Monday, October 15, 2007

Earth & Home

Today is a blog-action day for “environmental-oriented” posts, though at the moment I should probably be writing about the new composition I’m working on, the novel I want to get started if I weren’t working on a new composition or about the kittens who continually keep interrupting me from concentrating on either.

In all honesty, I’m concerned about environmental issues but often feel there’s not much I can do by myself, at the same time admitting that if everybody felt that way, nothing will be accomplished. Even to change a little bit is a huge improvement and once even that little is accomplished, it gives me a little bit of incentive to go on and try something more. Sorting recyclables has been probably the first major inconvenience to learn, rather than just throwing it all in the trash: it gets annoying when you’re trying to figure out what “number” of plastic a thing is and whether that recycling bin at work or at home accepts that or not. I can fill up my trash-can-sized recycling container with cat food cans and plastic cat litter jugs in no time!

When I buy cat food, for instance, it bothers me that the kind they prefer to eat, 9-Lives, is packaged in an un-environmentally-friendly wrapping of thick plastic sheeting which usually has a couple of “holes” in it that can prove traps just like the plastic rings you find on soda bottles. Ever since I’d seen pictures of sea-birds with their heads stuck in these (or the character Lovelace in “Happy Feet”...), I’ve taken the scissors to things like this and chopped them up into small hole-free units, but that’s still a lot of plastic to dispose of. It’s not just that that’s often the cheaper brand the stores offer, it’s only one of two main brands of canned cat food on the shelves at all, anymore, so why spend more money on food the kittens won’t eat which I’m going to be throwing away (at least the food is biodegradable)? A lot of the cheaper “house brands” were among those in the earlier recalls from Menu Foods, responsible for causing pet deaths through poisonous chemicals that had been put into the food accidentally or just to cut corners on costs. So I’m a little cautious about just picking up something because of one issue or another: it’s cheaper, it’s better for the environment, maybe it won’t kill my pet.

A long time ago, I stopped using shaving cream and other aerosol sprays, probably from the time in 1978 when I sleepily mistook the shaving cream can for my under-arm spray-on deodorant. While room “infusers” are probably adding something undesirable into the immediate atmosphere as it is, I started buying Febreze because it says on the canister it contains no CFCs which deplete the ozone layer, but what else is it doing to the environment at large? One hopes it’s not just an advertising ploy that doesn’t contain something else that could be as dangerous or worse.

Since I’ve become a “home-owner” now rather than an “apartment renter,” my sense that I ought to be doing something more is much stronger. When I was a kid back in the days LBJ was going around the White House shutting lights off in rooms that weren’t being used, the first time anybody talked about the idea of conserving electricity seemed silly – and people would tell me when I’d shut off a light after leaving a room, it was a waste of electricity shutting the lights off and on all the time, creating wear and tear on the bulbs, therefore wasting money by needing to buy more bulbs.

Now they tell us we should unplug all our appliances when not in use, especially the ones with remotes because they’re always drawing on some minuscule amount of power that quickly adds up. But who wants to crawl around to get to those discreetly hidden-by-design outlets every time you want to turn on your TV set?

For every convenience there seems to be an equal and opposite inconvenience.

For every idea there also always seems to be a negating counter-idea. One person’s scientific data is another person’s junk science. Both sides can claim the other side’s science is motivated by a political agenda. It’s enough spin to make your head do more than spin...

So I don’t drive a big gas-guzzling vehicle with a mezzanine in the back (one big enough to carry a full live orchestra in it, not just a CD-player), but I’ve owned nothing but Japanese-made cars since my Corvair fell apart in 1976, just like Ralph Nader said it would, earning me no points with people saying I was not doing my part for the U.S. economy. Of course today, I guess most American made cars are no longer made completely in the USA, but it hasn’t changed my attitude about the American car.

During the warmer weather, I do my best to buy gas after sundown, when it’s supposed to be better for the atmosphere. Unfortunately, I find I need the air-conditioner on in my car more often than I used to because (a) I bought a used car not thinking it was painted black and had black-leather interior, a veritable microwave-on-wheels, (b) the windows fog up in matter of seconds on humid nights which, I’m told, means the car is so wonderfully air-tight which is a good thing but I hate turning a corner and suddenly not being able to see through the fog on my windshield, and (c) global warming or not, I’m getting older and just can’t take the heat as much as I could a decade ago.

Suffering through five interminable summers in my most recent first-floor city apartment where I couldn’t keep the windows open even when I was home for fear of what street-creature was going to break in, I swore my next place would have central air. And so it does. Fortunately, I didn’t have to run it as much as I thought I might this summer, but I also have windows I can leave open that are not accessible to street crime. I can also hear my neighbors’ air-conditioner units running a lot more frequently than mine. I’m very happy my electric bills this summer were less than I would have expected. And considering my previous apartment (with its one valiant window unit keeping the study habitable when I needed to write) may be one third the space of the house, my present utility bills are nowhere near three times the size they’d been in the apartment! Go figure.

