Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Garden pictures

It's meltingly hot here. I mean, it was almost 90 degrees over the weekend. You might laugh, but that means we've gone through a 120 degree temperature swing in about 2 1/2 months. No gentle lead-up, no wondering, "will it get hot?" Just BAM--hot weather. And mosquitoes. Lots and lots and lots of giant, annoying mosquitoes that bite lips in the middle of the night so you wake up with a swollen mouth and....
But I'm not really here to complain about that. I just wanted to show off my garden a little bit. I got most of the planting finished over the holiday weekend (just a few more squashes I need to get in the ground!) and I'm quite proud of it. I bought a brussel sprout plant. I've never even tasted brussel sprouts. So that will be an adventure in and of itself. (I do hear they're sweeter when they're homegrown or at least local.)
Potatoes! In an old tire! (I'll stack more on as the plants grow up--it's a good way to grow lots of potatoes in a very small space.)
Cabbage! This is more symbolic than anything else. I've planted at least one cabbage every year, partly because I love cabbage and partly because they're just so darn easy to grow. But it's not truly economical unless you're willing to start them from seeds yourself, and I never have. BTW, if anyone has a good coleslaw recipe, I'd love to hear it. While I like cooked cabbage, Shane does not.
My brussel sprout! L also got and planted one, so we're having a sprout adventure together.

I won't bore you with any more pictures of the numerous squashes, and I figure you know what lettuce looks like. But I did find one surprise in my garden: a little rhubarb plant. It's not from me, so it must have germinated naturally from all the ones in our neighborhood. Lucky me, I now have three rhubarb plants!

Friday, May 27, 2011

What sunscreen?

You'd think that with nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summertime, I'd be very concerned about protecting my skin and putting sunscreen on all the time. Well, I don't. It's not just that the chemicals found in it are downright bad for you, although that doesn't help. And it's not because I love the "healthy" look of a tan, although it is nice to see myself other than ghostly pale. Mostly, it's because of the benefits that the sun actually gives you. I think of it as human photosynthesis because the way our bodies react to the sun produces vitamin D. Because of sunscreens and other skin cancer prevention measures, most people are actually deficient in this important vitamin, which plays a role in both physical and mental health. Lack of vitamin D is part of what causes SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Despite what that link says about longer nights not necessarily affecting the occurrence of this disorder, people in Alaska have a much higher incidence of SAD than do other populations. So much so that the University's student health center stocks special "happy lights" that students who are affected by SAD can borrow for free.) To combat any hint of winter blahs (I don't think I get SAD, just a little rundown in midwinter) I make sure to take a walk every day in the winter when it's light out, and I turn my face to the sun. Doesn't help much when the only part of my skin the sun touches is the area around my eyes, but it makes me feel better to be proactive about it.
In the summertime? I go nuts. I know you can't store vitamin D, but I don't do much to block the absorption because I know exactly how much I need it. And because I'm about 90-99% covered up for 7-8 months of the year, I'm not all that worried about skin cancer. It's the one cancer that Alaskans get in lower proportions than the rest of the country.
Record breaking or matching temperatures right now (it's over 80 in the shade today--yes, in Fairbanks) is probably going to lead to another horrible summer for fires here. There have already been several notable ones around town, including a forest fire that lead to home evacuations last weekend. *Sigh* I hope this doesn't degrade the air quality like it did in the summer of 2009. A month straight of ash, no matter which way the wind blew because the forest fires surrounded Fairbanks. It looked like fog, and left the smell and taste of campfires permanently in the nose and mouth. I know it was a bad summer for asthmatics, and it can't have been good for the rest of us.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Soooo hot

It's definitely been summer for about a week now. Temps in the '70s (you'll laugh, but we're dying here of heat exhaustion), days that never truly get dark, and I was able to get my plants outdoors. Not all of them are planted yet, but they're loving the sunshine. So here are some pictures:


