Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Eco-Inspiration 2

Stream in Yellowstone NP.  I am so grateful
these places have been preserved for me to enjoy!
It’s that time of the year!  Oh my goodness, how I adore the holidays.  I love hanging out with my lovely family and seeing all my friends from home.  I can’t wait to take another ramble in the woods with my dogs, and bundle up as I walk down the hill toward the creek with my little sister.  I want to drink coffee with my parents while my brother plays guitar and my sister-in-law sings.  These are my holiday memories.  And I have a lot to be thankful for, and so do you!  Feeling a little holiday stressed?  It happens.  So, I thought I would take a few minute and remind you of 5 things for which you should be very thankful!  I know the official holiday of giving thanks has passed, but I thought we could always use a little more gratitude.  Don’t you?

1.       You have immense creative power!
“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree--and there will be one.” ~Aldo Leopold

2.       It’s never ever, not ever, too late to start trying to make a difference (thank goodness!)
“It is almost too late to start, but tomorrow is even later.” ~Slobodkin and Dykhuizen

3.      Everyone is just trying to find their own path, and we should be thankful for those people in our lives who let us struggle, and wander, and wonder.  Those are the people who really have our backs.
“…It is not the only or the easiest way to come to the truth.  It is one way…” ~Wendell Berry

4.       For just as long as cynics have existed, people like you have been making a difference!
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

5.       We live in a world of staggering beauty and immense possibility.
“As many know, the Chinese expression for “crisis” consists of two characters side by side. The first is the symbol for “danger,” the second the symbol for “opportunity.” – Al Gore

Double Arch in Arches NP
FINAL WORD:  For those of us trying to live simply and in line with values slightly different from the main stream, the holidays can be a stressful time.  Try to remember why you choose to be where you are this holiday season.  Be present, be patient, and be joyful.  After all, what the world always, with out a doubt, needs more of is joy.

What do you think?  What do you give thanks for this holiday season?  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Low Impact Travel: Thanksgiving 2012

I am back from my Thanksgiving travels.  I’m still pretty tired, and have a ton of school stuff to catch up on, as usual I suppose.  This year, travel was especially crazy because ticket prices were so high (ouch), so I took a red-eye flight on Wednesday which got me into Nashville around 5am CST.  I then flew out of Nashville on Saturday at 7am CST.  Quick turn around, and a few very early mornings!  I thought I might reflect on my wanderings and talk about small things we can do to make our travel footprint a little smaller. 

I did some school work in the morning and early afternoon.  The usual.  The boyfriend (hereafter D Lo) picked me up from school right after class, and I went straight away to making brownies for my roomies and my rideshare buddy.  I went through my fridge and tried to pick out the veggies that would go bad before I got home.  I juiced up a carrot, cucumber, chopped a sort of mealy apple, and threw all that in  the blender with some kale, frozen raspberries, and bananas.  D Lo usually avoids my “salad smoothies,” but I think he was counting on missing me, so he drank up, and it was proclaimed “not that bad.”  My lab mate and her boyfriend swung by to pick me up just as the brownies were done and the smoothies were in our bellies.  My lab mate is from the Bay Area, so she just dropped me off at a train station near her house.  I jammed out to podcasts all the way to the airport.  Once there, I got real hungry, and got another smoothie (this one in a plastic container).  A quick jaunt from SFO to LAX, a speedy veggie burger and fries from Burger King (I really love to eat while I travel) and I was on a plane again and on my way to the southern homeland!
Green smoothies are one of my fave snacks.

Travel Dos:
#1àDo make sure and use up your food before you leave home.  Waste not, want not as they say.
#2àDo ride share and ride public transit when you can.  SO MUCH less stressful than dealing with holiday traffic.
#3àDo remember to pack your own snacks.  Things you buy at the airport as so over priced, wrapped in plastic, and usually not that good for you (I’m looking at you Burger King).

Many many cooks in the kitchen!
I rode in the car SO much today, but in that part of the country, it’s much harder to avoid.  Public transit is just not really well developed in more rural areas.  I also went on every errand with all my siblings.  Really, nothing beats riding in a car, chatting, listening to music on a beautiful fall, country day.  I just love Kentucky.  I had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I didn’t take that many pictures, but I am so blessed to have such lovely family and friends to spend these times with me.  I did make everyone laugh till they almost cried when I admitted to drinking cabbage juice last year when I was working on my thesis.  I’m a weirdo in a family of weirdoes, and we all like it that way.  My brother even made a fabulous vegan dish for me to enjoy with the Thanksgiving Feast!  We ate, and drank, and played games until the cousins had to head home.  It was a great holiday.     
Post dinner entertainment from my bro and my sister's beau.  

Travel Dos:
#4àDo remember it’s the holidays and you are supposed to play and do things you don’t always do (like eat till you have a little tummy pooch! Yum!! Or ride all around town in a car.)

My newest niece puppy who I met Friday.
This was my only full day in Kentucky.  I’m so glad my brother got this day off work so we could all hang out till he and my sister-in-law had to leave at 1pm.  My college roommate was also in for the holiday with the family, he’s an adopted kid to my parents, and he got to stay till lunch time as well!  That evening my best friend and another college roommate stopped by to hang out and chat and eat more food!  I also had some time on Friday to talk Christmas plans with my mom.  She is going to make me some bulk food bags and some reusable face cloths (think a reusable item that will replace cotton balls in the bathroom), more on this later.  I also remembered where I got so many of my good-for-the-earth habits when I watched my mom fix a few Christmas decorations instead of throwing them away and give tons of leftovers to us in reused containers (No, D Lo, that is pie not feta cheese!).  I also had an amazing conversation with my sister about women in science and the impacts of our diet choices.  She is pretty amazing and works for the National Park Service, and her park just got its first female director!

