How Do You Do It

I purposely stay ambiguous about the exact nature of my employment here, other than the fact that I work in the environmental arena. I'm going to continue to skirt around the subject, out of respect for my employers and the occasionally sensitive issues we deal with. Despite that, I will try to be understandable here. 

Last week I had the good fortune to attend a work-related conference. I really love conferences on environmental stuffs... aside from being interesting and informative, they are sometimes inspiring, and they almost always bring together people from all levels of work: private industry, corporations, nonprofits of various flavors, students and academia, as well as different levels and branches of government. I feel this is ever so important. It is sometimes far too easy to overlook the human face of other groups in the environmental field, to forget that for the most part we all have the same end goals. I try to keep in touch with this notion and to remind others when they need it... but even I slip now and then. Events like this remind us that we're really one big community.

During social time I was speaking with someone that is on a different "side" of the field. She asked me, "How do you work in this field and do what you do? It seems like it would be so frustrating and depressing." I hadn't ever thought of my job this way... but when I sit down and think about it, any job in the environmental field could be viewed like this. I'm not that singularly special.

I feel the answer is easy. You concentrate on the small victories, and the small positives, because these things do matter. You hold onto the things that really inspire you. And remember that if you keep learning, and keep working, maybe someday you will be in the right position at the right time, with the knowledge and skill to make a significant change.  That is my answer. When I gave it, she blinked at me, and said, but of course; that's the only correct answer!

But it is also very important to remember that change is slow. Change is hard. Especially large scale change, or change against the powers that be (and much of the eco movement is very large scale - face it folks, you can't create cultural change in a week). People fight it. Some of them with more money or power than you or I may ever have. And most environmentalists feel so strongly about things that we all want everything to happen NOW. Some of us may even feel like the world will end if NOW becomes later, even though all anyone can do is their best. Still...

Know your expertise. Know your ability and sphere of influence.  Do what you can with what you have, and feel proud of that. And you can always learn to do better.


Building a Garden, take 2

This is the second garden I built this year. You might argue that this one was more work than the raised bed garden. I dug up a plot of yard, pulling out all the bermuda grass, using a shovel and hand tiller. I unearthed several LARGE pieces of concrete in the process. This took quite a while... I'm not good with major digging to begin with, and adding concrete to the challenge was not helpful. But in the end, I had a bunch of turned up clay/top soil, and that was what I needed. The border pieces are really just debris that had been sitting around in the yard. I really can't tell you why we had a long metal pipe. I don't know where it came from. Some of it is made of bits of concrete I dug up. A fence post that had broken off and fallen over, a cinder block. I think Not Fancy might be the official title of this border style. Maybe even Trailer Park Chic? But it works fine.

Inside are canna lilies that people at work were giving away after spring dividing, and a squash plant that was a gift from my mom. I stuck that in with the cannas on a whim, and I'm pretty surprised it liked the poor soil over there. Lucky for me! I had to fit this bed with a drip hose and mulch during the drought. My cannas are stunted (these are supposedly the six-foot tall variety) and haven't bloomed much, but they are growing happily now, so I'm pleased! I'm sure they will do much better next year.

One morning I walked out and saw a giant sphinx moth drinking out of these flowers. Little fellow let me get right up close and take a good look while he buzzed around... so nice of him!


Building a Garden


This is my new raised-bed flower garden, now seeded and sprouting for fall gardening. I built it myself this past April. I had been planning to build this since we moved in, the winter of 2008. I have had the size and shape laid out for a year. I’ve had the bricks for two years. I finally got the push to do it after my mother-in-law started stacking bricks while she was house-sitting. I couldn’t believe it might be that easy, so I took several thoughtful trips around the neighborhood scrutinizing the yards of others. At last I realized that the only reason I hadn’t built it yet was because I was making it harder than it actually is. I thought I had to dig down into the dirt, build up a base, mortar those suckers in there, and pull up all the grass inside. I couldn’t decide if I should hire a mason or learn to do bricklaying on my own.

But I didn’t have to mortar. I didn’t even have to pull out the grass. All I had to do was stack the bricks up, like so. Because I was concerned that I would lose soil between the cracks, I lined the interior of the bed with landscape fabric and anchored the fabric under one of the brick layers. I grudgingly purchased soil from the hardware store, putting in a layer of manure on the bottom and good garden soil on top. It’s about 7” deep, and there is enough depth that I can add more soil/mulch/compost without running out of space.
I really like my bricks! I salvaged them from an old brick sidewalk in my friend’s yard when the sidewalks were being replaced with concrete. They’re 100 years old; literally.

