Transporting Myself

As I’ve moved eastward, I’ve become more suburban. Though I still consider myself a city girl, loving the amenities of urban life, I do admit the suburbs have some benefits, especially when kids are in the picture.

Today I came across a blog dedicated to researching and writing about smart transit. It got me thinking about my own progression from living in San Francisco using mostly my feet, bicycle and relatively reliable public transit for getting around to living in a suburb of a post-industrial Midwestern city where the garage doors go up, the cars go in and the garage doors go down. Now I drive every day. I have to make it a point not to drive to run errands, though it is hard to do when surrounded by sprawl. In San Francisco I rarely left my neighborhood except to go to work.

Coming clean, I don’t do a whole lot of blog surfing. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I do to find some real jewels. This blog, called Progressive Transit, is maintained by an electrical engineer who is passionate about the ways we get around.  He posts this:

Cars do not belong in cities.  A standard American sedan can comfortably hold 4+ adults w/ luggage, can travel in excess of 100 miles per hour, and can travel 300+ miles at a time without stopping to refuel.  These are all great things if you are traveling long distances between cities.  If you are going by yourself to pickup your dry cleaning, then cars are insanely over-engineered for the task.  It’s like hammering in a nail with a diesel-powered pile driver.   To achieve all these feats (high capacity, high speed, and long range driving), cars must be large and powered by fossil fuels.  So when you get a few hundred (or thousand) cars squeezed onto narrow city streets, you are left with snarled traffic and stifling smog.

Before moving to the Midwest in 2006, I walked or rode to the grocery store, local restaurants, bars and coffee shops and even took walks around the neighborhoods I lived in for exercise. I loved being mobile by foot or bike, not dependent on our single car other than for long trips.

When we moved to Iowa I continued to try to walk and ride my bike to run errands as much as possible, but it became more difficult on roads with heavy traffic, no bike lanes or poor or no sidewalks. Car transportation was so dominant, I regularly was the only pedestrian or bicyclist out and about. I tried to commute by bike to work a few times a week and walk to the grocery store when the weather permitted.

Now in Ohio, time transporting myself on my feet or by bike has sharply decreased. My neighborhood is safe, and the neighbors keep to themselves. The schools are good and though most everything we need is within a 10-mile radius, ditching the car has been harder than ever.

Destinations are so spread out here, and the roads aren’t very friendly to non-vehicle traffic. I often felt safer riding through the chaotic streets of San Francisco on my bike than navigating through the suburban sprawl of my town.

But, with everything, one needs balance and compromise. We traded a smaller carbon footprint for good schools, a safe neighborhood and plenty more time in the car. Still, we can work to reduce our impact on the environment, but it’s good to be reminded that I can still try harder to live a life less tied to my car.

Everyone’s Planet

This phrase keeps circling back into my consciousness weeks, even months after I read it on my friend’s blog. Poor people don’t care about the environment.

I don’t know who should care more about it than poor people, because as our climate changes they will be the most deeply affected.

Last fall I participated, rather tangentially, in a campaign called the Real Food Challenge, which aimed to get college students across the country involved in eating and promoting healthy, sustainable food on campuses. On my campus, a group of students set up a table for a few hours during the mid-day rush hour between the library and the student union and gave away local apples and organic, fair trade chocolate.

I was in charge of giving out chocolate, not a difficult job by any means. But, as I urged one passing student to head over to the apple table for some free samples, we got into a conversation about eating organic. She was a mom, as am I, and she told me she just couldn’t afford to buy organic. I started telling her about the many benefits of organic food, and how, in the long run, it is actually cost effective to eat organic, when you think of long-term health and environmental benefits—especially if the food is also locally grown.

In this society that does little to create a safety net for the less privileged, organic and real food provides a little bit of string to help bind this net. The healthier one eats, technically speaking, the healthier one will be. You are what you eat, as it goes. And, what we eat as a whole contributes to the health of our planet, which we all share.

As climate change accellerates, and we start to feel its effects, those of us who have less will be more compromised. Those of us in relatively wealthy situations will be able to continue to afford shelter, food, medical attention, and whatever else any impending crisis will force us to face.

