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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.

The Most Real Post You'll Ever Read

June 13th, 2014

This past Saturday I walked into a Taco Bell for possibly the first time in my life. (Don't tell my doctor.) Such mainstream places are not ones I venture into often, but when I do, I usually return consumed with thoughts of what I noticed while I was there. Filled with first impressions, this hyper-awareness isn't always easy, but when taken in the right light, it can be comical.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the crunchy taco I had ordered. Not bad for $1.19. As I was chewing though, I read the taco's paper wrapper that touted its ingredients: "100% real beef."

A short time ago I wrote a post about critics who love to slam an author's use of adjectives. I was countering their resistance by standing up for the noun modifier. Not this time. I think I would have been better able to blissfully enjoy my bad choice of food had I not been subjected to the word "real?" That was one adjective they should have left out.

Did they mean it was 100% real (as opposed to partly fake) or 100% beef (as opposed to partly chicken or pork)? If the beef was real, what else wasn't? Who was serving stuff that was 99% or less? And what was in the fake stuff?

Real as an adjective raises doubt at the exact moment it is meant to build trust. For example, if someone said to you, "This is a real Rolex watch," wouldn't you wonder a bit? Why wouldn't they just say, "This is a Rolex watch" and leave it at that?

Real also tends to indicate surprise, like when someone says, "Are you really going to eat that?"

When my husband uses the word "really," it's often an expression of surprise AND frustration.

If I tell him, "I forgot to pay the mortgage last month,"

he will respond, "Really?"

Or if "the sign says the place is closed,"

he might complain, "Really?"

Authentic is another word for real, one that still seems to have held on to some credibility. I suppose it isn't as overused by advertisers since they tend to steer away from those tedious extra syllables. Whatever the reason, if you really want to express real truthfulness, you have a better shot with authentic, at least for now. Remember when epic used to mean unusually great?

As I chewed, happy to know my beef was real, uncertain about the lettuce, cheese, and taco shell, I crumpled up the paper in preparation to leave the rushing mainstream waters and return to a place where I make my own tacos. When I do, I always use really real ingredients. Honest.

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Staying Put

May 23rd, 2014

Last week's post prompted a comment from one of my favorite, online writer friends. In his A World of Words blog, and well as widely published articles and guest posts, Sven eloquently captures how I feel. He points out eco-focused problems with an appropriate dose of humorous storytelling and then wraps up his perspective with real possibilities for change. Like me, he is of German descent, so he is tenacious. He keeps laying down building blocks, because he stubbornly believes things can change.

He spun my rant against a disconnected, forever-traveling society into encouragement for more tales about the benefits of remaining grounded in place when he wrote:

"...structural changes have to be driven by cultural changes. And those cultural changes I believe can come through the stories we tell about how enjoyable it is to have mom & pop stores or nearby farmers..."

Although better described as heartwarming than enjoyable, The Valley Cafe immediately came to mind. Admittedly, I must drive 20 minutes to get to this little restaurant, but residents in the communities of East Greenville and Pennsburg are within walking or biking distance. (Again, admittedly, one would have to use the shoulder of a very busy Route 663 to get from Main Street to the cafe, but that's one of those structural issues.)

Last year, I nominated The Valley Cafe for the local Chamber of Commerce's Outstanding Small Business award ... and it won. As the nominator I was asked to introduce the catering manager and owner at the award ceremony.

Karyn and Craig Keyser

Below is a copy of what I said, offered to you (and Sven) as an example of the value in soliciting your local restaurant instead of migrating to a fancy chain in the next town:

When traveling back through history on a visit to any historic American town, three buildings seem to always be left standing: the jail, the bank, and the gathering place. The jail and bank still stand because their walls were fortified. The gathering place still stands because it fortified the town.

Sure, in these modern times, we’ve done a great job of building the ability for people to succeed alone. We have everything we need to remain isolated yet connected. However, I still believe that the gathering place is relevant to a community’s success. Therefore, I nominated The Valley Cafe for this award, because it is managed in a way that understands the simple strength that is community.

