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

Archive for May, 2009

The Butterfly

Friday, May 29th, 2009

I have to share one more animal love/magic/lesson this week.

The same friend I wrote about yesterday once found a group of nesting catepillars in a parking lot where we worked. Afraid they wouldn’t complete their journey of transformation in that cement-covered place, Michael took them home. He built an enclosure of wire around a carefully arranged plant sanctuary and fed them fresh parsley daily. I loved to watch them munching away.

They cocooned, hatched and he released them out an open window. But one butterfly decided not to leave. For 3 days, he stayed, often sitting on his shoulder. This amazed me, of course, since I would even see it sitting at the open window ledge, seemingly oblivious to its opportunity for “freedom”. My friend finally encouraged the butterfly to “stretch his wings” and he left.

(Michael is searching for the pictures he took, so I’ll share them soon.)

Both of these stories are affecting me especially deeply right now because I’ve been hearing others complain about birds nesting outside their houses – one woman even said she was going to put the eggs in the garbage disposal rather than deal with bird poop on her deck.

Sigh sigh sigh. I hope we can continue to teach each other about our connection to nature, rather than continuing to move away from it.

Sharing Space With Mother Nature

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Here’s a smile to share with you:

I was at a friend’s house this morning and while I was standing at the kitchen sink, a bird flew right past me and through the open window. “Oh, I forgot to tell you, I have a bird’s nest,” Michael said. Sure enough, on the top shelf, above the dishes was a nest with 5 eggs.

He acted like it was the most natural thing on earth.

….of course, it is, isn’t it?


Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

No Impact Man often brings up a good question on his blog – what have you permanently and irrevocably changed in your life that is more sustainable, how have you come to this place and why does it feel important? More specifically, he wants to know, where is your “line in the sand”?

For NIM, it’s bottled water and a/c in his home – none ever. For me, it’s plastic or paper bags, napkins, cups, plates or utensils. I will not use them, period. I’ve disciplined myself to the point where I always, but always have a reusable version of each available and if I don’t, well, I make do some other way. And now, as all good disciplines, it takes little effort. There is a rare occasion when I will take a paper bag out of a recycling bin at a store, and even have taken a used paper cup out of a trash can at a coffee shop to give my dog a drink of water, but otherwise, I have drawn the line – my line.

And, I think that’s what makes it feel both important and purposeful. It’s something that I learned about and decided that I would commit to. Although I value all the other changes I’ve made, in many cases, I still allow myself space when it comes to “never” or “always” (as in, I use a/c when it’s really, really hot or, I take the car when it’s raining). So, they also feel good, but not in quite the same way.

There’s a freedom to the discipline that  we reach deeply for inside ourselves. There’s a lot to gain from moving past our human nature’s pursuit of convenience and comfort. It stops being about denial or righteousness and simply becomes part of the meaning we are searching for – though we may not know it.

The bottom line goes beyond even that. NIM and many other people who are downsizing their lives says it’s all about being more happy, whole and healthy.

The wife of No Impact Man (Colin Beavan), Michelle, adds her honest thoughts and experience on the site today.

Know Animals. Know Nature. Know Life. CESAR’S WAY

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Since my experience in Minneapolis with Curtis, the dog trainer, I’ve re-read Cesar Millan’s (aka The Dog Whisperer) book, Cesar’s Way. I had just rescued my latest dog when I first read it a few years ago and was intent on soaking up advice about training and leading a dog that had become, by human definition,  ‘dysfunctional’.  So, I didn’t take in the REAL message that filters throughout the book – the one that emphasizes the fact that it is we humans who have become dysfunctional through our disconnect with the natural world and that we have a lot to learn from our animal companions.

Without apology, Cear insists that the most content dogs are those that belong to the homeless people he sees in L.A.. Those who act as both leader and companion to their dogs and give them a way of life most natural to them. On a regular and consistent basis, they get “Exercise, Discipline and Affection”, in that order (which also sounds like a good prescription for the rest of us, doesn’t it?). He continues to explain by saying that “most of the difficulties and instabilities domestic dogs suffer arise from their being in unnatural situations, living with us behind walls” and becoming humanized for our own unconscious needs.” That is, “We project our own images on to them in order to make ourselves feel better. In doing so, not only do we harm to those animals, but we also distance ourselves even further from the natural world in which they exist.”

