Welcome

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.

Hammering Away at Organization

September 20th, 2011

During my career as an office management consultant, I would meet with disorganized professionals to talk about the clutter in their office.

Amidst piles of paper piles, scattered post-it notes, and dusty gadgets, I'd ask the person what they wanted most ... what they envisioned for themselves. More often than not, they responded with statements like, "I guess I need bins and better shelves," or "I want labels," or "I need you to help me figure out what kind of filing cabinet I should buy."

Organization is a habit, a mind-set, and a skill set, but all they could picture were the tools. If they truly wanted to address the chaos, they first had to recognize that organization can't be bought at the office supply store.

Read more in the latest SOS Signal newsletter.

Reflecting on Sacred Ground

September 14th, 2011

This past Sunday, America stopped for a moment to remember a terrible day: 9/11/01. 2,973 people are gone, each connected to one of the three places where they were tragically attacked that morning. For those left behind, each crash site serves as a cosmic telephone booth -- a place to go to talk to the loved one they miss so dearly. The three memorials -- The World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Shanksville -- remind us all what was lost and what was learned.

Like Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, and Valley Forge, these American places are now sacred. Manhattan is the most symbolic of the three terrorist attack sites due to the sheer volume of witnesses, victims, heroics, and suffering. We envision the 9/11 Memorial and Museum remaining for eternity; we hope our great children will never have to fight to keep it from turning into a parking lot.

America declared, "We Will Never Forget," and promised that the slaughter would be "Never Forgotten." Most people can tell you exactly where they were when the attack began. However with 10 years passed, a decade's worth of newborns exist now ... infants and children who were not alive to witness the experience. And while the emotions are still intense for some, on average it takes only two years until a tragic memory fades to point where we are less likely to change our habits in response. As time marches on, it becomes more and more difficult to keep our remembrance promise.

We are not alone. There are others who once suffered as we have. Around the world, every culture has a story, each one passionate, painful, and reflective. Other sacred sites commemorate events that occurred hundreds or thousands of years ago, but time has not diluted their importance. These places are where memory transcends generations.

A person cannot grasp the enormity of another's struggle until he has lived through a similar one. From tragedy comes understanding. As I think back to 9/11, I hope that the heart of America will now open to each grandchild who is fighting to maintain a connection to those he wants "never forgotten."

For instance, the tribes that followed and loved Sitting Bull and Chief Big Foot must fight for remembrance of the Wounded Knee Massacre. May we offer them, and many others like them, our support and understanding as we heal from our own wounds. May we accept that they are as deeply connected to their sacred places as we are to ours.

[Photo Note: Places like Valley Forge remain so that we remember.]

Here are additional links if you'd like to learn more:

Wounded Knee Museum Blog

US Forest Service opens Sacred Sites Report for Public Comment

How high is the water now (part four)?

September 8th, 2011

If you're just joining in, we've been talking about water conservation. Today's is a long, final post in this series.

As I'm writing, it's still raining. It's been raining here for days, one week after hurricane Irene dumped six inches in a few hours. I recently put a lot of flooding pictures into my iPhoto library (some of which were taken at the home of a friend). That fact does not make this conversation any less relevant. Too much rain is as bad for clean water as drought.

Flood waters that overwhelm wastewater treatment plants and wash away stored oil tanks cause troubles that we can't see, but take generations to go away. We can't stop the floods, but we can reduce the impact -- a topic for another day. For now, the presence of nonstop rain does not excuse me from this water-conservation discussion. While Pennsylvania is swamped, Texas is thirsty and burning. Because the Earth's water supply is the result of a global, ongoing cycle, water conservation is a year-round topic -- whether the picture outside my window is dry and dusty or wet and soggy.

Part 2 and Part 3 of this series prompted some fantastic comments. If you haven't checked back to read them, I suggest you do. I don't expect you to pick up every suggestion. I do, however, hope you'll join us as we work to change America's water attitude. Together, we'll expose the absurdity of using this life-dependent resource for nonsensical stuff.

It's not like the call to save water hasn't been shouted before. You may have read popular lists like this:

• Don't let the water run while brushing your teeth.

• Don't let your garden sprinklers rain on the driveway or sidewalk.

• Install low-flow shower heads.

• If something leaks, fix it.

As worthwhile and frequent as these campaigns are, simple lists like this seem to miss the big picture: they don't ask us to adjust our lifestyle. Educators try to keep things simple so that everyday people are more likely to participate. That approach can work, but what's out there for those of us who want more?

