Saturday in the Soil

The soil is finally warm enough to be worked. It’s also not muddy, unlike in past years. So a mild Saturday provided a great opportunity to start preparing the garden, all one hundred square feet of it, for planting.

We sowed winter rye in the fall. Winter rye is one of several plants that local garden experts recommend as cover crops. Cover crops grow quickly, protect the soil from erosion, and pull carbon from the atmosphere. Because they grow later into the fall they provide these benefits when all the other annual plants have died from the cold. In the spring it’s a simple matter of turning the soil, plants and all, to keep the carbon and other organic matter safely in the ground and available for new crops.

Winter rye grass
Winter rye grass in late winter.

We compost all year long. Several times a week we take a repurposed cookie jar filled with egg shells; vegetable and fruit cores, stems, peels, and rinds; coffee grounds; and tea bags out to a large beehive-shaped composting bin. Once or twice a month, maybe more frequently in some months, this hash of rotting vegetable matter gets mixed up to help even out and accelerate the process. Several buckets of compost came out of the bottom of the bin this year. After sifting, the yield was about a cubic foot of humus, which was supplemented with some commercially produced compost and manure and dug into the garden.

Composting has the added benefit of reducing the municipal waste stream. A conservative estimate puts the amount of vegetable matter that goes into our compost bin at over two hundred pounds per year. It includes approximately 300 egg shells, 200 banana peels, 500 tea bags, and enough grounds for 300 cups of coffee. If ten percent of the households in our city kept 200 pounds of vegetable matter out of the garbage every year, that would reduce the amount hauled to landfills by several truckloads every year. My approach to food and food waste is not entirely consistent with sustainable consumption practice, however. Bananas, for example, are never in season in New Jersey. Neither are oranges, coffee, or tea, but that doesn‘t stop me from consuming them. I have some work to do.

There’s a lot of good, interesting (yes, really!) reading available about soil health and its relationship to food security and the environment. Below are some suggestions for your reading pleasure. If you have read something else and would like to recommend it, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile the garden, with its seedlings and seeds, compost and mulch, is an exercise in hope. In a few weeks, God willing, we will have salad greens and more. In a few years, God willing, a larger “we” will see the results of our efforts to keep additional carbon out of the atmosphere. The effort we put into our hundred-square-foot garden will bear infinitesimal results toward that end, but we hope that others will make a similar effort toward sustainable food production and consumption and add their infinitesimal results to a larger total.

Meanwhile, I wish you God’s blessing, abundance, and peace this spring and for the balance of the Lenten and Easter seasons.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

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Cleaning Up Halloween

Is there a Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge character associated with Halloween? If there is, I am about to channel that character.

Halloween is a low-risk holiday that can be fun for so many people and for so many reasons. Creativity in costume design is the rule of the day. Kids get to dress up, pretend to be someone or something else, and ask perfect strangers for treats. Adults sometimes get in on the act, too. There are parties, games, parades, contests, and less of the sense associated with other holidays that everything has to be perfect.

Cleaning up after Halloween can be stress free, unless you spend lots of money and hours decorating your house. Yes, there may be some leftover candy if your neighborhood doesn’t see many trick-or-treaters—ours doesn’t—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We bought three bags of candy and we gave out about twelve pieces, so we have lots of leftovers. But we may need to give more thought to cleaning up Halloween.

pumpkin_november_2018

The morning after Halloween I had an errand to run on foot and what I saw in my travels got me thinking about the holiday in a different way. It started when I saw some neighbors putting their pumpkins into a plastic garbage bag. The pumpkins probably weighed several pounds each. Multiply that by the number of households in our neighborhood that had pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns on their front steps, and that’s a lot of organic matter that will end up in a landfill and that will have little chance of nourishing the soil. That’s not to mention the fuel that will be spent collecting them and hauling them to the landfill. In another neighborhood there might be enough squirrels and other pumpkin-eating creatures to provide a more environmentally friendly solution. If I had been less preoccupied I might also have taken the pumpkins to my compost pile. Shame on me for not thinking of that.

candy_wrapper_November_2018

Along my brief walk I also spotted plastic candy wrappers. Our neighborhood is pretty clean and litter free, so an occasional piece of trash doesn’t send me into a rage. But plastic is the demon substance of 2018, with good reason. Single-use plastic items, such as candy wrappers, the bags in which the candy is sold, and the bigger bags in which the bags of candy are hauled home from the store, account for so much waste that the state of New Jersey is looking to ban some of them. I picked up a few candy wrappers, but they will end up in the landfill with the pumpkins. Others will end up in municipal compost piles with the leaves and lawn clippings. Some may get washed into the storm drains and end up in the Passaic River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean, where they may become hazards for sea creatures. The wrappers and bags can probably be recycled but the value of the resources required to clean them and gather them for recycling is probably several times greater than the value of the recycled plastic itself. That’s when there are markets for recyclable plastic, and some of those markets don’t exist or have shrunk dramatically.

