Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

Recently my 12-year old asked me to sign her up for a weekly activity requiring a half hour car drive each way. I try the quick and easy rebuffs: she was plenty busy already, driving back and forth was expensive, the activity was expensive, when would she do her homework?

With more than a bit of adolescent attitude, she concludes, “You just don’t want to take the time to drive me.” I look at the clock. It’s past 7:00 PM, we haven’t eaten dinner and no one has finished their homework. There is never a perfect moment to get into the real nitty gritty of why and wherefore. Still, every now and again you have to try to give your kids an honest answer to their questions.

Yes, I tell her, (and her sister too, who has wandered into the kitchen) you’re partly right. It is true that I don’t cherish adding to the time I spend carting you around after school. But there is another reason I hesitate to drive more.

Every time we get in the car we contribute to climate change. By the end of this century–that is, you may still be around–conditions for life on earth are expected to be drastically different from what they are today.

I pause. It’s gloomy stuff, the state of the environment. In this column I generally try not to dwell too much on scientists’ pessimistic forecasts for the planet. After all, nobody, including me, really wants to hear it. Nobody wants to tell their kids about it. Nobody wants to read about it over morning coffee and a golden Frosty’s doughnut.

Yet, I take a deep breath and plunge ahead. I tell them that although no single bout of wild weather can be attributed to climate change, that nevertheless there appear to terrible changes already underway.

I tell them that they have just lived through the hottest years ever recorded (11 of the 12 warmest years were in the last 12 years).

I tell them about Hurricane Katrina. I tell them that in 2010 flooding submerged one fifth of the land surface of Pakistan, washing away 7,000 schools and 5,000 miles of roads. I tell them that extreme weather events such as these are becoming more frequent and stronger, just as predicted.

I tell them that ice in the poles is melting, not as fast as predicted but at rates that are alarmingly faster. I tell them that by the end of the century sea level could rise by 6 feet, or possibly a lot more, putting much of the world’s coastlines under water.

After a long pause, they ask if our house will be okay. On the surface, this question, in its innocent disregard either for the welfare of others or for the fact that if the world disintegrates around them it doesn’t matter if their house is okay, seems to reflect a child’s perspective. But really it’s what all of us adults are doing as well. We may expand our worries a little past the foundations of our own houses, but not much.

So, the winter was warm, so, we had an 80 degree day in March. If this is global warming, it might not be so bad for those of us living in Maine.

I ask them what good it will do to have a dry house high on a hill when everyone else is underwater. We’ve managed to conjure up a demon that will affect everyone, although, as always, wealthy countries have a larger margin of safety before hitting the bottom.

Well then, they say, shouldn’t we do something about it? I tell them they are already helping. I tell them they are contributing by not complaining about riding their bikes and walking whenever they can. They are helping by continuing to be delighted by bags of hand-me-downs rather than shopping trips. They are helping by eating local spinach rather than asking for processed foods from around the world.

Although this cheers them up a bit, they know as well as I do that eating a few leaves of spinach is not going to fix a whole lot. By the end of the conversation, they’re in tears and I’m confused. As does every parent, I want them to believe their futures are full of hope and promise. Yet at some point they also need to look with clear eyes at the world around them. Without this, where does the motivation come from to try to change the status quo? And without that motivation, how do we make anything better?

Our own family’s behavior is utterly riddled with inconsistencies. Save the planet by biking to school, but then drive to Sugarloaf to ski all weekend. Buy local greens at the farmer’s market and then wash them down with inexpensive Californian red wine, trucked from 3,000 miles away.

And yet, humans are uniquely able to live with inconsistency. I tell my kids what I tell myself. For today, pick one action where you can make an improvement. Maybe work on remembering to turn off the lights when you come downstairs. Nudge yourself. I’m a nudger.

But in my heart of hearts I’d like them to be world-changers, not nudgers, and I don’t know where to send them for training.

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Scientists in Norway have just announced the discovery of a non-toxic high-tech building material with a host of economic and environmental benefits. Homes made from this substance are expected to use 10-50% less energy for heating and cooling than homes made from traditional materials.

The new substance was discovered by a team working to identify chemicals that could absorb carbon dioxide, a major cause of climate change.

