Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Breakfast on the bus

This December morning is magical.
The thick yellow sun, heavy like a runny yolk, rises above the buildings
poked by the bare branches
spraying light up to the puffs of clouds.
The trees grow woody nodes where their leaves once hung, protecting them from the cold wind
that shuffles leaves and litter and snow along the sidewalks.
There's peace here, buried among the coats and mittens and holiday madness
like the feeling of toast and eggs, sunny-side up
getting a start on a quiet day.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Life is a bowl of...roasted vegetables?!

I've been thinking about a conversation that my cousin and I had a few weeks ago, about people who feel "called" to do something good - people who believe that they are "special" and will somehow change the world. Some of those people will become Tom of Tom's Shoes, or Bill Gates, or the Cousteaus. But most of those people will, at some point, be forced to accept the fact that This Is All There Is. That the next big thing, which they believe they will create, is not just around the corner. That life is just a bunch of trials and errors made on a treadmill that get us mostly nowhere. Those of my generation might be tempted to partially blame the movie "Dead Poets Society" and its mantras of seizing the day and letting loose a mighty yawp for inspiring such a (delusional?) can-do attitude. What, then, of rumors about how the boomer generation, so idealistic in the '60s and '70s, sold out for a pension and a station wagon? Are dreams of changing the world just delusions to get us through our youth, and does maturity mean accepting that we're never going to be a star?

What a thought. Is that true? Do we all reach some point at which we must admit that our loftiest of goals are just dreams that keep us moving? Or do those who succeed do so because they possess some innate quality, and that if we dig deep and find that special quality within us, we too can make a real difference? Or perhaps, a third option: maybe not all changes come in the same size. Maybe even small wins can change the world. Maybe we must accept that our lives are exactly what they look like, and not what we dream they should be, but that doesn't preclude us from doing something good anyway. A recent study found that people who daydream are less happy than people who are focused on the present. But if we don't dream, do we have any chance of getting what we really want?

A quote from this morning's tea: "Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think." -- Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (often attributed to French essayist Jean de La Bruyère)


I made roasted cauliflower again today. If life was just roasted cauliflower, I would be okay with that. Well, that and leftover pizza...

Thursday, November 25, 2010


How can two holes make you feel whole? And yet, they have. My ears were first pierced when I was very young; I don't remember a time when I couldn't wear earrings to make me feel like a girl, to embellish my dress or stand out in a crowd. I don't remember the punching of the second holes, but after a time, I let them close up in the middle, a visible hole without an exit. This year, I punched them through again, first with diamonds, then with birds that look like whales. I contemplated a third set but couldn't get up the nerve at the mall to face the gun. Lately, I dreamed of holes in odd places, and when I woke, I couldn't imagine not having them. So yesterday I went for it. I walked into a tattoo parlor, paid my fee, and let a heavily tattooed, earlobe-stretched man stick needles in my lobes and fill the gap between the birds that look like whales and the cartilage fold with blue gem-topped stainless steel studs. They were sore last night; today they feel fine. Twenty-four hours later, I can barely remember a time without them.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

November Prairie

I went to Chicago this weekend to visit my family. I didn't go to the place I grew up, nor to the place I lived for three years, nor to my mom's first apartment, which felt like home the minute I walked into it, nor even my mom's condo, which no one lives in right now. Instead, I went to the house in the suburbs that my mom's boyfriend bought. She lives there now. To many of my friends, going to visit their parents is "going home". To me, it's just going to visit my family. Home is where I live.

Chicago may not be home anymore, but it's still the place that wraps around me like an old familiar blanket every time. On this typical November weekend, it was warm one day, then rainy and grey, then chilly with a bitter wind. When the sky wasn't grey, it was bright blue, the yellow sun low in the sky, on a long angle to the land. The sad, bare trees were a shock compared to the mostly green with orange tinge here in the Mid-Atlantic; all I ever remember of Chicago are the leafless trees, the grey sky, the blasting wind. Summer doesn't seem real; Chicago in my mind is perpetually November.

My mom lives down the street from a forest preserve. Despite the chilly air, we walked the dog along the paved path that winds around a lake and passes through wooded areas and tallgrass prairie. Geese and gulls flock to the lake, but we didn't see many other birds. Since my family moved to the city, I haven't spent much time in the suburbs, and for the first time ever, I recognized the forest preserve as part of the native landscape. Before humans took over, the woods and the prairie, like the ones in this preserve, spanned the land, and now I felt a closeness to it that I hadn't felt before. I heard it whisper its secrets, sigh its November sigh, and hunker down for the winter. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Turning point

Okay, so it's been a rough year. Things didn't go our way, and we've been a brat about it. A breakup, a missed job opportunity, internal turmoil over a milestone, troubled mind over troubled times, those things are small. They leave small wounds that heal quickly, and they'll likely return in other forms in the future. They are not a lost job, a bankruptcy, a serious illness or injury, the death of a loved one, homelessness, natural disasters, a mugging. Those are all things that people around us have experienced in the past year. Those are things that leave lasting marks.

We are fortunate, after all. We have homes, jobs (some of us), our health, and people to lean on. If some of those things are not to our liking, some day, they will be. Or not. But if we have them at all, we are lucky. So no more whining. No more mulling over said difficulties. Life is just life, and as long as we open our eyes each day, life will keep going. Tragedies will occur. If we are lucky, they will not happen to us.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Give it a try

I like cauliflower well enough. I'll eat it anytime it appears in a dish or on a veggie tray or in a California-style mix of frozen vegetables. But I haven't made much of a conscious effort to cook with it. Unlike its cruciferous cousin broccoli, it just doesn't excite me. But recently someone (I don't remember who) wrote that anyone who doesn't like cauliflower should try it roasted - it will change how they think about the vegetable. So I gave it a shot. I bought a large, solid head of cauliflower, cut it up into medium-sized florets, drizzled it with canola oil and a healthy sprinkling of garam masala, and roasted it in a 350 degree oven for...a while. Maybe 30 minutes? Until it gained that roasted brown color and a few edges started to look burned. I ate it with homemade red lentil/split yellow pea curry and brown rice. Twice. Tonight, I just finished off the remainder of the cauliflower, cold, right from the fridge. And let me tell you, the person who recommended roasting cauliflower was right. It changed my world. The cauliflower itself became sweet and tender and velvety in the oven, and the sweetness of the garam masala, which contains cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom (among other spices) gave it more depth and richness. Roasted cauliflower will definitely be a go-to for future Indian dishes, and I'll have to try it with other spices as well. Maybe spicy, with zucchini, corn, and black beans in quesadillas? Layered in a lasagna? Pureed like mashed potatoes? Do you have any favorite cauliflower recipes you can recommend?

Color me inspired.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Classified Ads Section

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  • Start-up nonprofit organization seeks writers, editors, photographers, and videographers to contribute and edit content for online publication focusing on culture and biodiversity. Visit for more information.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sanity restored

Yes, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear yesterday. It was great. Everyone was polite and fun and friendly. It was basically a live, three-hour Daily Show/Colbert Report Variety Show. Which is exactly what I figured it would be. I never expected this rally to be anything but entertainment. Everyone who pontificated on the meaning of the rally before it happened and thought it would either hit the mark or be a disaster clearly has not watched Stewart and Colbert in action. Or they just don't get it. Either way, yesterday was hours of entertainment, with a not-so-subtle message that politicians and the media reinforce stereotypes and play on our deepest, darkest, irrational fears to acquire and maintain our attention. I thought Jon Stewart's closing address went on just a smidge too long and came off as a little too preachy, but I appreciate and agree with his sentiment. Like many other aspects of modern society, we have latched onto new technology and new process that gives us ever greater access to all of the information and opinion we could ever want, but we didn't stop along the way to figure out how to use it for good and not evil. Like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, we got so excited about what we created that we didn't build in a function to control it. I don't think politicians are bad, and I don't think that people in the media are bad. I think that our collective ADD has gotten the better of us, and lacking the time or mental agility to process every bit and bite that comes our way, we let the shortest and flashiest pieces capture our attention. To change that, we have to come at it from all directions, make a concerted attempt to alter the way we operate in many different aspects of life.