lawn_decorations_November_2018

Finally there are decorations. Unless your house and several of your neighbors’ houses are decorated and lit up for Halloween, trick-or-treaters tend to skip your block. Durable decorations like these inflatable characters can be used year after year. (They do require electricity to stay inflated.) Much of what is sold for Halloween decoration consists of cheaply made plastic items that are designed to be used once or a few times then discarded. Think of the spider webs, skeletons, and gravestones that you see in the yards in your neighborhood. How many of them will end up in a landfill in a few days?

Where is this discussion headed? Not toward a proposal for a ban on Halloween. If Halloween celebrations were to cease, there would be a significant economic impact involving candy manufacturers and retailers, manufacturers and retailers of costumes and decorations, and the transport and logistics companies that get all of it from the manufacturers to the retailers and on to the consumers. The benefit for the environment might be negligible; little would arise from such a ban to improve the chances of avoiding a major climate catastrophe. The same might be said for a ban on plastic drinking straws, plastic grocery bags, and polystyrene foam take-out food containers when examined as a single isolated measure.

Still, if individuals are to have any positive impact on the environment and the climate, we need to pay closer attention to the complete life cycle of each product that we purchase and consume. What resources are used to make the product? What resources are used to get the product to us? What happens to the product when we’re done with it? What waste is generated along the way, and where does that waste go?

You may do some of your most creative thinking around Halloween. What ways can you think of to clean up the holiday, make less use of stuff that we send to the landfill a few days afterward, and still keep the fun in?

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Richfield Farms

Richfield Farms is nursery and garden center in Clifton, New Jersey. They raise  vegetables on approximately two acres and sell them on site. Their total property comprises just under five acres. They are faced with a large property tax bill, which they struggle to pay, because their property is not large enough to qualify as a farm and therefore a reduced tax rate. This week an article appeared in the Herald News and the Clifton Journal describing an effort that the City of Clifton is making to resolve the dilemma.

The rest of this post is the the text of a letter to the editor that I had drafted in response to the article. The Herald News asks that letters to the editor be kept to 250 words or fewer, and this draft is much longer, but it includes observations that I still wish to make.

Late season lettuce.

It is heartening to see that the City of Clifton is willing to help Richfield Farms stay solvent without having to sell property to a developer. Matt Fagan’s fine piece from Thursday, June 21, mentions several options under consideration. Might a land conservancy or other nonprofit also be interested in purchasing part of the property and leasing it back for a nominal fee so that it could continue as farmland? If the city or another nongovernmental organization takes ownership, the property is removed from tax rolls and taxes may increase for other Clifton property owners. For this Clifton property owner, it’s worth the investment.

Deborah Morton and her family might be inclined to scale back or eliminate the farming operations at Richfield Farms. It should be their prerogative to do so. Farming, even on a small scale, is hard work. Farming and running a retail nursery and garden center has to be an exhausting way to earn a living, but if the descendants of Leenhardt Van Breeman wish to continue raising vegetables on some of their acreage, that would be a very good thing.

First, although nostalgia and romance are important, there is more at stake than the nostalgia and romance associated with a century-old business such as Richfield Farms. When family-owned and operated businesses thrive, the community around them thrives. Big-box retailers that provide the same goods and services provide jobs and tax revenue, but the profits don’t stay in the community. If a big-box store thrives, the local community doesn’t necessarily thrive with it.

Second, small local farms can be part of a food supply that is more resilient in the face of climate change. Third, and related to the second, Richfield Farms, along with other local farms, is in a position to model sustainable and even regenerative growing techniques for local gardeners. By such practices as composting on site and planting cover crops in the fall they are helping to nourish the soil. Through social media and other advertising they are encouraging local gardeners to do likewise. Recent coverage of soil science in the The New York Times, in The Atlantic, and on NPR point out that such practices can remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. Such practices also foster biodiversity, which is important for a healthy planet.

Best wishes to Clifton’s city officials and to the Morton family for success in this enterprise. Clifton will be a better community if Richfield Farms can begin its second century with solid support from city officials and the community at large.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Darkness Isn’t All Bad . . .

