A happy tangle

finches and sunflowers

One of my favorite sights this summer has been the view out our front window. There, quick winged little goldfinches come and go all day long. The bird feeder they are visiting is festooned all around with little bobbing sunflowers. Sometimes I mistake a finch for a flower, and think a flower has sprung into flight.

The sunflower is an tenacious volunteer. When I noticed it sprouting in the deep shade of our pomegranate tree, I didn’t think it had much hope for survival–and yet I’ve learned to respect the choices of volunteer plants, as Fukuoko-san advised.

Sure enough, the sunflower knew what it was doing. It concentrated all its resources into an epic twelve foot growth spurt, straight up, like a bamboo stalk. Only once it crested the top of the pomegranate and found the sun did it begin to spread its arms, and I swear that when it did, I could hear a sigh of relief.

Now this monster sunflower is sprawling all over the pomegranate, using it and the bird feeder pole for support. There are hundreds of little yellow flowers on it,  from the highest reaches to to the deepest shade on the ground.

The heads are going to seed, and so have become a food source for the birds, who I often see bobbing on them, nibbling as they wait their turn for the feeder. Squirrels nosh on them too. And the bright yellow flowers look great against our ripe, ruby red pomegranates, which, when they split open, are also a food source for the birds.

It’s hard to describe, and pretty much impossible to photograph, this cheery, eye-popping chaos, but we enjoy it, and the cats are entranced.

While I’ve sometimes wondered if it is right to keep a feeder in our yard, I feel good about it as of now, because we are providing other sources of forage as well. We let our plants go to seed. We don’t spray, so there are plenty  of bugs to eat. (Why so many spiders this year???) My thoughts are always turning toward planting strategies which provide year round food sources for our flying friends.

If you do keep a feeder, remember to clean it at least once a month. There are some bad bird diseases going around. Scrub it with soap and water and–according to birdish authorities like the Audubon Society–soak it afterward in a 10% bleach solution. I don’t do bleach, so I spray mine down with rubbing alcohol, which I keep in a spray bottle to sterilize my pruning shears. It’s just handy. If I didn’t have that, I’d use vinegar.

Clean out your birdbaths, too. You don’t have to bleach them, but change the water regularly and don’t let them get all gunky. And if you keep hummingbird feeders, you probably know those need to be cleaned out with hot water every few days, so mold doesn’t form in the sugar.

bird feeder cleaning

Easy Scandinavian-Style Bread

bread loaf

I really like the dense, hearty whole grain loaves which are popular in Germany and Scandinavia and other points north, but which are difficult to find in the U.S.  I’ve come to like these better than the airy kind of bread, as a matter of fact. Fluffy bread doesn’t really seem like real food to me anymore, and white fluffy bread tastes like cotton candy.

Of course, I’m spoiled because Erik is a baker, so he makes me delicious, black hole-dense loaves of sourdough rye. Or at least, he used to. Now he’s on crutches, trying to recover from a bad case of Plantar fasciitis. This means he’s not doing anything in the kitchen anymore, and my bread supply is gone.

Sure, I could wake up his sourdough starter, take on the mantle (or apron?) of Household Baker, and start making these loaves myself, but I’m already taking on extra chores with him off his feet, so I’m not inclined to take up this one as well. Yet we can’t live two months without good bread. What to do?

Fortunately, I’ve found a solution to our bread crisis: a perfectly good yeasted recipe which makes a dense whole grain loaf with minimal effort. No starter. No kneading. No rise time, even. It’s a quick bread, essentially. It takes 5 minutes to mix up, then you plop it into a loaf pan and put it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. That’s it.

It lacks the sour flavor and chewiness you get from developed loaves, true, as well as the health benefits/improved digestibility that comes from the fermentation process. But you know, it’s still very good. And it’s 100% whole grain and packed with healthful seeds. And for a yeasted bread, it keeps well. Our loaves have been lasting at least three days on the counter top, unwrapped.

This isn’t a bread for soaking up sauce, or making fancy sandwiches, because it’s not springy. Instead, it’s a bread for layering with cheese or lox or slices of cucumber and salt. It’s also great toasted. But mostly I’ve just been eating it slathered with that fancy cultured butter that Trader Joe’s has started selling lately.

Now that I’ve got you all excited, I’m not going to write the recipe here, because I’m using it exactly as I found it on The Transplanted Baker. I have nothing to add or change, or any excuse at all to claim it as my own. She calls her version of this recipe (which originated with Nigella Lawson) “Lazy Man’s Bread.” I’ll have to call this blog entry “Lazy Man’s Post.”

See: Lazy Man’s Bread at The Transplanted Baker

New Slow City


This Wednesday’s Root Simple Podcast will feature our interview of author William Powers. We just finished recording his interview a few minutes ago, and it’s a good one.

