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Archive for March, 2008

Sure, we have reservations about turning vacant urban lots into vegetable gardens designed purely for the benefit of humans. But, as with all things, the real story lies in the nuance.

That’s why we admire people who take it upon themselves to replace human-designed but blighted urban landscapes (think: ivy-covered front yards and scuffed, litter-strewn sod) with spaces that offer both humans and native animals food — not to mention homes for said animals and a fair smattering of native plants.

Take orchards. The right selection of varietals set in an unmown native grass meadow can offer delicious food to people, birds, bees and other creatures and living space for plenty of native birds and insects, too. Plus it will look nice. If you are watering anyway, why not go that route?

That logic has Oakland social worker Diane Williams filling her front yard with fruit trees. Faced with the bare yards of her neighbors’ public housing development across the street, she went and offered to do the same for them. She now gardens 10 plots in her neighborhood and provides free fruit for anyone who cares to pick it.

While the San Francisco Chronicle calls her a guerrilla gardener, we’re not sure William’s qualifies — she does after all, ask permission.  She more like a fairy-godmother gardener.

Another article in the same edition of the Chronicle features more typical guerrilla gardeners — the kind that go plant in unused lots without permission. Interestingly, it sounds like landlords only get really upset when it’s food that’s planted on their lots.

While there’s something thrillingly paradoxical about the very notion of guerrilla gardening — which perhaps helps explain why it’s suddenly so hip — Williams’ model looks like the one to emulate for those of us looking to help cities achieve the urban landscaping triple whammy of increased food independence, wildlife protection and aesthetic improvement.

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Salon has an interview this weekend with Pamela Paul, author of the new book, “Parenting, Inc.” It’s a must read for anyone interested in the consumer culture of affluent Western parenting.

Paul tells Salon:

“I think that we have professionalized parenting, and in a consumer society that becomes translated into buying a lot of things. Parents aren’t as worried about spending too much as they are about not spending enough. It’s what I call the anxiety of under-spending.”

Especially enjoyable are her takes on Baby Einstein (“If Baby Einstein had been called “Couch Potato Kiddie,” . . . that would have been honest marketing”), doulas (“in the U.K. and in France the government provides people to do that, state paid, and it’s considered the natural course of things”) and Gymboree (“It’s not for your baby. It’s for the parents. You don’t actually have to spend a lot of money [to] expose your kid to massive amounts of stimulation”).

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That’s apparently the idea behind British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s new project.

Oliver’s idea, explains today’s Guardian,takes “inspiration from the Ministry of Food’s campaign to encourage families to Dig For Victory, grow their own food and make the most of their wartime rations.”

While it’s a gimmick, the notion also makes some sense.  Second World War rationing famously limited Brits to tiny portions of meat, butter, milk and eggs, but it also resulted in a population that was remarkably healthy.  Plus it got people growing their own food right in their own backyard ‘Victory Garden.’  It many ways you couldn’t find a diet and lifestyle more likely to warm Michael Pollan‘s heart.

But can we persuade people to voluntarily impose war-like conditions on themselves — even if they stand to benefit?

For Americans one answer is that, of course, the country is at war right now.  So why can’t the nation ask such a sacrifice of its citizens today?

Another, more global approach might argue that the lifestyles of even the richest of us aren’t (on the whole) doing us a lot of favors when it comes to our collective health and happiness — let alone that of the planet.  So surely we could be doing better.

It sounds like Jamie Oliver recognizes that people are busy and don’t necessarily yearn to feel tied to their kitchens or gardens.  As he told the Guardian:

“This isn’t about me wagging my finger at people, here or anywhere else, it’s about finding out what problems people are facing with time, budget and cooking know-how,” said Oliver. “Then we can see what help and support they need. Yes, people should take responsibility for their own health, but they need help and the tools to fix it.”

We’ll look forward to seeing what tools the energetic and talented Mr. Oliver will come up with.

If it starts receiving serious educational and even heavy-hitting policy support worldwide, perhaps there’s real potential for a return to the ‘victory garden’ model — beyond Mr. Oliver’s pitch for his next TV show.

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Yesterday we wrote about ‘super-micro farming’ as a trend emerging in response to possible threats to our food supplies.

There’s further evidence of the trend in the San Fransisco Chronicle’s most recent ‘Home and Garden’ section. In a multi-page cover feature, the paper does a nice job of surveying current efforts in the city to turn vacant urban spaces into ‘organic-food producing’ gardens. And it makes the point that this is one way for a ‘metropolis that can feed itself.’ Of over 1,000 vacant lots in the city, at least 600 are farmable, landscaper Kevin Bayuk tells the Chronicle.

It also ties in nicely to invocations by the likes of Michael Pollan, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon to eat (mostly) locally-sourced plants, (mostly) in season.

While it’s perhaps unrealistic to think urban gardens could ever feed an entire city’s population (the main complaint made by people commenting on the articles), they can reduce the need for food to be shipped in from elsewhere. And they can provide city dwellers with a direct (and, for many, uplifting) connection with the food that sustains them.

But in times when much of the rural landscape is turned over to monocultures enforced by the heavy use of pesticides and fertilzers, let’s spare a thought for some of the weeds, bugs and larger plants and animals that would otherwise occupy these vacant lots. Sure, rats and mosquitoes don’t have many fans, but many formerly common native birds, reptiles, pollinating insects and small mammals are losing space to development and intensive agriculture.