Except When It Is

The first time I saw the Milky Way, some time in the late 1960s, I was on a ballfield at a Boy Scout camp in Morris County, NJ. It was awe inspiring, even to a largely clueless junior high kid. It’s no longer possible to see the Milky Way in many, if any parts of New Jersey. Maybe deep in the Pine Barrens or in the northwestern hills, but probably not within fifty miles of New York City.

Center_of_the_Milky_Way_Galaxy_from_the_mountains_of_West_Virginia_-_4th_of_July_2010
Center of the Milky Way Galaxy from the mountains of West Virginia. Photo by Forest Wander from Cross Lanes, USA (Center Milky Way Galaxy Mountains) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
The ability to view such sights is so important that some people are working to create dark sky reserves in such places as central Idaho. The absence of light is essential for those who want to observe celestial phenomena. Light pollution from cities and suburbs interferes with astronomical work that makes use of optical telescopes.

Darkness is beneficial to astronomers and to those of us who relish the sight of the stars and planets on a clear night and who hope to see a meteorite now and then. Darkness, though, has a [clears throat] dark side.

We are now in the liturgical season of Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. Advent occurs as the daylight hours are shortest in the Northern Hemisphere. This alignment of the seasons seems particularly appropriate now. Darkness fills more of the twenty-four hour day. Darkness also seems to want to fill our lives as the social, cultural, and political atmospheres in the United States are dominated by dense clouds of hatred, bigotry, and contempt for those with opposing views.

Darkness characterized the first Advent. The years between Ezra and Nehemiah, the last narratives of the Old Testament, and the Nativity stories of Luke and Matthew were dark years for Israel. Under the Persians, who were in power when Nehemiah rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem, Israel was essentially a vassal state. The Persian overlords were replaced by the Seleucids, including Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and ultimately the Romans.

Through this time Israel carried with them the promise spoken through Isaiah in 49:6 that God would send one who would be “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (ESV) Thinking of Israel during this period calls to mind the candle that remains lit after a Good Friday Tenebrae service. Did Israel remember that promise? When we see Anna and Simeon greeting Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus at the temple we know that some remembered (Luke 2:22–38).

The One who was to be the light for the nations did come. He told us that we were to let our lives shine before others that they would glorify God (Matthew 5:14–16). Yet He who is the light of the world was hidden momentarily in the darkness of the grave. In glory He arose and ascended to heaven, sending the Holy Spirit as a flame, bringing light and passion to our work (Acts 2:1–4). We also have His Word, a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105).

A further remark by Saint Paul seems particularly timely as well: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible.” (Ephesians 5:11–13 ESV) So too this remark by Justice Louis Brandeis: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

As we approach Advent and the short days of winter, and as we await the Second Advent, we can remember that we have sources of light that can help us see through any darkness. Let us live in that light, speaking what we know to be true, kind, and edifying, and shining light on the darkness that is all around us.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Buy Local, Give Local

Thanksgiving is followed quickly by two important days: Small Business Saturday (Saturday 25 November 2017) and Giving Tuesday (Tuesday 28 November 2017). Intelligent readers will have no trouble deciding what to do on either day. For Giving Tuesday in particular I thought it might be good to highlight some of the small nonprofit organizations that I’ve had contact with this year.

market&allwood_web

I haven’t donated cash to or volunteered with all of these organizations. In fact I’ve volunteered with only two; three if you count playing in the Bloomfield Civic Band as volunteering. The point of this list is to encourage you to think about the charitable organizations in your own local area and think about ways that you can support them on Giving Tuesday and throughout the year.

What I would also like most of all is for you to comment with suggestions for local charities in your area that deserve support. Updates will be posted to my FB page and Twitter feed as they come in. If you and I are friends on FB or Twitter your friends will see the posts and may also be prompted to take action. I do not plan to filter any suggestions out unless they happen to be for some organization that most readers would find abhorrent. Please supply a URL along with the name of the organization.

I look forward to hearing from. Now, here’s my starter list:

Urban Farming, Sustainable Agriculture

Environment

Autism Awareness and Advocacy

Services for the Homeless and Other Neighbors in Need

Welfare of At-Risk Moms and Children

Music Education and Performing Arts

Miscellaneous

  • Friends of the (your town name here) Public Library

From Andy Walsh  (Mostly Pittsburgh Area)

  • Light of Life Rescue Mission serves the needs of the homeless and others in the Pittsburgh North Side community where I work; in fact, their newest facility will be going up where I used to park.
    https://www.lightoflife.org/
  • The Watson Institute provides services for many individuals and families with special needs, including those with autism spectrum diagnoses. The organization has a rich history, having previously served polio patients and working with Jonas Salk in developing the vaccine.
    https://www.thewatsoninstitute.org/

