Frida Paints Luther

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Sometimes an artist’s works are reproduced so much that familiarity obscures meaning. Da Vinchi and Andy Warhol have fallen victim to this. I’ve seen Frida Kahlo’s portrait in Mexican restaurants so often I’ve come to associate her work with combo platters and Margueritas.

A slide in John Valenzuela’s Heirloom Expo lecture of Kahlo’s portrait of horticulturalist Luther Burbank reminded me of how great an artist Kahlo was. That Kahlo painted Burbank also says something about people’s priorities in the 1930s.

Kahlo liked to blur the boundaries between human consciousness, the vegetable and the animal. In her portrait of Burbank she touches on themes of life, death and transformation. You could write a book about what’s going on in this painting.

Burbank’s work lives on inour backyards and orchards in the form of the fruit varieties he developed. I’ll view his Santa Rosa plum in our front yard differently after encountering Kahlo’s virtuosic painting.

Is Diagonal the New Horizontal? The Evolution of the “Flipper” Fence

diaganalfence

We’re in the midst of what seems like a new real estate bubble here in Los Angeles. Houses get so many bids that buyers have to write letters to the owner to beg for the privilege of buying their dilapidated bungalow.

To take advantage of this market, house flippers have developed a new architectural vocabulary based, I think, on a kind of mash up of stuff from Home Depot and ideas from back issues of Dwell Magazine. One of the most persistent flipper memes is the horizontal fence:

Photo via The Eastsider.

Photo via The Eastsider.

I spotted a unique variation on the flipper fence a few weeks ago–the diagonal fence at the top of this post. I kind of like it but when I posted it in Facebook I got a mixed reaction. One thing I don’t like about it myself is the height. Personally, I think it’s unfriendly to the neighborhood to have a front yard fence higher than four feet (not to mention that it’s a code violation, as well). That said, I think this diagonal arrangement might look good in a backyard (though it does waste the bit of wood you have to saw off the top).

Some other Facebook comments noted the sad state of the parkway, a.k.a “hell strip.” To be fair to the owners I don’t think they are finished with the job (which, if they are actually house flippers, will involve gravel and agave).

What do you think? Should good fences be vertical, diagonal or horizontal?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, GMOs and Risk Management

I can understand why Neil deGrasse Tyson made these off the cuff remarks about genetically modified organisms. There’s a lot of tin foil hat thinking on the anti-GMO side. But his comments also reveal that Tyson does not understand the difference between conventional plant breeding (something human beings have been up to for thousands of years) and GMOs.

For me, the best argument against GMOs come from a risk-management perspective. Statistician, author and former Wall Street trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, along with four co-authors, published an article, “The Precautionary Principle: Fragility and Black Swans from Policy Actions” that describes, from a risk management perspective, why GMOs are not a good idea,

Monoculture in combination with genetic engineering dramatically increases the risks being taken. Instead of a long history of evolutionary selection, these modifications rely not just on naive engineering strategies that do not appropriately consider risk in complex environments, but also explicitly reductionist approaches that ignore unintended consequences and employ very limited empirical testing . . . There is no comparison between tinkering with the selective breeding of genetic components of organisms that have previously undergone extensive histories of selection and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato. Saying that such a product is natural misses the process of natural selection by which things become “natural.” While there are claims that all organisms include transgenic materials, those genetic transfers that are currently present were subject to selection over long times and survived. The success rate is tiny. Unlike GMOs, in nature there is no immediate replication of mutated organisms to become a large fraction of the organisms of a species. Indeed, any one genetic variation is unlikely to become part of the long term genetic pool of the population. Instead, just like any other genetic variation or mutation, transgenic transfers are subject to competition and selection over many generations before becoming a significant part of the population. A new genetic transfer engineered today is not the same as one that has survived this process of selection.

With GMOs there is the chance, albeit small, of total systemic failure of the system. The “bottom up” nature of conventional breeding–a much longer time frame and localized effects–prevents this kind of systemic failure.

Hopefully Tyson will read this article himself. It’s evident from his non-apologetic backpedaling on Facebook, that he still doesn’t understand the risks of GMOs.

Taleb’s article is worth reading. In addition to his argument on GMOs, the papers serves as a convenient summary of his “black swan” theory.