As we are all beginning to realize, our ever more convenient and techy world leads us to “kill off that better, more natural side of ourselves”, leaving us with lots of stuff, but also a growing longing for fulfillment. In The Dog Whisperer’s straight-up, calm and assertive way, he tells us, “That’s because, without some connection with Mother Nature, we feel isolated. Our world feels cold. We feel unbalanced. We die inside.”

Ouch. The truth can hurt.

Don’t worry, there’s good news. Cesar also tells us that we still have access to the very same world that our dogs inhabit. “No matter how much we ravage the earth, our animal nature yearns to be fulfilled” and he is certain that our dogs can be our lifelines to a part of ourselves that we are at the brink of losing altogether, for they have been put here to teach us.

Since finishing the book, I have been repeating two phrases as mantra several times each day – “Exercise, Discipline, Affection” and, “I am Calm and Assertive”.

It’s not only my dogs that feel better.

Wall-E gets it

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

I finally saw the movie Wall-E. I’m normally not a big animation fan, but this film has a huge heart and huge message. Released by Disney in June of 2008 and a success in conventional terms, I’m surprised it didn’t find the media hype it deserved. If you haven’t seen it, go for it and spread the Wall-E word.

The premise: “Approximately seven hundred years in the future, the earth is over-run with garbage and devoid of plant and animal life; the consequence of years of environmental degradation and thoughtless consumerism.” The remaining humans have escaped into outer space in luxury, with their new and improved robots who perform every physical task, including scooping up the roly poly humans when they slide out of their moving lounge chairs. Everyone is attached to headsets and screens where their activities are all virtual. They hold onto a  steady supply of liquid nutrition that they drink through a straw.

Wall-E is an “old-fashioned” solar-powered trash compacting robot who stays on Earth to help with a long-ago abandoned clean up efforts. His only companion is a cockroach, who hitches a ride with Wall-E to “work” each day and subsists on 700 year-old twinkies.

A sleek, modern robot is transported to Earth to check for signs of renewal of the planet. Wall-E is mesmerized, and after they work out their differences, they find one tiny green sprout amidst the rubble and the excitement begins.

At this point, I’m more taken with the way Wall-E manages to continue his “life” on Earth than what’s in store for the spaceship. Each night, he returns to his makeshift home, cockroach in tow, along with an igloo cooler filled with historical treasures he collects during his compacting duties. Part of his collection is a video tape of an old movie (Music Man?) which he plays over and over (on an ipod with a magnifying glass in front of it). He is especially drawn to a close up shot of people holding hands and ends up gazing down at his own metal “hands” in a bewildered longing.

Ok, I know what you are thinking, but I feel this to my core and it only gets stronger each time he panics when he accidentally crushes his cockroach friend (who always springs back to life, of course) or tries diligently, for many hours, to solar charge and care for his robot crush when she shuts down unexpectedly. And yes, he wants very much just to hold her hand.

Wall-E, even in his robot-ness, shows real emotion and an understanding of many of the simple pleasures we humans have set aside in the search for bigger and better, or as in the movie, “Buy N Large”. And it gave me pause when I realized just how much our shopping malls and living complexes feel eerily like that luxury spaceship…

Watch the movie. You’ll enjoy the happy ending. Let’s insist on our own.

Good Ideas can create good systems

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

We may not be able to get “big politics” to change policies overnight, but we can make change happen in our communities if we bring individuals and ideas together. Here are some recent examples:

The Belgian city of Ghent is declaring a veggie day every Thursday, when all civil servants and elected officials will vow to eat no meat, schools will serve vegetarian meals, and all restaurants will promote a vegetarian selection. Why? Because livestock production is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than cars), and to help decrease obesity. How did they do it? City council members teamed up with Flanders’ Ethical Vegetarian Association and threw a party – with free vegetarian fare and recipes, along with a veggie street map, guiding enthusiastic participants to the town’s veggie restaurants.

And in the UK…In further recognition of the impact that livestock has on the environment, Wycliff College in Stonehouse has offered a 10% discount on tuition for vegetarian students. How? Founder, GW Sibly was a passionate vegetarian, establishing this policy himself.

