Sunday, December 23, 2007

...then you've made your life contingent on rivers

I just finished reading River Horse, A Voyage Across America by William Least Heat-Moon. It's the true story of his trip across the United States via river, but there are such poetic moments that it's hard to believe it's real. The author lives in the town where I went to college, and I share his appreciation of the lower Missouri River. Here are some great quotes, mostly from the latter half of the book, because that's when I started taking note of the words. I'll have to go back and read the first half again.

p. 235: "I said, If nature undoes immediately what we work years to do, then we're not doing it right."
p. 345: (quoting Pilotis) "'That river isn't about people - it's too primeval. When I see an ocean, I don't see time, but on the Missouri, I see time everywhere, along the eroded banks, down the shallow bottoms in those worn and rounded stones, even in the current. Flow and erosion, flow and erosion. The valley is the face of a clock, and the hour hand's the moving river, always showing how our days are ebbing, getting washed downstream. Civilization will run out long before the sun burns up and turns rivers back into planetary gases.' 'And later: Stand on the water's edge and see how easy it is to imagine a valley before you existed - then imagine it in a time when you're long gone. That river scours existence, pulls solidities loose and flushes them away. To it, our days are no more than cottonwood fluff. Our little selfish ploys and conceited aspirations are just so much sediment. People are about cleverness. A river's about continuance. We talk about dams and wing-dikes, but we don't need to fret about that Missouri. It's not endangered - we are. When I'm out on the water, I don't worry about it. I worry about me. I'm just too small for that river.'"
p. 355: "That night the Photographer reminded me of a famous line from Aldo Leopold, author of the celebrated book A Sand County Almanac: 'One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.' But that was two generations ago, and now the world is not so lonely for those who act on behalf of our planet."
p. 433: (quoting Pilotis) "Why do you think our passage must be continual travail? You've got to adjust to going downhill. Quit uprivering. Just follow the drainage down."
p. 453: (quoting a woman in a bar) "In full certainty, she said, 'When a man takes to the road, even if it's a river, he's running away, but when a woman takes off, she's looking for something.'"
p. 459: "Pessimism and negativism are cankers in the soul of long-distance voyagers, and continuance of journeys owes about as much to blind faith as realistic assessment - at least, that is my interpretation, drawn from reading many travelers' accounts, including those of Columbus."
p. 462: (a discussion between the author and Pilotis) P: "Does the ease of downstreaming make you second-guess yourself about refusing to take a jet boat up the River of No Return so you could have cooperated with the flow of the Missouri for halfway across the continent?" WLH-M: "'No, I said, because those two rivers forced us to earn passage - I think it's like rock climbing where the point is to go a difficult way, otherwise ascent is almost meaningless - the object isn't just to get to the top but to get there in such a way you learn the nature of the mountain.'... 'Four-lane highways are for passing, not passage.'"
p. 474: (quoting Pilotis) "The best human beings can do is borrow a river. We can live in a forest, in the mountains, in the earth, in the grasslands, but not in a river. That's strange for creatures two-thirds water."
p. 491: "On that hundredth night I understood that I had gone and entered a place, and I knew where I'd gone, but where I'd entered I had no idea. When our voyage was only a memory, where would I wash up? Just where is the great delta of old river travelers? When the journey is done, quo vadis? That's a question adventurers leave out of their accounts..."
p. 492: (the author remembering a conversation between him and his ex-wife) "The winter before, I had heard, 'Are you going to trade a boat trip for our marriage?' an impossible question for me since to walk away from the river, once the idea of crossing took hold of me, was to walk away from a long dream, a deep aspiration. The voyage was not more significant than the marriage because it had become one pillar of it - or, at least, one pillar of my life. Either way, I believed a long rivering necessary to my continuance as a man. To the question I said, If I fail even to try the trip I won't be worth being married to. And I heard, 'Then you've made your life contingent on rivers.' To that, I could say nothing."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Female leadership

If Hillary Clinton becomes our next president, would Nancy Pelosi or Barbara Boxer run in the future?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Choose Your Candidate

I just took the Washington Post Choose Your Candidate Quiz. The questions are organized by topic, and the participant chooses which candidate response they most agree with. The participant doesn't know which candidate gave which response, and they can choose to hide or show the tally by candidate. Some responses are more obviously linked to certain candidates, but half the fun is guessing. I will not divulge who the quiz says my candidate is, but I have a few initial reactions:
1. You can take either the Democrat or the Republican quiz. When I have some free time, I'll take the other quiz. I'm curious to know what it would tell me, or whether it would just frustrate me. However, it would definitely help me brush up on what the other party has to say.
2. The quiz presents positions as talking points, which we all know are mostly BS anyway. It just goes to show you that the content carries less weight than the style of wording in politics. Just because a candidate says things in appealing ways doesn't mean they're more qualified to lead.
3. Does it really matter whether the quiz results align with whom you already support? How many people would change their mind after taking this quiz? Maybe it depends more on how decided you were before or what your experience has been with the candidates.
4. I'm definitely doing more research on the candidates. I know whom I'm voting for, but I also want to know more about all of our potential Presidents.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Stem Cell Breakthrough

Two weeks ago, scientists announced that they discovered a way to create embryonic stem cells from skin cells, without any use of the controversial embryos. If this technique is truly successful and proves to be the huge scientific breakthrough everyone believes it to be, then the stem cell debate is over. It also means that President Bush won.

I must admit, maybe that's okay. True, I joined the throngs of people outraged that Bush would defy scientific reasoning and refuse on moral grounds to support embryonic stem cell research. But being President of the United States is a tough job in which you're called upon to make decisions that will never appease everyone. At the end of the day, you do what you think is right.

Put yourself in his shoes. Try to make a controversial decision between what you feel is right for the country and what others want you to do. (You may think that just because you align with a certain political party that such an issue may never come up, but these days, you just don't know, and what you think you believe may be tested at some point.)

