Monday, April 28, 2008

sparrow season

There's an abandoned lot that I sometimes pass on my way to work. It might get mowed once or twice in the summer, but mostly it is left to the weeds. Now, and for the next six months or so, every time I walk by it the grass comes alive with sparrows.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Yesterday I had this post on flowers all written out, but Blogger wasn't letting me upload a photo. So I was going to put the post off until today, and try my luck then.

Today it is snowing.

The flowers I was going to post about are still blooming, through the snow, but now I feel more like posting poetry. This is a poem by Susan Ludvigson, taken from the anthology, "Vital Signs: Contemporary American Poetry from the University Presses," 1989.


Imagine that pure
melting of snow in Wisconsin
so that when it's gone, the earth
underneath is raw and damp,
needing sun, seed, any kind
of promise. But more snow comes
before the final thaw,
and this goes on, over and over,
so that in February, March,
you think the world may never
be green.
When you look out the picture window,
after your spirits have risen one last
slow time, old grass looks
as if it might leap to life.
Then you see those large flakes
floating down, and you weep,
past belief. It can happen
through April, hope going white
and silent again.

Monday, April 21, 2008

greenwashing, and a healthy sense of skepticism

I read an article yesterday about greenwashing, and how people are growing increasingly wary of unsubstantiated or dubious claims of environmental friendliness.

Decades after the first Earth Day, many Americans suffer from ‘green’ overload.

From the article:

Sixty percent of people said they agreed with the statement, “I often wonder if a product is really ‘green’ or if the company is just saying that it is.” “What’s interesting,” Ryan said, “is that it seems that the people who know the most, who are the most interested, are the most skeptical.” That skepticism only deepens, she said, when claims come from corporations with dubious environmental records. “Oil companies and American automakers,” she said. “When they put those ads on, they’re less likely to be believed.”

The rest of the article sort of spins it like this is a bad thing, an "unintended backlash" and all that.

But, oh no, this is a good thing! People have a lot of good reasons to be skeptical--why should they trust the marketing campaigns of "corporations with dubious environmental records"? Because, honestly, does anyone really think that these companies care about anything other than making a profit?

Take Clorox, and their new line of "Green Works" cleaners. I haven't really done tons of research about it, but on the surface the actual products themselves don't seem half-bad, and for the sake of argument right now let's just say that they are indeed environmentally friendly. But then the problem is... they're made by Clorox. Does producing one line of eco-friendly cleaners negate the millions upon millions upon millions of chlorine bleach they produce? Is this one product line in any way indicative of the company as a whole going green, or are they just trying to horn in on the booming market of green products?

If Ford makes one hybrid, does that make their gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs any more environmentally-friendly? I will start to trust Ford's supposed green intentions when they only make hybrids, scooters, and bicycles, and start donating profits to fund public transit and the creation and support of human-centric (instead of automobile-centric) communities.

Which is not to say that Clorox Green Works or Ford hybrids are a bad thing. I realize that some people do need a car (although not nearly as many people who claim to "need" a car) and I personally don't know of any hybrid-only business. And one good thing about Green Works is that they are mainstream and can be found at any random Walmart or IGA, and there are still thousands and thousands of people who mean well and want to be green but don't know where to start, or don't have access to other markets. Products like Green Works are a fine jumping off point, but they are not the ultimate destination in the quest for an eco-friendly lifestyle.

With green products being such a enormously profitable market, truly concerned consumers have to be skeptical of claims or implications of eco-friendliness or social responsibility. Boca Burgers is owned by Philip Morris; Silk soymilk is owned by Dean Foods. Half the food at any random co-op or Whole Foods Market is produced by Hain-Celestial, which is owned by Heinz. Just because a product is vegetarian or made with organic oats doesn't mean it's sustainable. Eden Foods (which is one company you actually can trust) put together a collection of organic industry structure charts, originally produced by Dr. Phil Howard, that highlight who owns what in the natural food industry.

So I think it's terrifically encouraging more and more people are realizing that green is more than just a marketing tool or some PR buzzword--it's a way of life--and that true sustainability does not come prepackaged and advertised. Sustainability takes some thought and effort, and requires stepping outside of the middle America status quo. Rejecting half-assed claims of corporate greenness isn't a "backlash"--it's a revolution!

