Amie and I picking flowers at Drumlin Farm

Mama and Amie picking dandelions

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers!

I was hugged and kissed a little more vigorously than usual this morning by Amie and Baba. It’s my second mother’s day, but the first time Amie could verbally congratulate me, and she did very well! It’s quite a mouthful. There was also a drawing by Amie and a blown-up picture of her.

I called up my Mom to wish her “Gelukkige Moederdag”. Yes, in Belgium too they celebrate Mother’s Day: a couple of years ago it had completely slipped my mind and the result was not pretty! And I so understand now!

Today we’re taking it easy: some playtime in the park, a walk to the Corner… But yesterday was the real Mother’s Day for me! 

Drumlin Farm visit

We visited Drumlin Farm, a whole group of us, lots of little kids, one bigger kid, and a gang of adventurous, upbeat grown-ups. The air was fresh, the sky sunny, the animals out and about, very vocal and mobile and many with offspring (kids, lambs, piglets, chicks). 

Sheep and Lamb at Drumlin Farm Rooster and chicken at Drumlin

“Sheeps,” Amie pointed out.

The fields looked deserted (weekend), but soon they will need all the help they can get to keep up with the growing season, and I still want to be a volunteer. I can’t wait to get my hands dirty!

No, distance, and secrets

Amie is celebrating a new-found sense of self and of freedom.

As part of her new attitude, she experiments with “NO”. She loves being contrary, but in a playful, not annoying mood. When you ask her to come to you, she’ll yell “Noh?” and run away. In  record time she puts quite a distance between herself and you, then she looks back, and if you are following her, she continues her escape. This would have been unheard of even a month ago, when we had to be within arm’s reach at all times.

Several times she has even pushed me away, saying “Mama don’t play”. And then there is “Mama go away.” She’s just testing out the idea of it, though, because if I oblige and leave the room, she will cry and run to me.

She also started whispering. When you look at her, trying to understand what she is whispering, she smiles and goes on muttering, relishing the fact that she is keeping the words to herself. There is real secretiveness there!

Luckily for us they are offset by more intense episodes of hugging and hanging-around-the-legs, and this amazing new verbal affection: “Amie loves Mama”, “Mama is nice”, “Baba needs a hug from Amie”. She also likes to observe: “Yes, you are right,” which is nice, but then again, “you” often still means “I”. So I’m not qutie sure what to make of that.

We are very comfortable and encouraging with these experiments of independence. They are a necessary stage in her emotional and cognitive development, and she needs to forge an identity that is separate from ours. I am happy though that she is doing it in a funny and charming way, without being too disruptive, without taking too much distance at once. So far.

Fearful

But no pain no gain. She also started grappling with a new nervousness, that I am sure is connected to her growing sense of one-ness and thus alone-ness. 

Until a month ago, Amie had been afraid only twice: of a particular glow-wormy doll, and of balloons when you make them squeek. Darkness, animals, noise, heights, the grotesque witch puppet who stands taller than her… none of these elicited anthing but interest or disinterest.

Now, however, when we’re inside the house and an airplane flies over rather noisily, or a car honks in the street or speeds past, or heaven forbids she hears a siren, she runs to me and asks to be picked up. Often she tells me: “Not be scared of the airplane” and hugs me closer.

She is most sensitive to sounds and especially machine-noises. The word “machine” is pronounced with awe. When she asks to go “see the machine,” I think she wants to know where it is, so she can keep an eye on it. Often, to console herself, she will say: “Machine can’t see Amie”. It’s quite heartbreaking.

More sociable

So this new fear only seems to extend to things, especially noisy machines. Her attitude towards people (other than her Baba and me) has undergone an opposite change.

She has had her share of stranger anxiety, and a long and terrible bout of it for months, up until very recently. Today she will shake the hand of a barely-remembered acquaintance without hesitation, say a very cordial “hi!” to a total stranger on the street, and after 5 minutes exchange imaginary flowers with them. After some hours of friendliness, the majority of our visitors is allowed to pick her up, and she’ll give them a hug (when asked).

She has also finally found happiness at daycare, this after several months of grief and back-to-square-one (mal)adjustment. She plays now, and laughs, and says hi to everyone. She lets me go without a whimper at drop-off and delays pick-up. Most relieving is the fact that she is no longer inordinately attached to the assistant, whom she adopted as my surrogate and monopolized for many months.