Movie recommendation: DamNation

This weekend, Erik and I went to a screening and discussion of DamNation, hosted at the Natural History Museum. DamNation is beautiful environmental documentary about the history and impact of dams on our watersheds, and the growing movement to decommission “deadbeat dams.”

I don’t know if it was the PMS, but I was teary-eyed through much of it, moved by the beauty of the waters, the struggles of the salmon, and the passion of the people who love the fish and their rivers. Days later, I keep thinking particularly of one man who for the last twelve years (if I recall correctly) has lived in a camper six months out of the year to guard a special resting place for trout on their migration. He has Parkinson’s disease, and knows he will not be able to carry on his mission as long as he had hoped, but has faith he’ll find someone to take his place when the time comes.

I also learned a lot about dams–starting with the simple fact of how many of them we have. Holy cow! Like “No Child Left Behind”, it seems we had a “No River Left Undammed” policy for quite a few years. I also never understood how fish hatcheries work, but I now see them as a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to manage nature.

At any rate, Erik and I both give it the thumbs up. According to the producer who spoke at the screening, DamNation is available for sale as a DVD and Blue Ray. It’s also in the iTunes store, and the cable On Demand services, and will be on Netflix within a couple of weeks. It has been doing the festival circuit in the U.S., and will be doing more tours abroad. Finally, they also have a program to help community groups host a screening.

Toilet paper in the woods: a rant and some advice

tp stream 2

What’s wrong with this picture?

Ladies.

Sisters.

I have a rant for you.

It’s an appeal to women, because this is pretty much a woman-centered problem. It’s about leaving toilet paper behind after peeing outdoors, and menfolk don’t leave toilet paper behind after they pee. (Yes, there is #2, but that is less often seen in recreation areas. Backpackers know how to Leave No Trace and daytrippers mostly hold it.)

This means 95% of nasty clumps of toilet paper I find festooning our precious wild spaces were left there by women. So I’m talking to you, Ladies Who Litter.

It is s a form of litter, you know. Just as bad as throwing your Starbuck’s cup on the ground and walking away. People might say it’s “biodegradable” and yes, it will break down…eventually.

Eventually can be a long time, especially in dry places. Like, a year. Or more. Not a week or so, if you’re thinking that. If there’s no rain, the paper just sits and sits, flapping in the breeze, basically immortal. Paper lasts a long time! Think about it. There’s probably toilet paper dating back to WWII floating around Joshua Tree.

If it gets wet and dries up again, toilet paper turns into this sort of crusty papier mache, clinging to the land like a contagious skin disease. Eventually, with enough water and time and maybe some helpful trampling by animals, it will darken and break down enough to be unnoticeable from a distance. But it is still there.

I might notice this problem more than some people, because I’m often off-trail. And everywhere I go, there’s the toilet paper. I squat down to look at a deer track, and realize there’s some under my heel. I settle down in a nice place to admire the view, and then end up focusing on a white blob of paper caught on a bush, ten yards down the hill. I go to the stream to cool my feet and almost step on someone’s nasty leavings (i.e. the picture above).

It drives me bonkers. I clean it up when I can, just like I pick up the empty water bottles and beer cans and pint bottles of booze and cigarette butts and those damn plastic flossing devices and everything else people see fit to leave behind whenever they visit nature.

I suppose we all have our different priorities and beliefs, but to me, the wilderness is sacred, all of it. Not just pristine wilderness, but parks and roadsides and beaches. I’d no more throw toilet paper or other garbage around in nature than I would do so in a church.

And that sense of the sacred is above and beyond my basic obligations toward other humans, who I can safely assume do not want to see my piss soaked toilet paper and other miscellaneous garbage.

But enough ranting.

All this is not to say you should avoid peeing in nature.

Far from it. It’s very, very important to stay well hydrated while outdoors. You should drink lots and pee lots. I’ve heard that the most common call for mountain rescue is for women who collapse on the trail because of dehydration, because they weren’t drinking because they didn’t want to pee outdoors. Don’t let this be you.

I want all women to be comfortable peeing outdoors, for safety and fun and convenience. I just wish that there was some more education about how to properly pee in the woods. It’s not hard to take care of your own needs and take care of the land at the same time.