On the road again, way way early.  Too too early.  Luckily, this time I had my mom around to fix me tons of snacks.  I wish I had taken a picture of the spread.  I had coffee in my to-go mug, pretzels in a reused container, peanut butter and gram crackers wrapped in tin foil, and raisins.  This kept me from buying any snacks all the way through the airports!  Thanks mom!  I took the train from SFO to within about an hour of my California home and, once again, D Lo and I were able to avoid the stressful airport traffic.  Basically, living in a city where the train is connected to the airport is amazing (…duh…).  We were way too tired to cook that night though, so we ordered in Indian food.

Travel Dos:
#5àMake ahead of time, and freeze, a homemade meal.  You will be too tired to go out or cook when you get home, and your delicious curry will come in a plastic Tupperware.  To the credit of this restaurant, my curry and two small condiments were the only things in plastic.  Pretty cool!

FINAL WORD:  Obviously, this isn’t a post about large scale travel choices (train vs. plane vs. automobile) because this little southern girl has got to get home, and flying is really the only practical way at this point.  Maybe that post will come later.  That said, the holidays are supposed to be fun!  I think that lots of things you can do to make your travel lower impact, also make the whole experience more fun and way less stressful.  Public transit and ridesharing are decidedly less stressful because you spend less and deal with traffic less, always a win.  Spending money on overpriced items *cough*airport snacks *cough* always stresses me out, and I loved not doing that on the way back to CA.  Think about your holiday routine, we’ll all be doing it again in a few weeks, and consider changes you can make. 

What do you think?  Do you have any great green travel tips?  Any tips for avoiding holiday stress?  Favorite on the go snacks?   

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reduce: Cook at home [Roasted Eggplant Pesto]

My week. Coffee shop, grade/write, rinse, repeat.

Things have been 100% crazy in my life as of late.  School is really kicking my butt, and I find myself doing something I very rarely do under pressure…shutting down.  For me, one of the top signs I’m really stressed out is poor eating.  I get “too stressed/busy” to cook, and, instead, clean the grout between my tiles after eating a ton of tater tots.  While cleaning that grout can be very rewarding, making meals at home from whole foods is one of the best things we can do for our bodies, and for the environment.

Here is the pitch (it might sound familiar).  When you prepare foods using simple ingredients it become a lot easier to know where those ingredients originate.  I also find it’s a lot easier to avoid unnecessary packaging when I’m cooking from whole foods and simple ingredients.  And, as I really needed someone to remind me this weekend, cooking for yourself really doesn't take that long and is so much more rewarding than ordering a pizza.  Also, it’s just better for you!  I don’t really want this to turn into a nutrition blog, but I am sort of obsessed with nutrition, and if you want to know some cool sites to refer to, let me know in the comments.

Long story short, I want to commemorate the last real meal I cooked before I let stress get the better of me.  This is a simple meal you could make without much effort during the pre-Thanksgiving week.  It also uses lots of ingredients that you can buy with little to no packaging, score!  This Roasted Eggplant Pesto comes from one of my favorite vegan cooking blogs.  For the non-vegans in the house, my boyfriend, a committed omnivore, generally loves things from Susan’s blog.  I doubled the garlic because…that’s what I do.  I also didn't take a picture of the finished product because it just didn't look very photogenic.  Refer to the picture on the original blog.  She really gets its good side.

You don’t like to cook you say?  Ah, dear friend, I was once like you.  Literally, my parents were worried about me when I moved away to college because they were “afraid I wouldn't feed myself.”  It took me years to get to the point where I thought roasting an eggplant was a step in a “simple” recipe.  My advice is to start slow.  Cut out some easy processed foods first.  For example, if you love making burritos, buy some bulk beans and cook those things up yourself (you only need a sauce pan and some water).  Love pasta night?  Skip the sauce in those plastic/glass containers, and buy a can of tomato sauce and spice it up yourself.   The key is to set yourself up for success in the beginning so you don’t get frustrated or discouraged.  And for those of you out there who love to cook, think of some ingredients you could sub or tell us a story about something you are already doing, I would love to hear it.

That being said, I now love to cook myself.  Check out these nummy ingredients!  We ate this on pasta twice, and I used it as a spread on many a piece of toast.  I loved it!

Look at this pretty basil!  And the only plastic it came with was that silly little
twist tie they up around it at the store. Totally kept that bit to reuse.
You can't win them all.  These were my plastic wrapped ingredients.  If you are comparing to
ordering out though, I used those sun dried tomatoes for 3 recipes and that pasta for two
recipes  with each recipe making about 4 servings.  I think cooking at home is still winning
in the coast-benefit analysis.  If you have more funds than I, you can totally avoid the
 plastic.  You can buy pasta in bulk at lots of natural food stores.  I almost bought dried
tomatoes at the farmer's market, but they were twice as expensive.  Remember you can
only do so much at the same time!

Look at this beauty!  Roasted eggplant from the farmer's market.  YUM!

Soaking almonds (also from the farmer's market) hanging out with the garlic.  Nuts in general
are expensive, but the guy at the market actually sells them for a super good price.  This is for
sure one of those ingredients where I cannot always afford to skip the packaging.  Garlic,
however, is always cheap at the store and the market without packaging.  Don't fall for that silly
plastic mesh they put three of them in.  You don't save that much money!

