Archive

Monthly Archives: March 2014

Although it seems like most of the U.S. just had, has, or will shortly have snow on the ground, this time of year is ideal for pruning fruit trees and vines. I am no pruning expert, but the house where I live in Lyon happens to have a nice established small orchard, so I’m brushing up on my pruning knowledge and skills.

A few apple trees.

A few apple trees.

While in Italy, I had the opportunity to help a farmer prune some of his orchard trees, including some citrus plants I’d never seen before. With limited shared language, he instructed me on pruning by pointing quickly at each shoot on the tree, declaring whether it stayed or not. Very straightforward. By observing his selection process, I began to feel more confident about something that has always made me a bit nervous.

Although everything you prune has slightly different preferences and tendencies, the basic concepts are usually transferable between species. The goal (with orchard plants) is to cultivate plants that produce ample, accessible fruit. Although there is often some aesthetic consideration, as with ornamentals, the primary aims of pruning edible fruit trees are more utilitarian.

Branches that rub one another or interfere with the tree (usually) should go. Most people also want to keep their fruit-bearing trees and vines relatively close to the ground. In the photo of apple trees above, you can see how the new shoots–the thin ones sticking directly upwards–have been discouraged for years; the old growth of the trees is much shorter. Only since the trees have been more or less abandoned have all the crazy young shoots been allowed to grow.

Kiwi!!

Kiwi!!

These kiwi plants are–as far as I can tell–pretty healthy, but also pretty crazy. They’ve become so ensnarled that pruning is going to be difficult. Although you can usually prune quite a bit from a well-established tree if you do it judiciously, my worry with pruning is always that I will take away so much that the plant will basically shut down. This can happen.

And there are other considerations from what I’ve mentioned above. When you cut a tree, it will be encouraged to send out new shoots there. As I’ve posted about before, pollarding is a common practice in Europe that is sometimes used to develop specific kinds of wood, such as thin flexible shoots for use in weaving. Other forms of pruning are not so severe, but the effect on the plants is similar.

Below, I’ve sketched the four most commonly useful pruning tools I know of. What you need really depends on what kind of plant you have, but no matter what, make sure your blades are sharp! It’s frustrating and damaging to the tree to tear off limbs rather than making a clean cut, and you’re more likely to have a flukey injury if you’re struggling with your tools. Please note that hedge trimmers (A) are best for bushy hedge material and should only be used for very tiny branches in a pinch (when no shears are available).

(a) loppers, (b) shears or hand trimmer, (c) long-handed trimmer, (d) pruning saw

(a) hedge trimmers/loppers, (b) shears or hand trimmer, (c) long-handed trimmer, (d) pruning saw

Pruning, frankly, scares me a little. It’s counter-intuitive. Cut this living thing to make it grow better–right, like that’s going to work. But it does, and it’s necessary to maintaining useful orchard trees. Although it is possible to prune a tree poorly, leaving too much wild growth on trees can also cause them to become unbalanced and more likely to catch wind and snow and break branches in heavy weather conditions. In the spirit of Martin Luther, PRUNE BOLDLY!

But to help shore up your confidence on the subject (and provide more information than I can give with authority), here are a few resources:

And a great pruning book: The Pruning Book (Lee Reich) 

Advertisements

While I feel exceedingly fortunate to have the opportunity just to live in and travel within Europe, I’m particularly grateful to have the chance to visit places like Venice, Italy, as climate change effects on this city put it at risk to be uninhabitable, let alone tourist-friendly.

Venezia, Italia. March 2014. View of Grand Canal through bridge.

Venezia, Italia. March 2014. View of canal through bridge.

Around December or January, I start holding my breath for the end of winter. I’m lucky to live in places with four distinct seasons. This year has taken me by surprise with a very, very mild winter. It’s only the middle of March, so we could still get a cold snap, but I’ve been outside in shorts and a tee shirt now, and not just for running!

A photo from November 2012 - proof of remarkably mild seasons.

