The recyclable/compostable Christmas tree


I must confess: Erik and I are Scrooges. Ask anyone who knows us and they will tell you our Christmas spirit is measured in negative numbers. There are a lot of reasons for this, but those are beside the point. The point is that this year we’ve decided to embrace the madness instead of rejecting it. We’re getting our Christmas on.

To do this right, we needed a tree, a real tree.* Sticker shock prevented us from getting a big tree, but we’ve got a cute little tree balanced on, of all things, a stack of bee boxes in the living room. (Bees Not Included.)

Because of our essential scrooginess, we have very little in the way of Christmas decorations, especially for people of our advanced age. Usually Christmas decorations grow and multiply over the years like a tinsely coral reef. Kids, of course, generate many decorations. And some families give or buy commemorative ornaments every year. Ornaments get passed down. And some people just can’t resist a new ornament. None of these things apply to us. And, as I said, we are scrooges. I started this tree pretty much from scratch, like a kid in her first apartment. We had a string of white lights, and a couple of random things here and there.

buck tree

I just had to throw in the demented cat.

Since I was starting from scratch, I could saddle up my high horse and take her for a ride. I declared this tree and its decorations would all be compostable, or at a stretch, recyclable. Except the lights. I don’t know if the high horse would allow me to buy lights or not, so I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.

As I mentioned in the wreath post a couple of weeks ago, I really like the idea of natural, ephemeral holiday decor. There’s pleasure in finding decorations in nature, and in crafting by hand. There’s also pleasure in being able to send most of it back to the earth when the holiday is over. It saves money, saves storage space and gets you in touch with nature and your own creativity. What’s not to like?

So anyway, this year’s tree is fairly minimalist so far. I may make/find some more ornaments before Christmas, including a classic popcorn/cranberry chain. But  one thing I’ve realized is that this can be a year-round project in the future, because you never know when you’re going to find something wonderful in nature. And what better way to remind yourself to keep a sharp eye on what’s around you?

I want to collect bird feathers, and small pine cones, and young acorns and rose hips and pretty sticks covered with moss and dried flowers. I have more ideas right now than I have time. I do know that next year’s tree will be more wilderness themed than this one. This one I like, though.

Ideas for Ephemeral Ornaments

Most of these are classic, old-fashioned ornaments. I love the fact that they are free or inexpensively made, and don’t have to be stored from year to year.

  • Sturdy fruits and berries
  • Popcorn/cranberry strings
  • Paper chains
  • Dried herbs and flowers
  • Moss
  • Feathers
  • Cool looking seed pods
  • Nuts
  • Origami
  • Paper snowflakes
  • Homemade rock candy
  • Gingerbread figures

There’s tons more possibilities. What have I forgotten?

Some of my ornaments

sugared sage

This is a sugared white sage leaf. I added sugar because I decided the tree needed a little bling.

sugared toyon

Ditto with these–sugared toyon berries. I will do a separate how-to post on sugaring.


But berries don’t need sugaring to look nice. These are pink peppercorn tree berries.

twirl ornament

These  pretty twisty spiral things fall off a tree in our neighborhood. I’m sorry that I don’t know the name of the tree.

origami ikea

Next year I’m going to do my own origami for the tree. This year I’ve got some paper stars I dug up, which I believe came from Ikea.


And there’s always snowflakes.


*We considered a potted tree but decided against it because first, we could never plant it–we don’t have the space, and second, most of these conifers aren’t meant to live in the LA climate. I didn’t want to keep a potted tree on life support on our back patio. I think it would be unhappy. This little tree will be dismembered after Christmas and will become part of the ecosystem of our yard.

An Early Resolution

coffee cup

Last night I wrote a rant against disposable coffee cups, aka to-go cups. I didn’t post it this morning because I didn’t feel good about it. It was too negative, and worse, I was projecting. My rant went into some detail about the fraudulent idea of “disposability”, and how this idea degraded both our environment and our culture.

And this is true. A to-go cup is not particularly recyclable, despite its pretenses. Many (most?) communities don’t find it worthwhile to recycle dirty paper cups. And by culture, I mean that is far more civil, not to mention communal, to share beverages from a common pot. To sit together and drink, instead of run and gulp alone. I said that is important to share a communal drink, leaving aside your own preferences for this happy wholeness and communality– i.e. your choices comes down to “cream or sugar?” rather than a whole menu blackboard full of incremental and ultimately insignificant customization options. I find that in the case of coffee, individualism is a lonely business.

At any rate, I realized I was spending too much time on my high horse (her name is Princess and she has a pink mane) when I am a frequent enough user of disposable cups. True, I don’t work in the office, so I’m not lining up at Starbuck’s twice a day, and I often carry a travel mug, but I don’t say no to hot beverages when I’m at meetings and gatherings, or when I’m on the road, and these almost always come in disposable cups.

If I try to imagine how many disposable cups I’ve used in my life–say the earth (justly) vomited them all back at my feet–how high would the pile be? As big as my house?