FINAL WORD:  I know not everyone loves to cook, but it’s a skill that will really serve you well in your journey to help the planet (and yourself) stay happy and healthy.  Remember, baby steps are the best way to make real, lasting changes in your life.  Give yourself a break!  Try upping your home cooked meals by one day (or even one meal) per week.  Keep track of the waste you create, and see the difference! 

What do you think?  Do you live near a farmer’s market where you can buy your produce?  Do you like to cook?  Any favorite cooking tips or websites to share with us?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Eco-Inspiration 1

The tip of South Africa, summer 2008.  
I know from experience, as I know many others do, that sometimes it can all seem like too much.  We have so many demands on our time.  Work, school, relationships.  When do I have time to make a difference?  Do I have the energy and means to make the lifestyle changes necessary to bring my actions in line with my values?  The answer a lot of the time, for me at least, is no.  I do not have time to do everything that I feel I should be doing.  I can’t do it all.  I’m not perfect.  And, as I so often try and remind myself, no one is really expecting me to be.  The best we can do for today, is our best.  And on days when I’m feeling like it’s all too much, like my small efforts will never amount to anything, I think of this quotation which was shared with me by my first mentor in ecology:

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast... a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”  ~Edward Abbey*  

FINAL WORD:  Let this be your eco-inspiration as you reach the middle of your work/school week.  Eat your lunch outside today, or take a short walk on your break.  Marvel a little why don’t ya’.

Floating the Green River, KY.  Beauty in my own backyard.
What do you think?  Do you ever feel overwhelmed or burnt out when trying to do the right thing?  Do you take enough time to actually enjoy nature?  Do you love Edward Abbey? 

*Emphasis is mine.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why "Recycle" is the Least Important "R"

Let’s start off with the obvious.  Recycling is great!  I think that everyone should be doing it as often and for as many products as they can.  However, it’s not always that cut and dry an issue.  I will likely write in the future about specific types of recycling (ex: tech product recycling, plastics more specifically), but I want to take this time to talk about recycling in general.  I hope this post isn’t a huge bummer; I’m going to view it as a good dose of the realness.  You see, the efficiency of recycling really depends on what you are recycling and where you live.

View from the front yard of my childhood home.  I love this
place with all my being.
I'm going to start off with the latter, that where you live impacts how efficient a choice recycling is for you and your household.  As you probably know, not all recycling programs are created equal.  I have experienced both ends of the recycling support spectrum in my life.  I grew up on a farm in south central Kentucky, and, to this day, there is no infrastructure for recycling where my parents live.  Luckily, when I was growing up, my father’s 45 minute commute took him right past a recycling facility, and about once a month we loaded all our glass and aluminum (I don’t think they took plastics) into my Dad’s car.  While this worked for us, most of our neighbors had no means of getting their recyclables to the distant facility, and now that my father has moved to a much closer job (10 minute commute, he is so happy!) my parents are without a means to recycle.  On the other end of things, after moving to California, I’ve been lucky enough to live in two cities that take their recycling very seriously:  Long Beach and Davis.  Despite this, when I was researching this post I found that some things which I had been able to recycle in Long Beach (ex: Styrofoam, soymilk cartons) are not accepted here in Davis.  Oops, looks like all that washing out of my roommate’s fast food containers has been for not.    

Through my own life, you can see the two major ways that location impacts recycling.  First, infrastructure impacts recycling efficiency.  Lavee (2007) performed an analysis of a study from Israel showing that recycling of municipal solid wastes is most economically beneficially in areas with dense populations due to low start-up costs and the ease of consolidating the recyclable materials.  So, recycling is most economically viable in large, urban areas where waste doesn’t have to travel very far to get to the processing facilities*.    Second, depending on where you live, something things just will not be recyclable.  Take my example above with the Styrofoam, and apply it to your area.  This information is important, not just because it informs your decision on what to buy, but because improper recycling hurts us down the line.  The more time and person-power required to sort through our recycling, the less cost effective the system becomes.  Additionally, if you (or people at your apartment building) mix trash in with the recyclables, your items might end up just getting tossed due to health concerns for workers at recycling facilities.  Last, depending on the recycling facility, some items commonly thrown into recycling bins can really harm equipment.  For example, plastic sheeting (like what products come wrapped in) and thin plastic bags get wrapped around equipment in fully mechanized sorting facilities, causing losses of time and money (check this story for an example).  

Okay, so, maybe you are lucky enough to have access to one of the 9,000 (and rising!) curbside recycling programs in the USA (EPA, 2009).  That’s great!  You should be recycling stuff!  Same rules as above apply, so go and check out what is actually accepted by your recycling facility.  You can feel really good because you are helping to save tons of virgin materials and energy.  The nifty graph from Morris (2005) shows how much energy is required to make products from recycled versus virgin materials.  Looks pretty straight forward yes?  But let’s go through it together, because there are few things a simple graph like this really fails to convey.   