A photo from November 2012 – proof of remarkably mild seasons.

I admire people who can keep their sanity in dark places. As far as I can tell, I’m not one of them. For me, mood seems directly correlated with sunshine. The light is a big part of it, but it’s not just the light. The warmth is a big deal. As I write this, I’m in my basement room. Even though it’s in the upper 60’s (Fahrenheit) outside (I think), it’s chilly down here and my fingers are halfway numb, the kind of numb that makes hands painful to use. I’ve worked outdoors in 110 degree, very humid weather, the kind of weather that has a heat index rating of 130+ degrees. It wasn’t too bad.

I was born on the hottest day of the year (or at least that’s what I’m told), and I have to wonder if that gave me some sort of funny heat tolerance. I’m definitely one of those people who, if I weren’t better educated about climate change, would be saying things like, “Global warming? HELL YES.” I’ve never lived in a severely cold climate–at all–yet every winter I find myself struggling to stay energized. It’s a struggle against my hibernation instinct which only goes dormant once plants have started blooming.

DSC_0008

First green growth of 2014 I’ve seen in Francheville.

I appreciate people, but socializing usually requires more energy than it gives me. I enjoy food, but I eat to live (not the other way around). I dread sleeping, though technically it does recharge my batteries–but what really gives me energy is the sun. If “Which kind of alternative energy are YOU?” were one of the BuzzFeed quizzes that keep popping up on my Facebook feed, there’s no contest–Solar Power!

Recently, I’ve seen a bunch of cool ways designers are integrating solar power into everyday objects. Although a global solution to totally convert the world’s energy use from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources of energy would be great, taking bites out of energy demand with micro solutions like these is useful, and can also make us more aware of all the “little” ways we use (and often waste) energy. Best of all, I think it is important culturally to understand that going away from reliance on fossil fuels does not mean going back to the Dark Ages.

  • This solar-powered desk can be powered with diffused light, so it doesn’t even need to be in strong direct sunlight (unlike me)! I also appreciate that it could reduce the tangle of cords and could make desk location more flexible (i.e. maybe in the center of a room rather than up against a wall next to an outlet).
  • This colored glassware seems a little trickier than the desk (you have to have a special bookcase that acts as a battery for them to work), but they have the power to charge a cell phone or lamp.
  • And here’s a range of chargers powered by solar energy. They’re affordable and seem sturdy; I’ve looked into these in times when I wasn’t sure I’d have access to electricity (though I never ended up using one, so I can’t give a personal recommendation).
SPRIIIIIIIING

SPRIIIIIIIING

Climate change makes for an amazing story. As a concept, climate change is so vast that it is perfectly suited to be an epic tale; there is huge potential for dramatic adventure in the imagined results of climate change; and below it all, the eternal current of Man v. Nature runs central to the subplots of pollution, overpopulation, energy waste, CO2 emission.

The scale of climate change rapidly oscillates between the individual and the global level. We are cogs in a machine, but we have also built the machine, but we have also found the machine on the shore somewhere and thought it looked like it would work. Even though my own interest in climate change has remained steady, the way I look at it shifts constantly.

What role can I play?

Climate change isn’t fiction, but the way we–and I mean we in a very broad sense, as ‘we people of the planet Earth’–think about it, talk about it, and write about it shapes the ongoing narrative that is developing over time. For centuries, some people have raised alarms about Nature being Lost (or Mankind Losing Touch With Nature). We’ve created public parks, set aside land to remain undeveloped, and even created forest kindergartens.

In Western culture, we have long seen our relationship with Nature as a dichotomy (see also Second Nature by Michael Pollan). “Nature” is not Man’s domain (yet, of course, it is). There is no clear red line; nature is so rarely untouched, and man is so rarely man-made.