What President Bush did was put his foot down about what he felt was right, forcing the scientific community to find a solution that won't pose a moral dilemma for some people. So scientists did just that. Whether the administration sufficiently supported scientists working on such projects is another story that requires more investigation. But in the long run, if we now have the technology to do stem cell research that will pass the moral test and receive lots of new funding, isn't that what's best for the country?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving delights

This Thanksgiving, I had turkey for dinner. But it wasn't just any turkey. This turkey came from a farm nearby, where the birds were truly free-range, ate grain by the handful and all the bugs they could snatch up, and met their fate in a humane way. I bought this turkey from a farmer I know, whose farmer friend actually raised the turkeys. They were dispatched last Sunday, picked up on Tuesday, and brought to the table on Thursday. The farmer I know sends her children to a local school, which she must pay for, and she raises and sells her own chickens, ducks, and eggs. She and the turkey farmer buy their feed and other supplies from local stores, so my money is supporting local businesses instead of some big conglomerate hundreds of miles away.

Ours was a 10-pounder, lean, and more than enough for three people. We spread olive oil and herbs under the skin and all over the top, and stuffed onions and carrots in the cavity. Although not as tender as a factory-raised bird, the meat was so flavorful and went down well with a dab of cranberry sauce. We even cooked and pureed the giblets, a fine feast for my kitty. Picking the rest of the meat from the bone after dinner was strangely satisfying in a primitive way. It was good to know where my meat came from, even if nothing else on the table was organic or sustainable. I can preach to my family all I want, but only they can can take the step to commit to sustainability. My dad now recycles, and I consider that a big step.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Small realizations

Last night, I went to a meeting of the local chapter of the Association of Environmental Professionals. Following dinner was a presentation about new state rules for stormwater management, a rather technical topic. Not only did I know exactly what they were talking about, I wanted to ask questions. I guess I truly am an environmental professional. Now if only we had some stormwater to manage...

Also, I'm back on coffee. I tried drinking black tea instead, but I'm sorry, tea is just not coffee. And I refuse to feel ashamed for my 1 to 2 cups a day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Primaries

As expected, the media are full of political blather about who's ahead, who's going to win, what surprises lie ahead, and the likes. A few points have been made that could change things completely. First of all, polls say that Hillary is ahead, but the participants of those polls are only people who could be reached via land line, thus eliminating anyone with only a cell phone. This means that a large percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 30ish don't have a voice in the polls. Also, Iowa's early primary means that many students registered to vote in Iowa won't be back from winter break in time to vote, leaving them out of a critical decision. But those are the people whose voices matter most, because the next president will really be our president. He or she will have the future of economy, the environment, health care, young injured veterans, foreign relations, and much more, in his or her hands. That's why even the primaries matter so much. Anything could happen. Everyone should vote, even if they think their candidate won't win. The right to vote is like our muscles. You have to exercise your right to vote in order to keep it strong and powerful. Even if you never enter a body-building competition or run a marathon or even lift heavy things, your muscles keep your body working properly. Public participation in choosing our representatives keeps our democratic system healthy and strong. So please, register now and make sure you vote in your primary, even if it looks like the candidates have already been chosen. Use your voice and exercise your political muscles. Send a message to the country about what change you want to see.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The last obstacle removed

My greatest regret since moving to the South is that I have not been able to indulge in the barbecue scene down here. Although I recently decided to eat some meat again, I vowed to remain loyal to locally produced, sustainably raised meat only. Which excludes barbecue, unfortunately.

Until now. Opening November 26th, The Pit in Raleigh will source local, sustainably raised pork and locally grown produce. Oh man, I can't wait.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Finally, the deluge

It's raining. Hard. It's been raining since Wednesday morning, and they say it won't stop til Saturday afternoon. This means less guilt about showering, doing dishes, flushing the toilet. It means we can have a contained fire at the Halloween party this weekend. But still, there's a pumpkin shortage and the corn crops are small, and there are no local apples or pears at the store. This rain, it's probably not a drought-buster by any means, but it helps. It means we'll have water past Christmas, which was an iffy prospect before. But what happens when the taps run dry? Where do we get water when that happens? Let's hope the rain dance works.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reading cats' minds

So my new kitty Molly has been living with me for a month now, and every day, she amuses me a little more. Today, I learned something new about her. Molly is not just any old domestic medium shorthair, she is some sort of jungle cat obsessed with dead vegetation. Well, really any vegetation in general. I thought it was weird that she likes to sit curled up in my plant by the window, which is on a teetery stand and is usually freshly watered. (If you have a cat, by the way, you can probably see what's coming. Window plant + teetery stand + wet soil = cat jumping out of plant and knocking it over, spilling dirt all over the place.)

But today, I witnessed two things I have never seen a cat do before:
1. She picked up a dead leaf in her mouth and carried it into another room, where she "hid" it under the coffee table. What in the world would a ferocious carnivore want with a dead leaf? I think she has done this before, as I have found dead leaves "hidden" under my desk as well.
2. I was eating a bowl of grapes, pulling them off the clusters of stems. Molly took a stem cluster from the bowl with her paw, picked it up with her mouth, put it on the floor and played very diligently and protectively with it. It's as if she had done so a million times and knew just how to bat, catch, and chew the stems. Where would she learn such a thing? Maybe in her previous life, she was a barn cat at a winery.

Friday, September 21, 2007

No End in Sight

Last night, I saw the movie "No End in Sight," which is about the rebuilding of Iraq from just after the war started until just after the 2006 election, when Donald Rumsfeld resigned. It seemingly makes no judgments about whether the war should have happened, it just examines the immense disaster zone that Iraq has become. It's a poignant movie, and depressing as hell, and we just waked away scratching our heads at how a very small group of people in power in Washington DC could create such a quagmire, despite the effective and honest efforts of so many others on the ground in Iraq. Go see it, if only to inspire you to vote for the very best politicians who have the best chance of making our country (and the world) better for everyone.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


It's been two years since I went ovo-lacto-pescatarian (veg+sustainable eggs/dairy/fish), and to celebrate, I ate a burger and a piece of Italian sausage. ONLY because it was served to me by the farmers who raised those burgers and sausage sustainably on their very own farm. The burger was just okay, but the sausage was sweet heaven. This doesn't mean I'll be chowing on jerky daily or anything, it just means I'll indulge in some sustainably raised meat now and again. I still love my beans.