I thought growing a garden would be an easy success for me – I’ve spent time as a horticulture technician, and I helped my mother and granny with their gardens as a young’un. I quickly learned that while I had plenty of experience maintaining a healthy garden, I had no experience at beginning one from scratch. I thought I was choosing my plants wisely for my garden’s sunny micro-climate. I did a combo of seeds, root stock/bulbs, and baby plants; mostly these were purchased from OSU-OKC or garden clubs, but a few came from Lowes. 
Success? Well…
·               Some sprouted. Some didn’t.

·              Some that germinated, produced. Some didn’t.

·              Some of the bought-plants grew larger. Some didn’t.

·        I’m not sure WHY any of the above things happened. But...

·               I got a decent spinach harvest.

·              My mesclun and onion harvest were teensy tinsy.

  One of the squash lived to start producing at long last this month. 

·             Strawberries, cucumber, tomato: nil.

·              I’ve gotten a pretty good sustaining harvest from most of my herbs. I get a ridiculous amount of comfort from having drying herbs hanging in the kitchen.

·              I successfully (and accidentally) grew a LOT of mushrooms. Turns out that this was because I was watering at night, instead of during the morning.

·        Apparently, I should have started my spinach when it was still chill outside to prevent early flowering and climaxing. (Despite this, I still got a modest harvest of spinach, which tells me that spinach must be Really Easy to grow.) I think I should have planted my onions earlier, too.  I may get a Farmer’s Almanac for next year.

·              You should harvest mesclun when it is tiny and young. You should let dill flower before harvesting. Don’t let basil or spinach flower.

·              You can give chives a buzz cut, and the next week they will be almost the same height again.

My garden has not been nearly as productive or lush as I’d hoped (notice how far apart some of the plants are? I wanted to give them plenty of room to get BIG!). However, since it is my first year at starting my own, since the weather has been rough, since I have learned so much, and enjoyed it so much, since I still have enjoyed (and am enjoying) some harvest from the garden, I’m happy. Having nothing but a wide expanse of crunchy Bermuda grass in my backyard is a thing of the past – and thank goodness for that!

Here is a recipe for my favorite use of summer garden produce:
Medium-sized sprig of lemon balm or a few large sprigs of lemon thyme
Small sprig of lavender
3 basil leaves
Pitcher of water
After a couple of days in the fridge, this is so delicious! Not strong enough to be tea, light enough to be refreshing, just a bit sweet and flowery. Of course the bottom of the pitcher is the best part… 

On cue for the fall garden:
Still going good from the summer, we have squash, carrots, basil, parsley, lemon thyme, regular thyme, lemon balm, and oregano. 
Currently sprouting: Spinach, lettuce, and peas.
Seeded, not yet sprouted: Chard, kale, garlic.


Moving Planet Report

Moving Planet went off well this morning! It was an absolute beautiful day for a walk. Jenny had been itching to go, but I left her at home so I could walk with my husband (who has no bicycle to ride). I'm sure she understands!

I was finally able to see the awesome art display inside the Womb Gallery (I had gone by several times but it was never open!). We enjoyed some donated fruit, lunch from Quizno's and Coop Ale Works (Thank you, JD Merryweather and crew) while listening to a band. Saw some nice displays and acquired some more seed for the fall garden...


Slow Food Picnic

This looks like a fun event: Slow Food OKC's Annual Picnic on October 2nd

I have an idea to host a calendar on here somewhere that I can upload sustainability events to, similar to Outlook and Google calendars, where you can have a peak at it. Any thoughts as to how a non-techy could best and most easily do this? Think it might be useful?


Alien Mind Girl...

is about to watch the Climate Reality Project!
But not all of it. Because I cannot humanly watch anything for 24 hours... but it's a neat idea, no? A different show about climate change as it affects different time zones, one for every hour? With all the new things we have learned? How exciting!

And although I thought An Inconvenient Truth had it's pros and cons (and likewise that Man Bear Pig is hilarious), I'm eager to see Gore's progress as an informed environmental activist since then. Climate science in and of itself has grown, and so have I; of course I expect nothing less of Gore.