This blog is, practically speaking, doing nothing to combat climate change. Trust me, I’m aware of that. In fact, as I plunk away at this post, I’m thinking about the energy involved: personal energy (currently fueled by a combination of coffee and the weird pseudo-adrenaline that comes with just enough sleep deprivation and hunger), electrical energy (though the laptop isn’t plugged in right now, I’ll have to charge it soon), heating energy (not sure what form of heating we have here, but since it’s only a few degrees above 0, it’s on), and more.

In a position of little power, I’m often tempted to think that the moral way out is the life of a hermit, living off-the grid and maybe even contributing a little by planting trees (carbon sequestration!) or building topsoil (have I mentioned that I love composting?). I’m extremely impatient to do something and sometimes I think doing nothing–causing no harm, in other words–would be the easiest way to do this.

I also think it might be something of a waste. A lot of time, money, and energy has gone into my growth and education, and I’m a healthy, hardy, 21-year old kid with a college education and something of a rural education alongside. How could I calculate the number of trees to plant to pay off the energy debt of being driven to piano lessons for ten years? The arithmetic is doable; the calculation is impossible.

So, right now, in the midst of my impatience, this blog is what I’ve got. Thinking about, talking about, and writing about climate change doesn’t feel like doing something to me, but our cultural framework seriously impacts the way we make decisions as individuals, as households, as communities, as cities, and as countries. And, as an individual, I’m increasingly convinced that one of our biggest roadblocks to making climate change progress is our persistent belief in Man being v. Nature. (Or Nature v. Man, for that matter.)

This is my 100th post on this blog.

Milestones (even meaningless ones like this) are an excellent opportunity to look back–and look forward. I’m not satisfied with my writing or with my post sequencing/progression. However, it is a testing ground as much as anything else. The more I try to write about climate change–and these posts are all just attempts–the more the issue both clarifies and spins out of control for me. It feels a little bit like learning how to sail, with moments of calm perfect balance and moments of absolute chaos.

For those of you who have been reading along since the beginning, I’d love to hear feedback. If you’re just ‘tuning in,’ I hope you’ll stay with me and challenge what I have to say. Going forward, I may be experimenting with a different posting schedule, but my main themes will remain more or less the same. When it comes to climate change, what do we do?

DSC_0157 In Europe, pollarding trees is a fairly common practice. Here in France, this was one of the first differences in the landscape that really struck me. Above, this is a picture of a tree along my walk to the bus stop. Essentially, pollarding is a pruning technique used for various reasons: to keep trees a certain height (as I believe is the case here, since this tree is below a wire) and to produce various sorts of new growth (depending on how frequently the tree is pruned, new growth will grow in different ways, making the resultant wood ideal for fodder or fence posts or other uses).

Two weeks ago, I posted about a technology that would capture the energy in a footfall: SolePower. Approximately one-quarter (25%!) of world energy demand comes from transportation (including transporting fuels). Technically, walking ultimately requires fuel (it requires human momentum, possible through the contraction of muscles powered by caloric expenditure; caloric intake happens only with the expenditure of energy to prepare foods, buy foods from store, have foods shipped to store, have foods processed from farmer, have foods shipped from farmer to processing plant, have plants grown in fields typically maintained with tractors and/or trucks (consuming energy to function), have seeds shipped to farm to be grown in fields… etc.).

However, in the U.S., walking is typically considered more eccentric, or dangerous, or health-conscious than “practical.” In my experience, it is rare to find people who rely on walking as transportation–those who do are often either (a) forced to by necessity or (b) able to make a series of decisions (such as workplace location) to support a goal of walking to work.

In Europe, pedestrianism is far more normalized. I have gotten used to being able to walk anywhere, even if it might take a long time. Often, walking feels like the most convenient and practical way to get somewhere. Other times, while the area I need to walk doesn’t seem pedestrian-friendly, it is still possible to walk there with “amenities” such as a decent sidewalk and thoughtful designated crossing zones.

Part of my walk home from the bus stop (Francheville, France, 2014).

Part of my walk home from the bus stop (Francheville, France, 2014).