So I’m making a resolution. Instead of berating others, I’m declaring a personal moratorium on to-go cups–all disposable cups for both hot and cold drinks, actually, because why not? I banned plastic water bottles from my life long ago. Why it took so long for me to eschew the cups, I don’t know. I guess I was always able to mutter, “Well, at least they’re paper.” Denial is a beautiful thing! But it’s time to face facts. They’re just as bad as the bottles.

Thus the resolution: no more disposable cups personally, and I also vow to help groups/organizations I belong to wean themselves from disposables, even if that means me doing a lot of dishes in random bathroom sinks. Oh yes, I’m going to be that person.

One hopeful note: in researching I discovered that use of personal mugs at Starbucks  is up by 22% in one year:

In 2013 customers brought their own tumblers into our stores 46.9 million times, up from 35.8 million in 2012, saving more than 1.4 million pounds of paper from landfills. As more customers brought in their personal tumblers over the previous year, the percentage of customers choosing reusable mugs saw a 22% increase over the prior year from 1.5% to 1.84%.  (Starbucks blog)

Okay, so it’s not even 2% of their customers, but those few kept 1.4 million pounds of paper from the landfill, and that’s significant. Individual choices do matter.

A few more thoughts:

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 4.26.07 PM

To-go cups c. 1963, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. See? Not so hard.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 4.21.22 PM

Bitter intelligence agents share a nice pot of tea. Also from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (I just watched it, so I noticed the cups.)


A Tea Lady in Britain keeps the war workers well-caffeinated, without the use of disposables.

coffee urn

This is so common, and yet so very unappealing. The plastic stir sticks! The creamers! Seriously, does anyone approach this situation with any more enthusiasm than you would a port-a-potty when you really have to go? Meaning, it’s there to fulfill a basic need, not to give anyone joy. Photo credit Colin Harris


Guess how old this coffee mug is. Guess. This mug was made in China 4000 to 4500 years ago. Humans have appreciated a good brew in a good mug for a long time. Let’s get back to that.

Return of the Caftan?


A hasty blog post on Sunday about a 1970s caftan pattern provoked a passionate response. Craig of Winnetka Farms called and joked that since we’ve already hosted a shoe making workshop we might as well host a caftan making class. That, I said, would make us fodder for Portlandia parody.

Reaction to the caftan post fell into two camps. Baby Boomers chastised my Generation X cynicism and noted that caftans are comfortable and practical. Others thought the idea is as ridiculous as, well, hosting a shoe making workshop and grinding your own flour. In Facebook, someone posted the picture above of Yves Saint Laurent rocking a caftan and “mandals”.

The caftan is from the Middle East and is still part of the the day to day and clerical garb of Abrahamic cultures. It’s a garment that makes a lot of sense in a hot, dry Mediterranean or desert climate. It functions as a kind of natural air conditioning. With each step you get a breeze, a real bonus for a coming era of anthropegenic fashion change.

Its last appearance was during the 1960s. When will caftans return to the fashion-forward Silver Lake Trader Joes?

025 Bees and Home Ec Disasters

bees poppy

Of the 25 podcasts we’ve produced, this may have been the most difficult to put together. I don’t think most people know how contentious beekeeping practices are. There’s a sharp divide between natural/non-interventionist approaches and conventional beekeeping. I’m on the natural side, but I hope I was fair in my description of the California Beekeeper’s convention that I attended this week. During the beekeeping part of the podcast Kelly and I mention the following beekeepers: Micheal Thiele and Micheal Bush. We also mention We conclude with a plea for more citizen science projects on pollinators such as the Sunflower Project.

We conclude with a discussion of a series of household disasters, including breaking a precious tool, the Silent Paint Remover and burning a batch of spicy maricopa beans.

Make sure to listen until the end for Kelly’s eloquent addendum on the discussion.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Diyas: oil lamps from India


[Oops! We accidentally posted Thursday’s post today–Wednesday. Please don’t miss our regular scheduled Wednesday podcast, below.]

As readers of this blog and our books know, I’m a big fan of little vegetable oil lamps–the type that can be easily improvised with any shallow vessel, from sea shells to Altoid tins. If the tabletop aesthetic of oyster shells and recyclables doesn’t quite appeal to you, may I interest you in diyas?

Diyas are little clay lamps used in India. They usually burn ghee, but any vegetable oil works well in them, too. I just found them being sold at our local Indian supermarket. There, the fancy molded ones, like the one pictured above (one of many shapes) were 3 for $1.00. The simplest ones, which are basically teardrop shaped pinch pots, go for 5 for a dollar.

That’s a lot of fun for a dollar, and a good way to light up a party with a hundred warm little lights–if you can keep your guests from catching themselves on fire! (For more info, see my post at the first link above for all the deets on making and using a vegetable oil lamp.)

Also, it occurs to me that it would be a great lesson for kids to make a pinch pot out of clay dug from the ground, and then make some ghee and a wick, and then see how prettily butter burns.  (And whenever I say something would be a good lesson for kids, this means it’s something I want to do myself.)