Archive for April 2011 | Monthly archive page

 

Want to know how to cultivate mushrooms?  Interested in exploring the hidden nature of water?  Curious as to how permaculture works and what it does?  Care to try your hand at  creating woodblock prints, braintanning a buckskin or fermenting your own foods?  If your answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then a seminar at Polcum Springs may be in your future.

Situated on 203 acres within Northern Mendocino County (25 minutes northwest of Laytonville), Polcum Springs is a ridge-to-valley watershed boasting four seasonal creeks, thick forests, open grasslands, and a variety of native plant and animal species.  Focusing on permaculture and community living, the Springs includes a village designed by Bob Theis consisting of a common house, central kitchen and bath house, rainwater storage, garden, pole barn and dining terrace.  Resident cabins dot the property, some close to the village and others nestled deeper into the forest.

In all of its endeavors, Polcum Springs strives to harmonize with its natural surroundings, allow for the land and its limitations to dictate its use, minimize the disturbance of the environment, promote pedestrian-scale design, and use resources efficiently.  They maintain that the simple pleasures of life are the best, and members enjoy preparing meals together, hiking, swimming, stargazing and communing with nature.  All building projects are carefully considered so that they can preserve this relationship with the landscape and those living within it.

 

In addition to visiting for a class or seminar, those wishing for a longer-term stay may apply for a membership or residency.  Members hold interest in the Springs as a company and manage more of the business end of operations.  Residents (who are also welcome to become members) are involved in the everyday operations of gardening, finishing the construction of the village, and act as a part of a holistic, sustainable community. They live at the site after completing an application and interview process.  Polcum Springs ultimately hopes to become a thriving village of 15-25 people of all ages, personalities and backgrounds. Facilities are also available for rent to the general public with approval from the residents.

Amidst a world full of gadgets, fast-paced work schedules and political discord, it is comforting to know that there are still places where it is possible to reestablish a meaningful connection with nature and one another.  From getting your hands dirty tanning hides and farming, to stretching your body and spirit practicing yoga, Polcum Springs is a retreat from the everyday routine and back to the fundamentals.  For more information about their programs, visit the website at http://www.polcumsprings.net/index.html.

 

 

The orderly and hardworking good people of Germany recently had the pleasure of welcoming me as their guest and kin, and it was with due interest and Wanderlust that I admired their seasonably verdant landscapes and observed their distinctively indigenous customs. Coming from a land of wide open spaces, perpetual sunshine and shameless consumption, I can’t help but marvel over the northern European’s congenital capacity for sensible pragmatism and efficiency.

With our sight-seeing ambitions stifled by inclement weather, I resigned myself to spending most of my short stay immersed in quotidian Germanic living, viewing rural and urban scenery from the front seat of an immaculate Audi station wagon and sampling the beers, breads and bon mots around various dining room tables.

While I would have liked to have stayed abroad at least twice as long, I did my best to perk my ears and eyes to detect all of the most subtle cultural nuances, with a particular nose for attitudes and practices that reflect a more sustainable way of life. Quickly I discover many pertinent examples.

No sooner were we out of Frankfurt (home to central Europe’s busiest airport) and en route to the Hinterlands, than I am struck by the ubiquity of roadside windmills. It’s only been a year and a half since my last trip to Germany, but the increased presence of wind generators is as conspicuous and impressive as the stable of German-engineered horses that power our Audi swiftly down the Autobahn.

Moreover, the construction of these renewable energy platforms represents far more than a mere symbol or Quixotic gesture against petro-hegemony; Germany has in fact committed to closing all its nuclear power plants within the decade. This decision came in response to the Fukushima disaster, but would have been undreamable without Germany’s longtime commitment to renewable alternatives like wind and solar. Giant swaths of photovoltaic panels also appear throughout the country, oftentimes right alongside the Autobahn, areas that are uninhabitable but very accessible. (It’s like they actually put some forethought into this.)

Even so, weaning off of nuclear will not be an easy transition. They’re already complaining  — complaining is one of their great national pastimes, after all — about the imminent rise of energy prices. And the fact that neighboring France hasn’t leaked so much as a whisper about closing any of its 59 nuke plants has many Germans feeling like they’re getting the sticky end of the Schadenfreude.

Gassing up the Audi at the filling station we get another stultifying reminder of high energy costs. 1.47 Euros per liter. That’s about 8 bucks a gallon! European diesel burns somewhat more efficiently however, and the benefits are reaped when we hop on the Autobahn and do 220 km/hr, or 135 mph. Whee. Fortunately, German drivers are mindful to use luxury items like turn signals and slow lanes appropriately, and roads are very well maintained, so we feel perfectly safe, even with our one-year-old Wunderkind in the back seat. As far as diminished fuel economy at high speeds is concerned, standard manual transmissions on new German cars now have six gears (plus reverse), and seven-speed automatics are not uncommon.