Jon Stewart's intention for the rally was to say, "I think that all this extremism, perpetuated by both the media and our governmental leaders, is destroying our country, and I want that to change", and to show that there is a critical mass of people in this country who agree with that statement. As Stewart said yesterday, "If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me.  Your presence was what I wanted.  Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder.  To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine.  Thank you." Stewart's message wasn't one of any political or religious persuasion, but rather an attempt to recognize the dark path we've wandered down and turn us back in the other direction, toward something that presents the better in all of us, not the worst. That he did it through humor makes it all the more genius.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

It's been too long...

...since I been out West. In the mountains. Among the mule deer and magpies. Where the wind blows between craggy snow-capped rocks and waves the tall grass below an unremitting sky. It's this West where I found myself, met by the Front Range around every corner, pulled down a long road and humbled by the grandest rock temples in Utah, bowled over by brown rolling hills and bubbling mud pots in Montana, beckoned by a nightly loon in Wyoming. I've been to many places where the birds and the squirrels, the flowers and the trees, the sun and the moon have captivated me, left me breathless and sobbing, but only in the West do sorrow and joy feel futile. There, one can stand in a spot away from the roads and neither see nor hear a trace of human presence. Were it not for the clothes on my body and the pack on my back, I would not know when in time I stood in that place. It may as well have been thousands of years in the past, or perhaps many eons ahead. It matters not what I feel for those places, because they do what they have always done, and they will continue doing so long after I am gone. My presence in that place counts for nothing besides the blades of grass my feet have bent down and the warmed air that has been expelled from my lungs. Standing in the open, exposed to the blue sky and the dry wind, I discovered the bold outline of my self, without any tree or building to blur the edges. And when I left that place, a part of me stayed behind, waiting to be reclaimed some day.

That's what the West does. It leaves you aching for more, just a piece to hold, to remember. But like an unrequited love, the sky and the open land don't care about you. They don't need you. They do what they do, and you just get in the way. It's a reminder that we are nothing, we are part of the Earth, we are but one more speck that will pass by this plot in the continuum of time. And still we try to save the Earth, to save ourselves indeed.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

New project

Remember how I said a while ago that I was going to try to use my writing skillz more? Well, it turns out that my editing skillz may be more valuable, and I've found a way to put them to good use. Back at the end of August, I saw a post on the High Country News employment page about a start-up nonprofit organization looking for writers, editors, and photographers to contribute to a webzine (or e-zine, as they called it) that covers issues relating to biodiversity and culture. I contacted them and committed to editing a couple of pieces that they were getting ready to post. Then they realized that I could really edit, not just for grammar and spelling, but for style, content, and structure as well, so I got bumped up to Senior Editor and have received mucho kudos for my skillz (which clearly I am not exhibiting in this post, but whatever). The same thing happened back in high school, when I joined the student newspaper and they made me an editor after the first issue. That's when I decided to go to journalism school. Because as it turns out, no matter what else I may be interested in or enjoy doing, working with words is what I do best. And I love the challenge of molding an article into a piece that's clearly written, compelling, and informative, while maintaining the writer's voice and style. That's what I'm doing for this new organization, and I'm interacting with some fascinating people in the process. Go to to see what some interesting and talented people are working to protect these days.

I don't mean to get a big head about my craft. I don't want to sound like I think I'm some Big Shot just because I know the difference between "its" and "it's" and whether to spell out a number or use a numeral. I'm not trying to brag. It's just that, in counting up everything I have attempted over my thirty years, I realized that I have failed at a lot. That fact is something I just recently came to terms with. I feel like a big fat loser in my current job - in my current life, really - so being reminded that I'm good at something has saved my soul. I can't do algebra or calculus, I don't know much about economics or agricultural practices, I can't run a mile in less than ten minutes or ski or draw or raise a lot of money, but I can work with words, dammit! I'm learning a great deal about wildlife conservation that I couldn't get from a university course, so working with Izilwane is supplementing my education as well. And who knows, maybe it'll lead to a cool new adventure.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Making a mockery of Congress

On Friday, Stephen Colbert testified in a House Judiciary Sub-Committee hearing on Protecting America's Harvest. Arturo Rodriguez, President of the United Farmworkers Union, had appeared on The Colbert Report to talk about the union's new campaign, Take Our Jobs, to increase awareness of how hard farmworkers work to pick, package, and ship our country's fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat, as well as the plight of the many immigrants who come here legally and illegally to do these hard jobs. People complain that these immigrants take jobs away from Americans, so the union's campaign encourages people to at least try to do these kinds of difficult jobs. As Colbert proved on his show Thursday night, during which he showed a clip of him working on a New York farm, immigrants are not taking these jobs from most Americans. Most people do not want to work on a farm. It's really hard work, for very little money (most farms are, in fact, not profitable), and it has to be done year-round in all kinds of weather. The number of farms in this country has been steadily decreasing, as have farm income and the number of operators for which farming is their primary occupation. (See some stats here and here.)

Colbert appeared in front of the subcommittee committee in character, although he submitted a more serious written testimony for the record (go here and click on Colbert's name to view his written testimony). (For the record, most people, including government officials, often submit a written testimony that is different from the one they present, mostly because they only have a few minutes to present.) He was awkward, annoying, rude, and opinionated, just like he is on his show. Some people didn't get it. Others thought he was making a mockery of Congress. To those people, I say: Have you seen Congress lately? They don't need a TV personality to make them look foolish - they do a fine job on their own. Plenty of celebrities testify on the Hill, but we generally don't hear about them or the causes they're supporting unless we read the Washington Post celebritologists or pay close attention to the causes they support. Colbert made a fool of himself on purpose because he knew that would draw attention to the issue. Toward the end of the hearing, he was asked why he was interested in the issue.

"I like talking about people who don't have any power," he said. "It seems like the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come here. . . . And at the same time, we invite them here and ask them to leave. . . . I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them [but] migrant workers suffer and have no rights."

Let's hope this is not the last we hear of this important issue.

For the record, I thought he was hilarious. I don't know how the people in that room kept a straight face.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Fall Melancholy

For some people, the deep dark winter is the saddest time of year. For me, autumn is the most melancholy of seasons. Already, the angle of the sun is lower. Mid-morning is the day just getting its bearings, not the searingly hot magnifying glass of a day that is already many hours in. The evening hours feel a little more urgent as we lose sunlight the quickest of any time of the year. It may still be hot, but there's a sense that the joyousness of summer will soon end. I have a feeling that this autumn may be even more melancholy, because it marks the end of a summer I didn't really get a chance to appreciate. It was just too hot, and this year has been just too hard. I've been looking forward to fall with the hopes that it would bring cooler temperatures and a sense of peace, but with the coolness this weekend came a yearning for hot, but less humid, weather. A yearning for what summer should have been.

The one aspect of autumn that I do enjoy is the beginning of a chance to start anew. I'm not religious, but I've always loved Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, because it signals a time of reflection that lasts through the Gregorian New Year (January 1st) and on to my birthday in February. Perhaps it seems odd that Rosh Hashanah is actually a solemn holiday, but I get it. You can't start anew until you mourn for the mistakes you've made, regret that you didn't spend more time with the people you love, didn't do enough of the things that fill your heart with joy. You can't do better until you know what you've done wrong. This year I'll have some extra time for that - Rosh Hashanah starts sundown on September 8th, which is earlier than usual. It's been a really rough year. Boy am I ready to start anew.

January, February, and March are difficult for me because I'm readying myself for the brighter days ahead that take too long to get here, but it's October and November that pull at my heart. The waning daylight, the rain and the wind, the coolness of the air, make me want to crawl into bed and pull a sweater over my head. Maybe this year will be different. I'll use my slow cooker more. Play outside more. Spend quality time with friends more. Get an early start on beginning anew.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Earlier this year, my mother moved out of her condo in the city and into a house in the suburbs. From photos, it seems like a lovely home, in a lovely area, and she was able to put in a pond and a garden, like the one we used to have when we were all a family. She's much happier now, but her home is not close to either of the train lines that transmit people around the metropolitan area, so when I visit, I will either have to stay with friends in the city and somehow schlep out to see her, or stay with her in the burbs and schlep into the city somehow.

After this weekend, my brother and sister-in-law are moving from the same city in which my mother lives to a city on the other side of the lake. They will have better jobs, a cute house, a cozy life, but if I want to see them, I have to fly into another city and schlep a few hours by car to their fair home.