From Morris (2005)
Let’s start with aluminum.  We get the biggest bang for our recycling buck with this stuff.  I always try to buy canned products whenever possible for this reason.  This is one of the most profitable and energy efficient products to recycle.  With newsprint and cardboard, the returns are less, but still apparent.  This is probably due to the ease of access of virgin materials used here (tress…) as opposed to those used to make metals.  Despite this, making new paper from old paper is still 50% more energy savvy.  Steel and glass recycling are actually pretty energy intensive processes.  It’s still more energy efficient to recycle as opposed to landfill these items, but the benefits are noticeably less.  Last, let’s address those weird abbreviations on the x-axis.  These are two different types of plastic pellets.  As you can see, making plastic products from recycled plastic materials is pretty darn good at saving energy.  But here is the rub; plastic pellets are not made from old plastic pellets.  A plastic milk carton can never be a milk carton again.  Your soda bottle will never hold another soda.  With each step down the recycling chain, plastic gets closer and closer to an end product that is (in many cases) not itself recyclable.  Check out this website from the state of Maine for some examples of what recycled plastic products become.  Still recycling is better than land filling right?  Energy is saved at some point in all of these processes,  but isn’t there a better way? 

This beautiful basil was delicious,
 and I did not miss the plastic container so
many stores try to sell it in!
I would argue that there is a better way, a way saves energy by reducing the need for recycling and reduces waste.  We need to focus our energies on the first two of the “three r’s.”  First, we need to reduce the amount of packaging (of all kinds) we consume.  Eeps!  But what about Oreos, Rachel?  They are the best, and also wrapped in plastic.  Relax friends; remember, this is the Practical Ecologist.  I am not asking anyone to move mountains, or to make lifestyle changes they are not prepared for at this time.  Everyone is at a different place in their journey after all.  It’s often the small changes we make in our lives that actually stick, and the habits we stick with are the ones that have a chance to make a difference.  I’ll have tons of posts coming about how to reduce your use, and hopefully each of us will be able to apply a few of them!  I might even try to address this Oreo issue (it’s a real life struggle for me).  

My food/beverage containers
Second, we need to reuse the stuff that we buy.  Okay, no free lunch here.  The only thing you risk by reusing things is people thinking you are a little funny.  You get to be that gal/fella who uses old peanut butter jars as Tupperware.  Wash off your tinfoil and use it again!  Bring your reusable mugs and bags!  Patch your clothes!  I get giddy even thinking about it.  Bring to mind even one of those cheesy info-grams about how much plastic we would save is we all just brought our own bags to the store, and multiply this by your own creativity!  What can you reuse?  And then, after you have reduced your waste down to things you really want/need to buy and reused the stuff as much as possible, THEN you recycle it.  And then all the dolphins smile and the little hippie-babies at the farmer’s market all dance for you.  Really. 

FINAL WORD:  Recycling is way, way important, and I’m so glad to live in a world where the importance of accessible recycling is becoming a focus.  However, recycling is not a cure all for our waste issues.  It is up to us to change our behavior.  Vote with your dollars on products you need that match your values, and thank the good Lord for Pintrest because reusing is so in right now.  Whee!

What do you think?  Are you sold on my view of the “3 r’s.”  Have you read any cool articles that might apply to this issue?  Got any creative reduce/reuse tips?  How will this fit in with your lifestyle?

*The study found that recycling was economically beneficial in about 25% of small and regional municipalities.  We must take into consideration the general differences in infrastructure between the US and Israel, but I believe the general lesson still holds true.

-D. Lavee.  2007.  Is Municipal Solid Waste Recycling Economically Efficient?  Environmental Management 40:  926-943.  
-J. Morris.  2005.  Comparative LCAs for Curbside Recycling Verses Either Landfilling or Incineration with          Energy Recovery.  Int. Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 10 (4):  273-284.
-Environmental Protection Agency.  2009.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Reduce: Make your own eye make-up remover

When I started this blog, I had big plans of putting awesome peer reviewed, scientific literature into each and every post.  PhD school is too real ya’ll, and that’s not going to happen.  I will be writing solid scientific posts weekly or biweekly, depending on how things go.  I have some good topics planned, and I think you (and I!) will learn a lot.  In the interim between those posts, I’m going to post some content structured around one of the oldest green concepts:  reduce, reuse, recycle.  The focus will be on the first two because, for reasons I will explain in depth later, I think these are the most important.  Each of these posts will be about things I've done, and my reasoning for doing them.  
Back story.  I showed up to my new graduate program fresh off of three previous years of crazy (getting my Master’s Degree) and a 2 month long camping/road trip…so basically I looked a little busted and I didn't care.  There is a well documented relationship between time in graduate school and how much you worry about how you look (view the graph here), and all these fresh faced new graduate students looked SO nice.  What happened?  Did they not get the memo?  In any case, years of social conditioning dictated I step up my personal up-keep regime.  Jokes aside, it needed to happen anyway, and it has made me feel good to actually look in the mirror in the mornings (I literally hadn't looked in a mirror in weeks while writing my M.S. thesis).
My uniform for the summer.  Not pictured, my buddy's socks
and sandals combo (she is also a graduate student)

I’m still a make-up minimalist, but over the past month or so I have managed to throw a little moisturizer, blush, and mascara on in the mornings.  After about a week, I added “eye make-up remover” to the grocery list.  That Saturday, post farmer's market, I found the item in the grocery store and DANG.  I know I haven’t purchased this product in years but when did it get so expensive?  Then I looked at all the ingredients.  What the heck was some of this stuff?  I have really sensitive skin and a really thin pocket book, so I passed on the store bought stuff.  The older I get, the more I realize that a lot of my “green living” decisions also save me tons of money. 

So, what makes homemade a greener option?  Let’s look at what goes into this project, then revisit this question at the end.