A pilot home built in 2005 was found to absorb nearly 50 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Projections show that if every house in Northern Europe was made from this material global carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 5%. As a completely unexpected side benefit, the material also absorbed other air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In every test the scientists ran, air quality was higher in and around the pilot home than in a traditional home.

Most amazingly, using this material was estimated to add only a few hundred dollars to the cost of a new home. However, based on the material’s beneficial effects, including significantly reduced energy costs for homeowners, it was projected that building with it may increase a home’s value by up to 20%.

If you were thinking this story is too good to be true, you’d only be partly right. On the one hand, there is no newly discovered health-promoting, planet-saving, dirt-cheap, inexpensive building material. In this, you were correct.

On the other hand, you can have all the benefits above, plus many more, and for the same price, by simply planting some trees next to your house. Well placed trees and shrubs can indeed save 10-50% on heating and cooling costs. Just one mature tree can indeed absorb 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, along with a long list of other air and soil pollutants. A single large oak, for example, can pull 40,000 gallons of water per year out of the ground and discharge it into the air, reducing flooding and soggy lawns.

For communities, the impacts are even more striking. Tree-lined streets are 10-15 degrees cooler in the summer. Pavement on these streets lasts far longer and the streets are far less likely to flood. Urban tree canopy can reduce stormwater runoff by up to 7%, and when combined with other natural landscaping, by up to 65%. This results in huge cost savings for towns and significant improvements in water quality in nearby streams, lakes and aquifers.

If the environmental and economic benefits of trees are not enough, the social benefits are equally compelling.

Studies from blighted urban Chicago housing developments show that residents who could see trees from their windows had stronger ties to their neighbors and engaged in less physical violence against their children than those without trees. These studies are striking because the residents were largely homeless families who were randomly assigned to apartments as their names came to the top of long wait lists. In other words, the people with greener views were no different to begin with than those without.

Green views have also been shown to enhance healing in hospital patients and concentration among college students. Children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) had the fewest behavioral problems after being in green spaces with lots of trees when compared with any indoor activities, including sports, or outdoor activities in spaces lacking greenery, such as urban parking lots. This finding held true even for children who lived in green neighborhoods.

I’m intrigued by this last bit of data. It suggests that even if a child has trees outside her window and walks past trees to get to school, it may still matter that there are trees on the playground at recess. More natural settings may have more powerful healing effects than we realize.

This fall the town of Brunswick built a new school. Where possible, efforts were made to preserve older trees, and many new trees have been planted around the property, although none next to the children’s play areas.

Recently a little friend of mine who attends the new school told her mother how much she missed the playground at her old school. So they returned for a visit to the empty little playground, nestled into a grove of old pine trees.

With a huge smile on her face, the girl roamed about the play structures, sliding down slides, ducking under hideouts, trying out the swings. Many of these same features were present at the new space, so the mother asked her daughter what she’d missed so much.

It’s the trees, she replied.

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Each garden has its own personality, distinct oddities that make it unlike any other patch of ground in the world. My current garden amuses itself by sending me a mystery vine every summer. It’s always in a different spot, it’s always something from the squash family, and it’s never the same species.

One year enormous yellow flowers turned into hard green balls which slowly resolved into pumpkins. Another year, the vine climbed around a wire bin in the shady northeast corner of my garden and by season’s end dripped with tiny jewel-like decorative gourds.

Two summers ago, as I awaited the huge sexy flowers typical of squashes and gourds, I was startled by spikes of white flowers poking out along my vine: it was a wild cucumber.

Last year, however, I could find nothing. June came and went. Maybe I missed some offering to the garden gnomes. But then, in mid-July I saw it beginning to creep along between the house and the garage. Just before the leaves dissolved into black mush this fall, I harvested two perfect acorn squash. Last night I baked them for dinner with apples and a touch of butter and brown sugar.

I had not left space for this squash (it grew into a path and we stepped over it all summer), I had not purchased the seed, I had not planted the vine, nor had I watered or weeded. The squash, all on its own, planted itself, harvested its own sunlight and extracted its share of limited rainfall. It was free in every sense of the word: no labor, no money, no planning, no time.