In defense of my gas guzzler

I know, I know, not something you'd ever expect me to say, right? Our truck gets about 14 miles per gallon, which is terrible. It's big, and it's old, and it's not even really ours. Shane's parents have loaned it to us long-term after my old Subie died since they really didn't need it.
Why I don't feel so bad about having such an old, gas-guzzling monster has to do with several issues. The first being, this truck has been (and still often is) used as a truck should be: to haul stuff. Spencer's baggage for college, snow machines (you'll never hear an Alaskan call them "snowmobiles"), furniture, friends, etc, have all been hauled in this truck. I hate it when people get giant trucks and baby them, never hauling anything and simply using them as a status symbol. You're not any more manly for having a truck, I don't care what the commercials tell you. Our truck is used for its intended purpose, which means that its size is useful. After all, the hauling capacity would have to come from somewhere.
The second issue is that we drive it less than the average. Even making at least two 600+ mile trips (to Soldotna and back) each year, we drive it less than the average 12,000 miles that most people put on their cars each year. By biking/walking/busing to work, biking to the stores and friends' houses in the summer, living near institutions like the bank and post office so that we can walk, and carpooling with friends, we don't drive nearly as much as the average person. It kind of rocks. I love that we don't have to drive as much!
Finally, there was a report out a while ago about the fact that, since manufacturing new cars is so energy intensive, keeping an old gas guzzler on the road can be more efficient than buying a new vehicle. (I took the little test at the end of that article and it said, "Good news! You should keep your vehicle.") So people who buy, say, a new Prius every few years might be helping the economy, but they're certainly not helping the environment. Or their wallets. Even factoring in trading in an older version of a car when buying a new one, it's hideously expensive to buy new cars all the time!
As tempting as it is to get a car with better gas mileage, I know that for now keeping the old clunker (and keeping it in good shape--that's just as important!) is better for our bottom line and for the environment. Who knew?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Confusing cosmetics

There's a wellness program for university employees in Alaska that I like to take advantage of every year. In part, this is due to the prizes (I'm on track to win $200!!) but it's also due to the fact that it pushes me to eat healthier and exercise more. It's why I've been eating oatmeal almost every morning for the last 4-ish months.
Anyway, one of the resources they list is this website, with a helpful searching tool so that you can check out just how bad your products are for you. Companies don't have to test their chemicals for toxicity, and they are allowed to put them in products for human use (the scariest are the baby and child products!) without any need for safety testing. Lovely. On top of all that, they don't have to list all of the ingredients on the label because of trade secret laws. This is why there are so many heavy metals in our cosmetics: no oversight. So this site shows you which products are best, you can search for things you might want to check on (I didn't realize my Burt's Bees and Nature's Gate products weren't all as good as I thought). Very handy, and it will definitely change how I shop for products.
I've also been looking a lot at the site No More Dirty Looks. They've got a book, which I haven't read yet but am keen to. One of the things I found most compelling was their argument that things like face washes strip our skin of the oils they really need to be healthy. As someone who's been waging war against my skin (like I've been told to by pretty much every ad, magazine, new article, etc, ever) I thought that I might as well give this a try. So I stopped washing my face, instead opting to just rinse it with water every morning and night. (The authors suggest that if you really need to scrub, once a week with baking soda should do the trick, but I haven't done that.) You know what really surprised me? They're right. I really wasn't expecting that, but my skin looks so much better than it has at any time since around middle school, even after only a few days. My skin hasn't broken out the way I thought it would, and it hasn't reacted by flipping out and getting super greasy either. I've still been putting on a light layer of moisturizer (Fairbanks is so dry, even now) and it looks great. It even feels softer!
I'm not sure if I'm so into the no-'poo group, though. (As in, no shampoo.) I've declined shampooing my hair for the past couple of nights in favor of a baking soda and water mix (to remove product build-up from my shampoo and conditioner, the only hair products I use) but it's left my hair greasy and I don't like it. I guess you're supposed to give it over a month before deciding to let the hair's natural oils even out, but do I really want to do that? Could I live with greasy hair for that long? I mean, I know the natural oils are good for it, but...it's the texture. I feel it and just think, "Ewww!" I might just stop using the shampoo in favor of castille soap, though, which is much better for both us and the environment. As one person put it, "You could eat the stuff and be just fine."
Reading through the cosmetics list is making me very glad I've never been a real heavy or frequent wearer of makeup. (I'm blessed with a fiance who finds makeup rather unattractive unless used in extreme moderation. "It's like smearing a lie all over your face. That's not what you look like.") I wore more makeup when I lived in Seattle, but even then never really went beyond eyeliner, concealer and mascara. Sometimes. Up here, in the winter it just sucks to wear makeup. Especially on the eyes. Why would I put eyeshadow and mascara that's just going to smear when I have to defrost my eyelashes? Literally, I have to defrost my eyelashes and eyebrows when I step inside. So not worth the trouble. And now I know, not worth the toxic risk. Or the packaging. Or the money. Or....