Next week, my father is moving all the way across the country. When I moved home from college, I lived with him for 8 months. When I went to grad school, I lived just two hours away. For the past 18 months, he has lived just a few hours by car from me. My visit this weekend to celebrate his 60th birthday will be the last time I can visit any of my family members without having to get on an airplane and endure a long schlep.

My family has been scattered for years. I went to college, then my brother went to college. I moved home from college and my mother moved out of the house. I moved up to the city and my father moved to the South. I moved to the South and my brother moved to the city where I once lived. I moved a couple states north, then my father moved a couple states north of me. Now, three of us have moved yet again. The four of us are different-colored juggling balls, and the hands that catch us keep repositioning. But I'm the one who's been trying for 18 months to move from here, and now I'm the only one who doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Very soon, they'll all be so very far from me, the one who tries the hardest to maintain relationships with everyone else. They all have significant others, companions with whom they share their lives and their homes. I am 30, and I have a roommate and a cat and an apartment that leaks.

What a dismantling year it has been.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Write on

I work in an office where a lot of economic analysis is done by people with very advanced degrees. I spend most of my time reading and writing god-awful technical papers about economic opportunities and trade-offs and production practices and blah blah blah. My technical writing is terrible. I think the only reason they hired me was because they thought I could write (I certainly can’t do statistics very well!), but pretty much everything I’ve written for them has been edited and rewritten until I don’t recognize it anymore. It has made me forget that I am a writer. It has made me dislike writing.

But recently, I’ve received kudos from a couple of people for my non-economics writing. I’m tempted to blow off my mother’s compliments, because whose mother doesn’t love everything they do, but her comments were more than just “you’re a good writer”. She complimented my style in a your-blog-post-reminded-me-again-that-you’re-a-good-writer kind of way. Anyway, it meant something to me. Then, my professor thanked me for writing an exemplary research paper and asked if he could use it as an example for future classes, and it reminded me of other professors who made similar remarks, including my eighth-grade English teacher whose recommendation to become a journalist sent me on the path I eventually took. Maybe some of those comments were offered following exasperation at the lack of writing ability my classmates have exhibited. Some people are just really bad writers; I certainly have no right to judge them, because I am horrible at math in the same way that some people absolutely mangle full paragraphs. But I’ll acknowledge that perhaps I have a way with words, and I definitely enjoyed writing all of those papers.

So I take back some of the harsh words I’ve said to myself recently about how I followed my English teacher’s advice to become a writer, the seemingly easy way forward, rather than push myself to become a scientist, just because no one ever told me I was good at biology. The fact is that I love both writing and science. Even though the only science I currently write about is informative but boring as hell due to the style requirements of the reports I write, I feel connected to the science writing community. I don’t have to give up on writing just because I’m trying to become a scientist. Rachel Carson was a journalist and a writer, and even though she didn’t have a PhD, her work spurred on the eventual ban on domestic use of DDT and led to other environmental research and activism in this country. She was just the first of a really long list of people who have found ways to effectively communicate with the masses on scientific topics. For evidence, head to the blogosphere and marvel at the vast array of sites where scientists write about the latest news and research in their field. Then take to Twitter and Facebook and watch scientists and non-scientists alike share those ideas with everyone they know (or don’t know).

I kick myself often for getting a degree in journalism instead of biology. (What I should kick myself for is not taking enough science classes in college.) But that’s the past, and now I’m taking science classes, so it’s all good. The point of all my rambling is that my goal from day one has been to make a difference in this world. I avoided jobs in journalism because I thought that being an environmental scientist or a policy maker would have a bigger impact. I think I still have that bias, but I’m realizing that with all of the ways to communicate that didn’t exist eight years ago when I finished college, it doesn’t have to be either/or. The combination of the ClimateGate discussion, the global climate change dialogue overall, and working with a bunch of mathematicians has made me realize that we really need more people who have a science background and can effectively communicate information of a scientific nature to people without any scientific training at all. I don’t know that I can dedicate my life to sitting in front of a computer typing articles and reports - I’d rather be in the field restoring wildlife habitat or otherwise making place-based natural resource management decisions - but I promise to put my communication skills to good use in this blog and in other ways that educate people about the natural world and inspire them to protect the plants, animals, soil, water, and air on this rock we call home.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Close encounters with wildlife

Today I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. I parked along Virginia State Road 601, picked up a blue-blazed connector trail, and hopped on the AT into Shenandoah National Park and up to Compton Peak.  I've read "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson a couple of times, so it was fun to actually step onto the trail. According to the trail markers, I hiked about 10.5 miles, but I think some of the markers was wrong - according to them, it's one mile from the trail head at VA-601 to the park boundary. I beg to differ. No way is it really just one mile. It's definitely 0.7 miles from the trail head to the point where the connector trail meets the AT, and I think the distance from that point to the park boundary is more like 1.5 or 2 miles. So by my count, my hike was more like 12 miles, which would make it my longest hike ever.

And what a hike it was. It was great - not-too-hot, not-too-muggy weather, all shaded, not too buggy. The connector trail is narrow and countless spiders have spun webs between trees and across the trail, so I grabbed a long stick and waved it in front of me to avoid getting facefulls of web and spider. Anyone watching me from afar might have questioned my mental fitness, but it worked pretty well. I was able to get within 15 or twenty feet of three deer, which was pretty neat - deer may be pretty commonplace around here, but there's still something wild about meeting them face-to-face. I'm a little concerned about the fact that they weren't the least bit afraid of me, but perhaps that's what happens when humans and wildlife live in such close proximity. I also spied a number of swallowtail butterflies and one luna moth that had been dealt a fatal blow to its wing. It was huge and looked like its features has been painted onto delicate silk.

Luna moth
I also had one close encounter that left me briefly shaken. As I was trekking along, I came across a coiled black streak next to the trail. It rattled. I quickly took many paces backward. Some people are terrified of meeting a bear in the woods. I'm not one of those people, maybe because I've only seen a wild bear from my car window, or maybe because bears cannot really sneak up on you. If a bear wants to attack, you know it way ahead of time. Snakes are different. They're fascinating animals, and without the prospect of an injection of deadly neurotoxin, I would have sauntered closer for a better look. Thank goodness for the warning rattle. Regardless of my fascination, my big hiking fear is coming across a venomous snake and getting bitten before I have time to realize what's going on.

Thus was my dilemma today - tempt a timber rattlesnake by trying to zoom past it on the other side of the trail, risk serious poison ivy by detouring through the dense woods, or wait it out. I took a couple steps into the woods and decided not to attempt a detour. I tossed rocks and large branches toward the snake, hoping to spook it into slithering off into the woods. I took a few steps up the trail to assess whether a pass was possible, and the snake rattled again and coiled back. Crap. (Note to self: take some wilderness training courses.) After a few minutes, I decided on a fourth approach: pile some big sticks and branches in the middle of the trail, so if the snake attacks it would have to get past the branches. I tossed a few branches into the middle of the trail, took a deep breath, and walked very quickly past the snake, as far away from it as possible. It made a racket as I passed, but it didn't strike. Whew.

I may not have been bitten by the rattler, but I was bitten by the AT bug. I would never dream of attempting the full trail, but the little thought in the back of my mind about maybe backpacking a couple of sections one day has turned into a bigger "I think I'll start trying to plan an AT weekend for this fall" kind of thought. We'll see.

On the way back to the highway, I stopped at The Apple House for a pork BBQ sandwich and a sample of their homemade apple cinnamon doughnuts. Pretty tasty. They smoke the meat right there, but I have to say I was a little disappointed at its lack of real smokiness. But with a pickle spear, some coleslaw, potato chips, and a bit of bubbly root beer, it made for a restorative post-hike meal.

But yeah, I'll be sore tomorrow.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Everything is broken

In true Ikea-furniture form, my dresser, on the decline for many months, gave up the fight recently. The bottom of the top drawer has fallen and my clothes have slid into the drawer below, which independently fell off its tracks, an unfixable plight. The middle drawer hangs off-kilter, as if an earthquake had jostled the whole unit. The contents of the middle drawer are folded in a cardboard box across the room. The contents of the top drawer just slide down the broken drawer bottom, and every time I want an article of clothing, I have to pick through the debris.