Any given weekday, you’ll find businesspeople using the cafe as a meeting room, allowed to linger, never rushed in order to fill the table with more orders. But what made me think of the Cafe for this nomination comes in the form of a story told to me by Karyn, the Cafe’s catering and marketing manager.

It was in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Neighbors were beginning to venture outside. They were beginning to realize that the public service warnings were accurate: the power was going to be out for days. Many were prepared for an outage; too few were prepared for week or more without heat, light, or stove.

It may have been luck that kept the lights on at the Valley Cafe following the hurricane, but it is the compassion of the staff that made it a respite to those in need of a warm place and a good meal. I got to talk with an exhausted Karyn one week after the storm; I learned just how much the cafe cared about people. Doing what it does best -- food -- it kept serving up what it could while allowing folks to eat slowly. She described one elderly lady who came regularly during that period, always alone, looking more weary and colder each day. Karyn told me she respected the woman's privacy, but would gently inquire as to her well being, to make sure she was O.K., if there was anything she could do. In the end, it seemed just being open for business and letting her be at a table was exactly what she needed.

It’s a little story, told with an authenticity that could not be faked. This hospitality in an age of hurry-up-and-catch-the-next-customer is why I nominated The Valley Cafe for the Outstanding Business Award.

Nothing in that introduction talks about low prices, outstanding food, or unbridled variety, the things for which we drive all over the globe. I bet if you look closely enough, you can find a Valley Cafe in the shops and restaurants close to where you live, but in order to find out, you need to stay put.

And thanks for the encouragement, Sven. Consider this one more brick in the wall of change.

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Behind the Wheel

May 15th, 2014

We all want a good life. Yet, for many of us, our desire for happiness and satisfaction is met with anger and frustration. After a short errand this morning--a four-mile drive during rush hour--I wondered how good it would be if we all got out of our cars.

Americans drive constantly. It's not just the ridiculous daily hours spent sitting in commuter traffic, it's engrained into everything we want or have to do. Expose your kids to extracurricular activities? Gotta' drive 'em. Get food for the week? Gotta' drive. Catch a ballgame? You don't just gotta' drive; you have to cut out in the seventh inning so that you can beat the traffic home. Want to go out for a few drinks? Gotta' designate someone to drive. Go on vacation? Getting there involves the longest drive of the year, a dread-filled fact that haunts your entire holiday, because if you want to get home, you gotta' drive it again.

Rolling past one scenic view after another during a vacation to Colorado.

Public transportation, while good for many reasons, isn't much better. It still involves a lot of time that could otherwise be spent on better things.

Whenever I get to feeling low about our culture, I try to imagine what it was like back in the days when we had REAL problems. Typhoid fever. Abusive masters. And a general need to labor over every task. We tackled them through time, especially the general laboring part. Work was replaced by machines, just as walking has been replaced by cars. Now we've taken the matter so far that, instead of weaning us off our vehicular addiction, we're investing in the creation of smarter cars. No amount of technology will fix the fact that we need to stop this constant migration.

Life is really good for people like me. I have the tools to deal with the majority of hardships that come my way, and even when I don't, help is at hand. Still, it's in my nature to want things to be better, and in that vein, I prefer labor (walking) to stress (driving). Meanwhile walking--or even biking--simply isn't an option around here; the infrastructure just isn't in place. But I can still dream and hope for a trend that brings us back to community, to neighborhoods, to villages, to being happy with the amenities nearby, and to be able to spend the majority of my days without getting in the damn car.

How some spent a beautiful Sunday in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

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How to turn a sighting into science

May 9th, 2014

I think data is boring. Give me a table filled with numbers and Latin names and you might as well have given me a pillow.

Torn from the website, Nature's Notebook.

Yet, when I want to know the facts, that file is crucial. It is the back story to the environmental novel. It is the tool the dedicated scientists need to find patterns, pinpoint benchmarks, and prove theories. In the right hands, each piece of datum will add up to a picture, one that looks to the past to envision the future.

