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Archive for March, 2011

At about this time last year, when a tendril of warmth had snaked into the spring winds, I put a clipboard in my garage. My intent was to record every time I biked somewhere instead of driving.

Word Cloud of bike trips from two months in spring

For two months I dutifully noted the distance and destination of each utilitarian bike trip, not including recreational rides. During this time I made 303 one-way trips, covering 310 miles. These were the daily bread and butter of transportation: the post office, the library, school, pizza, last-minute dinner ingredients, kids’ activities, and seeing friends. Most trips were a mile or less; a handful were over three.

In this country, about half of all trips people make are shorter than three miles, yet only one or two percent are made by bike. In the Netherlands, about one third of trips are by bike.

Today, I dug out my record book and made a word cloud from my list of last spring’s destinations. Word clouds are terrific fun. To make one, you enter a list of words or text into a cloud-making program (try http://www.wordle.net); the more often a word appears in the list, the larger it is in the resulting image.

The word cloud accompanying this column is a quirky slice of my life last spring. I worked largely from home so my bike trips were dominated by taking the kids to and from school–refreshing bookends for hours at the computer.

Reading the cloud, I can see that last spring the kids were involved in a theater group, I had an unusually large volunteer commitment, I often biked to the track to jog, and our family had just discovered the Big Top Deli made scrumptious pizza.

I stuck with my note-taking until a week after Cote’s ice cream opened for the season. I didn’t want the word “Cote’s” to start towering over other more wholesome words such as “School” and “Farmer’s Market.” I let it remain where it was, resting unobtrusively atop the “C” in School, a small sign of changing weather ahead.

Why put all this effort into biking? Mostly because I like it. I like the tingly, edgy, slightly adventurous feeling of setting out on my bike, an unusual sensation in an ordinary life of work, kids, and errands. As author Diane Ackerman says, when she’s on her bike, “The world is breaking someone else’s heart.”

Part of the joie de vivre arises from the unsurpassed effortlessness of a short bike ride. Cycling is the planet’s most efficient form of transportation. Ever. Pound for pound, a person on a bicycle expends less energy than any creature or machine covering the same distance. Less than a salmon swimming, less than eagle flying, less than a gazelle running, less than a car driving.

A friend once asked if it was hard to factor in extra time to get places on my bike. On the contrary, for short trips the time difference is so trivial as to be nonexistent, especially when drivers need to park and then walk to their destinations. A one mile trip is easily covered on a bike in 4-5 minutes; and then one parks like royalty, right by the front door.

For me, this would all be enough to keep me riding: this daily turning of tires through sun-filled puddles, of knowing potholes by name, of sharp spring days, and even of riding at the back, just a middle-aged mom, as my kids cruise ahead, no-hands, and pop their front wheels over curbs without pausing, except perhaps to wait for me to catch up.

But biking offers other inducements. For one, you can save quite a bit of money. Factoring out the fixed costs of driving, such as insurance, the American Automobile Association calculates it costs about 36 cents per mile to drive a small car and 50 cents per mile to drive a minivan (based on driving 10,000 miles per year with gas at a delightful $2.60 per gallon). I figure that I save about $1000 a year, even after paying for bike maintenance.

Mile for mile, short car trips, the ones that could be most easily replaced by bike trips, are the most environmentally damaging driving that we do. Cars emit far more pollution and get significantly lower gas mileage in the first few minutes of being driven than after warming up.

Although I do more than my share of driving, I nevertheless also find it satisfying to opt out, for a few minutes every day, from my continual contributions to the environmental mess we’re already in.

It’s our kids, of course, that will bear the brunt of all the damage we’ve done driving them everywhere. They will live in a world degraded by the effects of a rapidly changing climate, by resource depletion, habitat loss, and mass extinctions.

Which is why I occasionally find myself moved almost to tears when I see my kids pedaling about. It is, after all, the quality of their own lives they protect as they pedal.