But, least you think that the “no free lunch” adage applies only to lunch, I have to tell you it applies to dinner too. It turns out there was a cost to my squash. It goes by the eye-glazing name of soil depletion. The squash took from the soil the nutrients it needed to grow–nutrients that will be gone from this patch of land for years to come unless someone returns them, perhaps via a handful of compost or some chicken droppings.

In the words of Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, “The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization.” Looking back on world history is more often than not a study of soil productivity. Where soils were deep and life-giving, people flourished, when soils were over-tapped and over-grazed, civilizations fell.

Indeed, when we consider what is necessary to support life on earth, productive soil is right up there near the top of the list, close to sunshine and water.

Healthy soil is a world unto itself: a mix of minerals, organic matter, insects, bacteria, fungi, and animals, that provides both the critical nutrients plants require as well access to water and air.

Soil formation begins with a pocket of minerals such as sand, glacial grit, or lava, worn fine enough for a rugged pioneer plant to sneak in a few roots. When the plant dies it returns some of the nutrients it used as well as adding organic matter. As the soil becomes richer, more plant species are able to survive.

Insects and animals appear, contributing their droppings and eventually their bodies to the gradually deepening soils. Its a beautiful natural process, but unfortunately rather slow: a single inch of topsoil is approximately five hundred years in the making.

The planet is now losing topsoil 10-20 times faster than it is being replenished. Much of this erosion is due to farming and grazing practices that leave bare soils exposed to wind and rain.

As topsoils are washed into our waterways and blown into dust storms, so are vast quantities of carbon released. Scientists estimate that there is three times more carbon locked in soil than there is currently in the atmosphere. This carbon is released as soils are disturbed, and may contribute up to 30% to global warming.

If there were vast swaths of untapped agricultural land just waiting in the wings, none of this might be a problem. But farmland is in scarce supply in many places. A few years ago South Korea tried to purchase a 99 year lease to half of Madagascar’s arable land. South Korea and Madagascar are 6,500 miles apart.

Virtually all human food calories come from the land. Global food production has kept pace with population growth largely because of reliance on chemical fertilizers. However, overuse of fertilizer, along with many other modern farming practices eventually destroy soil structure and the soil ecosystems that maintain it. The result is that food production per acre of land is declining.

Although most people pay no attention to it, good dirt is a resource sorely in need of protection. Practices that protect soil fertility, soil structure, and retain soil carbon include low or no-till methods, leaving some of the crop behind after harvest to hold soil in place, and planting cover crops, windbreaks, and vegetative buffers along waterways.

On my quarter acre square of the planet, I try to minimize the amount of organic matter that leaves our property. We compost our food scraps, pile up our oak leaves, and allow our grass clippings to disappear back into the lawn.

The area where my acorn squash grew used to be a compacted beat up piece of grass. A few years ago I put down a thick layer of partially decomposed oak leaves to kill the grass, and topped it with pine needles swept up from Brunswick streets. The result was a lovely rusty golden path between the structures, edged with a few ferns, and other plants–and no need for mowing. It was here that my squash chose to grow, perhaps a thank you for giving something back to the soils.

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Gold Leaf and Butterflies

I’m standing in the basement of a century-old three story brick apartment building in Boston. The space measures forty by sixty feet, or about the same area as a good-sized house. This particular basement is filled with stuff, packed in so tightly that it is difficult to move a ShopVac around the piles.

My parents moved into this building over 40 years ago. My Danish mother, an art conservator by training, whom we all suspected was really a pirate, had a workshop down in the basement. She would disappear for days at a time, building furniture, restoring artworks, puffing away on her pipe, and bartering with Siberian yak traders, who would pass that way from time to time.

The building had three apartments; my folks lived on one floor, and there were renters on the other two. For most of my family’s tenure, another somewhat fuzzy pirate-type, named Larry, lived on the first floor.

There were certain ways in which Larry and my mom understood each other perfectly. They were both incredible craftspeople who could make anything with their hands. They understood materials and they hated the poor quality of modern goods and the rampant waste of modern society.

And so, they both saved and collected things. Walking along the street, they would spot an old well-made rolling chair on someone’s garbage pile. Into the basement it would go. A decent lamp in need of re-wiring? The basement. Sales on acid-free paper, book-binding cloth and other curious items with unfathomable future uses? The basement. Viking longboats, in good condition? Yeah, the basement.

