Archive for July, 2009

Naomi Wolf: A Firsthand Look Inside Guantánamo Bay

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Naomi Wolf takes readers inside the infamous Guantánamo Bay military detention camp in an article for the Times.

What we know now is that torture, and all manner of human rights violations—violations of US and international law—definitely took place at the prison (much of it described in Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray‘s harrowing Guantánamo: What the World Should Know). What Naomi Wolf (The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot gives us here so viscerally is a firsthand account of the prison itself. Although it’s obviously been scrubbed clean, sanitized for the numerous visiting journalists, we are left with a portrait of inhumane conditions, evidence of humiliation tactics, and lies and disinformation up and down the chain of command.

As the military handlers made pleasant jokes about the heat, I took in a low-tech vision of Hell. This was the site of the first scenes from Guantánamo, where men sweltered in kennel-like cages. These were the cages themselves: about 50, each about 8ftx12ft, an aisle down the centre for guards to move in, a slab of corrugated iron on top of each cell, and a pipe with a funnel at groin level, in which to urinate; open to the elements; no walls, no true shade. Concrete floors. There had been buckets for defaecation, MC1 Dwight told us; but the prisoners had thrown the faeces at the guards. There was a communal shower, now crumbling — but the prisoners had not liked to shower in groups, naked.

The scene was being reclaimed by nature: vines and brambles were swallowing the wire, twisting around the doors. At 10am the humidity was so intense that sweat was pouring down our faces. The temperature was close to 40C. I went into a cell; grinding heat, drenching humidity, pure exposure to the sun. It was as if you were being cooked in a man-sized convection oven. “Look out!” shouted Petty Officer Dwight. “Banana rats!”

I looked up and shrieked, staggering to my feet: climbing across the wire walls and on to the roof of the cell was a 40lb rodent, with a long wiry tail, the size of a bulldog. Another one scurried along the base of the wall, a baby on its back; a third made itself at home in the undergrowth of the neighbouring cell — big, grotesque creatures with no fear. I imagined what it must have been like to try to sleep in that black heat, these animals slipping in and out of the cages with their great claws and teeth.

Behind the cages was the interrogation hut — a plywood shack painted with a red cross. A one-man cage stood near by. From Human Rights Watch reports and documents in Michael Ratner’s book Guantánamo: What the World Should Know, I knew that this was the notorious isolation cell. Prisoners in a detention camp are so cowed by the sight of the isolation cell and those held in it that they become compliant, since isolation is far more damaging psychologically to many prisoners than anything else.

“This is the isolation cell?” I asked Petty Officer Dwight. “Yes,” he said. Then he advised us that the detainees themselves had requested it. “They asked that other detainees who were disruptive and disturbing them be taken here for a ‘time out’. This was a ‘time-out’ area … if someone was to act up and they needed a ‘time-out’.”

It was the first of many times I would look at PO Dwight — a decent guy whose true passion was hairstyling — and wonder if he believed what he had been trained to say. But he gave this, and other “facts”, with a kind of innocence. He took us into the interrogation rooms. About 25 chairs were stacked in a corner — unusual chairs for a military setting. The seats were padded; the structure itself was made of a bamboo material; and, oddest of all, each of the arms of the chairs curled into an elaborate spiral. I leant in more closely: on each chair’s arms was a clear mark from what appeared to have been several layers of gaffer tape. I looked at the legs of the chairs, where a prisoner’s ankles would be: the same apparent gaffer-tape marks.

Read the whole article here.


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Slow Money Continues National Grassroots Campaign: Milwaukee

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

As the name implies, “slow money” is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It isn’t about getting rich. It’s a plan to improve local food systems.

Woody Tasch, chairman of the Investors’ Circle (a non-profit network of angel and venture investors, or “nurture capitalists”), seeks out sustainable startups with solid business plans that are looking to improve the quality of the community’s food and the health of the land, and, basically, gives them seed money.

Make no mistake: “slow money” is not about getting 20% rates of returns on an investment. It’s about planning for a sustainable future.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“We’re very early in this exploration, but we think it has enormous potential,” said Woody Tasch, chairman and president of the Slow Money Alliance, Brookline, Mass.

