I got a llama for my birthday!

Some of you may know I have kind of a “thing” about llamas. I used to live in a house with about an acre of grassy land around it, in an area where there were quite a few llama ranches. I really think llamas are cool, and I wanted to have one in the yard. There was enough grass for it to eat, and they keep it trimmed nicely. They take care of their own messes in an isolated spot, they’re friendly (while not tolerating stray dogs), and they are even well-behaved enough to ride in a car (OK, it has to be a van, but still). Oh yeah, they hum when they want to tell you something :) And seriously, just look at that face. What’s not to like?

Well, this was not to be. Llamas are expensive around here, and even to me, I had to think it was harder to keep one than it sounded. It didn’t help my obsession any when I went to Peru and got to see flocks of llamas and alpacas roaming the Andes. So anyway, it’s my birthday, and I went out to lunch with my Mom, and she hands me a little wrapped packet that feels like paper, folded over. I’m figuring this is one of her famous travel journals, since she just got back from a trip to South America. But no, it’s a llama! Well, a llama for a family in Peru. Which really, is even better. I was excited :)

It turns out there’s an organization called Heifer that gives various forms of farm animals (as well as fish, bees, vegetables, etc.) to promote sustainable agriculture and food security in parts of the world that desperately need it. Aside from all the virtues of llamas as a pet, they have far more virtues to a family in the remote mountains of Peru and Ecuador. The give milk and wool, they carry goods to market, provide transportation for children, and need little to no feed. They are very easy on the landscape, which is important in areas that could easily become eroded or trampled by other forms of livestock.

This organization also does a lot to promote the health of both the families and the animals, training, peace among communities (including reconciliation among former enemies), and long-term sustainability. My sister-in-law got a goat for her birthday, which she’s almost as fanatical about as I am about llamas. So if you have a friend or family member who loves cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, llamas, rabbits, ducks, geese, bees, or, hmm… I’ve probably forgotten a few, check it out!


Giving up books

Owning them, not reading them (got your attention, didn’t I)! Over the last 5 years, I seem to be adopting the minimalist philosophy of my grandmother and giving away more and more things. I feel happiest when my home spaces are spare and beautiful, and uncluttered with stuff. I like to have what I need or most treasure and no more than that. Anything I own should have a use, or personal meaning. Nearly everything I have given away has been shed without parting remorse, but of all of those things, books have been the hardest.

I once had rooms and rooms full of books – wall-to-wall bookshelves filling a three-story house. Organized by genre, period, country… I loved my books. I read and reread them if I had time, and lent them to others. Bookstores were like hardware stores for guys – especially since I had almost always read most anything that wasn’t new, it was easy to drop $100-200 in a visit – and finish those up in a couple of weeks. And into the bookshelves they went, filling up every last empty space. I really liked being able to pick out just the right book for a friend or family member that they might never have heard of but would really enjoy reading, and with my system of organization, knew just where to find it. I couldn’t imagine not having these old friends (the books) in my life and having access to them whenever I wanted.

Everytime I moved, a process of winnowing occurred to clear out all the not-so-great books and make some space (including the first time my husband and I merged our book collections). But the big changes happened when I moved out on my own and started living in smaller and smaller places – by choice, which was part of that instinct to use no more than I need. The first house was still a bit too big, but had the advantage of allowing me to retain about half my books. The big break came when I sold that house to move to Olympia – I did not know how big my new house would be, but I knew it would be smaller. And my philosophy about stuff had undergone a radical change – the real test would be whether I could give up my books.

As synchronicity would have it, a girlfriend was building a business on eBay selling books, and I determined to give her ALL of my books, holding back only what I needed for work, travel, or birding and a very few books that it seemed likely I would read within a year and/or give to someone else. I did that, but it hasn’t been easy. I miss the books I once had at my fingertips, the enjoyment of lending, and once in a while give into the guilty pleasure of a bookstore. They’re out of my garage now, and off to new owners – and I am saving the cost of buying books and the paper and production energy that goes into making them. Especially since we usually read them once and stick them on a bookshelf – I had already determined that any book I do buy will be “liberated” and given to a new owner or left in a public space for someone else to find and read.

kindle All in all though, it’s been an uneasy thing, not wholly comfortable. Add to that the lack of good newspapers in my new city – I do get a lot of info from NPR and the internet, but often I miss reading a daily newspaper – though not the volumes of useless paper it generates, which is one reason I stopped taking it. Enter the Kindle 2.0 – I’ve been a tad skeptical about this as it is pretty new technology, but by all accounts, the 2.0 is a vastly improved version, and just may represent the future of reading, especially for the generation that’s used to doing its reading on a computer screen already.