If we’re to reclaim abandoned lots for ourselves, perhaps we could be sure to put a good number of them aside as sanctuaries for the plants and animals we’ve managed to threaten so harshly elsewhere.

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Climate change threatens to destabilize our lives, for both ill and (perhaps, even) good.

One mark of that instability will likely be a disruption in the way we produce and distribute food.

Could this be why the UK Independent finds the world suddenly ‘going crazy for allotments‘ — those small plots of land that cities lease their citizens at a peppercorn rent to grow spare fruit and vegetables for their homes? The paper discovers allotments thriving in the UK, France, Kenya, Russia, Japan, Hong Kong and the USA. In the UK alone, it says, “there are an estimated 300,000 allotments, yielding about 215,000 tons of fresh produce every year.”

It’s not just home owners who are seeing the attractions of micro-farming. As food security becomes a concern to societies accustomed to having fresh produce flown in from all over the world, the New York Times tells us, “the purposeful reclamation of urban and suburban lands is serious fodder for artists, architects and academics alike.”

Allison Arieff’s article is a good round-up of current hipster urban farming and land-reclamation projects in the US — many of them on the super-micro level, but worthy none the less.

Let’s hope, certainly,that we see more initiatives like the Edible Estates project — which “proposes the replacement of the domestic front lawn with a highly productive edible landscape.” Their motto — Attack on the Front Lawn! As Arieff reminds us, that front lawn typically uses “up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre . . . than farmers use on crops.”

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Here at EarthQuaker’s suburban world headquarters we like to keep in touch with the world of hip, urban parenting, so we receive a daily email digest from Babble.com, the New York-based online parenting magazine.

That’s how we learned recently that even hipster parents find parenting a costly business these days.

Quoting parent Allyson Mazer, writer Melissa Rayworth tells us in a lengthy Babble feature:

“My husband and I were just talking about this with friends. You can make $300,000 a year and you’re just getting by. You’re not saving anything,” says Mazer, all traces of enthusiasm draining from her voice. “You’re paying the bills, and it’s not like you’re living the highlife.”

The bind Rayworth sees such wealthy parents as being in is paradoxical, she says. Parents are spending on things “that are clearly unnecessary but that [they] now feel all but mandatory. The optional has become the inescapable.”

Among those mandatory expenditures are not just tuition and childcare but:

“truckloads of consumer goods — kid-friendly groceries, kid-centric versions of family staples like bath products, even furniture — much of it emblazoned with Elmo, Thomas, SpongeBob, Spider-Man and the rest of their intensely marketed brethren.”

So what’s to be done? Rayworth seems to suggest that the proper — and only — response is to throw one’s hands in the air. “Call it crazy, insane, ridiculous,” she says, but “When it comes to parenting and purchasing, the definition of “necessity” has expanded to include just about everything.”

The parenting culture Rayworth depicts appears to have no self-control, no ability to determine what experiences are truly worth giving their children (which perhaps needn’t include Elmo shampoo, a Thomas bedset, an iPod or a $500 birthday bash) and no ability to critique an economic culture that regards it as a triumph when people buy things they don’t need.

All this expenditure doesn’t even make the parents doing it feel good, reports Rayworth.

“The obvious answer is to stop spending,” she says. “But that’s something our culture, our economy — and, after 9/11, our president — literally beg us not to do.”

When your culture drives you into debt and brings you no joy, all the while depleting the world of resources, perhaps the answer isn’t to acquiesce. Rather,might it not be better to work actively to change that culture in a more positive child-affirming direction — whatever your president may say?

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A few weeks back I was attending our local Friends meeting and thinking about light.

Specifically, I was looking at the many lamps hanging in the meeting room and wondering if they should ever be turned on during a meeting for worship. Why not, I thought, always hold our meetings in the available light — however dim — and simply enjoy whatever luminance nature chose to offer that day?

That led me to the value Quakers place on holding each other ‘in the light.’ It’s a wonderful concept, referring to the inner light that guides our spirits and helps us lead lives of integrity.

And that led me to literal human illumination which, surely, is something else entirely.

Take the intrusion that human lighting now makes upon the night sky. What we aptly dub ‘light pollution’ not only represents a huge waste of energy — most buildings and streets illuminated all through the night are not inhabited or traveled upon.   But it also means that there are few populated places upon the Earth where we can see anything like the true magnificence of the universe.

An effort this coming weekend — EarthHour — aims both to draw attention to the energy wasted in our excessive nocturnal illuminations, and to let us simply see the stars again.

Modesty and thrift are both Quaker virtues. Reigning in the man-made light we shed on ourselves so that we can see the natural world better — and helping save that world from the harm such profligacy causes — fits well into the Quaker way of doing things.

In that Meeting I recalled that James Turrell, one of the world’s great connoisseurs of light (both natural and man-made), is a Quaker. Turrell’s Live Oak Meeting House in Houston, Texas is justly admired both by Friends and art buffs of the highest brow. It’s a piece of modern art of extraordinary resonance, simplicity and depth.

Here’s hoping that EarthHour will be observed in Houston and that the Live Oak ‘skyspace’ will be open to the heavens that night.

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