And no, my stomach did not explode from eating meat after going 2 years without it. It just felt like it would because I ate too much food. Cow is some filling stuff, yo.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The New Year and such

This is the first year ever that I didn't do anything for the Jewish New Year, and the only parts I really miss are the food. Eggy challah bread with honey is divine. Maybe I'll bake some this weekend.
Anyway, a new year always brings new opportunities and new challenges. Our farm group is now official, and we got a grant to pay for some events like a sustainable dinner series and perhaps a speaker. Today I got an email from two different people about the group's involvement in other activities on campus and beyond. Even though the farm workdays weren't my idea, it's so exciting to be a part of something new and engaging. The new students are psyched, which means we'll be able to pass the torch instead of fizzling away at the end of the year. In the meantime, it's still hot out. We're looking forward to 80-degree weather because it's cooler than the 95-degree days we've been having. I'm more used to it now, but I miss my hot coffee in the morning.

That's the opportunity, or at least one of them. Although, like usual, there seem to be more challenges to wince at than opportunities to daydream about. Between my master's project, my economics class, and the calculus I'm still trudging through, I'll just be happy to make it to graduation. People say that God gives you only what you can handle, and even if I don't always really believe that, the idea of it helps me get through the day.

This weekend, we went to the coast and took the long scenic way back. Most of the North Carolina coastal plain is filled with small towns, full of churches but little else. The interesting thing about this state is that unlike in the Midwest, where the faces are all white in the small towns, here, there's probably a mix because of the state's history. I'd be proud of the diversity if there wasn't such an economic status divide among races.

One more thought: shopping for cat food is hard for a vegetarian. I settled on organic kibble and natural (not organic) canned food that at least listed mostly real animal products as the first ingredients. The kibble was the same price as the other stuff, and the cans weren't on sale but not more expensive than most original prices. But still, most of this stuff is just so bad. Is it better to get the fish flavors instead of chicken or beef? I'll have to do more research on this.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

News update

A few posts ago, I mentioned that BP was planning to dump more pollution into Lake Michigan. Well, the Chicago Tribune reported on August 24th that BP is changing its plans and vows to find ways to prevent the increase in pollution. Read it here. Let's hope they stick to their promises, both publicly and in actual operation.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Now, it's personal

I just found out that the federal government rates the regional transit development projects a low priority because there still isn't high intensity of development here. Yet. So the question becomes: build transit infrastructure in preparation of the boom we know is coming, or wait til the population influx overwhelms the system and the development is overdue?
There's also something no one is saying officially, but they're certainly keeping it in mind. The federal government won't fund these projects because the money needed is going toward the war instead. So they're waiting it out to see what the new administration will do. In the meantime, local infrastructure all over the country is crumbling or insufficient because of this costly war we're not going to win. This isn't new information, really, but it shows that contrary to what I previously thought, the light rail and improved bus service plans aren't held back because of local politics. They're held back because national politics have hijacked local agendas.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


It finally rained yesterday, for what feels like the first time all summer. Still, we only got about half an inch. The town of Creedmoor, about 20 miles northeast of here, has to pipe in water from a nearby town because its water supply is spitting out sludge. I've never heard of a town just running out of water before, especially not when the rest of the country is drowning. It's crazy. At this point, we're wishing for a hurricane just to bring water to the parched land.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Generation Gap

It has been an eye-opening summer, especially the past few days. Saturday, I watched The Drug Years, a television series on VH1 about drug use in the 20th and 21st centuries in the context of music, pop culture, and politics. I had seen the series before, but I watched because following was The U.S. vs. John Lennon. I fell asleep, but thanks to DVR, I was able to watch it this afternoon, after reading an article about President Bush's driving philosophy during his time in office. There are many many many differences between Bush and John Lennon, but you can tell they both came from the same generation. One might argue that if Bush's father hadn't been a Republican president during the backlash to the "hippie" generation, he'd be more like the rest of us. In any case, I'm still sort of processing the whole thing, but in the meantime, I'll say this: it's incredible how the people who grew up during the biggest revolution of recent history have allowed the country to go in quite the opposite direction.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Summer recap

I left work on Friday, my last day, and went directly to Charlotte. When I returned yesterday, summer was over. Today was the first school-related meeting, and now it's time to get cracking. So before I dive in, a summer recap.

Work: Turned out to be a satisfying summer overall. Being respected as a member of the academic community is a nice, if strange, feeling. I met with environmental professionals, city planners and commissioners, and state agency employees. I attended city and state commission meetings, committee meetings, and legislative hearings. I did lots of research about topics I thought I knew a thing or two about. Professionally, it may or may not take me where I want to be, but I made a lot of connections and learned a lot about the functionality (and dysfunctionality) of state and local political processes, environmental and development policies, and how advocacy can be more than petitions and postcards. I also worked with a great bunch of people who work hard and play hard. One thing is for sure: I would not have known how to do my job without the past year of classes and work, and it reaffirmed the value of this whole experience.

School: Took a couple classes with professionals, which helped put my coursework into perspective and taught me some essential new things I sadly would not have learned in my required coursework--another valuable aspect of local internships.

Play: Hiked, biked, kayaked, shopped locally, visited the mountains, traveled. Made new friends, listened to live music, cooked new food, splurged on camping gear. Does it get any better?