Some of you may have read Bill’s previous book, Twelve by Twelve, in which he chronicles his time in a small off-grid cabin. In New Slow City, he and his wife move to a micro-apartment in Manhattan, and, by slowing down consciously, finds he can work less and find connection with others and nature–even in the heart of the world’s “fastest” city.  It’s a beautifully written book, and covers more ground than the previous sentence even begins to suggest. Read it.

Bill is in the middle of a book tour right now, so I wanted to put up his schedule so you can catch him if he comes to your town. He’s an engaging speaker, so do get out and see him if you can.

See his events page for details on each event.

  • Wednesday, Sept 30 – SAN FRANCISCO
  • Friday, Oct 2  – CLAREMONT
  • Saturday, Oct 3 – LOS ANGELES
  • Tuesday, Oct 6 – ASHLAND
  • Wednesday, Oct 7 – CHICAGO
  • Thursday, Oct 8 – CHICAGO
  • Sunday, Oct 11  – ALBUQUERQUE
  • Thursday, Oct 15  – SANTA FE
  • Wednesday, Nov 4 – NEW YORK
  • Thursday, Nov 17 – LA PAZ (BOLIVIA)
  • Tuesday, Dec 1 – SANTA CRUZ (BOLIVIA)

Moon Gazing

Japanese landscape with full moon

We’ve been pretty unplugged lately, so we’re not sure how much this is being hyped, but just in case you haven’t heard about it, be sure to go out and view the moon this Sunday night.

Sunday, September 27th, 2015 is a full moon, and the date of this year’s Chinese Moon Festival (also called Mid-Autumn Festival) — which is also celebrated in Vietnam and Japan (and elsewhere in Asia, too) with moon gazing and the eating of special foods, such as round white dumplings in Japan or in China, the famous moon cakes.

As a bonus, this year’s full moon is extra special, being a super moon, and blood moon/partial eclipse. All of this lunar magnificence is enough to even get us Westerners outside and gazing at the moon.

I like the idea of all of us looking up at the sky on Sunday night, connected as a human family, united in pondering the beauty of the universe and the elegant cycles of the natural world.

Maybe this year we can all celebrate a moon festival of our own, even if this isn’t part of our usual cultural tradition. Instead of moon cakes and dumplings, we could make some other kind of celebratory food–I’m thinking about making some little round crepes with red berry sauce to celebrate the blood moon.

Or perhaps our new traditions won’t involve food, but crafts, or songs, or copious toasting–or maybe we can just all stand outside and howl at the moon. It would do us some good, I think.

What is a blood moon anyway, you ask? It’s a moon stained red by the Earth’s shadow.

What’s a super moon? It’s a full moon which is as close to Earth as it can be in its elliptical orbit, making it appear extra large in the sky.

For more authoritative information on this lunar event, and for best viewing times and the like, check out Sky & Telescope. Erik is a big astronomy geek, and he gives Sky & Telescope a double thumbs up.

And as for us, we’ll be out on the porch Sunday night, thinking of all you guys.

Lost from the cradle of connection: the high price of driving


P32 investigates a camera, February 2015 (National Park Service)

On August 10 of this year, sometime in the early morning, a young mountain lion known to us as P32 was killed on the Interstate 5 near Castaic.

He had been tracked by researchers for two years–and appeared on the local news now and then– as he traversed the borderlands of our civilization, crossing our roads and slinking through our backyards as he made his way from wild space to wild space, traveling all the way from the Santa Monica Mountains to Pyramid Lake. Cameras caught him making four freeway crossings in the past, and certainly he made more  He had to cross highways. An adult mountain lion needs about 200 miles of home range to make a living.

State officials call his death “Sad, but not surprising.”

On August 10th, P32 became “roadkill.” Roadkill is an odd term, isn’t it?  The road didn’t kill P32, a driver did.

There’s some odd blameshifting going on there. The term roadkill implies that no one is at fault. It also seems to indicate that roads will kill, inevitably, and any creature hit by a car was stupid to be on the road in the first place. They should know the rules: step on our roads and you die.

After the collision, the animal is denigrated by the means of its death to a nonentity. P32 ceased to be a lion and became roadkill–and roadkill is a joke.

How big of a joke? According to the Humane Society, one million animals die on U.S. roads every day.

Yes, one million every day.

It’s a hard number to get your head around. It’s a hard number to come to, because most animal deaths are not reported. Animals tend to make the stats only  if they’re large enough to damage a vehicle, or must be dragged from the road to clear the way for traffic. No one is counting all of the flattened rabbits and possums and squirrels and the sparrows and turtles and snakes, so I’m not sure how the Humane Society is calculating this number, but I don’t doubt it. It’s probably low.

And what about insects?

Researchers in the Netherlands estimate that 800 billion insects die on the hoods of automobiles every six months in the Netherlands alone. British research brings in similar numbers in terms of bugs killed per distance traveled. Treehugger extrapolated that number for the US, and reckons we kill about 32 trillion insects a year while driving.

