Sunday, September 25, 2005

Composting 101 - My Secret in the Backyard

I have been going into the backyard at night with a shovel for two months now. Usually I go after dinner once the dishes are in the washer and MaGreen has gone into the computer room. Our backyard does not have much lighting and I walk out to the darkest corners where there isn’t any grass. I dig a hole that’s at least one foot deep. And when the hole is made, that’s when I dump our vegetable peelings in. OK, so I'm not burying a body or anything illegal. But you have to admit that whether you are burying a body or vegetables, both lead to decomposition, worms, and enriched soil.

I started burying things because MaGreen and I are a bit lazy. MaGreen always wanted a compost pile, but we just didn't get around to starting one. It was frustrating. Putting the peelings in the garbage disposal often clogged the sink. If we threw leftovers away, the garbage smelled after a day. Once I tried to dump our vegetable peelings out the window into a flower bed, but the next morning we were embarrassed to find them scattered around on the grass and sidewalk. Then on a short trip to Brooklyn, MaGreen’s friend Sarah showed us how she just buried stuff in a tiny patch of ground underneath the patio. It was like shortcut composting. If Sarah could do it in a tiny Brooklyn “backyard”, we felt we could do it in Houston.

Soon I found myself addicted to burying things. I tried to find excuses to peel more things. Cooking and eating at home became more appealing because then I would have something to bury. Since we don’t cook meat at home, just about everything is suitable. Eggshells, onion peels, carrot shavings, the scrapings of leftover food that it wouldn’t make sense to eat, or the Vietnamese food in a doggy bag that’s been sitting in the fridge for a week. I loved how the shovel slipped into the dirt more and more easily each night. It was astonishing how quickly stuff turned back into dirt. Once I went during the day and when I turned the soil, there were three huge earthworms, flipping around in a glorious panic.

“I saw three earthworms,” I told MaGreen. She was delighted.

“That means it’s working,” she said.

As the soil assumed a moist and black consistency, I was reminded that I wasn’t only burying things for the sake of burying them. We wanted to start an organic garden and that beautiful worm-laden decomposing trench was the beginning. Our child will eat vegetables picked just before they are served. She will see the cycle of life and death – not in some Disney flick – but in her own backyard. Maybe she will go with me one night soon. And I will hold the peelings as she works the shovel. The sound of a critter scurrying along the fence or a tree branch might alarm her, but she will concentrate on the hole.

Composting 101 - A Wormderful Intro Podcast

MaGreen's aunt and uncle give us a tour of their compost bins and share with us the joys of rot. Click on the title to hear the podcast.

Composting 101 - You Don't Have to Be Perfect to Let Things Rot

On one of our visits to Missoula, MaGreen’s Uncle Stephen and Aunt Patricia walked us out back behind their fence to show us their compost piles. They were neatly organized in a series of wooden boxes. Three or four of them, perfectly constructed, each one holding a mix of yard waste and food scraps in varying states of decomposition. Stephen described the system, but I couldn’t really follow it. He has that kind of voice you would expect from an respected doctor who sees cancer patients every day. Each of his words is enunciated and weighted at the end, inflected with erudition and wisdom. Like their cooking, their exercise regimen, and their communes with nature at Glacier National Park, I found their compost piles to be impossibly perfect. MaGreen and I could never do that. Their rotting waste was neater than our office desks.

And yet, when we got back to Houston, our guilt about throwing away massive amounts of organic matter grew, burdened us with the weight of all the clippings that we’ve ever thrown away. Everyday it seemed we learned something new about how bad it is to throw away your food scraps and yard waste. When organic matter decomposes in big city dumps, it combines with the surrounding garbage to make all kinds of toxic stink that seeps into the ground and the water supply. And there isn’t much space left in dumps as it is. And if you haven’t figured it out already, MaGreen and I have overactive consciences. Knowing we are hurting the world out of carelessness and inaction bothers us.

We were trapped by our feelings of inadequacy and our guilt. Did I mention our fears? What if we started our compost wrong? Would it attract cockroaches and rats? What exactly can you put in it? Should it be closed and made of plastic? Do we need the kind of compost that has red worms? If you make a hot compost, can it explode? It seemed there were so many ways of composting, we would need to take a class to figure out how to start. Ultimately, we got over our fears. As with our other greening attempts, MaGreen’s being pregnant has gotten us motivated. In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more about composting. Before I get to the specifics, I wanted to acknowledge that the first hurdle, if you are like us, is to realize that composting is not rocket science. You don’t have to be perfect to let things rot.

