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!

Amie had a mild pneumonia a month-and-a-half back, and she has been suffering from a little cough even since she recovered. On Thursday night the cough grew worse, her nose started running, by Friday morning we were at the pediatrician’s listening to scary words like ASTHMA and STEROIDS, and by Friday evening we were in the Children’s Hospital ER.

It’s not too bad: Amie’s on the Albuterol again (third box), and the steroids of course (the mention of which still makes me shiver).  But so be it…

I’m coming down with something too. I guess this is the one – and only (in my eyes) – drawback of co-sleeping: you catch one another’s germs more easily. Though I doubt I would still be healthy even if she slept in a room at the other side of our huge mansion.

So this is all to say that I might not be posting over the next couple of days. And I was just on a roll!

Amie’s crayon drawing 20 months old - 27 april 2007

Amie drew this yesterday. Look at those eye-catching lines, whorls and scribbles! The explosion of colors! The harmony between the minuscule and the grand!

What I want to do here

Aren’t I a proud Mama! I can’t believe I am posting my daughter’s drawings. But I am hoping that it is in keeping with the aims of this website, which is

  • to tell riveting stories (and isn’t this drawing just that!)
  • that are personal, ingenuous and fresh,
  • but also interesting and relevant to others because they are recognizable

and

  • to connect the generalizable to findings in scientific research and to general opinion.

Or, to put it the other way around, to give an example

  • of how (some/many/all) parents raise their children and
  • of how (some/many/all) children act, play, throw tantrums, talk, feel, and draw…

And what better example is available to me than my own child, my own parenting?

A child among many other children

Amie drawings, for instance. I sometimes find myself scouring the internet, looking for drawings by other 18/19/20-month-olds. I am a regular at Maisy’s Funclub Gallery, where I spend hours studying the colorings of other children Amie’s age.

It’s not because I feel that my child is in competition with other children, and I don’t even do (a lot of) comparing. I have always tried to keep considersations of whether she is “advanced” or “behind” at bay – what can it mean, anyway, to be advanced at 20 months of age?

But I do want to see my child as a child among many others. She has a place in a community of children. And I want to get to know that community. To that effect I “check them out”.

Digests

I’m an academic and the kind of person who seeks out research on whatever it is that I am doing, and on what Amie is doing. The fascinating development of Amie’s language(s), for instance, has prompted me to investigate language development in children generally. I am sure there are parents out there who would like to know what is going on when their kid’s vocabulary suddenly explodes, or when they start saying things like “I am clean up-ing!”

So to my anecdotal blog posts I am hoping to attach articles digesting

  • the latest findings by scientists, psycholigists, etc.,
  • as well as general/political opinion on current issues.

The way I see it, I have the time and the resources to investigate these issues, and I do so anyway, so why not share them likewise curious, but time-strapped parents?

Upcoming blog entries and articles

So, soon to come (in order of likely appearance – I sort of lied (to myself) about having the time):

  • a story about Amie’s language(s) and an article on the language development at the end of the second year (the so-called transition from speech to language)
  • an article on the need for child’s play and recess (there’s a lot of to-do about this at present)
  • an article on the development of children’s drawings (from tactile to visual, etc.)

Reduce!

The first rule of our more ecologically responsible lifestyle is reduction (ReduceReuseRecycle!). That means, of course, less consumption. Thus less buying.

(Why “of course,” though? Why did I leave it unspoken in our Here and Now List“?)

We haven’t been buying new toys or clothes for Amie, except what is absolutely essential. We are lucky to have friends whose children have outgrown / are outgrowing theirs and are happy to pass them on to us. We’ve stopped going to places like IKEA (so called “just to have dinner”) and Costco, and it has been ages since we’ve shopped for clothes for ourselves. To illustrate, an inventory of our shoes:

  • Amie: 3 pairs
  • Mama: 2 pairs (clogs and hiking boots)
  • Baba: 4 pairs (clogs, hiking boots, sneakers, dressy shoes)

But books!

Inventory of books:

  • Amie: 100s (what a bookworm!)
  • Mama: 1000s (ahum…)

Books have always been my weakness, and though I have reduced my purchases rather drastically, I can’t seem to bring it down to zero and get all my reading material from the library.

Case in point: today. I walked into the Brookline Booksmith – just to have a look – and there it was, on sale for only $14.99:

Cover of Book Naming of Names, Anna Pavord

  • The Naming of Names. The Search for Order in the World of Plants, Anna Pavord

How shall I describe the feeling other than by describing the book in question? A substantial tome, featuring colorful reproductions of mysterious medieval illustrations, a gorgeous introduction about a journey, and the promise of so many little bits of archaic and wholly useless but beautiful knowledge about plants. How could I resist?

Coming to the end of books

Also, I just finished two books that I enjoyed tremendously:

cover of book Harvest

  • Harvest, A Year in the Life of an Organic Farm by Nicola Smith

boysson-bardies.jpg

  • How Language Comes to Children by Benedicte de Boysson-Bardies

Coming to the end of a book is always traumatic for me, and the best way to deal with the heart ache is to move on.

Possession

One last excuse: I am an avid underliner and note-taker. With my own pen and ink, I set out to possess my copy, imposing my order on the page, adding my thoughts to the margins.

For this reason library books never worked out for me, and I no longer want to do the excessive (and criminal) photocopying I did as a poor college-student.