I recall one of the most simple ways to reduce energy use, and therefore help out the environment, is to unplug your cell phone charger when it is not in use. It doesn’t matter what your socio-economic status is to be able to complete this simple task.

I realize that there are more pressing issues than the environment on many people’s minds—especially when they are working several jobs and concerned about how to pay their bills. But it is important to remember that there could be no bills to pay at all if climate change has as devastating an effect as many scientists are warning it will. Keeping the big picture in mind while continuing to think about the smaller things in life can help ease the effects of climate change.

Sunday Outing

Today we took a family field trip to a nearby dairy. We drove down a dirt road off a small highway into the “country” and were immediately greeted by a dozen Jersey and Holstein cows. One twin was afraid the cows would want to eat his pizza, so we headed off to a remote corner to finish lunch.

Nearby three baby Holsteins were being swarmed by little girls. A friend wondered aloud why the majority of kids in attendance were female. “Maybe girls like cows better than boys,” I replied. pfcThe twins, who are boys, definitely liked the old red tractor better than the cows. But we went to say hello to the three calves anyway. Only one was willing to be social, and she was being tended to by a girl around 10 years old who informed us that not only does her family own the dairy, but cows have four stomachs.

The dairy was having a customer appreciation day, and workers were offering samples of locally-grown foods and on-site made milk and ice cream. We obliged. There is something about this creamery that may change the way I drink milk from now on, sort of the way that the beer served at the Guinness brewery changed the way I drink beer. When we leave Iowa I may not be able to drink milk that doesn’t come from grass-fed cows, not ridden with hormones and antibiotics.

We made the switch to organic milk when the twins graduated from breast milk and formula to cow’s milk. It was an expensive transition, but it was time to say enough to the white liquid that passes for milk packaged and sold by big agribusiness. Soon I discovered that buying organic was more than avoiding conventional milk. It was a statement.

The friend mentioned above turned me on to this dairy in central Iowa. She raved about the milk, saying she and her roommate drank a glass of whole milk a day. I nearly gagged. Whole milk! I couldn’t imagine drinking anything above 2%. She said, go to the grocery store on Tuesdays when they get their shipment in and get this milk. You will be transformed.

So I did. And I was. Not just for the organic factor (their milk isn’t certified organic, but is just as good), but for the taste. It tasted like…well, like what milk is supposed to taste like. The added benefit came with this milk originating from a local farm. This farm sets its cows out to pasture, feeds them grass and hay, and takes good care of them. When we saw the cows today they looked healthy and happy. Not crammed into feedlots or hooked up to machines in a sterile room. It all seemed so real. So natural. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? Isn’t this how we are supposed to live and generate food?

I think about this a lot. In fact, when I was traveling back from southern Minnesota earlier this week, I thought about it even more. I passed a sign somewhere around Winnebago about cattle ranching. But I saw no cattle in the fields. They were filled with corn. I imagined the cows to be confined to a feed lot, something along the lines of the ill-placed lot along I-5 somewhere in the middle of California that you can smell for miles as you speed through at 70 mph. Why has the industrialization of cattle become so inhumane? Isn’t it healthier for the humans who eat beef and drink milk and for the cows who are raised for this purpose and in the long-term more sustainable (which I am told is a hippie word) to let the cows graze on actual grass in actual pastures?

I feel great about supporting local dairies that treat their animals with dignity and their customers with enough respect to give them quality, healthy products. It’s a shame that, according to the New York Times, organic dairies are struggling through this economy. Buying organic products and supporting local farmers should not be contingent upon the health of the economy. It should be a community effort that enhances our health, humane treatment of animals and the environment. Some things are worth a little extra, even if it means cutting back on another.

It was great to see the dairy’s parking lot overflowing and families so enthusiastic about participating in this local venture. It’s funny when being progressive seems like returning to our roots.

Beaverdale Symphony

When the sun comes out in Beaverdale a cacophony of mechanical picture-perfect-lawnlow frequency humming wafts through the neighborhood. First from the north, then from the east, then south, then west. All around, the symphony of yard work has begun.