Final Thoughts

It should be clear to any observer, regardless of their political leanings or affiliations, that the current philosophy and actions of the U.S. federal government will make the need for private charitable enterprise much greater for the foreseeable future. Whether the enterprise is care for the environment, care for people who have fallen on hard times, or any of the dozens of other social concerns we could name, private individuals and small organizations will have a greater role to fill to meet the challenges of the coming years. Some may think that is as it should be. No matter; the needs will be there and they will be substantial. This Giving Tuesday I hope we can all stretch our imaginations and our budgets a little to stand in the gap.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Painted Ladies, Hurricanes, Earthquakes

A painted lady (Vanessa cardui) stopped and visited our coneflower (echinacea purpurea) today.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings closed

This butterfly visited as fall was arriving in the northern hemisphere. Like its more well-known cousin the monarch, the painted lady doesn’t stick around for winter. It gets out of winter’s way and heads toward a warmer locale. Some butterflies, such as the mourning cloak, can winter over in the temperate zone. That’s why mourning cloaks are among the first butterflies to be sighted in the spring.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings partly open

Sometimes we can see changes or events coming and we can prepare for them or get out of their way. In the past few weeks millions of people saw storms coming and got out of way or prepared to weather the storms. In spite of their preparations, many people suffered great personal harm from the storms. In Mexico many thousands of people had no way of knowing that earthquakes were coming and also suffered great personal harm.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings open

If you are like me, you do not have the skills to help the survivors rebuild their lives. But we can give, and we can pray. Please do both as you think about creatures who are preparing now for the coming of winter.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Is it Time to Put Hurricanes on a Diet?

We have been following hurricane news for several weeks now. Before it gets pushed out of the headlines by other events and out of our consciousness by cute animal videos or political diatribe, I thought it appropriate to do a little assessment and write out some thoughts.

Have you donated to an organization that is providing relief or recovery services in the stricken areas? If you have, good for you! If you have volunteered or will volunteer for one of those organizations, even better!. Please share your experience in the comments on this blog or on social media.

Next, have you considered the impact that climate change has had on the recent storms? That’s a little trickier to assess. Climate scientists can’t make a precise connection between a warmer climate and the characteristics or behavior of a specific storm. But they do tell us how a warmer climate can affect such storms. A warmer atmosphere, which we have, holds more moisture; storms such as Harvey can carry and deliver more rain. Warmer oceans, which we have, transfer more energy to the storm, which translates into stronger winds. We saw this in Irma.

Hurricane José graphic
Hurricane José running laps in the open ocean, 12 September 2017.

Like so much of the American population, hurricanes seem to be getting bigger. They could stand to lose a few pounds, so to speak. One solution might be to make hurricanes exercise more. As of this writing Hurricane José is running laps in the Bermuda Triangle. Let’s hope he exhausts himself before taking aim at any land mass. Inasmuch as past attempts to control the behavior of storms have failed, it seems unlikely that we will be able to do so in the near future, however.

Some changes in our diets might have a positive effect on climate change. Eating more vegetables, especially beans, instead of feeding vegetables to animals and eating the animals is one such change. If you can’t contemplate giving up meat, or even beef, altogether, may I suggest meatless Mondays or something similar? Oh, and please keep the beans-to-methane comments to yourself. Thanks.

There are limits to using vegetables as a protein source, but fish, eggs, and dairy products can help overcome those limitations while having less climate impact than red meat.

Not sold on beans as a protein source? What about crickets? Eating insects will take more of an adjustment than switching to beans, but when I shared the article on beans on social media some weeks ago, one of my connections enthused about eating barbecued mealworms.

Are you surprised that a small change that individuals can make could have an impact on the environment? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)

Next issue: food waste and climate change.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

DeKorte Park

Labor Day 2017 was an ideal day to spend out of doors in New Jersey. We chose to spend part of the morning at Richard W. DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. The park features several trails that wind their ways through and around tidal enclosures fed and drained by Kingsland Creek and the Hackensack River. It’s a great place to see migrating birds and year-round resident wildlife. (For great information on events at DeKorte Park and other New Jersey Meadowlands sites, visit The Meadowlands Nature Blog.)

When we arrived the tide was in, so few wading birds aside from great egrets were visible. Soon after we arrived we met two photographers whose camera lenses were longer than my forearm. One of them graciously directed our view to a nearby opening in the phragmites at the water line and said that there were several least bitterns hiding there. I caught a quick glimpse of the head of one and another flew past moments later.

great egret
A great egret at De Korte Park.