I am very jealous of my rights as a reader. It is my conviction – not reached haphazardly, but after some years of rigorous study of semiotics – that the text belongs to the reader (to what Umberto Eco, my semiotic hero, calls the intentio lectoris). And so obviously I take that quite literally.

 …

My baby is being put to bed by her Baba. It will take him a while: she is chatting away about her day (about which I should write later). I am aching to emerse myself in new find. So I sign off… Bonne lecture, les enfants.

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 just read this – via the Deconsumption News Room Furl archives – about the selling of America.

The dollar, which began to weaken broadly in early 2002, has fallen more than 50 percent from its October 2000 trading peak against the euro. It recently has come close to hitting its record low against the 13-nation currency and is near a 26-year low against the British pound….And of course a weaker dollar means travelers to the United States from places such as Europe would see “sale” signs everywhere they looked…European buyers, she said, could, buy second homes in the United States in bustling cities or, for example, near golf resorts…”You can’t defend yourself. Your currency is worth less in an international arena, and we’re in a globalized world. You’re going to be up for sale. All U.S. assets are up for sale,” he said.  (The Clarion-Ledger)

“You’re going to be up for sale”. That’s the kind of sentence that gives me gooseflesh.

My parents were just here, from Europe, and it gave them gooseflesh too. They brought their Euros and indeed everything was dirt cheap, but they didn’t go on a spending spree – they’re not that kind of people. Instead, they worry about what it all means. They worry about us, and especially their American granchild. Her country is up for sale.

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:

Where the Manushes live

Meet the Manushes

Amie has a set of 1-2-3 Playmobil guys (and one gal) called the “Manushes” – “Manush” is the Bengali word for “human”. From left to right in the picture: Pilot Manush, Baba Manush, Sailor Manush, Engineer Manush, Mama Manush.

Pretend play

She is getting into real pretend-play now: a new stage in her development. Previously she would re-enact scenes with her bears and doll: “Sit down!” she shouts, “No running!” – it is always funny and a little bit disconcerting to hear yourself being imitated like that, with just a little bit of exaggeration. This was not pretend play in the strict sense: she just repeats events that have happened to her.

A week ago she began employing the Manushes in true made-up play scenes: they ride a train, fly around in the airplane, and more than often fall off various surfaces, from various heights (then they “need a big hug”).

More crafting

We had a box lying around and I figured I could either recycle or reuse it. In keeping with our Here and Now Save the Planet at Home list, reuse was the best option. And after the success of the “Uglies,” I was confident enough to craft it into something.

What is it for?

It took me all of an hour (in fragments) to complete and I had fun making it. I had even more fun seeing Amie’s reaction: she tried to peel the portraits off the back wall, tried to rip off the windows, threw the whole thing across the room a couple of times, then tried to sit in it…

Though she can wreck it if she wants to (that’s why I didn’t make it too fancy), I did manage to demonstrate its preferred function, and now she has made peace with the Manushes (and occasionally Bob and Baby) inhabiting it. She even discovered that they can go down the holes in the podium: “Manush down into the basement!”

Making this leap into imaginative play is broadening her world tenfold, and it is a privilege to witness and, once in a while, to be invited in.

Amie looking in through window of Manush House

our very own Ugly  Our very own Ugly verso

Ugly No.1   –   Ugly No.2

Uglies

How do you like our very own, unique Uglies? I write “Uglies” because there are 2-in-1: you just flip the thing over and there’s a unique and very different second one! And it’s an “Ugly” in that it is inspired by the Ugly Dolls.

My Mom was here and she showed me – for the third time – how to work the sewing machine. I made the design myself. The toughest aspect was the eyes and mouth, etc. (obviously, Ugly no1. is more of a success than Ugly No.2). Amie loves it/them.

My crafting history 

And I am inordinately proud of it/them. I was never one for crafting. I liked to draw and paint, and as a teenager was somewhat good at it (now all I can manage are stick figures). I hated/abhorred/loathed sewing and knitting in school. Unfortunately, we were never exposed to woodworking or other such “manly” crafts (my school wasn’t called “The Ladies of Christian Education” for nothing): growing up a bit of a tomboy, I might have liked those.

But mainly I didn’t have the patience, and would rather be reading a book or running around in the wilderness than fiddle around with a needle and thread. Also, it wasn’t art-like or serious enough.

Crafting moms

Decades after compulsory (school) crafting ended, and soon after having my daughter, I discovered a tribe of Moms who are crafting up a storm with and for their kids on the net. I’ve written some reviews about great kids crafts internet sites on Suite101.com:

There are many more that I visit weekly, that put me in awe of the skill and beauty and love that goes into these projects.

A quiet place

These women made me realize that it is not about patience at all, that crafting (with or without kids) is not a reluctant duty. Rather, it is about establishing a calm, quiet place for yourself and for sharing with your kids or readers. There, while you work with your hands, your mind is free to wander to the most important things: good moments with family and friends, or nothing at all.

A unique thing

You are also creating something that is unique. Each work is personal and different, unlike the run-of-the-mill junk in the Chrismas Tree Shops and ToysRUs-es. It is invested with you, you at-this-moment, and as a keepsake or as a gift it is special in that special sense.

And serious after all

It’s not art, so it doesn’t come with all the stresses of art. Still, it is serious, though not in the way my youthful self was looking for. Crafting is not about the result, but about the process, and in the process flourishes the person, the spirit, whatever you want to call it. Crafting is “serious” in the sense of “enriching”, in a playful and modest way.