Archive for September, 2010

The day after we moved into our Brunswick house I found a $10 bill snagged in the branches of our privet hedge. At the time, I thought it was likely to be the nicest thing that would ever blow into our hedge. I was wrong.

Come fall, the hedge filled with oak leaves. Wheelbarrows full, layers of sandwiching tans and browns, piles of chalky, papery leaves. I loved them.

True, it was daunting to rake them all up and do something with them, but the exuberant output amazed me. How could my two oak trees produce so much? More interestingly, how could they afford to dump the whole lot and make it afresh next year?

Fortunately for us, through the process of photosynthesis, plants can use energy from the sun to transform common substances, primarily water and carbon, into the food on which all life depends. Neither humans nor animals can manage this trick very well on their own. Whether we eat the plants directly, or eat the animals that eat the plants, it’s the leafy green half of the planet that supports life on earth.

You can think of plants as nature’s batteries, storing energy from the sun for use at a later time. Just as you pop a battery into a cell phone to retrieve energy created elsewhere, so too can you take a bite from a glossy green pepper in your kitchen, the stored value of a summer’s worth of sunshine on a square foot of ground.

Our efforts to collect more of this tantalizingly abundant energy source, via solar panels and the like, are dwarfed by the great harvest of sunshine already underway in the tissues of every green growing thing on the planet’s surface.

What makes this splendid process yet more splendid is that the raw materials are freely available all around us. For the strict purposes of photosynthesis, plants require only sunlight, water, and carbon, the latter of which they pull largely from abundant carbon dioxide in the air.

However, to build their canopies of leaves, thick trunks, sexy flowers and sugared fruits, plants also need a handful of minerals and nutrients primarily found in the soil. Unlike sunlight and carbon, which are essentially infinite, soil nutrients can be easily depleted from a particular spot.

In natural systems, as leaves fall off or plants die, nutrients are returned to the soil where they can be used repeatedly. The decomposed plant matter (known as organic matter) is, for many soil types, a magical ingredient that dramatically improves the drainage of water and helps keep soils from drying out. This elegant system of growth and decay is quite sustainable and does not require bands of industrious gnomes to roam the forest floor bagging leaves every fall.

When we harvest plant material for food or other purposes, we remove nutrients and organic matter from the site and must replace them if we are to maintain the same productivity and health of the soil.

All of which brings me back to my two oak trees. You may have surmised by now that it’s actually not the best idea to cart off your leaf harvest. Although many trees can last for decades in the lawns of zealous leaf-blowing gardeners, the truth is that leaf removal is slowly sucking the life out of our soils, rendering them more depleted and inhospitable to growth.

For me, this all began to sink in when I started buying compost for my garden. On the one hand I was paying good money for compost, manufactured and delivered courtesy of a host of fossil-fuel-guzzling contraptions, while at the same time I was paying more good money to bag my leaves and drive them, in another gas-guzzling contraption, to the leaf dump. I was paying to take nutrients off my land, I was paying to bring them back, and I was spewing out pollution in both directions.

It was then that I decided I would simply compost my own leaves. OK, it wasn’t that simple. Oak leaves are particularly stubborn about decomposing in any sort of helpful time-frame, say, for example, in time to make room for next year’s leaves.

I won’t bore you with my tales of leafy woe, from wrestling with rusty wire leaf bins, to seeking out new places to stash the partly decomposed leaves of prior years’ crops. Yet, I’d gotten myself into an ornery frame of mind. I was darned if I was going drive my vehicle all over town tossing leaves on the way out and loading compost on the way back.

I will just say this: when I emptied out my leaf bins this week, the very bottom foot of each bin contained, for the first time, something black and dark and utterly beautiful.

I had a sudden awareness that I wasn’t just a homeowner doing chores, but rather that I had a more meaningful role: I was a caretaker of this tiny square of land, this small sliver of habitat. My family shares this spot with all manner of growing things: nesting catbirds, wandering butterflies, giant mushrooms, tall oaks, paper wasps, and earthworms, to name a few.

I was participating in a powerful loop of decay and renewal, helping to restore this habitat from its death by a thousand cuts: paving, pollution, run-off, mowing, soccer games, boat-parking, snow melt.