Larry spent a lot of time in underbelly of the building. He turned one corner into a sound-proof music room, he brought in table saws and drill presses, he strung lights, sinks and deer’s heads from the ceiling and had wild parties. Although he himself moved out of the building a while back, his stuff never got around to following along. Apparently, he has nowhere to put it.

When my mom passed away a few years ago the basement fell under a mysterious enchantment and faded from our memories. Oddly, I didn’t even see it when I was passing through to put out the garbage for my dad or grab a shovel to clear some snow.

But last month, during a visit to Boston, I was zipping obliviously through the basement on some minor errand when a curious thing happened. The magical haze of cobwebs and dust, which was slowly obscuring all traces of the bustling civilization that had once flourished down there, cleared for an instant. I realized that someone had to deal with the stuff in the basement.

I know I keep saying the basement was full of “stuff.” If only. “Stuff” is badly made, often intentionally manufactured to break, wear out, or become obsolete relatively quickly, thereby requiring the purchase of yet more stuff. It’s what most of us buy most of the time.

This basement, however, is largely filled with real things. Things that were built to last, things that were salvaged from a past when raw materials, such as metal and wood, were valued enough to be used carefully.

On this spring day I’m in the basement to meet Larry so we can begin the clearing process. Right on time, he strolls down the stairs.

We roam around, feeling lost and nostalgic, identifying what is his and what was my mom’s. I look at his pile, steadily growing as he pulls things from the rubble. “They don’t make chairs like this anymore,” he says as he hesitates before putting three old rolling chairs in the give away pile.

Nevertheless, he takes rusted fans (I can fix this up), old PVC pipe (I’ll make cubbies out of this), boxes of mixed screws and bolts. He agrees to get the bulk of his stash out by July. It would easily fill a few small moving trucks.

I open a box marked by my mother as “træuld.” The Danish translates delightfully as “tree wool.” Sure enough, in the box are long spaghetti-thin aromatic cedar wood tendrils, curled in tight springy ringlets, the packing materials from some ancient shipment of old country goods. I wonder if it’s been saved all these years for some higher purpose than to become kindling in my wood stove.

As I roam, I think about trash-pickers the world round, who re-melt bent nails to make new ones, who tie together broken string to make fishing nets, who expose themselves and their children to terrible toxins as they disassemble our old computers and cell phones to recover precious metals.

To honor this spirit, to honor my mother and Larry, who believed in using things up, all the way, to honor this basement chock full of the world’s irreplaceable finite resources, I know I will need to find homes for most everything in here.

Someday, when things are scarcer than they are now, we will want back all of our well made rolling chairs, our stainless steel sinks, our Christmas lights, our acid-free paper. I will not be the one who throws it in the landfill.

I pick up another slim box nearly pancaked with age. My mother’s neat handwriting on the side says: Gold Leaf and Butterflies. I expect nothing less as I open it.

In one bag is a heavy pack of gold leaf, the real thing, squares of the thinnest imaginable layers of gold, thinner than paper, a pirate’s treasure glowing from between dull layers of brown tissue. Sometimes, you see, a person needs gold leaf.

Next to this bag are tiny ziplocs with butterfly wings, the real things, collected over a lifetime of stopping by the roadside to pick up the pieces of humankind’s collisions with the natural world.

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Rumor has it that if you head to Iceland during their summer of limitless light and poke around in backyards you may find an odd, small patch of un-mowed, un-tended land.

I’ve heard that this tiny spot of wildness is a conciliatory gesture to the elves, gnomes, and trolls that dwell in Scandinavian countries, giving them a place to feel at home amid the trimmed grass and paved driveways.

Perhaps it’s also a sign of humility. Icelanders live rather close to the claiming edge of nature, as the world was reminded last year when the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano smothered part of the country in gray dust and disrupted air traffic over the Atlantic for nearly a month.

In such a place, it might not hurt to have a daily reminder, if only by letting be some weeds in the backyard, that we’re not entirely in charge here.

I haven’t been able to confirm the Icelandic weed-patch rumor, and I imagine it to be about as true or false as the elves themselves. Yet the idea fascinates me. What could be more antithetical to the American lawn than leaving a square of it unmanaged?