All things must change, as the seasons go by...

The lovely 100-year drought we are experiencing is slated to continue through November, thanks to the return of La Nina. For more information, read the article here. The person who brought this article to my attention received a stern email that only happy weather news was allowed. Happy weather news such as, this week is supposed to be rain! Hallelujah!

At least our earth-cracking heat is more or less over, with fall on the way. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, fall is here. I'm ready to break out the boots, chili, and pumpkin pie. I'm ready for my tree to look like this again:

I've always had a hard time coming to terms with when seasons began and ended. The reason is this... if you go by the solstice/equinox dates, it does not coincide with the weather, because it is always at the height of freezing/frying by the respective solstice. And on top of that, if June 21st is supposed to be the first day of summer, why is it called Midsummer's Eve? So I thought perhaps it was different from one country to the next. Not really so, as it just reverses as you cross the equator. Add to this that there is usually that significant day that often coincides with no particular date when you wake up and just feel the seasons have changed over night... and you have a very confused Alien Mind Girl who wants to celebrate the changing of seasons on three different schedules! This is why I was relieved to learn that there are two different types of ways to count the seasons.

The way that we are used to observing seasonal changes is by the astronomical calendar, and if you look up the definition of seasons in a text book you also normally get this same explanation. This is when winter starts on the winter solstice and ends at vernal equinox, spring is vernal equinox to summer solstice, summer is solstice through autumnal equinox, autumn is equinox to winter solstice. 

But there is also climatological seasons, based on meteorological changes, which are more intuitive weather-wise to us Okies: Winter is Dec, Jan, Feb. Spring is March-May. Summer, June-August, and fall is Sept-Nov. 

The climatological calendar explains a bit better why the summer solstice, the official first day of summer, might have come to be called Midsummer. I'm still a bit on the fence here since it isn't *exactly* the median date of June 1 - Aug 31st. Maybe this is where one of you dear readers will have more knowledge than I do...

Since I can't find a satisfactory consensus on season definitions and dates, I have decided to go rogue, and to call the season changes when I feel and see them. When I hit that day where I walk outside and it feels changed, I will call it such. According to the calendar of Alien Mind Girl, the first day of fall occurred at a date I don't recall, approximately two weeks ago. On this day I stepped outside to a crisp breeze for the second day in a row, just ahead of a gray drizzle, and noticed the trees had begun to change. To me, this is fall. Call it what you will. I celebrated that day with breakfast on the porch and a whole pot of honey chamomile tea au lait. I took my dogs for a long walk and noticed pine cones and spike balls on the sidewalks. And now I wait for my yellow tree and pumpkin pie, and rest assured that next year the growing season will not be so harsh.


Flat and Barren... We are NOT!!

Last week I read an article posted online by The Weather Channel on the “Ten Most Depressing States,” which basically compared the psychological statistics across the country. Oklahoma was on the list, and the part on Oklahoma started off something like, “Perhaps it’s the flat, barren landscape or the severe weather, but…” 

This really ticked me off. For one, I only skimmed the article, but I don’t recall them saying anything disparaging about the other states. And for another… they are full of crap. Have they even been to Oklahoma? This ain’t exactly the moon. We do not have a flat, barren landscape. Although some of Oklahoma is flat, true that. The popular notion that Oklahoma is basically too insignificant to contain beauty has always mystified me, and in fact, this post has been a long time coming, so prepare for a rant. 

Even growing up here, I never felt that way, especially once I started traveling around the state in my teens. The more of Oklahoma I visited, the more inspiring it became to me, and the more I wanted to see. It is here in Oklahoma that I have visited peat bogs, cypress swamps, plains, mountains, hills, tall grass prairies and mesas. I have scaled mountains made of gravel, stomped through bouldered creeks, and waded through waist-deep mud. I’ve caught fish, salamander, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and tree frogs, and carefully side-stepped wild buffalo, scorpion, and rattle snakes. I have spent many hours in deep lush woods. I have been caving, canoeing, snorkeling, deer-counting, bat-watching; I have collected fossils and found gar skeletons, and sat atop waterfalls. Oklahoma is diverse and beautiful. The only conclusion I can draw is that perhaps people who don’t know this… either haven’t truly looked, or find few things in life beautiful.