Friday, April 18, 2008

sprouting a mango clam

We had a mango whose ripeness was sadly miscalculated, and by the time we cut it open it was mostly brown and inedible. That seemed like such a tragic waste of a mango, so I turned to the internet, and apparently it's really easy to sprout a mango from the pit. (On some gardening sites, there were people in Mexico saying that mangoes were so easy to grow, they grew like weeds in their lawn. I know that Mexico has its share of problems, and there are any number of reasons why I wouldn't want to live there, but the idea of mango trees being so common that they are weeds sort of makes me sigh with longing.)

The first step was to pry open the pit (actually just a husk) to get the seed inside. The internet kept saying it would look like a giant lima bean, but mine was more mollusk-like.

The next step was to stick it in some dirt, keep it warm and moist, and wait a few weeks.

I heard some people say that overripe mangoes sprout more quickly, so I'm hoping that the fact that mine looks like a clam oozing out of its shell is a good thing.

I'm never going to get fruit or flowers off of it--not in Minnesota--and to be honest I don't even know what a mango tree/houseplant looks like, but that doesn't matter a whole lot. I just need to indulge my urge to stick stuff in dirt and see if it grows. I'll post more pictures if I get a sprout.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

robins in the snow

Despite the freak blizzard on Friday (although maybe not that freaky with global warming a.k.a. climate change a.k.a. global weirding), on my way to the bus stop this morning I saw more robins than I could count, rocketing back and forth from tree to tree, staking out bare patches of grass, looking wide-eyed and hopeful, singing cheerio, cheer-up, cheerio, cheer-up.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Dr. Organics redux

A few weeks ago I installed a handy-dandy page view counter on my blog, and one really neat thing about it is that, among other things, it tracks the search terms that people use to find my blog. A very surprising result is that a ton of people end up here because they're googling something regarding Dr. Organics. Note that I installed the counter months after I made my one post on Dr. Organics.

I like how the third and forth comments on that post are simultaneously spammy and evangelical. Looking at Dr. Organics actual website, it kinda looks like it's some Avon-esque thing, where people sign up and then try to sell the stuff to their friends. I also like how it has the word "doctor" in the name of the product--if it says "doctor" that means it must be scientifically sound and healthy!

Oh, but I kid. Mostly. Sort of. There are a lot of similar snake oil products out there, and I don't think Dr. Organics is any worse than anything else, I just happened to get spammed by them. And while it's probably not too harmful to take megadoses of vitamins, etc. like that, I also don't think it's very healthy, either, not nutritionally or psychologically.

Let's respond to the comments in my last post.

Jim McEnroe writes, Some of the comments you say may be true, but check out the eating habits of most Americans, especially young people. Fast food is their only food source, if that!

Not really sure what he means by "if that" (like, that they're not eating at all?) but regarding the eating habits of the majority of Americans, I would absolutely agree that we as a nation eat far, far, far too much junk food, fast food, overprocessed fat and empty calories, etc. So far we're in agreement.

Not only that, we are spreading our bad habits throughout the world.

Again, yes, absolutely. Countries like China and India are going to hell in a handbasket because they're trying to emulate America's extremely unsustainable way of life.

I would rather promote Dr. Organics than McDonalds, Zoloft, and GREED.

This is where you lose me. The choice is not as black and white as that, and there are gradations between Dr. Organics and McDonalds. Also there is the, in my opinion, far superior option of "promoting" fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains--the kind of food that often doesn't come with a brand name attached.

The next comment is apparently from Nancy Leavitt, one of the founders of Dr. Organics, and I guess my post bummed her out, sorry Nancy. She says that she was disturbed by my post, but, frankly, I am disturbed by her comment. Here are a few choice excerpts:

We founded this company on truth. [...] We are here to make a difference! [...] We are not like the others. [...] I don't know what your "friends" have told you, but if I were you, I would go to the source to find out the truth. [...]