Brown Man, Green Dad

Miah and I went to a fair for parents and expecting parents at the Houston United Way building. Our friend Jay was helping at a booth for a new Waldorf school. The La Leche League, the Women’s Health Specialists, two birthing centers, a Montessori school, photographers, chiropractors, a life insurance company, and the guy who rents big storks to put in the lawn were among those passing out brochures and trinkets. We snagged a free bandaid holder. Most tables only had hard candies to give away. One lady – I don’t remember what her booth was for – handed MaGreen a free doll. Then when I walked up, the lady said, “You might like this one instead” and gave MaGreen a different doll. We moved on to the next table, the Nativiti Birthing Center, which had pictures of bathtub births.

I forgot about the doll until MaGreen told me that the lady had exchanged a fair doll for a dark doll after seeing me. It’s a little brown man waving one arm. The letters OBW are sewn into his breast for “Official Baby Watcher.” When we passed that booth again, I looked more carefully at the other dolls. There was a whole box of the fair dolls out. I wondered if the lady had a special one or two dark dolls to pull out on need? I appreciated her awareness. She was clearly well intentioned. Maybe if my school teachers back in Mobile, Alabama had been that alert and if they had materials like brown dolls that validated my presence, things would have been better for me. MaGreen noticed later on that the white lady who gave us the brown doll had a brown man with her.

Actually, two groups at the fair had missions that focused on people of color. The community doula program trains Latinas to become doulas. And there was one booth for African-American women breast-feeding. Those booths weren’t very busy. Getting the dark doll for our expected little one, as nice as it was, ultimately made me especially aware of how “white” the whole fair was. You could count those who were obviously people of color on one hand. In my experience, this type of demographic is typical of progressive or environmental events. Even though groups want to reach out to ethnic and racial “minorities” – we actually constitute the majority here in Houston – the actual people who show up, well let’s just say it’s like vanilla ice cream sprinkled with chocolate chips.

One explanation is that there is a history of racism in progressive and environmental movements. For example, many conservationist policies take no consideration of the largely dark-skinned people who live amidst the world’s remaining wilderness. It’s as if they never existed. “Over population” can be code for “too many dark people.” Take a look at these two articles, Los Angelos Times and Common Dreams, about the recent failed attempts by nativists to take over the Sierra Club.

But there are all kinds of explanations. You know, maybe it’s that people of color have a different set of material concerns and we organize in ways that make sense to our different communities. Here are some examples:

Chipko Movement
Did you know that Indians, as in people from India, invented tree hugging? The Chipko movement was begun by women and men in Himalayan villages to stop commercial logging. Their embracing of trees led to inhabited wilderness initiatives. Bina Agarwal is a brilliant economist who has written extensively about this movement and its results.

African American Environmentalist Association
This organization seems to really be a one-man show. Here’s a link to an interview of the director and founder, Norris McDonald. Believe it or not, he’s an African-American Republican environmentalist.

Land Rights in New Mexico
The Hispanos of New Mexico are fighting for rights to land grants and water rights that were recognized by the Treaty of Hidalgo. And they are often at odds with the mostly white conservationists. Here's a link to a related activist site, La Jicarita News.

I’m curious what readers think. Issues of race/ethnicity, poverty, gender, rights, and the environment are all linked. Or “tangled up” might be the better phrase. It’s hard to get your mind around.

I'm pretty sure my daughter will have lighter skin than me and this new brown-skinned doll. She’ll be half Indian and half white. She’ll also be a relatively privileged child, like I was. I’m her father and I don’t want her to be among the unprivileged, those doomed to toxic food, toxic air, and too little fuel and water. But I don’t want her to be among the privileged either, because privilege can be its own type of suffering. I want to believe another world is possible.

Natural Cleaning and Green Cleaning Podcast

MaGreen and GreenDaddy talk about switching to green, home-made cleaning supplies.

Toxic Loss

Like GreenDaddy says, being pregnant has changed our perspective about things. So although I’ve known about the evil nature of toxic products since I was a kid, when I heard the Pacifica radio show about the way one woman eliminated toxins from her world, I was listening more carefully than usual. She noted a few studies – like women who spend most of their time in their homes have a much higher cancer rate than women who work outside the home, because of poor ventilation and the multitude of toxins present in the items we construct, furnish, & clean our homes with. The World Health Organization links cancer to industrialized nations, and in the US cancer rates are up by 49% since 1950 [].

Of course, there are thousands of causes for these higher rates. It is not just the products I choose to clean my house with. Or the plastics I fill it with. Or the plastics I wear. Or the pesticides on my food. Or the pollutants in the air. Or the 90% of synthetic chemical compounds in fragrances, personal products, cleaning products, and the air that have never even been measured for toxicity. My own geneology might work against me, or my sensitivity to products most people aren’t effected to. Like carrots. Carrots aren’t toxic to me, but they are toxic to some people, I’m sure.

