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This Week's Small Step: Visit a tree, and be

April 5th, 2012

Few insults bother me more than the term treehugger -- not for the one being insulted, but for the one who is foolish enough to think the concept is derogatory. Consider what we get from trees (lumber, paper, energy) outside their enormous scientific role in Earth's live-giving systems (air, water, land). To any intelligent person, it should quickly become obvious that the trees on this planet most certainly deserve to be hugged.

Plus, I dare anyone to stand at the base of a giant redwood and stop their spirit from fluttering in awe. Who can walk through a park as lovely Trexler Memorial Park in Allentown (more below), where the trees have been properly loved and maintained for more than 100 years, without recognizing the place inspires because of the trees that are there?

Cityscape or country forest, trees stand silently around us all day, every day, and therefore we tend to hurry past them without a thought to their existence -- or their role in ours.

So here's this week's One Thing:

Visit a tree,

and be.


You don't have to hug it.

You can lean on it, climb it...


sit under it...


gaze at its canopy...

or lay a single hand on its trunk and close your eyes.

What matters is that you visit it with attention focused on the tree. Acknowledge that you are in its presence, if only for a short while.

Of course, the bigger the tree, the more intense the energy, but even tiny seedlings can have a special place in a person's heart depending on how it came to be growing where it is.

Sitting or standing still for a moment is half the battle during our busy lives. After that, I'm honestly not sure what it is about a tree that yields so much power over my mental state. I have some theories.

Here are few reasons why I think they inspire so:

Trees live longer than I on average; I cannot imagine all that an old tree has witnessed in its lifetime.

Still it wears its wrinkles with pride.


Trees are more patient than I, rushing not to the beat of some paper calendar, but to natural signals instead.


They exist despite unfavorable odds...


They contribute to others even after their death...


They capture the wind with a sound that cools my mind...


They display grandeur with humility...


And they are simply and stunningly beautiful.


Trees are a treasure on a long list of things taken for granted because, whether we acknowledge them or not, they are still going to be there. And despite how many we've lost, their population seems endless.


Trees do not base the quality of their existence on our recognition. All they ask is that we don't cut them down, crush their roots, hack into their shell, or rip off their leaves. So giving recognition and gratitude to a tree does nothing to its self esteem, as far as I know, but it sure can do wonders to mine. Like any grateful practice, it forces me to move my thoughts away from "what is missing from life" toward "what has been found."

I do not shrink from the treehugger label; I welcome it. At that defining moment when my life reaches its end, I suspect all my hopes will mirror what I find when I am at the base of a tree: to have made a positive impact and to have lived with graciousness, harmony, and humility.

Standing in the presence of a tree is a small step that can offer a heavy dose of healing medicine, whether you are ailing or not. And the next time someone calls you a treehugger, be sure to say "thank you."


Photo locations in order:

Climbing tree: Trexler Memorial Park in Allentown, PA

Sitting tree: My friend Ernie relaxes at Spring Gulch Campground, New Holland, PA

Canopy tree: This could be anywhere, but it was taken in Green Lane, PA

Wrinkled tree: Trexler Memorial Park, Allentown

Seasonal tree: My backyard in Green Lane, PA

Surviving tree: Near Mt. Olga, VT

Woodpecker tree: Deep Creek Lake, Green Lane, PA

Cooling trees: Wharton Forest, NJ

Grand tree: Trexler Memorial Park, Allentown, PA

Beautiful tree: Trexler Memorial Park, Allentown, PA

Many trees: Jim Thorpe, PA

Found tree: Trexler Memorial Park, Allentown, PA

See Hike #6 at this link to learn more about visiting Trexler Memorial Park in Allentown.

The Write Beat's "One Small Step a Week" series offers suggestions for simplifying life in order to slow down, reconnect with Nature, and live in a way that is in better harmony with our surroundings.

This Week's Small Step: Give Care to Your Fridge

March 30th, 2012

The men in my house have learned by now that it is best to stay out of my way during spring cleaning. This is the season when, room by room, the place gets ripped apart, washed off, and put back together, all in attempt to make life happier and easier for the rest of the year.

In addition to scrubbing floors and organizing closets, this is when I show kindness to the cherished objects in my home by giving them a little maintenance. That includes the refrigerator. Day after day it whirs along, protecting my family's food from warmth-loving pathogens, keeping our small stockpile preserved so we don't have to visit the grocery store every three days. Because the refrigerator works, we can reach in on a whim and grab a cold beer, a frozen dessert, or an ice cube for chilling a freshly brewed glass of tea.

