I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Change the message to change the world.

April 5th, 2013

You may say I'm living in a dream cloud, but I'm convinced American attitudes have changed. The conversation has restarted. People are talking about Nature as something to be treated with respect, not just from the soapbox in front of City Hall, but at the family dinner table, the company water cooler, and -- even more exciting -- the elementary-school bus stop. In spite of this, many refuse to change their perspective about their fellow citizens, their neighbors, or their society as a whole.

I know it's not easy.

It's darn hard to open the eyes of the world to the natural wonders around us. Many have tried for such a long time they don't trust society's new found appreciation. It wasn't long ago when speaking up in favor of conservation was considered lame, a task for hippies and granola eaters.

Those who took on the task did so because they were either really brave or completely indifferent to the name calling or the "outcast" label. They stated their opinions about clean air, water, and soil in the same way a kid declares his love for pizza. They revealed the senselessness of the progress-at-any-cost actions going on around them, even after fun was poked and names were slung, even when pegged as simpletons speaking out against the geniuses' approach that money was better than health because money could buy anything you ever needed.

I sympathize fully. Every spotlight on the importance of Nature seemingly overshadowed by a quest for financial gain. You can go back more than 100 years to find essays of the pain from watching society brutalize the pristine woods, dam the flowing waters, and clog the fresh air. It hurts. And it's been hurting for a long, long time.

I too have doubts about the buzz words such as sustainability, green, organic, and ecofriendly. There are plenty of folks who are buzzing right along with them, just following the herd in the same way they grabbed up Cabbage Patch Kids and Ugg® boots. I too must quiet the cynicism that creeps inside my own mind.

But now, as the tides have turned and the geniuses are forced to listen to the simpletons, it is the polluter and exploiter who have become the outcasts. Bravery or indifference no longer applies. One can speak passionately in favor of conservation without the stigma which existed jut a few years ago. But instead of capitalizing on this, too many are unwilling to make a fresh start.

Why we must try

You probably know the conversation:

"Hey Sally, I just heard about this exciting new product that is so energy efficient and won't harm the environment."

"That's great, Bill. Innovation from back-to-basics thinking, I love it!"

Then the creeper chimes in, "Yah, their advertisements are just a bunch of marketing babble. Go Green, like we're frogs or something. I don't trust them one iota. There's no proof that they care about anything other making money. Corporation and capitalism is about greed and nothing more."

There it is: distrust pollution. A positive tone ruined with negative reminders of the hurdles of the past. It's as if someone needs to point out that Adolf Hitler was a lunatic every time the subject of peace comes up. However valid the observation, it does nothing but stir up feelings of guilt, sadness, and frustration and gives power to a minority voice that was much too loud, none of which has any value in the creation of a new and promising future, the likes of which were the original topic of conversation.

Like a cucumber left in the garden too long, bitterness has set in. If left on the vine, the overripe thing will cause the entire plant to stop producing, letting one bitter bloom ruin the harvest. It's time to let it go.

This is not to suggest we should leave our guard down, that we should ignore those who are stupid enough to exploit Nature for profit any more than we should refrain from calling out a crazed, genocidal maniac when we see one. What I am suggesting is that we bite our cynical tongues, we yank out the hopeless cucumber plant, and we germinate fresh seeds. If we want change, we must layoff the learned assumptions from the past. Just as it's unfair to say all men with tiny mustaches are evil, there is no benefit in expecting that all corporate leaders of successful companies are greedy or every mansion owner prefers a cement pond to a pristine lake. Because if we do, if we continue to cling on to these feelings, we become embroiled in a search for enemies when what we really need is allies.

For 100 years people have written about their cherished, miraculous interactions with the world outside. There are millions of people who recognize the preciousness of Nature, and they see that Nature on earth is limited and therefore can be destroyed. As a writer who supports these caring people, I am continuously renewed by the fact that so many exist. They may not wear a badge on their lapel, defining them as environmentalists, but they know how special it is to be able to walk outside, breathe clean air, hear a bird's song, and see the natural masterpiece.

I still believe, all along, there were and are more cognizant people than blind ones. Long before green described anything more than a color, varying shades of environmentalists were in our midst -- grandmothers planting gardens with granddaughters; grandfathers going fishing with grandsons; shy naturists saying nothing at all. They cared, if for no other reason than because of the pesky little fact that we are nothing without a healthy planet to live on, and it took neither a simpleton nor a genius to figure that out.

Regardless, every person has an equal place here, each one dealt only one token, one round of play in life's game. During our time, the choices are constant and relentless. The perspective choice is entirely yours.

