Working Big: A Teacher’s Guide to Environmental Sculpture

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Let me tell you how on-board I am with any children’s DIY project book that begins with pictures of Robert Smithson’s monumental land art.

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Working Big: A Teacher’s Guide to Environmental Sculpture resonates with me due to many childhood trips to the LA County Art Museum at the height of the minimalism art era. Working Big applies some of the art notions of that period to group activities for kids using cardboard, plastic bags and junk. The result is visually striking projects reminiscent of Smithson and the Ant Farm.

If only the NIMBYs around the Silver Lake Reservoir would let us do this:

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Damn the nanny state!

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You can download a copy for free, along with a lot of other amazing and outré 1970s publications here.

Best Practices for Gardening in Contaminated Soil

File this ad under "bad ideas."

File this ad under “bad ideas.”

The benefits of growing food in cities (nutrition, exposure to nature) outweigh the very low risks of lead contamination. This is the conclusion of a recent University of Washington study:

It is highly unlikely that urban agriculture will increase incidences of elevated blood Pb for children in urban areas. This is due to the high likelihood that agriculture will improve soils in urban areas, resulting in reduced bioavailability of soil Pb and reduced fugitive dust. Plant uptake of Pb is also typically very low. The exceptions are low-growing leafy crops where soil-splash particle contamination is more likely and expaneded hypocotyl root vegetalbes (e.g. carrot). However even with higher bioaccumulation factors, it is not clear that the Pb in root vegetables or any other crop will be absorbed after eating.

The paper outlines a set of best practices for dealing with contaminated soils. You should always:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables from your garden. Also wash your hands and don’t wear shoes in the house.
  • Compost, compost, compost! Compost dilutes the overall amount of lead in soil and encourages healthy plant growth which also dilutes the (usually small) amount of lead a plant will uptake. Apply compost annually since it breaks down over time.
  • Plant away from painted surfaces of old (lead paint era) buildings.

Some other things to consider especially if you garden with children under 5 years old:

  • Don’t eat a lot of carrots, radishes, redbeets or turnips grown in contaminated soil. The edible portion of these plants consist of xylem tissue that traps lead (potatoes are OK since they are phloem fed). That said, you’d have to eat a lot of contaminated root vegetables to elevate lead levels in your blood.
  • Adding phosphorus fertilizers will decrease the bioavailability of lead.
  • In general root vegetables uptake the most lead, leafy greens less and fruit almost none.
  • The most conservative approach is to grow in raised beds.

The main concern is for children under 5 years old. If your soil tests high in lead and you have young ones you should consider doing your edible gardening in raised beds and limit their exposure to garden soils to a few times a month. Mulch and ground covers will also decrease lead exposure in the other parts of your yard.

The paper concludes that for older children and adults, “There is little indication that growing or eating food from urban gardens will result in high Pb (lead) exposure.”

Picture Sundays: Kiddo the Airship Cat

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A delightful lecture by Paul Koudounaris on the history of ship cats tipped me off to the story of Kiddo, the airship cat. Kiddo went aboard the ill-fated airship America in an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Atlantic in October 1910. Kiddo did not enjoy the experience, at first, and led to what may have been the first air to ground radio transmission, “Roy, come and get this goddamn cat!”

After a journey of over a thousand miles, inclement weather led to the abandonment of the airship. Kiddo and crew were rescued by a British steamship (Kiddo was found snoozing in the back of the lifeboat).

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The story is proof that the celebrity cat phenomenon pre-dates the interwebs. Kiddo, renamed Trent after the rescue ship, was welcomed back to New York where he spent a period on display in a gilded cage at Gimbel’s department store. Postcards of Trent went all over the world. He spent the rest of his life with the daughter of the airship’s owner.

For more details of the story see Purr n’ Furr Famous Felines.

Saturday Tweets: Cornbread Controversies, 2×4 Furniture and El Niño

Is Lead Poisoning a Risk in Urban Gardens?

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Those of you who have followed our blog over the years know that our yard is contaminated with lead. This is, most likely, due to some combination of lead paint residue and car exhaust. For years we’ve grown vegetables in raised beds because of this issue.

But if the results of a University of Washington study on lead and urban agriculture are to be believed, we might not need to be as concerned. The researchers note that most vegetables don’t take up lead and that improving soil with compost greatly reduces the bioavailability of lead.

You can read a summary of the results of this research paper here.

Thanks to Joanne Poyourow of Environmental Change Makers for tipping me off to this research.