Derek Beres writes about the science of creating systems that work with this example:

We can “create our own systems to accommodate the good of the many. One friend recently forwarded me a link to her doctor in Brooklyn, whose company works by each member paying a monthly fee, instead of the one-time whopping bill. The fees are manageable for most, and the doctors reply by text messaging and emails, and always — I repeat always — follow up within a day. Generic prescriptions are free, and from what I understand they are very popular. (Last week they had a flu shot party at the office with a live DJ!) So here you have on a small scale a system that has become so in demand that the four doctors have to open another location in Manhattan. They were fed up with the healthcare system, and so founded their own, to help others, and to improve their own careers. Everyone wins, and the science of medicine, not the economics of it, takes precedence.”

What do you want to see change in your community, school, workplace or world? Reach out. Stand up. Make it happen.

Uncle. Wear a Helmet

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

I saw a peculiar and somewhat frightening sight while in Minneapolis. Motorcyclists without helmets. On the highway. Going 65mph. At night. Yes, it’s legal in MN, but that wasn’t the part that bothered me. It’s that it just seemed like a ridiculous risk.

Then it got me thinking about last week’s post…And I have to fess up. I give. There’s not much left to debate on the bicycle helmet issue. After a little more research, reading this on, and the comments that followed, I’m convinced. If you’re gonna travel on two wheels of any kind, wear a helmet. Even on those perfect days when you’d rather feel the “wind in your hair”. Even when it’s too hot. Or too cold. Or not required by law. It’s logical, it’s not difficult and it could save your life. If truth be told, it did save mine.

In my early twenties, I was just getting into off-road riding. Most of my riding was done on well-designed bicycle paths, which were plentiful in Minneapolis. With this rationalization firmly in place, I was an off/on helmet wearer, since I felt protected from cars. My trail riding was also pretty casual at this point – I rode at low speeds on wide, soft, pine-needle covered trails through the woods of MN, which were relatively flat (more rationalization).

I was setting up for a ride with a friend one day – it was hot and humid, and I didn’t want to wear that helmet. In fact, I rarely wore one in the woods – we had a little bike “gang” and wore bandana “helmets” then and well, you know, it looked cool and all that. My friend got off his bike and told me flat out, “I won’t ride with you unless you wear that helmet.” He seemed so serious that I didn’t argue, and put it on.

About 20 minutes into the ride, I hit something hidden under those needles. Not yet a skilled trail cyclist, I didn’t have a chance. I went over my handlebars and landed on my head. I also heard a loud crack. After rolling onto my back, I was a little afraid to move. I felt no pain, which made me even more nervous. Finally I sat up and realized my helmet had cracked. I had hit a large tree root with it.

My friend saved my head that day, if not my life.

Should helmets be law? I’m not sure about that one. I’d still rather see police handing out hugs rather than tickets. But, we can use our noggens when it comes to some common sense issues and even keep an eye out for others. Spread some helmet love and knock some sense into your friends, before it gets knocked out of them.

Citizen Kanine and the power of whispering

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Minneapolis, MN

It’s true. Those gifted animal people do really whisper – that is, when they actually say anything at all as they communicate to dogs that seem to hang on every sound, movement and expression of the human they see as alpha.

While in a Minneapolis coffee shop last week, I looked out the window at this site – a group of 12 dogs, all laying still on the sidewalk, calmly  watching the scene of bicycles, walkers, other dogs and cars buzz past, in some cases, right under their noses. As you could guess, I was out the door in a hurry. I found Curtis Johnson, the trainer, not by his proximity to the dogs (which wasn’t obvious), but by his quietly commanding presence as he sat at a table, enjoying coffee with a friend.

He amiably answered what I assumed were frequent questions from curious onlookers. No, they were not all his dogs, he was “working” – that is, they were in training. Yes, he had just finished walking all 12 (six to a side) four miles through the city and now their job was to complete a lengthy “down-stay”, as it’s called in the dog training world. As we continued to chat, a dog would start to get up, looking unconcerned but slightly restless. In true Dog Whisperer style, Curtis – known as Citizen Kanine – would simply give a soft ssssss sound or say a name, and the dog would slowly sink back to a down position.

Curtis patiently agreed to a group photo before I left. He walked over slowly,  and with some signal I couldn’t quite catch, gave the dogs permission to come to a seated position. They all stared at him in an intent but calm way. Do you see the brown dog on the far left? That dog was not part of his group – he just happened to be tied nearby – but he decided to “listen” in, anyway. I think I was a little mesmerized, too – the energy was contagious.

A nice experience. A nice reminder of the effectiveness of calm, focused energy. Thanks and Namaste, Curtis.

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