This fall my sixth grader started biking to school by herself. One morning last September, as rain slammed around the house, she asked for a ride. I gave her five “free ride” coupons to use any time she wanted during the upcoming year. She thanked me, thought for a minute, and then set out on her bike.

A half year later, I’ve driven her to school exactly once. Most mornings she is joined by a friend who first rides a mile to get to our house. The lure of independence, a few sparkling minutes to toss leaves at the sky and shout hello to the new day, has proven a stronger motivator for both these girls than getting out of the rain.

I can live with this image–our children biking off into a hopeful future, wind at their backs, not waiting for us to catch up.

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The sculpture on my sister’s bookcase is dancing. Its face is a mask, a long stark rectangle painted white, with simple black dots for eyes and a bit of black paint on the nose and cheeks.

Dogon Dancer

The rest of it, however, is alive with color and pattern. It is a striking bright green overlaid with fringes of pumpkin orange, fiery red, squares of strong blue and stars of sharp yellow. Graphic black stripes with white dots accent this carnival of color.

Indeed, the colors are so strong, you would be hard pressed to pick ones more likely to elicit attention. Which, it turns out, is just what these colors were designed to do; the figure was fashioned from an insecticide canister. Like blaze orange, the colors scream warning.

The original container was mostly green. Like a snake. On top, there were yellow and blue areas used to highlight especially important information, set out like poison dart frogs in the jungle. Orange-red metal strips, tinged the same bright hues as inedible monarch butterflies, encircle the dancer’s elbows and wrists.

From nature we’ve borrowed the color codes for poison. Toxic animals need to advertise their toxicity to would-be predators. It’s not that helpful if someone needs to eat you to find out that you are poisonous. Wild colors are keep-away signals for hunters of all types.

This sculpture is made by the Dogon people who live in the landlocked country of Mali in west Africa. The insecticide cans are from a malaria eradication project. Mali has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world: nearly one in five children do not make it to their fifth birthdays. From this grim statistic, malaria reaps a significant share.

I admired the sculpture for some time before I realized the source of the material. The figure was covered with small white writing, which at first I saw simply as a background pattern, like a tune you have hummed for days before finally listening to the words.

To make the figure, the insecticide can had been cut, shredded and re-soldered. The important words of warning and caution were now assembled into odd and disturbing fragments of text. “Crawling” and “household” first caught my attention; then “skin, eyes and mucous…and plenty of water; …forcibly open; puncture …light or temperatures above; > 0.09% beta; Particular dangers; DOES NOT CONTAI: -50; then ventilate; Avoid contact with; To be applied in living quarters; Do not eat, drink, or breathe; Cover the food stuffs…” And so on.

I couldn’t tell what insecticide elicited all these warnings. DDT is perhaps the most notorious chemical used to fight the mosquitoes which transmit malaria and other diseases. It was banned in the United States in 1972, ten years after Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, raised widespread concern over the effects of pesticides on birds and wildlife. By thinning the shells of bird’s eggs, DDT pushed the bald eagle almost to the brink of extinction.

Spraying DDT, along with other chemicals, to control mosquitoes is still practiced extensively in many parts of the world. The details of these programs are highly controversial, although many have had stunning success in, at least temporarily, reducing deaths from malaria.

Which pesticides are used, how they are deployed, whether or not they can be used in huge volumes on agricultural crops or in far smaller amounts just to control mosquitoes, how fast the mosquitoes are developing resistance, and whether there are equally effective less toxic alternatives, are all questions debated back and forth between governments, scientists, health workers, and environmental groups.

The sculpture speaks to all these terrible complexities. Pesticides such as DDT, the names of which make many Westerners cringe, are saving lives in the third world. The transport vessels for these live-saving, life-destroying toxins are fuel for the creative spirits of impoverished peoples.

How fitting that the sculpture represents a dancer from a Dogon ceremony in which the dead are lead to their final resting place in the spirit world. The piece is such a striking melding of death and life, poison and art, modern and traditional.

Coming up next, the woman who sold the sculpture tells me the Dogon artists are starting to fashion insecticide cans into angels.

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