A question to ask yourself

I know a guy who greets every stranger as if he trusts they are someone he's going to like. People react to him favorably. He gives the benefit of the doubt, and most take advantage by letting their bright qualities shine. It's as if they want to be the best they can be in order to remain in his favor.

Another guy I know greets every stranger as if he assumes they are someone he's not going to like. People respond to him cautiously, sensing his distrust. They hold back their brightest qualities because they are unwilling to be open with someone like him, with his prove-to-me-why-I-should-like-you attitude. Most have no interest in being in his favor, not just because that's impossible, it's valueless.

So ask yourself, given your limited time and your unlimited passion in this wonderful world, which guy do you want to be?

Two examples of liter found on the banks of the Delaware River: fireworks trash and a rock structure (in back). Which one would you prefer to leave behind?

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Can you see the forest through the deer?

March 22nd, 2013

Note: Unlike last week, this is a long post. However, if you've encountered an overabundance of deer in your neighborhood, it's one you will want to read.

To hear piano music while listening, click here. The song will open in a new window. Song Title: Anthem of My Heart; Composer: Robin Spielberg*; Pianist: Ruth Heil

Like all the years before, I once again learned a lot at this year's Watershed Congress Along the Schuylkill River, an annual environmental conference where the health of the ecosystem is the buzz. One presentation in particular addressed a popular concern: how do we contend with all these deer?

Drew Gilchrist's presentation was called, "The Deer Factor – Strategies for Successful Restoration Projects in Bambi-land." Having previously worked for a local organization called Natural Lands Trust, and now serving as a regional adviser for southeast Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, he's passionate about land conservation and environmental stewardship. He's also a habitat gardener, meaning instead of planting for flowers or vegetables, he plants for life (mammals, reptiles, insects, etc.). His presentation tied together his 30 years of work experience with his trial-and-error homeowner hobby. The room didn't have enough seats to accommodate all the people who wanted to hear Drew's observations of the ever-loved and ever-hated white-tailed deer.

For those who don't know it, 140 lb. mammals are eating and rubbing their way through our backyards, woods, and fields, seriously destroying the diversity of the plant life, carrying Lyme-disease-ridden ticks along with them. Sometimes they gnaw the plants to ground; other times they just nip the buds, making it impossible for the plant to flower and reproduce. The males use the surviving trees as communication signposts, rubbing and scraping their antlers into the bark, often inflicting harm the tree cannot overcome. Like humans, it could be said that there are just too many deer for the environment to withstand. Some predict the population will crash under its own weight, but whether or not that happens, their overabundance is consequential.


Seventeen years ago, my husband and I chose to buy the house we did because it came with a little bit of woods. The variety of trees and plants made it almost magical. Mayflowers, dogwoods...

redbud, anemone, trillium...

bloodroot, sassafras, jack-in-the-pulpit,

hickory, walnut, phlox.

Eventually, we went from rarely seeing a deer to nearly tripping over a tiny fawn in the backyard or waiting for a big doe to step aside and let us bring the car into the driveway.

First they frolicked.

Now, the only thing that can survive beyond a few weeks of sprouting are the plants the deer don't like: multiflora rose, barberry, and some choking vine I've yet to identify.

Then they nibbled.

So what happened?

I've heard lots of observations from frustrated folks who have either crashed into a deer on the road or lost their latest flowerbed to its stomach. "We built houses in their territory; where else are they supposed to go?" "They live here because they like our flowers." "They stay here because they are safe from natural predators." These are things I'd hear every time the subject came up, observations that didn't seem wrong but didn't feel totally right either.

We watched them grow.

Adorable as these photos may be, before I go any further, I'm going to come right out and say it: I would hunt if I knew how to do it. I eat meat, and I respect the man or woman who has met and given thanks to the animal he or she eats. I'm a quiet advocate for the organizations that support respectful hunting, and I am in their debt for the game and gamelands they work so hard to protect and conserve. I hike on those lands and watch the wildlife when I'm there. I wish more young people would follow their parents into the woods to sit still for hours and learn about the cycle of life.

Worried that my answer is to shoot all the deer? It's not, but I do value the traditional-hunters' opinion.

In Valley Forge National Park just a few miles from here, sharp shooters were hired to cull the population against ardent opposition from animal-rights groups and the like. Reports said they donated nine tons of deer meat to food banks in the first year alone. Snipers are not my kind of hunters, but something had to be done to safely remedy a desperate situation in a high-profile, heavily used, deer-flooded area, not just for the plants but also for the diseases related to Lyme and starvation. Did I support the hunt? Let's just say I wasn't one of the people trying to stop it.