And so, a few take-away lessons about North Carolina:
1. Locals will fully accept you as a Midwesterner (meaning Outsider), but they will be overjoyed and relieved to learn that you want to stay and help make things better here.
2. In many arenas, things are still very much a Good-old Boy white male's game - women in politics must be strong enough to be taken seriously but must still seem deferential to men. And, the state government is just now passing legislation acknowledging the Wilmington race riots in 1898
3. It's nice living closer to the production of the food I eat. No more Styrofoam tomatoes or mushy cukes.
4. Summer is hot. Unlike other parts of the country, there are no 70-degree days here. During the day, it's 80 or 90 or 100, and at night it rarely goes below 65 degrees. And I'm sorry, but that's how it should be. Cool summers in Chicago never felt right to me. Then again, ask me how I feel when I'm walking around campus in 92-degree heat.
5. I'll never get over the Southern accent. It's music to my ears.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Today I went kayaking on the Eno River, in an area of calm waters where the Eno, Little, and Flat rivers become the Neuse River, which flows southeast to the ocean near Beaufort, NC. Somewhere along these rivers, there really are rapids, but our trip was calm and easy. The biggest excitement was a fan boat that came through the opposite direction. It has been so dry this year that the river was pretty low and slow, but the scenery was beautiful. Coming back upstream, where the Eno and one of the rivers merge, the sun was setting over the trees through the haze and contrasted the glowing green of the grass and algae. A white bird (heron? egret?) stood still and graceful in the distance.

I think it was last year that I paddled up the Chicago River, during which we were told to try not to fall in because the water was less than fresh. One whiff of the river upstream was all the convincing I needed to stay in my boat. It may soon get grosser, now that BP has obtained a permit to dump more pollution into Lake Michigan from its plant in Indiana.

Coincidentally, I've been reading River Horse by William Least Heat-Moon, and tonight is the premiere of Feasting on Asphalt 2, in which Alton Brown samples the world of food from along the Mississippi River. These guys have it right - traveling by river certainly gives you a much different view of the world than you get by road or train. Yet another reason to save our great bodies of water.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Growing pains

The bf and I were talking the other day about the challenges this country faces under our watch. Our grandparents lived through the Depression, some of the worst times in our country's history. Then, things got better. Our parents were born in the most populous generation yet, and with them came a huge cultural revolution. Their work during the Civil Rights movement, the Women's Rights movement, the Gay Rights movement, and an overall acceptance of all kinds of ideas and lifestyles has allowed the country to really grow and prosper. It has been a good thing, for sure, but now we're getting to big for our britches.

Many cities grew so much, so quickly, that they didn't stop to think about the impact that has on our aging infrastructure, as evidenced by recent dam failures, bursting steam pipes, and collapsing bridges. The threat of terrorism may scare us, but our own structural weaknesses may be the actual cause of our eventual demise. That, or our failing food production system. Factory farms produce mass quantities of tasteless junk, eroding and depleting the soils and polluting our water, air, and digestive systems. Obesity was once a "luxury" of the rich; now, it's cheaper to eat foods that make us fat, in large part because our crop subsidies reward soy and corn, the key ingredients in most of the unhealthiest (and cheapest) food out there.

Surely, we haven't seen the end of all this political and structural turmoil. Culturally, some things are better, but it seems we're more willing to accept wrongdoings, even though they make us queasy. Since Watergate, the political process has really been led astray and people have lost faith in their elected leaders. After all, look how screwed up our government is now, and every new scandal elicits little more emotion than "meh, what else is new?" Look at what the sports world has become: doping in baseball and cycling, dogfighting in football, gambling and cheating in football - things that we all know are wrong but have come to accept as par for the course. An interviewee on NPR mused that this is a generational thing, at least in cycling, and that we can only hope to stop future generations from such behavior because there's no hope for this one. The author of a new book about selling out to corporate America (read the interview on rings true for many of us idealistic twenty- and thirty-somethings who want to change the world but can't afford to support ourselves on the salaries of such jobs. Instead, we take the corporate job, promising ourselves that we'll only do it until we've made a good living and saved some money, and then we'll give back to the world. But by then, it might be too late. We'll have aging parents to support, without a Medicare or social security system to help out. And if we have kids, we'll have to support their increasingly expensive needs for schooling, food, health care, and whatever hot trends they just have to follow.

None of this is news to anyone at this point. Yes, I'm whining, because right now, I don't have it so bad. But I'm one of those idealistic twenty-somethings with an expensive education that I'll be paying for many years down the road. Here in North Carolina, a huge opportunity exists to make some real changes in the way agriculture, development, and conservation happen. All those people who no longer have open space in the Northeast are moving down here, grabbing up open space without any plan in sight. I could start a 1,000 Friends of North Carolina. I could lead a strong progressive campaign against the very vocal naysayers, working for smarter development planning, boosting political and economic support for sustainable agriculture, creating stronger environmental policies in the state. But I have student loans. I have hand-me-downs and oldies-but-goodies that will need replacing in a few years. I want to get married (green wedding!) and own a home (solar panels or sustainable building materials!). Maybe I want to have kids someday (although who wants to bring a child into this world as it is now?).

Looks like I have my work cut out for me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bragging rights

My little brother, who's not so little anymore, is now a pastry chef with a rave restaurant review in a big-city newspaper. In my eyes, he may as well be the Next Food Network Star. The review came out on my mom's birthday, which most certainly made her day more special.

We ate at his restaurant on opening weekend--okay, the server didn't know where the fish came from (except that it was from the market down the street), but the food was fantastic. Who knew that cheesecake with crumbled Cap'n Crunch Crunchberries could be so good? He has only been in culinary school since last September, but he's a favorite among his professors and an indispensable asset to the restaurant. Now he has a clip to show potential employers, and someday, he'll be pastry chef to the stars. So yeah, I'm just a little proud of him.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Dodging horse poop on the ol' trail

Today I went bike riding on a portion of the American Tobacco Trail in Wake County. It's part of the Rails-to-Trails program, and someday more than 22 miles of railway-turned-recreation path will wind through the Triangle area. The portion I rode on is about 6.5 miles long and wind through forested areas in mostly undeveloped (not for long) Cary and Apex. The three trail heads include gravel parking lots with new waterless restroom facilities. They call them "sweet-smelling" toilets, which are little more than outhouses with better air circulation, but I applaud the effort anyway. I'm not picky about toilets, but these were pretty decent.

