Thursday, December 27, 2007

in came the meow

Last night I went to the back door to lock it before going to bed. I noticed a cat we care for huddling just outside of the door. We call this small, salt and pepper cat MeowMeow or sometimes we call her Ms. Meow or on occasion, The Meow. You might think there is nothing remarkable about an outdoor cat wanting inside on a relatively cold winter night, but you don’t know The Meow. She has lived with us for almost six years without ever coming inside.

Several years ago my wife and I moved to this small town in Southeastern America. We rented an apartment while we looked for a house to call our own. Almost immediately we met The Meow. She was painfully unmistakable. Fur covered only one quarter of her body. The rest was pink, raw skin covered with the scabs of bug bites. Her tail too was furless except for an odd tuft at the tip. This miserable looking feline was significantly underweight. Her bare skin was so taut you could trace the outline of her intestine as it snaked back and forth across her stomach. Her back left leg stuck out at an odd angle forcing her to walk with a slight limp. She was starving and happy to have the food we offered although initially her mood was less than appreciative. We learned quickly that this cat was distrustful of everyone and that she seemed as mean as a snake.

But we continued to feed her and soon trapped her in a cage so I could take her to the vet. Tests revealed no major health problems except malnutrition and the rash of scabs to go along with her less than playful attitude. The limp was from a previous injury- probably hit by a car. I paid for the shots necessary to vaccinate this cat and address her skin condition. I took her home.

She continued to show up for meals and a few months later when we moved to our new house, we trapped her again and took her with us. She accepted her new home but only the outdoor part. She wouldn’t come inside to save her life. She was putting on weight and fur and was beginning to allow us to come close to her. We were slowly getting used to her and she was slowly getting used to us. Still extremely distrustful of humans, she was even more unhappy about our other cats. When we got a puppy almost a year later, she promptly bloodied his curious nose twice before he learned to respect The Meow. I also learned that lesson the hard way. Several times I thought The Meow was ready for me to hold her. She was not. To call this cat fiercely independent would be to redefine the term understatement. I can show you the scars.

Which is why I was so surprised to see her at the back door last night wanting to come inside. She scurried through the doorway and incredulously made her way up onto the living room couch. We left her to sleep there because no one really wants to argue with The Meow.

Truthfully this cat has softened as she’s aged. She lets me pick her up now. She will let other people pet her; even rolling over on her back sometimes so I can rub her belly. I can’t say I have ever seen her play with a loose string or any other such cat toy. The intoxication of catnip is apparently lost on her as well. But she will purr when she’s petted and she will now share space with our other cats. The dog still keeps his distance but even her attitude towards him is much more accepting. People who meet her for the first time think she is sweet which I guess it’s fair to say she has become.

Or maybe she always was. Maybe it was covered over with a scab of pain. I never held her seemingly harsh temperament against The Meow. To have seen this pitiful creature starving and in pain on my doorstep, fearful and truly pathetic, touched me in a way that made great acceptance on my part possible. I learned something from her about giving care. I learned that to care for something when almost no one else notices the need is deeply rewarding.

I believe that we are in one manner of speaking, living a pitiful way of life on whole here in America. At the risk of seeming uncelebratory during this the holiday season, I am struck again and with renewed strength at just how much we’ve lost in an effort to fulfill our every material desire. I lament this time each year how much of our efforts of life in America revolve around getting more stuff than we need. While we are physically fatter than ever before (and yet malnourished to some extent) we seem mentally, emotionally & spiritually starving. I hear people everywhere talking about “focusing on what really matters,” but then they inevitably ask any child within earshot what he or she is getting from Santa. I am not immune from this holiday sense of compulsory consumption. And that is the point I guess, that I feel this sense of sorrow when I look out and see our culture in such truly bad shape. It’s pervasive and almost inescapable, especially if our friends and family are also confined to this system of living. What good would it do for me to leave and find a place where people matter if I had to leave behind the people who matter to me?