While these luxuries are the result of an appliance doing what it's designed to do, we can't forget there are reasons the device came with an owner's manual. There is more to owning a refrigerator than buying it, plugging it in, and stuffing it with food. We can easily see the sticky, smelly consequences when we don't clean it INSIDE. But it's not so obvious what happens if we don't clean it OUTSIDE.

Which brings me to this week's One Thing:

Give Care to Your Fridge; Clean its Coils

Cooling appliances carry heat away from one space by dispersing it to another. In the case of the fridge, warmth is transferred from the air around your food to the atmosphere in your kitchen. When your  refrigerator runs, you might feel heat blowing on your toes. This hot breeze is the result of the appliance's cooling task achieved by way of a fan and condenser coils. In some models, the coils are located on the rear or top of the fridge, but where ever they are, they likely need annual attention.

If your refrigerator is designed like ours, its condenser coils are located behind a plastic grill positioned at the bottom front of the unit. Ironically this is a perfect rest spot for all that floated across the kitchen floor over the course of time spent in one of the most active rooms of the house.


On our refrigerator, a plastic grill cover -- located at the bottom front -- pulls off for access to the coil housing.


As if covered with a blanket, the coils cannot shed the heat if they are surrounded by dust or other foreign objects. Regardless, the loyal appliance will continue to try to meet its cooling obligation by running the fan and the condenser on overtime. The bit of air that does reach the coils might eventually pull away the heat, but only after a lot of energy has been wasted.


The coils are not easy to get to, but they need to be periodically cleared of dust, etc.


Failure to keep the coils clean -- according to the manual's instructions -- will not only inflate your electric bill, it could cause the unit to fail in a way that no warranty will cover. However, few people read the owners' manuals today. This may be due to the intimidating size of documents whose bulk is artificially inflated with multiple language translations, but inside that manual appears basic maintenance instructions -- ways to keep the product running smoothly and efficiently -- ways to actually reach the Energy Star rating the product received when it was sparkly and new.

Not all refrigerators are the same and not all refrigerators need this kind of maintenance, but it's important to know what your fridge needs from you to do its job properly. Follow the instructions that came with yours before you follow my advice. If you don't have the manual, try searching the Internet for one using your make and model as keywords.

For me and my Kenmore, each spring and fall I turn off the fridge, remove the coil chamber's cover; grab a vacuum, a brush, and a flashlight; and suck out the dust that has collected there. This small but dirty task pays off with big invisible benefits that include a continually working fridge, a smaller electric bill, and a less worried state of mind. Each time I turn the fridge back on, I could swear it takes a deep yoga breath and smiles.

You need not share my compulsion for spring cleaning, but if you want to save energy and ensure that pint of summertime pleasure is frozen when you dish it out, don't forget to clean under the fridge.

The rewards wait inside.

The Write Beat's "One Small Step a Week" series offers suggestions for simplifying life in order to slow down, reconnect with Nature, and live in a way that is in better harmony with our surroundings.

This Week's Small Step: Grab the Fan

March 23rd, 2012

Here in Southeastern Pennsylvania we just survived a very mild winter. At least 75 days were above normal as far as temperatures were concerned, and the state averaged only about 19 inches of snow.

That wasn't just easy on the heating bill, it appears to have been a boon for the bugs.

Everyone here is talking about the mosquitoes. Normally we get a few bug-free weeks to enjoy the spring weather, but this year they swarmed the moment we uncovered the picnic table.

Which brings me to this week's One Thing:

Grab the Fan, Not the Spray

There is no better way to keep away a 2.5-milligram insect than a stiff breeze. Sadly, most of us reach first for repellent or worse, insecticide spray, because that's what we're trained to do.


While it's true there are good reasons why you don't want to get bitten by this flying pest (West Nile virus topping the list) a chemical arsenal is not always required. In fact, when it comes to insecticide use, we often make matters worse for the long run.

Take the infamous killer DDT. Even though it has been banned in the U.S. for decades, evidence has been found as recently as 2004 indicating America's birds are still dying from this persistent chemical. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane is the poster child for food-chain-destroying recklessness in the name of insect control. DDT still haunts the soil in the places where it was applied many years ago.