Homemade Eye Make-up Remover (based on these original instructions)

Really, this is all you need!
2 T Witch Hazel        
2 T Olive Oil        
2 T H2O                  

Small bottle for storage

Instructions and Tips:
Literally, just put all the ingredients in the storage vessel of your choice, shake it up, dab a bit on a wash cloth, and go for it just like normal eye make-up remover.  The hardest part of all of this for me was cleaning out my old travel conditioner bottle.  I found I have to let it sit on my eye for a little while longer than store bought versions, but it leaves the skin around my eyes feeling soft as opposed to overly dry.  It passed the ultimate test of make-up remover in my book when I got out of the shower, dried my face, and did the obligatory “under the eye towel swipe,” there was no mascara residue.  Score.  I’ll mention two things that might go without saying.  First, oil separates from water, so you have to shake this up each time you use it.  Second, getting oil in your eyes can suck, so make sure and wash off your eye area with warm water to remove excess oil.

Note:  You can use any oil you want in this recipe (almond, jojoba, etc.) but I chose olive because it is cheap, and I can use the rest to sauté veggies and what not. 


So, why is making your own product greener than buying something in the store?  Number one in my mind is the fact that homemade products generally require less plastic.  You will see in this tutorial that my version of the eye make-up remover was not plastic free.  However, I needed olive oil anyway and I am lucky enough to be able to buy olive oil in bulk from my food co-op (next time I won’t forget my reusable glass container).  The witch hazel did come in a plastic bottle, but I will use this same plastic bottle to make countless batches of eye make-up remover (as opposed to having to buy a new bottle every time I run out), and then use the plastic bottle itself to hold other homemade goodies after the original contents are long gone.

Homemade solutions also allow you to purchase the basic ingredients for products and learn about where those ingredients come from and how they are manufactured.  For example, my olive oil comes from a local grower!  It’s a lot easier to find out the methods used to produce simple products with few ingredients (e.g.: olive oil!) as opposed to complex, chemically laden products where finding out where and how each ingredient is produced can be impossible and unduly stressful! 

Final Word:  I hope you guys like these lifestyle posts.  I’m going to use them to identify topics that I want to discuss in more depth.  In just this post, I see I need to talk about the importance of plastic reduction, why buy local matters, why reduction and reuse are more important (in my opinion) than recycling, and (maybe) graduate student fashion.  That last one could be more painful than it is really worth, and the ecological relevance is shaky at best.

What do you think?  Are there any opinions/claims I've expressed in this post that you would like to know the ecological/scientific basis for?  Will you be trying this DIY project?  Tell me how it works for you!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mission Statement: Humans in an Ecosystem Context

In Olympic NP about to bond with a Doug Fir

Well hello!  You are here, and I’m so glad.  I love reading blogs for two reasons.  First, I might literally be the nosiest person alive and I love to hear people’s stories.  I feel we can learn so much by looking at the experiences of others.  Second, I love the freedom of information that comes with blogs, but, as a lover of critical thinking (who isn’t really?) I also love reading an entry and thinking “that’s crazy talk.”  For this second reason, I’ve always been a little hesitant to start my own blog.  I do a whole lot of crazy talking.  But I think I have finally settled on a topic about which I can mad gab with some authority. 

The idea of viewing myself in an ecosystem context was born a few years ago when I was attempting to read Jim Merkel’s book Radical Simplicity.  He talks about equitable living and how much land space would be available to support each human life if the productive land on Earth was shared equally (spoiler alert, it isn’t).  That was about 4.5 acres*.  These 4.5 acres would have to produce everything to meet an individual’s needs:  food, shelter, clothing, transportation, etc.  At this point, I wasn’t too freaked out by the idea.  I like to share and I live a pretty simple life, so 4 acres should be more than enough for me!  Then Merkel points out the obvious flaw in this plan… that’s for 4 acres for each human.  Just people.  My mind was literally blown.  What about the orangutans (my faves), walruses, clown fish, fruit flies, and guava trees!  How many resources should we be leaving for them?  I literally couldn’t believe I had never thought about this.  Certainly, my personal choices have been influenced by social justice and environmental issues, but seeing the two paired in such an explicit way was shocking.  What was a little hippie-ecologist to do?!

Sea kayaking and viewing some human/wildlife interactions
What I did was put down Merkel’s book and stressed about it for around 3 months.  Then, I decided I needed to make some serious changes in my life.  I want to figure out how we can have enough World to support human populations and all the beautiful biodiversity that makes the Earth so truly special.  In my mind, the only way to do this is to view ourselves in the context of the ecosystem in which we live.  Humans have to stop trying to act outside of the constraints of the natural world and start acting with it to solve our increasingly extreme global challenges.  Dang Rachel, that’s heavy, right?  Yeah, it can be sometimes, but challenges can also be fun.  I love coming up with a new idea and thinking, “Why haven’t I always been doing it this way?”  We should never be afraid to challenge our preconceived notions about the world, because, in the process, we usually find some notions we long held about ourselves become outdated as well.   

Catching birds in the marsh 
At this point you are thinking:  Who is this crazy person?  Here are my vitals.  I’m a graduate student attempting to earn a PhD in ecology.  I study salt marshes ecosystems generally, but I like to focus on food webs and their impacts on ecology and conservation.  That’s a really snazzy way of saying I watch thing eat and look at a ton of bugs under a microscope.  I’m a vegetarian (sometimes vegan), and I’ve probably blocked your way down the grocery isle because I was engrossed in reading the ingredients to Raisin Bran (did you know that the second ingredient is sugar?  Seriously!  Raisin Bran.).  For years now I have been an obsessive traveler, and I can never see enough!  I love my cat and two turtle babies.  And I’m not perfect.  I’m just learning, like everybody else.  But I’m enthusiastic, which is always half the battle.