The slow-money concept promotes socially responsible investing in support of local farmers, cooperatives and production facilities in exchange for a moderate return.

The Midwest Slow Money Institute is the fifth such conference Tasch’s organization has held in the United States. The conferences will culminate in a national gathering in September at Santa Fe, N.M.

Along with municipal bonds, Tasch said, other funding ideas include: providing seed capital for a regional slow-money fund family; creating new vehicles to make it easier for foundations to invest in local food systems; and setting up a fund to help expand the size and number of community-supported agriculture outlets, where members buy a “share” of a local farm in exchange for a basket of produce each week.

“The goal is to talk about how best to build the local food movement and support financially small farmers and food producers,” said Grant Abert, a Madison-area investor and philanthropist and chairman of the event’s host committee. “What slow money is all about is creating financial intermediaries that would invest in these small, local food and agricultural enterprises.” […]

Despite a growing awareness of problems in an agricultural system that relies on shipping food to consumers thousands of miles away, little capital is going toward local food systems, said Tasch, who is chairman of Investors’ Circle, a nonprofit network of angel and venture investors and others that says it has put $130 million into 200 early-stage companies and venture funds focused on sustainability. He also is author of “Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered.”

Read the whole article here.


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MSNBC’s Countdown with… Howard Dean!

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Former Governor of Vermont, former Chair of the DNC, and medical doctor Howard Dean will be guest-hosting MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann tonight (Tuesday) and tomorrow night (Wednesday). No word yet on whether the show will be renamed in Olbermann’s absence.

From Think Progress:

Former Gov. Howard Dean will guest host MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann this Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Dean is a CNBC contributor. He, along with ThinkProgress’ Igor Volsky and Faiz Shakir, is the co-author a new book entitled, “Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform.” This morning, Dean sparred with CNBC’s business anchor Maria Bartiromo, who tried to defend the job that private sector has done on health care. Dean stood his ground, arguing, “The insurance companies do a terrible job.”

And here’s the video of Dr. Dean giving Maria Bartiromo what-for yesterday morning on Morning Joe (h/t Think Progress):

Farmers Market Success: Artisan Sausage-crafter Makes “The Wine of Pork”

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

It’s a farmers market success story.

Rey Knight’s humanely-raised, hand-crafted salumi operation serves the local community of Ocean Beach, California, (including the “freaks, uppity women and politicos” of the OB Rag) through farmers markets, some internet sales, and direct to restaurants with only himself and a couple of employees toiling away in a fully USDA-inspected facility. Over the past six months, the operation has grown to the point where they’re producing a thousand pounds of sausages a week, and are on track to hit a ton a week in just one year’s time.

He uses a combination of fermentation and salt-curing (no nitrates/nitrites) to create his unique delicacies, like “Finacchionia (salami with fennel), Genoa (salami with red wine, garlic & white pepper) and Cacciatori (salami with garlic, Chianti and black pepper).”

If it wasn’t 3,000 miles away, I’d be tempted to take a stroll down to the OB to try some myself! Fresh chorizo? Yes, please!

From the OB Rag:

The controlled chaos that is the Ocean Beach Farmers Market makes it easy to overlook the minor economic miracles that take place there each week. In a world where big box retailers and mega corporations have corrupted the concept of customer service and reduced quality to a mere slogan, the thousands of authentic connections that happen weekly at the market are a very good thing.

For Rey Knight’s Salumi Company, the concept of selling direct via farmers markets has proven to be a winner. In just over a year, Rey’s gone from working after hours in a restaurant kitchen (Urban Solace) making a few sausages to having a fully USDA inspected facility where more than a dozen varieties are made. In the early days, it was just Rey, schlepping out to a handful of markets after staying up all night. Now he’s got a couple of employees and is selling at ten or so markets each week.

Rey makes sausages—both dried and fresh—and cures meats. It’s a craft that’s as old as civilization, one that—until recent years—was all but forgotten in the onslaught of corporate homogenization of our food supply. Different cultures around the world developed a variety of techniques that were intended prevent spoilage in meats back in the days before refrigeration was commonplace. It was common for butchers to make sausages as means of using the whole animal after slaughter. In France, the craft’s creations came to be known as charcuterie. In Italy, it’s salumi. (Salami is but one type of salumi) In Germany, it’s wurst.