The lawn is all about control over nature, swaths of unbroken sameness, and to a degree, about keeping out the wilderness. The un-mown plot is about relinquishing control, celebrating the variety of whatever grows, and putting up with weed seeds blowing into your carefully manicured beds of pedruliums. It’s about allowing someone else to call the shots, right in front of your nose, right there on your very own lawn. Understandably, it’s a little hard to swallow.

It wouldn’t really matter what we did with our lawns if there weren’t so many of them, and if caring for them didn’t have such a large impact.

Cristina Milesi at the University of Montana used satellite date to estimate that Americans have covered 128,000 square kilometers with lawn grass. This is the largest area of any irrigated crop in the US, and represents about 1-2% of the entire land area of the country.

Most of this lawn grass requires moderately fertile, ever so slightly acidic, well-drained soil, and about an inch of water per week. In other words, the majority of us are trying to grow lawns in a hostile climate: too wet, too dry, too lean, too hot, too sandy, too acidic.

In order to maintain lawns that are continually green and weed-free, we therefore must lavish an absurd outpouring of resources on our grass. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that to feed our obsession, every year we spread 70 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients on our lawns and spend about 5 billion dollars on fertilizers made from petroleum products. These chemicals wind up in our water, our air, our children, our pets, and our wildlife, with disturbing implications on all fronts.

Watering lawns uses 30-60% of all urban fresh water, much of it in places that are already draining dry their rivers and reservoirs. To top it off, gasoline-powered mowers contribute about 5% to the nation’s air pollution; one hour of mowing pollutes approximately the same amount as driving 45 miles.

You begin to wonder, it is all necessary? Can’t we just learn to play nice with the neighborhood dandelions, and the local wood elves while we’re at it?

I aspire to being at peace with my dandelions. No one has to tell me that the rambunctious yellow flowers are delightful popping up in a sea of green. Nor do I need convincing that the airy spheres of their seed heads, each a star-filled galaxy of child’s dreams waiting to be wished, are simply gorgeous.

And yet, I just can’t rid myself of the impression that a lawn full of dandelions gone to seed looks like a weed lot. I resent this unshakable, irrational conviction, truly I do, but it’s there, rooted deeply into my consciousness with all the tenacity of, well, a dandelion.

I’ve come to this: I’ve made a sort of Hippocratic Oath with my lawn. Just as graduating doctors promise not to harm their patients, so have I promised to try to do no harm as I care for my lawn. I don’t water, I don’t fertilize, I don’t use herbicides or pesticides.

Sometimes I’ll toss a spare handful or two of compost out onto the lawn. Ha, I’ll think triumphantly, that takes care of fertilizer!

I mow infrequently with a manual push-mower. It always starts and I’m never out of gas, at least not for the mower.

It’s a shaky peace, I admit. Every year there is, perhaps, a little less grass and bit more clover, black medic, sheep sorrel, and violets. I’m happy to report that there are no dandelions, because I pull those, which irks my nine-year old to no end.

There’s also no toxic run-off from my lawn into the sewer and then on into the slowly clearing waters of the Androscoggin. I’m not poisoning my earthworms or songbirds, or children for that matter. I’m not putting gasoline from the Middle-East in yet another machine.

And, I have a small un-mowed patch around my laundry pole, which I confess to monitoring for really challenging weeds, like vetch. Vetch is a beautiful purple vining plant which, like clover, takes nitrogen out of the air, where it does no one any good, and puts in the soil where your plants can use it. Nevertheless, it’s an aggressive weed and I pull it on sight. I wonder whether this scares off the gnomes. Maybe they like vetch.

But, somehow we all muddle through together every summer: me, the grass, the hummingbirds, the robins, the ants, the bees, and the nine-year-olds.

What choice do we have, really? Maybe we could just stop mowing altogether. Stay tuned for a future column on what happened when one local resident did just that.

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Why would a bee need a sanctuary? Bees are not hunted in the manner of large charismatic animals, such as elephants. They don’t threaten livestock, in the way of wolves or foxes. Nor do they need vast plains on which to roam, like antelopes and caribou.

Why, then are there bee sanctuaries sprouting up, brightly, here and there, like clover in the lawn? Bees, it appears, need sanctuaries so they can just be bees, living like bees are supposed to live: pollinating flowers, making nests, swarming, digging, and buzzing.