A Child’s Development

It is fascinating and bewildering to watch them grow and change. Keeping track and making sense of their emotional development is more tricky than tracking their progress with language, art, play, but they are all, of course, intricately related. And new layers are added everyday as they tackle new and old emotions and as, lcognitively, they become more “rational”.

I always say: I am part-mom and part-time observer.

Photograph of small farm on river bend

  • Dreaming of moving out

I love this place, especially when summer comes around, as it finally has. The hustle and bustle of Coolidge Corner and Brookline Village, the treelined streets, the many large, grassy parks, the general friendliness of the community, oh and not to forget the two independent bookstores, one of them the Children’s Bookshop. Work/school/daycare are less than 3 miles away… Who could ask for more?

Still, I often dream of moving out. I dream of it constantly, now.

But where is “out”? What does it mean?

  • Peace and quiet

“Out” for me is, first of all, into a place where I can have some peace. I’ve become very sensitive – my senses have – to the small polluting ways of city life. All summer means to me, sometimes, is the surround sound of airconditioners: on and on they drone, while their owners aren’t even at home. Across the street, the engine of a parked car has been running for an hour now, to keep it cool inside. To top it all off, a leafblower starts up close by, filling the apartment with more noise and gasoline fumes…

Then it is hard for me to concentrate on the frolicking of the Red Cardinals in the bushes outside my window, and the beautiful narcissi bending in the breeze. I resort to terrible thoughts of vengeance. Like, last year I planted some wildflowers near our front door – one neighbor called them “weeds, all kinds of silliness”. Now they’re back: a neat row where I planted them, and all over the neighborhood! All those manicured lawns, overrun by weeds… Oops!

  • That panic pushes me

But all “silliness” and petty griping aside, the roots of my pain reach beyond mere aesthetics. All those wasteful habits are guzzling away our children’s futures, polluting the air and the silence, our bodies and our souls. I read the news on peak oil, global warming, bees getting lost… and I feel lost myself. I try to keep my panic under control: I want it to be practical, constructive, realistic, rational, reasonable.

But I am overwhelmed with the feeling that everything I am doing is useless. I can’t concentrate on my dissertation, which needs to be finished by May next year. Or on my freelance writing or the potboiler that is so much fun to put together. Or on the many other projects I have knocking about in my head and on my desk. None of them will make a difference that will count.

And the small things we’re doing to make a difference don’t add up to enough.

  • Cut and run

I would dearly like to make a difference here, make it work here. I don’t like running away; it seems like a defeat to me. And everyone (who is priviliged enough to be able to)running off to the country or the wilderness would just make matters worse. But I bump up against the limits of this place, this community, and they suffocate me. Not being allowed to compost, for instance, angers me. Every time we bring up renewable energy as an alternative to our oil-heating, we are ignored. Residents only think as far as they are planning to own their appartment: any “future investments” are up to their buyers.

I don’t get shrill (except here perhaps: is this shrill?). I’m not the assertive kind. I wish I were an activist, but I crumble in any kind of confrontational situation. I can’t make this place change. So I plan our escape. I count my blessings: easy access to information, an ability to do the research, and a husband who will one day, once I have enough information, arguments and confidence, understand the wisdom and the need to execute the plan.

  • A child’s role

Amie plays a large role in my “enlightenment,” which started to burn more brightly a couple of months ago. Yes, she is almost 2 years old. But it took me at least a year to get over the shock of motherhood, to settle back into the habit of sleep and a clear mind so I could think beyond tomorrow.

Also, the rapid development of her cognitive and language skills is forcing me to more articulateness, thoughtfulness, and accountability.

Because, one of these days, she is going to ask: Why?

I dread that day, and I dream of it with a passion. And I want to be ready.

  • The plan

So here’s the plan:

  1. to be self-sufficient for a large chunk of our food: grow vegetables, plant fruit trees, keep chickens and even goats, and even, even bees
  2. to be self-sufficient for at least some of the objects we use: furniture, toys, clothes, housing, electricity and heating…
  3. to be autonomous, self-regulating, responsible.
  4. to be skillful, handy, creative, flexible.
  5. to be confident and active after questioning, discerning, investigating (a never-ending process).
  6. to be a good stewart of what little of nature is under our “control”, and respectful of the rest.
  7. to be happy and joyful.

I thought it would be a long list, but this is really all I want. Is it so much to ask for? Is it so hard to get?

An organic list

I’m still sniffing, coughing and my ears are still ringing, but while Amie naps, I can quickly announce the following (though I really should be cleaning up the kitchen…):

In a previous post I started the “WHAT WE DO” list: a list of small life-style changes that I feel really do make a difference to the size of your footprint on the earth, so that the future of our daughter and her contemporaries will be a little bit safer, healthier.