One of the roads I run along (because it has a sidewalk) initially surprised me (because it has a sidewalk). In the U.S., a road like this one–with a high wall on one side and agricultural area on the other–might have a shoulder, but would probably not have a curb; it’s also a narrow enough road that it might be one with an abbreviated shoulder, the kind that is only a foot or so wide (not wide enough to pull over onto). Yet here there is a fully developed and maintained sidewalk with a curb–a dramatically safer environment for pedestrian travel.

But before I go further, I will concede that significant transportation actually transports things not people. So even minimizing or sharing commutes, increasing public transportation, and choosing alternative modes of transit such as biking or walking do not address the comprehensive issue of transportation. However, for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to focus on how humans get from one place to another and the barriers to more ecological transportation methods.

In comparing America and Europe, it’s clear that neither region is doing things perfectly. In many places I have visited (both in the U.S. and Europe), public transit is confusing (or at least hard to figure out initially), late, frequently rerouted, or inconvenient. During school holidays in France–two weeks every 6-8 weeks (!)–all public transit schedules change. In Lyon, I will sometimes wait 45 minutes for a bus that would normally come every 5. In Baltimore, there is a metro line that runs near our house, but it has few useful stops (it’s good for going to the airport or baseball games and back, but that’s about it).

What I have not said so far, though, is that the car is the default mode of travel for most Americans (with some notable exceptions, as in New York City). This is a problem. Not only is it a problem in America, but car use worldwide is increasing–the number of cars on the road is only going up. As a result, we have more traffic blocks and more demand for road construction. Even if you don’t care about the environment, roads projects are expensive and traffic jams are annoying and time-consuming.

Yet the fact that a lot of us end up in traffic jams says that a lot of us are going in the same direction at the same time. I hate commuting more than almost anything else I can think of. Just thinking about it gives me a sense of rage. I don’t understand people who can commute daily and not end up becoming serial killers–seriously, how do you stay sane? (Books on tape?) Yet this is what a lot of transportation does: takes us to and from work.

Tele-commuting is starting to gain popularity, despite some resistance from some management. It may require more self-discipline to avoid distractions at home rather than in a cubicle, but you may also be more easily able to avoid distractions like interrupting co-workers or tedious, unnecessary meetings. Working from home in many professions makes a lot of sense, though, especially with increased Internet connectivity and the ability to even be “face-to-face” through technology like Skype. It can also mean opening professions to individuals who are perfectly capable of doing the work, but may not be able to maintain a typical 9-5 schedule (I’m thinking of people with certain disabilities, parents will small children at home, part-time students, etc.).

Yet some business cannot be conducted through teleworking, and some workers may prefer having the away-from-home office space. So we still need ways to get to work. In America, the immediate answer is often CAR. However, public transportation usage is increasing in a noticeable way. I’m pretty sure that if we built effective public transit, they–commuters and anyone else needing to get places–would come.

Place Bellecour, Lyon, March 2014

Place Bellecour, Lyon, March 2014

But the problem is not just public transportation infrastructure; the question of transportation also arises because we cover so much distance with so little thought. I had never thought of America as a sprawling country until I lived in a city apartment in France. I had always recognized, conceptually, that America was more spread out than most European countries, but in the back of my head I had always been thinking, “but we have cities too!”

All cities are not like each other! While European cities are typically built around human-scale, American cities often seem to cater to car-scale. In Europe, commerce and residence are more integrated. In America, we tend to have clusters of housing disconnected from clusters of shopping venues. Where I live in a Baltimore suburb, for example, it takes about 20-30 minutes (more in heavy traffic, and there is often heavy traffic on the one main road connecting these areas) to drive between my house and our usual grocery store. Here, it takes about 20-30 minutes to walk to my usual grocery store. There is also a convenient bus route that would cut this time at least in half.

The barriers to more ecological personal transportation can generally be classified as either (1) Cultural barriers (typically resistance at a personal level due to cultural ideology), (2) Infrastructure (inefficiency, failure, or lack of existence), or (3) Place design (urban design is critical, but so is suburban and even rural land distribution).

