Category Archives: Review

Radical Homemakers

Go check out my review at The Green Phone Booth and enter for a chance to win my copy of the book!

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Made from Scratch

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I’ve been reading Jenna Woginrich’s book Made from Scratch as a part of Crunchy Chicken’s book club (which there’s still time to join).  I’ve really enjoyed the chapters on chickens, beekeeping, antiques, sewing and baking.  As I read, I daydreamed more and more about getting chicks this spring.  I was also inspired to try Jenna’s recipe for a braided country white bread over the weekend, and I love her simple fleece mitten pattern and plan to try it out when the weather gets cold.  While I am an animal lover, I wasn’t into the chapter on sled dogs (my cousins did it for a while and it’s not for me), or the music chapter.  But the great thing about this book is that you can read any chapter you’re interested in to get her experience as well as some tips and suggestions, and skip the ones you don’t have an interest in.  I’d recommend it as a quick and inspiring read for anyone who would like to be more self-sufficient.   You can also check out Jenna Woginrich’s blog to see what she’s up to at Cold Antler Farm.

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Learning About Local Foods

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For the last two weeks, my botany students have been exploring the local foods movement.  We began with a discussion of what “local” means, and some history of the movement.  They have been growing plants since the course began in January, and they’re all looking forward to picking tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and watermelon from their gardens this summer.  To learn more from the people who produce foods locally, I decided to have speakers come in and share their stories. 

Dr. Abbie Maynard, a scientist from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station who specializes in organic and sustainable practices came in and spoke about her research.  She was also recently featured in the New York Times.  She does years and years of field tests, finding which varieties are the best to grow in our soils and climate.  Dr. Maynard offers tips for home gardeners and farmers alike, and loves to test out new vegetables, too.  Some of her current projects include heirloom tomatoes and beach plums.  She mentioned an heirloom tomato called “pineapple” that I think I’m going to have to try! 

Up next, Al Rose from Rose Orchards (also my dad) came in to talk about running and living on a small family farm in Connecticut.  He shared some of the history of our farm, how it progressed from a self-sustaining family farm, to a dairy farm, to an apple orchard.  He spoke about the types of crops grown, and ways to bring in customers including hayrides, ice cream, a maze, and animals to visit.  Finally, he talked about some of the difficulties facing small family farms and how farmers in Connecticut have had to specialize and adapt to survive.

We rounded out the speakers with chef Claire Criscuolo, RN, owner of Claire’s Corner Copia in New Haven, a vegetarian, sustainable, organic, kosher restaurant.  She spoke about her role in the local foods movement, the difficulties finding locally grown, organic, and kosher foods, and about all of her wonderful, diverse customers.  She also gave out recipes, and she spoke about her goal to bring people together over food and do what’s best for the planet.

Finally, I showed an episode of PBS’s e2 transport (that’s “e squared”) series, called “Food Miles.”  This episode discussed the environmental consequences of shipping food around the world, and interviewed people who are working to promote food that is produced locally.  Segments included interviews with chefs, farmers, economists, and writers, including Michael Pollan.  You can watch a clip here.  If you’re interested in eating sustainably, I think you’ll really like this documentary and would highly recommend it.

Speaking of Michael Pollan, did you hear that his book Omnivore’s Dilemma was removed from the required reading list for incoming freshman at Washington State University, under pressure from the agriculture industry? Personally, I think this maneuver will backfire and more folks will read the book thanks to the publicity.  UPDATE: WSU has decided to reverse their decision, thanks to a private donor.  I guess the students will all read it, now!

Have you got some great resources for learning more about the local foods movement?  Please share!

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Bottled Water and Water Bottles

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I’ve carried reusable water bottles for years, playing field hockey and basketball when I was a kid, but I didn’t start carrying one every day until I started teaching.  I found that speaking almost all day long left me parched, plus I know how important it is to drink lots of water. 

A reusable water bottle is so much better than a one-time-use plastic bottle.  Besides the fact that buying bottled water is ridiculously expensive, it’s also incredibly wasteful and not any “cleaner” than tap water.  In fact, tap water is held to higher standards than bottled water, and there’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding bottled water companies.  Did you know that bottled water companies don’t “pay” for the water in those bottles? They just buy or lease a piece of property, which gives them the right to use the water.  Then they pump the water in huge amounts, often lowering the water table and changing the availability of the water supply in the surrounding area.  They’ll even continue to pump water in extreme drought, further reducing the water available for their neighbors.  I didn’t know any of this until I saw the documentary “Flow” and I would highly recommend it because it follows water issues all around the world. 