Sure, if you live in the middle of Oklahoma City, you don’t have an ocean within an hour’s journey or a snow-capped mountain hovering on the horizon… what you have is a lot of flat cement. You have to look just the smallest bit to see the Awesomeness that is natural Oklahoma.

  • Environment:
    • Oklahoma has 12 ecoregions. The only states that have more than we do are California and Texas, and this is because they span more grades of latitude than we do. Mile for mile, we have more ecological diversity than any other state in the country.  Ecoregions include everything from forests and plains to mountains and mesas, including everything from the dry, flat panhandle to the humid subtropics of hilly SE Oklahoma
    • Thanks to a multitude of lakes and rivers, Oklahoma has more shoreline than the Pacific coast, Atlantic coast, and Gulf coast combined.
    • Oklahoma contains smaller, unique regions that are not designated as their own ecoregions, such as Little Sahara (rolling sand dunes), the salt plains, mineral springs, and Ferndale Bog (peat bogland)
  • Wildlife:
    • Oklahoma has 760 species of wildlife, including 17 threatened and endangered species.
    • Based on numbers of reported sightings, Oklahoma has the largest population of mountain lions in the country.
    • Oklahoma also has bears, alligators, and bald eagles… and I am frequently shocked to find lifelong Okies who are not aware of this.
    • I also frequently find Okies who don’t know we have bats. Listen up, people: Oklahoma has lots of bats! Pay close attention at night! You will notice that not all of the fast dark flying things are birds! Even in the city, lots of bats! And speaking of things that are not birds…
    • The state bird is NOT the mosquito… Does EVERY state have this joke? Because I have been to at least four states where people thought this was clever, claiming they had the biggest mosquitoes in the country.
  • I am not a geologist, but I once had a geologist buddy who told me that Oklahoma is particularly geologically diverse, and is visited by geologists from all over the world who come to study here. I can’t verify that. I can verify this: 
    • If you know where and how to look, you can find petrified wood, and fossils from the sea  creatures that used to live here. Like the ammonite I found, here...
    • Oklahoma contains what is rumored to be one of North America’s oldest mountain ranges, the Arbuckles, which are 1.5 billion years old. People sometimes say the Wichitas are the oldest… unless I am wrong, they are 500 million years old.
    • Oklahoma has other unique geologic features, including rock glaciers and pimple mounds.
    • The Alabaster Caverns are the largest gypsum caves in the world which are open to the public, and contain black alabaster, which occurs only in three places on Earth.
    • And of course… fossil fuels. But you all knew that.
  • Oklahoma is home to the Spiro Mounds, considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites east of the Rockies. It was the capital of the known world, the Western-most outpost of Mississippian culture from 900-1450 AD.  

And, just for the record, I cannot pick a favorite Oklahoma locale, but Blue River holds a special place in my heart, and I have always found Beaver’s Bend to be particularly stunning.


Energy Loan Update

If you are routed here from NewsOK.com... welcome, welcome! And if you are not, you can read my interview and the story on the Energy Efficiency Loan here.

I wrote about receiving our loan last July (here), with a run-through of the process and all the work we had done, and a nice little comment about throwing a happy dance party when I got my electric bill. Now that the summer is nearly over, I've had a chance to put together some data on the energy use in our home. 

Here you can see our actual billed energy use compared to the average monthly temperatures.

In this graph, I tried to normalize the data for temperature so that the trends show ONLY electric use, independent on what the temperature would have been. It's basically the same, except the electric use in hot months is adjusted to be slightly less, and colder months shows as slightly more, of course adjusted based upon actual temperatures. I was just curious to see if any differences would stand out if I looked at it this way, so I could consider my energy use without wondering if changes in data came from the weather.

The major points here are:
  • Our home loan! The installation of our new HVAC system and attic insulation is obvious on the chart; this work was done in May and immediately caused a 20-35% decrease for the next few months.
  • In June I finished most of the weatherization, which I learned how to do as a by-product of getting the loan. This appears to have knocked off another few percentage points.
  • In August, we began some very minor remodeling in the kitchen - painting and pulling up trim - which exposed a few holes in the wall. We have not covered them yet. I assume that this month shows more energy use due to these seemingly small leaks having a more significant affect than I expected.
  • June-September of 2010 is much higher than 2009 largely in part due to a bathroom remodel/repair that required us to tear out and rebuild walls and floors.
  • In November 2009, I installed a new Energy Star dishwasher. I don't have enough back data to be sure, but this seems to have made no noticeable impact.