But the point is, there are all these things, some of which I can control without much effort at all, effecting my life. Whereas before pregnancy I sort of shrugged off this information, and found it annoying, I’m feeling more revolutionary lately: I thought, well, we might as well try to do what we can to eliminate some of the risks. I quit drinking alcohol during pregnancy – why wouldn’t I quit hanging out in a house filled with petrochemicals? What harm will it do me not to buy milk in a jug? Or to give up my Windex for some old fashioned vinegar & water?

As it has turned out, I am still the girl that liked mixing Ajax and Laundry detergent to make ghost-paste. Another time, in childhood, my friend Scotty and I made a formula out of the forgotten chemicals in my father’s shed that not only killed stinging red ant populations for two and half minutes, exactly --- but if you used it to paint it would seep up through later layers of paint years down the road, so that even now, at least twenty layers of paint later, the brown letters we painted are still barely discernable on the whitish picket fence in the city park. And I reiterate: I am still this girl.

In terms of seeking out new solutions and supplies to clean my house, this is finally a good thing. I spent three or four hours on the internet, searching out different sorts of cleaning combinations that make different sorts of cleaning products. As it turns out, I am not the only person interested in “greening” my home. Hundreds of websites about eliminating toxic substances from your life exist. Hundreds more sites with recipes from people who just want to clean the house like “grandma” and don’t want to be reliant on buying cleaning products from the store. Between these two sorts of sites, I came up with my list. I think I’ll post the whole list on a separate post that details what we’ve found that works, and what we’ve found that doesn’t work.

For now, I’ll say I like knowing that I can clean my silver by leaving it in a sink filled with boiling hot water, a couple teaspoons of salt and baking soda, and a sheet of aluminum foil. The method is certainly faster than trying to rub all the nooks and crannies of the silver with silver polish. It makes me feel giddy and smart because its cheaper, its smarter, and its more fun than cleaning with products that give me headaches. I feel like I’m picking up knowledge my grandmothers’ knew, and that was if not stolen, hidden from me by the people who said my house isn’t clean if their product hasn’t touched it.

And most of all, I like knowing I’m doing this at the same time that I’ve taken a pretty simple step in making my house safe for our little girl. I’m grateful not have to worry about her crawling through a puddle of leaked bleach and dying of burn wounds or of eating toxic dishwashing detergent and dying of intestinal damage – two causes of baby and toddler deaths in American households more terribly common than you’d guess.

If she’s anything like I was, it’s good we’re getting rid of the toxic stuff. I’ll teach her [and any other little ones we have] to mix things that make useful products. I’ll dissuade her from putting Barkeepers’ Friend (a scouring powder sites say aren’t toxic) on her face, but I’m not against helping her search out and creating some sort of healthy, pasty natural “beauty product” she can use for pranks of her own. That’s awhile off, now, but I’m glad ahead of time.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Toxic Love Podcast

MaGreen talks about how she used to love smearing toxic chemicals on her face when she was a child.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Toxic Love

It does not take a rocket scientist to know bleach is toxic and dangerous. Or that nasty commercial mildew eater is. I mean, if you use a substance in your home that nauseates you, gives you a headache, or otherwise makes you want to leave said home for a couple of hours afterward for it to "air out" there's an eighty percent chance you're using something toxic and poisonous. And though you could continue to use toxic chemicals to clean your home for the rest of your life anyway, and though many of us do even though we know they're toxic, we don't have to.

This is not to say that I was not once the little girl who made a paste out of Ajax and dish soap, smeared it all over my face, and then tried to fool Arthur Young into thinking I was a minty-green faced ghost. Or that I didn’t understand my family friend Margot’s rage when she caught me coming home that day, or that I didn’t believe her horror when she said the Ajax was full of harsh chemicals. As a child, I believed adults weren’t lying about dangerous, poisonous things that could kill children, but I also believed that what they said was only true of most children in the world. I wasn’t most children. I was tough. I didn’t even get a rash when I put Ajax on my face and tried to convince Arthur Young that although I looked like little Miah Arnold, she was dead and I was her ghost. I was too tough to be effected by chemicals. Tougher than the rest of the world. Of course, I was also the type of kid who didn’t remember bad things, and so couldn’t recall how as a toddler I’d tossed back a jar of my aunt’s shellac, thinking it was milk, and actually would have become Miah Arnold’s ghost if not for the Duchesne County Hospital’s stomach pumper.

