Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Sex Lives of Plants

Do I have your attention?

 On Sunday, my husband and I walked downtown to the Yale Center for British Art to take a guided tour of Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. This exhibition recounts the fascinating life and times of Mary Delaney (1700-1788), in conjunction with numerous examples of her work. The details of Mrs. Delany’s most interesting life are too involved to recount here; suffice it to say her circle included Handel, Jonathan Swift, and the Duchess of Portland, the richest woman in England.

Accomplished in the arts of drawing, embroidery, and paper cutting, Mrs. Delaney is most known for her nearly 1000 botanical collages, 24 of which are on display in this show. She created the first of these collages at the advanced age of 72! These intricate ensembles of tiny pieces of paper, cut without guides, then layered and glued, are brilliant in color. Yet they are well over 200 years old. To put this into perspective, Mrs. Delany was making her “paper mosaics” during the American Revolution.

A revolution of another sort was also taking place during her time. Taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus (neé Carl von Linneé, 1707-1778) had introduced the system of binomial nomenclature, assigning a two-part Latin name to each organism, the first part its genus, the second its species (e.g. Homo sapiens.) Linnaeus was a keen observer of plants, and he fervently adopted the newly re-introduced, and scandalous at the time, concept that plants had sexual lives. In fact, his plant taxonomy was based on the number and arrangement of a plant’s sexual organs.

Elderly Mrs. Delany also embraced this line of thought as she dissected and examined her plant specimens in preparation for creating her art. Upon completion of each collage, she would list on the back its Linnaean classification, who had donated the specimen model, where she was and the date on which she had created it, and the number of male and female parts it possessed.

The docent certainly got my attention. I’ll be back for another look at Mrs. Delany’s work before the show closes on January 3. And I’m so intrigued about Carolus Linnaeus and his obsession with plants, that I hope to find time to read one of the books about his life.

Check out the exhibition if you are in town or later at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London in Spring 2010.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 26

Well, here we all are on the day after Christmas. Survivors of another holiday with our families, or without them.

Today we face both the need to clean up yesterday’s debris and the temptation to shop. The living room is strewn with boxes and bows. The inbox and the airwaves are overflowing with bargains.

Try to keep the three Rs in mind as you go about your day, whatever you decide to do.

REDUCE: There’s not much you can do about the gifting that’s taken place. But you can keep this “R” in mind if you go about stimulating the economy today.
1. If you always decorate a tree and don’t have LED  Christmas lights, maybe you can pick up a few strings for next year at a post-holiday sale.
2. Perhaps you are planning to snag some bargains for yourself or as late gifts to others. As you shop, the correct question to ask is NOT: Do I or does he/she need this? The answer is most likely “NO.” Ask rather if the item is useful, whether it will last a long time, if it has hidden costs, and if it will it be appreciated.
3. If you have a new gift that needs lots of batteries, consider getting rechargeable ones.

REUSE: As you pick up the mess under the tree, salvage and store those bows and gift bags for next year. Gift bags are one thing you should definitely re-gift. They have a surprisingly long life span, and and you will find the bag in which you gift is quite likely to come your way again.

RECYCLE: Be certain to recycle all those cardboard boxes! And if you have already used up some batteries, make sure they end up in your hazardous waste collection center.

Go out and have some fun. Look for future blog posts on Reducing, but not today. I am in the mood for some bargain hunting.

Nobody’s perfect.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2 Days Until Christmas

And this is a post I meant to write weeks ago.

The topic is shopping. Some people are born to shop, have the means, and have been acquiring gifts for 12/25/09 since 12/26/08. For those of you who do not fit into this category, here are some ideas to consider.

Most of us do not need more random “stuff,” but almost everyone appreciates receiving a thoughtful token during this season, whether it is a special gift from a loved one or a “thank you” in recognition of extra effort for a job well done.

The societal pressures of this season are immense, with both the expectation to have a “great holiday” and to bestow the same on others. My guess is that most of you readers are opting in and hoping to spread a little cheer to others.

How does a “green” person do this? Here are some suggestions:

1. Think carefully about the person you plan to gift. Is there anything you can give them that might make their life better? Several elders on my list will be getting Yaktrax this year in the hope that they will not slip on the ice when they venture out this winter. An Ove Glove is another good choice.

