Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Apparently the song "A Pittance of Time" has been around for a few years now, but I had not heard of it until today when I was checking the Royal Canadian Legion website for music for the Remembrance Day Memorial Service. At first I shied away from the large banner for the song, clicking instead on the settings of "In Flanders Fields," but finding that (for me) they did not do the poem justice. When I listened to "A Pittance of Time," even the first few lines drew me in. At songwriter Terry Kelly's website there is background on the incident that sparked the song, and a compelling video.

On Remembrance Day in Arcola, the Memorial Service begins at 10:45 a.m. in the MacMurray Theatre; please wear your poppy. On the preceding Sunday, November 5th, part of the regular service of worship at the United Church will be devoted to Remembrance, and members of the Legion will be in attendance. That service also begins at 10:45 a.m.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Shooting in the Dark

I believe this comment over at sda may have been aimed at me:
I have noticed that some environmentalists are very selective in their concerns.I know of one that gets on a plane,flys halfway around the world using more fuel than my 2000 acre farm does in at least three years,to educate people that could get the same information from a book or the internet.He then comes home and says how well THEY treat their environment.I believe that he is a graduate of the CBC-David Suzuki school "of the other guy make changes" school of environmentalism.
Sorry, spike, you missed. Just because I'm married to him doesn't mean I agree with him. And just because he's married to me doesn't mean he's an environmentalist.

By the way, I don't recall him saying they treat their environment well. I recall him mentioning walking to work in Kathmandu and crossing a bridge over the "sewer" - he figured that was a more accurate word for it than "river" would be. And he mentioned arriving at work and blowing his nose, which was crusted with just as much grime from the air as if he had been shovelling inside a granary.

But your closing comment is very amusing. He is always insisting that people must stop trying to change other people, and instead change themselves. It's working very well for him: as long as he can keep the rest of us busy fixing ourselves, it keeps the heat away from him!

(Ouch, I'm a little snarky today, no?)

Navigable Waters - Again

Kate is celebrating David Suzuki's announcement that he will retire, by re-running a piece about the enduring health of Moose Mountain Creek. I figure my piece about our general ignorance of that creek is worth another read (or at least a look for the picture at the end).

(Link fixed)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Finish the Story

She woke from a dream that seemed significant somehow, and lay still, wondering what it meant. The possibilities circled in her mind until the ideas blurred and the phrases grew strange and poignant again, and she dozed some more. At last, with a particularly odd phrase tickling her mind, and the pressure of her bladder grown too great, she came awake again, threw the blankets back, and flicked her ankle free of the sheet. In the corner of her vision, she saw her husband throwing his side of the blankets onto the same ridge down the middle of the bed. Something seemed strange, something about the way he moved, just as suddenly and briskly as she; as if her hurry had reminded him of some deadline that she herself did not remember. But before she could frame that thought, she noticed the flick of his ankle, just like hers, except that there was no sheet for him to kick free of; he would never have had his feet covered. And then he was sitting up sharply, almost simultaneously with her own sitting up.

She: "What are you doing?"

He: "Copying you."

Bicycles, Energy Cycles, Life Cycles

I was startled by a comment by Eleutheros, that if you walked everywhere you went, for your whole life, you would still not use as much energy as it takes to make a bicycle.

I got wondering whether this would be true when the energy of walking comes from a conventional Canadian diet, with far more calories used to produce a plate of food than the body gets out of it.

I went looking for a measurement of energy used in bike manufacturing, and came across an intriguing article(pdf) about energy use associated with electric bikes. It didn't answer my question about energy in manufacturing, since it focussed on differences between the electric bike and the human-powered bike, but it clearly illustrated the problem I was wondering about.
Despite the intuitive sense that electric bikes would require more resources than regular bikes, life-cycle analysis shows that they actually consume 2-4 times less primary energy than human riders eating a conventional diet. This conclusion is largely due to the considerable amount of transportation and processing energy that is associated with our western food system.
When the analysis considered a cyclist eating local food, and electricity coming from hydro-power, the electric bike and the human-powered bike were about on par.

It's a sad commentary on our society, when you are better off letting a coal-fired plant push your bicycle than eating the food you need to spin those pedals yourself. Yet when you look at lists of "things you can do to conserve energy," how often do you see the suggestion that you plant a garden?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Now that I have upgraded to Blogger in Beta, I am having an absurdly good time labelling old posts. Why? I guess I like to read my own writing. It's interesting, looking back at what I was saying and thinking over the last year or so.

The labels section is far from complete. I'll pick away at it whenever I feel like navel-gazing. For now, it gives you an idea of what I remember as my most significant or frequent topics. We'll see whether it changes significantly or not. Or whether I lose interest in it . . .

