The Indonesian fires and you

On Friday I was strolling around the city. I was giving my eco responsibilities a rest. Buying cheap chocolate, not always remembering my zero-waste promises. I sat for a “melt” sandwich in a coffee shop when I came across the essay about the fires in Indonesia.

The article left me shaking, choked up, trying not to spill my coffee as I gathered up my belongings and clumsily tossed out the disposables I had used. Indonesia was dying – if now I never get to see the species I dreamed of seeing, I have only myself to blame.

I was seeing on Guardian UK photos of air that had turned copper. Rainforests reduced to matchsticks. Flames swallowing up the most diverse ecosystems anywhere on Earth. Last week, Indonesia produced more CO2 pollution than all the industry in the US and more than what every single person in Germany produces in a year.

Indonesia is one of the places most damaged by that evil palm oil. We say it hurts the orangutans. But Indonesia is so much more. It hosts 12 percent of the world’s mammals, 17 percent of all bird species. Almost 2,000 species are endemic. In fact, all monoculture farms harm native habitat. Sugar cane, produce, coffee, cacao.

Some of the most rich rainforests, growing for hundreds of years, are cleared in the blink of an eye. They’re slashed, then burned. It’s not just palm oil, though that industry seems to prefer virgin rainforest to abandoned farms. This year’s El Nino created catastrophic fire conditions that turned Indonesia’s peat into a tinderbox, as it stores decomposing matter. Both the forest and the ground are burning.

And if I sound like a broken record on agroforestry, it’s because this method would have prevented the fires. Produce grown in the shade creates a structurally complex habitat; which in turn stores carbon, stores water, and gives tropical fauna a viable home.

The solution is shade grown coffee; demanding agroforestry-grown produce. Avoiding monoculture the way we’ve learned to avoid plastics and pesticides. There are more steps, stay tuned. And I encourage you to stop at some point to read Monbiot’s essay.



Obsessed with Fall

I’m behind on the Fall theme. We have the orange, white and mutant blue pumpkins. We have hot cider. I’m hoping to boil some cinnamon spices for that lovely Fall scent that warms us up when flurries decide to take us by surprise. But no ghoulish décor yet.

This is usually the time when I’m ripping out gauze from our first aid kit to improvise a ghost, pretending that lacerations don’t actually happen in late October. This is usually when I ask myself, what’s the big deal?

I just love Fall.

One (apparently British) neuroscience candidate asked why we in the US are so obsessed with our pumpkin spiced lattes. She goes on about behavior, then eventually reminds us that past experiences with things like lattes, fuzzy scarves and pumpkins give us the fuzzy associations with the season.

Chimney smoke is my personal favorite, especially when there’s a wood-burning stove involved. Yes, paper birch is a sacred kind of tinder. Another writer discusses the lovely aromas – the Fall leaves, decaying fruits that we notice. The same chemical that gives us that buttery pumpkin scent, provides that movie-popcorn smell. No wonder we like it. Plant oils and ozone give us the after-rain smell we get in autumn.

Once we get the décor down, I’m anticipating a pine needle walk, with a flat white in hand and plans for Fall soup.



Endemic to nowhere

I’ve been captivated yet again, reading about the wonders and plight of Madagascar. The otherworldy island has inspired some wonderful articles in the past few months. Between 70 and 90 percent of its life is endemic — not found anywhere else on Earth. Yet somehow, it’s being ignored.

Alison Clausen points out that the island teaches patience to visitors. You actually have to explore, use your senses and your wits to find its hidden creatures (the mossy leaf tailed gecko comes to mind). Yet despite its virtues and magic, not much effort is made to conserve it.

The country’s protected area network needs about $25m (£17m) per year to function effectively. DreamWorks Madagascar animated film cost $135m – a sum that would support the entire network of protected areas for the next six years.

Another explorer is doing a long trek just to bring awarness to the rare northern sportive lemur. Lemurs of course are the classic endemic species there – they’re also the most endangered primate on our planet. The article points out the main threat to Madagascar: how food is grown.