Does that strike anyone else as, erm, a bit cultish? Nancy, m'dear, we're allowed to disagree without you insulting my friends by putting quotation marks around them.

As for my knowledge of, um, "the truth" about Dr. Organics, all I know about them is what's up on their website, and the two evangelical comments I got on my last post about them. But it seems like they are preying on people's desire to belong to a group and to be healthy, and are also tapping into a growing distrust of the status quo ("McDonalds and Zoloft"). And they're doing it by selling a product, utilizing a lot of the same advertising and marketing techniques of the institutions they're railing against. And at $40-60 for a tub of powder (about 30 doses/servings), somebody's getting rich off this.

I feel really sorry for the people who fall for this, who think that "pure, organic nutrition" is a powder or pill. What a waste of money. And I imagine this will only wreck havoc on their eating habits--why eat vegetables when you can just take your Dr. Organics? Even if Dr. Organics can extract all the vitamins and antioxidants from a piece of fruit (which I doubt), whole fresh fruit also contains fiber and water, which is pretty vital, too. One reason its so important to eat 5-13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is because 5-13 servings of fruits and vegetables is a sizable chunk of food and it fills you up. If you're eating 5-13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, you're going to be far less likely to eat unhealthy food or to overeat in general, because you'll be full.

And if you're already eating 5-13 servings of fruits and vegetables, why would you need to take supplements like Dr. Organics? You're body can only handle so much at a time, and excess levels of vitamins either get flushed out in your pee or they'll accumulate and make you all kinds of sick.

The funny thing is, I agree with about half of what they say, that modern, western eating habits are atrocious, that there are a lot of companies out there spouting half-truths about the healthfulness of their products, and that we need more of the nutrition found in fruits and vegetables. Only I advocate eating actual fruits and vegetables, not some concentration of isolated nutrients.

I'm not anti-medicine, and I'm not even anti-supplement, but this is nutrition they're talking about. The human body evolved to eat food. In terms of vitamins, minerals, protein, etc., a person can get everything they need from eating actual food, and what we need to do, if we want to improve the health status of Americans, is improve access to good, healthy food: more community gardens; more farmer's markets; more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in school lunches; less cheap and overprocessed junk food on the grocery store shelves--hell, even getting restaurants to serve more veggie-heavy meals. Things like that will do a world of good, so much more than shilling for Dr. Organics, or any other mega-supplement.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's lunchtime. I'm going to go eat some vegetables.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

first butterfly: mourning cloak

Another phenologically important event: the first butterfly of the season. It was, as it often is 'round these parts, a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). (Lots of great pictures here, alas that I don't have any of my own.) Another common contender for First of the Year is Milbert's Tortoiseshell, and that's what I thought this one was at first, since they do look rather similar and I am not as up on my butterflies as I would like to be. They're both dark brown/black with light-colored on the wings and a string of blue spots, but the Mourning Cloak is twice as big, and the band is closer to the edge of the wing and is yellow, whereas the Milbert's is orangy.

There still aren't too many obvious flowers blooming yet. Some crocus in people's yard, and I've heard reports of tulips coming up and of Prairie Smoke starting to make buds, and I've seen some dandelions with buds, too. Of course, the catkins on Pussy Willow and birch are actually flowers, and other trees are also starting to put out their inconspicuous version of flowers. But there's still not tons of nectar available quite yet.

Luckily, that's not a problem for the Mourning Cloak butterfly. They feed on rotting fruit and sap oozing from woodpecker holes in trees. This special diet is what allows them to emerge so early in the spring, when it's still barely spring at all and the landscape is mostly brown grass and dirty snow.

Adult Mourning Cloaks are extremely long lived for butterflies--reaching the ripe old age of 10 or 11 months--and they overwinter either as chrysalids or as adults going into a sort of hibernation, tucked under shingles or loose tree bark, or in unheated buildings. When the temperatures rise, the chrysalids hatch and the adult become alive again. I think mine yesterday overwintered as an adult; he looked pretty worn out, and the yellow on his wings had faded to nearly white.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools?

Huh. Here I thought it was spring, but then I wake up this morning and there's an inch and a half of fresh snow on the ground.