Thus, collecting statistics is part of every conservation effort. How do you know what has been lost or gained if you never measure the inventory? When do you sound an alarm for a species if you can't say how few individuals remain? Yet, field researchers cannot be in all places at all times, making it seemingly impossible to accomplish such counting goals. Satellite imagery may be fantastic today, but they must still rely on actual face-to-subject sightings. This is where you and I can help. Any casual observer who spends recreational time outside can make a real difference by sharing an observation and becoming a "citizen scientist."

A Simple Start

For instance, say you notice an unusual beetle. Its wings glow with a metallic green color so brilliant you can't forget the sighting. Acting on curiosity, you look it up online to see if you can identify the creature. Your bug matches the photo on the emerald ash borer fact sheet, the one that describes it as a seriously problematic pest. Bummer.

What you do next is where the difference comes in. Sure, it's great that you were captivated enough to look it up. There's something about identifying the creatures we see in the environment that better connects us to it. But in order to turn the sighting into ever-important data, you must take the next step. You need to report it.

Too Much Information?

Of course, you don't want to report every red robin or black ant you find. That would consume your time and flood the scientists with too much information. Like the emerald ash borer, you want to report what they are requesting. For instance, in a community near me, conservationists are looking for migration data related to a defined list of species. The timing of sightings will tell researchers how early the subjects are moving in spring and fall, which will be useful to prove the theory that climate change is impacting their habits.

Whatever the initiative, most often all that's needed from us is a few more minutes spent online, usually at the same site that was used for identification in the first place, especially if it was biology, ecology, or education focused. When I wanted to know what kind of frog was living in my basement, I used PaHerps.com. While further investigating the habits of a Pickerel frog, I noticed that scientists there were asking Pennsylvania residents to report their sightings to the Pennsylvania Amphibian & Reptile Survey. So I did. And there was the juncture of my amateur observation and a greater effort, one that aims to protect the creature I found.

Why it Matters

According to the amphibian survey site, the program goal is to, "determine the distribution and status of all amphibians and reptiles throughout Pennsylvania." Even if my interest in amphibians is small, it feels good to have shared my froggy encounter with those whose is great.

You and I might make decisions based on emotion and inner instinct, but authorities do not. They want facts. They want to know a table exists as the basis for a scientific summary of findings, the ones that they read before going into legislative session. It wasn't enough that the bald eagle was our majestic national symbol; their protection became federal law only after people tallied their dwindling numbers. And they kept counting. Today, the eagle numbers have soared, adding a chapter about success to the conservation story.

Opposite the eagle or a Pickerel frog, the presence of an emerald ash borer is not a good thing. In fact, it is cause for alarm. Serious efforts are underway to understand the beetle so that we can combat the damage it aims to do to every ash tree in its path. And serious efforts are underway to understand the impact of climate change. These are two giant issues that start with tiny observations, ones in which every pair of human eyes on the ground matter.

Always take the next step and add your sighting to the list when asked. Include a photo if you're not confident about your identification skills. Most citizen science sites are designed to be easy to understand and you're rarely subjected to boring tables or charts. And if you're serious about broadening the reach of your regular observations, consider signing up for an ongoing citizen scientist project such as Nature's Notebook. Because, like Smokey Bear says about forest fires, only you can save nature's treasures. Now that's exciting stuff.

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How to stay safe outdoors this season

May 3rd, 2014

Following up to last week's post, I encourage you to read the article I wrote for Lehigh Valley Marketplace, which was published in the May issue and is accessible via the link below. The piece was focused on the region of northeastern Pennsylvania, but the problem of Lyme disease is spreading across the country. It pays to be informed.

Click here to read the feature:
Nature's Tiny KillJoy

(If you want to see the entire publication, follow the "in this issue" links at LehighValleyMarketplace.com and read the ezine online. My article begins on Page 70.)

Don't hesitate to spend time outside; just know how to keep Lyme disease away.

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