2. Does the person have a special hobby or interest? Consider a book. Here are two suggestions for cooks you may know: Simply in Season, a compilation of recipes by Cathleen Hockman-Wert and Mary Beth Lind, published by the Mennonite Central Committee, or The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. A new option for a foodie on your list is Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire in the original book format or as a DVD of the recent PBS program.

3. Support your local merchants. Particularly in these tough times, the smaller merchants are struggling. Check out the new stores in your neighborhood. And if they offer services as well, consider a gift certificate. A bike store like New Haven’s devil’s gear offers tune-ups, a yarn store – knitting lessons.

4. Perhaps you need a small gift. Bake your own cookies and package them in a reusable basket or holiday tin. Or you might consider gifting coffee, chocolate or tea. But look for the “Fair Trade” label before you buy. Fair Trade is an organized movement that aims to help producers in developing countries and promote sustainability. You can find such items at some local merchants or at 10,000 Villages if you are lucky enough to have such a store in your city. Or online at equalexchange and other vendors.

5. Support the holiday sales of your local arts groups. In New Haven we have the Creative Arts Workshop’s Celebration of American Crafts, where you can choose gifts by over 300 artists from around the country while supporting the school’s largest fundraiser. Or patronize the gift shop of your local museum.

6. If you know someone who loves old things, check out your local secondhand shops or antiques stores. You know what they say, “One person’s junk is another’s treasure.”

7. Give a night out to someone who would appreciate it: a gift certificate to a local restaurant, or theater, or musical performance, or dinner and a movie…you get the idea.

8. It is getting late, so if the person is far away, you might need to consider shopping online. Check out http://www.etsy.com/ for the green person in your life.

9. Offer a service if the person lives nearby: babysitting, snow shoveling, a meal of soup once a month…

10. For the person who has everything, consider a gift in their name to a group that “does good.” Some of my favorites: Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace, Heifer International, Oxfam International, and World Wildlife Fund.

Time’s running out for me. Gotta go. Good luck with your shopping.

And happy holidays.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Perfect Thursday

I received an unexpected gift this week — a 65°, sunny, December day.

I finally found the time to walk with my friend to Beaver Ponds Park, which had been reclaimed by Pam and her neighbors with the help of students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The volunteers had cleared a path along the water and made it visible from the street. They had pulled out invasives, planted trees and perennials, and constructed rustic stone benches. Some of the perennials were still in bloom.

The far side remained wild wetland with the phragmites in control. But you had to admire the phragmites that day, whether or not they belonged there, as they rustled gently in the breeze, a beautiful golden brown sea of color.

Other park invasives, an extraordinarily large “herd” of Canada geese parked in the path, looked particularly regal as we circumnavigated them and tip-toed through the minefield of their droppings.

Pam told me that sometimes you can see herons roosting in trees on the opposite shore. There were none that day. I would like to see that.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

October 24, 2009 – The International Day of Climate Action

I last blogged about what I would be doing on October 24. Just go to 350.org to see the amazing array of snapshots from this day of global action. People around the world — in 181 countries — hosted 5200 events.

Why all this effort? To call attention to a very big problem. Scientists say that 350 parts per million is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere. And we are now at 390. The day’s events were designed to send a message to delegates to next month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen that we need to get CO2 back to 350 ppm. The activities of this global movement were a huge story around the planet and made the front page of many newspapers, including the New York Times.

Activists in New Haven, Connecticut struggled with intermittent rain and a blustery wind. But two of us rang the bell of United Church at 3:50 pm, while a stalwart group formed the number 350 on the historic New Haven Green, a site for political actions since the city’s early days.

We also handed out a short list of easy steps for mitigating climate change. Please give them a try.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October 15, 2009 – My First Blog Action Day

So, I’m breaking all my rules. I’m taking a detour from the history part of my road to greenness to jump to the here and now. Today I'm joining over 4,000 bloggers on Blog Action Day 2009 to talk a bit about the issue of climate change.

Why? We have a very big problem. Scientists say that 350 parts per million is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere. And we are now at 390.