(On a side note, the use of DDT is not over. About 5,000 metric tons are still produced for India, China, and Korea, primarily to combat malaria. In 2006, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Agency for International Development endorsed indoor DDT spraying to control this disease which kills more than half a million people around the world each year. Some who advocate for DDT use argue that the whole DDT ban was a scam.)

While today's mosquito sprays are not the monsters DDT was, these products are allowed on the market only with a label -- a label filled with instructions that are rarely followed to the letter. When we are sold on the product's safety, we get language like "when used according to package instructions" or "when applied at the recommended dosage." We don't get to hear what happens if we don't follow the tiny print.



Plus many communities are already exposed to commercial sprays to eradicate large mosquito colonies, and it's important to note that if the toxins are "safe" on their own, there is no way to control their interaction with fertilizers and other pollutants.

No matter whose finger is on the spray trigger, consideration must be given the pest's biological habits, otherwise it will not do the intended killing. Integrated Pest Management, as it is called, is a science. It requires timing, surveillance, weather monitoring, and species identification. Unless you are willing to take an Advanced Mosquito Identification Course, leave the chemicals on the shelf.

The beneficial predators that wind up suffering include creatures such as frogs, spiders, and our avian friends (the ones who enhance spring with their beautiful song) such as swallows, nighthawks, flycatchers, swifts, kingbirds, martins, pewees, phoebes, and bats. When these insectivores eat the chemical laden insect (or nearby water, seed, or fruit) they experience similar growth-inhibiting, reproduction-stopping reactions originally designed for the pest. It's best to assume any chemical introduced to the ecological cycle will spread through the system, no matter how well-targeted its design, especially if the application is done in a way that ignores the science behind it.

Here is a little mosquito biology you might want to know:

  • Only a small proportion of the various species of mosquitoes carry West Nile virus. Out of that proportion, only the females bite humans; male mosquitoes feed on nectar and plant juices only. The average lifespan of a mosquito -- egg, larva, pupa, and adult -- is only about one month, but they are rapid breeders. A female can lay eggs every 10 to 14 days, and the eggs hatch into larvae in just 24 to 48 hours.
  • Not all mosquitoes lay eggs in permanent stands of water -- sometimes the water is provided during floods -- but in their larval and pupal stages, they all need water to survive. This is why removing stagnate or slow moving water from your property (buckets, old tires, rain gutters) will go a long way in controlling mosquitoes, for you and your neighborhood.
  • Mosquitoes are attracted to CO2 and lactic acid, something active or fidgety people produce more of. They also find hosts by sight, looking for movement as well as detection of infra-red radiation emitted by warm bodies.

Isn't the idea of sitting still in front of cool fan on a hot summer day sounding better and better all the time?

The lack of a hard freeze coupled with a decline in insect-eating bats could create a very itchy situation. But it does not call for drastic measures until heavy populations are detected in an area with a high probability of disease.

Besides insecticides, there are other costly but ineffective measures to avoid. Bug zappers kill more beneficial insects than they do pesky ones. Plus they are expensive, annoying, violent, and they pollute the night sky with senseless light. Traps use CO2 to attract mosquitoes, but why would you want to attract them? Mosquitoes have been known to travel miles for food; I'd prefer they travel in the OTHER direction. And ultrasonic device manufacturers make claims that have not been proven.

If you are going to spend the afternoon on the lake or in the woods or anywhere where you might risk being eaten, use the repellents available. Here exist alternatives too. I've tried a few herbal citronella products, and they both worked well. I liked Crocodile!, which I bought at Ding Darling's park office in Florida, but it stained my clothes. I prefer the Natural Insect Repellent product produced by Herbs for Healthy Living of Saegertown, PA. I've seen the small bottle for sale in park offices along the Delaware River. It smells pleasant and sprays on evenly. No matter what, be sure to follow the application instructions.



But if you are just sipping ice tea on the patio, enjoying an outdoor picnic, or reading a book on a lawn chair, set up an oscillating fan nearby and simply blow your troubles away.

The Write Beat's "One Small Step a Week" series offers suggestions for simplifying life in order to slow down, reconnect with Nature, and live in a way that is in better harmony with our surroundings.