This post comes up short in offering meaningful solutions. As I continue to explore this theme, I will be referring back to this initial conceptual framework. Figuring out solutions to a problem–and transportation is a serious problem–often requires careful reckoning of the geography of the problem itself. In this case, the problem of sprawl and disconnection is a sprawling problem in its own right. This is Post 1 of an attempt to grapple with some of these issues.

There are few things I love more in life than dark chocolate and Earl Grey tea. I think a fresh, ripe, in-season, local peach would win out over both these things, but a bar of chocolate is a most reliable treat. Even better, I’ve recently found a French brand of dark chocolate infused with Earl Grey, and it’s fair trade!

DSC_0002

Although I might as well admit that chocolate is a staple of my diet, it’s not vital in a nutritional sense. Because it is a luxury, my first priority, to be perfectly honest, is that I really thoroughly enjoy the chocolate. However, as it is a luxury, I also feel more committed to making an ethical purchase. I shouldn’t have access to luxuries that cause or worsen poverty conditions for others.

Unfortunately, fair trade and organic production isn’t “normal.” In many grocery stores, fair trade and organic products are not even on the same shelves as the ‘standard’ versions of the same products. For example, the Equitable chocolate was in the organic/fair trade/(let’s just call it “hippy”) aisle; my other two favorite kinds of chocolate were two aisles away.

It’s not surprising that stores are organized this way; on the one hand, if you are only going to buy fair trade, all of the products you might want are right there grouped together. On the other hand, isolating all the more ethical choices also makes it difficult to compare prices. While you might automatically assume this would actually help organic/fair trade stuff–the reputation for these kinds of production methods is that they are always more expensive–that’s not actually the case.

These are my two other favorites, and the Equitable chocolate bar was almost exactly in the middle of the price-range, not at the top. The Café bar on the left is about 50 cents more; the Côte d’Or bar is about 40 cents less. A related sidenote–while I love the taste of the Côte d’Or brand, they’re getting kicked out of the local Carrefour, probably because they weren’t willing to go any cheaper with their prices.

 

otherchocolate

All three bars are roughly the same dimensions, although both the Côte d’Or and Nestle bars are thicker. They’re not directly comparable in terms of taste because they are very different flavors. The café bar does have a strong coffee taste; the truffé noir one is a very, very sweet, creamy, soft-centered bar. By contrast, the Ethiquable-brand Chocolat Noir (+ Thé Earl Grey) is thinner, crispy, and very light and almost spicy tasting (that’s the bergamot talking).

I’m likely to continue buying all three types, because I like them for different reasons and different appetites. As I said, my first priority is taste. The Equitable chocolate certainly measures up, but it’s a different taste–and sometimes what I’m really looking for is the thick, creamy coffee of the Nestle bar! However, I’m excited to have an option that seems like a better ethical choice without being economically unfeasible.

The real advantage of fair trade products is that they’re not just paying workers a higher wage, they’re often involved in specific projects meant to organize and multiply the impact of whatever additional financial resources they can provide. Ethiquable cacao producers and their families benefit from social projects, such as water sanitization, scholarships, and medical centers brought to isolated areas; and microcredit loans, especially those to assist women’s entrepreneurship.

Fair trade isn’t perfect. However, market forces too often force producers into selling their products at a price that is too low to keep them above poverty. One of the issues with agriculture is that you often have a product that is ready to be sold at a certain time; you also have good years and bad years. In the U.S., we have many programs devoted to flattening out some of these issues so that (the hope is) farmers can have slightly more security from year to year (there are a lot of issues with some of these programs, to be sure, but that was the intention).

When we import products that won’t grow in our climates, we’re already taking advantage of another culture’s natural resources. The least we can do is pay fairly for the effort and knowledge that has gone into producing such delicacies! It’s a shame that we have trade that isn’t fair at all, but the fair trade label at least seems like a step in the right direction–and one that often will not break, or even jostle, the bank.