A trip to the supermarket yields more surprises. For one thing, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is not the leading ingredient throughout the store; in fact, it is nowhere to be found. USDA farm subsidies have yet to flood European markets with this dubious sweetener. They still rely on good old sugar, generally derived from native sugar beets, as opposed to the cane sugar that Americans extract from the Third World (and Florida). Neither does HFCS’s partner in crime, the super-sized soft drink, appear on the scene.

Other evidence also suggests that corporate policy makers do not run the country. Bound by government regulations, bio-chemical companies can’t stuff your groceries with genetically engineered constituents without stating as much on the packaging. Europeans have expressed an interest in knowing what sort of ingredients and technologies go into their foods, and food producers have been made to comply. Even where profits may be jeopardized, the public interest comes first.

Banking regulations, as further example, make it harder to get credit cards and for non-residents to open bank accounts. Consequently, Germans do not see the same sort of predatory lending practices and Ponzi pyramids to the sky, nor the kind of billionaire investor class that we have, all of which conspire to drive a deep wedge into the socio-economic strata and widen the yawning wealth gap. But statistics do suggest that Germans’ personal debt ratios are quickly gaining on ours. Despite their pragmatic proclivities, the temptation to indulge now and pay later can be difficult to resist, especially in times like these.

Finally, returning home from the market, we cram our groceries into the fridge, a moderately-sized kitchen appliance that many Americans would confuse with a dish cupboard. And yet there is ample room to accommodate our fresh produce. For some reason, the German fridge is not overflowing with odds and ends boasting decade-long shelf-lives, and so does not need to be the size of a walk-in closet.

Smaller cars and smaller refrigerators. Larger wind and photovoltaic power stations. Narrower traffic lanes and waistlines (though growing). Wider selections of beer and finally, of preeminent importance to the beleaguered globetrotter, bathtubs deep enough to get your neck wet. And now that we’ve reached the bathroom, I could launch into my polemic on the superiority of German toilets, but alas, no. All I can say is: tanks but no tanks.

If I’d had a little more time, I probably would have visited a doctor for a regular check-up, maybe seen a dentist. Might have even enrolled my daughter in a good multi-lingual pre-school. But no. I’m a product of the Central Coast, a victim of the slo life, and have not the temperament for efficiency, discipline or weather. Remove me from the happiest city in America for more than a week, and I’m utterly helpless.

There is no doubt that we Americans like things big.  Just take a look at our SUV’s and the size of the cup holders we equip them with.  You could throw a pool party in one of those ponds.  Nowadays, faced with increasingly limited and expensive natural resources, a slower economy and a shortage of space, living a little smaller is beginning to make a great deal of sense.  Here are a couple of ways you can live large while slimming down.

1.  Tiny Homes-  There is a growing movement for living smaller.  If you are looking for a simple domestic life without the complications of too many possessions, a Tumbleweed Tiny House may be for you.  Models ranging from 89-130 square feet are available for purchase either as kits or ready-to-go on a utility trailer foundation.  This is the ultimate mobile house, complete with living room, sleeping area, bathroom and fireplace.  These structures can be easily moved and perched on small plots of land, are energy efficient, and surprisingly attractive.  Tumbleweed also sells a book of architectural plans for the especially handy and adventurous types seeking a more custom abode.

2.  Public Transport and Car Sharing- Living in the city, I was blessed with a garage parking space below my apartment.  However, trying to find a place to leave my vehicle anywhere outside my neighborhood was next to impossible.  Consequently, I took the bus, walked, or rode a bike on a regular basis.  I did not miss the hundreds of pounds of metal and plastic.  By using Zip Cars and public transit it is possible to save a heck of a lot of money that would have been used on gas, insurance, and maintenance, not to mention opening up some room for storage or starting that home yoga studio.

3.  Folding bicycle-  Part origami and part engineering masterpiece, folding bicycles help you to your destination without getting in the way.  Instead of having to hitch your ride to a rack or worry about theft, you can simply take it indoors and place it in a corner.  They are fully adjustable and relatively inexpensive, so they make an ideal lender bike and a convenient set of wheels to take on a bus or train.

4.  Balcony garden- Not enough space for a lush, backyard paradise?  No problem.  Blogs such as Life on the Balcony have sprouted up (heh) to help those with green thumbs grow herbs, fruits and vegetables in their condos and apartments.  Browse Wired’s article on Geek Gardening for custom blueprints detailing efficient ways to maximize whatever area you have available.