And then there’s the plastic issue.  A plastic bottle is doesn’t just contain plastic.  It contains many different chemicals, which can leach into the water you drink and contaminate the landfill after you throw it out.  Let’s also not forget about the fact that many places do not recycle all kinds of plastic and that it never biodegrades, resulting in a collection of trash in the ocean, like in the North Pacific Gyre.

To be truthful, I carried reusable water bottles before I knew about those issues because it saved money, and I see “my” water as “better” than theirs.  We happen to live right near a huge reservoir, which supplies water to the surrounding towns.  Our groundwater (we have a well) is fresh, clean, and we only pay for the electricity to pump it (once the well was dug and equipment installed).  It’s “local” and all the rules that apply to local food apply to water.  It doesn’t have to be shipped around the country or from another country, it’s right here, under our house.  Not to mention, it doesn’t have that chlorinated taste.  However, did you know if you do have chlorinated water, you can keep it in a bottle in the fridge overnight and the taste will go away? You can also install a filter at the tap or use a refrigerator that has filtered water in the door.

For a long time, I carried a purple nalgene water bottle.  However, in the last year or so, since a student first told me about the link between BPA and breast cancer (which lead to quite a bit of research on my part), I’ve been carrying metal water bottles instead.  Now you can get BPA-free plastic, but I’d just like to avoid it.  I feel like you never know what chemical they’ll find leaches into the water next.

The first metal water bottle I got was a SIGG, which I love.  The bottle is made of aluminum and has a taste-neutral coating that allows you to add acidic and even fizzy liquids to it.  It’s sleek design is sure to grab attention, as are the pretty designs and sayings that are printed on there.  However, I soon came to realize that SIGG is not the best option for me.  The relatively small opening means that I can’t drop in ice cubes or a slice of lemon or lime.  They’re also not dishwasher safe (although I have put them in the dishwasher a few times, just to test them out). 

I moved on to a Klean Kanteen, which automatically made me happy since it has a much wider mouth and is dishwasher safe.  As you may be able to see from the picture, the orange one has gotten a lot of use, evidenced by the dents and peeling finish.  In fact, the peeling finish is one of the things I’ve been disappointed with.  It’s not even a year old and the finish is peeling, plus I’m not sure what’s exactly in that finish.  The green and blue Klean Kanteen is currently my favorite water bottle.

About a month ago, the folks at Eco Canteen sent me one of their bottles, asking me to review it here.  I said sure, but be aware that if I don’t like it, I’m going to say so!  This bottle is also has a wide mouth.  But, to be honest, I’ve only used it once.  It looks almost exactly like the Klean Kanteen, except it’s plain old silver, and I’d much rather use my orange Klean Kanteen or the pretty blue and green Klean Kanteen that my mom got me for my birthday this year.  It also has a black fingerprint on it, maybe in paint? It doesn’t come off and for some reason it grosses me out.  I guess you get what you pay for.  The one advantage of the silver color is that I may actually get my husband to use it, since he’s always worried that the guys at the job site will make fun of one of the fancier bottles.  That is, of course, if I can ever wean him off Snapple.

I would encourage you to check out any of these reusable bottles, since they are cute, safer than plastic, will keep plastic out of land fills, provide you with potentially safer water than bottled, and will also save you money in the long run.  SIGG and Klean Kanteen both also donate 1% of their sales to environmental causes.  And do be wary: metal bottles made in China have been shown to contain BPA and lead in their paint.  As always, you need to be an educated consumer.  Whatever water bottle you choose, it’s the right choice over bottled water.

I absolutely realize that while I sit here, sipping water out of a glass and typing this, there are people around the world who do not have access to clean, safe, fresh drinking water.  Groups are asking the UN to add water to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 31 reads:

Everyone has the right to clean and accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance.

If you agree, as I do, please go sign the petition.

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What do you use for a water bottle?

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This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part IV

Reflections Part I

Reflections Part II

Reflections Part III

 

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Strangling the Sound

            This chapter details the role of nitrogen in the Sound, as well as the consequences of too much nitrogen.  I found the discussion of salt marshes to be particularly interesting because my father often speaks of making salt hay in Stony Creek when he was a child, but my family no longer keeps up that tradition, so I did not know much about salt marshes. 