There are many small steps each of us can take to reduce our own carbon footprint. We can walk, take the bus or train, or bike, when possible (and safe to do so). And when the car is absolutely necessary, we can pool the trips. We can shop wisely – reducing the amount of packaging in the items we purchase, and the number of miles the food we buy has traveled to get to us. We can shop farmers’ markets, helping the environment and the local economy. We can unplug when appliances are not in use. We can use less paper. We can buy less stuff and recycle more…

You get the idea. None of these things is difficult to do. And the more people make these choices, the bigger the difference.

But we can also use our voices to call for the leaders of the world to take some larger steps. There is a global movement to send a message to the Copenhagen Climate in Conference in December that we need to get CO2 back to 350 ppm. You can read more about it at 350.org, which has declared October 24, 2009 as the International Day of Climate Action. There are over 3000 actions registered in 158 countries for that date, just 9 days away. I will be at the one on the New Haven Green, symbolically ringing our church’s bell at 3:50 and talking with others about ways we can work towards getting back to 350.

Please join me that day, wherever you find yourself.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Detour Number Two – The Apartment Near Campus

In the spring of 1974, my best friend and I decided to stay in New Haven for the summer and to live off-campus for senior year. When I was seated next to him at Jonathan Edward College’s junior dinner, former Mayor Dick Lee had casually offered to land me a summer job, and I took him up on the offer. I found myself employed as a model maker at Roche-Dinkeloo Architects just over the border in Hamden. MAJ found a position at the hospital and we scoured the listings for apartments adjacent to the liberal arts portion of the campus.

We found our place – the second floor of a three-story brick building on the ambulance route to Yale-New Haven Hospital, but cheap and very near the places we needed to be. We were sandwiched in between a couple on the first floor who engaged in nightly screaming matches and a pair of female grad students on the third, one of whom paced constantly and talked loudly to herself, about very unusual things. She would become the famous one — Meryl Streep was rehearsing her lines above our heads.

All summer I packed a lunch and rode my bike to work. We had no air-conditioning so MAJ and I walked to the mall on Thursday nights (late night shopping night) to get cool. On other hot nights of the week, we might duck into Partners, the gay bar diagonally across from our apartment, with cheap drinks, music we enjoyed and a safe environment as long as we stuck together. A person we came to know as “the friendly hippie” was often sitting on his stoop in the next block of buildings and he watched over our comings and goings throughout all the seasons we lived on Park Street. He is still around, with much less hair, a respected member of one of the churches on the green, and I know him today by his given name, “Robbie.”

For the entire year we lived very frugally. (I think each of us was being paid $2.50/hr. And I recall that rent was $220/mo. or $110/mo. each.) We made our own yogurt. We got a toaster oven with green stamps donated by MAJ’s mother. Each of us purchased our own groceries – what we could carry home a bag at a time from the urban supermarket a block away (Bags were much larger and made of paper without handles.) My staples were cereal, cheese, tomato soup, canned tuna, peanut butter and jelly, oatmeal bread, spaghetti, sauce from a jar, fruit, milk and orange juice. I threw away a lot of cans, but no food was wasted.

When we moved out after graduation, we kept the trash to a minimum and took all our unwanted clothes and many other items to the Salvation Army store up the street.

As a segue to the next post I should add that little did I know when I embarked on this great adventure, that the first summer I chose not to return to my family in Massachusetts would be the summer I would meet my future husband at work. And that New Haven would become my home.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Detour Number One – The On-Campus Undergrad Years

In 1971 I was off to college in a not-too-distant city under stress, with a country torn apart by the war going on. But I soon found out that being a somewhat green student was one thing that required hardly any thought or effort.

With “The Summer of Love” still in the air it was possible to get by on most days with a wardrobe consisting of a couple of pairs of jeans (the more worn and covered in patches the better), a half dozen peasant blouses, and several pairs of leather footwear that could be repaired if the heels wore down. For warm weather outdoor studying, the outfit became denim cut-offs and a top made by tying together two bandanas. Jeans were worn tight in those days, necessitating a bit of diligence to ensure that they would still fit. There were dress requirements for certain occasions, so a couple of more formal outfits were also necessary. But the typical small closet and dorm room chest of drawers proved more than adequate.