5. The Armoire Kitchen- Cooks who love a clean and organized kitchen will be impressed with the Armoire Kitchen by YesterTec, a complete culinary setup that fits inside a piece of dining room furniture.  Blending social spaces with food preparation, YesterTec attempts to make the kitchen function as a living area while also taking advantage of efficient design.

* Book of the Week tip: Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher

 

Our electrical grids are outdated, inefficient relics of a bygone era. Compared to the technology currently available, this aging collection or 20th century wires and power stations are veritable dinosaurs. As our power consumption grows, these old giants are subject to increasing amounts of strain. Time for the grid to adapt and throw off the scales for some fur, warm blood, and a larger brain. Time to get smart!

So, what is a smart grid exactly, and what makes it preferable to the way we operate now?

Smart grids are systems that use two-way communication to deliver energy from suppliers to consumers. Power companies use digital signals to monitor overall electrical use and control appliances via your home’s meter by turning them down or off during peak hours to reduce demand and avoid blackouts.

Smart appliances constantly send information back to the grid, allowing a detailed, real-time picture of electricity use. This helps companies to generate only what is required, and helps diminish the need for maintaining expensive and inefficient backup “peaker plant” generators.  Many of these backups are kept online around the clock, regardless of whether the electricity they create is used or not.

This excess energy cannot be stored and so the money, time and resources utilized to generate the electricity is eventually wasted.  This in turn affects the price of power as well as the amount of pollution expelled in the process of energy production.  About half of our electricity is made by burning coal, a major contributor to greenhouse gasses and particulates in the atmosphere.  With half of that directly generated electricity lost during transmission, a smart grid tailored to demand would greatly increase efficiency, diminish our carbon footprint and improve the quality of our air.

In addition to keeping tabs on supply and demand, smart grids also allow companies to oversee the health of the infrastructure and prevent catastrophic blackouts caused by aging power lines. In 2003, a downed line in New York sparked a fire damaging a key point in electrical transmission. Millions of people across the East Coast and parts of Canada lost power. New sensors placed directly on the line can evaluate the condition of the line and alert technicians before problems arise by sending out wireless signals.

While retrofitting millions of buildings, 5,000 power plants and more than 100,000 miles of transmission lines may seem like a colossal undertaking, we must remember that projects of this scale have been undertaken before. The original grid was constructed during the Depression when the federal government instituted programs to bring electricity into the homes of millions of Americans and put people back to work.

Public projects and government incentives may not only serve to save money in the long run with more intelligently run power networks, but also help to jumpstart a flagging economy by providing employment through systemic overhaul.  Productive, cost-effective and job-creating?  Sounds like a pretty smart idea!

 

So, imagine you’re sleeping. I mean really sleeping. Deep, awesome, post burger kind of sleep. And you wake up, and suddenly your whole apartment complex has turned into an oil refinery. That happened this week, to a very confused polar bear and her baby cub.

In Alaska’s north slope, a mama bear awoke from hibernation with her cub to find that the world around her had been transformed to a construction zone for and oil refinery (Read: environment destroying machine).  It’s these instances that remind us that we are, in every way, messing with our ecosystems. Polar bears have already been affected drastically from global warming. Due to the warmer temperatures, there are fewer areas of solidly frozen ocean; something that polar bears rely on to hunt. With more of their energy devoted to hunting, they have less time to focus on reproduction, and thus their population has dwindled.

Thankfully, once she was noticed, construction on the refinery ceased. One can only imagine her fear and bewilderment. If you would like to aid to the plight of the polar bear, there are several organizations you can make donations to. If you can’t afford to help in that way, do your best to save on gas, and reduce not only the effects of global warming, but the need for more refineries.

April 22, 2011 marks the 41st annual Earth Day. Founded during the birth of the environmental movement, Earth Day arose as a symbol of the nation’s new-found ecological awareness. Establishment of the holiday followed the publication of Rachael Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring in 1962 which exposed the extent of pollution in the United States.  This book was considered a wake-up call to communities across the country as well as throughout the world, selling over 500,000 copies across 24 countries and appearing the New York Times Best Seller List.

During the 70’s, the culture of anti-war and and civil rights activism gave rise to this new environmental consciousness.  After witnessing the catastrophic Santa Barbara, California oil spill in 1969, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson was inspired to join forces with Congressman Pete McCloskey and Denis Hayes to establish Earth Day as a national observance.