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Terrible Person

So, I'm not good at saying no. And by that I mean saying no to things that I know I shouldn't do/eat/take. For example, I know that the cake served at Shane's graduation after-party was not only not good for me (does the fact that it was carrot cake make a difference?) but it was served on an unrecycleable plate with a plastic, unrecycleable fork. I knew all this, and I still took a piece. They'd already been cut up and put on plates, so would it really have made a difference if I'd not taken it? Probably not. After all, they'd still be getting rid of that used plate and probably the food on it if no one ate it. But as you can tell, I'm still beating myself up over it several days later. So that's why I was very happy to read this article in the Huffington Post today about eco-guilt. She says that eco-guilt isn't a bad thing because, honestly, we have a lot to feel guilty about. But at the same time, we shouldn't let that stop us from trying to make small changes in our own lives (they really do add up!) and we need to recognize when we do something good. So I'll try to be a stronger person when offered a free piece of cake or plastic utensils or styrofoam cups of tea. But I'll also take a moment to recognize that I'm not perfect and I am trying to better myself. That's what really counts.
The other night after graduation, Shane, our brothers and I were looking at stuff through Stumbleupon. (I love that site.) We came across a list of some of the most incredible places to see, such as Niagra Falls and the ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I love traveling, and I think it's important for each and every person to be exposed to life outside their own small world. But traveling takes money, so I haven't done as much of it as I'd like. (Only 16 states, one trip to Scotland, and a trip through the Caribbean. Poor me.) So in a fit of longing I told Shane, "We need to make millions of dollars so that we can see all these places." In all seriousness he answered, "We'll never make that much money. You'll be too busy giving it all away if we even get close." It took me about a split second before saying, "Yeah, actually, you're right." He added, "That's why I'm going to have an account you know nothing about." Wait, what? I think he was joking....
The names and pictures of three strykers killed in Afghanistan were in the paper this morning. Really puts my little problems in perspective. RIP.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Driving forces

Yesterday while biking home, I was nearly run over by someone who apparently decided that stop signs don't apply to him. Since being nearly run over is about a once-a-week occurrence for me, it pisses me off. So I was seriously angry by the time I got home. Of course, two milliseconds of my dog's flip-out greeting was enough to right my mood, but I kept thinking about it for the rest of the evening. What is it about people who only drive (instead of biking or walking sometimes) that makes them such bad drivers? Drivers run red lights (I've been almost halfway across the road and had someone almost hit me that way), run stop signs, ignore crosswalks, and just generally don't look out for people who aren't in cars. It's kind of funny to think that my biking and walking has actually made me a better driver. I pay attention to everyone who might be out, not just the other cars. And it's made me less stressed when I'm in the car, too. Maybe it's the endorphins from all the exercise I get, but it's also partly due to the attitude of "I get there when I get there". That last part has been a tough transition for me, since I inherited my grandfather's sense of time. I can remember him getting upset with my grandmother for puttering around and making us "late" to the beach. (I miss them!) So while I never had real road rage, I did used to get angry while in the car if things were going to slow and I wasn't getting where I wanted to be fast enough. ("I should already be there! Argh!") Now, I don't see that there's any point to getting frustrated. There's nothing so pressing that I need to run red lights or potentially put other people in danger for. It's amazing how your attitude can change if you just get out of your own box.
I've also noticed that people who exclusively drive are the ones who get the most upset with people who don't always drive, or who drive things other than cars (like motorcycles and snow machines). As if we're the ones who are dangerous. I will admit that there are plenty of stupid bicyclists out there, but it's far too easy to be insulated from the world in a car and drivers don't understand how dangerous their behavior is to those around them. It's actually really sad.
When I bought new kibble for the dog, I changed the flavor. Apparently the dog doesn't like change because she'll eat all the "good" stuff out of her bowl and leave the kibble. Then bark at it, as if it'll change. Of course, the poor cat can't go near the kitchen if there's kibble left or she sticks her face in the bowl (still not eating) and growls at him. I'd be irritated if it wasn't so darn funny. But we took her out last night to play frolf for a couple of hours with friends, so she finally ate the last of what was in her bowl. And then collapsed with exhaustion.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Products and places

I figured I should start a list of products and places that have made my life, and will make this challenge, much easier for me. Don't expect the products list to be long, though, because part of this is about not buying. In general, I try to go for quality because even if it's more expensive, it's going to last a lot longer and in the end will work out better. It's like buying a KitchenAid mixer. They're really expensive, but my mom's has been put to lots of hard use for over 20 years and the only thing that's broken down on it were two gears which my dad replaced. Good quality always trumps low price.