Curing and preserving meats has a lot in common with other food preservationist crafts. As food critic Jeffrey Stiengarten enthused, “[Salumi] is fermented food! It is the cheese of meat, the wine of pork, the sourdough of flesh! It is alive!”

I met Rey when he was first getting started many months ago at the North Park Farmer’s Market. I tried his early creations, riffs on a salami theme, including Finacchionia (salami with fennel), Genoa (salami with red wine, garlic & white pepper) and Cacciatori (salami with garlic, Chianti and black pepper), and marveled at the quality of the craft involved alongside the bold flavors that announced themselves on my palate.

Rey Knight started out cooking in the family’s restaurant and headed off to learn the trade at the Culinary Institute of America. From there it was off to France, Boston, New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. When his wanderlust abated, he found himself in San Diego, settling in to raise a family and pursue a life of what enjoyed doing most—making salumi.

Read the whole article here.


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Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: Health Insurance Companies Don’t Care About You

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Those who think everything is hunky dory with our current system of healthcare in this country need to listen to Wendell Potter, a former Cigna executive turned whistleblower.

Paul Harris of The Observer talked with Potter about the appalling state of healthcare, the callousness of health industry executives, and their attempt to block meaningful reform, in this interview for the Guardian UK (h/t truthout):

    Wendell Potter can remember exactly when he took the first steps on his journey to becoming a whistleblower and turning against one of the most powerful industries in America.

    It was July 2007 and Potter, a senior executive at giant US healthcare firm Cigna, was visiting relatives in the poverty-ridden mountain districts of northeast Tennessee. He saw an advert in a local paper for a touring free medical clinic at a fairground just across the state border in Wise County, Virginia.

    Potter, who had worked at Cigna for 15 years, decided to check it out. What he saw appalled him. Hundreds of desperate people, most without any medical insurance, descended on the clinic from out of the hills. People queued in long lines to have the most basic medical procedures carried out free of charge. Some had driven more than 200 miles from Georgia. Many were treated in the open air. Potter took pictures of patients lying on trolleys on rain-soaked pavements.

    For Potter it was a dreadful realisation that healthcare in America had failed millions of poor, sick people and that he, and the industry he worked for, did not care about the human cost of their relentless search for profits. “It was over-powering. It was just more than I could possibly have imagined could be happening in America,” he told the Observer

    Potter resigned shortly afterwards. Last month he testified in Congress, becoming one of the few industry executives to admit that what its critics say is true: healthcare insurance firms push up costs, buy politicians and refuse to pay out when many patients actually get sick. In chilling words he told a Senate committee: “I worked as a senior executive at health insurance companies and I saw how they confuse their customers and dump the sick: all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors.”

    Potter’s claims are at the centre of the biggest political crisis of Barack Obama’s young presidency. Obama, faced with 47 million Americans without health insurance, has put reforming the system at the top of his agenda. If he succeeds, he will have pushed through one of the greatest changes to domestic policy of any president. If he fails, his presidency could be broken before it is even a year old. Last week, in a sign of how high the stakes are, he addressed the nation in a live TV news conference. It is the sort of event usually reserved for a moment of deep national crisis, such as a terrorist attack. But Obama wanted to talk about healthcare. “This is about every family, every business and every taxpayer who continues to shoulder the burden of a problem that Washington has failed to solve for decades,” he told the nation.

    Obama’s plans are now mired and the opponents of reform are winning. The Republican attack machine has cranked into gear, labelling reform as “socialist” and warning ordinary Americans that government bureaucrats, not doctors, will choose their medicines. The bill’s opponents say the huge cost can only be paid by massive tax increases on ordinary Americans and that others will have their current healthcare plans taken away. Many centrist Democratic congressmen, wary of their conservative voters, are wavering. The legislation has failed to meet Obama’s August deadline and is now delayed until after the summer recess. Many fear that this loss of momentum could kill it altogether.

    To Potter that is no surprise. He has seen all this before. In his long years with Cigna he rose to be the company’s top PR executive. He had an eagle-eye view of the industry’s tactics of scuppering political efforts to get it to reform. “This is a very wealthy industry and they use PR very effectively. They manipulate public opinion and the news media and they have built up these relationships with all these politicians through campaign contributions,” Potter said.