Since publishing that post, I have been going back several times to add items. Needless to say, that is not the way blog posts work. So I’ve decided to make a special article: let’s call it an “organic article”. An “organic article” is one that grows “naturally” along with life and life’s changing circumstances.

It’s your list too

If you have any suggestions for the list, comment or email me. Remember, the point is that each change is feasible within our circumstances (the circumstances of a family of 3 living in a basement apartment in the suburbs – no garden).

The more items on the list, the more it will become clear that many small changes can make a big one!

Why only “small changes”?

About keeping it “small”, I agree with this post by Liz on the Pocket Farm blog, about Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man. I have been following No Impact Man, off and on, and while I was amused and once in a while impressed by his achievements, I also had reservations aobut the project.

In her post, Liz puts her finger on the source of my misgivings. In the “finally” section of the post, she writes:

My point is that we approached our current lifestyle gradually, as a lifestyle change, not as a diet.

In the end, that’s why I just can’t get behind the No Impact Man experiment. By taking on so much at once, and radically changing his lifestyle so dramatically, it will become difficult to sustain. His is simply the lifestyle equivalent of the crash diet, and it’s well known that, in the long term, crash diets don’t work. When he fails (which I think at some point he will), the mainstream will be all too quick to chalk his failure up as to be expected: “See? Living sustainably in the modern world is too hard, it’s beyond the scope of the average American, and therefore you shouldn’t even try”. […]

This post is just a (very) long way of saying that I think it’s possible to be too extreme. What do you think? Does a radical experiment like Colin Beavan’s help to persuade anyone to live a more environmentally friendly life? Does it belittle the real, sustained efforts that many of you are already making? Does it scare other people away from making any real change in their lives because they feel their efforts may not “measure up”?

Please head over to Liz’s to comment and discuss! It touches upon the heart of the matter, the question of our times: “how much is enough?” To which I would reply: “Do your (very very) best, and it will be enough”.

And visit the Organic WHAT WE DO list to add some of your own suggestions!

Whoops! In my previous post I set out to write an upbeat report of our most recent accomplishments saving the planet. Seems like I lost the thread there…

We need something on the other side of the ledger!

US trash

  • The average American generates 4.6 pounds of solid trash per day, for a grand total of 1,460 pounds per year, that’s approximately 230 million tons of “trash”. Less than one-quarter of it is recycled; the rest is incinerated or buried in landfills. We could reuse or recycle more than 70 percent of the landfilled waste. (Learner.org)
  • Americans represent roughly 5% of the world’s population, but generate 40% of its waste. (US Environmental Protection Agency Factsheet
  • Really want the dirt on dirt? Read the “Executive Summary: Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2005 Facts and Figures” here.

Oh, but wait: the other side of the ledger, that’s the positive side.

Reduce-reuse-recycle and… compost

Our household (of 3). does not generate 4.6 pounds of trash. We reduce-reuse-recycle all our paper, cardboard, containers (plastic, glass, cartons, cans) and plastic bags.

That leaves us with:

  • plastic wrappers, styrofoam, and the like (I plan to do a Trash Audit soon),
  • and, unfortunately, all that good organic, living, nutritious matter, like potato peels, egg shells, and apple cores.

It breaks my heart to throw all those goodies into that plastic trash bag with all the toxic trash (if it is not even recyclabe…). From there on it goes to the incinerator or the landfill. In both cases these valuable nutritients are lost. In the landfill, mixed up with the plastics (and the diapers, etc.), it can take years to decades to decompose. Even then it doesn’t “return to the earth”, or at least to any kind of earth healthy enough to benefit from it.

If we put it into a composter, it will decompose in a few weeks to a few months. Then we can use it as fertilizer in our condo building’s little courtyard garden.

That’s  the plan. I’m entering our request for the composting bin today, and am putting together a little pamphlet for the residents of our condo who have reservations about smell, flies and rodents.

The other side of the ledger

It’s tough to tell, and I haven’t found much helpful information on the net, but it seems that, if you put a pound of kitchen scraps (80% of which is water) into the composter, you get about a quarter of compost. Is that right?

Let me do some weighing and calculating, and I’ll present you with the positive side of the ledger in a few months.