Consider the honey bee, a creature almost unimpeachably helpful to humans. Not native to North America, honey bees were imported from Europe in the 1600’s because of their ability, like Rumpelstiltskin, to turn straw into gold, to change the lowly plants of field and wayside into vats of gleaming, amber honey.

Along with this miracle of transformation, honey bees are estimated to pollinate about one third of all the food we eat, either directly, for many fruits and nuts, or indirectly, by pollinating plants consumed by farm animals. These pollination services generate $15 billion worth of crops in the United States alone.

Most of us imagine that bees go about their business of making honey and pollinating plants by waking up on fine spring days, packing the kids off to school, and flying out the backdoor for a busy day of flower flitting.

The reality is a bit less romantic. The honey bees responsible for pollinating major U.S. crops are loaded on trucks, wrapped in plastic, and driven hundreds if not thousands of miles to where they are needed. They are often fed high fructose corn syrup to give them the energy to accomplish their Herculean tasks. Think of it: feeding corn syrup to a honey bee. That, surely, is nature turned on her head.

The U.S. almond crop, one of the country’s most lucrative, now covers over a half million acres in California’s Central Valley. This land, on which nothing grows but almond trees, is breathtakingly beautiful when in bloom, but it’s as barren as a desert to most animal and insect life.

There is no balance of prey and predator to protect the trees from disease, so pesticides and herbicides must be used. There is no natural cycle of growth and decay to replenish the soil, so chemical fertilizers must be applied. When the almond crop has finished blooming, there is no other food to sustain a population of local bees, so bees must be imported, from as far away as the East coast and even Australia.

Yet, in our efforts to extract as much as possible from nature, we risk destroying the workings of systems we don’t fully understand. Over the last few decades honey bees in the United States have been afflicted by a rapid and dramatic decline, known as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” Bee keepers open their hives to find that their workers had vanished overnight, never to return. Up to one third of U.S. hives have disappeared.

Although scientists have been unable to pinpoint an exact cause for disappearing bees, continuing research implicates a combination of stresses including pesticides, parasitic mites, habitat loss, disease, and changes in plant flowering times triggered by global warming. Many native bee populations are also in sharp decline, likely affected by the same stresses as honey bees.

What bees need sanctuary from is this death by a thousand cuts. I came across the concept of a bee sanctuary in a recent documentary called Queen of the Sun. This beautiful film follows the plight of honey bees through commentaries by bee keepers, entomologists, writers, and philosophers.

Gunther Hauk maintains a small farm in Illinois with a honey bee sanctuary at its heart. It is a place where bees can find a wide variety of flowers, full of nectar, free of pesticides, and blooming for the entire season. It is a place where bees can live and breed within a functioning ecosystem, where they might be able to develop natural resistance to some of the diseases and parasites to which they are susceptible.

It’s also a place where bees work for people, making honey and pollinating crops. Farms like Hauk’s strike a balance between gathering the resources that people need to thrive, while continuing to let natural systems provide some of the heavy lifting of fertilizing plants, fighting disease, building soil, cleaning water, and maintaining a balance of pests and predators. This is important because, simply put, we don’t know how to replace all the services provided by nature; we have to let her do some of the work.

It all makes sense, yet what I found most striking about the people profiled in Queen of the Sun is that everyone in the film is madly intoxicated with bees. Bee keeper Yvon Achard brushes his moustache against honey combs crawling with bees. “They like it,” he announces happily, grinning widely at the camera. It’s clear that Achard likes it. And the bees? They don’t sting him, at least not while we’re watching.

All the romantic communing with bees depicted in the film is, perhaps, a bit over-the-top. Even if I had a moustache (which, maybe I will if Governor LePage has his druthers), I would not likely be kissing honey bees with it. Nevertheless, the film conveys an important message. If our only goal in interacting with nature is one of extraction, we will continue to disrupt system after system that we don’t comprehend and don’t know how to fix.

If, on the other hand, we can drum up some affection for the plants and animals we derive our nourishment from, there will be limits on the degree to which we can tolerate exploiting them. This in turn may protect us from ruining the natural systems we rely on for survival. The needs of other living creatures, such as food, clean air and water, and healthy soils–are largely the same as our needs.

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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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