Read the whole article here.


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Chelsea Green: Changing the World One Book at a Time

Monday, July 27th, 2009

New Hampshire-based website Green Guide NH has a lot of nice things to say about our humble little Chelsea Green, our publishing practices, and our mission-oriented publishing philosophy. They’ve even created a slideshow of some of their favorite Chelsea Green books.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Just over the border in Vermont is a company that really lives up to its name. Chelsea Green, based in White River Junction, has been publishing books on sustainable living for 25 years, and it’s a company that practices what it preaches: It’s taken steps to reduce natural resource and energy use by printing most of its books on chlorine-free recycled paper with soy-based inks.

The company was founded in 1984 by Margo and Ian Baldwin, who had moved to Vermont from New York City. According to Taylor Haynes, the company’s marketing coordinator, the Baldwins wanted to “work together on something creative and also make a living, as good jobs were not so easy to find.” The Baldwins named the company after the Vermont town they lived in, Chelsea, which was known as “Chelsea Green” because it had two greens instead of one, Haynes says.

One of the first books Chelsea Green published was “The Man Who Planted Trees,” an ecological fable. Since then, the company has published more than 400 titles, including the New York Times bestsellers “The End of America,” by Naomi Wolf, and “Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency,” by Robert Kuttner.

The company has evolved since its early days: What was once a startup now employs 21 people and is seen as the preeminent publisher of books on sustainable living. Its book topics run the gamut, including organic gardening and local agricultural movements, natural science and ecology, green building and renewable energy and political activism and social commentary.

Read the whole article here.

Herbal Medicine: The Art of Healing with Plants

Monday, July 27th, 2009

My naturopathic doctor is based in Colorado, where I lived for many years. She studied western medicine avidly until one day she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Nothing traditional helped her, and she was on the verge of facing the end—until she decided to try naturopathic medicine. Along with herbs and acupuncture (along with other Chinese medicinal cures), she got rid of her cancer. And now, she’s like the mayor of my hometown. Because of HERBS. They saved her.

Wanna know more about the history behind this seemingly impossible story?

The following is an excerpt from The Herbalist’s Way: The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines by Nancy and Michael Phillips.


A holistic view of Creation readily encompasses science. Yet today many people equate knowledge almost exclusively to a scientific viewpoint. Integrating empirical observation and spiritual intuition into the sum of what we know widens our view of this marvelously crafted world.

There’s excitement in the air as we come to recognize both the science and the art of herbal medicine. Human wisdom builds continually, though we may not recognize all contributions at all times. A working knowledge of plant constituents and body chemistry provides depth to our understanding of how herbs work. Such information sheds light on the empirical results of centuries of medicinal plant use. Still, we must not lose sight of the fact that the cures and benefits of herbal lore came long before the “proof ” the scientifically based crowd insists is solely relevant. Science can help to clarify the nuances of specific preparations. For example, it is useful to know that the blood-thinning ability of garlic is enhanced when it is macerated in a vegetable oil. Crushing the clove releases the allicin that breaks down into ajoenes and dithiins.1 On a purely inquisitive level, science attempts to understand the physical world in which we live. Herbalists acknowledge that science is a worthy part of our wisdom base, but we do not emphasize its importance above intuitive insight.

Human disagreements often come down to differences of language and faith. Most of us have difficulty seeing beyond our own strongly held beliefs. We can agree readily, however, that our very existence affirms a magnificent Creation best held in awe. A multitude of paths lead to the center of the circle, all of which touch on some elements of universal truth. Certainly a number of these incorporate science—some would even say science stands as its own belief system— but unmarked trails lead beyond our intellectual ken as well. People with varying points of view can begin to talk about these greater mysteries when we find a language able to reach beyond rational insistence. Physicians trained in modern allopathy, human anatomy and physiology, and pharmacology have added more than 40,000 words to their vocabulary. Herbalists don’t necessarily encounter all these terms of modern medicine, but they can certainly share the basic information. The pyloric sphincter will always be the valve-like ring between the stomach and the duodenum, regardless of your belief system. Botanical Latin allows us to reference specific plant species regardless of common names that reflect regional variance. Healers, for the most part, ultimately share the gist of a working vocabulary. The rub lies in how we conceptualize the systems of the body and integrate vital life force with the medicines we each deem applicable.