Take the bike, leave the car 

The weather has finally turned. At the beginning of April we had a snow storm, at the end of it we had 81 degrees F (27 degrees C). Our upstairs neighbor, who is about the most conservative person we know, proclaimed:

“I really don’t believe in global warming, but this weather could make one fall for it!”

Well…

One good thing: I don’t feel bad about pushing my husband to ride his bike to work (it’s a 2.5 mile ride, but Boston and Cambridge aren’t the most biker friendly places). I find it hard to insist that someone make a sacrifice that doesn’t affect myself (I work from home and have all I need within walking distance).

And he did so, today. I’m proud of him.

Composting and soil erosion

On the home front we are winning our bid to put a compost bin in the back of our condo building. I’m looking forward to cutting the amount of waste our household produces in half, and to giving back to the earth some of what we take from it.

Everyone takes soil for granted. We don’t think about it as nutritious: along with the sun, it is the lowest (the “rock bottom”) of our food chain. Science magazine called it the “Final Frontier”. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), previously the Soil Conservation Service, part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes it less passionately:

  • Soil is the material that is formed from rocks and decaying plants and animals; it makes up the outermost layer of the earth. There are at least 70,000 kinds of soil in the United States. Topsoil is considered the most productive soil layer. (Fact Sheet, April 1993.)

And we don’t realize that we are losing it at an alarming rate (though let’s not get “hysterical” about it!). The Agricultural Research Service, another department of the USDA, “Soil erosion can degrade the quality of agricultural soils, and introduce sediment, nutrients, pesticides and pathogens into surface waters” (ARS 2005 Report). The numbers:

  • Arable land, with its fragile top 6 inches of fertile soil, determines the productivity of our food system. More than 99% of U.S. food comes from this land while less than 1% comes from aquatic systems. Of the 2.3 billion acres of U.S. land, only 20% is sufficiently fertile for crop production. Nearly 400 million acres of arable land now are in cultivation in the U.S. to produce our food. (Die Off)
  • In terms of acres: In 2003, 102 million acres (28% of all cropland) were eroding above soil loss tolerance rates…  266 million acres (72% of cropland) were eroding at or below soil loss tolerance rates… Highly Erodible Land (HEL) cropland acreage was about 100 million acres. (NRCS 2003 Annual NRI)
  • In terms of tons, NRCS version: Between 1982 and 2003, soil erosion on U.S. cropland decreased 43%. Water (sheet & rill) erosion on cropland in 2003 was down to 971 million tons per year, and erosion due to wind was at 776 million tons per year. (NRCS 2003 Annual NRI)

“It decreased!” my neighbor would say, “we’re saved!”

Not so fast: 

  • Erosion of agricultural lands occurs about 17 times faster than soil formation, and about 90 percent of all U.S. cropland is losing soil faster than the sustainable rate. About 1.5 to 2.0 billion tons of soil is lost from fields annually through soil erosion. (ARS 2005 Report)

The cost of soil erosion is estimated to be about $37.6 billion annually (in the US).

In one of my favorite books, It’s a Long Road to a Tomato, Keith Stewart writes (p.113):

The poisoned and lifeless topsoil gets washed into our rivers and blows away in the wind… Money spent attempting to slow the rate of soil loss, while probably well spent, is another hidden cost at the supermarket checkout counter. But surely it is buried somewhere in our tax bills.”

And it will truly surface in the futures of our children.

I’ve published two new articles in the series “My Natural Birth,” about the birth of my daughter:

My body is a temple… Once I realized this, realized it to the point of awe, I understood that my pregnancy and my birth were nature’s domain. I just had to let go of control. Suddenly the floodgates were opened to a rush of confidence, trust and well-being.

A good birth story is one that was written by the one who actually experienced it (the mom) and that leaves out none of the details… Here is my birth story, the story of Amie’s birth, which I like to call my own: my birth as a mother. I was doing it, not any drugs, or doctors, or forceps: me and a midwife called nature.

The previous episodes are:

Worrying 

Our concern for nature and, more generally, the state of the planet, has grown over the past couple of years, and I don’t foresee an end to our worry. Especially since having a child, we’ve been trying to make some changes. For instance, the day we realized we were pregnant, we switched over to organic, banning junk food, coke, and any kind of medication not absolutely necessary (i.e., painkillers for the head ache, cold medicines, etc.).

Reasoning in error

But unfortunately, for many of us, the recent and quite sudden explosion of realization that we are making the difference, for the worse, has not been coupled with a corresponding realization that we can make a difference, for the better.