My iPod, which doesn't hold a battery charge for more than a day or two, also refuses to play newly added music when on shuffle. It just plays a random mix of songs from the same 5 or 6 albums, mostly the ones I've owned the longest. My digital camera often forgets the date, and when I use the digital viewfinder, the batteries drain quickly. Our Internet fizzles out at least one day a week, and sometimes it's out all weekend, thanks to bad wiring in the apartment.

Last summer, someone put a dent in my car. Not an oops-I-bumped-your-car kind of dent, but an I-whacked-your-car-with-a-baseball-bat kind of dent. The perils of street parking. I haven't gotten it fixed yet, and I worry that people judge me. I'm the girl with the rusted dent, because I don't have the cash to fix it, and therefore I am less cool or grown-up or something.

I've had my bed for fully half of my entire life, and over time, it has accrued a canal down the middle, where my singular body has worn it down. No amount of mattress flipping or foam padding will remedy the problem, and I often get out of bed in the morning just because I'm too uncomfortable to lie there any longer. Some of the knives in the set I bought a few years ago have lost their handles. My plates and mugs and bowls are chipped. My favorite wine glass set has been reduced to one sad glass.

In my mind, I have a nice life, with nice things. My dishes match, and I cook yummy food with good utensils and sharp knives. My car is admired for being in great shape despite being eight years old, and its color is lovely. My camera takes beautiful pictures, my iPod broadens my musical horizons, my bed cradles me to sleep each night and I wake feeling rested.

I made a choice to live in a newly renovated unit in a convenient location, thinking that I would have a nice life. But all it has meant is that my money goes to my rent, not to fixing or replacing all of the broken things in my life. I know that having nice things doesn't necessarily lead to true happiness. I know that they're just things, and that I'm fortunate to have them at all. But having old, broken things is not inspiring. I love entertaining but I don't want to serve my guests on my chipped, mismatched dishes. I'm embarrassed to show anyone my room, or God forbid, have them sleep in my bed. It comes down to quality of life. There is no shame in liking nice things, especially if having them makes it easier to spend more time enjoying the things that really matter, like dinner parties with friends, great shots of wildlife on a hike, music that makes a moment, or a personal space that just makes living more comfortable.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Breaking the cycle

Last week, while catching up on my This American Life podcasts, I listened to a story from 2008 about Geoffrey Canada's work in Harlem. He had noticed that the things most middle-class, suburban parents know about raising children were nowhere to be found in inner city families. He wondered whether the secret for breaking the cycle of poverty could actually be teaching inner city parents about raising and educating children and providing children better educational experiences. So, he started the Harlem Children's Zone. In 1997, HCZ brought programs to a 24-block area in Harlem, and the project grew to 100 blocks in 2007. Today, the project serves more than 8,000 and 6,000 adults and includes Baby College, which works with parents and their newborns, Harlem Gems, a preschool program, and the Promise Academy, a public charter school. The organization also provides programs to help people manage their asthma and fight obesity. When the first kids in the program took their assessment tests, they ranked above the state average, which shows that the program could be working. The hope is that the kids in these programs will graduate from high school, perhaps go to college, and delay parenthood until they are financially and mentally ready to be parents. And when they do become parents, hopefully they will employ the same child-rearing techniques their parents learned and used.

The program is old news by now - Sunday Morning featured it last year, Geoffrey Canada was on The Colbert Report, and while preparing the FY2010 budget, President Obama proposed including $10 million for the 20 Promise Neighborhoods program, which will replicate the HCZ program in 20 cities across the country. But it's worth talking about again and again, because this new model could be the approach that actually works for fighting poverty.

For more information about the program and its success, start first with Act One from the Going Big podcast, and then read the book written by the podcast's narrator, Paul Tough, called Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Old Missouri adventures

I'm in St. Louis for a conference this week. It feels strangely good to be back in the Midwest. I was worried that I hadn't brought nice enough clothing, annoyed that I was all bloated from the long heat wave and high humidity, insecure about my general lack of trendiness and my clothes that I worry scream "Limited Budget!", because that's how I generally feel in DC. Then all the St. Louisans got on the MetroLink to go to the Cardinals game, with their comfort-food Midwestern bodies (not necessarily fat, just normal-looking, not anorexic like on the East Coast) and their lack of being overly concerned about appearance. Then I felt better. Like I was home, back in a place that's much simpler.

The conference just started today, so I had much of the weekend to spend with old friends. Saturday night I got together with a friend from college who just married one of my Chicago friends - a fun merging of two worlds. Among the things we did that night was a trip to Ted Drewes, the best frozen custard place around. It's so good, Alton Brown visited it a few years ago during his "Feasting on Asphalt" series.

Sunday, we took a trip to Columbia, the ol' college town and home of many memories (some of which I'd like to forget), to walk around campus and visit with some other college friends who have had two children and conceived a third in the five years since I was there last. Their kids are great, and they are great parents. If I could be absolutely guaranteed that my children would be like that, I might give more consideration to becoming a parent myself.

Anyway, even after seeing the big changes on campus, around the downtown area, and in my friends' lives, it's nice to know that some things are still the same. I got quite nostalgic, feeling like I was back home where I belonged. My college friends and I joke around in ways that people on the East Coast don't seem comfortable with. Something about Midwestern sensibilities and the openness that comes with growing up in communities where people really get to know each other and talk about the things that really matter. It's too bad that Missouri is "fly-over country" to people on the East Coast, because I think the social and political atmosphere in this country would be different if Midwesterners weren't just seen as hoosiers, rednecks, farmers, or any of the other stereotypes that prevail. Being out here has just further solidified my need to get away from the Beltway. I never thought I'd get burned out on Washington DC, but after two years, it's happened.

The funny thing is, as much as I really love Missouri, I can't see myself moving back here. Why? There are lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation. There are Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and plenty of other organic/natural food options. According to my friend, there are few farmers' markets, which is puzzling, but not really limiting. There are young people who are professionals, smart, active, interesting. There is art, music, good food, plenty of good beer and wine - all things I enjoy. It's just not in your face like it is in major metropolitan areas. You have to look a little harder, and you have to drive everywhere. Perhaps my biggest concern is that I am a bit of an eco-snob. Yes, I'll admit it. People in Missouri are not necessarily eco-snobs. That kind of culture just isn't prevalent here. I was the silly hippie in my college days, and I'd be the silly hippie again if I moved back. For that reason alone, I was never fully content out here, and I just can't do that again. So, Missouri, I love you dearly and I promise to come visit more often. But I'm sorry, I just can't stay.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Missing the river

I just finished writing a paper for my class about a natural place that's special to me. I chose the Katy Trail/Missouri River in Missouri. It made me really miss the river. I haven't been back to Missouri since a brief trip in 2005, and I haven't really connected with the place since my week-long adventure in 2003. When I was in college in Missouri, I used to ride my bike on the trail along the river, seeking out solace and answers from the crunch of the gravel under tire and the slow whoosh of the muddy water echoing off the bluffs. I also wrote for a local newspaper about the management issues associated with the river and the threatened and endangered species that biologists were trying to protect.

This fall, it will be ten years since that semester at the newspaper. Knowing what I know now about watersheds, natural resource management and policy making, I wish I could go back and redo that semester. Rewrite those articles and write some new ones as well. Investigate more. Talk to more people. I was a budding environmentalist those ten years ago, and all I knew was that I wanted to protect the animals, but those darn corn growers and their barges got in the way. I didn't understand just how complex the issue was, and I didn't know what questions to ask. I didn't know how to be a journalist.

Writing this paper reminded me of how special that river is, and how much I enjoy writing when I can be a little creative with it. Government reports are not the least bit creative, I can tell you that much. I've been doubting my writing skills lately, and in fact had forgotten how much I enjoyed writing until now. Rachel Carson was a writer and a scientist, and she recognized that she had a special role to fill by writing about environmental issues in a passionate way that moved people to take a stand against pesticides and pollution. I still haven't found my role, still haven't figured out how I can have an impact. I just have to remember the river and hope that if I can keep my boat upright, eventually it will take me where I'm supposed to end up.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Savory summer

I resurrected my pepper plant, which I planted last year and harvested one small red pepper that was promptly mixed in a stir-fry. I kept it alive all winter, unwilling to trash a plant that seemed to be hanging in there. This spring, I added some organic fertilizer, gave it lots of love, and placed it on my fire escape to capture the sun's rays and hopefully a passing pollinator or two. It worked - I now have two peppers bulging out from the tall plant stalk. Every day I cheer it on, hoping that even in this ridiculous heat wave, I can have fresh, homegrown peppers in my fajitas instead of the $3.50-each store-bought kinds. I wish I had planted more veggies in my container garden this year. I got kind of discouraged after last year's flop, but maybe I'll try again for some cooler-weather goodies.