How we think is much more than a question of language. “Herbs are really suited to broad patterns in the body,” says Matthew Wood, a respected teacher on the herbal circuit. “They don’t necessarily do the specific microscopic things that the scientists are looking for. Herbs often relate to general changes. This is why we can have well-documented herbs that do tremendous things, like St. John’s wort and valerian, and yet scientists still can’t figure out why they work. They aren’t used to thinking the way nature thinks.”

Our understanding of how herbs are used in healing continues to unfold. Today’s herbalists can become divided philosophically between a rational view focused on identifiable phytochemical constituents and an empirical view that embraces varying combinations of folkloric tradition, eclectic medical observation, and plant energetics. Despite our sometimes divisive groping to understand plant alchemy, Western herbalists do share a holistic perspective when it comes to helping people heal. We look at how body systems have been affected by the totality of each person—mind, diet, environment, spirit—and then seek to promote health by addressing the underlying causes of illness. Herbs are used to strengthen the body’s natural functions and to help bring about system balance.

“Folkloric herbalism reaches out and cares for humanity directly from the world of wonder,” says James Green, director of the California School of Herbal Studies. “It is not difficult to understand why folkloric herbalism is ignored, as much as possible, by our Western rational science. Western science simply does not assimilate mystery very well. Its nature must know how; and it must know why. What it can’t prove by its peculiar methods of investigation and manipulation, it tends to impulsively invalidate.”2

Such rational disdain deserves a good look if we are to find mutual respect for each other. If an herb works time and time again, why debunk it? And yet in the eyes of a scientist, a thousand testimonials for a specific herbal preparation are no more evidence than a claim made by only one person. The so-called placebo effect raises hackles as well. It seems that confidence in a therapeutic approach has little validity just because someone gets well.

“Western medicine gave up the placebo effect in trying to quantify everything with double-blind studies,” says David Winston of Herbalist & Alchemist, a manufacturer of highly respected herbal preparations. “It’s not a bad idea to find out what really works and what is the placebo effect. But in trying to do this we decided the whole concept of placebo effect is a negative thing. If somebody comes to me and they are sick, they don’t care why they get better. I don’t care. All we care about is that they get better. It is true that 33 percent of the time if you do nothing, between placebo and self-limiting disease, people improve. In fact, one study shows that people get better because of placebo effect 60 percent of the time. The human mind is incredible.”

Positive experience makes sense to us. Anyone who has had a successful chiropractic adjustment recognizes that manipulations of the spinal column do indeed effect a cure. A chiropractor adjusts bones to thereby adjust muscles and organs, leading to a reorganization of the whole body. And yet conventional medical theory regards chiropractic as so much bunk because its claims have not stood the usual tests of scientific validation. Quite simply, to a classically trained doctor with no particularly compelling treatment to recommend, that pain in your lower back is likely to go away eventually. The chiropractor who gains acceptance by taking time to talk with each patient offers an understandable prognosis, and gives hope. That you feel better after an adjustment is seen as mere coincidence. Effectiveness tied to hope seems to really get the rational blood boiling. This philosophical insistence on proving reality really is real comes with all the economic advantage of a stacked deck. Why go to a chiropractor—or an herbalist for that matter—if all that can be offered is hope?

Western culture at large has come to look upon scientists with the same veneration a traditional society might accord to its priest or shaman. Researchers’ authority or methodology is often not questioned when word comes through the media that an herb proves too good to be true one day and then suspect the next. Many variables enter into everyday life that no therapeutic research can fully assay: Individuals differ in constitutional type, emotional history, and environmental upbringing. How herbs are prepared and administered affects the patient-plant interaction. Isolated constituents in the plant rarely, if ever, have the same action as the whole plant. The energetic qualities of the herb often are not considered. Nuance proves subtle and immeasurable yet it often means everything: The soil that grows the plant, the potent moment of harvest, and the soulful intention in the heart of the harvester do matter. Ulterior motives behind any research can certainly determine desired outcomes. Contradictory results certainly happen.