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Nettle Harvest

Yesterday morning I was out to the hills to help my dad along with his new musical ventures: learning to play the C melody saxophone, and doing more with the guitar. After loading him up with things to practice, I strolled out to their garden and pulled a bunch of nettle stalks from the side of the weed heap. I tried breaking one underfoot and cracking apart the pith walls to see if I could find the rumoured fibers for spinning into nettle thread or yarn or whatever it would be called, but I didn't have much success. Now I am hunting more references to glean whatever tricks I can. Perhaps the stalks will need to be retted, but I'm told the odor of that process is not acceptable indoors, and water outdoors is frozen over now. I may be storing my nettle bundles until spring.

Nettles are very noticeable, and that may explain why I used to think of them as abundant. Once I set out to gather them, I decided they're not so common after all. I know of specific places where they grow thickly, but they're not the sort of plant that you see dotted here and there through a wide variety of habitat. Now I'm thinking again that I should plant some here in the yard. (That would really raise some eyebrows, no?)

Aside from their fiber content, nettles are useful as a highly nutritious early spring green. Just boil or steam them a little to neutralize the sting.

Less directly, but perhaps more importantly, nettles have value to us humans as a food plant for butterflies. Today I found a new report on the Status of Pollinators in North America, which outlines another of those slow emergencies that will probably not get much notice until it's too late. Perhaps it will never get much notice, and future schoolchildren will marvel at the fantastic stories of a time when gardens didn't need hand pollination, and the world was home to six billion people, and candy bars were made with real chocolate (pdf).

Now for the obligatory cheerful closing note about things you can do to help. The Pollinator Partnership, at www.pollinator.org, has a long list of online resources, with everything from research about native bees, to pollinator-friendly practices for golf courses, and of course articles about gardening for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Too Good

A drawback to our efficient little fridge: it's very difficult to thaw anything in it. I've yet to do it successfully, except when I happened to be running the defrost on the freezer compartment at the same time. I think the defrost works by simply shutting down the compressor and letting the frost thaw. The phase change draws heat from the rest of the refrigerator and thus keeps the food cool. When all the frost has melted, the temperature in the refrigerator begins to rise, and a sensor switches the compressor on again.

So I guess the trick is to take the turkey out of the deep freeze, put all the food from the freezer compartment into the new space in the deep freeze, wedge the turkey into the freezer compartment, hit the defrost button, and pay attention, because as soon as the thaw is finished, the compressor will kick back in and freeze that bird all over again. Of course, if there's room for the bird in the fridge part, you're okay, and the sound of the compressor kicking in is just a handy signal that the thaw is complete.

I'll have to try that.

And then I'll have to cook the thing. Never cooked a turkey in my life.

Learn to do by doing, they say...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Common Life

I am home from the first weekend of a Common Life program at the Calling Lakes Centre. Yes, another program, another drive in our car. As Eleutheros says, "hang head, shuffle feet . . ."

I certainly notice the irony of travelling over two hours' drive away from my own community to become part of a dispersed community of people and thereby learn how to be in community. I notice the irony of sitting here wrestling with the right and wrong of all this, instead of getting all the carrots and beets and rutabagas that I dug last week properly stored away. I wonder again whether I could have made the trip to the Calling Lakes Centre by bicycle, and notice that if I had, I wouldn't even be home yet, and it would be mighty cold out there, pedalling into that fierce east wind.

I met a spinner. She wants to teach us hand-spinning. I asked if she had ever worked with nettle fibre, and the idea was new to her, but she had been planning to try flax. When I go to our next meeting, I hope to take along some nettle fibre, and see if she can teach me to spin it.

I laughed more than I have laughed in weeks.

There was very little top-down, teacher-student, giver-receiver stuff; just a framework and time to explore it and people to share the walking and climbing and puzzling and struggling and laughing and hugging and all that. Stuff that no amount of books or websites or good intentions have given me. Maybe once I learn to find and build these connections and live these practices in Common Life community, I will be better able to do the same here . . .

Or maybe I will be even farther out of step with my neighbours.

And even more excessively busy.

I got lost on the way home.

