a boots-on-the-ground view of the change that's a-foot

Archive for August, 2007

Lunar Rightness – Let The Man Burn

Friday, August 31st, 2007

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Well, Sami, my contemplation of Burning Man continues. And in the midst of it, he burned. The problem was that he burned too early – he was supposed to be engulfed with flames on Saturday night – NOT Tuesday night! What a tragedy.

Wait a minute – was this really a tragedy? After all, it was a special Full Moon with a rare lunar eclipse. In much less spiritual circles, this would be considered an energy-enhancing opportunity of nature. Maybe it was also a sign, a message or at the very least, a serendipitous event. Maybe, just maybe, they could have ‘Let The Man Burn’ and shared the fateful moment with new perspective and a new story.

Instead, they hosed him down, wasting not only the moment, but the desert-precious water supply that went with it. I can’t help but be slightly befuddled and disillusioned by this decision. Will the “re-lighting” feel the same or will it lose some impact? I can’t answer that question first-hand, but I can neither deny the inexplicable sadness I felt at the watering down of the Poor Guy.


As The Man Burns Out?

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

by Sami Grover, Carrboro, NC

As a Brit on foreign shores, I’m not quite as familiar with Burning Man as a cultural institution as Tao – her reflections on the power of BM as a transformational event are truly intriguing. I am also captivated by Grist’s take on greening the Burning Man here. It certainly does sound like this event is taking great strides to both minimize and maximize its impact, i.e., reducing waste and pollution while increasing education, inspiration and fun. However, in my unofficial Change role as ‘curmudgeonly young sceptic’, I feel compelled to point out that there is a simple question of size that threatens many such events.

I have not been entirely unaware of the phenomenon that is Burning Man – I first heard about a secret, intimate festival somewhere in the Nevada dessert via a program on the BBC back in the late 90s (the BBC is where I get most of my news of secret, intimate events!). Since then, it has grown exponentially, with 40,000 people attending this year, compared to 25,000 in the year 2000, and 3,500 in 1995. I find it hard to believe that such dramatic growth could not bring about a fundamental shift in balance between production and consumption.

I’ll resist joining the inevitable chorus of ‘sell out’ that follows any event that actually becomes a success and given the fact I have not attended, it wouldn’t seem fair. I do understand that very little is for sale at BM, allowing it avoids much of the commercialism of other festivals out there. However, in my experience of organizing green spaces and workshops at festivals in the UK, there was always a very, very fine balance between folks who come to actively participate, create and explore and folks who come to watch, gawk and consume.

In my experience, the absolute height of positive festival experiences comes from the maximum number of people who see themselves not as customers (even if they have paid for a ticket), but as co-creators of whatever event is going on. By this I mean folks who will dress the part, folks who will get out there and talk to strangers, folks who will dance like they mean it. I even mean folks who will form drum circles, and I HATE drum circles!

It sounds, from many of the experiences I am reading on the web, Burning Man has somehow miraculously continued to maintain the healthy balance of creation versus consumption and I hope they continue to do so. I just worry that the inevitable media hype over any such event will eventually be its own downfall – here’s hoping that the Man keeps burning in style for years to come.

Gray Water Bucket Brigade

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

By Mary Wible Brennan, Durham, NC

I’m astounded that my neighboring city of Raleigh had record water usage this month IN THE MIDST OF A RECORD BREAKING DROUGHT! The main water supply in Falls Lake will run ‘dry’ in January without a significant rainfall yet people still want to water their lawns and wash their cars.

My grass is brown and it crunches underfoot, our car a dusty green, rain barrels are empty, but even in this drought, my tomatoes and young dogwood and magnolia trees are not too stressed. Our family secret: gray water.

Gray water is the term for all the water that exits your house except from the toilets (wasting water from toilets is another story for later). In a formal gray water system, the water from your sinks, showers, dishwasher and clothes washer is diverted into a cistern and stored for later usage. We are not prepared to invest in the infrastructure right now, but are using our own primitive system of recycling our used water.

Our entire family has permanently and seriously decreased time in the shower, but because our poorly designed plumbing system makes it hard to turn water off and back on to soap up (read about Navy Showers), so we’re not saving as much as we could. My children still take baths occasionally (in non-drought times) and after one “accidentally” filled up tub (how else would an 8-year old practice playing shark?) instead of the usual few inches of “splash and clean”, we had gallons of literally gray water. Alright, I decided, bucket brigade. My son and I scooped up water in buckets, tromped outside and watered plants. Since we use primarily Dr. Bronner’s Magic (organic and biodegradable) soap, I knew it would be fine for the plants, and according to a friend, the natural essential oil would probably keep voles from gnawing at the roots.