Stores in and around Fairbanks:

-HomeGrown Market--For food
-Sipping Streams--For organic, free-trade teas
-Gulliver's Books--They will order any book for you, and they have a great used book section.
-Ann's Greenhouses--For both plants and pick-your-own produce
-Tanana Valley Farmer's Market
-Sunshine Health Foods--For a variety of products, including local soaps and food storage containers
-Alaska Feed Comapany--For bulk foods like flours, pet products, as well as local eggs and milk
-Goldstream Sports--They were super helpful and knowledgeable when Shane and I were buying our bikes.
-Hot Licks Ice Cream

Products that make my life easier:

-Diva Cup--Ladies, buy one. I'm never going back to pads and tampons. And that's all I'll say on that subject.
-A really nice thermos. I won mine through a work wellness program, and it's kept tea steaming hot all the way through a half-hour walk at -40. That's a good thermos!
-Pyrex storage containers. We don't use plastic tupperware anymore, especially since these are so much more versatile.
-Chico bags. My friend Lucy gave me one and it goes with me everywhere. Anytime I need to pop over to the store, I don't have to worry that I might forget my reusable bags because this is so compact I just throw it in my purse.
-Oil Mister--All right, so I don't have one of these yet. It's on my registry and until I get one (or break down and buy it myself) I'm just going to spread oil in the pan with my fingers. It just takes longer that way.
-White vinegar and baking soda. I do almost all of my cleaning with them, and you can even replace a lot of beauty/sanitation products.
-The internet. Such a no-brainer, but I felt the need to put it on here because, honestly, that's where so many of these ideas come from. That and books, so my next category:

Books that have inspired me:

-"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver
-"The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan
-"Food Rules" by Michael Pollan
-"The Bread Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum
-"Pandora's Seed" by Spencer Wells
-"Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson
-"The Urban Homestead" by Coyne and Knutzen
-"No More Dirty Looks" by Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt

Spring is here at last!

The first green buds are popping out on the trees and it's getting hot! It's supposed to get up to 70 today, which is a good sign. And we're getting enough daylight (I accidentally stayed up past midnight last night because I thought it was about 10:00) that I don't think we'll be getting any more hard frosts, so I might get to start putting my plants outside. Hooray!
Last weekend was totally nuts and very fun. I'm so proud of my graduate! But I don't really have much to report on the sustainability front. Having so many people in town means that we haven't cooked at home since Friday. We made salmon chowder for the family, and then in all the craziness everyone forgot that the pot was still on the cold stove until Sunday, when it was all moldy and disgusting. (I hate wasting food. I always think how disappointed my grandmother would be.) So I'm really looking forward to grocery shopping tonight and making dinner. I think I'll make that couscous dish for us. A light meal sounds perfect after all the heavy restaurant food we've eaten.
Plus, my little brother is now gone! We're back to just the two of us and it's so nice. Not that we really got to enjoy it last night. I had softball, and when I came home poor Shane was fast asleep in his computer chair. He did move to the bed sometime around when I fell asleep, but he was still sleeping this morning when I left for work. He didn't sleep much over the weekend.
I also missed the farmer's market on Saturday. Darn it. I'll just have to see what fresh vegetables HGMarket has this evening.
It's funny what Shane and I are still learning about each other after four years. This weekend I discovered that he really likes sprouts. At the salad bar for the place we went for the graduation dinner, he piled them on his salad. I had to tell him, "Why didn't you tell me you like sprouts? I would have been buying them!" I never did because I thought I was the only one who liked them, and they'd go bad too fast for me to eat them all. Well, now I know. I might look into growing them, but I will definitely buy them when I see them at the Market.
I forgot to bring milk to work with me this morning, so no tea. :(

Friday, May 13, 2011

Just an FYI

This is what will be going on here this weekend. If I've seemed a little absent lately, I have been. I'm trying to get ready for two sets of parents and one grandparent to come into town. So much excitement!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Everyone chips in