It’s tough to swim against the current. I do not fault those who have taken the bait and settled for this a way of life based upon consumption. But I also feel responsible, as someone in this system who has glimpsed an alternative, to share my thoughts about our loss of focus on each other and on the wider world around us. I’m planning to spend some time during the first of the year envisioning what might be possible as others decide to come in out of the cold as I believe they soon will. This way of life, based on infinite growth in a finite system cannot continue much longer. Already plenty of others are waking up to this reality. Some changes happen fast and others happen more slowly. Predicting what will happen in the future and how quickly change will come is a difficult, perhaps impossible job. But we can help to steer our nation back towards a happy society of stronger self sufficiency coupled with healthy interdependency by being flexible and being ready and being willing to change; that and answering a few questions to frame the work of imagining another way of life.

1. Why is change necessary and therefore possible?

2. Where should we go and what will it look like when we get there?

3. How can we start the journey and what can we expect in transition?

4. Who will join us?

A toast as the New Year approaches: May the year of Two Thousand and Eight offer a chance at change and may it be kind to all of those who work to transform this world into a more thoughtful and caring place.

Best Wishes,


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

more food stamps and more grocery stores?

I was absolutely incensed when I read this article. It explains how people living in rural America have unhealthy diets BECAUSE THERE AREN’T ENOUGH GROCERY STORES!

This is the real world of eating and nutrition in the rural United States. Forget plucking an apple from a tree, or an egg from under a chicken. "The stereotype is everyone in rural America lives on a farm, which is far from the truth," says Jim Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). New research from the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health shows just how unhealthy the country life can be. The study, which examined food-shopping options in Orangeburg County (1,106 square miles, population 91,500), found a dearth of supermarkets and grocery stores.

Of course it’s true that in every part of the country- rural and urban areas- we have lost our connection with what we eat. And many people no longer grow any of what makes it onto their dining room tables. So logically one would expect the article to recommend a reconnection to the local farm fields that could feed us and offer the idea of stronger self sufficiency through some home grown produce- planting that apple tree or raising that chicken. Nope. The answer apparently is more grocery stores and more food stamps.

Nutritionists and anti-hunger activists know what rural Americans should eat. In an ideal world, says Weill, more people would take advantage of nutrition and financial education programs, like those offered by the USDA, that teach consumers how to make a food budget and use recipes. The 2007 Farm Bill would in­crease food stamp access and benefits and allocate an additional $2.75 billion over 10 years to buy fruits and vegetables for the USDA's nutrition assistance programs…

I have no problem with offering help to people who need it. In fact I think as human beings we have a moral obligation to do so. But help should involve more than passing out food stamps. It should involve teaching people how to grow more of their own food and cook with whole ingredients. It should include a farm bill that actually supports the small scale, sustainable agriculture that could offer healthy food to rural and urban communities across our nation. Pick you simile- treating the problem of unhealthy eating in rural America by building more grocery stores and handing out more food stamps is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound. It is completely ass backward.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

change ain't sexy

The past few weeks have been very busy for me. In addition to my normal activities- work, family life, harvesting the bagged leaves of my neighborhood- I attend a one day soil regeneration seminar and a 2 day ULI seminar on sustainable community design. Both of these events were remarkably informative and I'd go so far as to say inspirational. I love to learn and synthesis seemingly unrelated bits of information into programs that facilitate change. You might even call it a hobby. But one particular event of recent weeks has been much more rewarding. We had our house reinsulated. It would probably be more accurate to say we had it insulated as much of it had no insulation at all.

Now you might think that's pretty strange, that someone convinced we're embarking on worldwide energy descent would have, up until now, lived in a poorly insulated house. To which I would respond that it's been on the list to do, but the list is long and the budget is far from unlimited. The real deal though is that my wife and I have been planning to build our own home for several years. Since day one of my architectural education at university I've dreamed of building my own home. In recent years I study alternative construction methods and fell in love with strawbale building. I read books, took classes and even worked on a few such structures. My wife and I were investigating a land purchase and organizing a few folks to help with the permitting process. But the situation has changed. The peak in global oil production is imminent and the effects of climate change are more rapidly headed our way. I've become convinced that with more than 90 million homes already in existence here in America, what we need is less building new and more making due. Several people have tried to convince me that I could be more useful to my fellow citizens by offering an example of effective strategies for 'Sheltering In Place,' and I'm starting to believe them.

