Archive for July, 2008

In 1886, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy concluded that all the land a person really needs is a rectangle of about 8 x 3 feet.  Here’s the story: Pakhom, a struggling farmer hears wondrous tales of the Bakshirs–a remote people who live amidst a bounty of fertile land.  For a small sum, the Bakshirs will sell to anyone, the area he or she can walk around in a day.  Pakhom seeks out the home of the Bakshirs and finds that all the tales are true.  


The Bakshirs tell Pakhom to start walking from any point he desires, but to return to the same point by sunset or he forfeits his money as well as the land.  If he returns in time, the land he circles belongs to him.  In his greed to take in a lovely lake, Pakhom is too far away as the sun sets.  He hurries; he pushes himself past all limits, and with a final burst of energy reaches his starting point, only to die of exhaustion.  And so, in the end, all the land he needs is that in which to be buried.*


Ovenbirds, on the other hand, have less complex needs than people.  They do not need to own their land to be happy.  They like to live in the woods, far from predators, with plentiful food.  One might think, for example, that a 30-acre parcel would be sufficient to support a wee ovenbird.  Indeed, thirty acres in the middle of an undisturbed forest would be plenty.  But what if someone put a cozy little house in the middle of the 30 acres?  And what if some roads went in around the parcel, separating it from other forest land?  Such changes wouldn’t bother the crows and raccoons, but they might pose some problems for the ovenbird.


As the size of forested parcels become smaller and smaller, more of the land area turns from being interior forest habitat into something known as “edge habitat.”  An edge habitat occurs anywhere two habitats come together.  Transitions between a field and a forest, or the sides of a road through a wooded area, are two examples.  


Animals that are adaptable to a large variety of habitats, or that favor forest edge habitat (such as raccoons, crows, and blue jays), can prey on interior forest animals from the edge zone.  Fragmentation of land is hard on creatures that depend on interior woodland for protection from such threats as edge predators, noise, light, and competition.  On forested land, although edge regions may penetrate as little as 200 feet into the woods, they become very significant as lot sizes decrease. 


It may not be surprising to discover that a square, 4-acre parcel of completely forested land, if separated by field or subdivision from other forest, is made up entirely of edge habitat.  However, it is quite surprising to find that cutting roads around a 30 acre forested parcel and putting a single, modest house and lawn in the middle, reduces well over two thirds of the area to edge habitat. Very little interior woods remain once 200 feet of edge are subtracted from around the house, lawn, driveway, and the outer edges of the property; what little remains is of poor quality – it is stretched out in thin pieces and its isolation from other interior habitat makes successful breeding difficult for a large number of species.


Many animals need significant blocks of continuous undeveloped land to grow, reproduce, and thrive.  Forty acres is on the small side to support, for example, hare, porcupines, beavers, wood thrush, and warblers.  The more we understand about the needs of the plants and animals around us, the better we can tailor our land use decisions to protect these creatures, if that is one of our goals.


We will not meet the goal of preserving a wide variety of wildlife habitats and a diversity of species if we zone most of our rural and forest land into 5-acre lots.  One of the stated purposes of many rural and forest zoning ordinances in Maine communities is to preserve wildlife habitat.  Yet, all too frequently these same ordinances provide for minimum lot sizes of 5 acres throughout the rural and forest zones.  Such a divided landscape, with cozy houses tucked among the trees, might look like it supports a healthy forest ecosystem (and the squirrels and jays would no doubt agree), but the moose, beavers, and ovenbirds will tell us otherwise. 


Of course, our village and town centers cannot be home to moose and beavers.  But, if we don’t think carefully about how we develop our remaining lands, then these animals may find themselves with nowhere to call home.  


Along with the growing awareness of how fragmenting land can adversely affect wildlife, is a growing set of tools for helping communities plan for protecting larger swaths of contiguous land.  For more information on the effects of habitat fragmentation, and what can be done about it, visit GrowSmart Maine at http://www.growsmartmaine.org and Beginning with Habitat at http://www.beginningwithhabitat.org/.


*How Much Land does a Man Need? is the title of a short story, written in 1886 by novelist Leo Tolstoy.