I saw the first green buds on a tree today. Despite the chilly temperatures, that means that spring is finally here and summer starts, oh, next week-ish. Hurray!
Last weekend, Shane and I decided it was about time we had salmon for dinner. Neither of us is hugely fond of salmon, but it's local, free, and good for us so we make something with salmon at least once a month. This time, however, the fillet had gone rancid. The vacuum seal broke sometime while it was in the freezer and we didn't know it until after we'd pulled it out. So instead of wasting it (what a crime!) I baked it up for the dog. And have been gagging on the smell of bad fish every night as I pull it apart searching for the bones. I'm not usually sensitive to smells like that (if something's gross, Shane will start gagging and I'll just go take care of it) but this has gotten me pretty close to throwing up all over the kitchen. Luckily, the dog loves it. As an added treat, we've been mixing in some of the otherwise "waste" material from our own dinners--bacon grease (we ended up making "brinner"--or breakfast for dinner--that night), moose drippings (not droppings), and steak fat. Pepper does her part to eat locally and sustainably.
Now if only the cat would step up and do his part. I did find a bird in the garage this morning, repeatedly tapping at the window trying to get out even after I opened up the doors. Sadly, I did have the thought that I could just close the doors and let the cat into the garage, but didn't. If Shane had been awake? Maybe.
It's been a very expensive week for us, too. I buy flour from AK Feed Co., in bulk, and needed to pick up another 50 lb sack. At only $35, it's a good deal. But on top of all the other staples that needed to be re-stocked (like oats and dried fruit) it's been a budget-killing week.
And I love that Shane will take care of things like grocery shopping so that I don't have to, but he doesn't shop the way I do. He doesn't buy organic, he shopped at Safeway, and he doesn't look at the packaging. But how can I scold him for being such a sweetie?
My lettuce plants are coming along nicely. I might even be able to make a salad from the six of them around the time I get to plant them outside. Two more weeks!
Anything else I can think of to say just sounds dumb right now. I should never read the news right before blogging. It's just depressing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ha, I'm not the only one!