Several sloshy trips later, the tomatoes were watered and a galvanized tub on our deck filled with a backup supply. The inevitable splashes of water through the house even helped clean the floors and the heavy buckets added a bit of exercise to our evening – double duty!

Since then, we have been working on incorporating the bucket brigade into the evening routine. Showers, except on rare occasions, have replaced baths, but the kids plug the tub to catch the extra water. It does not always work when everyone is tired or when siblings don’t want to stand in the others dirty water, but overall, we’ve got it down. And, during this exceedingly dry time, my tomatoes are happier, my young dogwood is no longer wilting, the rhododendron is saved and most importantly, my children are much more conscious of the water they use and feel empowered by it rather than stressed out by the situation.

Little things we’ve always done to conserve feel even more purposeful now. We’ve made a formal policy of ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow, brown flush it down’ mantra instead of just occasional. When clearing glasses from the table, the leftover water goes into the pet’s bowls or on the house plants. Showers are even shorter and sometimes skipped altogether. No one runs a load of laundry (in our front loading washing machine) without it being stuffed full of clothes.

We will most likely keep these habits post-drought since it has been fairly easy and feels right. I hope that we can inspire friends and family to take on the conservation challenge and discover the same thing. They say it takes 30 days to change a habit, maybe times like this can serve as opportunities to rethink our use of this precious resource.

Drugs in the Water

Monday, August 27th, 2007

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

The statistics are staggering. Millions of people in this country are on drugs and unfortunately there is nothing psychedelic about it. Most of us take hormones, anti-depressant, anti-biotic, anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, anti-pain and anti-eating prescriptions as readily as we take an aspirin. And when the prescriptions change or expire, we discard them as thoughtlessly.

I don’t know when it happened, but our culture has come to think of the toilet as a magical place where things “disappear”. We’ve by now all seen dumpsters and landfills, hopefully jogging us into the reality that “throwing out” is not really throwing “away”. But, we still think of our sewer system as infinitely abysmal with the idea that, if you really want to get rid of something, “flush it”. This applies not only to individuals but to institutions as well.

The truth is, what goes into the toilet comes right back to us, whether it is household cleaners, a dead mouse or, even more frightening, prescription drugs. A study in Portland, OR shows that large amounts of medications as well as perfumes and cosmetics hang around in our rivers and lakes, messing with plant and animal life. Since our water treatment plants are not equipped to remove pharmaceuticals, it is suspected that these contaminants have been and will continue to mess with our health, too.

Flushing your unused meds isn’t the only way to drug the local water – we also pee them right into it. Developing countries have trouble visualizing a scenario where it would be logical to use drinking water as a waste disposal system, but we have yet to gain perspective on this as we continue to contaminate our shrinking water supply. This year, the federal government announced guidelines for safe disposal of prescription drugs and The Sierra Club is currently campaigning the EPA to ban the worst of the chemicals, but a change in consumer behavior is needed to take action now.

What else not to flush? That’s easy. Do not flush anything isn’t toilet paper or human waste. This includes dental floss, nail clippings or that dead mouse. Cleaning your toilet without harmful chemicals is easy – use one of the natural cleaning products widely available or make your own with vinegar and baking soda and other natural, inexpensive ingredients.

Those drugs? Preferably, your pharmacy or doctors office is part of a take-back program. You can also contact your local police department for more information. If not, take the steps necessary to “trash them” so that they won’t be purposefully or accidentally consumed by people or animals.

What else can you do to keep the water and your body healthy? Explore natural remedy options with alternative practitioners and/or consider changes in lifestyle and diet to treat what ails you. Prescription drugs can be a blessing when needed, but consider a safer way for you and the environment first.

The Paper Trail – recycle recycled

Friday, August 24th, 2007

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

I’ve been collecting used paper of all kinds for recycling for a few years now and, even though I successfully got off the junk mail lists on Green Dimes two years back, it’s amazing how quickly my bin fills up. I find some satisfaction in toting it off to the recycling center every month, knowing that by buying recycled and using recycled, I’m keeping my dirty paws off the planet – at least a little. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most business – large or small. Even now, it is estimated that at least 60% of paper is still not recycled and only about 30% is made from PCW (Post Consumer Waste) – the minimum EPA requirement.

Traditional paper mills use several energy intense steps in production, involving carbon and other gas emissions, chemical and solid waste (usually flushed into waterways) and catastrophic amounts of water. Making paper from PWC rather than trees uses about 40% less resources, less energy and less pollution.