            The amount of nitrogen flowing into the Sound has risen dramatically.  “Four centuries of ever-increasing development and population had swollen the Sound’s burden of nitrogen to 91,000 tons per year, a 128 percent increase over the estimated 40,000 tons that flowed to the Sound before European settlement.  The additional 51,300 tons of nitrogen included 29,600 tons from sewage plants and factories, and 8,800 tons from storm water runoff.”  The effects of eutrophication began to be evident as oxygen levels decreased, but unfortunately the hypoxia was largely ignored, until repeated crashes that seemed to occur in August.  In 1973, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that “compared with 1972, there were 86 percent fewer benthic animals and 55 percent fewer benthic species.  In other words, almost nine out of ten individual animals, and more than half of all the kinds of animals, were wiped out.”  Such large effects on the populations in only a single year’s time are simply terrifying.

            The overall message that I got in this chapter was the need for an effective way to remove nitrogen from wastewater.  While nitrogen will runoff from many different places, I believe that focusing on the wastewater treatment plants will be a good start.

The Brink of Disaster

            My blue-collar roots made the story of John Fernandes resonate with me.  Being raised on a farm myself, and marrying into a fishing family, I can only imagine how heart-breaking and scary it was for Fernandes to pull up what he thought would be 300 pound worth of lobsters to sell, and instead finding that they were all dead.  As Phil Briggs from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said, “They’re fearful for their livelihood right now, and I don’t blame them.” 

            Researcher Barbara Welsh lays out the scenario that as the western parts of the Sound became hypoxic, the lobsters, fish, and other mobile animals migrated eastward, in search of oxygen.  So while western lobsterman like Fernandes weren’t catching anything, there were record catches toward the middle and east of the sound.

            Anderson goes on to describe that 90% of lobsters in the Sound are caught when they reach their legal size, so it is important to the survival of the species that they are able to reproduce before being caught.  He also describes the many illegal measures that lobstermen will take, including territoriality, keeping shorts in underwater cages, scraping the eggs off females.  The consequences for getting caught are high, including losing your license.  I am friends with some commercial lobster fishermen who live on a little island in Maine.  The older lobstermen tell tales of territoriality in their early days, and they all talk about getting buoys getting cut and losing pots, people hauling someone else’s pot, and boats getting sunk.  Even in the last five years, a man that I know had his boat sunk when he moved into a new town.  Their description of protecting the lobster population is more encouraging: females with eggs have their tails notched, and in Maine it is illegal to catch a lobster with a notched tail, since it is known that she is a breeding female.  This is the type of management that I would like to see in the Sound.  However, there are decreasing yields of lobsters in Maine as well, and the prices have also dropped, making, as Anderson describes, a man work much harder for the same amount of money.

            Back in Connecticut, we see fisherman continuing to leave the business, selling or losing their boats, just as we see farming families selling or losing their farms.  I am hopeful that new methods of aquaculture and a better understanding of the impact of human activity as well as ecological influences on populations will lead to more sustainable management of the Sound’s fish and shellfish, both for our own benefit and the health of the Sound.

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This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part III

Previous Posts:

 Oystering

This chapter detailed the oyster industry in Long Island Sound.  Again we see the pattern of identifying a profitable natural resource, exploiting that resource to depletion where it’s almost entirely wiped out, and then identifying the need to act to save this natural resource.  The descriptions of opening day for oystering season were very interesting.  I can imagine people waiting on the banks in Fair Haven until they heard the midnight chimes of the church bells, then clambering into their boats and fighting for a good spot to go dig oysters.  I never knew that oysters could be kept through the winter in a basement, and now I envision root cellars filled with bushel baskets of shellfish, topped with seaweed, helping to sustain the family through the long winter.  It makes sense that people would exploit this resource on one day to collect food for the entire winter, but it’s unfair to blame their one day gathering for the ultimate depletion of wild oysters. 

The professional oystermen did their own fair share of depletion: “In 1856, another firm, Levi Rowe & Co., owned twenty vessels, employed one hundred openers, and shipped one hundred and fifty thousand gallons of oysters.  Other houses shipped as many as fifteen hundred bushels of oysters a day.  When the New Haven train left each afternoon for the interior of New England, one and sometimes two cars were reserved solely for oysters.”  The oystermen realized that this was not a sustainable operation and began to gather seed oysters from surrounding rivers in 1810, and traveling as far as Chesapeake Bay.  My grandfather tells stories of his father’s uncle buying $10,000 worth of seed oysters.  He didn’t pay the $10,000 for insurance, and the seed oysters disappeared.  As you can imagine, a $10,000 loss for a farmer was quite a hit, and the oyster idea was dropped.  I’ve seen seed oysters, since my husband’s family has an aquaculture business; they’re about the size of your thumbnail, and look like tiny oysters.  It’s very interesting how they’re raised now, and I would have liked if the book gave more detail about how they were raised in the early 1800’s.