One of the first things I did was replace a lot of light bulbs with those “energy smart” twirly-looking compact fluorescent bulbs. Now, my previous landlord had gotten one to put in the building’s hallways and they were horrible, way too bright. But the Giant had a buy-one/get-one-free special one week so I figured I’d try it. I’ve never been a fan of fluorescent lights, normally, but putting these two bulbs into reading lamps in my house, I felt much better about the whole idea. They’re not as bright as the old-fashioned bulbs which I always felt were too bright for what I needed anyway. And these new much-touted bulbs don’t look or “feel” like old-fashioned fluorescent bulbs, either. So I went out and bought a bunch more, and now have ten different lights in my house with these energy-saving bulbs.

Of course, the down-side is they contain mercury and need to be disposed of carefully: soon, I guess, someone will be complaining about the high levels of mercury entering the landfills from people throwing away their compact fluorescent bulbs. But they last longer – five years, if the advertising is to be believed – so it might take a while before that hue-and-cry is heard.

This, however, is kind of scary: what to do if one of these bulbs break! Hmmm... I remember putting one of the first ones in a hard-to-get-at lamp and having it fall on the side of the table, shattering over the carpet and the foyer. Not even thinking about the “danger of mercury,” I just swept it up with a dust-pan and put it in the trash can! It wasn’t till later that I noticed the warning on the back about containing mercury and disposing of it “in accord with disposal laws.”

Well, with every advance in technology comes another issue that requires more care and potential risk. But if that kept us from dealing with changes, we’d still be living in caves watching TV by moonlight.

I hadn’t built up a utility history in this house yet, so I don’t know how my normal usage of electricity or heat would compare to my newly enlightened (no pun intended) usage, just to compare it to what my mother’s had been in past years; so far, light bulbs and air-conditioner usage has resulted in substantially lower bills, both in terms of use and costs. I feel good about that: at least it’s a start. Of course, now the heating season is upon us. But the house is currently registering 66 and is still comfortable. When it got that chilly in my previous apartment (where I didn’t control or pay for the heat), I felt I needed to get out the parka. Perhaps it’s the different kind of heat, who knows?

Then there’s the yard.

When I first moved in town, one of my crazier neighbors passed on a book called “The No-Dig No-Weed Garden” which sounded like a perfect fit for me, though I was convinced the author probably owned a scythe-making factory somewhere. I’m not one to do yard-work and was always happy it was the landlord’s responsibility to mow the postage-stamp of a yard, except for my last landlord who would break down and mow it maybe twice a year. I don’t see the need for neatly kept acres of grass, especially with all the time spent mowing it and all the problems trying to keep it green and pristine during summer droughts. At this stage in my life, I’m very happy having a guy come and mow the yard every 2 weeks or so. It’s mostly green because it’s mostly weeds, but still greener than some of my neighbors who planted some kind of designer grass that maybe thrives lushly only in the tropics. When I was living in this house with my parents, I joked about planting lots of trees so it would kill all the grass, concrete not being a viable option, but then there was the avalanche of leaves to contend with in the fall: it’s bad enough with just eight or so.

My garden did not prove to be much of a success this first summer: what the rabbits didn’t mow down themselves just never managed to take off on their own. I planted morning glories and moon glories in planter boxes along the back porch and under the kitchen windows, but they only started doing well late in the season: the moon glories, good flowers for a night person like me, didn’t even start blooming until a week ago. It was always enjoyable to sit on the porch at night, unwinding after work, but this year I missed their huge white blossoms – usually 6" across – which I used to enjoy from late-July till frost.

Something I’d often thought of doing was finding a spot in the yard where I could plant some milkweed. I’ve always been fascinated by Monarch butterflies, ever since I was in grade school. I’ve noticed several Monarchs flitting around in the yard this summer, so I might try that next spring. At least a few plants along the back of the house.

My father always loved watching the birds that would come to the back porch feeders, especially early in the morning when he would wake up before everybody else. It was normally just the run-of-the-mill sparrows, but the cardinals were favorites along with the occasional evening grosbeak or rufus-sided towhee. There’s only one feeder left, now, but this year it’s attracting, aside from the usual seed-swilling squirrels, a bevy of tufted titmice – is that the correct plural for titmouse? Titmouses just seems silly – and scores of chickadees which are a delight to watch. I always put part of the scoopful down on the porch floor for the chipmunks who scurry out to fill their cheek-pouches: if nothing else, it keeps the kittens occupied for a few minutes and that’s a good thing...

There are the occasional downy woodpeckers in the Japanese maple, and the wrens are more often heard than seen. Out front, a family of bluebirds flies in from somewhere to swing back and forth between the trees and the phone-lines, often swooping up onto the eave of the roof right at the kitchen window where I stand and watch them. At times, I can count six or seven of them. I wonder about putting a nesting box out in the middle of the yard somewhere for them next year.

Ah well, always more to learn and think about.

-- Dr. Dick

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