Slash and burn agriculture takes down rainforests that took decades to grow — then moves on when the soil is ruined. Most villagers grow this way for their rice and charcoal. It’s sad because there’s such a simple solution – agroforestry. Those who read my shade coffee posts know what I’m about to say.

One study points out that native fruits can be grown using agroecology (growing many crop plants in layers on one farm) which keeps the soil healthy and replicates a forest. Local fruit-eating lemurs, as they say, also appreicate it.

The article also points out that it keeps the local children happy – because they enjoy the sweet local fruits. Considering the average income in Malagasay is $2 a day, it seems like it would be only right to grow in a way that feeds an entire family.



Timelike – an 8 minute film.

I’m always looking for short film inspiration – I was on my lunch break, alone in a dark room. Watched it on my phone. Voices on the park receiver chimed in and scared the hell out of me. I liked that it was simple; anyone with a film camera could make this in a short amount of time, maybe 2 weeks minus editing? Yet the story itself is something to unravel.

I saw it on i09 and read the comments by Cool Breeze to understand the plot. It’s a real mind-bender and people don’t tend to enjoy the film until they know what’s going on. This 8 minute film is puzzling, elegant, totally unnerving. Great use of sound, and nice flashback to the 1990s as well.


A place called Earth, Maine



We got to hop on over to the coast in June. It was hot, busy and Cape Cod had sharks. But we ended up in Maine. Earth at Hidden Pond is not easy to find. You drive around (and around) several circular driveways in the woods before finding it. Siri was not amused.

Earth is a renovated farmhouse with huge ceilings and black walls. It’s gorgeous – I rarely drink but I needed one that night – so I ordered a painkiller. Good drink. (Yes, after the booze I wanted some tea. So sue me). Farm to fork style, the herbs are grown locally. I perused the tea blends. Ginger and mints. Relaxing chamomile. Rooibos.


I put down the menu. Then picked it up again. Pennyroyal. I looked at my boyfriend – and realized he wouldn’t know the answer. Can you even buy the tea at health food stores? Which genus and species? (One is not toxic) And…..what would you do if a pregnant customer asked for it?

Many sites (Mayo, Web MD, NIH)  say of “pennyroyal” even the innocent seeming tea leaves may be toxic. The FDA doesn’t regulate the herb, but even ultra holistic anti-western medicine herb sites tell you to just stay away.

And alas, my favorite poison plant website, The Poison Garden, says nothing about it, probably since it’s not all-around toxic enough. Herbs in the order Lamiales are avoided by insects and are said to be a secondary metabolite (a plant defense against herbivores).

I know a lot of restaurants want to be edgy these days, and I enjoy trying out-there dishes. In any case, it’s a gorgeous coastal secret, with interesting food. You should try it. I promise, most of the teas are safe to drink.

A Splash of Cold

I’m still obsessing over ice articles, maybe because early spring has already been hot and oppressive.

i09 has a great article on the Marinoan Meltdown, the 12 million years when Earth may have been mostly covered in ice and snow. Some researchers believe there were a few hot springs around – imagine how much those would have been welcomed!

Lower CO2 can cause the Earth to dramatically cool, and weathering of rocks can cause CO2 levels to drop. With oceans storing this gas, and ice blocking the oceans, the planet remained a giant freezer.

Temperate climates may not be the most diverse, but they are offer a nice balance for life; and once the planet thawed, it was very friendly to life indeed.


Ghost yards

The Guardian had a nice idea to plant an all-white garden. I think this would be extremely awesome for an impending winter. Here we won’t get flowers but we do get winter berries. I was inspired by the idea, so I put together some plants that might work. See links for Latin names and range.

Start out with a nice white birch. Snowshoe hares like the seedlings, and you might get a moose or two.

Bayberry is a snowy blue color, its berries used for candles and beer. Its berries are called the “big mac” of plants because it provides birds with ample winter fat.

Add below that some pretty snowberry. It’s a huckleberry found in dry areas, contains saponins which are mildly toxic. But grouse, quail pheasants and ghosts dine on them.

That’s all I have for now, feel free to add if you know of any plants with white bark or berries that might last into the snowy season.


Can plants create glaciers?