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Who can fix my chair?  My light, aluminum beach chair, with the wooden armrests, and canvas seat.  My chair, that with a loud rip from its merry striped bottom, plopped me down on the sand, in a sort of undignified way, on the last hot weekend of 2007.  


All this snowy winter, my chair sat in the mud-room, broken and disapproving.  Because it defied my imagination that warm weather would return and I might have need of the chair again, I ignored it.  From time to time it would say, “Throw me out, you idiot!  Buy a new one.  You’ll never have the time to fix me.  I’m already old.”  


Other times it would say, “Fix me, you dimwit!  My sturdy frame is fine.  I have no rust and no loose screws.  You’re not really going to landfill all my aluminum because you can’t replace a simple piece of fabric?  Do you have any idea how much energy it takes to make aluminum?”


Well, I didn’t, so I checked.  Manufacturing aluminum is indeed a highly energy-intensive and environmentally damaging process.  Aluminum processing, known as smelting, emits gasses that contribute significantly to global climate change.  Smelters in the Northwest use more electricity than the millions of residents of Seattle and Portland (Oregon) combined.  More land surface is destroyed mining bauxite (the primary ore from which aluminum is extracted) than mining any other ore.  


I did not want to landfill my chair; instead, I wanted to honor it.  By fixing my chair, I would honor the tree that was cut down for the armrests, the creatures that vanished when acres of Australian desert were torn to shreds to mine bauxite, the sailor who carefully steered the ore across the Pacific and into the treacherous mouth of the Columbia River, the fish that could not breed because their rivers were dammed (or is that damned?) to generate the electricity to process the aluminum, and the child that worked seven days a week to stitch on the canvas. 


I accept, in some distancing way, that my chair required all of these actions.  And perhaps, because of this knowledge, I should just sit on a blanket.  But, I like my chair and I will make my stand on the side of fixing it.  It defies common sense to throw it all away.


You may wonder, as I do, how it can cost less to buy a new chair than to pay for the labor to fix the old one.  The answer is complicated, but briefly, we have been living for the better part of a century on superficially cheap energy.  This energy fueled factories and manufacturing processes which in turn made manufactured goods less expensive than labor.  


Today, it is clearer than ever that some of the costs of industrialization–the ruined streams, the polluted air, the cancers from coal mining, the asthma, the crashing fisheries, the effects of climate change–were not included in the prices we paid for the items we bought.  Our “cheap” energy wasn’t so cheap after all: we just deferred some of the costs and ignored the rest.  


Okay, okay, I said to my chair.  Let me see what I can do.  


But my chair was designed to be discarded, not to be fixed.  The frame cannot be disassembled.  The only way to replace the canvas is to cut off the remnants, measure them exactly, fold new pieces around the frame, and sew them together by hand with the whole clumsy chair gangling about in your lap.  


So I wondered, who can fix my chair?


I can’t, I concluded.  It has to be done right.  I don’t know which thread will be strong enough.  I don’t know what kind of fabric will hold up in the sun.  I don’t have the right needles.  


Who can fix my chair?


Not I, said the father, the first generation of his family to go to college and graduate school.  I’m a doctor, not a tailor.


Not us, said the children.  You haven’t taught us how to sew, and we are too busy playing, going to soccer practice, and doing our chores (too busy doing chores? that’s news to me).  


Not I, said the husband, who, to his credit, used to sew on his own buttons.  Somehow these days all the buttonless shirts wind up in my pile.


Not I, said the sister, unless you want to mail it to Illinois, and I’m really pretty busy anyhow, with my job and my kids. 


Not I, said the seamstress.  I’d have to sew most of it by hand.  It’s cheaper to buy a new one.  But I want to fix it, I said.  I don’t want the job she replied; it’s too much work.  What she really meant, I think, is that it defied common sense to spend more money to fix something than it would cost to replace.


Who can fix my chair?


I can fix it, said the mother, who grew up on a farm, who learned to sew before she could read, who still makes her own clothes.  It is spring; you come wash my windows and I will fix your chair.


As we now pay more for energy, and more to mitigate the effects of using energy, the price of goods must go up.  As this happens, it will, once again, become cost-effective to fix things.  It will make sense to everyone.  Fortunately the people who know how to do it are still around.  They are your grandparents, great-aunts, uncles, and parents.  


Enjoy the smiles on their faces when you ask them to show you how.  

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