To whit:

4 tidy ways to pee in the woods

  1. Carry a zip lock baggie in your pocket. Put your used toilet paper in the bag and carry it until you get to the next garbage can. It won’t smell, it’s not that gross. It’s that easy.
  2.  Bury the toilet paper in a hole. This is not ideal. I’d far rather see it packed out, because it will likely get dug up or exposed. But it’s better than nothing. If you forget your baggie, this is the least you can do.
  3. Skip the toilet paper. You don’t really need it, you know. We didn’t evolve with toilet paper rolls attached to our behinds. You can develop your outdoor peeing technique so you can pee clean, mostly drip free. I don’t use TP when I pee in the woods–all I leave behind is a gift to the forest of water and nitrogen, and yes, I’m pretty darn smug about that. Soon I’ll do a separate post on outdoor peeing technique, but in the meanwhile, consider wearing a panty liner when you’re out in nature, then just sort of “dripping dry” for a moment before you pull up your pants. The pad will catch any stray drops.
  4. Carry one of the several urine director devices on the market for women, like this one which is well rated at REI. These not only allow you to pee standing up, with minimal disrobing, but you don’t use TP with them either.

When it is so very easy to keep our wild spaces clean and beautiful, why not do it? Teach your daughters–and your mothers. Offer baggies and panty liners to your friends. Pass it on.

(By the way, I’m trying to think up a good term for toilet paper litter –some of my ideas include “trail warts” or “forest tinsel” or “bush bunting”  Does anyone know one that’s in use? There must be a term in general use among the outdoorsfolk, but I’ve never heard one.)

Artificial Turf: Is It Ever a Good Idea?

Monsanto Astroturf ad

Another winning product from the folks at Monsanto.

In the midst of a drought, our local Department of Water and Power is offering a $3 a square foot rebate for residents and businesses who remove their lawn in favor of less water hungry plantings. Those dollars add up if you’ve got even a modest sized backyard.

But the devil is always in the details. While the LADWP has some very good information on lawn alternatives as well as training classes on water wise landscaping, why did they have to include “non-vegetative groundcover” a.k.a. artificial turf in the rebate program? And why did they landscape one of their own facilities with the stuff?

In this interest of keeping an open mind, I tried to think of circumstances in which artificial turf might be a good option. Maybe if it were used ironically? But I don’t really think its use can be justified. Why?

  • It’s a petrochemical product.
  • It will eventually break down and end up in a landfill or the  ocean.
  • There’s no wildlife benefit.

Practically speaking, it also gets really hot on a summer day and you’ve got to hose it down with water just to step on it. And if you have pets, it’s not easy to clean up after them on artificial turf.

And while we don’t have kids, I don’t buy the argument that kids need grass. I think kids would enjoy a garden that’s lush and a bit of a maze with places to play hide and seek. Same goes for dogs, really. They’re hard on grass, and do better with mulch. Kids and dogs and grownups as well enjoy the wildlife and rich scents brought in by diverse plant life.

As far as athletics are concerned, while there’s considerable debate on the subject, some studies have shown that sports injury rates are higher on artificial turf.

In short, I don’t think there’s an application for this stuff. And we certainly don’t need our government to incentivize it.

And just FYI, Monsanto developed AstroTurf.

How Can We Fix Our Public Landscaping?

dwp3

Yesterday Kelly blogged about the appalling landscaping in front of an Los Angeles Department of Water and Power facility. When Kelly first showed me the photo of that purple gravel and artificial turf I thought it might be some kind of conceptual art project.

Unfortunately, this poor attempt at a drought tolerant landscape is just another example of an attitude of indifference towards public space that’s all too prevalent in Los Angeles and many other cities. Sahra Sulaiman at LA Streetsblog has done a great job covering the many ways this indifference manifests in big piles of trash on LA’s sidewalks and horrible conditions for bus commuters.

This indifference is also apparent in the lackluster landscaping of most of our public spaces. This egregious LADWP “garden” is the last straw for me. It’s time we do something about it.

Two California based organizations come to mind: Daily Acts in Petaluma and the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. Daily Acts has landscaped public spaces such as libraries and schools as well as private homes. These gardens provide an example that others can follow. The Ecology Center has a spectacular garden that shows do simple water harvesting to create a beautiful landscape with drought tolerant plants that attracts beneficial wildlife.

We need similar organizations in Los Angeles. We have an immense pool of talent here that could fix that terrible purple gravel and artificial turf atrocity and go on to do so much more. Who’s in?

And to those of you reading this elsewhere in the word, feel free to leave a comment about how you changed your public space for the better.