A big part of the problem is an error in our reasoning, or fallacy, called the “Fallacy of the Heap” or “Sorites Fallacy”. It is also called the Bald Man Fallacy, because it follows the form of the following  (fallacious) agument: Al isn’t bald today. Surely, if he loses one hair today that won’t make him go from not bald to bald. And if he loses one after that, also that one won’t make him, suddenly, bald, nor the next one, nor the next… So, no matter how much hair he loses, Al will never go bald.

In the long run…

Similarly this one trip in the car/airplane; this one extra load of laundry/dishes; this one plastic bottle of water/toy; this one light bulb… won’t make that a difference. But of course, with regard to climate change and the natural predicament, one less hair on our heads does make us bald, in the long run.

{I am fascinated with that clause: “in the long run”, but that’s for another time, another entry, if not another blog. It’s what I am writing my doctoral dissertation on: what “the long run” means to us, in the scheme of things, and whether we can change that meaning.}

Making the difference here and now

In any case, we drafted a list of changes we can make, here and now, in our home, to stop from going bald. We call it the “Here and Now List”.

HERE AND NOW LIST

  1. use the car less: bike! walk!
  2. buy organic foods and as much locally grown (and processed, etc.) food as possible(read “The Tale of Two Tomatoes“).
  3. buy local books (no more Amazon purchases! pay the extra buck and support the independent bookstore). Yes, the UPS truck drives by anyway, but mine might be the package that puts an extra truck on the road.
  4. don’t preheat the oven, unless when cooking poultry, meat or fish (bacteria!).
  5. don’t preboil (e.g., when cooking pasta, potatoes, etc.).
  6. don’t let pots/pans boil away and fill only with however much water is needed (e.g., when making tea).
  7. when doing dishes and laundry, use lowest temperature possible.
  8. run dishwasher when it’s full. 
  9. when doing dishes, fill sink; don’t run tap.
  10. one cup a day (as much tea/coffee as you want, but in only one cup).
  11. when brushing teeth, don’t run tap.
  12. recycle even the smallest piece of paper, the tiniest plastic cup.
  13. call up junkmail/catalogue companies and request being taken off their mailing lists
  14. even better: reuse. Even better: reduce.
  15. set up exchanges with friends, especially for those babyclothes and toys.
  16. use only the minimum of paper napkins/towels, at home and at restaurants (visit “These come from trees“).
  17. no to cardboard, styrofoam or plastic cups (bring own resusable cup).
  18. paper or plastic? Neither! (bring own canvas bag to shop, they’re stronger and much more stylish anyway – amusing/disconcerting article on the topic).
  19. don’t buy bottled water (according to the Whole Foods “The Whole Earth Weigh-In” pamphlet), “80% of the 25 billion single-serving plastic water bottles Americans use each year end up in landfills.”)
  20. when buying something, consider its packaging (lots of plastic? Nah, thanks!).
  21. use “green” cleaning products.
  22. replace all alight bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFL), even the one in the fridge.
  23. flush toilet only after big job (just keep the lid closed) (if no guests are around).
  24. those diapers! > switch to g-diapers.
  25. those pads and tampons! > switch to DivaCup.

Get over the taboos 

Most items on the list are straightforward and easy, the last three might not be. I was as squamish about poop and blood as the next person… until I gave birth and started changing daipers. So I reconsidered the cultural taboos that made me recoil from excrement/menstrual blood and the honest consideration of their cost to the planet. Really, those 18-20 billion soiled, plastic and chlorine-bleached disposable diapers and those 7 billion bloody tampons and 13 billion bloody sanitary pads sitting in landfills in the US alone (and counting)… are they that much less disgusting? 

An organic list

Our list needs to grow, item by item, as we tick it off as accomplished, and your comments and suggestions are very much appreciated.

I would love to add many more items, but they might not be feasible in our set-up. For instance, we would love to

  1. compost organic materials (all those veggie peels and egg-whites and chicken bones I’m throwing in with the plastics!).
  2. grow herbs and veggies, but we don’t have a garden and there is very little direct sunlight in our basement appartment: find a solution.
  3. not buy any more leather shoes, handbags. Bags is easy, shoes less. Find some alternatives, preferably that don’t involve more plastic.

If our circumstances can’t be changed, of course we adapt. I remember my mother-in-law’s protest to our organic-food-resolution: “what if it isn’t available? What then?” Well, then we’ll just have to starve.

You can have proof!

We believe that if we make these simple, feasible adustments, we do make a difference. Seems like we can even have some proof of that, with the Be-Green Carbon Calculator.