At work this morning, I found this article on the front page of the UAF website. I know there are lots of other people thinking about Alaska's food issues, but it's nice to see large institutions like the University get involved. (The two largest employers in the Fairbanks area are the University and the military, followed by the Borough itself.) If food became scarce here, I can't even imagine what it would do to the villages. Most people who live in the bush are subsistence hunters/gatherers/farmers, but as the article points out, in lean years they have no choice but to rely on the local store. Milk can cost upwards of $10 per gallon.
On my flight to Anchorage I was seated next to a young woman from Kotzebue and her 14 month old son. I asked her what her family did and she stared at me blankly. I thought it would be rude to come right out and say, "What is there to do, for entertainment or work, in a town like that?" (Alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant problems in the villages.) So I fumbled over trying to explain myself and she finally, hesitantly, said that her boyfriend hunted sometimes, and went ice fishing, and she trailed off there. I got the feeling that she mostly spent her days at home with her son or hanging out with family. In some ways, an ideal life. In others, mindlessly boring.
But the fact that people live in such small, isolated communities is at the heart of what Alaskans tend to think of as our state constitution--that of being self-sufficient, hardy, and independent. You don't know how to do something? You're no more than 2 degrees of separation away from someone who does know how to do that. The barter system is, in some ways, alive and well up here because it's been a way of life for so long that help from outside would come slowly or not at all. (Remember how my dad is still amazed that it takes less than six weeks to get mail?) And always, always, there's a distrust of anything that's seen as Outside. (If you don't believe me, try knocking on someone's door and say, "Hi, I'm from the government." You'll be lucky to merely get a shotgun in the face and be asked to leave. Even if you do leave, there's a strong possibility that they'll sic their dogs on you.) This spirit and attitude, though, is why you'll see the most diverse people shopping at local stores, or at the farmer's market. Rednecks with NRA tattoos and handlebar mustaches will be brushing shoulders with dreadlocked, cabin-dwelling hippies. It's an interesting, and heartening, sight. In a lot of ways, if people got beyond their politics and their love of labels (see above, "redneck" and "hippie"), I think this country would be a lot better place because there are so many things which everyone can agree on. The need for good quality, safe, secure food is one of them.
In another quick note, I had to move my squashes. Our parents and Shane's grandfather are coming into town this weekend. Shane said, "I really don't think Grandpa wants to eat dinner sitting on the edge of our bed, watching me play video games. We need the dining table." And they do seem to be doing better now that they're less crowded. But it actually looks like way more plants when they're spread out like this! Well, all right. It is more plants because I bought some lettuce and catnip plants at the farmer's market over the weekend....
I'll try to get a good picture of the pumpkin flowers that have been popping out recently. They're gorgeous. And edible, if I had the heart to pick them. Nothing is fruiting yet, but they also haven't been exposed to pollination yet. I suppose I could do that myself, but I'm unsure of how. And since my plants are unlabeled, I'm not sure if I'd pick the right flowers, either! About three more weeks before it will be safe to put them outside.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I will be the first to admit that I have far more enthusiasm for plants than knowledge. My mother has always surrounded herself with house plants, and her mother did the same. So in every apartment I've had, I've always kept at least a couple of plants. Some have thrived, and some I've killed. Fairbanks is certainly the most difficult place I've ever tried to keep plants, even houseplants.
I'm also the unofficial "plant person" at work. We have lots and lots of plants around the library, and I'm the caretaker. So I've got a lot of plants which, through trial and error, I've been keeping alive for a while now. And I figured I should share some of what I've learned since so many people I know complain that they won't keep plants because they kill them.
1.Figure out the light source for your plants. For most houseplants, a south-facing window is best. The library is north-facing, but this seems to work out well enough for the plants in the wintertime because the windows are big, and the artificial lights are on for enough of the day that they get enough light. There are even plants in rooms on campus below ground, so it's possible to keep plants alive without any natural light.
2.It's much easier to over-water than to under-water plants. I've come up with a system of counting seconds for how long I water each plant at the library so that they don't get too much--the violets get 5-6 seconds, Elmer the tree gets 15 seconds, etc--and we only water them once a week. When plants are over-watered, the leaves get yellow before they shrivel and die. If a plant is under watered, the leaves start to wilt before they shrivel and die. Also, the plant might kill off part of a leaf rather than the whole leaf so parts will get brown while the rest looks healthy.
3.When in doubt, under-water. It's much easier to save a plant at the wilted stage than it is to save one that's got yellowed leaves. Actually, with one vine plant at home, I let it get slightly wilted before I water it because it seems to prefer that.
4.Plants need far less water in the winter. Even indoors they have natural cycles and those need to be respected. If you're even slightly observant, the plants will let you know when they need more water because of new growth. Even then, start giving them a bit more water slowly. With my counting, I generally only add one more second of time to each plant and observe it for a week. If it needs a bit more water next time, it'll let me know.
5.Rotate the plants. They all naturally start leaning toward the light (outside, time lapses show that plants will follow the direction of the sun) and houseplants are in danger of permanently tilting to one side if you leave them in any direction for too long. So rotate them once in a while. This will also help them grow stronger, since they have to change direction and that takes a bit more root stability.
6.Breathe on your plants. I took a botany class years ago and the professor said that this actually works. Like rotating plants, a little bit of wind helps them grow stronger. Also, the carbon dioxide from your breath is, obviously, what makes them grow. I don't talk to the plants, but I do blow on them when I'm watering them, and when I'm pulling off dead leaves.
7.When you water, observe the plant. Some plants love to get misted and have a bit of moisture on their leaves. Others, like violets and squash, hate water on the leaves and will actually get weird diseases and spots if the leaves get watered too much. But there's a very simple test for which plants like water on the leaves: if it balls up and rolls off the leaves, that plant doesn't like having water on its leaves. Those plants are best to water from the bottom up if possible. For the violets at work, they're all in plastic trays so I pour the water into those rather than the pots. The violets suck the water up the way they would from the ground.
8.Start small, and start with something easy. Don't get an orchid for your first plant, because they are notoriously difficult! Get something like chives, which are both an herb and a weed. In a lot of places, they'll take over your yard. And they don't mind shade, so if you don't have a very sunny place to put them, they'll do all right out of direct sunlight. Peppermint is another good one. Again, planted outside it will take over your yard and requires very little effort as a houseplant. If you prefer flowers, I've never gone wrong with violets and they're quite pretty. Mine has even endured a rather vigorous chewing by a curious kitten, and then being knocked off the table. (Thankfully, he now leaves the plants alone.) But the plant put out flowers several weeks later, to my amazement. It's a hardy little thing. Christmas cacti are another good flowering plant. Just don't make the mistake my friend did--he said, "It's a cactus, it doesn't need to be watered every month." I got to it too late, he'd already killed it. They are succulents, and they will die if they're not watered often enough. I keep mine on the same schedule for watering as all the rest of my plants.
9.Try to get a schedule for the plants. Friday is plant watering day at work, which means that it's also watering day at home. It's much easier to remember that way (and I get a nice little break at work to do something I very much enjoy).
The symbiotic relationships between plants and living beings is very cool. Not only do they provide us with fresh oxygen, they also clean the toxins out of our houses. (If you're very concerned about that, there are lists online of the best plants to clean toxins out of the air--just google "best plants to remove toxins".) They also keep down allergens. So really, I can't think of any good reasons NOT to have plants in your home when they do so much for you.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Biological warfare