But there's an equally compelling reason. My wife is expecting our second child in March and our daughter is almost 2 years old. At such a young age she can already pick up a hammer and swing it quite effectively but hasn't yet learn that hammers are not meant for the destruction of anything with reach. The idea of my family building a new home during the next 12 months could very well be the uproarious inspiration for a new TV reality show. I'm not sure if we'd find it funny though.

I have not yet thrown out the idea of building our own home. I think using straw for home construction makes sense for lots of reasons and I think we need more people using it to serve as examples. I'd like to be one of them in the future. But for now it looks like we are staying put and that means more closely examining our current conditions and making reasonable adjustments. Sounds prudent right? Well here's the thing, it's not at all sexy.

Over the past two weeks I've spent three days with a crew who are adding insulation to our home. When they first arrived they hooked up a blower door to our home and pressurized the whole structure to get a sense of how air tight our home was. The answer was not very. That part was fun to watch but then came hours of action like caulking and sealing and weather stripping. The real work took a long time and was not my idea of fun. Another contractor used an infrared camera to find out where the big heat leaks were located. This too was pretty neat. But then it was back to the grindstone. The flooring in the attic had to be removed and then insulation was blown up there. The crawlspace below our home had to be cleaned, plastic sheeting laid below and insulation strapped to the underside of the floor joists. The best part, I say with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, was when the crew cut 2" holes in all our exterior walls ever 20" or so and blew insulation into each cavity. It was necessary. It will make for a much more energy efficient home. We are doing our part! And yet the work itself was mundane. Some of it was boring and some of it was uncomfortable. 3 days of regular old work. And the mess!

In contrast my time spent at the soil seminar was great as was my sustainable community design seminar. But neither of those actually accomplished anything tangible. They were useful experiences. The knowledge I came away with will certainly come in handy, but neither accomplished as much actual change as did my 3 days of insulation. Part of what I've been sensing in the community of people who are interested in issues of energy and the environment is that many are ready to move on from the arena of talk into the arena of action. It's fine and good to talk about peak oil and climate change and track the progress of these occurrences. That is important work for some to do. But for most of us, responding to the converging calamities of the 21st century should be more about getting dirty and less about talking about getting dirty.

Having said that, I did film the whole transformation of my home- about 5 hours of raw footage which will be edited into a video and uploaded onto the Internet some time early next year. Hopefully it will help inspire other people to begin making similar changes. There's no reason to stop sharing our progress with other people. In fact I think we have an obligation to do so. But as much as possible I think we need to get to work; not online but in our own homes and in our own communities. There is much to actually do.

Monday, December 03, 2007

pandora's pantry

From Pandora's Pantry, by John Robbins,

Because so much Roundup is used on Roundup Ready crops, the residue levels in the harvested crops greatly exceed what until very recently was the allowable legal limit. For the technology to be commercially viable, the FDA had to triple the residues of Roundup’s active ingredients that can remain on the crop.(24) Many scientists have protested that permitting increased residues to enable a company’s success reflects an attitude in which corporate interests are given higher priority than public safety, but the increased levels have remained in force.

Advertisements and glossy brochures, seeking to convince farmers to plant Roundup Ready seeds, speak proudly of “clean fields”—clean in this usage meaning enormous fields with nothing growing in them but soybeans or corn or cotton or canola. This is intended as a selling point, and many farmers go for it, but it is an odd use of the word. The fields are actually so chemicalized that they are virtually sterile, and they bear no resemblance whatsoever to a healthy, flourishing, and biodiverse ecosystem. The soil, relatively void of decaying plant matter, and often impoverished of the worms, insects, and bacteria that feed off it, becomes completely dependent on chemical fertilizers.

Ironically, we’re spraying our fields and food with a toxic substance to make use of a sophisticated technology that is largely unnecessary. There are simpler mechanical ways to deal with weeds, including no-till farming, mulching, and companion cropping. But of course, none of these Earth-friendly methods can be patented and sold for profit, and none fit with massive mono-cultures and reliance on chemicals, so they hold no interest for Monsanto and the other agricultural chemical companies that dominate the business of genetic engineering.(25)

Read the whole article here.