You Are Not Alone

March 20th, 2012
The act of caring can be a lonely experience, especially when it seems as if no one else shares your concern.
But caring is a matter of perspective. No one is going to care for a child as much as its parent. The burden of the widow in the limousine procession is not shared by the strangers walking down the street. Bystanders may be curious, but they don't grasp the turmoil as it happens inside a violent domestic dispute. All around us sit people who do not care, not because they are indifferent but, because they are different. They are not the parent, the widow, or the spouse. They are not you. They are not me. They are each a product of their own experience and thus have developed their own emotional responses to what happens around them. Meanwhile, there are teachers who will care about a student even more than a parent seems to. Or counselors who step off the sidewalk and into the widow's life. Or paramedics who rush to the scene in order to help the battered lover. Experience taught them to hear the call for caring beyond their own concerns. Still, they may already know the answer yet ask the question with sadness, "why don't people care?" They understand that a child is connected to their future, the widow still has much to offer, and the victim could be any one at any time. And they rightfully hold onto the hope that someone will reach out to them when they are in need. To not care would be the easier route. Empathy takes energy that could otherwise be used for self-fulfillment. The indifferent person asks, “what's in it for me?” If a white chalk line were drawn between the perspectives, each of us would stand on every side over the course of our lives. We simply cannot care about every issue any more than we can walk through life without caring about something. So while there are times when you wonder if you are the only one who cares, you can bet there is someone else out there asking the same question. The trick for turning despair into strength is to find your kindred people and connect with them. Eventually the rest will find that what is in it for them is being part of your crowd.
This then is my approach when the loneliness sets in: not to change anyone's standpoint, but to find and support others who, by their own experience, have come to caring about the things that matter to me.
For that reason I am glad to connect with you here in The Write Beat community. Photos: my husband stands as a solitary figure on the coast of Maine; Lake Superior, NY; an ordinary crowd.

This Week's Small Step: Donate and Say No

March 16th, 2012

The phone rang. On the other end was a woman who clearly cared about her cause. She began her plea with statistics about human lives and human deaths and offered me – a stranger on her list – a chance to change the ratio.

"Can you help with a small donation today?" she asked.

"No, I'm sorry," I replied and hung up the phone.

Charities are exempt from Pennsylvania's Do Not Call legislation (which makes it illegal to call people who do not want telemarketers to dial their number). I'm certainly not against charitable fundraising. On the contrary, I'd love to erradicate every one of the drunk driving deaths, cancer diagnoses, homicides, puppy mills, and sweat shops. But I can't.

Which brings me to this week's One Thing:

Donate, then say no

Each of us has an issue or three that strikes our heartstrings louder than others. Then there are our local services -- such as the fire company -- that depend on us so we can depend on them.  If you haven't already identified these nonprofit organizations in your life, take time to make a list.

Maybe you're most concerned about retired greyhounds...


or historic preservation...


or veteran affairs.


They are all import, but in order to truly make a difference, we have to choose.

It should come as no surprise that environmental causes rank high on my professional list. I'm a member of some for the benefits; some because I want to partner with them; and some because they directly impact my own quality of life or work on a cause that is dear to me.



Included in my budget is an annual donation to each one on the list. Then, when the phone rings up another good cause, I just say no. I donate with intention, not guilt or impulse.

Say no to every cashier who asks you for a dollar so that you can write your name on a paper balloon and hang it on the wall. Say no to every empty boot held outside your car window at a stoplight ... unless, the recipient is on the list and you forgot to send them a check.

If girl scouts are on the list, buy cookies. If the local school club is on the list, buy pizza. But remember, they are all part of the equation that should be considered when you plan your annual giving.

If you try to help everyone who calls or knocks, you set yourself up to become a victum of fraud; you'll get yourself on every mailing list; you'll lose track of your spending; and you may even find yourself supporting an unworthy cause. Plus, you'll allow guilt into your life where no guilt is due.

Just be sure when you say, "I gave at the office" that you really did. Concerned people start worthy causes, and for that the world is a better place. Instead of trying to help them all, succeed at supporting a few. Start your list today.


Photos in order: two adopted greyhounds walking at the John DeBella Dog Walk; one of many displays at the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles; a memorial monument at Veterans Park in Mays Landing, New Jersey; the Upper Delaware River at Narrowsburg, New York.

The Write Beat's "One Small Step a Week" series offers suggestions for simplifying life in order to slow down, reconnect with Nature, and live in a way that is in better harmony with our surroundings.