Anyway, riding on the trail brought back old memories of riding on the Katy Trail in central Missouri--the crunch of the clay and gravel path, the rustling of the trees and buzzing of the insects, the faint flowery smell of nature, and the friendly like-minded people enjoying some outdoor physical activity. Being on the trail here felt like being back in Missouri. There were maybe more pine needles on the trail here, and less wildlife, but plenty of fresh air and sunshine abound. On this trail, they allow horses, of which I saw five, and as they passed I caught a whiff of barn dust, horse sweat, and worn leather. For a moment, I missed the days of riding lessons and summer camp. Bike riding in Missouri was one of my favorite activities, something that brought me such joy, and today I remembered how much I love it. Many times, I have said to myself, "this, this is my religion." Nature and movement and music. Perhaps someday soon they'll finish the trail--the section just north of this one is still rough-going. But as I rode home, listening to the Splendid Table on NPR, I got a renewed craving for the little things in life, be they outdoor adventure or the tastiest lunch ever. Today I had both.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Angler: Dick Cheney as you only guessed

The Washington Post has a four-day series about Dick Cheney and the powers he wields. The article includes testimony never printed before from sources in-the-know. It's fascinating and scary at the same time. Check it out here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Getting used to the humidity

Today I went to a rally outside the legislative office building about hog farm waste. It was an interesting mix of seasoned grassroots organizers and over-the-top cheerleading. At the end, they said a prayer. Cause that's how they roll in rural North Carolina. Gotta give them credit, they were certainly creative and fairly effective. No matter their rallying technique, the fact is that hog farms produce a ridiculous amount of waste that pollutes the lakes and streams, as well as the air that farm neighbors breathe, and thus far the politician have been mostly willing to let the huge factory farms do as they please. There's a bill up for discussion that would change that, so perhaps the state will see some change soon.

Other summer activities have included the farmers market, where I bought blackberries so delicious, it's hard to believe they're the same fruit you can buy at the store for twice the price and half the flavor. Real blackberries have almost a hint of spearmint to them, and they don't just taste like dark raspberries. I've also been hiking in the Umstead state park and Eno River state park. I had forgotten how much I missed real hiking. As my friend put it, that is my religion. Who needs a stuffy synagogue and boring rabbi when the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors are so much more moving. My new bedroom window faces a little wooded area between the building and the fence that separates the apartment complex from the road. Each morning, I awaken to a bird symphony, complete with a bird call that sounds kind of like a duck but surely isn't. My kitchen window also overlooks the area, so I can gaze at the trees while I do dishes.

I have also been taking advantage of the free or cheap learning experiences my school offers. I'm learning how to use the Geographic Information Systems program to create maps, and I took a class about environmental sustainability and Capitol Hill. That class was most inspiring because after marveling at how little must actually get done in government, I heard from some people who actually got stuff done. It gave me a ray of hope through the cloud mass that is the 2008 presidential candidate roster.

Speaking of politics, I've heard some interesting discussion happening here and there about where our country is and how it got to this point. After many years of Iraq, of corporate ownership of our government, of food unsafety and health problems caused by pollution, we're still looking to others to place the blame. How could Bush lie to us? How could the pharmaceutical companies deceive us? How could bacteria-ridden spinach sneak onto our grocery shelves? By now, we need to stop asking how others could do this to us, and start asking how we could let them get away with it for so long. We voted for these politicians, and we didn't protest hard enough against their policies we don't agree with. We rely on giant corporations to give us the food, clothing, medicine, and a surprising array of other things at cheap prices, without asking how they're doing it or what the environmental and social prices are. We don't hold others accountable for their actions. So now here we are; some people are starting to ask the right questions, and some things are starting to change. I believe I criticized John Ashcroft at some point years ago (if not here, then certainly in conversation) for being an overall scary conservative who lost to a dead guy in the 2000 US senate race in Missouri. The big joke now is that he's starting to look like one of the good guys in this administration.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Historic farming

Yesterday we did some farm work yet again, this time on a mostly meat farm where the emphasis is mostly on education. The farm has some Dexter cows, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, catfish, ducks, and a small garden, as well as two Haflinger horses and a mule to do some of the heavy pulling and two livestock guard dogs and four border collies for herd management and companionship. So yeah, a lively bunch. At one point, one of the horses was put into a different area for demonstration with a bunch of students visiting the farm, which freaked out the other horses, riled up the goats, and excited the dogs. There was lots of running, barking, bleating, and such, and we couldn't help but stand by and laugh. The goats also tried to hijack the John Deere equipment and had to be shooed away every few minutes.

Aside from the comical nature of the farm, the owners want to practice and teach others about historic farming, which includes using animals bred for hardiness and practicality that require little use of antibiotics, hormones, or artificial diet supplements. The cows, goats, and sheep mostly graze and eat some grain; the chickens and ducks eat the bugs roaming around and spread the manure; the pigs eat mostly stale bread donated to the farm and leftover veggies from the garden. In the barn, the family also has some old farm implements, as well as old kitchen that they now use for canning and cooking. The owners also want to teach crafts like weaving, stitching, canning, quilt making, candle making, etc. The idea, which they're currently working toward, is to keep the functioning farm and bring in school groups and individuals to learn about life on the farm before modern farm practices, but still with the feeling of modern life. All of this historic farming is important as sustainable (or balanced) agriculture and it fosters a real sense of appreciation for how difficult it is to live completely off your own land.

My farm experiences thus far and reading Barbara Kingsolver's book prove why factory farms and large-scale production has become so common: it's HARD WORK to sustain a small farm on limited financial resources and no use of the current practices that encourage quick growth and survivability during transit. To support a family of four on only what you can produce or buy locally is really a full-time job that requires almost constant vigilance and work to plant (or raise), weed, breed, harvest, prepare, and store the fruits of your labor. The owner of the farm we worked at yesterday described the tendency of third- and fourth-generation farmers who happily adapt to modern farming conveniences or sell the land outright for large sums of money, because sustainable agriculture is hard work, and it's hard to make a living because the products come in smaller quantities. When you grow your own food, your life revolves around food. I'm exhausted thinking about it.