Valley Forge National Park

Meanwhile last fall, while having lunch at the local bar, I heard a classic conversation that went something like this:

"So Ralph, did you get out hunting yet this year?"

"Yah, four of us went up to Potter County. One of us got a deer after six full days. There's nothing up there! My son won't go with me either, 'cause he knows it's a waste of time."

No deer in the woods. You hear it time and again. The game commission gets riddled with complaints from hunters who demand something be done to populate their hunting grounds with targets. We can't get rid of 'em; they can't find 'em. Why?

In fall here, they don't disappear; they just fade into the background.

The answer, as Drew called it, is edge habitat. Edge habitat occurs wherever the woods meets anything else but more woods. Cut a slice of woods away for a road, pipeline, house, yard, parking lot, or ball field and the effects will reach 300 feet into the remaining shade, effectively turning every edge into a kind of habitat that is far different from the interior characteristics that were once there.

Try to imagine 300 feet if you can. My entire one-and-one-third-acre property is only 200 feet deep at its longest line. Can you picture a place where the woodland is at least 300 feet from any one edge? Depending on where you live, it's tough land to find. And if it's there, it's probably isolated, like an island floating in an ocean of concrete and field, reducing its value as interior real estate.

Plant and animal species that live on the edge are typically generalists. They can survive on a variety of foods, and they can find shelter in a variety of spots. Meanwhile, the species that live in the interior are typically specialists. They have specific needs for food, shelter, or reproduction, and those critical ingredients need to be left alone, undisturbed, in order to persist.

Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (where I live) is overflowing with edge habitat. The remnants of William Penn's woods, it's now an urban forest. We still have lots of trees, but they're in between houses, roads, yards, fields, and parking lots. Potter County, meanwhile, is filled with interior habitat, the quiet and unpopulated kind of place where a father would take his son to learn how to hunt.

White-tailed deer like edge habitat. They like the buds, stems, and leaves of the shrubs that grow there, and they like to move in and out from under the trees. They find safety in the brush-stage forest found there, whether the clearing was the result of man or nature.

Edge habitat is where Drew lives ... and tries to garden.

Having taken a few approaches to the deer problem, Drew has contended that we might as well learn to live with them. We can hunt, repel, feed, inoculate, sterilize, or just plain curse, but the deer population will keep exploding alongside us because they like the habitat we create. This is regardless of what we put in our flowerbeds, despite the presence or lack of predators, and irrelevant to how much real estate exists elsewhere in places like Potter County.

Meanwhile, Drew knows how important diverse plant life is to the ecosystem as a whole. Countless other species are dependent on that which the deer are eradicating. Thus he suggests we keep planting, but plant accordingly. To coexist we can select (and take measures to establish) varieties the deer don't favor.

Here are a few things Drew suggested:

  • Lists and suggestions for deer-resistant, native plants are available online, but patience in determining ultimate selection is required. Different deer have different tastes and therefore what works at one house will not work at another. Trial, error, and vigilance cannot be bypassed.
  • New plants of all varieties should be protected with barriers or repellents for the first year or more so they can get established, because deer will sample and thus destroy anything new.
  • Timing can matter as much as taste. Some days deer will chomp on a bush they'd otherwise leave untouched, such as when the winter advances and hunger grows. Pay attention and guard accordingly.
  • With the right timing, we can employ the deer to do the pruning, letting them devour any shrubs or perennials that respond with vigor to harsh cutting-back.

Difficult to photograph, this is my garden fence in July (milkweed stands in the background). Inside the fence (right) I left room for wildflowers. Outside the fence (left) are the same coneflowers, which some will tell you deer don't like. I've done no maintenance in or out; the only difference is deer access. You can see the result.

Still, I'm sad for all that is no longer growing in these woods. When you walk here, you can sense the old trees -- the ones who grew up before the deer moved in -- are also missing the new growth, the regeneration, the loss of offspring, the understory friendship. It's too small an area to hunt, and besides, my neighbors would not approve. It's too big an area to envelop with a fence, and I don't want to block passage for all anyway. With each year that passes without new seedlings, I find myself cherishing the unspoiled woodland interior more than ever before (a topic for a future post).

Living on the edge is just one chapter in a saga that is America's deer story. I'm still uncertain why the deer moved into my yard, since the area remains fairly the same as it was 17 years ago. There is much more to the problem than just this part, with some interests writing their own versions and players improvising their own lines. However, this chapter comes at the beginning of the book; it's not some new wild discovery, it's an old fact, one written as the species evolved.

I went to the conference in part to learn, in part to mingle, and in part to be reminded of such truths. Many who attended Drew's session were looking for ways to keep the deer from destroying their latest, riverbank-stabilization projects or freshly designed, community tree plantings. Like other sessions at the Congress, old facts were combined with new techniques in order to gain a better understanding of the best way to live in our environment.