There was a towering cloud of smoke somewhere close to Heward. I could see it from several towns back, and as I got closer, I was sure I didn't want to drive through it. At Creelman I found a grid road angling east to pass upwind of it. Once I was on that road, I got thinking about the Gap, and how I'd love to drive through there. I started to glimpse the hills ahead, and thought I should be a bit farther south, to strike the little dirt road through the Gap. So when I came onto 47, I turned south for a few miles. When I turned east again, it was hilly enough that I couldn't see much of the road ahead. After a while it dwindled, but I kept hoping. When I topped a rise and saw trees in the distance, straight ahead where the road should be, I ignored that detail, hoping for a bend. And so the gravel gave way to a surface of stones and dirt, and ruts appeared, and I topped a sharper rise and saw my trail's end, next to a new oil well. Actually I could have continued, if I'd been willing to turn south on a wheeltrack in tall dry grass, but the Geo Metro has very little clearance, and I didn't want to risk a grass fire.

I backtracked onto good gravel, and found a southbound road, and then the next road east. It was delightful, dwindling and narrowing but carrying on, over little rises and through hollows, past native pastures on the rougher places, and up over one lonely little peak that gave a view of the whole low rolling area and the rampart of the Moose Mountains stretching along the northeastern horizon. As I drove on, an area of trees ahead began to look familiar, and the farmyard to the right began to look like one I knew, though I'd never seen it from this angle. Suddenly there was a large slough on my left, just north of the road, and I was startled to see it, because I knew I had spent hours on several occasions working outdoors just over the next ridge, without knowing the water was there. I hadn't even noticed that there was a ridge to hide anything.

But all this flashed through my mind in an instant, without capturing my attention, because on the water were seven swans, and on a bridge of ice across the middle was a bald eagle.

An unknown road, and seven swans and an eagle. Significant?

Wishful thinking?

I came out on the White Lake Road, several miles south of where I'd hoped to be. Knowing I'd add at least four miles to my trip, or maybe eight, I turned north to see the Gap.

There were survey stakes that looked to me like well centres for new oil wells, again and again along the roadside. I think there were half a dozen, almost all of them in native grassland, one in a low floodplain. And here I was taking a Sunday drive.

Could I give up driving?

Would it make any difference? Would it mean anything?

I turned onto another unknown road, one that I had often wondered about, and sure enough, it was a shortcut to the Gap. I passed a gravel pit and newly cultivated cropland, and hardly noticed the wild beauty of the looming hills on either side, the beauty that draws me back to that place. Before I knew it, I was through the Gap and on into Star Valley, noticing more new oil wells, and a drilling rig.

As I cruised down the paved road towards Kisbey, the cell phone rang, and I confessed that I'd got lost for a while, but I was on my way and would be home soon. On the highway again, I pushed the car up close to the speed limit. A huge red pickup truck with chrome grillework loomed behind me, crowding close. I thought about our "52MPG" license plate and wondered if he noticed it. At times like that I'm glad to be driving the speed limit, so they won't be thinking, "Yeah, sure you get 52MPG, when you're only doing 50!" The truck passed me, and as it pulled away ahead, I read the slogan in white letters on the black-tinted rear windows of the cab: "Save some OIL! Ride a RIGGER!"

Common Life? Here? There? Anywhere?

Seven swans and an eagle.

I don't know.

Friday, October 13, 2006


I think it had something to do with rainwater running down the path and puddling against the floating row cover, next to this root. Most of the others look more like purple-topped parsnips.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Chained to a Tree: the Powerless Environmentalist

Environmentalists have been sounding alarms in global terms since at least the 1960s. One might wonder how such an apocalyptic outcry can be sustained over nearly half a century. Is it only noise? If the dire predictions are true, where are the terrible effects? On the other hand, if this is all false scare-mongering, what keeps the environmentalists going at it?

If you take a more sympathetic view of environmentalism, this half century of alarms still presents a glaring question. If these are truly serious problems, and we know so much about them, why aren't they fixed yet?

I am at heart an environmentalist, having spent my formative years (in the 1970s) immersed in my parents' conservation and outdoor education activities. There was a "Conservation Confab" at Fort San, and I still remember the hilarity - and the sadness - in Bill Mason's "Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes," a film shown to us young folks while the adults did their boring sessions. Mom gave a presentation there about foods gathered from the wild (or something like that), and Dad was probably involved somehow as well. Then there was our family trip down through the western U.S., where Dad visited a series of wind power installations as part of his alternate-energy research for the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Regina. But more important than these occasional exciting ventures was my involvement in the day-to-day activities as my parents helped establish an outdoor education centre (Saskairie), learned to raise cattle, grew large gardens, gathered berries, hunted, canned and dried food, and designed and built a solar-heated and wind-powered home.

I grew up with a deep love of wild places, a simmering resentment against the imposed abstractions of straight roads and square fields, and at the same time, a humble awareness of the sources of my food and shelter. I was never drawn to environmental activism, seeing the problems not so much in industry or government as in individual choices. I preferred to believe that if all were aware, all would do much better.