Speaking of fajitas, I marinated some chicken breasts in Whole Foods' brand Santa Fe marinade for 12 hours, then pan-cooked them whole. What a difference it makes. I cannot remember ever making such flavorful, juicy chicken. The garlic and herb flavor is tasty too - the last batch of chicken I made with this flavor turned into chicken salad with grapes and walnuts. I used to be against marinades but they just make life so much easier. And tastier.

Some other recent concoctions:
green bean and carrot salad with rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, dried red pepper flakes, and salt
savory egg noodle kugel with shredded zucchini, mushrooms, and lentils (next time, with ricotta too)
smoothies with frozen spinach
sugar snap peas from the farmers market (perfect just as they are, no concocting needed)

It's hard to find inspiration to cook in this ridiculous heat, but as long as I'm going to be cooped up inside with the A/C blasting, may as well get creative. We'll see what this week's bounty brings.


A few weeks ago, I joined a large portion of my family in Hilton Head, South Carolina, for some beachy time and good eatin'. So much good eatin'. After five days I felt like the snake that ate the alligator, except I didn't split in half like the snake did. To work off some of the food we ate, my brother, sister-in-law, and I took a couple of afternoon trips to check out parts of the island that existed before the golf courses and touristy resorts moved in.

On one afternoon, we went to the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. The house on the property showcases a history of the island, both natural and human, and included an exhibit of photography from around the Carolinas. The house sits along some salt marshes, and visitors can wander along a trail through the property that winds past some boardwalks overlooking the salt marsh, small gardens, some bee hives, an old barn, and even a native historical site that is being rebuilt. It was hot and muggy and totally made me miss North Carolina. We were there at low tide, and in the flat areas along the marsh, fiddler crabs scurried everywhere like roaches, the males waving their one giant claw to woo the ladies. We saw some herons wandering through the grasses and heard other birds chirping everywhere. A green anole scurried along a tree near us, and the butterfly garden was aflutter.

The best part for me though was when my sister-in-law and I saw a bluebird fly onto a low branch nearby. Neither of us had seen a bluebird in person before, and even though I'm the nature nerd of the group, we were both equally awed. I am always wowed by nature, but there's something so special about seeing nature through the eyes of someone else, especially if they're not the type to get excited about things like that.

The next day, we went to the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Again, hot and muggy, even early in the morning. We were hoping to see some gators, but no luck. We did see about a gajillion birds at Ibis Pond. I couldn't get any good close-ups because I realized after the fact that the super zoom on my camera only works when I turn on the digital display panel, which I don't use because it soaks up battery power. I brought my binoculars, and it seemed like my brother and sister-in-law really enjoyed getting to see the birds way up close through them. Unless they get into wildlife watching or hang out with me more often, they might not get to do that very often. I recognize that not everyone feels the need to experience nature as much as I do, but I hope that the experiences they had those two days made a difference to them. It gave me a new perspective on my volunteer work at the zoo as well, where most visitors will just walk through the exhibit without much afterthought, but a few might take away something meaningful from what they learned there.

Last weekend I hiked through Little Bennett Regional Park in Maryland, where I discovered some other new things, like the crayfish in the stream that eyed me and then scurried under a rock when I bent down to wash my hands after lunch. And the white-tailed deer that snorted and whined as it high-tailed it away from the trail I was walking on. And the giant red-headed woodpecker that startled me when I was too busy examining the map. I caught a quick glimpse as it flew by, but I didn't have enough time to see enough of the bird to identify it. Shortly afterward, I realized that the woods in that spot was particularly melodic and lamented the fact that I had spent too much time looking and not enough time listening to the sounds of the forest, so I sat on a bridge for ten minutes, just enjoying the sounds. Which unfortunately included road noise as well.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


It's hot. At or above 90 degrees just about every day for the past three weeks. Weather this hot, humid, and hazy is like the winter snowstorms, except it doesn't shut everything down. You can't really go outside for long periods of time without running for a temperature-controlled environment. In the winter, you know you're supposed to sit still, conserve your energy, and crochet or read or snuggle, so it's not so bad to stay inside. In the summer, you know you're supposed to go out and play as much as possible, because the days are long and everything is green and blooming, which makes it even more frustrating that the weather is unbearable. I can't even stand being in my exhibit at the zoo because even though it's slightly cooler than the weather outside, it's still just as humid (or worse), and therefore not really an escape from the heat. Instead, I'm stuck at home, daydreaming of the lush, cool, green forests and scenic shores of the Pacific Northwest. I've never been there, but I imagine that they're fantastic.

I've been daydreaming about Oregon lately while exploring professional opportunities there, but I also just started taking a course online through Oregon State University, so I'm in a sort of mental classroom out there. Yes, more school. When I finished grad school, the folks in the office where I did my work-study swore that I'd be back in school in a few years. At the time, I said oh hell no! but I'm eating my words now. I'm in the program that I should have been in all those years ago, when I opted for a degree in an "easier" field instead - I'm going for my Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources degree with a focus on fish and wildlife conservation. Two weeks into my first class and already I'm loving it. Online classes are great because you get to meet people in all different stages of their lives from all over the country. And you can do the work in your own time. So as long as I have to be stuck inside when it's hot and humid out, at least my coursework will keep me busy and engaged.

And come August and September, when all the back-to-school excitement starts up, I get to be a part of it again. Maybe I'm not buying things for my dorm room or eating in the dining halls, but I get to crack open my books and learn some new things.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Over Memorial Day weekend, I flew out to Salt Lake City, and rode down to Moab, Utah, with some friends for a weekend of tenting in the desert and hiking through the Mars-like terrain of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks and other scenic lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

I love camping. I wish I could spend my days sleeping in a tent, cooking food over the fire, and hiking around the area. I can't imagine much that would make me happier. The smell of campfire and sunscreen thrills me to no end. I think I'm secretly a holdover from our caveman days. However, there are some modern conveniences that I could do without during camping trips, but I don't think I'd want to:
  • S'mores, made with dark chocolate. A must-have. 
  • I usually sleep with a Thermarest, which does the job but is rather narrow and not nearly cushy enough, so if I sleep on my back, my arms fall off the pad, and if I sleep on my side, my hips get sore. That's part of the fun of camping though, and it feels tough and rugged. For this trip, my friend supplied me with a real blow-up air mattress that covered the entire floor of my two-person tent. At first, I thought, "lame! real outdoorswomen do NOT sleep on air mattresses." But let me tell you, it was awesome. I am a changed woman. For car camping, I'm going with the air mattress all the way. Outdoorsy cred be damned.
  • Crocs. With socks. For the record, I think Tevas/Birkenstocks and socks look just fine too. 
  • Aluminum foil. It makes the perfect packet for a wide array of foodstuffs to be cooked on or in a fire.
  • Here's where I admit that I am a foodie. Camping should not keep you from eating a tasty, well-prepared meal. That includes salmon fillets cooked on said foil over the fire, foil packets stuffed with chopped veggies and seasonings, dutch oven cobblers, chilis, and pancakes. Sure the usual burgers, hot dogs, bacon and eggs are tasty, especially after a long day on the trails or a cool night in the tent, but I kind of prefer fresh food to go with my fresh air. I recognize that this may not be feasible for backpacking trips, but it is indeed possible to eat chicken, snow peas, and rice with pesto sauce cooked over a camp stove in the Yellowstone backcountry. All it takes is a little preparation beforehand (cook and slice the chicken ahead of time, make and package the pesto, throw in some boil-in-bag rice, and pick snowpeas from the garden).
  • I'm not a big drinker, but wow, a cold beer tastes really good after a long day on the trail. I also really don't like whiskey, but a sip or two right after a hard hike is strangely refreshing. It washes away all the nasty sludge that accumulates on your tongue when you're huffing and puffing along switchbacks that wind straight up the side of a cliff.
  • Good friends with absurd/wacky/hilarious stories and some outlaw country music. No camping trip is the same without them. Many thanks to my Salt Lake crew for the awesome weekend!
Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Weekend pursuits