Garcia (aka: the best kitty eva')
So, what is this blog about exactly?  The answer is nothing and everything.  This will be a lifestyle blog detailing how and why I live my life the way I do.  The twist being, I will attempt to explain the ecological impacts (or my perception of said impacts) of these actions.  I’ll tell you what I’m struggling with, and I’ll let you know when I come up with solutions.  And I’ll probably post lots of pictures of my cat.  Let’s start that now. 

*Merkel’s book was published in 2003 when the global population was significantly lower.  This number has likely changed.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Elk, Deer, and Sheepsies, oh my!

Day Ten

Rocky Mountain National Park

Total Miles Hiked: 10.24 (58.3 overall)

Who Pooped in the Park? Who?!
The ranger who helped us (this time I didn't remember to peep his name tag) could tell right away that we were bonafide nature nerds. You start dropping science slang like 'ecosystems' and 'habitat' and you'll see the smile on the rangers face. You're one of them now. He suggested a long hike up Flattop Mountain for the next day. We'd have to wake up early to make it to the trail head before the road closed in that direction; we were too late to do so today. We could, however, try our luck with the Deer Mountain loop as well as varying other short trails with wildlife opportunities. We were certainly gaining experience in hikes with high elevation gains. I'm not sure if they ever get easier. Perhaps, you, oh reader, knows an answer? Deer Mountain was a 6.2 mile trail with a 1000 ft gain. Our quads and calves would take most of the strain. And a strain it would turn out to be at the very end. Stairs. Stone stairs to the top. Don't they know I've already hiked up a few thousand feet. Is this some kind of a joke? Rachel soldiers on ahead, while I take the ol' slow and steady tortoise approach. Breath. 
A little yellow flower child hiding in the bushes.

There is no better motivation that looking up to see a small scrap of a girl looking down at you inquisitively. 

"You're almost to the top."

"I don't know, is the view worth it? Or should I just turn around?"

"I think you can do it."

Her solemn answer cinched it. And at the top, I arrived. Rachel giggled down at me, knowing I had it in me the whole time, and sometimes I can be a bit of a slow poke. 
We laid out our prepared picnic, but soon had to battle both the habituated chipmunks and the dark clouds rolling our way. We don't need much of an impetus to scarf down our sammies after that hike, and we soon do a quick tour of the available views before descending once more. Now, some people will try and tell you that going down is much harder than going up the hill. I find this to be utterly preposterous and question the sanity of these naysayers. Hiking down hill, you are more relaxed, less sweaty, often full of a snack or lunch, and generally in a much better mood. The worst is over. You get down so much faster than the hike up took you.  There's a reason for the phrase 'it's all downhill from here'. You can smile and chat with the hikers still on the struggle bus. "So close! Watch out for lightening!" You may even hold your arms out like your an airplane and let gravity pull you faster and faster down the slope. Airplane noises are optional, but recommended. Keeping an eye out for rocks and switchbacks is required. 
Rocked carried down to the alluvial fan.

The visitor center may be my new favorite way to start my mornings. Especially visitor centers when you're in a new park. New postcards to look through (still need everyone's snail mail addresses:, new stickers, new patches (my favorite), new books, new maps, new poop books. Also, we can chat with new rangers. As stated previously, Rachel and I love figuring out what sort of sights we'd like to see and how far we want to hike during our stay and getting suggestions from the Information Desk. It has yet to let us down. We knew we wanted another moderate-strenuous hike, we wanted to hike in and explore all three available ecosystems, and we desperately wanted to see some bighorn sheep or a moose. 

And then you're magically back at the trail head. No time at all.

We opted for a tiny viewpoint for our resting area/mid-day reprieve. A 70+ year old  reservoir dam had burst in 1982 releasing 220 million gallons of water to race its way to Horseshoe Park. That much water moving with such speed is a deadly, and often startling, in its sheer force. The aquatic juggernaut scooped up rocks, trees, and whatever else it darn well pleased and carried them along it's path, pounding into anything that dared get in the way. It was only an observant garbage collector, who phoned in the roaring noises, that saved the majority of the people in the path of the water catastrophe. Three people still lost their lives as the rush of water swept through a campground. The debris the flood carried was deposited in a large fan-like array (alluvial fan) that even 25+ years later can be easily observed. 

We left feeling somber and in awe of the raw power that nature possess. 

We were in need of relaxation after such an impressionable stopover. 

After two parks of hoping and searching, we were still on the hunt for the elusive Bighorn Sheep. We had seen deer all over the place. They were no big deal at this point. Elk nearly immediately greeted us the evening before on our drive into Rocky Mountain NP. Herds could be seen along the roads and moving carefully through campgrounds. Our last stop of the day was a quick drive to Sheep Lake. We focused really hard on our desire to see the sheepsies. 

And then the cars ahead of us slowed to that tell-tale creep that indicated the sighting of some charismatic critter. Could we be so lucky?


We got to the pull-in and parked.

We'd arrived just in time to watch a herd of sheep cross the meadow in front of us. Mommas and babies. 

They'd spent the day frolicking and were now heading back into the hills.

We nearly missed them. 

But we didn't!


We had a nice rest while we watched the few lingerers and chatted up the ranger on duty in the area. Ranger Volunteer Gina was lucky enough to be assigned to the Sheep Lake station for the day instead of her usual visitor center position. She informed us that the sheep hadn't been viewed in the area since Independence Day weekend. She told us more about her adventurous summer as a park intern and how she often ran programs at the visitor centers. Talk about an awesome guest's hoping!