The first Earth Day witnessed protests across the country where millions of Americans demonstrated in universities and local government agencies to assert their rights to clean, sustainable living conditions.  These rallies were cited as the impetus for the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  Today, the Earth Day Network sponsors environmental advocacy projects year-round, including healthy school initiatives, civic leadership programs, climate change awareness, and encouraging women’s rights in the green economy.

This year’s Earth Day is dubbed “A Billion Acts of Green”, themed after their organization’s grassroots campaign to devote pledges to environmental sustainability.  Suggestions for activities range from donating money to fight deforestation through their Canopy Project to Arts for the Earth, a celebration of environmental artists and design competition.  For a complete list of ideas plus downloadable pdf files to help organize and host your own Earth Day celebration, visit the Earth Day Network website.

Bambu Batu’s home city of San Luis Obispo will be celebrating on April 23 in El Chorro Regional Park from 10am-5pm.  The Park — surrounded by the El Chorro Botanical Garden, Steve Weiss AIDS Memorial Grove, and Dairy Creek Golf Course — will host an outdoor village of 15o exhibitor spaces, ten prominent locations, and two stages.  Free admission and transportation by the Regional Transit Authority to the event will be available throughout the county.  Join the global village and honor the planet with some fun outside!

Growing up near a watershed in Northern California, I was fortunate during my childhood to have had direct and constant contact with nature. I would spend hours outside, observing native plants and animals, digging in the dirt, and making a general mess exploring my backyard. The smells, sounds and textures of the landscape wove themselves into my everyday experiences and became a powerful influence over my decision to pursue a career in science and conservation.  While parks and nature preserves are wonderful to visit, there is something very profound about being able to sustain a dialogue with the environment on a daily basis.  Now that I live among housing developments and manicured lawns, how can I bring a little wildlife back to my home without having to pitch a tent in a forest?

The National Wildlife Federation provides tips for creating a backyard habitat that draws wildlife and promotes sustainable gardening practices. The organization even offers official certifications for homes that have met their guidelines through the NFW Certified Wildlife Habitat Program. Planting native species with a minimum of pesticides and fertilizers will help attract local fauna as well as reduce water consumption and pollution from runoff. Removing lawns and replacing them with vegetation that animals can use for food, cover, and places to raise their young helps to establish a thriving ecosystem.

Backyards can be customized depending on the types of wildlife you wish to attract. Bird lovers can contact their community’s Audobon Society for information on how to become a way-station for migrating fowl and a home for year-round residents. Many branches of the Society also offer certifications as official backyard or balcony sanctuaries.

Flower enthusiasts should encourage pollinators by growing their favorite nectar-rich plants, setting out bird feeders, or even keeping a hive of bees. Butterfly admirers here in California make sure to include the milkweed on which Monarchs lay their eggs and the caterpillars feed as well as hang hummingbird feeders.  Small ponds provide a place for animals to drink, bathe, and feed on the algae and insects that inhabit them.

Apartment and condo dwellers without yards can take advantage of balconies and roofs to add a little nature back into their living spaces. The online article  “Geek Gardening: A Wired Guide to Domestic Terraforming” offers some examples of how to transform lounging areas into productive gardens.  While most of “Geek Gardening” is focused on food production, the blueprints laying out how to best maximize the use of a limited area are great sources of inspiration.  Plants best suited for your area’s climate can take the place of the fruits and vegetables, although any amount of green is good for the soul and health of wherever we hang our hats.

As for my patch of earth, I have decided to start planting drought tolerant species native to California.  Luckily, there are a number of nurseries nearby that specialize in regional flora close to where I live.  Alongside my herbs, fruits and veggies are sages, buckwheats, fuscias, lupins and a couple of baby oaks.  I have already begun to see insect, lizard and bird activity, and am hoping to catch some glimpses of a mammal or two.  As a nature nut, it’s nice to know that I’m not only official, but certified.

 

 

 

Well just about everything is falling apart in the world.  And on top of it, it’s allergy season. Woohoo. While many of you are running to the pharmacist to grab that box of stuff that’s very near in composition to, say,  something you could purchase under a bridge in Atascadero, let’s examine some holistic options first, k? Here are five ways you can un-stuff your stuff without messing up your stuff.

Vitamins A C B12 and E are the key here. Keep your immune system up. Apple cider vinegar, taken once or as a daily tonic, can completely stop the histamine reaction. One popular way to take it is to put 1/8 of a cup in 16 oz of water and drink it throughout the day. Manganese, specifically manganese sulfate, is another great way to knock out the nose blowing. But don’t over do it. Ten to twenty mg’s a day, taken only for one week, should do the trick. Be sure to take it on and empty stomach, and not at the same time as food or other supplements.  It will be the most effective that way. Spices are a wonderful way to clear the head, as hot as you can stand. Turmeric, curry, and garlic are especially good for your immune system. Lastly, zinc supplements, taken in a similar manner to manganese (once a week, on an empty stomach, 50mg’s a day) will get you back on your feet.