Another reason you won't find some water-saving ideas on public service announcements is the fear of litigation. If the suggestion might, in any way possible, encourage disease or other side effects, it'll be dropped. For instance, during an extremely severe drought, I captured the water draining from my washing machine into buckets to water a special tree. Then I learned that the government was warning against this because germs in laundry water could make me sick. This is just one reason why there are limits to what you'll read on any "save water" poster.

There is also little sense of urgency. It's natural to assume that water is plentiful when we see flowing rivers and full reservoirs. It's also commonplace to throw a lot of money around when cash is abundant, but that doesn't mean it's not necessary to invest and save. Unless there's a dramatic event (like 9/11), change comes slowly in society. When the rivers slow to a trickle and the reservoirs begin to dry up, it will be too late. Hardships like imposed water restrictions and inadequate supplies don't have to happen, but we won't be able to prevent them until we change our ways.

Despite my concerns, I too waste water. I live in the same world you do. I also know that the more others around me display positive habits, the more good habits I will develop and follow. Thus this conversation.

Some of the commenters already covered things I do on a regular basis to save water. Here are few more:

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The Kitchen
I honestly do not know which uses more water: washing dishes by hand or by an efficient machine. I suppose it depends. I do know that I can significantly reduce the amount of water I use by simply paying attention. First, I scrape my dishes before I involve any water at all. Then, while hand washing, dirty dishes get showered below the clean one as I rinse off the soap.

I also...

• make sure the water never runs without being used -- a point that applies to all water use.

• don't dump out an unconsumed glass of water without putting it to use if possible. I used to give it to my dog. I water a house plant with it. I pour it into a dirty dish to soak or use it to rinse out the sink.

• pay attention to my grocery list. Water was consumed to create every package at the store. Water helped to grow every piece of produce. I do my best to resist temptation to buy more than I'll eat because overbuying not only wastes money, it wastes water.

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The Bathroom
We've taken "clean" too far. Our ancestors used to bath once a week and, even then, they would share the water. Unless we reverse trends, the average person will soon be showering more often then they brush their teeth. We need to change our go-to-the-office-smelling-like-fresh-soap attitude. An old fashioned bowl bath is often all that's needed (especially in the winter). Instead, we shower because it's what's expected ... not because we need one.

Also, nobody wants to talk about bodily fluid, but we can't ignore the fact that it doesn't take 3 1/2 gallons of water to flush away one cup of urine. It's true that new toilets to use only 1 1/2 gallons per flush, but some work better than others, and replacing everyone's toilet is not the only answer.

Because I have an old one, whenever I host a big party, guests will find a sign that says, "please be kind to our septic system; flush only when necessary." It takes courage every time to hang it because never do I want my house to appear clean and tidy more than when visitors are coming. However, the sign does as much to relieve the stigma from those who question the need to flush as it does to raise awareness for those who haven't thought about it before. It also really does help my onsite septic system.

Meanwhile, there is no denying that toilets across America are senselessly flushing away an excessive amount of clean water all day long.

I placed a full gallon jug in the water reservoir of my old toilet years ago to reduce the amount of water required to fill the tank. One gallon per flush over ten years -- that adds up to a lot of water!

Commenter Jerry raised a great point about composting toilets. These need to be considered more often so we can stop chopping down our forests to install septic systems, especially at remote cabins in pristine areas. The days of the outhouse are not over. Sure, sanitation has brought us a long way in preventing the spread of disease, but we've also got to admit that a full-blown septic system is overkill in some cases.

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The Yard
Excessive water use for landscaping has always infuriated me -- especially in the rural environment.

It's admirable to want to have a nice home, and I agree that the yard can be the best part of ownership. But plants, by their very nature, work within the natural system because natural plants are a part of nature. If you truly want nature in your backyard, then let nature have a say in what's there.

Understand your location, your conditions, your yard's natural affinity to natural things.

If you're going to manipulate what grows there, then take the time to educate yourself responsibly so that you get the desired results without putting an excessive burden on the environment.

I see little difference between planting grass in a desert and hanging plastic ferns on a front porch. They may look nice on the surface, but both are fake. At least the fern doesn't need any water.

My yard is no showpiece and there are things I'd like to do to make it prettier. But NOTHING will ever get watered here except new plantings, the herb garden, and the vegetable garden. If it can't survive on its own, it means that it's just not right for this location. There are PLENTY of other lovely plants that would love to take it's place.

Sure, extreme droughts (like the one in which I watered a favorite dogwood tree with my laundry water) may call for extreme measures. But anything that requires regular, artificial means to keep it alive, is not planted here. Measures include fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicides, too. When I need inspiration, I visit a wilderness area and sit for a while. I look at how beautiful beauty can be when we stop manipulating it. I seek advice when needed ... and not from Sears, Walmart, Lowes, or Home Depot.