Not enough people know that paper recycling has become easier and more convenient than years past. You can include unopened junk mail – no “window” removal is required – and though it will depend on your local recycler’s guidelines, most often mixed paper can include colored paper and paperboard (sometimes called tag board, which describes most product packaging, like that of a toothpaste box (why is toothpaste in a box anyway?? Another reason to DIY!). BTW, glossy stuff can be added to magazine recycling. Some cities are including paper in their regular pick-up. If that’s not the case, you can most likely find a drop-off center near you to make an occasional drop.

Step One: Buy recycled paper supplies, office and school products. First, look for a locally-owned store in your area. If they don’t already have recycled supplies, request them! Although big box stores often offer a token amount of recycled supplies, it is smarter to support the companies who are exclusively green. Remember that the growth of environmentally responsible companies will force the paper industry towards higher levels of sustainability (and allow lower prices).

Next – go online. GreenLine Paper Company has been owned and operated by environmentalists since 1992 in York, PA. They’ve steadily expanded product selection and now include kitchen, bath, restaurant and cleaning supplies, as well as Fair Trade and Organic Coffee, Tea and Chocolate. They also reuse their shipping cartons and use only biodegradable packaging. Their goal is to educate consumers as well as sell responsible products. I’ve been ordering for years and can vouch for their quality and customer service.

Another company has more recently come onto the scene. The Green Office, established in 2005, offers great green and Fair Trade products and then some. They provide a wide range of supplies, including office furniture. Socially and environmentally, they’ve got it covered, with services including sustainability consulting and even retail high-quality cost-effective renewable energy and emission reduction credits (Offsets). The web site contains the most thorough and user-friendly information that I’ve come across at Offsetting 101. Their blog and newsletter will keep you up to date on the greening of corporate (and other) America and beyond.

Step Two: Recycle all the paper that comes into your world. Setting aside a bin in both your home and office gives you “throw-away” convenience without the guilt. Like so many things that once felt “normal” in daily living, recycling rather than trashing will become automatic. You’ll wonder what took you so long.

A Second Home? Take a Second Look

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

As I’ve spent the Summer learning to like it hot, commuting by bicycle, traveling less while learning to work and vacation right where I live, I’ve been feeling good. I’ve gotten involved in more things in my community and have enjoyed the peacefulness of Summer. Wait a minute, just why is it so peaceful? Where is everyone?

We Westerners commit a lot of eco-sins in our constant pursuit of pleasure and one high on that list is the second or “Vacation Home”. Somewhere along the rocky road towards wealth, this trend got started and hasn’t looked back. It’s so common that there are websites and magazines dedicated to the business of building, buying and selling this version of the other “American Dream” at the beach, in the mountains and on the lakes.

The idea of environmental footprint gets blown out of the water on this one. A second home which uses resources to build, complete with roads, chemically-laden landscaping and utilities, equipped with boats and/or tennis courts, sitting empty most of the year? Ouch. Add into the equation the time that people spend driving from house #1 to House #2 and you have a lot of energy spent on very, very few, very, very occasionally. Sustainable? Not by a long shot.

Although tourism is an important part of the economy, this permanent influx of “people with money” invites the mega-stores to move in, often transforming comfortable small towns into strip mall-villes. In many cases, these large, excessive homes make beaches, mountain trails or lake fronts inaccessible to the public and pushes out the locals.

Are those with the dollars to spend likely to give up this luxury? Doubtful. Can it be done in a way that respects nature and falls into a sustainable lifestyle? To a large degree, yes. First on the list, second homes don’t need to be big. In fact, they can be very, very small – tiny, in fact. Domes, Yurts, Teepees and other ways to live lightly are now widely available. After all, you’re there to enjoy the great outdoors, right? Lloyd Alter of TreeHugger has a lot to say about that.

Bring back the idea of co-oping with friends or family and you’ve all taken a considerably smaller step. Building green means you could even stay off the grid with water-catchment systems and solar energy. Learn that there is no “away” in trash terms and adopt the attitude of “leave no trace”. Consider the additional miles you will be traveling and commit to acquiring an alternative energy vehicle to make the trips.

One more thing – be part of the community – shop and eat locally. Enjoy what you came for and keep it safe and welcoming for everyone.

In My Own Words

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Each day, before I begin my yoga practice, I chant this ancient Ashtanga Invocation in Sanskrit:

vande gurunam charanaravinde

sandarasita svatmasukahava bodhe

nihsreyase jangalikeayamane


smasara halahala mohasantyai

abahu purusakaram

sankhacakrasi dharinam

sahasra sirasam svetam


pranamame patanjalim


But in my early Ashtanga years, I resisted this part of the practice ritual. I had all sorts of reasons – the language was difficult to pronounce and memorizing it seemed impossible. The words felt meaningless. I looked up the English translation which, at the time, was equally confusing. In class, I would just hum along at times and in my own practice, I would pass over it entirely. I’d learned the joy of the sound of “Om” early on, but it took nearly a couple years of regular practice before this chant began to speak to me – quietly. And, suddenly I felt equally drawn to the mystery of it.