Some good things to do on a warm spring weekend:
  • Visit the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md. Take a guided or self-guided canoe trip around the bay, attend a seminar, go for a hike or a bird-watching trip, or talk to one of the scientists about the work they're engaged in to rehabilitate the Chesapeake Bay. Try to catch the yearly open house for additional fun and activities, including live music, a tutorial on raising bees, BBQ, a tour of the bay on a research boat, and an up-close look at a horseshoe crab.
  • Go for a bike ride on the Washington & Old Dominion trail. Park at a lot on the trail and ride west, farther than you think you should go, then coast downhill the whole way back.
  • Make southwestern turkey meatloaf with 2 lbs ground turkey thighs, breadcrumbs, 2 eggs, cumin, garlic, chili powder, oregano, chopped red pepper and red onion, corn, fresh cilantro, and tomatillo salsa. Top with avocado. Eat with a side of roasted butternut squash and mixed wild rice. Then share a cupcake with a friend and watch an uplifting movie.
  • Drink some Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Beer and read an entire issue of Outside magazine in front of an open window while listening to the cars slosh in the rain on the main street below.
  • Engage in some serious snuggles with a very snuggly cat. The ideal time is 5:30am, when said cat is ready to get up but you are not.
  • Go to REI during a sale and spend way too much time shopping and much more money than you had intended. Then dream about all the cool things you'll do with the stuff you just bought.
Repeat as needed. Doing any or all of the above activities will make going to work on Monday even harder, but it'll be worth it.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Gulf Coast Environmental Disaster

It's really tempting to get on my high horse right now and laugh in the faces of all those "Drill, baby, drill" enthusiasts, but those feelings are far eclipsed by feelings of sadness for all of the wildlife that will be impacted by this awful disaster. The Burdr website has a great post about all of the birds and bird areas that are at risk from the oil spill. I'll post other great resources of information as I come across them. Let's hope that out of this tragedy comes a new approach to energy development and usage in this country and renewed efforts to protect the fragile Gulf Coast ecosystem.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Simple things

It's been lovely in DC lately: sunny, warm, dry, but full of pollen - an outdoorsy girl's worst nightmare. I've been itching to play outside for weeks now, but between my allergic reactions to all the tree sex and the side effects of my allergy medication, I've been miserable. And then, a mixed blessing: the weather forecast has called for a rainy weekend, which would wash away the pollen (yay!) but be, alas, rainy. I decided to brave it anyway and headed down to Prince William Forest Park in Virginia. It's National Parks Week, so I didn't even have to pay the $3 to get into the park. The last time I hiked through the park was last July - I was training for my first backpacking trip and couldn't find anyone to come with me, so it was also my first time hiking alone. And by alone, I mean alone. Judging by all the spider webs strung across the trail, no one had been there for a while. Aside from being constantly worried about getting spiders all over me (although I like to look at spiders, I'm not a big fan of them crawling on me), it was a ton of fun, and so gorgeous.

That time, I hiked a good portion of the South Valley Trail, so yesterday I headed out on the North Valley Trail. The only problem with the park is that very few of the trails are loops, so you have to think strategically about where you park so you can hike out and back. Other than that, I love this park, mostly for its simplicity. On a damp spring day, everything smells like wood, which there's lots of. It reminded me of being in the woods at Camp Windego in Wisconsin, the overnight girl scout camp I attended for two weeks each summer from ages eight to thirteen. There aren't any mountains to hike up, no challenging rock scrambles, no tricky creek or river crossings, and no fancy valley overlooks. The South Valley Trail has some steeper hills because most of it is a little more upland, but the North Valley Trail mostly just meanders through the woods alongside Quantico Creek. About midway through on the North Valley Trail, a steep drop draws the boundary between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, and below the boundary, the simple and undramatic Quantico Falls is little more than a shallow creek running over some hard volcanic boulders.

The great vistas of Shenandoah and the Smokies are breathtaking, it's fun to challenge yourself on steep hills and serious switchbacks, and the parks in Virginia and Maryland are hotbeds of unique geologic formations, but sometimes, it's just nice to wander through the forest. I didn't see any deer or beavers, or even any amphibians (too cool out) or birds (they were mostly high up in the tree canopy, though a woodpecker's rat-a-tat echoed across the creek), and the vegetation was mostly deciduous trees, and that was fine. The rain held off and the air was fresh, and after being trapped in a windowless office for days on end, a simple hike felt like the best thing ever.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Save Our Animals, Save Our Tails

There's definitely some truth to the saying that once you start paying attention to something, suddenly you see it everywhere. Following my ten-day, life-changing vacation out West, I made a promise to myself to build my knowledge of plants and animals. For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by nature, but when I got to be a teenager, I thought it was nerdy and I did NOT want to be nerdy. It's always been with me though, and it turns out that the cheesiest thing inspired me to fully embrace nature once again: I flew Frontier Airlines home from that vacation last August. The tail of each plane in the fleet features an animal commonly found in the West. That vacation changed me for good, and my sadness at leaving the West was tempered by the thought that I was being ushered home by one of these animals. (As it turns out, Republic Airways bought Frontier and wants to rebrand the airline without the animals. Frontier workers rallied in Denver last week with the call of "Save our Animals, Save our Tails!" to help save the brand.)

Anyway, after that trip, my passion for wildlife conservation was renewed and I realized that I needed to take a more hands-on approach. It started with volunteering at the zoo, where I have had a chance to learn a great deal already from the dedicated keepers and wildlife specialists. Last weekend I got my new binoculars and went birding in Rock Creek Park, where I saw a northern flicker, a red-bellied woodpecker, a bunch of chickadees (Carolina?), two tufted titmice, and a bunch of gray birds I haven't been able to identify. Without the binoculars, I would have just seen a whole bunch of robins and lots of birds I couldn't identify because they were too far away, and I would have walked on without much thought. It's amazing how being able to see high up into the trees or hundreds of yards away changes how you think about the world around you. Who knew that the little nature preserve in the center of a big city could be so diverse?! I think about that diversity every time I see a different species of bird for the first time, just because I'm now paying attention. The melodious little bird by the bus stop: northern mockingbird. The colorful pair of ducks in the creek: wood ducks. The bird swimming in the tidal basin with its body submerged and long neck gliding through the water: an anhinga. The black ducks swimming in the bay near Old Town Alexandria: scoters (I think). With the help of my bird guide and the website, I've been able to marvel at how many different kinds of birds live in this concrete jungle.

All of this wildlife lives in and depends on the Chesapeake Bay watershed, one of the most polluted watersheds in the country due to agricultural runoff and urban pollution. If more people paid more attention to how many different animals live in our neighborhoods and were more aware of how our cars and plastic bags and chemicals affect those animals, perhaps they'd be more inclined to support activities and policies that reduce our impact on the watershed. That would mean fewer chemicals in our food, cleaner air and water, even more wildlife. Now that it's spring, there are plenty of opportunities to help, including the Potomac River Watershed Cleanup on April 10th and the Earth Day river cleanup and celebration hosted by the Anacostia Watershed Society on April 24th. It's important work, and saving our animals by cleaning up our city will indeed save our tails as well.

Speaking of diversity, go check out the Life series on the Discovery Channel, which airs new episodes on Sunday nights and shows reruns throughout the week. (Warning: the linked website starts to play a video as soon as it opens.) Today's nature programs are far superior to the ones I watched as a kid. I thought I had seen it all, but this show has featured some of the kookiest, coolest, cutest, most amazing animals that we would probably never see otherwise. If this doesn't make you appreciate the wonders of nature, nothing will.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Alone in the Wild

I just watched the reruns of the National Geographic four-part special "Alone in the Wild." In the show, Scottish outdoor explorer Ed Wardle sets out to survive alone in the Yukon Territory in Canada for three months. It's a boyhood dream of his that he's finally getting a chance to live out. He brings the very basics - shelter, rations of rice and oats, cooking supplies, an ax, a fishing pole, and a shotgun (plus some other minor necessities). He does a practice run in June for 6 days, meets various outdoor experts to learn what plants are safe to eat and to do if a bear attacks, then sets off in July for the main event. He has a tracking unit that he uses to check in once a day by pushing either the OK button if he's okay or the SOS button if he needs help. His activities and thoughts are recorded on video via a small camera he can hook up to his pack while he walks.