Induced Demand

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Image: Wikipedia.

I was on the phone the other day having a conversation about greywater with a person enrolled in an entrepreneurial program. She asked me an excellent question: did having a greywater system cause me to use more water?

She was alluding to a concept known as induced demand. In other words, when you have more of something you use more. Buy a hybrid car and you end up driving more miles since you don’t pay as much for gas. Build a four lane highway instead of a two lane one and so many more people end up driving that you end up with worse gridlock.

I’d never thought of induced demand when it comes to greywater, but it’s a good point. Did I plant more fruit trees because I had a greywater system? Has this caused more water consumption in our current drought? Honestly, I think the answer is yes.

You could probably find induced demand between the lines of David Homgren’s permaculture principles. But perhaps we should insert a thirteenth principle: acknowledge induced demand and work to prevent it. Simply being aware of the phenomenon is a good first step in avoiding its pitfalls.

My original greywater system consisted of a tank and a hose to drag around to a bunch of trees. I’ve since simplified the system. It’s now just a pipe leading from the laundry machine to one tree that needs just about as much water as we do in laundry each week. My second system is more of a 1:1 match between the waste water and the demands of the landscape.

Have you encountered induced demand on your homesteading path? If so where and how?

LA ecovillage: self-reliance in a car-free urban homestead

Johnny, who shot that nice video of us for faircompanies.com just made another video about our friends at the LA ecovillage. It’s well worth a view. Some of the most amazing folks in Los Angeles live there. And I like that fact that’s it’s an ecovillage smack dab in the middle of my beloved hometown.

Make sure to also check out Johnny’s blog Granola Shotgun.

Chicks, Mayonnaise and Personal Responsibility

handsome in poppies

Recently, an email from Farm Forward (which I believe is tied to PETA somehow) appeared in the Root Simple mailbox, saying, “I thought you and your readers might be interested in a new campaign Farm Forward just launched called BuyingMayo.com. We’re letting consumers know that baby chicks are killed in the process of making America’s #1 condiment: Best Foods & Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.”

Following the link, I found an emotional video pairing sentimental, sun-drenched images of a mom making a sandwich for her toddler with factory farm footage of dead chicks jostling down conveyor belts.

The website says,

Most of us don’t consider the treatment of baby chicks when we purchase mayo. And we shouldn’t have to: we should be able trust companies when it comes to preventing cruelty to animals.

Best Foods and Hellmann’s use millions of eggs each year to create their products. Since only female chickens lay eggs, Best Foods and Hellmann’s don’t have any use for the male birds. Their solution is to treat these chicks like garbage: they’re either ground up alive, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags.1

Nobody wants to see animals suffer, but some of the worst abuses occur where we least expect them. If we care about preventing cruelty to animals, we have to shine a spotlight on abuses that otherwise would be hidden. We’re calling on Best Foods and Hellmann’s to stop treating animals like they’re trash.

I agree with the broad facts. Male chicks are destroyed just out of the shell because they come from breeds developed specifically for heavy egg production, not for quality meat. Only the girls have value to us, but nature insists on giving us 50% boys. The practice of culling newly hatched males is appalling. It is wasteful, in the darkest meaning of the word. It is a blatant disregard of life. It denies that we have any relationship to, or responsibility for, these animals.

Nonetheless, my first impulse was to ignore this email, because I don’t understand why they are targeting mayonnaise makers specifically. I mean, I do, on one level, because OMG! Dead baby chicks in my mayo??!!!!  After all, what’s more sacred or beloved than mayo? These campaigns are fueled by emotion.

But the focus on mayonnaise alone seems to muddy the waters overall. The fault is not with the mayonnaise producers. The fault is with us. All of us who eat eggs.

Yet it seems that the activists are hesitant to point the finger at us, potential donors that we are, and say, “If you really care about this, change your behavior.” Instead, they give us a scapegoat to point our finger at and cry, “Chick murderer!”

They want us to convince Hellmann’s and Best Foods to solve the problem for us (or rather, one small slice of the problem), perhaps by reformulating their mayonnaise to be eggless (likely by adding weird stabilizers or–joy–monocropped GMO soy) or figuring our how to humanely source eggs on a vast industrial scale…er…somehow? My response to this is one big big eye roll.

It’s time to point fingers toward ourselves. But instead of letting the guilt gnaw at us, or living in denial, we can take positive action–such as:

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