Sounds scary, doesn't it? At the library today a book was returned titled "The Plague Makers" by Wendy Barnaby. I checked it in, then checked it out to myself immediately because it sounded fascinating. (Am I painting a picture of a complete nerd? I watch "NOVA" in my free time and read books about biological warfare. A little a-typical, I'd guess, for women my age.) Anyway, it wouldn't really have anything to do with this blog except for one part of the third chapter. The author went over many of the organisms that have been weaponized or identified as potential biological weapons. Some of them included plant diseases and viruses, such as the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine. Even this didn't get me really thinking until she talked about the potential for biological warfare on animal agriculture. She mainly focuses on the economic impact that this would have, but the final paragraph of the section states that, in a study, it was found that "farming is increasingly concentrating animals in specific areas, which reduces the target area for a terrorist, increases the potential for the spread of infectious agents and magnifies the impact of limited use." (Page 42 in the third edition.) Now, I haven't gone completely off the deep end here. I'm NOT trying to say that any type of biological attack on our food animals is imminent, or will ever happen, and I'm certainly not going to join those one of those crazy cult, Armageddon, or militia groups. I just found it interesting that factory farming, among its other horrible consequences, is uniquely vulnerable to things like biological warfare. In fact, they've almost created their own form of biological warfare, only it's completely self-directed. By keeping so many animals in such tight, cramped quarters they've made it so that the routine use of antibiotics is a necessary step to ensure that animals live long enough to make it to slaughter. The animals are always sick, and this is leading to wonderful conditions for breeding new kinds of diseases. Sounds yummy, doesn't it? It also means that much of our meat comes to us contaminated with seriously bad diseases like E. coli and botulism. It's estimated that fully half the meat on the market today is carrying some form of potentially deadly disease.
This impacts Alaska more, even, than the rest of the States. Because we're so far away, and agriculture is currently limited, we're uniquely dependent on outside sources of food. It's currently estimated that Alaska has only a four day supply of perishables. Four days. That's really not enough to make me feel secure. If a disease goes through an animal crop, like chickens, and it decimates whole populations of factory animals (it's happened before), we'll be the first to lose out because of the cost to ship such long distances.
I might be a little biased, since I'm against the very idea of CAFOs and big slaughterhouses. I think they're just sick and wrong, so I'm certain I buy my meat in the most environmentally friendly, sustainable, and humane way possible. But I get to give myself an extra pat on the back for supporting a style of animal agriculture that isn't as vulnerable to disease and warfare.
The fact that antibiotics are so prevalent and the over-use of them has caused so much harm was nailed home when I was a teenager. I got really, really sick and after telling my parents for a couple of weeks that I was fine, and would get better, I was finally persuaded to go to the doctor. (Because I couldn't walk up the stairs without needing a wheezing break to try to breathe.) After a blood sample, it turned out that I had both bronchitis and pneumonia. The two often go together, although usually in older people. The doctor further informed me that because of the particular strains I had, there were only two antibiotics that would treat them both. One of them would have cost me over $300 after insurance. I'm not an epidemiologist, but when there are only two options to treat a rather common illness, and one of them is clearly not administered often, that seems to be a problem. Luckily, the cheaper antibiotic worked. But I've thought ever since then about what would have happened if it hadn't worked. And what if the other hadn't worked? I've already stated that I couldn't walk up the stairs because I couldn't get enough oxygen. If it hadn't been treatable, at that point there would have been a high probability of death.
The problem of drug resistance isn't some sci-fi, potential future problem. It's something that's happening now and we need to stop the problem before it gets worse. The crazy part is that it's within everyone's means to help put an end to the over-use of antibiotics. 80% of antibiotic use in this country is for agricultural animals. Simply by eating less meat, and when you do eat meat making sure it comes from animals that haven't been treated with antibiotics. It's that simple.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

And in my neck of the woods....