There was no IKEA. Bookcases of boards and concrete block were the fashion, but my dad would have none of that for his daughter. My budget-restricted family knew how to recycle before the word was invented. My dad and I scrounged the local auctions for a bookcase that we refinished (and which I still have today), he fabricated a table out of a mammoth cable spool and a plywood top (parts from work), and cobbled together a lamp of various salvaged items residing in our basement. I must have made quite a fashion statement when I arrived on the scene, but no one else had provided any furniture, and the other three suitemates were also on a budget. So together we scoured the campus upperclassmen’s sales for the rest of our needs, including one very uncomfortable Victorian couch which turned out to be a valuable antique (sold to a parent, at a profit, at year’s end).

Our electrical use was minimal. We had a stereo, a radio, and some desk lamps. Alarm clocks were wind-up (and ticked very loudly). We did have an illegal device for making hot water for tea. Only a few students had TVs. Computers, microwaves and dorm fridges were part of the distant future. There was not much we could do about the inefficient heating system or the leaky single-paned windows. But we conserved energy as we could, by remembering to turn off the lights.

As for actually recycling… I do recall a movement to recycle the paper on campus, but not any way to recycle bottles or cans (and no bottle deposits in CT until 1978). On the upside, because of the draft, the drinking age was 18 during most of these years, so beer was served openly at campus functions, in large measure Hull’s Export (brewed in New Haven despite the name) which was dispensed from kegs. There was far less packaging. Nothing was shrink-wrapped, and most courses relied on books that you could resell at the end of the semester or packets that you read at the library. And on move-out day the piles of stuff were much smaller than they are now.

Only upperclassmen on the wealthy side had cars. There was no organized network of shuttle buses. So you largely relied on your feet or a bicycle to get around campus. And if you wanted to go somewhere like Boston or New York you walked to one of two bus depots or Union Station to catch your choice of transport.

I found my dream campus job – helping to care for objects housed in Yale’s Mabel Brady Garvan Furniture Study. I shined pewter, worked my feather duster and catalogued wood samples in this quiet sanctuary. And it was here I cultivated a love of design and first learned of the Shakers and their sustainable lifestyle.

Now for the food part. In the 70s the Culinary Institute of America was situated in a mansion on the outskirts of the Yale campus. Many of its students worked in the Yale dining halls where food was abundant, and quite tasty. Students ate breakfast. Meat was served at every meal. Eventually, the administration yielded to demands for meatless choices, and the health food option came into being. On weekday evenings, a vegetarian selection was offered in one line at the freshman dining hall, Commons. It was a feel-good experience to dine there. You would trek over with like-minded friends to partake of rice and beans (pretty much the same menu every day). The food was rather tan and tasteless; there were only a few hard-core regular patrons. For those who dabbled, it was a bit like doing penance for all the cheeseburgers you had eaten on the days in between visits. But it was a step in the right direction, a precursor of Alice Waters and the Yale Sustainable Food Movement, several decades in the future.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The journey begins

Welcome to my blog!

I've been on the road to greenness for quite a while now, but have taken many detours on the way to where I am today. You might say that my trip began on the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970, when I attended a teach-in at my suburban Boston high school. Subsequent actions included my first editorial (in the student underground newspaper), research papers on air pollution and a brief correspondence with the mayor of Boston, lobbying for a recycling program in town, urging everyone I knew to ride a bike or use public transportation more, and wearing the appropriate button calling for an end to nuclear power.

The concept of climate change was far in the future, the fish we ate was abundant and came from Gloucester or Cape Cod, DDT had been exposed in Silent Spring and would soon be banned, and the rivers were getting cleaner. Garlic and most of our produce still came from the USA (if you count California, a far distant place where Levis were made.) Steroids were not part of the food system, and antibiotics were for sick people, or animals, not a prophylactic so livestock could be raised in confinement. Cars were dirty, but most families had just one. People lived a short distance from where they worked or needed to go. I (and most everyone I knew) had not yet flown on a plane. The enemies of the planet were corporate America and the government which did not contain their greed. Boycotts and marches were the usual forms of protest, black ink on cheap paper the means of rallying the masses. Things looked a little grim, but hope was in the air.