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I will NEVER chop down trees to make way for a lawn I'm never going to use. Enough is enough with this American favorite. Most water-saving tips are centered around lawn maintenance. News flash: you don't have to water the woods or meadows.

I'm not asking that we all give up our backyard spaces where the kids can play and we can enjoy time in the sun. I'm asking for a change in the perception that large, weed-free expanses of boring, two-inch tall grass signifies some kind of wealth or class status.

Studies show that heavily compacted turf soils are virtually impermeable. In short, there's little difference between turf and concrete. At least if these lawns were paved, we wouldn't have to mow them.

(Again, I encourage you to read the past comments for more ideas.)

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Other
I now recognize hydroponic farming as a viable means of feeding people. I wrote an article about Butter Valley Harvest (a hydroponic farm in Bally, PA) a few years ago and struggled with conflicting opinions about the practice.

Basically, plants are grown in a soil free, greenhouse environment in trays of circulating water. The only water consumed is that which the plants take up; the rest rolls down to a collection tank and is recirculated. Nutrients are added to the water to feed the plants. Bugs and pests are kept out of the garden, diseases are prevented by maintaining a near sterile environment, and climate conditions are controlled by the farmer.

The conflict lies in that the plants have no connection to the Earth. There is no such thing as organic hydroponic produce because certifiers have concluded that, without soil, the process cannot be organic. I have to agree. However, the technique has obvious applications. As the world population continues to expand, hydroponics can offer a real solution to hunger issues, particularly in dry locations.

Some also question the nutritional value when compared to conventional produce, however, the additives do deliver basic nutrients.

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I almost never buy bottled water. Purchasing it sends a message that I'm happy with the fact that someone else is depleting my resource and selling it back to me. For what? Convenience? There are occasions when bottled water is necessary. My childhood home had a contaminated well and filtration systems were not an option back then. Bottled drinking water kept my family from getting sick. Also, when I'm thirsty at the movie theater, I don't want to drink soda, so it's nice to have the option to buy a bottle of water instead. Aside from than that, I wonder about the amount of water the industry bottles but doesn't sell. I think about the water used for the creation (and recycling) of the disposable plastic bottle.

Nearby my home, an urban neighborhood gets 675 gallons of municipal tap water for the price of one gallon of bottled water. My home is served by a well -- I will continue to get an unlimited amount of water for the price the original owner paid to drill the well ...

assuming, that is, that I am careful to conserve it, whether it's raining outside or not.

How high is the water now (part three)?

August 24th, 2011

Showers and Water Balloons

I'm continuing the water conversation I started on August 2nd. I received some great responses to my post on August 10, and quite a few clever ideas were left on my Facebook page, too:

I still promise to post some of my unconventional water-saving techniques, but first I must tell you about a recent experience because, as I hoped, this online blog prompted a discussion offline:

Last week I camped at the 2011 Philadelphia Folk Festival where I lived in a farmer's field for one week. The experience is difficult to describe; a counter-culture of sorts. Among the campers, creativity abounds, but standard grooming practices do not. You could buy a ticket for a shower, you could jump in the nearby Perkiomen Creek, or you could setup a makeshift shower house of your own, but the smell confirmed that many people went without for days.

With all the dust and mud and heat and humidity during this mid-August event, I need to take a shower ... at least every other day. I set up a store-bought shower tent (picture below on left), filled a solar shower bag with water, and laid it in the sun to heat. When hung in the tent, a tube extended below the bag with a spray nozzle at the end. It was amazing how little water I used when I had to fill, haul, and hang my own! I turned the water off while lathering and never wasted a moment when the water was running. The bag held 2 1/2 gallons; I rarely used 1/2 of it.

While filling my bag at the spigot, I saw eight young people crafting a wagonload of water balloons. I knew what that was for. At noon on Sunday, the annual water balloon battle was to take place between two, large, rival campsites in which a few friends of mine camped.

When the war started, the ammo was fired from behind two front lines for at least 15 minutes. Watermelon rinds became helmets and trashcan covers turned into shields.

A few friends and I remained dry spectators to the exhibition, but while we watched and laughed, the question came up: how much water are these kids wasting? Facebook commenter, Bill Clarke (see his video) concluded that if each of the soldiers had taken a shower that weekend, they'd use more water than what they were getting doused with during the fight.

Next year, I might suggest that they fill a few balloons with liquid soap.

Bill was standing out of reach with his iPhone in hand. The battle's intensity was much greater than what is visible on screen, but if you allow a minute for this to load, you can get a slight glimpse of the event.