What I am trying to establish here is that I have had a long, intimate, and maybe even loving history with toxic chemicals. By the time I hit my mid-twenties, a statistically significant portion of my friends and acquaintances began developing weird allergies and sicknesses, my mother was increasingly bowled over by intense migraines, and for me, walking into the perfume section of a department store or the cleaning product section of a grocery store was liable to cause me a painful headache of my own. Did I choose to eschew these products ever afterwards? Of course not. I was resistant to the idea of eliminating toxins because:

Number One: It seemed wimpy in the same way smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol seemed cool. What kind of drip is afraid of a bottle of Windex? (Which, by the way, ought to be feared as it is particularly noxious according to countless sources as it contains butyl cellosolve, toxic to blood cells, kidneys, and livers. It's not listed on the label either. This irks me as I always imagined Windex as the most virginal of the cleaning products in terms of toxicity.)

Number Two: The whole comet smearing and other like episodes made me figure I was already too contaminated to save. I knew I couldn’t get out all the toxins, so I figured, why try?

Number Three: Some risks you take, even if they’re bad for your health, because their perks outweigh their downsides. Like smokers or drinkers (or breathers of the air in Houston, where we live) I figured so what if its bad for me. It’s too hard not to use them.

Number Four, which is really a subcategory of Number three: I don’t believe something is clean if it doesn’t have a brand name smell: windows like Windex, floors like Pine Sol, wood should be Lemon Pledgey…and I fully admit that if a bathroom doesn’t smell like its been the site of an industrial waste explosion, I don’t believe its clean. And if you think about this particular line of reasoning is illogical: I don’t believe something is clean unless it actively smells. Wouldn’t it be more logical to assume that something with no scent at all is cleaner than something I’ve wiped scent all over?

I should mention here that my transfiguration from badass-deer-ignoring-the-headlights into the crazy pregnant woman dumping all the chemicals in the house down the drain and declaring a moratorium on plastics was not immediate. As the conservatives would argue, it was part of a slippery slope most any liberal is in danger of falling into: a couple years ago we bit the financial bullet and started shopping at Whole Foods where we bought organic vegetables, free-range eggs, and hormone free milk. At some point, we joined a vegetable co-op to supplement this change. We toyed with and rejected (after watching SuperSizeMe) the idea of becoming vegans. We hovered at this stage a couple of years, through courtship and into marriage. And now we’re pregnant and we’ve taken enough small steps to consider taking a few larger ones, though, like GreenDaddy says, knowing which steps to take is proving tricky.

That Smells Like Vinegar Not Windex

One day I came home from work and MaGreen had dumped out all of our Windex, Mop N Glow, mildew remover, and the other stuff we keep under our sinks.

“A leading cause of death for babies is when they crawl through poisonous cleaning supplies or accidentally drink them,” she said.

Miah then spent many, many hours searching the internet for alternatives. She collected recipes from a number of different sources and started to experiment on her own. Most of them used combinations of vinegar, baking powder, lemon juice, borax, soap, oil, and alcohol. MaGreen made a two-page sheet with all of her recipes. Here it is: Natural Cleaning (word format) and Natural Cleaning (pdf).

I think what has been most disconcerting is that MaGreen put the new cleaning solutions in the old containers. So our vinegar based bathroom cleaner is in the old mildew remover bottle. When I went to actually clean the bathroom, I did a double-take because of the way the vinegar smells. (Vinegar is always good for a nice jolt to the nostrils.) But after a few minutes, the smell went away and the bathroom was in fact clean.

The sad irony is that the commercial cleaning products that smell good are part of what creates carcinogenic indoor air. Since I am employed as a professional feminist. I'd like to point out that poisonous household air is a gendered problem. Women, and children, often spend way more time in the house. The Prevent Cancer Coalition, which is chaired by a public health scientist named Samuel S. Epstein, have published short reports about this problem on their website

The Man Who Would Have No Plastic

When MaGreen was researching plastic, the website she found with the most forceful message was The author recommends getting rid of ALL plastics including food containers, clothing, utensils, and furniture. Since this did not strike us as feasible, MaGreen sent in a comment. Here’s an excerpt:

“I have no idea where to begin. I have plastic drawers, storage boxes etc. I'm thinking they can stay longer than the milk jugs? What about the plastic wrap on cheese? How do you keep cheese from rotting without plastic covering? When you want to save leftovers, what kind of container do you use? Glass on the bottom...but what about the top? And what about those special, green plastic bags that preserve my organic vegetables for even longer? They're out too? I have no idea. Perhaps forty years ago people knew the answers to these questions -- but having been raised on plastic I find them baffling. The articles here are informative but more daunting than they need to be. One article that outlined what steps people should take, what plastics should be removed immediately, etc.”