            The final part of this chapter that I’d like to touch upon is disease transmission.  I didn’t realize that oysters can transmit both bacteria and viruses, but it makes sense since they are filter-feeders.  The story of Wesleyan University students contracting typhoid fever in 1892 by eating contaminated oysters demonstrates how important it is to not allow raw sewage to flow into waterways.  Unfortunately, raw sewage still flows into the Sound everyday, but the shellfishing industry is more closely monitored and closed when concerns for human health arise.

Sprawling Suburbs

            This chapter details how the lifestyles of people around the Sound changed moving into the beginning of the 20th Century.  People worked in cities, yet wanted to live in the country, and the availability of transportation allowed them to do so.  Thus, housing developments sprawled out of the cities into the country and the suburbs were born.  “More land was built on between 1960 and 1990—houses, shopping malls, corporate headquarters, highways—than during the previous three hundred years.”  All this development had many environmental trade-offs: “The decades of growth almost tripled the amount of sewage flowing into the Sound from treatment plants… from twenty-five million to sixty-five million gallons a day.”  All this sewage resulted in extremely large amounts of nitrogen dumping into the Sound, much more than the Sound had ever experienced before.  Sediments also became a problem, as did fertilizers used on agricultural land.  All this nitrogen contributes to the acidification of aquatic ecosystem, with impacts on the food chain.  This process of continued nitrogen accumulation in the Sound, called eutrophication, can lead to blooms of microscopic algae, their wastes making the waters toxic and poisoning people who consume fish or shellfish from the contaminated waters.  As Anderson points out, nitrogen is “the element that is both the symbol and the result of modern society’s divorce from the natural processes that nurture the Earth—a divorce that has brought Long Island Sound to the brink of disaster.”  I’m left wondering what’s better for the environment, sewers or septic systems? Anderson briefly touches upon septic systems, but I really would like more information.  I wonder if houses on the shore would be better served by septic systems using the best technology available, as we did when we installed our septic system less than two years ago.  As I understand it, that nitrogen is filtered out into the soil and doesn’t reach the groundwater, but I’m not sure if that would be the case along the immediate shoreline where the water table is higher. 

            Both chapters demonstrate the need for wastewater treatment, for the health of both the Sound and human health.  In hard times, wastewater treatment becomes one of the items cut from many budgets, so I wouldn’t expect to see any of these problems resolved in the near future.

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This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part II

Reflections Part I can be read here.

Adriaen Block and the First Explorers

            I can’t help but state that I found this part the least interesting of the book so far, and I kind of see it as pointless to learn about who explored the Sound.  I guess my apathy comes from the fact that the explorers didn’t discover the Sound, since the Native Americans had been living there sustainably for many years.  I do, however see the value in learning about how they navigated and how they mapped different areas.  Overall, I am sympathetic to the Native Americans in that the explorers came in, bringing deadly diseases with them, and exploited the natural resources of the area, especially beavers.  It’s amazing to me that a population could be reduced so quickly, and the prime example is when Block complained that some of the Native Americans would only take what beavers they needed, and no more.  That is the definition of sustainability, scoffed at by the explorers.  The explorers also tricked the Native Americans into selling their land, when they thought they were only selling the rights to use the land.  “They had no notion of private property; ownership of land… would have been as incomprehensible as ownership of the wind or clouds.”  And so, by exploiting resources and Native Americans, the explorers decimated the populations of beaver and people alike.

 

The American Mediterranean

            I found this chapter to be interesting because it discussed the trade routes throughout all of the different towns I am familiar with.  I believe that because these are towns I know, my interest was held where otherwise I would be disinterested.  I enjoyed reading Yale President Timothy Dwight’s recounts of travels, and I appreciated learning about the sealing and whaling industries that operated out of the Sound.  As someone who does really care to learn about history, I was interested to learn about the effect that the Embargo Act of 1807 had on the shipping industry in the Sound, and how that shaped the self-sufficiency of each town.

 

The Industrial Age

            This chapter summarized the rise of industry in Connecticut.  It was interesting to see how the Embargo Act contributed to the growth of Connecticut manufacturing, and how people like Eli Whitney, the Porter brothers and Aaron Benedict contributed to the industry.  As industry boomed, so did the population, especially in cities.  This of course contributed to wastes, both industrial and biological, and pollution of the rivers upon which the cities and mills were built rose.  The description of the need for sewage treatment was an interesting one, and the government’s pattern of investigating a problem but failing to follow through with appropriate solutions was evident in the recognition of the need for treating wastes, but the failure to appropriately do so.

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