In addition to these suggestions, drink plenty of water, get plenty of sleep, and try to keep your sniffer away from green/floating pieces of nature. If you want some additional help, I recommend paying The Secret Garden a visit. Without doubt, you’ll find some potions and herbs that’ll heal things you never even knew were wrong with you.

 

 

 

For those of us who enjoy snow and ocean sports, riding on a board or a pair of skis means having the health of the environment riding on our conscience. Much of the traditional equipment utilizes toxic materials in the constructing, shaping and finishing processes.  The fiberglass, epoxy resins, plastic, foam, wood,  steel and aluminum that propels us down the mountain or along the waves is difficult to recycle, nearly impossible to separate once constructed, and overly demanding on natural resources, landfill space, and energy consumption.

What is a nature-loving thrill seeker to do? Luckily, there is now an emerging organic and sustainable sports market that specializes in reducing outdoor recreation’s environmental footprint.  Blogs such as Snowboard Green, Shifting Tides and Sustainability in Action Sports post regular updates concerning the progress of the industry’s movements towards a healthier future.

From fast growing grasses such as bamboo and paulownia, to hemp, flax, and recycled hardwood, manufacturers are beginning to make more eco-friendly boards and skis from vegetable-based, sustainable materials.  Surf and snowboard companies Arbor and Venture use farmed or salvaged wood, recycled poly-ethylene fill and bamboo cores for their merchandise.  Liberty Skis also employs bamboo in its products as does German-based Grown.  Grown, along with New Zealand’s Kingswood, are the first companies to claim fully carbon neutral skis.

Some of these brands travel the extra mile by reclaiming their scraps, harnessing wind power to operate their facilities, and shipping factory direct in order to offset transportation pollution.  Even the larger, more established brands are beginning to jump on the green bandwagon.  Salomon and Volkl offer ski and snowboard lines featuring bamboo cores and snow industry giant, Head has begun a charity to protect South American rainforests to offset its carbon emissions.

For a comprehensive list of environmentally friendly winter gear, check out Stray’s guide for Winter 2010-2011.  Surfers should take a look at The Greener Blue for blog posts and links to featured products.

Through a little enlightened thinking, awareness and conservation-minded practice, it is possible to enjoy the full force of outdoors without leaving a negative impact.  Through supporting those businesses who value nature as we do, we can ensure an enriching experience within our landscapes while promoting businesses with the health of the planet in mind.  We’re on board!  Are you?

(Bambu Batu is proud to be an authorized dealer of American-made Bamboo apparel from Arbor.)

 

 

The fight towards curbing global climate change may have found allies in some of the world’s smallest organisms.  Algae, bacteria and fungi are all lending a helping flagellum to produce the biofuels of the future.  Yes, the scum that grows in your bathtub may one day save the planet.  So, who can we thank for filling our tanks and powering our homes?

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii- or to the layperson, “pond scum” is being harnessed to produce hydrogen for fuel cells.  When the microscopic plants are deprived of sulfur and oxygen in their environments, they begin to produce hydrogen which in turn can be collected in a bio-reactor and utilized for the generation of electricity.  For a full profile on this wonder-slime, visit Wired’s article, Algae: Power Plant of the Future? or take a gander at NOVA’s video on algae fuel.

E. coli- Who knew this pathogen was good for so much more than a case of food poisoning? This amazing bacteria’s DNA has been manipulated to secrete biodiesel as a waste product.  Meet microbe engineer Jay Keasling, a scientist, bacteria-whisperer and entrepreneur, working on transforming these bacteria from creating the gas in your stomach to the gas in the tank of your car.

Gliocladium roseum– This little rainforest fungus stands out amongst its fellows in that it is able to produce a number of important fuel substances, including diesel compounds from cellulose (the sturdy cell walls of plants) and hydrocarbons. Its byproduct, dubbed “myco-diesel“, may be more efficient than many other biofuels because it does not require the extra step of fermentation in which the cellulose is broken down by a different set of enzymes or organisms. Instead, it cuts out the middle man and secretes the desired fuel directly.

From medicine to the combustion engine,  we are just beginning to scratch the surface of the power of our little partners and what we as humans are able to engineer them to accomplish.  Now that the discoveries have been made, more than microscopic changes must be made in our infrastructure to accommodate these new technologies. Regardless of how these shifts may occur, it is nice to know that from infinitesimal creatures can come great discoveries.  Good things really do come in small packages.

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