“When you come right down to it, probably a majority of conventional medicines in our pharmacy today were not put to the standard of double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials,” says Robert Rufsvold, M.D., a family practitioner at the New England Center for Integrative Health in Lyme, New Hampshire. “There’s a tradition of empiricism in conventional medicine, too, and it’s not necessarily a wrong one.”

Any medical system is going to be either rational, empirical, or some combination of the two. A totally rational framework seeks an individualized differential diagnosis based upon a theoretical understanding of human physiology. A strictly empirical mind set, on the other hand, categorizes symptoms and diseases, takes note of what treatment has worked historically, and proceeds from there with a course of action. Remedies become a matter of routine based upon observed experience.

All of us can think anew. All of us can honor the teachings that have come before our time and through our own experiences as herbalists. There should be no wedge between people who want to help others feel better. Healers tend toward linear opposition when the broader perspective of an open-minded circle would keep us in better stead. Good medicine is both rational and empirical. An honest science can embrace mystery. Folklore only gets better when we try to understand why it works.

All of us enjoy knowing the facts about our favorite herbs that science can provide. The Cherokee, for instance, used yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) for sore eyes. We now know that eye drops containing 0.2 percent berberine will alleviate conjunctivitis. They used yellowroot as a blood tonic and as a cancer remedy. Berberine has anticancer activity. Native peoples used yellowroot for cramps, hemorrhoids, nerves, sore mouths, and sore throat as well. The bitter berberine and other alkaloids present in this root have spasmolytic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antibiotic, and viricidal properties. The folklore worked long before science isolated and named the chemicals in the herb. Today we know so much more by putting the two together.

Ultimately, the debate over the scientific validity of herbal medicine will come down to who reaps the profits. The domestic herb industry argues for scientific respectability. The status accorded to pharmacological studies of plant constituents comes with a share of an encapsulated market. Any legislation to regulate of the sale of plant medicines will bolster corporate herbalism. Community herbalists and bioregional apothecaries, on the other hand, will continue to uphold tradition and the utterly wonderful availability of the healing plants for each and every one of us.



  1. The ajoenes and dithiins are the strongest known blood-thinning constituents of garlic. Thus macerated oils are considered best for stroke or heart attack patients. Consult with a physician if blood-thinning drugs are already in use. Ajoene, not present in significant amounts in raw garlic or in other garlic preparations, is considered to be a potent blood thinner. See Paul Bergner, The Healing Power of Garlic (Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1996) for a fascinating in-depth look at both the tradition and science of this wonderful bulb.
  2. Michael Tierra, ed., American Herbalism: Essays on Herbs and Herbalism by Members of the American Herbalists Guild (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1992), 38.

How Much Water Does Your Car Use?

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Most cars burn fossil fuels and dump CO2 into the atmosphere. We all know that. But have you considered the amount of water your car uses? I don’t just mean washing (although that’s part of it)—I’m also talking about the “embedded” water, if you will, in the manufacturing process. As it happens, bicycles don’t just have a leg up on cars in the gasoline and carbon dioxide race; they’re also way ahead when it comes to water consumption.

The following is an excerpt from Water: Use Less—Save More by Jon Clift and Amanda Cuthbert. It has been adapted for the Web.

The car

It takes about 70 gallons of water to produce l gallon of gas.

It takes about 120,000 gallons of water to produce a small car.

It takes about 35 gallons of water to produce a bicycle.

  • Wash your car at home rather than at a car wash.
  • Wash your car using a sponge and a bucket and some soap. It works just as well and uses much less water than a hose or a pressure washer.
  • Wash your car less often.


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Suburban Root Cellars: Picket Fences Meets Cold Storage

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

When many envision suburbia, they think of a million gray houses with slanted roofs that all look alike, and everyone inside eats wonder bread and watches television and plays tennis. Suburbia has become, in the minds of some, a sterile and personality-less place. Or so the stereotype of suburbia goes.

What people don’t know, however, is that suburbia is populated with a stray homesteader here and there. Single moms in New Rochelle who loom weave. Nuclear families who bake their own bread (wonderful, not Wonder.) People who garden in their fenced in yards. People who eat directly from their gardens. People who store their potatoes in the basement, their onions in sacks, their carrots in sand. People like Joan Dye Gussow, author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader.