So the author on the website, Paul Goettlich wrote back. Here’s an excerpt from his email:

“I know it's a tough thing to deal with, but the answer is to deal with one thing at a time and not get overloaded . . . . Your idea to get rid of plastic milk jugs before plastic drawers makes absolute sense. The variables for plastic to leach/migrate into the things that contact it are: the amount of surface area in contact; the materials in contact; temperature; and more . . . . Anything that touches food needs to be changed from plastic to glass or paper or hemp cloth... I have Pyrex storage containers with plastic tops. I always cool the food BEFORE putting the lid on. If it needs to go into the fridge while cooling, then put a plate over the top. You see, it's just common sense kind of stuff. And I know there are glass containers with glass lids available. I just don't know where off hand.

“OK, so here's something about my life. I haven't watched TV in more than 6 years. I don't use shampoo and my hair is in great shape. I never used deodorant in my life. (sorry :-) ); I use little or no soap when washing pots and pans; very little dishwasher soap in an extremely efficient dishwasher; clothes get dried on a line rather than a dryer and definitely no softeners; all fresh organic food; extremely little prepared food of any kind; many bulk foods packed in containers that I bring like glass jars and used paper bags. I buy apple cider from a local farmer at the Berkeley Farmers' Market as 4 gals. in a case and get a 20% discount. I buy olive oil from a farmer and he packs it in my own 10 litre stainless steel container that has a spigot on it.”

Miah and I enjoyed reading his email. We don’t know anybody who gets their olive oil from farmer (but we do know people who don’t use deodorant). We were very happy to see that Mr. Goettlich posted a whole new and very practicle article, "Alternatives to Plastic", shortly after our email exchange.

Download the podcast. 

Friday, September 16, 2005

Don't Drink Out of That Bottle!

I think that our desire to detoxify really got started when MaGreen was listening to a show on a local radio station about poisons leaching from plastic into water and food. The radio station, 90.1 KPFT, is an affiliate of the Pacifica network. According to the person hosting the show, we are constantly ingesting dangerous poisons. The only reason we don’t know about it, she claimed, is because the plastics industry funds all kinds of studies to clear its products and the big media outlets do not want to upset their advertisers by running stories about poisons in plastic. MaGreen came home that day visibly upset.

“Even our food processor is made of plastic,” MaGreen said. We just bought the thing and MaGreen loved to prepare food with it, but it is made mostly of plastic. “We can’t use the plastic leftover containers either,” she went on, “and don’t drink out of those water bottles at work.”

I was alarmed too, but I immediately became defensive. The Pacifica radio station often disseminates excellent information, but some of the shows purport debatable ideas as unquestionable truths. For example, the “Whole Mother” show is anti-immunization and claims that immunizations always harm children. I think routine immunizations have saved millions upon millions of children’s lives.

Miah went on the internet to do some research and I did too. A number of studies have shown that bisphenol A, which is widely found in plastic containers, leaches out into liquids and foods. Moreover, this chemical can affect the development of the brain and the reproductive system. It resembles estrogen. The LA Times ran a story on the subject April 13, 2005. The journal Environmental Health Perspectives published a review article that prompted the news coverage, but I haven’t had a chance to read it or find the citation.

Even if the whole plastics scare is unjustified, cutting plastic out of your life isn’t like not immunizing your child. It doesn’t put anyone at risk to use glass containers instead of plastic ones. So both of us agreed that at the least, we'll spring for $20 of glass tupperware. But we still have several questions:

How can you really get rid of ALL the plastic in the kitchen? Can we still use our food processor? How bad is the plastic for you really? Are the alternatives worse? If I am in the desert dying of thirst and I find a plastic Ozarka bottle, should I drink from it or should I drink my own urine until I reach a natural oasis?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Why We Started This Blog

MaGreen and I are going through something many expecting parents do. All of sudden, what were rather vague concerns about toxins, diet, and lifestyle now seem urgent. We do not want to raise a baby in a home full of poisons if we can help it. More than that, we want to raise a happy kid who understands the world around her and learns how to thrive in it. We want to be green parents. And we want to be socially responsible so our child inherits a better world. The only problem is that we do not know how to do this, especially since we have a limited budget and we like a clean house, tasty food, and time to relax. This blog is about our experiments, the ridiculous ones that fail and the ones that work. Hopefully, readers will pitch in with comments and experiences.

Green Parenting Blog Main Page