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Archive for September, 2008

This is a tale of a recent Thursday evening in the small town of Brunswick, Maine, involving 3 families, 6 parents, 5 children, 1 car, 1 airplane, 8 bicycles, 2 soccer practices, 1 choir rehearsal, and 2 school meetings.  Your patience is kindly requested.

 

First, prior to all the commotion, one parent conveniently departs for Spain (that takes care of the airplane).  Here’s what happened to the rest of us.  At about 4:45 PM, Mom #1 sets out by bike with her Kids (1a and 1b) for Soccer Practices 1 and 2, both starting at 5:00, on different fields.  Kid 1a is dropped off at the house of Family 2, whose Kid (2a) is on the same soccer team.  Mom 1 continues with Kid 1b to Practice 1.

 

Shortly thereafter, Mom 2 sets out by bike with Kids 1a and 2a for Practice 2, where they meet Dad 1, arriving by car, who is coaching said practice with Mom 2.  At the same time, Dad 3, who is coaching Practice 1, arrives at Field 1 by tandem bike with  his Kid (3a).

 

At 5:45 Mom 1 bikes from Field 2 to Field 1, swaps her bike for Dad 1’s car, and drives to school for Meetings 1 and 2, starting at 6:00 and 6:30 respectively.  Mom 3 arrives at Practice 2 by bike with Preschooler 3b, leaving him with Dad 3 and continuing on to Meeting 1.  Mom 2 leaves Practice 2 early and bikes up to school for Meetings 1 and 2.  

 

When both Practices end at 6:00, Dad 3 takes Kids 3a, 3b, and 1b to Field 2 to return Kid 1b to Dad 1.  Dad 1 heads home by bike with Kids 1a, 1b and also Kid 2a, who he drops off at Choir on the way.  Because it is the first day of Choir, Mom 2 leaves Meetings 1 and 2 for a few minutes to bike over and make sure Kid 2a is correctly registered.  

 

Here is the secret to how all this was possible (without a transporter).  Both soccer fields, the school, the houses of each of the three families, the work place of two of the parents, and the choir rehearsal are all less than 2 miles apart.  Each transition was accomplished in a matter of minutes.  Two of the three families had only one car and thus depended on their bikes; all three of the families depended on each other.

 

The few short hours in which all this activity took place were a celebration of living in a compact community with important services centrally located and blended together with residential neighborhoods.  Before the convenience of our cars won us over, heart and soul, there was little choice but to have popular destinations near one another.  The school, library, church, hair salon, and town office were all clustered fairly closely.  Shopkeepers lived above their stores.  Kids walked to school.

 

The car made sprawl possible, and sprawl we did, like wild strawberries in the garden.  In the last 17 years, of the two most populous towns in mid-coast Maine, one grew a small amount (Brunswick, by 4%) and one shrank (Bath, by 8%).  The more rural towns of Phippsburg, Bowdoinham and Bowdoin saw population increases of 19% to 33% (U.S. Census).  

 

But sprawl is problematic for individual families, larger communities and the environment.  Between 1970 and 1995 Maine spent $338 million on building new schools and additions in fast-growing rural areas, all while the number of school-aged kids in the state dropped by 27,000.  The Maine State Planning Office also reports that it is far more expensive to provide services to a rural family than to an urban family because of the need for more roads, extending sewer and water lines, road maintenance, new schools, and longer bus trips (think increased state, local, and federal taxes).

 

For families, many are lured to the country by the promise of lower property taxes.  The irony is that while taxes may be lower, many other costs go up, such as transportation and home insurance (which often increases with distance from a fire station).  When added up, these other costs are likely to make country life more expensive than town life.

 

Transportation costs alone are often far more than most people estimate.  Indeed, the average annual cost of car ownership in the U.S. is approximately $7,000 per year, when you factor in the cost of the car, interest, maintenance, fuel, insurance, and other fees (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  

 

The environmental side-effects of sprawl are similarly large: polluted air and water, fragmented wildlife habitat, as well as loss of wetlands, farmland and forest.  Transportation is again one of the biggest culprits.  On a per capita basis, residents of Manhattan create a fraction of the air pollution and climate-changing emissions of the average American – largely because 82% of them commute by train, bus, bike or on foot.

 

Most ironic of all is that almost half the folks buying homes in rural and suburban Maine would have seriously considered moving into walkable, compact, urban neighborhoods, if such housing had been available and affordable (1999 Planning Office study).  A combination of forces, including aggressive marketing, outdated zoning  regulations, and backwards tax incentives, have led to most new housing occurring in car-dependent, residential-only developments on rural land.  Given the high economic and environmental costs of sprawl, it makes good sense to update zoning and change tax incentives to provide alternatives for those who would rather be enjoying the high quality of life in town.  

