitomize for me the excess and waste of our society.

As a nation, we need some serious therapy. This whole Christmas thing is about way more than mindless consumption. There is a nostalgia for Christmas past, the expectation and excitement that we recall when we were kids: the sight of the tree on Christmas morning and mountains of gifts waiting to be unwrapped. It's a pretty picture.

The reality of Christmas present is not so pretty: mountains of discarded wrapping paper in the trash the next week, along with plastic packaging, dead trees, and houses bursting with cheap plastic items from China that will end up in landfills or incinerators in less than a year. We suffer the stress of trying to recreate the ideal of Christmas by spending money we don't have and then the stress of paying the bills afterwards. This is not healthy. Meanwhile news headlines trumpet the progress of this year's retail sales versus last year's, and if consumers aren't spending more, it's bad for an economy that is based on the ideal of corporate growth. I'm no economist, but surely we can't just keep growing indefinitely. Is there no limit to the number of plastic toys we can buy each year?

From here, Christmas future isn't looking good. The plastic that's used to make those toys and package them for sale is petroleum based. Oil is a finite resource. Burning oil raises the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, change that may have profound effects that we cannot even imagine. 

Okay, enough of this depressing's Christmas after all, time to make merry. It is a good opportunity to start thinking about our gift purchases. As consumers, we have the power to bring about change. Buy from companies that have sustainable practices. A few weeks ago I went to a presentation by Betsy Blaisdell of Timberland (they have a great blog). This is a company whose CEO believes profit and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. It's important that we hold corporations responsible with our purchasing power, and that we reward companies that are doing the right thing. We need to measure CSR (corporate social responsibility) and make choices accordingly. To help you get started, check out the Ethical Corporation Responsible Business Summit 2010 Award Winners and Commended Companies.

So when you give this year, give some consideration to our planet. I promise, you will feel very good.

Happy Holidays!

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Biking to Church

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure I didn't end up making it to church. Last fall I had biked successfully to Salem a few times, and being without a car (and also with the hope to get there with zero emissions), I decided optimistically to ride to church this morning. It was sunny, but not as warm as yesterday. Still, that didn't deter me. I got my gear, put on the helmet and off I went.

The first hill is actually a medium grade but it is a very long one. Last year, I had to stop and walk the bike the first time, but as I got stronger, I was able to make it without stopping. Well, a winter of little or no exercise set me back. I had to walk almost the full length. By the time I reached Salem State College I was exhausted, dejected, and it was already 10:05. I figured that by the time I reached church, the service would be more than halfway over. I had to face reality.

So I thought perhaps I would forget church and detour to Salem Pioneer Village. It's a nice spot. But then I saw the Salem Bike path and decided to explore it. It's a beautiful path - paved and divided by a bright yellow line. That lasts all the way to Rte. 114. Then you cross the road and you're on a dirt trail. Still it was beautiful - birds were singing, people were out hiking and jogging and biking. I saw a sign that said "Wyman Woods - 33.5 acres".

I have ridden the Marblehead bike path before and very soon I recognized the path from previous rides. I rode the rest of the way to downtown Marblehead and ended up on School St. in front of the Atomic Cafe...time for a coffee and a flatbread egg & cheese. Yum.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Joy of Composting (or The Fruits of My Labor), Part 1

Last spring I decided that I needed a new composter. I had tried to do the right thing a few years ago by going to the Swampscott town hall and purchasing one for $20 that the town had acquired through a program with the Mass Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP). Unfortunately it was from a program ten years prior and I bought it sight unseen, so I was somewhat dismayed when they dragged up three pieces of dusty black plastic from the basement and presented them to me. Anyway, I took it home and assembled it with blue plastic ties (like the ones you used to use to close your luggage before 9/11). It turns out that the DEP offers two types of bins through its program - the "New Age Composter" (that's the one that I got) and the "Earth Machine". There were many things that I didn't like about the New Age Composter. First, the lid was a big cone that just sat on top and most of the time was somewhere on my lawn or in a garden bed because the wind would lift it off and blow it hither thither and yon. Second, although it's described as "rodent-proof", some animal (squirrel? raccoon?) ate a hole in the side wall. Not pretty. (That's the composter in the photo on the left, just before I replaced it.)

On the plus side, when I dismantled it, there was lots of good composted soil, full of juicy little red worms. I decided that I would plant a garden like one I had many years ago in Toronto...a garden in the round, with the composter in the center. This way the good nutrients from the compost leach out into the soil around. Last year I had planted beans, since beans are a good crop for adding nitrogen to the soil, and farmers often plant beans as a first crop. I bought an Earth Machine in Salem at a green festival and plant sale. I paid $40, which I think was too much. They sell the same ones at the Marblehead Farmer's market for $25. You can learn more about the Mass DEP program here. I see that back in 1994 Swampscott purchased 300 of those New Age composters (I wonder how many are left?). The Earth Machine is really beautiful. It has a lid that locks on and a nice door to retrieve soil.

I had to do a lot of preparation, but that was the fun part. I dug out the old composter and spread the lovely composted soil on my flower beds and around the expanded garden area in the big circle. I turned it over and then dug the hole for the new composter. Alex dear did the installation...putting in the pins to hold it in the ground and leveling it.

Once in the ground, you're ready to get started. I compost most of my kitchen waste, which seems to add up. The only things that don't go in are meat and lemons (I use a lot of lemons and have heard that lemons are acidic and some compost worms don't like lemon peel). I put the lemons in the garbage disposal and that keeps it smelling very nice. I have a nice little plastic container that I got for free at the Marblehead Farmers Market one week. It has a handle and a lid that closes tight. I accumulate my kitchen waste in that until it's full, and then I carry it out to the composter. I mix it in with my shovel and then throw some dirt on top. This keeps down the fruit flies and any smell, although with my new Earth Machine I don't worry because the lid fits on so nice and tight. I make sure that I have wet coffee grounds and may even add some water to my container so it's easy to empty it, and that keeps the compost nice and moist. It seems to me that adding the dirt and keeping things wet helps the process along. It's also important to situate your composter in an area where it will get sun, because the heat kills bacteria and again, speeds the process along.

One thing to note about situating your composter or compost heap - check your local by-laws to see if there are specific rules about how far to site away from your property line or neighbors.