October 2009


The refuse company sent everyone in my area an informative trifold last year about how the recycling center functions. It showed pictures of the machinery that separates the various materials and the belts where human workers pulled out items that couldn’t be recycled.

Part of the purpose of the flyer was to exhort people to recycle; the other part was to remind everyone of the items that cannot be placed into the recycling bins. The flyer explained that the recyclables were not recycled in the U.S., but were baled, sold and shipped to China to be made into second-use products. Our city is given higher prices for these bales if they are not filled with non-recycleable garbage.

Yeah, there were a lot of quips passed around about how our milk jugs turn into garbage items that we buy, but I honestly didn’t think much about it. With so many people in China, it made sense that they need to import as many types of raw materials as possible.

Last night, I stumbled across China Hush’s article on Lu Guang’s photography. The pictures look apocalyptic, but it is now, people live there, and they are dying. I’ve known about the pollution issues, but to actually see them in a passive light as art really snapped my attention.

Selling our recycling to China is just another transfer of responsibility for pollution. I know it is more complex than that, that the coal factories and the decision to pump waste into the rivers and treat humans as disposable is something handled largely on foreign corporate and governmental levels. But for me, recycling just got dirtier.

I know that people on the West Coast get effects from China’s pollution. We truly are a global population, and this type of environmental destruction will not be solved with a backyard garden and a compost pile. And hermitting myself off to a piece of land to homestead organically will not remove me from this issue.

I know that this is a political and economical issue way outside my scope. But China is starting to open up communications about the effects of pollution on their population. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, World Health Organization and Greenpeace China are working with China and the U.S. to help reduce the pollution.

Approximately 1/3 of the pollution from China is from manufacturing goods for the U.S. While the greater powers work on the problem, I’ll take another look at what I buy, what it is wrapped in, and where it comes from. And I will still be gung-ho about recycling, but I need to look for ways that I can re-use items before they are recycled.

Humanity still has a distance to go, but at least the issue is being discussed on a global level, and plans are being submitted to promote change. This was just my wake-up call on how big the issue really is, and how it will affect me, miles away, tending my own little garden.

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Backyard Cherries

Backyard Cherries

Food Not Lawns by H.C. Flores seems to be one of those must-read books that every hip environmentalist seems to tout at some point. It’s been in print since the 70’s, so there’s gotta be something there to last all this time, right?

Flores is refreshingly upfront with her status as a fervent believer that we are destroying life on earth. She was an environmental pioneer and has done a lot for what this area calls the Green Movement (or Green Religion). Her book is written for others who are curious about what they can do to build community and become self-sustaining.

The book has persuasive environmental horror stories and a few mystical leanings that might be off-putting to some readers. Strangely enough, the way the book is structured makes the stories secondary to the actual items you can build or perform in order to lead a healthier, more sustainable life. There is a section about creating a grey water bog and pond system to water landscaping with plans that I thought were just brilliant.

But as I was reading, I started thinking about what it would really mean to implement some of these ideas at home. When fella and I bought our house, we planned on staying at least two years. With the housing market the way it is, we decided to stay for at least 5 years.

People don’t really buy houses to live in for 30 years anymore. In my area, many folks are resigned to a commute to work that can take over an hour, because there is no work close to home. People may have to move across the country for a job. The idea of staying in a home and paying off a 30-year mortgage is unthinkable right now. Because people move around, it’s also harder to build a real life community.

I know that I wouldn’t be able to sell my house if it was painted with milk paint, landscaped with gray water plumbing, and the lawn was removed. Living with these things requires a change in living, it requires specialty knowledge and maintenance. Would prospective buyers cringe at even my compost bins?

When I read about how neighbors should tear down their fences and plant a large garden on the shared space, I had to laugh. That would never happen in my neighborhood. It freaks them out when I offer them cherries from our tree. We need our territorial boundaries here.

We can each do our bit and take personal responsibility for our little carbon footprints. We can plant our gardens and compost our veggies. But as long as workers have to remain mobile (and things like gray water systems are anomalies), our self-sustaining, environmental actions have to be as mobile as we are.

let it grow

I grew up on a series of 2-3 acre homesteads. The houses were handyman specials, the land was rocky, the animals were runabouts, and I’m pretty sure that no one knew what they were doing. Add in poverty and familial disgruntlement, and growing up “on the farm” was a miserable, chaotic existence that I gladly escaped when I moved to the city.

Fifteen years later, I dream of land. I feel like I’ve tried out every city stereotype, living in hot spots and running after my career. My fella and I currently own a house on nearly a quarter acre in a small town surrounded by an industrial city. There are two drugstores, a coffee shop, and a gas station within walking distance.

I thought a nice garden would cure the itch for land.This year, we covered 78 square feet of prime front lawn with compost and planted food and flora. We plotted out a blueberry circle and will be using an old hot-tub foundation frame as a permaculture potato bed. I have planters inside our living room window and onions sprouting in the kitchen.

I thought going to farms and canning produce for the winter would sate my longing. After gallons of applesauce and marinera, I’m still looking at the yard, seeing less grass and more corn. In the back yard, by brain superimposes a chicken coop (nice and tidy and urban), a greywater pond system and yet more plants. And I wonder if I’ll ever be able to sell the house with those changes.

I caught myself trolling Craigslist like a villain last week, looking at the ads for rabbits, goats, chicks and cattle. Chicks and a rabbit are definite additions for the next year. But why am I scanning for grazers? My neighborhood has a distinct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but I don’t have the property to do anything more. In any case, I don’t want to push at the neighbors’ tolerance for those “crazy environmentalists” next door.

The more I connect with the land, with the food cycle and life cycles of season and bug and beast, the more I must follow it. Observing yeast, the changes in a growing bean, the continual birth, growth and eventual passing on for everything to the next stage of the cycle – it feels right at the core of my soul. Perfect, salient, and I want to persue it.