I don't expect you to be willing to spend a sunny Saturday stuck inside a classroom, but if you're going to act, if your going to demand that others act, you should at least be willing to first ask questions and seek the scientific truths. Not only will you benefit after the results are better aligned with your intentions, our environment will benefit when your actions are better aligned with natural law. This is true whether you're talking about the deer population problem, your home's landscape (last week's post), or the globe's climate.

I will continue to curse the deer and chase them away from my garden. However, I will also recognize my role in the conditions. I will do my best to return new life to my little plot, life effected so that I may live where I prefer. And when in doubt, I will step aside, put my trust in Nature, and let her do her job, a job she does better than I ever could, sustaining life for all on a tiny rock called Earth, filled with oddities and surprises and secrets and -- in my neighborhood -- a whole bunch of deer.

*Musical note: "Anthem of My Heart" sheet music is available for purchase via Robin's site.

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Killing with Love at Springtime

March 15th, 2013

Ah, the springtime. It's almost here. Spring is a busy time, so I'll keep this short.

If you are like me, you are ready to get out in the yard and get working on the landscape, but be very careful. Do not fall into an everybody's-doing-it trap. Instead of rewriting great advice, I'll let you read a past blog post from a friend and experienced arborist (a.k.a tree lover). The trap is shaped like a volcano. It's the common-yet-harmful practice of piling up mulch around trees. The problem, like the pile, seems to grow in popularity and size every year. Don't do it!

Learn why:

Mulch Madness from Jacobs Tree Surgery, Part I

Mulch Madness from Jacobs Tree Surgery, Part II

Scroll down to the end of the following post, just below the photo of the metal tree tag, to find examples of the proper way to mulch your trees:

Proper tree care

It's easy to love our trees to death. If you want more examples, seek out the book How Trees Die by Jeff Gillman. The content is not nearly as gloomy as the title, but it's a fast read that shows how our best intentions, like putting mulch around a favorite tree, can easily go awry.

Enjoy springtime without smothering the ones you love, even if you see "professionals" doing it.

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Five words you should never say

March 8th, 2013

To play musical accompaniment (in a new window) while reading, click here. Song: Something Good; Composer: Richard Rodgers; Collection: Rogers and Hammerstein The Sound of Music; Played by Ruth Heil

Don't you just hate it when someone says, "Don't get your hopes up." I know I do.

It's one of the most negative things a person can utter, because it countervails one of the most positive tools of the human mind: hope. Besides, most of us don't need to hear it; life has already overly prepared us for disappointment. And while it's always sad when things don't work out, it would be sadder still to give up, to never try, to restrain the part of the brain that wants to dream of improvement.

Admittedly there are times when we base our hopes on the actions of others, making this response a little more appropriate. Such as "I want to help you out but don't get your hopes up" or "Ill try to quit smoking but don't get your hopes up." We may hope for help or for the good health of others, but we do have to be careful about basing our satisfaction on other people's deeds. Aside from this though, any attempt to squash hope should be banned, barred, and illegalized.

There is always hope that the bud will open.

That's because all possibilities start with hope. Hope brings excitement to an otherwise dull day. It dreams of sunshine on the first day of spring. It teases us into feeling like we could win, pushing us towards success. Hope makes us fight to be well, better, and good, despite the odds against us. And hope is what points us towards our vision for the future.

There is always hope that the storm will pass.

For instance, a good friend of mine recently took a month-long trip to Australia. It was something she long hoped to do. Although I never asked, I'm sure there were plenty of opportunities over the years for her to abandon her idea (being a very busy executive and all) but she didn't. She went. She experienced. And when she returned she vowed to travel more. Even if only short trips or small excursions to nearby attractions, she realized how much she enjoyed getting away, letting hope guide her perpetually toward the things that make her happy.

There is always hope that the tomatoes will ripen.

Meanwhile, visualization is recommended as a way to achieve something desirable. Advisers will point out that we stand a better chance of reaching a goal when we can imagine the reality of it, like a marathon runner who pictures herself crossing the finish line.

Visualize that which you want most, and the next thing you know, you'll begin taking steps in its direction. They might be little steps at first, but momentum will build with each one. You might stumble a few times. And maybe the sun will shine the day AFTER the first one in spring. That's where resilience and perseverance come in, but the point is it all starts back at hope.

The effects are immediate, too. The instant one has hope, the moment they feel better. Therefore, I say we should not delay; we should tell everyone to be sure and get their hopes up, right away.

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Flawed performance or no performance at all?