This is a great example of coevolution. In other words, plants aren’t just helpless things that must “adapt”. They change what’s around them. A great new Nature Geosciences editorial explains what happened 475 millions years ago: as plants moved onto land, they drastically cooled the planet by taking up CO2.

Glaciers formed. Trapped in those glaciers were boulders. We used to think that soil formed when these boulders were weathered by storms and extreme temperatures. Now it’s come to light that thanks to new land plants, glaciers held onto those rocks and, when melting, weathered them as well as depositing them onto land. Forming soils along with organic matter.

This wouldn’t be the first time plants changed a layer of Earth. Archaeopteris plants in the Devnonian had the first deep root systems, formed soil meters thicker than before. So as plants evolve, so does the soil and air.



Reusables and the ice cream dilemma

The food blog world is all abuzz about a new study. It says that bringing your reusable tote to the food store turns you into a ravenous boar hog devouring barrels of ice cream and melted gummy bears.

Okay, obviously that was a joke – In this study, shopper receipts were collected, and showed that people who brought reusable bags were both more likely to buy organic food, but also more likely to buy high fat and sugar treats.

The authors are insisting that shows a “licensing” effect, when people reward themselves for good behavior with less than virtuous treats. The authors weakly acknowledge that there could be other explanations and that reasons for bringing reusable bags are numerous and complex.

So bear with me – I’m not well versed in consumer science; and this was an involved study of which I have only read sections. What I have a wild issue with is that the researchers in interviews and even in the studies seem to insist they have found rock solid causation.

I admit it’s an interesting hypothesis. It is well known that when people are made to feel ethical, they often slack off on other virtues. One study on energy suggests this happens with environmental issues as well. So I love that this Harvard Business researcher thought to test a possible link between earth happy tote bags and junk food.

There are numerous issues with the study. It was done at one location of a major grocery chain. The types of reusable bags (cloth, recycled plastic, nylon) were not considered. Nor was the type of user (Old tote user? Guilt ridden shopper?)

Another inconsistency was that reusable bag people were less likely to want junk food if they were made aware of prices. Considering that this one location offered a discount for bringing bags, one might conclude that the junk food purchases were made due to a perception of having more cash in the wallet.

They do acknowledge that as time goes on and the behavior becomes the norm instead of an aberration (for example, recycling is no longer seen as optional) the effect would diminish. So while this was a fascinating study, it seems odd to leap to the conclusion that this is all about an eco-conscious person stuffing their face with candy as a reward.



What about ancient tea trees

I first heard about Yunnan Province when I bought Rishi loose leaf Earl Gray, and they had a claim about its spotless sustainability. Right after the topic of ancient tea trees came up, I found stories of people who had visited these harvested trees. I was trying to find a brand of tea as sustainable as shade grown coffee.

Currently the only shade tea is monoculture which is later placed under a mesh screen (the shade) and is not grown as an ecologically beneficial Polyculture. Studies on shade coffee nearly all agree that abundant life is found in these types of farms; but ideally they would replace monocultures. If old growth is being disturbed, and as the market grows, who knows what the consequences may be.

Slowly picking leaves off of ancient trees growing on a mountainside sounds idyllic enough, and certainly more sustainable than blasting away acres of rainforest for a pesticide soaked monoculture. But as it is, that’s too good to be true.

One blogger had the luck to visit a tea forest in the beautiful Yunnan Province, not only the birthplace of black tea but also home to huge endemism and biodiversity. He noted that these tea trees may be the oldest in the world, and China has banned harvesting them, presumably for protection.

But they are still harvested. And tourists trekking through the area have caused some damage. People  there carry machetes in order to to ward off wild boars. Some kids and tourists take the machetes to the ancient trees, carving names or drawings. While girdling is the sure way to kill a tree, continual damage to bark is never good either. The blogger also found litter strewn around the site.

A Botanist who visited Yunnan noted that the farmers think orchids add sweetness to the teas. Other epiphites add to the biodiversity. The spirituality and tradition of harvesting leaves by hand is a good one; but ideally, we want forests to replace monocultures, not for perfectly good forests to be damaged.




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