I sought training in journalism, then changed course to solidify my scientific background in ecology before tackling the enlightenment of the masses. With growing doubts about the power of education to solve environmental problems, I drifted sideways into a geographical study of the way conservation practices spread among farmers. Degree in hand, and bitterly disappointed with my graduate school experience, I settled down to the meagre goal of getting a job that might do a bit of good.

I found work as an environmental consultant, did the best job I could, and waited for the day when my work might make a difference. There was more disappointment ahead.

In recent years, I have given up my idealistic career goals and worked in the environmental field only for the money, or for the sheer joy of being outdoors. Meanwhile, I have turned my quest inward. Reading, debating, and sifting through my own experiences, I have tried to understand what I see as the failure of environmentalism.

In the series of essays to follow, as I examine this failure, I hope to offer some explanation of how it happened, and even some glimpses of why. Ah, hope. There it springs again. I don't know where this writing might lead, what might come out of it, or who might respond with a new vision of a brighter future. I do know that a vision of my own is growing, but before I write about that, I first need to spell out my understanding of the darkness behind.

Table of Essays
These are proposed titles, to pique your interest perhaps, but mostly to jog my memory as I write. They may change. (For example, I may look at a title and fail to remember what it was about). As each essay is completed and posted, I will change its title to a link, so that you can read through the full series in sequence if you wish. Where they appear in this blog, essay titles in this series will be prefaced with the acronym "CTAT," a reference to the series title, "Chained to a Tree."

I'm Not Dead Yet
Walking the Walk
We Can't All Live That Way
Don't Be So Depressing
Every Little Bit . . . Helps?
The Corporate Line
The Government Line
"Sustainable Growth" and Other Mad Buzz
Environmentalism as Religion

Aside: if you're thinking I went straight from global drought to the failure of environmentalism without a pause to give thanks, be assured that I did spend some time this weekend in awe of the glorious gold of autumn aspens. As I said to my family, what kind of universe do we live in, that instead of a relentless slide from warmth and lush green to cold and bleak grey-and-white, we get a riot of red and gold backed by incredible blue? I don't care whether there's anyone to thank. I'll sing my thanks anyway, and whoever wants to hear, let them hear!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Global Drought

Well, adaptationists? How do you propose to deal with this?

I suppose all the extra deserts will provide plenty of room for extra refugee holding stations . . . and cemeteries . . .

I should stop reading the news.

Sand dunes are pretty, I suppose.

I like sandhills better, though. Drought turns sandhills into sand dunes. Sigh.

That reminds me, I have some pictures from our September mini-vacation to the Spruce Woods area in Manitoba. I should post those soon, just to lift my spirits. Yes.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Let the Sun Shine In

There's a new house in Arcola. Remember that vacant lot I wrote about last winter? Well, it's not vacant anymore.

It almost makes me wonder if somebody got worried that I would find some rare plant in there with the native grasses, and so they rushed to develop it. Seriously, folks, I'm not that concerned about rare plants (even though I do accept pay to go look for them sometimes).

I'm much more concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, and here we have a problem. They put this house in backwards! Those big windows are facing north. Not only that, but the two biggest windows are being expanded into even larger window bays.

Now, I'm happy to see an old house salvaged for a few more decades of use. This house was moved in from South Arcola, saving a lot of energy and material that would have been needed to build a new one. But just because it's old doesn't mean you have to live with high energy use. All they had to do was to face those windows south into the yard (which is a better view anyway, with grass and trees instead of a street), and they could have had some good solar gain to cut their winter heating costs.

Maybe they were worried about appearances, having the "front" door facing the back yard. I'd say nobody uses the front door anyway, so why worry about it? If the house were turned around, that side door would be right up close to the front. I think the house would have looked welcoming enough with a little deck at that side, steps down to the front yard, and some foundation plantings to soften the north wall.

But maybe they actually thought about the sun on those windows, and worried that the house would get too hot in summer. Maybe they heard the rumour about another house in Arcola, with a big sunroom, and how hot it gets.

If that house is turning people off passive solar heating, it's a sad thing. At this latitude, it's really very simple to have sun streaming in your windows in winter, and still keep the house shady and cool in summer. The solution is built right into the structure of the house, in the form of a long overhang. Here's how it works:

I've seen this work at my parents' house, with windows nearly floor to ceiling. In summer there is just a little strip of sunlight on the floor by the windows, and in winter, the rays fall all the way to the back wall of the room.

But so many houses get built backwards, just to have the picture window facing the front yard. My own house is backwards, and I keep plotting to turn its insides back to front. I have a plan. Now if I could just convince myself that it is a better plan than moving to a farm, I'd get on with it.