The first few days are grand - it's beautiful, he manages to find things to eat, he's enjoying the peaceful environment and the challenge of surviving. But as time goes on, he struggles more and more. Canadian law prohibits him from killing the two moose and one caribou he sees, each of which would easily have fed him for a few weeks. Law also prohibits him from shooting ducks out of season. So he's left to subsist on the two porcupines he finds, wild berries and other plants, and fish from the river and lake. His whole existence becomes focused on finding his next meal, but food is hard to come by in the Yukon. Small animals are few and far between. The salmon he expected to start spawning soon don't show up. Wild leaves and tubers provide far fewer calories than he needs. And to top it all off, he's constantly terrified of being attacked by a bear.

Not every day is bad. On the clear, warm days, when he's found something to eat, Ed's spirits are high. He set out to do something extraordinary, and the successful day he's having proves that he can survive in the wild. But when he is cold, hungry, tired, scared, he cries a lot. His loneliness and frustration get him down. He questions why he took on such a difficult challenge. He keeps reminding himself to be strong, but the mental challenge proves to be too much for him sometimes, especially when he already faces physical hardships. After 42 days, he receives food, airlifted to him from nearby, because he realizes he's just not able to subsist. That seems to be the beginning of the end. Loneliness and food deprivation take over. If he had been allowed to kill even one of the moose or the caribou, he may have made it a lot longer. But perhaps the law proved to be a blessing in disguise. Ed follows the cardinal rule of camping: don't give bears any reason to take an interest in your campsite. Butcher and cook animals away from your site, and hang all your food in a tree far out of a bear's reach. The fish, rabbit, and porcupines Ed caught were easily placed in a bag and strung up for the night. But where do you store a whole moose? What do you do with three weeks worth of meat? A bear surely would have taken an interest in Ed at some point, and things could have ended far worse than they did. The laws meant to protect wildlife protected Ed as well.

I think we can all relate to Ed on some level, wherever we choose to take chances and live out our dreams. When times are good, when things are going our way, we feel strong, like we can conquer the world. Building a fire and catching a meal can be incredibly fulfilling, and they help us live another day, but what does it mean if we have no one to share those successes with? And facing challenge after challenge with no success can leave us feel beaten down, especially if we have no one to lean on. What finally pushed Ed past the point of no-return is when he pulls out the letter his girlfriend wrote for him and the photographs of his family and friends, and he realizes that his dream means nothing without the people in his life to share it with.  On day 50, emotionally drained and physically weak, he decides to return home. It's a conflicted decision for him. As he says after being picked up from his site, it's hard to go out and live your dream, only to find out it's so difficult to do. But still, he feels uplifted by the fact that he made it for 50 days, on his own, in a beautiful place where most people would love to spend even just a day or two. He lived out his dream, proved he could make it for more than half of the time he had planned to spend in the Yukon, took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something extraordinary.

Challenges can make us appreciate the small things in life, especially when those challenges occur in nature. Back in the hotel room in Whitehead, Yukon, Ed shoots his final minutes of video. After 50 days in the wild, the tv, the coffee pot, the refrigerator - everything in the room - seems needless. Once you can find happiness sleeping in a hammock and eating food cooked over a fire you built yourself, the modern amenities in life seem so unnecessary. I know I have felt that way after returning to civilization from a camping trip. It's a nice reminder that fretting over the small things, the unsuccesses and the struggles, is pointless, and that having people to share life with make all the difference.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Women and Green Jobs

The Green Economy Post had this interesting article on March 9th about how the green jobs push may be leaving women behind because they may need child care and they may not have the ability to do hard physical labor - much of the green jobs created with stimulus money have been for renewable energy development. But this idea contrasts with the discussion of late all over the Internet about the growing movement of women in agriculture, a field that one would argue is the oldest green job out there. (I, myself, mentioned the agriculture-as-green-collar-job thing here.)

This past Sunday, the New York Times had an article called The Femivore's Dilemma, about how women for a long time had shunned homemaking in favor of entering the workforce, both to provide income for the family and to seek autonomy and personal fulfillment. Being a stay-at-home mother, doing the cooking and cleaning, managing the home, was seen as so 1950s. But women are once again returning to the home to garden, raise chickens and other livestock, can food, and create self-sufficiency, and indeed personal fulfillment. I like this quote from the article:

"My femivore friends may never do more than dabble in backyard farming — keeping a couple of chickens, some rabbits, maybe a beehive or two — but they’re still transforming the definition of homemaker to one that’s more about soil than dirt, fresh air than air freshener. Their vehicle for children’s enrichment goes well beyond a ride to the next math tutoring session." 

One point made in the article is a question that many of my friends, both male and female, have been asking as we enter the workforce: What is this all for? If given the opportunity, many of us would buy some land, set up some buildings, and start a farm. Women abandoned the domestic arts because they felt hemmed in, as though sewing and cleaning were occupations they attended to because they felt they had few options, and they sought out meaningful experiences in the workplace. Now, we're all feeling like we just go to our jobs because we have to earn money, and we think that work with tangible results, like farming, cooking, canning, quilting, can be more meaningful. Perhaps some day we'll find a happy medium.

Perhaps it's just coincidence, or perhaps there's something else out there driving the discussion, but the topic of women in agriculture is hot right now. The DC Environmental Film Festival, which starts today, features a film on March 20th called "Ladies of the Land". The Women in Agriculture national conference is next Wednesday, March 24th, in Baltimore, MD. The book Farmer Jane, about thirty women who are making a difference in sustainable agriculture, has been getting some press lately because it comes out May 1st. Why the recent focus on women in farming? Or have we been talking about it for years without much notice? Does Michelle Obama's involvement in food and nutrition have anything to do with it? What do you think?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Filling holes

It's been a rough couple of months. Remember all the happiness I posted about those many months ago? I've had the rug pulled out from under me, my well-laid plans now a pile of rubble. (Sorry for mixing metaphors.) So now I'm just figuring out what to do with myself, trying to pick up the pieces and put things back together. It's not that I walk around in a daze or wail about how awful things are - most days are okay and the lovely weather here in DC has been a curative. And I'm so thankful that I have a home, a job, food, fantastic friends, my health. I have the things I need. It's more like when the wily coyote devises an elaborate plan to catch the roadrunner and puts it all into place, but before he knows it, he's just gone off a cliff and hovers in mid-air, looking at the ground hundreds of feet below, wondering how he got there. When faced with a situation like that, all you can do is accept where you are, let yourself fall, and hope that when you hit the ground, you can pick yourself up and start devising a new plan.

Staying busy is key. While trying to figure out how I got here and what to do next, I've been focusing diligently on my work, a satisfying endeavor. And I've been filling the holes with nature. I volunteered to participate in a lion behavior watch at the zoo - they're introducing the two female African lions to the male African lion with the hope of starting a new pride at the zoo. So far, the male has been shy, wary of the two older females who giggle secretively in the next enclosure over. Last weekend, I got to see them up close, three feet away from the fence separating the humans from the felines. It's an indescribable feeling to stare into the eyes of a wild animal, seemingly as tame as my kit but much bigger, with much more ancient souls. It was like looking back in time, to a place when we were all a little wilder. Tomorrow is my first practice run. I'll report back with any worthwhile notes or thoughts.

Now that spring is springing, I'm looking forward to some local wildlife watching. I just ordered my first binoculars, some Nikon Ecobins at a steep discount from REI - I'll report back what I think of them after they come in and I get a chance to try them out. Already the air has started to fill with the cacophony of birds returning from their southerly winter vacation. There's really quite a diversity of birds in this city. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I only ever knew of a few bird species: robins, cardinals, the mourning doves that nested in the evergreen tree outside my bedroom window, and some others that I never bothered to identify by name. Here, I've only really noticed the house sparrows and starlings, plus some robins and cardinals. But a few weeks ago, I saw what I suspect were some black scoters in the bay near Old Town Alexandria, and last Sunday, as I waited in the warm sun at the bus stop on a busy street, I took in the melodious song of a male northern mockingbird in a tree right above me. It sounded so joyous, chirping to the other neighborhood birds, bathing in the sun's rays, mimicking the street noise. A female northern mockingbird appeared a few days later on a fence further up the road, and it reminded me of the bird I saw in Meridian Hill Park during Snowmageddon. Hearing the raucous chirping each morning makes me miss the North Carolina bird symphony I enjoyed during the two years I spent there, and it makes me yearn for a quieter home (meaning less street noise) where I can enjoy daily encounters with local wildlife.