Feeling alive with satisfaction, we managed to pull out a few more miles that evening during our periodic jogs. We found a path leading to a road and subsequent trail from our campground and had a mini-evening adventure. If you're a runner, you must head to the National Parks for some of the most gorgeous scenery ever. Just don't pull a Meridith and stumble all over the place while craning your neck to see the views.  

We were so pumped with energy from our day and run that we decided to head into the nearby town of Estes Park for some sugary Starbucks drinks and internet time. Can't be a mobile grad student without a little productivity. 

We were so starved for solid internet connections that we were eventually (politely) kicked out of the coffee shop and continued to suck up the precious from the outside tables. We must've seemed like normal, decent people that didn't smell like days of hiking and driving because we eventually garnered invitations for drinks and pool in the nearby bar from barefoot boys. Rachel knows better by now to try and dissuade me when beer, billiards, and bare feet are involved. 

We stayed long enough for Rachel's team to dominate in a fair Best Two Outta Three round and for me to find a co-author for my envisioned, future e-textbook on biostatistics before we retreated back into the park for sleep. 

Question of the Day:
Could Rachel and I beat you in a game of pool?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hello, Goodbye

Day Nine

Arches to Rocky NP

Total Miles Hiked: 0 (48.06 overall)

We knew leaving Arches NP and Moab that our destination would be vastly different than our origin. I was more than happy to finally be trading the sand, sun, and rock formations in for the soul refreshing mountains, trees, and streams. Such an eventful day of driving deserves to have its own road trip mix. We've jammed to all of these songs on our drives.

Rachel's Ramblings:
I was a bad invasive species ecologist for the first few stops on our trip.  Meridith and I had discussed out travels before leaving and both agreed we wanted to minimize our impact on the parks we visited.  One of the major challenges facing many ecosystems on the planet are invasive species.  If any of you have been with Meridith's blog for the long haul, you know over her spring break she came and profiled my (and my lab's) work on wetlands in California.  If you're just now following her, the short version is this:  I study the impacts of invasive species on ecosystem processes, usually applying potential impacts of invasive to food web structure within a certain community.  Invasive species are, by definition, any organisms non-native to an area which cause some sort of harm by their presence. Thus, I'm uniquely concerned about my own ability to spread the species I study around the different areas I work.  To keep this from happening, because, really, how embarrassing would that be, I take some pretty simple precautions.  

So, why do I feel I was bad for the first few stops on our trip?  You see, Meridith and I had developed a plan for avoiding spreading seeds, spores, or small critters between parks, but we failed to implement it until we were traveling from Arches NP to Rocky Mountain NP.  I justified it because Carlsbad, Zion, and Arches were all pretty similar ecosystems with lots of species overlap.  That aside, we didn't follow the plan, and we should have, but now we are, and you can too!  I'd like to point out before going on, that this method is really more my opinion and based on conversations I've had with other scientists.  I haven't looked up these things in the scientific literature (though I know the literature exists, and I would love it if you sent me some!).  However,  I think these steps are practical and that they do help, or at least they certainly don't hurt.  I would encourage everyone traveling between ecosystems, especially those known to have invasive species, to take similar steps or do their own research on the topic.

A Few Simple Tips to Avoid Being a Vector for Invasion:

  1. Clean your shoes between locations.  Seeds, small mollusks, fungal spores, and lots of other things can cling to the bottom of your shoes, or get stuck in the tread of your boots.  If you can, make a bleach solution and soak the soles of your shoes.  If you don't have access to bleach (like we don't) give the soles a good scrubbing, then spray them down with 409 and let it sit for a little while (remember this is what the ranger did to our boots at Carlsbad Caverns NP).
  2. Wash and dry (preferably on high) clothes worn in one area before wearing them in another area.  You know how plant parts love to stick to your socks and pants and everywhere while you are hiking in the woods?  Plants are clever, but you can outwit them.
  3. It's the whole "take only pictures, leave only footprints" thing, this is just one more application of this really important advice.  This goes a little without saying, but we have heard the Junior Rangers at each park promising to leave the pretty flowers they see so that other can enjoy them (so cute!).  Another good reason to not pick flowers, buy seed packs from areas outside your home region, or otherwise transport wild plants or animals is to avoid the spread of invasive species. 

Question of the Day:
Will you adapt any of Rachel's tips to help stop the spread of invasive organisms?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Love in the Desert?

Day Eight

Arches National Park
Moab, UT
Founded: 1971

Total Miles Hiked: 10.5  (48.06 overall)

We'd arrived too late to secure a camp spot in the park, however the nearby city of Moab had a plethora of private campgrounds to choose from. After consulting our handy Fodor's guide, we soon were on our way to the recommended Slick(Shady)rock campground. It had all of the typical amenities: small grill, shade, restrooms, office wi-fi, pool, hot tubs, showers. We may not be in the park, but we'd be living in luxury and leave smelling like delicate desert flowers. For however long that lasts.

We only had the one day in the park, so we made sure to wake up early to make the most of our time. Someone once told me that Arches NP is where you go to fall in love with the desert. Now, I've been living in the desert for over two years now and have only a mild toleration for an area that is mainly devoid of forests and streams. But, I wanted to give the desert another chance.