March 1st, 2013

To play musical accompaniment (in a new window) while reading, click here.

Last Friday I sent out my bimonthly SOS Signal newsletter. The feature article looked at working person's ability to clearly tell clients what he or she does. It emphasized the importance of defining the job before describing the quality of the work. It turns out, the piece was released with two typos.

Ironic? I suppose not.

The imperfections in the newsletter turned out to be an appropriate case-in-point. I hate the fact that they happened, but they speak to the topic at hand for a number of reasons, especially for those of us who want to do an A-plus job, 100 percent of the time. Our desire to meet such high standards is often exactly what holds us back from taking risks, moving forward, and sharing ourselves.

Calculated Risks

In my personal life and in my work, I must prioritize objectives in order to achieve them. My blog and newsletter are produced on a regular and consistent basis, molded to offer support and encouragement, without advertising. Those are my priorities. Now, if I was writing for hire (i.e., a paid job), perfection would shift up the priority scale, and so I would employ a proofreader to catch any missed errors. Every goal is wrought with calculated risks. To meet the objectives, investment must therefore be based on calculated priorities.

Pushing Onward

The errors were the result of a tradeoff between delaying the publication or delivering the finished job on schedule. Now, I don't like sloppy work and every piece I produce is a sample of my ability, but at some point I need to stop checking for accuracy and "roll the presses," otherwise the paper won't get delivered. Plus, the more I worry about perfection, the more I am crippled. This happens for performers, athletes, and everyone. Ski down a hill thinking about nothing other than falling, and you will most certainly plant your face on the ground. In order to move freely forward, we must let go.

The Main Point: Sharing Ourselves

Most important: I'm not perfect. I am a flawed individual who writes about her experiences and thoughts so that other individuals may feel connected to them. I fight through the terror of publishing my words because I am compelled to do so. Sadly, I can get 2,000 words down and out, but the only ones I remember are the two I typed incorrectly, all the work, thought, molding, and courage ruined with two little words.

This is the world we live in, intolerant to mistakes, from others, from ourselves. In the case of a surgeon such is a good thing. But in the case of the average person, particularly the average artist, it's debilitating and it limits our experience. How many paintings and sculptures and screenplays are stuffed into closets because the creators fear the critique's evil standard? What do we deny ourselves out of reluctance to risk a mistake? How many words are in need of saying that don't get said because the sayer can't say them perfectly?

Musical Examples

In addition to being a writer, I am also a musician. I'm not a professional or even an "amateur;" I just play the piano. Music is an art that, like writing, requires accuracy. Hit the wrong note or lose control of your voice and your audience will cringe if they notice.

Most of you don't know about my skill because I don't perform in public. Why? My playing is riddled with mistakes. I have a bookcase full of songs which I enjoy, but I have no desire to sit and repeat and repeat and repeat the same song until I hit every note perfectly in order to make it performance-worthy; I just want to make music that satisfies my mood.

Meanwhile, I've heard it said that God's gift to you is your talent, and your gift in return is sharing that talent with others. How true! But compared to the remixed, remastered, studio recorded, uncovered prodigy, Idol groomed, expensive ticketed, mass produced ridiculousness that has become America's music scene, how can a middle-aged piano player who makes too many mistakes have anything to offer?

Such a question is a crippling result of the perfectionist standard: God-given talents deemed unworthy by human snobbery. "Find out who wins after this commercial break."

Have you noticed the copycat redundancy in Top 40 soloists today? There's a certain over embellishment, a let-me-prove-how-super-strong-my-voice-is pattern running amuck today. For instance, few people I know enjoy the way the National Anthem is sung at big games now, yet someone, somewhere has determined there's a new way to make it "perfect." The notes might be right, but in my opinion, the quality is anything but. True perfection in this case should have nothing to do with the singer, and everything to do with the song. By focusing so much attention on the soloist's ability, the song's meaning -- a great country shared by people of all talents -- is screamed out of earshot.

Meanwhile, have you noticed that vinyl records have fallen back into favor? I love old vinyl because, even though the albums were studio recorded, they have a raw feeling of wonderful imperfection, like a true live performance complete with lint- and scratch-infused background noise. There's a passion that comes through, passion otherwise sterilized by digital conversion.

So yes, there were regrettable typos in my SOS Signal. If I took this too seriously, I would write less, not more. Life itself is such a performance, one with plenty of lint and scratches. As much as I'd regret stumbling on stage, I'd hate it even more if I hid behind the curtain instead.

What about you?

NOTE: The recording linked at the top of this page was of me, playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on my piano at home. It's as perfect as I'm ever going to get it. Nothing to offer? Depends on who you ask, I guess.

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