We were then treated to a display by a Forster’s tern. He hovered briefly a few yards above the water, then dove in, presumably in hopes of catching a fish. I wasn’t able to photograph the acrobatics, but I did manage to photograph him while he was resting on a metal railing. Please excuse the quality of the photographs. At maximum optical zoom my camera lens is the 35-mm equivalent of about 70 mm in focal length.

Forster’s tern
A Forster’s tern. Notice the comma-shaped eye- and ear-band.

We heard but did not see several other small birds hiding in the phragmites. Two pairs of medium- to large-size wading birds (dowitchers?) flew by while we were watching the tern. We also got to see several swans, an American black duck, several goldfinches, a ruby-throated hummingbird that was being harassed by a small brown bird that we could not identify, and a couple of turtles.

The walkways and other fixtures in DeKorte Park were heavily damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. They have since been repaired or replaced and, in some cases, enhanced. Sadly, invasive phragmites have replaced much of the native flora and this undoubtedly affects the well-being of the wildlife that makes its home in the park or passes through on its migratory journey. The park staff work to keep key viewing areas clear so that folks like us can spot birds and other creatures.

The Environmental Center also has an observatory that is open to the public on Wednesday evenings from 8:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., weather permitting. We went one Wednesday evening in 2016 and saw Saturn, rings clearly visible, through the telescope.

DeKorte Park is adjacent to the offices of the Meadowlands Environmental Center and the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. It’s located at the southeastern end of Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst, NJ. Valley Brook Avenue turns to the right and becomes Disposal Road just before the park entrance.

The name “Disposal Road” is fitting because the offices and park are located at the southeastern edge of a large landfill that is now closed. In our less enlightened past we viewed the Meadowlands region as someplace to dump our garbage. Thankfully our governments and businesses now recognize that wetlands such as the New Jersey Meadowlands need to be preserved and protected. It’s worth a visit to understand why. Also, check out this interesting article on how wetlands mitigate damage from severe storms such as Superstorm Sandy.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

Winter Silence

Just before sunrise, at approximately 7:15 a.m. on New Year’s Day, our neighborhood in the Allwood section of Clifton was very quiet. No surprise, really, given the day and time. The sounds that could be heard were mostly bird calls, including jays, crows, English sparrows, and a nuthatch. A grey silhouette, shaped like a mockingbird, sat in a nearby bush but made no sound.

sunrise_clairmont_rd_sept_2015
Sunrise over Allwood, May 2015

The birds that remain in the area during the cold months are active and vocal. They call to alert one another to the presence of predators or to the location of food sources. In a few weeks they will begin calling to attract mates and any quiet early mornings will be filled with those hopeful sounds. By coincidence our pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Paul Leggett, preached on New Year’s Day about the sometimes unrecognized presence of Christ in our midst. In discussing John 1:26b Paul said that anything that brings us joy, such as hearing bird calls, is a token of the presence of Christ.

By another coincidence Krista Tippett’s On Being broadcast on New Year’s Day 2017 featured her interview with Gordon Hempton, originally aired in May 2012. Hempton refers to quiet not as the absence of sound but as the absence of noise. Big difference. He also says that humans have evolved to be most sensitive to sounds in the frequency range of bird song. This suggests to him that one of the key indicators of a habitat or ecosystem that will support human life is the presence of bird song.

Silence can allow us to hear important things that we ought to hear or that will enlighten or gladden us. Silence can also make us uncomfortable or unsure of what’s coming next. I once attended a meeting with other members of an organization. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies for publicizing the organization and its events. I said little and mostly listened. When I was next in the presence of another member who was also at this meeting she said she was tempted to hold a mirror under my nose to see if I was still breathing. 🙂

As Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us, there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. Many of us think now is the time to speak, if social media activity is any measure of those inclinations. Yet few of us are truly the prophets whose voices need to be heard. (Yes, I do grasp the irony and hypocrisy of that statement.) Bill McKibben is a prophet. Wendell Berry is a prophet. Tim Keller is a prophet. [insert name of your choice here] is a prophet. I am not. I need mostly to listen, evaluate and think critically, and, because being silent does not mean being passive, act in ways that will benefit humanity, the planet, and the church.

For my part I hope 2017 will be more a time for keeping silent and for being  thoughtful, intentional, and charitable when speaking is necessary. I wish for you a year filled with beneficial silences, profitable interactions with those around you, and actions that bear good fruit. May contentment and health also be yours in abundance. Thank you as always for stopping by.

Caterpillars, Compost, and Natural Cycles

Recently our parsley patch hosted some black swallowtail caterpillars. At least two were observed over several days. A family member suggested that we remove them and display them in Jody’s first grade classroom. The expectation was that they would soon enter the chrysalis stage, and would subsequently emerge as adult butterflies.

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