I find myself feeling guilty for not growing more in window boxes or shopping at the farmer's market more often or eating some things that would never grow around here out-of-season, if at all. But I guess doing some things are better than doing nothing. Supporting local farmers is important, and I couldn't now imagine living somewhere without access to a farmer's market.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Summer pleasures, Southern style

My dear Texan friend welcomed me to the South recently, after commending me on my happiness here. I mentioned that it was easy to become a Southern girl, because here in NC everyone is so friendly and living here is so pleasant. Unlike in Texas apparently, as my friend put it: "Welcome to frickin' Texas. Get used to it." One reason this area is so lovely is the local concert series sponsored by the local NPR station every other Friday night from May to October at the American Tobacco Historic District. Once the heart of tobacco production in this country, it's now modernized offices and restaurants in the shell of the old warehouse and factory buildings. In the middle, a gorgeous pavillion, surrounded by a shallow moat, is the venue for local bluegrass, blues, community band, and other music performances. The bluegrass is part of the Back Porch Music series on WUNC, and it does feel like we're hanging out in someone's backyard. Concertgoers sit on the soft grass, kids and dogs run free, and everyone dances a jig. Don't get me wrong, Chicago's summer music can't be beat, with the fireworks exploding beside the Milennium Park bandshell. But here in Durham, it feels both modern and down-home.

Another summer pleasure: today I went to the local farmers market and bought a sweet and pungent Vidalia onion, a cucumber, sugar snap peas, a basil plant, and strawberries so sweet, you'd think they were candy. I ate the strawberries with some ricotta cheese and a light drizzle of honey. Maybe it doesn't get better than that.

Friday, May 25, 2007

North Carolina legislative process and Another Farm

Now I know why people have little faith in their government representatives. It's amazing anything ever gets done. Yesterday I got a quick civics lesson in the North Carolina legislative process. Here are just a few things I learned:
  1. State legislators are part-time--they only get paid $17,000 a year, so they have other jobs as well.
  2. Long and short sessions: The state legislative calendar goes in two-year cycles, starting with odd-numbered years. Hence, the new calendar started this past January with a long session that goes until August-ish. During this time, bills are proposed. Bills requiring funding can be proposed at anytime; bills not requiring funding must pass out of either the House or Senate by "crossover deadline," which happened to be yesterday. If they don't pass crossover, they're put on hold until the next long session in 2009 (which essentially means they're dead, unless the bill sponsors are hardcore about getting it passed.) After crossover, all bills requiring funding and others that passed the crossover deadline are debated in committee until August, when the legislature recesses. In Spring 2008, they reconvene in a short session until July to continue discussing (and trying to pass) the bills leftover from the previous year. If the bill doesn't pass by July, it's dead and the sponsors have to start all over again in January 2009.
  3. Local legislation: North Carolina has this archaic policy that all local legislation must get passed in the state legislature. This is an attempt by the state to control and oversee all state and regional legislative affairs, and it takes up a ridiculous amount of time in the General Assembly.
  4. Even though NC is a red state, both the House and Senate are controlled by Democrats. Representative Joe Hackney, Speaker of the House, is a lawyer and farmer. This week, he slyly prevented a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage from passing the crossover deadline, rendering it dead until 2009.
  5. Go to to learn more. I'm sure I'll post more this summer--the whole thing fascinates me.
In other news, we're working on another farm next week. These farmers are historic, or "heirloom" farmers, meaning they continue using historic practices with historically preserved breeds of animals and crops. They do use modern farm equipment and just collect the antiques. Heirloom breeds are those not cross-bred or genetically engineered--they evolve with changing conditions through good old survival-of-the-fittest. Farmers breed historically pure animals that exhibit the best traits, and they save seeds from plants that grow well and taste best. And they procreate the traditional way--pollination know. This is the complete opposite of the way most food is produced in the world. Most crop seeds are sold by giant companies like Monsanto and are genetically modified to contain a "termination" gene. This means that seeds saved from the year's crop will not grow. Farmers using these seeds must purchase new stocks every year from these huge companies. This leaves crops vulerable to changing conditions that scientists can't predict, it costs much more money for the farmers, and the crops aren't even nutritionally sound or flavorful. And it certainly omits the element of history and culture.

I could go on and on, but I won't. Instead, I'll recommend reading "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," by Barbara Kingsolver. She and her family ate only locally produced food in the mountains of Virginia for a year, and her book is about both their experience and the disaster that food production has become.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pimp My Career

The school year ended on a satisfactory note and I'm now almost at the end of my first week of my internship. I suspected it might be a good summer--my supervisor has said many times that he's been looking forward to working together this summer. Right back atcha, guy. My first day on the job, I attended a joint committee meeting at the state legislative building on emergency preparedness and disaster recovery. I must be a nerd, 'cause I was psyched. What can I say, I have become a political junkie. Probably by the end of the summer, I'll have attended enough meetings to be sufficiently bored at them, but right now it's cool. There's definitely a feeling of Southern politics floating throughout the capital. Yesterday I delivered invitations for an oyster roast to the state senators and representatives, and many legislative aides were wearing bow ties and hats with ribbons. Many of them said, "Thank you" in that charming Southern accent that I just adore. Four days into my job and I have already learned so much about the political history and the modus operandi of the state. It's fascinating. A lot of things are changing in North Carolina, mostly for the better; the influx of conservative Northerners and the exit of many conservative Southern Democrat politicians will make for an interesting new mix of agendas.
So my job is fulfilling and interesting, and the work I have done so far has been up to par, thanks to my year of schooling. The watershed class I trudged through last semester is already coming in handy, my adeptness in writing policy memos has served me well, and my instincts are kicking in nicely. I'm meeting with my master's project advisor tomorrow to see how I can turn all this research about sustainable disaster recovery and comprehensive plan development into a project that will torture me for the next year.
Oh yeah, the best part about my job? I can work from home.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Politics Friday