WaterBattle2011PFF-BClarke.MOV

When it was over, the eco-minded warriors picked up all the spent ammo (aka., colored latex) that was scattered on the ground just as they do every year.

Every fair and festival today seems to have some sort of water-filled fun, especially for kids. Misting tents have become a popular attraction for cooling off attendees. At the Phila. Folk Festival, the balloon war is one of my favorite events to watch. Like the backyard swimming pool, these activities seem to be growing in popularity, yet they are direct conflict with the water-conservation message.

How can we teach kids that water is precious without taking away their summertime fun?

How high is the water now (part two)?

August 10th, 2011

Last week I asked you to begin thinking about the things you do to save water. This week I'm asking you to share your ideas and techniques with others.

Before I do, however, I want to point out a few, water-related facts to illustrate the importance of this issue. We briefly learned (in the Eastern Pennsylvania Business Journal article), how important water is to human survival and how the Earth maintains this supply. Now let's talk about how much we consume. Here are a few numbers.

• The average person uses 100 gallons of water each day.

• Based on the 100-gallons-per-day figure, one person will use 2.5 million gallons in a 70-year lifetime.

• The US population increased by nearly 100 million people in ten recent years.

Despite the fact that we've experienced a lot of flooding recently, the atmosphere is not adjusting to our demand for more water. And floods do very little to increase our fresh water supply.

To start, clouds only shed what they absorb through evaporation. Evaporation drives the hydrological cycle, and speedy evaporation is not desirable (unless your laundry is hanging out to dry). When water evaporates to the clouds quickly and in large quantities it then dumps quickly.

When the floods come, the Earth cannot absorb the fast-moving stormwater, so the rain often hits the salty ocean before we can utilize it. Most water-conservation measures slow down the evaporation process and, as a result, they help prevent flooding. A reduced likelihood of flooding means an increase in the presence of useable water.

This is important to note because -- being a continuous cycle -- everything we do in regard to water use perpetuates either the problem or the solution.

Sadly, I believe that one reason all citizens haven't taken a serious look at their individual water use is because theirs is literally a drop in the bucket when compared to industry's. I've seen leaks from construction sites that have likely wasted more water than I use in a lifetime.

It's true that 2.5 million gallons isn't much when compared to industrial activities like drilling for natural gas. For instance, the most predominant water battle in Pennsylvania right now is connected to the Marcellus Shale and the bounty of natural gas therein. To get to this treasure, deep below the Earth's surface, drillers need lots of water. Lots of water. And now there are a lot of drills. Lots of drills.

Some more numbers:

• Each Marcellus Shale well consumes about 3 to 5 million gallons of water.

• As of October 2010, there were 645 completed wells in Pennsylvania.

• There have been 6,795 additional Pennsylvania well permits issued since 2004.

I can't bring myself to do the math, nor will my little calculator go that high. These numbers do not take into account the loss of groundwater recharge from soil disturbance and plant loss as a result of road and well pad site construction. When combined with existing industrial water use (such as bottled water), we have to start asking if there will be any left for the fish.

Why then should I bother trying to save a measly gallon here and a gallon there?

My answer: because I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Because I want to know that I've done all I can to protect my own life. Because living in harmony with what the Earth provides is important to me. Because I still feel theft is wrong even when thieves surround me.

It can be downright painful to care. However, when we do, we become invested in it. When we care, we are more willing to stand up and demand the crooks be judged.

So far, on our behalf, the folks who care about water have demanded that the drillers figure out how to recycle and reuse the water. The folks who control water withdrawal permits are fighting to ensure our streams and rivers maintain an ecologically healthy flow. The senators and representatives -- the ones who got voted in by the people who care about water -- are fighting to ensure big industry does not get away with murder. But their job is not easy. They need our support. They need to know we won't just waste the water they are fighting to conserve.

First, get engaged by starting a conservation effort of your own. Second, always remember your role in the water consumption cycle. Third, be willing to speak up and show that you care about water.

Water conservation strategies need not be scientific; more often they are just common sense. I promise to share with you some of my own ideas, but first I want to hear yours. Remember: EVERY DROP COUNTS, so no idea is too small.

Let us hear your suggestions for being part of the solution. I'm not asking you to solve all our water problems or save the planet or regulate industry or control the US population. I just want to get us talking – and thinking about – our individual water use.

Spread the word to keep the ideas coming. If you have a product or other resource (such as a great low-flow shower head), tell us the brand and where we can get one. It doesn't matter if you're in the middle of a concrete jungle or you pump your water from a hand well in the Ozarks, I want to hear how you conserve water?

I'll respond to your comments in the next blog post in mid-August.