Moving Planet Oklahoma

So a quick rewind to last year... I had the great good fortune to attend this conference, one of the best (and most tiring) that I've been to. At this conference, another stroke of fantastic coolness, I was able to hear inspiring presentations by representatives from some unique activist organizations, 350.org and Carrotmob, and have been following them since. This year, 350.org has declared Sept. 24 to be Moving Planet Day! A day to bring fun and peaceful awareness to moving away from fossil fuels. 

350.org is an interesting NPO in that, rather than doing all the work themselves, they reach out to people all over the world, offering education on issues and acting as facilitators to help guide others on organizing their own grassroots campaigns. Acting in this way, they've been able to pull off some creative large-scale efforts and global demonstrations...  like this one, where people in different countries created huge works of art that were photographed from space! But I digress. That's just a little background on the parent organization for this event, and why these events are both locally sponsored and part of a global initiative.

Oklahoma currently has two registered Moving Planet Day events, one in Oklahoma City and one in Norman. The OKC event looks pretty fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing more details on it. For this one, they ask that you sign up if you are participating in the walk/run/bike/skate part of the event and sign in at 9:30. At 10:30, everyone gathered will travel from the coolness that is Womb Art Gallery (approximately NW 9th and Broadway) to City Hall (2 miles distance). After this, there is a festival in Automobile Alley featuring free beer, not-free food, bicycle workshops, and music. The Norman event starts at ten (no sign-up necessary) and moves from the OU Energy Center to the Severe Storms Laboratory.

I think it sounds like a fun way to show your support for clean transportation and whatever other eco-agenda you have, as well as a good way to enjoy a Saturday morning outdoors!  Watch the promo video for Moving Planet below. And if you are outside of Oklahoma, you can find your nearest Moving Planet event here, and if there are none near you and you feel inspired, you can start your own event here.


All My Sciences

I have always loved the sciences; I think that most – if not all – of the fields are fascinating in their individual ways.  But there are always those fields that seem (to me) to have more momentum than others. The research and progress will speed up and slow down for various reasons, and I’ve certainly experienced this in my own science realm. My Dad likes to follow the news about sports – he will at least skim through almost anything sports-related and focus on his favorite sports and teams. I follow science news in much the same way, and with much of the same excitement. And lucky for me, my “team” is in the news a lot nowadays.

Environmental science is very exciting and dynamic right now. There is so much movement, in so many different directions, with potential thought-provoking socio-political effects. It’s getting a lot of attention, both good and bad, from different interest groups, politicians, and even the layperson. 

I’m not quite sure if I agree with the old advertising saying, “Any publicity is good publicity,” because quite frankly the amount of misinformation regarding popular science topics is sometimes maddening to me. When it comes to science, it seems that much of the public are either too lazy to research on their own or does not have enough basic knowledge to differentiate fact from fiction from exaggerated fact, so they will believe anything. Which would not be such a big deal if not for the fact that the uninformed/misinformed masses can sometimes pose major roadblocks to progress. What I do believe is that publicity leads at least to awareness, which leads to conversation, which is good.

All this musing aside, reading science news these days is just outright fun. It’s exciting. Sometimes it contains incredible things from science fiction, or suspense and intrigue to match mystery novels.  The sciences that keep catching my attention in the news these days are environmental science and astronomy (astronomers seem to be on a heck of a streak these last couple years at the very least; and check THIS out; a supernova is viewable in the Big Dipper this week http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/09/how-to-spot-a-supernova/ ). Once in a while there are also particularly fascinating pieces on biology and sociology, or health… and of course there’s the continuing drama of the Higgs-Boson in physics.

I thought I would take a moment and share with you the links from my favorite science news sites.  So, in no particular order, the sites I love to keep up with and the frequency with which I check them:

Wired Science News
NPR Science News
BBC Science News
Weekly or monthly
New Scientist Environmental News
Science Daily
Discovery Channel News
EPA Region 6 News
American Council on Energy Efficiency News
Quarterly or more –(basically these folks put out really good reports every so often)
EPA Science Database
Regulatory Assistance Project
NOAA State of the Climate
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
UN Climate Change News and Publications
UN Environmental Programme (UNEP)

Got any favorites to share?