Last night the bf and I sat around being the political junkies that we are. First we watched reruns of The Daily Show, further analyzing John McCain's appearance on Tuesday night and the election in France. Then we flipped through and caught most of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. I have never seen this show before, but so many people talk about it that I felt like I had been missing out. Moyers had an interview with Jon Stewart, which was funny, thoughtful, and touching. Then he had a story about a group of independent journalists who are covering the attorney general firings. These journalists have really exposed the plans behind the scenes to put more politically supportive attorneys in place of those who have either refused to take politically motivated action against Democrats or who have been pursuing cases of wrongdoing by loyal Republicans. And I gotta say, it makes me a little sick. The facts that have been uncovered and presented so far comprise a story that sounds like a conspiratorial novel, but is, in fact, reality. This is not just the Democrats hating on the Republicans. This is an unbelievably scary reality of the inner workings of the American government. To read more about the journalists' work, you can either click through the link above or go here.

Needless to say, Bill Moyers Journal has been added to the DVR recording list. We joked that recording this show automatically registers me on the Patriot Act watchlist for un-American activities. These days, I wouldn't be surprised. In any case, it's not the scandal story that attracted me to the show, it's the fact that Bill Moyers asks poignant questions and presents stories that the traditional news programs don't cover. As a current events and politics junkie, that appeals to me more than outright Bush-bashing, which as Jon Stewart complained, has gotten really old and too easy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Driving in cars with radios

Now I remember why I love driving so much. Listening to the radio can be a fun experience or a frustrating time, especially when you're a captive audience. Until now, I was under the impression that Triangle-area radio sucked. When they say they play everything, they mean
everything random that no one really wants to listen to. Ugh. I thought I was going to have to rely on trusty old NPR (91.5 WUNC) while on the road. But I have recently discovered some great independent radio stations based out of University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (89.3 WXYC) and North Carolina State University in Raleigh (88.1 WKNC). I guess Duke has a radio station too (88.7 WXDU), but I haven't listened to it yet. The playlists look good, but I tend not to trust any station whose mission is:
"WXDU, as a member of the Duke University Union, exists to inform, educate, and entertain both the students of Duke University and the surrounding community of Durham through quality progressive alternative radio programming. WXDU seeks to give its staff te freedom to pursue their personal aesthetic within the framework of a cohesive format. WXDU aims to provide the listener with an alternative viewpoint untainted by commercial interests. WXDU should maintain good relations with the music industry without compromising its integrity and nationally recognized commitment to quality programming. WXDU must remain a laboratory where all members are free to make and learn from their mistakes."
(Wonky! This, by the way, is a perfect example of what the Duke experience is. Even music is an academic endeavour and must always keep up proper and impeccable appearances. My program is not like this, however. We like music for music's sake. We're the hippies.)

In any case, ah, college radio. Where everything indie came from before anyone had ever heard of it. The stations play great music all the time, and you can listen to all of them online. Please check them out and spread the word. And support your own local/college radio stations.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


And so, dear friends, the two-year anniversary of this blog has arrived (first post: April 19, 2005). When I first started blogging, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, since my job was less than satisfying and I craved intellectual stimulation in my life. My posts were clever (or at least, I thought so) because I had no creative outlet and no opportunities for expositional or persuasive writing. I wanted to tell people about all the things I thought they might be missing, or at least not already discussing.

Now, two years later, my blog has become slightly neglected. I don't have time to read print newspapers and the online ones get skimmed. In fact, I don't have time to read or write much that isn't for school. But it's okay, because now my life is full of all the things I used to crave. My friends are all smart and intellectually stimulating. My boyfriend emails articles to me almost weekly, about things I probably wouldn't pick up on, because he spends more time reading the online newspapers than I do. My classes give me new and interesting things to think and write about, and I have once again learned to enjoy writing. My work on the environmental law and policy journal gives me a chance to impose rules and order on the writings of the smart and accomplished. And I feel a little less afraid now, after the turn of Congress and the growing greenness in this country. There's still plenty to worry about in this world, but these days, I'm more hopeful.

So in this, the third year of the blog, I'll be taking a different direction. I'll still try to point out the important things that I think people might be missing. I'll still recommend great books or music or websites. I'll still praise Salt Lake City and other places for their continued, if unexpected, commitment to the environment. And there will be more of my life in here as well, more thoughts, concerns, experiences, and such. I'll still try to keep it smart, not trite. But if you don't find it intellectually stimulating enough, start your own blog.

Oh yeah, and Happy Earth Day, y'all!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A good soaking

Over the course of Saturday night to Monday morning, we received a ton of rain, which left the ground soggy and soft. We hadn't had a lot of rain over the past month, so it was well needed. It also washed a lot of the pollen away, for which my allergies are thankful. However, in the sandy soils of North Carolina, wet conditions plus high winds lead to a high probability of falling trees. Which they did. Apparently many trees fell over the beautiful Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, so our campus bus took a different route. The tree-lined quiet streets and the exposed red red soil along the road warmed my heart. Somehow, this place with its Southern accents, pine mulch, coastal sensibilities, and sprawl, feels like home. I'm realizing more and more that the same cool things you get in other cities are here too, you just have to look a little harder for them. Things move more slowly in the South, it's true, but why is that a bad thing?

This summer, I'll be working at preventing sprawl and encouraging smart transportation options down here. I'll be doing research from the library or at home, meeting with legislators, talking to reporters, and in general, getting my feet wet. I'm sure I'll have a lot to report. I'll also be learning to play the banjo, trudging through calculus (still), and perhaps training in Geographic Information Systems so I can make pretty maps on the computer. Of course, I'll be spending time with friends during my last truly free summer.

So what do I like best about North Carolina? There's always something new to learn.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


I've been remiss in posting, except to brag about my awesome spring break (which was the first real spring break since high school's class trip to Hawaii. This break was just a wee different...)