The next few months will be tough. Losing something you loved so deeply can be achingly sad. A lone mourning dove perched on the roof outside my window the other day, and its gut-wrenching hoo-hoos perfectly expressed my pain. It's best to take each day as it comes and figure the next day out when it gets there. Hopefully the soft sunshine and the cheerful chirping can buoy my spirits, at least until it gets a little easier to breathe.


I signed up for the feed from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition a couple weeks ago, and since then I have opened up my Google Reader inbox almost every day to find a well-written post about interesting things happening in the world of sustainable ag. As a member of the agricultural policy community, I have really enjoyed reading thoughtful pieces from people who are actually affected by national policies. Seriously, go to and check it out. They posted some excellent recaps from the Ag Outlook Forum last month, and the two posts this month about beginning farmers and ranchers are worth a read as well.

While we're on the subject, check out this interesting article from The Atlantic about local foods at Walmart. The store has been the symbol for much of what ails society, but it's hard to ignore the strides the company has taken in the past few years to improve its sustainability. I still won't shop there unless I really have no other choice and it's an emergency, but in many areas of the country where the only store around for miles is a Walmart, providing a market for and access to fresh, possibly local food, is a good thing. Let's hope the company is really committed to taking their local food initiative a step further and isn't just stealing marketing opportunities from local producers.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Agricultural Outlook, Part 2

In the afternoon, I attended two sessions. One was on bioenergy, which is one of the Secretary's priorities, but quite frankly, I'm tired of the topic. The good news is that at least people are thinking creatively about how to produce energy from biomass; the bad news is that there's always going to be a loser in the food vs. fuel vs. climate fight, and mitigating that loss is an ongoing battle.

The other session was on sustainability and the food system and featured USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, the Keystone Center's Sarah Stokes Alexander, Ferd Hoefner from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Brian Snyder from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Here's a recap of their presentations:
  • Kathleen Merrigan is the USDA's new face of sustainable agriculture, and she was the star of the forum. She briefly discussed the USDA's new program Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) and then took questions, deftly and diplomatically addressing skepticism from some farmers.   The greatest success of this program, and of the USDA(and the federal government) in general, is that there is now a national conversation about food, nutrition, and community. The fact that some people in the agricultural field are questioning ideas about sustainable agriculture means that the message is being heard throughout the country, and everyone is now encouraged to engage in the discussion about what food production and consumption can, or should, look like. More on this in a minute.
  • Sarah Stokes Alexander talked about Keystone's Field to Market program, which is a collaborative stakeholder group working together to develop a supply chain system for agricultural sustainability. This project addresses the concerns raised earlier on the plenary panel regarding transparency and industry-wide dialogue about how to make every step in the chain more sustainable. Members of the stakeholder group include grower groups, conservation organizations, agribusinesses, food and retail companies, and academia and research organizations (more information and a list of members is here)
  • Ferd Hoefner discussed the farmers market promotional programs and raised questions about what policy can do to create new markets and provide greater access to existing markets. A number of people asked questions about loan guarantee programs in their state.
  • Brian Snyder brought up the idea of a sustainable foodshed that could follow watershed boundaries. If that were the case, people here in DC would be actively engaged with folks all the way through Pennsylvania and New York State, since we're all in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Many of the vendors at farmers markets in DC come from Pennsylvania, and since we're on the receiving end of many of the negative watershed impacts, it makes sense that we should be actively engaging our northern foodshed neighbors to ensure that their practices improve our watershed conditions. Brian also pointed out that most of the farms in the U.S. are small farms that make less than $50, 000 a year in gross income - not enough to support one person. But CSAs can change that, and other techniques like SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) farming, can help small farms make more money without acquiring a lot more acreage.
(More thoughts after the jump)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Agricultural Outlook, Part 1

Yesterday and this morning, I attended the USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum. Conferences are great, not just for the networking opportunities, but also for the chance to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. What are our goals? What is our vision for this field? Who are our inspirations? What mistakes have we made that we can learn from?

The opening session featured overviews of the agricultural economic and trade reports and some pep talks from the U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller, the USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, and the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. There was a lot of back-patting, a little bit of hand-wringing, and a strong call to students and budding farmers to embrace the future of agriculture and contribute to efforts to revitalize rural America. Some of the students asked some great questions in the day's sessions, and they really stood out as honored guests at the forum.

The plenary panel titled "Sustainability, Stakeholders & Customers: Achieving a Healthier & Secure Future" featured Nina Federoff (Advisor to U.S. Secretary of State and USAID), Fedele Bauccio (Bon Appetit Management Co.), Richard Schnieders (Sysco Corp.), and Walter Robb (Whole Foods). What a great panel! These are the ideas that really struck me most about each presentation (after the jump):

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Everything is as it should be

Today is my birthday. Last year on this day, it was sunny and 70 degrees outside. I'd never experienced that kind of weather on my birthday before. The days afterward in my 29th year followed suit in a similar fashion. A great deal of the past year was like that - an unexpected and very pleasant surprise. This year, as a special 30th birthday present from Mother Nature, the DC area broke the record for the amount of snow in one season with a couple of small storms and three big storms: Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon, and Snoverkill. In total, 54.9 inches. That's more like it for mid-February.

Thirty is a big age for people. It's the line we draw in the sand for ourselves. "By 30, I will be doing _______." "By 30, I will have _________." "By 30, I will have made something of myself," whatever that means for each of us. I'm not sure I ever had those kinds of tangible expectations. I dreamed of the same things most people dream of: the home, the family, the job. Well aware of how I change my mind so often, I knew better than to be too specific about what those things would look like. Which is a good thing because at 30, I'm still living a nomad's life, still trying to figure out what home, family, and job really look like to me. The only time I freaked out about still not having those answers was after watching "Julie and Julia," in which the character Julie freaks out about not having those answers and cooks her way to 30. Then I remembered that we shouldn't feel something just because a movie tells us to, and I got over it.

Now, at 30, I'm still fumbling along, a little wiser and much happier. The only picture I had of myself as a 30-year-old was that of a confident woman, smart, accomplished, who above everything else, knew herself well. Since I was a teenager, I couldn't wait to be 30 because I so looked forward to knowing myself and feeling comfortable inside and out. Now, I don't care about not being settled down, not achieving whatever measures of success people are supposed to have achieved by this age. Because I achieved the goal I have always seen as more worthy than whatever I could use to measure myself against others. I feel like the woman I always wanted to be. I accomplished the task of growing up, of getting through the wrenching teens and the tumultuous 20s and making it out alive and relatively intact. I wouldn't take back any of what I've gone through in my life, but just thinking about it all makes me exhausted. And that's been just the first 30 years of this wild journey.

So now it's time to do something with it. I still feel lost, as much so as I always have, but maybe that feeling never goes away. At least now I have a compass and I know which direction to head: Westward from here, but never far from myself.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Birdwatching in the city

I put a bird feeder out on my fire escape earlier this month. For a while, the only thing it collected was snow.

Then, last Sunday, we saw some birds crowded around its little ledge. They ate all of the bird seed in three days - Wednesday evening, I came home to an empty bird feeder. So I refilled it.

Friday evening, it was empty again. I was going to wait until after the snowstorm to refill it again, but this morning, the birds sat on the fire escape railing, staring eagerly into my window.

So I refilled it again, and now I get to watch the snow swirling around while a bunch of hungry house sparrows snack on seeds as the feeder twirls in the wind. Kind of like a birdfeeder-go-round. I pulled out my Field Guide to Birds of North America and identified the males and females.

The cat, however, seems mostly uninterested.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sensory overlap

Synesthesia: from the Ancient Greek σύν (syn), "together," and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), "sensation"—is a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

0 = clear      5 = black or navy blue 
1 = white     6 = orange
2 = yellow    7 = grey
3 = green     8 = maroon
4 = purple    9 = black

January =  white or vanilla sky (soft pale yellow and thin light blue)
February = deep plum
March = rusty orange
April = pale pink
May = deeper pink
June = sky blue
July = real blue, sometimes white
August = soft red
September = golden
October = dark grey 
November = orange
December = pine green