(An aside, I once heard Emily Green comment that planting the median strip of a busy boulevard with flowers was like parking an ice cream truck in the middle of a freeway. In other words, how many pollinators die trying to cross traffic to get to our beautified medians? Talk about being killed by good intentions.)

How much of the food supply for birds and frogs and other creatures is lost on our hoods and under our wheels? And while few people would mourn the passing of a mosquito or a fly on the windshield, but what about the night pollinating moths, what about the Monarchs, what about the bees?

We’re all up in arms about CCD, about pesticides and dying pollinators–how many bees are we killing all by ourselves as we drive?

In the same way, we decry shelters which euthanize dogs and cats, we abhor animal testing, but we kill more animals on the roads than we do in the shelters and the labs.

But let’s get more anthropocentric. What about human deaths?

In 2013, in the U.S. alone:

  • 32,719 people died in car-related accidents (This number is significantly down from past years, but sadly seems to be going back up this year.)
  • 4,735 of these were pedestrians (i.e. people trying to walk around–I kind of hate the word pedestrian) A further 22,000 people were injured by car drivers.
  • 735 of the dead were cyclists

FYI, 3,551,332 people have died in the US in motor vehicle accidents since we invented cars. The chart of this year by year progression is grimly interesting.  As is this chart of countries by traffic related death rates.

In sum, every year I’ve been alive, an average of 45,000 people have died–in the US alone–simply because they needed to get to work, or school or the store.

Why is it acceptable to us that so many people must die just because they needed to get somewhere? Do we live in a war zone? How many casualties are acceptable in this engagement?

And beyond the lives lost, there’s the money. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that highway accidents cost $277 billion dollars a year in straight up economic costs ($900 per person in the US) and a more fuzzy $594 billion in “societal harm,” meaning pain suffered, decreased quality of life, etc. The total is $871 billion in losses per year.

And all of the above is simple an accounting of deaths and money. Stuff which isn’t abstract. Blood on the pavement is hard to spin. I haven’t touched on climate change, air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, habitat loss, urban sprawl, songbird harassment–all of the rest of indicators of the unspeakably high cost of the personal automobile.

So, okay, this is all depressing. What’s my point?

The point is:

What are we thinking?

I mean, seriously, what are we thinking? Can we step back from this?

I doubt it. We can’t talk about giving up the personal automobile. We can’t even think about alternatives, no matter what it costs us, anymore than an Easter Islander could stop chopping down trees.

Our blindness is intractable, and all-encompassing. For us, cars are not merely a convenient transportation device of fairly recent invention. They are magical talismans. They represent us: our souls, our freedom and self-determination.

I don’t know if we can escape this kind of blindness. I speak for myself. I drive. I live in a car-centric city. I know better. And still I drive.

But I do wonder why, and I wonder what it is doing to our souls.

The road is an ugly place and it makes for ugly people. I was on the freeway today, and as usual had a few scary moments and did my obligatory bit of swearing at my fellow man. You’d think the roads were stuffed with sociopaths rather than decent people trying to get through their day. We change when we’re on the road.

We don’t look one another in the eye. We’re anonymous. We’re armored. We’re more powerful than we are on our feet, so we feel invincible.

Life, real life, good life, is about connection. Connection with ourselves, with nature, with spirit, with each other. It’s about relationships. And relationships are formed face to face. Our freeways and boulevards are places of anti-connection, anti-relationship. Taken out of the cradle of connection, we turn into monsters.

The dead by the road, or on it, testify to the presence of man. Their little gestures of pain—paws, wings and tails—are the saddest, the loneliest, most forlorn postures of the dead I can imagine. When we have stopped killing animals as though they were so much refuse, we will stop killing one another.

But the highways show our indifference to death, so long as it is someone else’s. It is an attitude of the human mind I do not grasp. I have no point of connection with it. People drive in such a way that you think they do not believe in death. Their own lives are their business, but my life is not their business. I cannot refrain from terrific anger when I am threatened so casually by strangers on a public road.  – Timothy Findley,  from Journeyman: Travels of a Writer, 1965

If there were any grown-ups in this world, they’d take our cars from us, because we’ve been very bad with our toys.

I’ve been trying to be a grown-up. Which means I’ve been thinking about bicycling, even though I’m afraid to even get on a bike in this city. I feel like a huge hypocrite for not doing so, though, and the balance of moral incentive versus fear keeps tipping as I am forced, day by day, to acknowledge the costs of my behavior.

The death of P32 has pushed me a little further toward courage.


Note: If you’d like to help track animal road deaths so that a) we know the actual numbers and b) so we could maybe get some money together to build culverts or bridges for animals to use to cross highways, check out:

Roadkill Survey by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

And if you live in California or Maine:

Wildlife Crossing