I took my newly minted leaf compost, my small pile of sunshine, and I gave some to my rhododendrons, I gave some to my blueberries, and lastly I gave some back to my oak trees.

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A few months ago I had a visit from a Danish cousin. Jet-lagged and weary, she said little on the half hour ride from the train station. It was an appliance in my kitchen that sparked her first strong reaction: “Wow! Your refrigerator is so big!”

This was, I thought, a striking comment. While it is true that Europeans consume less energy per capita than Americans, they nevertheless also have a good supply of all the gizmos that make life relatively easy and comfortable for the inhabitants of developed countries: refrigerators, clothes washers, cars, and the like.

But, my fridge is not some behemoth SUV-type of a fridge; it’s really perfectly ordinary. My family of four has no problem packing it full to bursting at the start of every week and eating through the contents by the end. Just forget trying to fit anything in the freezer. On the whole, it doesn’t appear to me as if we have an excess of chilling capacity.

Nor, I should note, is my cousin living an old-fashioned rural existence in the Scandinavian countryside amid flocks of chickens. She and her husband have modern, busy, urban lives, with the usual challenges of two full-time jobs, an old house to maintain, and lots of kids (eight, to be exact) from assorted marriages. I can’t imagine what their weekly shopping trips look like; yet, the size of my fridge was enough to elicit amazement.

About half of Maine’s electricity supply comes from burning fossil fuels, a practice which scientists tell us is unravelling the very systems upon which life depends–or at least life in a stable and hospitable climate. It is imperative that we rapidly switch to power supplies that do not damage these global systems.

I have a problem, though. Each time a wind farm is built, we are told how many homes can be powered. For example, according to the Natural Resource Council of Maine, the Mars Hill wind project in north of the state generates enough power to run 24,000 homes, or 4.6% of Maine households.

This is not a trivial percentage, and one could imagine all the little percentages from each new turbine adding up into something worthwhile, but still, I do not have the warm fuzzies.

The costs of developing wind power are huge. Massive subsidies are required from taxpayers (as they are for oil and gas production). People living near turbines are often deeply troubled by the noise. Most ridge-top sites require cutting new roads into wilderness habitat. Bird and bat collisions are not insignificant. And, without doubt, mountain tops and ocean-scapes are more scenic, wild and lovely without turbines.

More troubling still, wind power, as currently deployed in the United States may not be making a big dent in our emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gasses. Electricity generated by wind power typically replaces electricity generated from natural gas, rather than from coal – the latter of which is by far the most damaging to the climate. Unfortunately coal is also the cheapest and consequently there is pressure to leave it in the mix for as long as possible.

In addition, our power grid needs the capacity to meet peak energy demand at any given time. On a calm day when wind turbines are not rapidly spinning, a gas or coal-fired power plant must be ready to supply the missing electricity. Because the plant needs to ramp up and down in response to fluctuations in wind supply, it does not run as efficiently as it would were it simply on all the time.

Thus far, these two factors, along with periodic increases in electricity demand have combined to mask some of the potential climate benefits of wind power.

My conclusion is this: when we put up wind turbines we give up something of extremely high value. Therefore, what we get in exchange should be of extremely high value. Some percentage of the electricity we use fits the bill, but much of it does not.

What if, through conservation, mandated increases in efficiency of household appliances and electronics, and a commitment to stop inventing and buying energy-hogging devices (such as TVs that use more electricity than refrigerators), we could make major cuts in residential power use?

What if we cut demand so much that we could shut down back up power plants burning fossil fuels?

What if we chose to pay more for energy and prioritized shutting down coal-fired plants?

What if we had fridges that didn’t elicit gasps from Danish visitors?

What if we turned off our lights when we weren’t in the room?

The answer is, then we could start to make a real difference.

In exchange for making a real difference, in exchange for getting serious about saving the planet, I would be willing to give up a lot of purple mountain’s majesty. I would be willing to hand over more of our vistas and our wilderness. I would feel a lot better about the sacrifices made by the folks who have to live near these spinning giants. I imagine they would feel better too.

But, I’m not willing to do it for a larger fridge, or a brighter TV, and certainly not for a bulb burning in an empty room. Excuse me while I go turn off the kitchen light.

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