Especially with all the traveling I do, I can just load the books I want to have with me onto my Kindle, and not have to figure out how much I want to lug around in my bags. I can have thousands of books in there, and can download them freely and easily from anywhere, with no more difficulty than making cell phone call. They cost less than real books, and can still be shared. And it will beam me my daily newspaper (or any number of weekly or monthly magazines) before I get up in the morning, saving any amount of paper. If only my actual computer screens were as readable as a Kindle’s is, I’d actually be able to use my laptop on a tropical beach, like all the ads show ;D

So, I am really, truly making the break. I had already started getting most of my news online, now I’ll just get it more efficiently and less wastefully. And I can spend a month in a foreign country and truly have all the books I need to read, packed into about 10 oz (and only 1/3 inch thick). This is a huge breakthrough for me in not buying, owning, and keeping stuff – though I do love books still, and will probably always have a few feel-good volumes around. And in honor of that, I have treated myself to a few extra accessories, including a Monet waterlilies protective skin and a grey/black suede book cover (which can also stand the Kindle up while you’re reading it). I’m guessing if this can lure even me away from books, it is not just another gadget, but one of those things that may revolutionize how we do things.

Eat this fish

The other day, a friend asked me why I said he should not buy farmed salmon… not to mention shellfish from Asia, etc. I had some answers for him, but it’s a complicated subject. If you’re interested in eating sustainably, seafood is becoming a more and more difficult and confusing prospect, even though it’s healthy and low on the food chain, and therefore would generally be a more desirable form of protein.

So, I was really happy to see this guide to sustainable seafood, developed by a reputable source, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It has local guides for various areas, a searchable database, and explanations for each rating. You can look up any fish or shellfish you like and find out which types are the best choice, which are good alternatives, and which to avoid – and a detailed explanation of why.

So for example, Alaska-caught wild salmon is in the “best choice” category. Washington-caught wild salmon is in the “good alternative” category – and farmed salmon from anywhere in the world, along with Atlantic salmon, are in the avoid category.

In case you’re wondering, farmed salmon are a major problem because:
– When they inevitably escape from their pens, they compete with wild salmon for food and spawning areas, and dilute wild species with inferior genes, producing salmon that are less able to survive in the wild
– Salmon rearing pens generate mounds of fecal waste on the bottom filled with excessive organic material, antibiotics, and pollutants
– Farmed salmon have parasites and diseases (from being raised in such close quarters) that can spread to wild fish
– Antibiotics used to prevent the above diseases are ultimately released to the environment and contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistant diseases
– It takes three pounds of wild fish to feed one pound of farmed salmon. Yes, they grind up fish and feed it to fish that don’t eat much fish. So in other words, for each farmed fish, three wild fish are lost. Not a good trade.
– Farmed salmon are pale and tasteless compared to wild salmon, like so much artificially grown food.

Is it really worth the few dollars you might save?

My first 100% organic shopping trip

I’ve been doing a bunch of chores this morning, as I can’t get into the state database I need to do the work I had planned today. I ran down to the local grocery store (Bayview Thriftway in Olympia, in case you’re wondering), and did a quick shopping run. Only after I got home did I realize that I had bought nearly 100% organic products – without even thinking about it, other than the usual attempts I make to generally buy organic. This has to be some kind of important milestone, that it’s even possible.

Here’s what I bought, all organic:

Apples and strawberries (west coast, carefully avoiding South American produce)
Colby jack cheese and parmesan
Three varieties of cereal
Two cartons of milk
Three kinds of yogurt
Kettle corn for snacking
Four frozen dinners (various organic brands)
Two frozen veggie packs (from Oregon, in little recycled paper bags!)
Four kinds of chocolate (small stuff) for Mother’s Day
Bread (local)
Toilet paper
a latte

There is one thing I bought that isn’t organic – Mother’s Day cards for my Mom and Grandma. If I had been thinking about it, it’s even possible those could have been at least recycled. But when it comes to Moms, it’s more important that the message be right :)

And then I had a fairly long conversation with the produce manager about whether it would be possible to separate out and make a little section for local organic produce apart from the stuff that comes from all over the world (using up lots of petroleum and generating carbon emissions in the process). He was actually receptive and said that in the summer and fall, they do that, and they actually take surplus from local farms. Not many big grocery stores are willing to go to those lengths.

I did tell him that, from the shopper’s point of view, winter is the hardest time to get local produce so it would be the most important time to highlight any they do have, for those of us purists who just won’t buy it if it had to come on an airplane (yes, I eat a lot of apples in the winter). He agreed that maybe increasing the size of their “grown in Washington” price labels would at least help us find what there is.

Anyway, good stuff :)

Random carbon-reducing thought

Someday I’m going to collect all of these somewhere… This one goes back to our food again, a continuing theme this year. We’ve talked about all kinds of ways to reduce the carbon footprint from food consumption, including eating low on the food chain, eating local foods, using cloth grocery bags, and limiting bottled water consumption. Here’s an even simpler one:

Don’t waste food.

That’s all – simple to say, simple in concept, harder to do. Every bit of food and drink that we buy costs energy to grow, process, package, ship, and sell. Even if we eat a steak, at least we’ve eaten it – and gotten some value for that energy that’s been used. When we don’t even eat it or drink it, all that energy is wasted and garbage is created for nothing at all. Only in this western world of over-consumption could such a thing really even be possible, not to mention done every day without a second thought.