It is the sound of lawn mowers. It is the sound of America.

Our 2006 move to Iowa came with many surprises. We bought our first house, also with a few surprises of its own, and, because we now had a yard to keep up, we went to Sears and bought a lawn mower. My husband argued for the old-fashioned, manual push mower. But I remembered a childhood filled with the pain and agony of push mowers. I also remembered that he was starting medical school and hated yard work and that mowing the lawn would ultimately fall onto my list of duties.

Being environmentally sensitive people, however, we were clued in to the rampant pollution conventional mowers exude. So, we opted for an electric mower. And while the majority of Iowa’s electricity comes from coal-fired plants (an environmental nightmare all its own), we figured we were making the best decision for the planet, our neighborhood and ourselves. It was such a big decision, in fact—the act of buying a lawn mower said so much about who we were becoming—I announced the purchase to all of our friends and family in an email dispatch. The purchase signified our arrival in suburban America. It may have even clinched our share of the American Dream. Who doesn’t want their own patch of turf to greenify their lives?

Soon after we moved in I noticed a chorus of mowers begin each time the sun shone on a weekend. Saturday afternoons, sometime around noon, the neighbors would rev up their engines and get to work “cutting the grass.” Everyone seemed to have the same sort of mower—gas fueled with a canvas bag to catch the clippings. They would carve out neat little stripes on their lawns, and all of a sudden their front yards would look like it could be on the cover of Better Home & Gardens (which incidentally is published in Des Moines). It seemed quite a social experiment at the time…how much time does one household spend a week tending to their lawns?

Plenty. Two neighbors, in particular, probably spent half of their waking hours re-seeding, fertilizing, de-weeding, mowing, edging and aerating. In a place where a green lawn grows with nearly no maintenance (like mine) because of ample rainfall, it seemed a bit insane to dedicate so much time to lawn perfection. Other places, such as Tucson or Phoenix, where there is no rainfall and the native species include succulents and cacti, it seems plain stupid and arrogant to have a lawn.

Soon, though, I was enlightened by a book review in the New Yorker explaining Americans’ obsession with their lawns. In short, it was all about status and leisure. According to the article, lawn maintenance and landscaping were reactions to the “slovenliness of Rural America.” A velvety lawn was an essential element in a perfect garden. And now, this mainstay of suburban life is part of a billion-dollar industry, and is not so much a leisure activity as a weekend ritual, and even a chore for which we hire gardeners or neighborhood boys to do for us.

Except for my neighbor across the street and another one three houses down. Both are single men. One in his thirties, another in his forties or fifties. Both are obsessed. They groom their lawns as a monkey would groom its kin. It’s a fascinating observation to see these two men—both living alone on a quiet tree-lined street in the middle of the country—developing their lush lawns. Neither of them spend time relaxing on these lawns, enjoying the fruits of their labor. Their enjoyment must rest in their labor. As soon as the ground thaws in early spring both are outside sprinkling patch material onto barren spots. Then comes a day of re-seeding. Then the first mow of the season. Then more fertilizer, possibly some pesticide, and then some more mowing.

It’s not that I am amused by their fastidious attention to their lawns, I am becoming more aware that my own lawn may be an eyesore to them. I am becoming aware that my disregard for lawn maintenance may be a thorn in my neighbors’ sides. I’ve let weeds take over the back and front lawns. I mow irregularly. I don’t fertilize. I don’t re-seed. I let the lawn do its thing. I refuse to become lawn obsessed. Still, I feel pressure. Pressure to conform, to have a perfect, green, velvety lawn.

I have heard of people rebelling and putting vegetable gardens in their front yards and forgoing lawns altogether. I have heard of others refusing to mow, letting the “weeds” and native plants take over and allowing wildlife to make homes in their natural landscape yards. It all sounds revolutionary. A reversion back to the time of “slovenliness.” I don’t know if I have the chutzpah to go up against the guardians of the suburban lawn in my neighborhood and completely let my weeds take over. But every time I hear the symphony of mowers strike their first chord on a Saturday afternoon, I feel a pang of guilt and think about mowing the lawn.

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