It took a few weeks to memorize it. I would write down one line at a time, work out the syllables and then repeat it over and over in rhythm while I hiked in the woods each morning. Just one line. Over and over. By the end of the walk, I had found a melody for it. After I had gone through all of the lines, I started putting it together – adding one at a time. In about a month, I had it down and would sing it straight through while walking. Over and over. It felt good.

It was probably during this time that the meaning of it became more clear to me, though I couldn’t yet articulate it. One day, I understood – and the words that describe it are below – my own words, my own meaning. It may hold something different for someone else, but I’ve come to understand that it works that way. Tradition and myth allows us to be a part of something bigger – a mythical story – but we’re also able to assign it a personal meaning. Ritual of any kind can serve as a tool to tap into the insights that are lost to day to day distractions. It’s a reminder to be still, to come home to the self. As Joseph Campbell said, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life” – what we’re capable of knowing and experiencing within.

Traditional Translation of Invocation: I bow to the lotus feet of the guru who awakens insight into the happiness of pure Being, who is the final refuge, the jungle physician, who eliminates the delusion caused by the poisonous herb of conditioned existence.

I bow before the sage Patanjali who has thousands of radiant, white heads in his form as the divine serpent, and who has, as far as his arms, assumed the form of a man holding a conch shell and a discus of light and a sword, representing infinite time and discrimination. om.

What it means [to me]:

I surrender my emotions to the quiet and all-knowing part inside me, to awaken my insight and wisdom of what is true, and there I can find refuge – a quieter space – to heal myself and therefore healing outside myself. In this way, I am freed from the veil of delusion caused by my conditioning and my fears.

I bow to the earth as the wise sage and to all creatures, who symbolize the divine nature of man and animal. I hold the conch shell and listen to the wisdom of the Universe. I hold the sword of strength, courage and truth. We are One.

True Wedded Gifts

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

by Sami Grover, Carrboro, NC

Sometimes I feel so lucky. Not only did I get a chance to celebrate my recent green wedding to my beautiful lady, on a goat farm, with good folks all around, but when it came time to give us gifts, we realized that our friends really know us. So many people spent both time and love thinking up gifts to celebrate our marriage in ways that made sense. Many items were handcrafted, others local, and many were even created by the gift givers themselves. Two gifts in particular stand out, both for their originality, their appropriateness and their downright sweetness.

The first of these I will touch on only briefly, as I am sure that Jerry and Tracey are heartily sick of the attention that they are receiving for their decision to further offset my honeymoon flight (having already purchased a TerraPass) by foregoing air-conditioning for the month of June. As Jerry says, it feels weird to get noticed for doing something that just makes sense. Nevertheless, given the fact I had previously sworn I would never fly again and then finding myself in love and in North Carolina, I was supremely grateful for Jerry and Tracey’s loving and thoughtful gift. I’m now considering asking them to forgo eating for the next year so I can buy that Hummer I’ve always wanted~

The other gift that stood out as being ‘so us’ came from Jenni’s sisters, Sarah and Laura, cousin Jessica, and Sarah’s boyfriend, Andy. We knew they were spending a day building something for us, but what that something would be we had no idea. Then it arrived – a 3ft x 4ft wooden cage, with ‘crack house’ scrawled on the side. At first I was a little mystified – was this the groom’s new sleeping quarters? All became clear when I noticed the baskets attached to the back of the structure. They’d made us a chicken house, and had even bought three little chickens to live in it. Both Jenni and I have secretly harbored dreams of owning chickens one day, but had both been putting it off until we got our own place (at least that was our excuse). This gift spurred us on to take the plunge and what a joy it’s been!

Henrietta, Agatha and Martha are now firmly entrenched as part of the family. They are yet to start laying, though they should reach ‘womanhood’ soon. They are already providing a steady stream of future compost, and an endless source of amusement. Even Bela, our cat, loves to sit near them and keep them company (he licked his lips a few times when they first arrived, but he’s never really seen them as lunch). And in terms of hassle, we never should have worried. They roam free in our yard, coming in at night to their comfy coop. We occasionally fill their food and water bowl and throw out a few scraps from the kitchen to supplement their diet. They’re not exactly the geniuses of the animal world, but there’s something calming about watching a chicken scratching around for bugs. I had wandered what I’d make of chicken-keeping, but I admit that I’m definitely hooked. Maybe we’ll get a goat for our anniversary…

Anyhow, as I say, sometimes I just feel so lucky. Getting someone a gift is so often thought of as just ‘going shopping’ – we’re so pleased to know folks who can think outside of the box and beyond the basket.

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