Sunday, November 26, 2006

Portland Plantland

I got back last night from a few days up in Portland visiting Lacey. She and John have a lovely apartment that I particularly liked (among many other reasons) because it's chock full of happy plants. I made an official count at once point, and came up with 70 distinct plants, just indoors and not counting everything they've got growing in the community garden nearby. By the time I left, it had already increased to 71, because it turns out that Lacey can't even walk into a music store without someone there giving her a plant to take home with her. It all made me want to start getting more greenery around my apartment. I've currently got a wandering jew and a spider plant, both doing decently well, but I've got a lot of space on my balcony that I'm not doing anything with, so it would be fun to get some stuff growing out there. I think Lacey inherited both of Mom's green thumbs, but I'll see what I can do.

Other fun stuff from the weekend:
  • Dad and Betty Lue also visiting, and all of us going over to John's parents' house for a big family Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Beating everyone at Scrabble.
  • Spinning Alice (the cat) around on the hardwood floor.
  • Watching Ice Age II.
  • Hazelnut pancakes with pumpkin butter.
  • Butter sculpting with John (not with the pumpkin butter, though).
  • The Portland Farmer's Market, literally right outside their building.
  • Going to Powell's (of course).
I had a remarkably easy time at the airports on both ends of the trip, perhaps because I flew on Thursday and Saturday, rather than, say, Wednesday and Sunday. On the way back, though, the woman sitting next to me clearly did not like being in planes. She spent half the time drinking a series of Bloody Marys (picking the ice out and hiding it in her doggie bag), then the rest of the time moaning drunkenly and talking to herself about how she "can't stand it," and then, mercifully, falling asleep. I'm glad it was a short flight.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Carbon Offsets

I'm flying up to Portland this weekend to visit Lacey, along with Dad and Betty Lue. Thanks to Sustainable Travel International I learned that my personal share of this flight will create about 0.37 tons of CO2 emissions. But for less than $7.00, I can offset that through their MyClimate program, which invests in climate protection projects around the world. Not as good as avoiding the pollution in the first place, of course, but a heck of a lot better than nothing. In addition to air travel, there's a calculator to figure out carbon offsets for other things, like driving and home energy. There are other companies out there that offer other sorts of offset programs as well, some approaching it more along the lines of planting a certain number of trees, if you prefer that sort of thing. So if you're traveling this holiday season (or anytime, really) consider chipping in a few extra dollars at one of these places and help clean up a little bit of this mess we're all making.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I recently finished reading (well, listening to) The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. The dilemma in question is that, unlike a cow which will generally just eat grass and not worry about it, omnivores can eat nearly anything, and thus have to constantly decide which of the available anythings they should eat. As human beings, we've complicated this even beyond the mere question of whether something will poison or nourish us. With the immense industrial systems we've set up to produce and deliver our food, we also have to (or should) consider the effect our food has on our planet, the morality of how we're treating the animals, and more. As Pollan says throughout, food has to be not only good to eat, but good to think. We should be able to know exactly what went into our meals and still be okay with eating them.

The book is subtitled "A Natural History of Four Meals." The meals in question are "industrial" (most of what we typically buy in the stores these days), two kinds of organic, and directly hunted/grown/foraged (mostly for comparative purposes). The industrial part was the scariest. I hadn't realized what a huge part of our food system is completely based on corn. Corn has basically gotten itself into a symbiotic relationship with human beings, where we help it reproduce and grow as a species far more than it could have managed on its own, all the while scrambling to find more ways to use it all up, and get people to consume more. It was giving me serious flashbacks to Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (augmented by the fact that this book has one of the same narrators from those). Add to that the mega-corporations running the stuff, not to mention the government subsidies that dig us farther into the corn hole, and the whole thing just looks like an unstoppable behemoth.

In terms of organic, it turns out that industrial organic (e.g. Whole Foods kind of stuff) is nearly as bad. They eschew a lot of the chemicals regular industrial systems use, but since they don't practice any other sustainable techniques, that just makes it harder to protect crops from disease, keep the livestock healthy, etc. There's also a lot of deception, e.g. with "free range" chickens, that basically just have a small door to a bare patch of ground that they never venture into in their few short weeks of life. Plus there's still the issue of transporting all this food around the country or around the world, which adds the same environmental and health costs as hauling around the industrial food.

Pollan's biggest strength, I think, is his ability to convey complete systems in his writing, giving us vivid, and detailed yet panoramic views of how so many pieces are interwoven to make a functional whole. Or, in the case of the industrial food system, a dysfunctional whole. The meat-raising division is completely cut off from the agricultural, and both get heavy doses of chemicals thrown in. Both systems create enormous amounts of toxic waste that would otherwise, in nature, have been recycled to nourish other parts of the ecosystem. One of the book's most memorable moments is when he points out that we've basically used all our wonderful technology and ingenuity to split one simple, elegant solution into multiple complex problems. The best example of the alternative -- that is, keeping a simple, integrated solution in the context of organized farming -- is in his "beyond organic" example, the second of the two organics, after the industrial variety. The farm he describes is completely self-sustaining. The chickens and pigs and cows and grass and trees and everything else are balanced absolutely perfectly, so that every part of the puzzle is beneficial to every other part. It's really beautiful how it all works. The farm also does strictly local business, and refuses to ship its food anywhere it can't easily drive a van around to.

Anyway, the whole thing is rather eye-opening. I highly recommend reading it and considering whether your food is good to eat or good to think, or neither or both.

Friday, November 03, 2006


If any of you have been wondering where the November flood of fiction is, I'm sorry. No Nanowrimo for me this year. The last two years were fun, but this time I'm just not feeling up to it in terms of time, energy or ideas. I still have mixed feelings about not doing it, though. On the one hand it was a definite relief to make that decision, but on the other, writing entire novels is really cool and it's a lot of fun to have done once it's over. Oh well. It would be nice to find some other creative project to work on, though. ("How about making an elemeter baromophant?" I hear you suggest. Good idea, but I've already got one.)

If nothing else, I should at least post to my blog more often. (NaBloPoMo, anyone?)