So here are some other things I have experienced in this great state of North Carolina:
1. I worked on another sustainable farm that makes cheese. The cows are pastured all the time (with rotation) and fed small supplements of corn and soy. There are pigs that eat the whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking that would otherwise be treated as waste because of naturally occurring nitrogen levels. There are chickens that lay eggs and eat the flies and fly larvae that would otherwise spread diseases among the cows. The cheese is made on the premises and sold at farmer's markets and Whole Foods. Yeah, most of the cheeses are made with animal rennet, so they're not perfect, but otherwise they do good things.

I will continue to volunteer on the farms this summer, hopefully twice a month. In the fall, I'm going to work with the fellow student who got this whole thing started to create an official student group, and maybe look into getting some sustainable agriculture research opportunities in our program.

By the way, both farms we have worked on are owned and run by lesbian couples. Hey, it's just great to see women running farms and doing good things.

2. Yeah, all those lovely pine trees that smell so great all year? They're the source of all the dusty yellow pollen that covers everything in sight, like someone's chalk drawing gone awry. All the tree pollen, which is emerging earlier than usual due to warmer temps and dry conditions, is wreaking havoc on my eyes and sinuses. April is usually rough for allergies, but this is ridiculous. I really hope it clears out soon, or it's going to be a miserable summer.

3. Even still, spring is in such full force that I almost forgot there was a winter at all. So the South has its good and its bad.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Breaking in Spring

Three really memorable spring break moments, in the category of:
1. A life completely unlike my own
Not gawking at the celebrity-laden Pasadena lawn party

2. Hippie Madness
Bonding with my Cali uncle over beer and Wahoo's

3. NY Redux
Trudging through the wintery mix to a city museum about a city plan

Or more generally, being in paradise, even in the snow.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sustainable agriculture Part 1

The beauty of living in North Carolina is that eventually you'll meet someone who has a farm. A woman who works in my department has a small chicken farm, which she runs with sustainable agriculture practices, and she knows other people in the sustainable agriculture community. The thing about a farm is that there is ALWAYS work to be done. So a bunch of us students have started volunteering on Saturdays so that we could learn more, help out, and of course, procrastinate on our school work. Yesterday was the first farmhand day, and we went to help out our chicken farming friend.

Some more details about the farm: they have about 100 chickens who lay eggs year-round and three roosters, and in the spring and summer, they have more chickens which they sell for meat. They take the meat birds to a small processing plant nearby--none of the slaughtering is done on-site. They also have a pony and a horse that they rescued, and they donate a parcel of their land to a pot-bellied pig rescue. All of the animals are completely free-range. The chickens eat natural grains fed to them, plus they wander around all day eating bugs, worms, and other seeds. At night, they naturally come home to roost, which means they wander into the big caged area and sit down and hang out for the night. The cages are there only to protect them from raccoons and oppossums, which get in anyway. This year, they're getting a guard dog to protect the roost at night.

If you think chicken farming is easy, think again. The owners are up early in the morning to feed and let out the chickens, collect eggs to sell, and feed and take care of the horse and pony. They then take their kids to school and go to work. At night, they have to feed and secure the roosts, take care of the horse and pony, make dinner, help kids with homework, and get ready to repeat again the next day. Any chickens that are injured by predators need to be cared for, and when they have chicks, they have to make sure the heat lamp is on and that they're safe. They also have to move the meat bird roosts each day on top of fresh grass, fix anything that has broken, and attend to regular life. If there's bad weather, something will surely be flooded or frozen or broken. If predators attack, the battlefield must be cleaned up. And those things don't stop or go away just because work is stressful or there's a death in the family or it's a holiday. Farming is a life that goes on every single day, no matter what.

Chickens are funny animals, with the energy of dogs and the curiosity of cats. One chicken even jumped up into the car to get a better look. At the end of the day, we all sat around on the porch, drinking beer and watching the chicken-and-children antics unfold. Then we drove to a local dairy farm and had fresh ice cream. Then we went home and the reality of our schoolwork, so insignificant compared to the real world of farming and family, hit like a brick.

In two weeks, we plan to visit another sustainable farm, something different, where the tasks will be all new. But at the end of the day, we'll know we contributed to something important. It's an experience everyone should have.

*By the way, yes, I am still, and will continue to be, vegetarian. My biggest issue with meat is the giant factory farms that have atrocious animal treatment practices. It's important to me to support sustainable agriculture, plus I enjoy helping people out with this kind of work, and I learned a whole lot. *

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Adieu Molly

Molly Ivins passed away today. She was a strong lady, but unfortunately cancer was stronger. Adieu, dear Molly. Here's to hoping someone else with the cajones to continually call out the Bush administration and other ridiculous human tricks will emerge and pick up where you left off.
(click on the post title to read about Molly in the Texas Observer)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Snow in the South

It snowed in Durham on Thursday. This is a photo of the trees across the street. We got about an inch total between 5 am and 9 am. An inch. In Chicago, an inch is barely noticeable. Here, it means the world is ending. The morning shows were preempted by the local news on every station, in order to report the chaos. Schools were closed. Businesses were closed. The news reported more than 100 car accidents before 8 am. All that everyone talked about was the snow.

By noon, the snow was gone. It melted into puddles, and the snow turned to misty rain. Friday was warmer and sunny, and no one would ever know that there had been snow just two days ago.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Do your research, folks

Dark Cloud Over Good Works of Gates Foundation
I knew it was too good to be true--Bill Gates leaving Microsoft to devote his time to the foundation that raises and donates more money than exists in some small countries? Stephen Colbert often refers to the foundation as the 'Stephen and Melinda Gates Foundation'. Wonder if he'll still want to be a part of it? Maybe more so, since his tongue-in-cheek character on his show would love such investments in things like large oil companies.

This is proof that you should always look into the organizations to which you donate money, because they're not always forthcoming about what happens behind the scenes.