The following is an excerpt from This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader by Joan Dye Gussow. It has been adapted for the Web.

Before we hired an architect to help us plan what was still just a renovation, we had pretty much determined the layout of our future home. It was a row house, after all, 25 feet wide and 60 feet deep including its deck. It faced west, toward the street with a view toward sunrise on the river side. We wanted a big room, kitchen/dining/living room, facing the water upstairs, with Alan’s office and a guest bedroom behind facing the street. Alan’s studio would be a large room facing the street downstairs (he didn’t work from nature in the studio), with our bedroom and my office facing the water and the rising sun. Since so many of our choices were settled, one of our earliest questions to the first architect we hired was whether we could have a cold cellar on the same floor as the kitchen.

We had a fine cold cellar in Congers. Because our old Victorian’s basement lovingly reflected every bay and angle of the upstairs, we had available an alcove 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep that angled off from the rest of the cellar and had a small window where the stone foundation joined the timbers. Along each of the 8-foot walls was rough shelving, which we had cleaned off and painted. We walled the alcove off from the rest of the basement, insulated our wall, put in a door, and used the cool space to store produce through the winter.

Mostly we stored potatoes (in boxes on the shelves) and onions (hanging in net bags). Once we dug all our carrots before a hard freeze and stored them down there in sand. We stored our sweet potatoes there too, until we discovered that sweet potatoes shrivel up and turn black in the damp cold, after which we put them in a back bedroom. The other cold-cellar staple from December to March was a bushel box of incredibly sweet and juicy grapefruit that my mother always sent for Christmas. Those grapefruit taught me that even militantly local eating ought to allow for treats. And once my sister sent us a box of kiwi that lasted so long in the cold cellar it seemed the perfect transition fruit, so we planted two kiwi vines for the future.

We learned from this experience that a cold cellar was essential to our winter eating. And while our Congers cold cellar occupied the ideal and obvious place—the cellar—I had been finding it increasingly inconvenient to scramble down one steep railless flight of steps and run to the back of the basement every time I wanted a potato or an onion for dinner. Moreover, the kitchen/dining/living room of the new house was to be on the second floor, facing the river, and the entrance to the cellar stairs was to be somewhere in the back reaches of Alan’s first-floor studio, which faced the street. Any basement cold cellar in Piermont would be two flights down and a long hike. I wanted a cold cellar I could walk into from the kitchen.

I’m afraid the first architect gave himself away when he disdainfully raised his eyebrows and said that perhaps we could store vegetables under benches out on the porch. But they’d freeze, I said, not even mentioning that I would too when I went out to get them. He seemed unmoved by that (as by most of the other things we asked for). When we had to tell him he wouldn’t work out, he said, “Well, at least I made clear what I wanted.” And he had.

The second architect, J., seemed more responsive, and helped us design a pantry/cold cellar near the kitchen. It was to be a long, narrow space divided into two shorter rooms with the entrance from the kitchen into a small pantry area that would hold our small upright freezer. Through an insulated door beyond that would be a “cold” room, which was to be connected to the basement and the outdoors by vents and fully insulated from the rest of the house. We hoped that a fan would pull cold air up from the basement to the floor of the cold cellar through a pipe, and warm air would flow out the other vent near the ceiling.

Luckily we were on site the day the plumber began installing the heating pipes indicated on the architect’s plans, and were thus able to prevent our cold room from being toasty. We failed to notice until it was too late, however, that he had left out the floor vent through which cold air was to be sucked up from the basement into the cold room. “Not too bad,” we thought at first, when we moved in at the frigid end of January. “We’ll just open up the 1-by-2-foot vent at the top of the north wall and cold air will force its way in, exactly as it does when you’ve accidentally left the window open a crack.” No such luck. The builders had done a magnificent job of sealing the room. No air flowed in or out. The stored food probably generated enough metabolic heat to rise and push the cold air out, and the room stayed comfortably warm, even with the vent fully uncovered. Our potatoes, the mainstay of our winter diet, were sprouting much more quickly than we had planned; our self-provisioning goal was falling victim to heat.