 

Despite the craziness of my recent Thursday night, it was oddly pleasant.  Kids and parents spent a lot of time outside on a sweet September evening and families leaned on each other to solve problems – a type of community strength that grows easily through the cracks in the pavement of our traditional downtowns.


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08-my-sturgeon

 

Some of you may remember Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis.  The son of an unfortunate family, he wakes one day to find that he has changed into an enormous cockroach – a creature that evolution apparently perfected 350 million years ago, before it even got going on dinosaurs – and hasn’t touched since.  This is one primitive bug.  

 

Perhaps you could, with an effort, imagine a family member turning into a mammal of some sort: a smart, warm-blooded creature, definitely furry, like a golden retriever or a three-toed sloth.  But a cockroach?  Forget it.  Kafka’s story draws its unbearable horror from the contrast between a highly evolved intelligent consciousness trapped inside the primordial casing of a roach’s body.

 

The fact is we are sharing our planet with a number of creatures that are hundreds of millions of years old.  Roaches have not soldiered forward through time on their own; they came with hoards of horseshoe crabs, dragonflies, army ants, velvet worms, salamanders, chambered nautiluses, crocodiles, and a coelacanth or two.

 

You’ll notice that many of these time travelers are small.  Larger creatures are often less adaptable to the dramatic changes in climate, habitat, and food sources that come with the passing of millennia.  Nor is there much room in our developed world for gigantic, primitive, scary beings, like 6 foot tall roaches.  Poor Gregor, it should be no surprise to discover, was confined to his bedroom for the rest of his short buggy life.

 

Yet there is a place in our neighborhoods where large prehistoric creatures still dwell: they are just below the thin bright mirror that separates us from the underwater world.  Gregor might have had better luck if he’d turned into an Atlantic sturgeon.

 

Beneath the surface of mid-coast Maine’s Merrymeeting Bay, or the lower reaches of the Kennebec, Penobscot and Androscoggin Rivers, you will find lurking these bony, reptilian, dinosaur fish.  Sturgeon fossils, virtually unchanged from modern fish, date back 200 million years.  These are not your run-of-the mill pond guppies.  They are an ancient great sea-faring race, living up to 60 years and by some accounts reaching lengths of 15 feet (just about the size of your canoe).  Like other sea-run or “anadromous” fish, sturgeon spend most of their lives in salt water and return to spawn in the same fresh water rivers in which they were born.

 

Sturgeon are so fantastic-looking they would draw the attention of even the most Nintendo-weary child.  They appear to be a cross between a crocodile and a catfish, with just a hint of porcupine.  They mingle the dark sexiness of the shark with the calm invulnerability of the turtle. Their armored bodies are covered with bony plates called scutes (ha! that finally stumped the spell-checker) and their long snouts end in whiskery sensory organs called barbels.  

 

Although the oceans deep and rivers wild have offered some protection for these darlings of evolution, that fishy film of safety is thinning.  Atlantic sturgeon have suffered a precipitous decline in the last century.  Loss of spawning habitat due to development and damming of rivers, pollution, and over-harvesting are all causes of their decline.  

 

The east coast commercial sturgeon harvest peaked in the 1890s and by the 1920s sturgeon landings in the Chesapeake were down 90% (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).  Atlantic sturgeon are under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act (their closely related cousins, the Shortnose sturgeon are already protected under the Act).  In 1998 the government issued a moratorium on harvesting any wild sturgeon until the populations had recovered sufficiently.  Plans to help the sturgeon are largely focused on improving water quality in spawning rivers as well as creating sufficient passageway around dams.

 

Why am I telling you about these fish?  These sturgeon that even now are swimming under the Route 1 bridge between Bath and Woolwich?  Do I have something especially cheery to tell you about them?  Not exactly.  Some populations appear to be rebounding, while others are still depressed.  Do I have ten easy things you can do at home to save the sturgeon?  Not really.

 

I’m telling you about them because they are great.  Knowing that sturgeon have been snuffling river bottoms and ocean canyons for millions of years before the Androscoggin River existed simply demands a bit of respect.  On those grounds I suppose the cockroach deserves the same respect, but roaches seem to be doing just fine and by all predictions will be the ones turning out the lights.  

 

I’m telling you so that perhaps you too will be be amazed by one of earth’s amazing creatures.  And perhaps, in time, humans may evolve just a bit more so that the sturgeon can continue swimming along just exactly as it is. 


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