When you’re not starving or lacking for money to buy food, and there is a massive abundance of food all around you, there is a tendency to forget how important this is or to take the extra time to make sure that whatever you buy will be used. Example – at a recent staff meeting that would go through lunch, most of us brought our own lunches. One group showed up with donuts and pastries to share – a nice gesture, right? But we all eat pretty healthy and a lot of them didn’t get eaten, and no-one wanted to take them home because we all knew we’d eat them if we did. They were thrown out, since the meeting room had to be clean when we left. It probably would have been better not to bring them and to let staff buy their own in the cafeteria if they wanted them.

Our busy schedules contribute also. I don’t know how often I’ve bought groceries that I didn’t get around to using, and had to throw out because they went bad. This is especially true since I started buying more vegetables. It’s harder for single people to use up all that comes in a package (a loaf of bread for example). My horribly busy work schedule has resulted in a lot of food getting thrown out, which is really sad and wasteful. So now I am really focusing on learning how to freeze things (yes, if you’ve never done it you have to learn what works and what doesn’t). In this situation it is really important to be careful what and how much you buy in the first place. Which takes recipe planning and careful shopping, which takes time. Knowing that it’s contributing to global warming to throw stuff out may actually give me an incentive to work on this more.

Make it a challenge to look around your kitchen and see what odds and ends of things can be used up. You know all those sauce bottles in your refrigerator door? How many of those stay there forever and then get thrown out because when you want to use it, you’re not certain it’s still good? A little bit of planning might help there too. Each of those little bottles takes a lot of energy to create.

So as your parents always said – “clean your plate” and don’t put too much on it to start with :) Learn to make casseroles with odd bits and ends, freeze leftovers and portions of raw foods before they spoil, buy in smaller quantities that you will actually use, plan your meals, and if you really have to throw something out – compost it!

Sci-fi musings on a ketchup packet

cr-ketchup18-on.jpg The other day, someone told me it takes 30 gallons of water to make a single ketchup packet. Of course, I had to wonder if that’s true. On the other hand, knowing how much water it takes just to make a pound of beef, anything seems possible. If this is indeed true, I wonder if it is the ketchup or the plastic that uses all the water?

That led me to thinking (always dangerous)… what if we lived in a futuristic Blade-Runner type world, where access to information and databases was built into little chips in our eyes, with a heads-up kind of display that could identify the water, energy, petroleum, and greenhouse gas usage required to make any food item or other product just as we were considering buying it. How would this change people’s purchasing habits?

Judging by present-day Americans, lots of people just wouldn’t bother to worry about it. For those who did care, I could see it going two ways. Either the wasteful products would be shunned, causing manufacturers to clean up their act (most likely saving production costs in the process), or the wasteful products would be seen as signs of luxury and a way of flaunting one’s wealth, in which case their prices might increase. This would be especially likely if these items were taxed according to the true energy and resource use required to make them, which would become possible with the information available.

With the way the world is going, I can imagine that someday we may need to ration water, petroleum use, and emissions of greenhouse gas. In another grim sci-fi scenario, each citizen might have allotments of these environmental goods that they could spend on various products. Markets for trading of these allotments might develop, and a family might save up to splurge on something special, like a plane trip (or a steak dinner).

Though it sounds restrictive, something like this would almost be required to break us of our consumption overload and return the world to a more sustainable lifestyle. Let’s just hope people come to their senses (and information comes to the rescue) before it’s forced upon us…

Grocery bags!

Recently I wrote about my interest in using fewer water bottles and plastic bags. The plastic bag issue seemed like the harder of the two, since both the grocery store and paperboy seem to provide them relentlessly into my home. I did find a recycling center for plastic bags, so at least I can recycle the ones I can’t avoid getting. I figured that the other half of the puzzle would be finding good reusable grocery bags that I could take to the store. I’d still get the plastic produce bags, but would avoid the grocery sacks themselves.

The problem is, where to find such a bag? As busy as I have been lately with work and travel, I decided the Universe would most likely have to help me out with this one if I was going to make any near-term progress on it. And, strangely or perhaps synchronistically enough, it did.


I was doing a public meeting in the new Vancouver WA Hilton, a very nice hotel across from a very pleasant park, surrounded on all sides by brand-new condos with store-fronts below them. Since it was a nice sunny day, I went for a walk in the park, and noticed that one of the storefronts was an actual farmer’s market – small, but with a good selection of veggies and flowers.

And there, lo and behold, they had these great grocery bags, called “One bag at a time”. The little tag on the bag gives the bad news about plastic bags and how they’re taking over the earth, and how paper bags have their own problems, which was quite eye-opening. The bag itself is made of polypropylene, is very sturdy and voluminous, feels nice in the hand, and is a dark green color. Best of all, it’s machine washable. Overall it seemed like it would stand up quite well over time and even retain its appearance if things got spilled in or on it.

So, the Universe came through – I bought four for myself, two for a friend, and convinced a co-worker to buy a couple. Next, a trip to the grocery store to see what the clerks think of using them instead of their own bags…