I woke up to snow this morning. Just a light dusting, but *sigh*. I had to pull my hat and gloves back out for the bike ride, although they came back off before I got to work because I warmed up so much. (Uphill will do that to you.)
It's starting to feel like I'll never be able to put my plants outside.
I biked to HG Market tonight, though, and it was pleasing to see the ice floes have gotten much smaller. They're still big enough to ride on, but most of the river ice is gone.
I love looking at the farm and garden section of the Fairbanks craigslist. There are everything from milking cows to sled dogs to a beekeeper's social announced there. I can't buy the advertised animals, and I'm not a beekeeper, but it's fun to see what is happening around here and be reminded that even up here in the Far North there is a robust agricultural sector. I told Spencer about the beekeeper meetings, because he was going to try his hand at bees this summer. He'll be down in Soldotna (he works on a fishing boat out of Homer during the summers) but he promised me that he'd bring honey back up here. At the state fair years ago he tried honeycomb and ever since then he's wanted to keep bees so that he'd have his own supply of "that ambrosia". I hope it works out well for him.
I also feel like I need to clarify a little better, for my own sake, what I mean when I say I'm going to try to "buy local". Because that's so generic! I know I've stated some of the problems with local (100 miles doesn't even cover from here to Denali, let alone Anchorage!), but that doesn't lessen my commitment to it. So here it is: I will do my best to buy locally sourced food and items. If I can't find it from a local manufacturer or producer, I will buy it from a locally owned store, rather than a national or multinational company. My dollars should stay in my community. ONLY after these two options have been exhausted will I by from a big store. And even then, I will try to find what I need from a source within the country. I will reduce waste by buying in bulk whenever possible, and organic when possible. I haven't yet decided what I'll do if any of these goals are at odds, but probably I'll base it on individual situations.
I know there are a lot of like-minded people right here in Fairbanks. But there are so few resources at hand to try to figure out the best way to live sustainably here. If you Google "sustainability in Alaska", most of it has to do with sustainable hunting and fishing industry. There's not much about changes that we each can make to live a more sustainable life, so that's what I'm trying to explore. Alaska has so many challenges to simply living here that I think it sometimes escapes people that we can alter our lifestyles to better suit our place. This is a big, beautiful land and I for one would like to have it be a better place when I'm gone.

Monday, May 2, 2011


It was a very busy weekend for me. I'm in the Fairbanks Symphony, and yesterday was our last concert of the season. It was also the concert in which the young winners of the local concerto competition got to perform (they ranged in age from 8-17) so that was neat. And on top of all that, this was our conductor's 10th season with the Symphony, so it was a big deal to wrap it up. Seeing how pleased he was by how well it all went (the orchestra played well, and the soloists were amazing) was better to me than the applause from the audience.
Concert weekends also mean lots of time in rehearsal, so I didn't have too much free time this weekend. In fact, I didn't even get a chance to go grocery shopping! Well, all right. Between running wedding-related errands on Saturday morning (florist and salon), rehearsal in the afternoon, and then celebrating our friends' good news (J&L went to see a specialist in Anchorage last week and found out that Baby is totally fine, nothing to worry about!) I did get a chance to stop in at the Alaska Feed Co. to get some milk. And realize that that might be what breaks our budget. I bought two gallons of Northern Lights Dairy milk and it was $11! Since we tend to go through more like 3-4 gallons per week, well, we'll have to see after Drew goes home for the summer how much milk will really be costing us.
Because I am also a giant nerd, I spent some time this weekend knitting a baby blanket for J&L while watching 'Nova'. (I love that program.) I found this episode particularly fun to watch, since it's about the future of energy. They talk about the urgency of needing to change things now, but at the same time pointing out that there are so many options. And they present it all in an exciting way. It's 'look at this opportunity' rather than a lecture. No need to be doomy and gloomy!
My cilantro plant seems to be failing. I let it get a little too dry, and then because I have so many other plants indoors it was way at the back and I think it wasn't getting enough light. Now it's on the floor by the back door so that it gets full sun for at least six hours each day. I hope it revives!
Oh, and Shane caught the cat climbing back over the fence last night. Looks like we're going to be trying collar experiment #2. He's going to be very unhappy for a while.