Six months after we moved in, a former student came to visit with her husband who was, fortuitously, a refrigeration engineer. He looked over our cold-cellar problem and seemed to have a perfect solution, at least for the frigid months when we had the most produce to store. He would put a little refrigerator fan up in the vent to draw in cold air, with an attached thermostat that would turn the fan off when it had pulled in enough outside air to drop the temperature to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. He took some measurements, went back home, and in a month or so, our solution came in the mail. We installed it. Problem solved.

Solved, that is, until the morning I went in and saw that the temperature on the thermometer had fallen to 21 degrees and the fan was still running. The fan is now set on a timer that turns it on for a few hours during the middle of the night, and again just before dawn, usually the coldest of the twenty-four hours. That way, if we don’t open the door too much, the temperature stays pretty cool, but nothing freezes. It isn’t as steady a cold as we used to have in the Congers basement, but it keeps the good-storing potatoes until late April. And the onions do fine.

So the winter storage problem seemed to be solved; now all we needed was a yearly supply of onions and potatoes to store. And that turned out to be a more persistent challenge. I reported several chapters back that one of our earliest views of this now productive minifarm was of a long strip of grass—under water. Days after we signed the purchase agreement, the entire community was hit by a northeaster that produced a “hundred-year flood.” Of course, hundredyear floods are not what they used to be, given our penchant to exhale greenhouse gases every time we drive to the store. Hundred-year floods, torrential rains, tornadoes, and other expressions of Nature’s disapproval of our careless affluence are becoming more common. So, we discovered, were floods in our backyard. And floods had not been factored into our plan for self-reliance.

Preserving Your Fruit Crops, or Getting Drunk on Apricots!

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

While planning how to preserve and store your summer and fall fruit harvests, there’s one thing you should keep in mind…no bartender’s ever said, “All right pal! You’ve had one too many apricots, I’m cutting you off!” See where I’m headed with this? You can eat all the fruit your mother wanted you to AND get as drunk as your Uncle Harvey did at family gatherings! Genius, right? Everybody’s happy.

In their book, Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation, the Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivant explain how they preserve their fruit crops indefinitely using brandy. (Apple) bottoms up!

The following recipes are from Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning. They have been adapted for the web.

Dried Apricots in Brandy

3 1/2 lbs. dried apricots
1 vanilla bean
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups water
A saucepan
Canning jar and lid

Pour about one-half inch of brandy into a jar; then add the apricots, in layers, inserting several ¼-inch pieces of vanilla bean here and there. Fill the jar to one and a quarter inches below the rim. Make a syrup in a saucepan, using two cups of water and dissolving the sugar over low heat. Let this cool and pour it over the fruit. Close the jar airtight, and shake gently to mix the sugar and the brandy.

Store the apricots in a dark, dry place; wait two months before eating them (patience!). They will keep indefinitely.

— Jean-Yves Cousseau, Millau

Prunes in Brandy

2 lbs. prunes

A handful of dried
linden flowers
3 cups water
A jar
A saucepan

1 quart brandy
24 cubes of sugar
[¾ cup]
1 cup water

Make a linden tea by steeping the linden flowers in three cups of water. Filter this and soak the prunes in the tea for twelve hours. Drain the prunes and put them in a jar. Over low heat, make a syrup using the twenty-four cubes of sugar and one cup of water. Pour this over the prunes, and then cover them well with brandy. Seal the jar.

Wait fifteen days before eating. These prunes will keep indefinitely.

— Jean-Yves Cousseau, Millau

Raspberries in Brandy

Plain brandy
2½ cups sugar
A saucepan
Canning jar and lid

Fill a jar halfway with plain brandy. Add ripe but firm whole raspberries as you pick them. When the jar is full, close it and let it stand for forty days.

Add the following liqueur-like syrup: Put the sugar (about two and a half cups of sugar per one quart of brandy) in a saucepan with a bit of water. Let the sugar slowly dissolve until it becomes an opaque white. Allow this syrup to cool before pouring it over the raspberries. The raspberries remain whole. They’re delicious and can be served as a garnish for ice cream.

— Christine Moulinier, Sadirac

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