As always, we stopped off at the visitor's center for our trinkets and usual chat with the Rangers at the information desk. We've yet to be disappointed by the advice of the Rangers, and this morning Steven and Emma were not about to break that streak. Rachel and I usually try and have a basic idea of what we want to accomplish in a park. How far we want to hike (usually about 10 miles per day) and what sights we would like to see (arches and some bighorn sheep, please). Steven recommend the full Devil's Garden trail (with primitive loop), a restful afternoon out of the sun, a quick walk around Balanced Rock, and then to top it off with a sunset trip to the Delicate Arch. Emma was our go to for bighorn sheep questions. Where can we find them? Does she know where they are right now. Is she hiding them? Can she let them come out and play? We were informed that sheep sightings are still rare in the park, but to keep an eye out during the first three miles. Oh, Emma, I don't think you realize how badly we want to see the sheeps!

Landscape Arch. Can you tell where a slab fell?
Our first trail was at the far end of the park, so we enjoyed the drive out by obsessively searching for sheep. Devils Garden is a trail that may be enjoyed at several different difficulty levels. Many of the arches available for viewing are towards the beginning of the journey directly off the gravel path. You may go as far as Landscape Arch, the longest in the park, before the primitive loop begins. Here, we were soon traversing and scrambling over rocks and ridges. Rachel's choice of wearing a hiking dress that day was nearly a poor one, but she managed to stay decent. The crowd thinned as we encountered more and more arches and more and more difficult pathways. The rock cairns I explained yesterday were especially helpful on this terrain, and they often kept us on the right route.

We'd started off on the trail in the mid-morning hours, and were able to enjoy the cooler morning temperatures for some time. However, the desert is good at heating up once the sun is comfortable high in the sky. We aren't ones to disregard park warnings, so we were well equipped with our water bladders in our packs, each holding 3 liters of water.

When we reached the end of the trail we were more than happy to have a rest and picnic in the limited shade we could find. Dark Angel looked over us as we munched our sammies and snacks. Then, once more, we were in the sun hiking back. Our second wind was more of a sweltering breeze due to the heat, and we were soon grateful to stand in whatever shady patch we could find. Despite the liters of water consumed, our hands were still swollen slightly by the time we reached the main trail again, a sure sign of the start of dehydration. The trail head and accompanying water supply were a welcoming sight.

Balanced rock being all balanced and such.
We had plenty of time to spare before we needed to head out towards Delicate Arch for sunset and little desire to stay in the sun for much longer and, so, set out to find a place with shade to rest, write, and snack.

The picnic area across from Balanced Rock proved to be just the place for all of our needs. While most of the tables were in the blistering sun, we managed to score one with a lovely tree bending over to protect us with its shade. I tried to write some informative words for you, oh readers, but Rachel's napping just looked so peaceful and I knew I wanted to join.

"Meridith....Meridith. Your face it in the sun."

Rachel, once again saving me from certain cancerous doom.

To recover from our slumber, we got after some hummus with pita chips in a completely unladylike manner. But, it did the trick and we were soon back on the trails where we explored the mini loop around Balanced Rock before setting off for the Delicate Arch trail head.

We had plenty of time to meander along the route to the most famous of all arches in the park. We encountered the homestead of the first settler in the area. An Ohio man, who escaped to the West for the drying, presumed healthier, climate.  He built a teensy one room home for himself and his son. Later, when his daughter and her family joined them, he built a proper house with wood floors and everything. It was still teensy and perhaps had just slightly more space for the 4+ people than Rachel had when she lived in my laundry room senior year of college. Teeny tiny.

Continuing once more, ever closer to the final destination, we came upon what Rachel holds among her top 10 favorite things she's ever seen. Petroglyphs on a rock above the trail. Perhaps as old as 400 years, these markings revealed horseback Ute Native Americans hunting bighorn sheep.  Small dog like creatures were also included. We were really impressed with the lasting power of the art and we walking on finally, still wondering about the markings that didn't last the years and the individual who had sat there so long ago patiently carving the scene.

After some unexpectedly steep uphill climbs, we finally turned a corner and were presented with a sight we'd only seen in photographs, postcards, and nature documentaries. Delicate Arch. We'd arrived early enough to get a decent spot among the droves of people with the same sunset plans we had. It did, however, prove difficult to get a shot of the arch without a group of ridiculously posed tourists. The line of groups and families waiting to get that perfect picture under the arch seemed never ending, and if any stayed too long blocking the shots of other photographers wanting that solitary shot of the majestic arch, they were requested in no polite tones to move along.

We had both expected the sun to set behind the arch, however it actually slunk away behind our backs, drawing the shadows up over the arch from the bottom. Still a wonderful sight to behold. Several adventurous young sightseers took in the view from atop the nearby rock formations. The darkness grew, yet we stayed behind to enjoy the desert night. We were well prepared with jackets and headlamps, so felt no anxiety towards the upcoming night hike back to our vehicle.

The darkness welcomed us and we welcomed the sounds and sights of the nocturnal wildlife, awaking with the moon. We kept a slow pace so that everyone could pass us and take their noises with them. It's always good to hear people enjoying the natural beauty of the parks, however many do not realize that the show is not over. It's just starting. Once the night air was empty of these sounds, it began to offer up its own. We chose a spot on a small bridge over a pool of water. Day or night, water is a great place to find wildlife. We waited. It was not long until we were rewarded with the sounds of bullfrogs calling to potential mates, the flapping of bat wings as they whiz by us, and various insects chirping and humming. We listened and watched the stars come out before we said our final goodbyes to the park.

I don't know if I'm in love with the desert yet. It's still hot and often times not as elaborate or as colorful as Arches. Maybe I'm a little in love with shade in the desert, and that counts.

*more photos later - I can only do so much on stolen Yellowstone Staff wifi!*

Question of the Day:
What is your favorite type of landscape?

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