Growing Technology on Trees

I often think how much different and probably better civilization would be if we had devoted the last 40 years to researching and implementing biological rather than chemical,  mechanical, and fossil-fueled solutions to “progress.”  I still think there is hope to turn this around and develop more sustainable technologies.

Here is one example of growing rather than forging materials, in this case, cork, grown by trees, as a better substitute fo polyurethane foam, currently used for crash padding in cars:

The researchers conclude that while aluminium foam marginally performs better than micro-agglommerated cork, cork could be a much better choice for future vehicle design as it is less costly and much easier to process than metal foam.

Inderscience. “Safer, Greener Cars: Cork May Be Better Than Polymer Foam, Study Suggests.” ScienceDaily 17 March 2010.

37 Years

Not much has changed in 37 years.

Original Caption: There Is Some Local Opposition to Stripping the Land in Southeastern Ohio. Most People, However, Are Employed by the Coal Companies and Are Afraid Any Demands for Reform Will Cost Them Their Jobs. Off Route 800. 10/1973

From a collection of photographs commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s, and recently posted on Flickr by the National Archives.

Just Like That

It is spring.  Never mind the solstices; Robert and I agree that March, April, and May are the spring months; summer starts on Memorial Day weekend and ends on Labor Day.  There are some small patches of snow left in the dark corners of the yard, but it is 72° and sunny, and there are robins. Other people’s crocuses are blooming; ours again this year are just leaves.

Yesterday Robert cleaned up the broken bits of fence from the car-in-the-yard incident New Year’s weekend.  There had been snow cover ever since then, too much to clean up the pickets which were scattered everywhere.

We had lunch on the patio, which has a view of the largest patch of English ivy that I didn’t get to last spring.  It was irresistible, and I managed to remember to keep my wrists straight most of the time.  I was hoping it was weakened by three months of cold and snow, and would give up easily.  I did manage to pull out almost half of it, while Robert picked up sticks and raked leaves that had appeared from who knows where over the winter, since the lawn was clear before the snow.  While ripping it up, I realized that it is probably the only level area on the property that gets 6 hours of sun, other than the strip along the front fence.  So we will try our vegetable garden there this year.  Perhaps something very French with boxwood borders.

The Dangers of Fake Food

Today’s Washington Post details the current recall of processed foods made with hydrolyzed vegetable protein from Basic Food Flavors, a list that is now over 100 products.

Basic Food Flavors tested surfaces near food-processing equipment throughout its plant twice in January and once in February, and each time the samples showed salmonella contamination, according to FDA records. The company continued to ship products and to make more HVP without cleaning the plant or the equipment in a way that would have minimized contamination, the records said.

Foods that used the contaminated HVP include some sold by national chains and manufacturers such as Trader Joe’s, CVS, and McCormick.

The description of the Basic factory conditions is truly disgusting.  It should, in the best of all possible worlds, have the effect that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had on the meat-packing industry, including inspiring the creation of the Food and Drug Administration – only, now we already have the FDA. Unfortunately, the FDA does not have enough inspectors to police food manufacturing; it generally only checks when there is an epidemic or a complaint.

Maybe this will at least persuade people not to use gravy, stuffing, and salad dressing mixes and buy so many other snack and prepared foods.  Is it harder to mix vinegar, oil, and dried seasonings yourself than to dump in a packet of who knows what? Is gravy really too hard to make without a packet of gravy mix? Really?


After a rather heated discussion on an email list last fall, I have been keeping an eye out for research on mind body connections.  I had posted this list of “Ten Irrational Ideas” from Albert Ellis’s book A Guide to Rational Living. I read it in my 20s and discovered that not telling myself these things changed my life for the better.

  1. It is a dire necessity for an adult to be loved or approved by almost everyone for virtually everything he or she does.
  2. One should be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in virtually everything one does.
  3. Certain people or bad, wicked, or villainous and they should be severely blamed or punished for their sins.
  4. It is terrible, horrible, and catastrophic when things are not going the way one would like them to go.
  5. Human unhappiness is externally caused and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows or rid themselves of negative feelings.
  6. If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome, one should be terribly occupied with and upset about it.
  7. It is easier to avoid facing many life difficulties and self-responsibilities than to undertake more rewarding forms of self-discipline.
  8. The past is all-important and because something once strongly affected one’s life it should indefinitely do so.
  9. People and things should be different from the way they are and it is catastrophic if perfect solutions to the grim realities of life are not immediately found.
  10. Maximum human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction or by passively and uncommittedly ‘enjoying oneself’.

People reacted very strongly, and defended almost everything on the list as not irrational – which perhaps shows how much we are creating our own misery by believing these things.   I think essentially what Ellis did was condense and restate in a secular and psychological way ancient truths that have been expressed in religious traditions around the world.

The dire necessity to be loved can be seen as the opposite of God’s acceptance of every sinner, and the necessity of acting on one’s own conscience, not the approval of others.

The necessity of being perfect can be seen as the arrogance of thinking human perfection is attainable and the opposite of humility.

The necessity of punishing the sinner can be seen as the opposite of the concept expressed by the Quakers as “seeing God within” ourselves and others, and the Universalist ultimate forgiveness of everyone.

And of course, the basis of Buddhism is the idea that human unhappiness is caused by telling ourselves how horrible things are.  I certainly catch myself doing that and making myself miserable. We all know people with many advantages who make themselves miserable because nothing is ever enough or good enough. We also know people who have a lot of disadvantages who are nevertheless happy with what they have. We have choices. And yes, there are feedback loops between the physical and the mental/emotional.

The physical act of smiling changes brain chemistry. It seems to me that the underlying mechanism, whether spirit or
chemistry, makes virtually no difference to the pragmatics – for example, meditation has certain outcomes – whether it is because it changes the brain chemistry or connects with a universal spirit. For me, that matter and energy transform and interact to create everything that we perceive is just as much or more mysterious and miraculous as believing in a spirit that somehow animates everything.

In this experiment, moving marbles from a lower box to a higher one caused participants to recall more positive experiences, and moving them downward to remember more negative experiences.

I’m Not Getting Older…

I used to send this to friends turning fifty:

Is not old wine wholesomest, old pippins toothsomest, old wood burn brightest, old linen wash whitest? Old soldiers, sweethearts, are surest, and old lovers are soundest.
John Webster c. 1580 – c. 1625
Westward Hoe [1607]

And here are two more old versions.

Alonso of Aragon was wont to say in commendation of age, that age appears to be best in four things – old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.
Francis Bacon 1561 – 1626
Apothegms [1624]

I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines.
Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774)
She Stoops to Conquer

We’re pretty much all over fifty or even sixty now.  A while back, a friend sent one of those emails more or less humorously bewailing the things that happen when you are older.  I thought at the time we would all be better off if we quit bemoaning, even in jest, the downside of growing older, and appreciated the good things.  And now, here is research to prove it:

“How old you are matters, but beyond that it’s your interpretation that has far-reaching implications for the process of aging,” said Markus H. Schafer, a doctoral student in sociology and gerontology who led the study. “So, if you feel old beyond your own chronological years you are probably going to experience a lot of the downsides that we associate with aging.

“But if you are older and maintain a sense of being younger, then that gives you an edge in maintaining a lot of the abilities you prize.”
ScienceDaily 4 March 2010


Researchers at North Carolina State University have found that senior citizens who think older people should perform poorly on tests of memory actually score much worse than seniors who do not buy in to negative stereotypes about aging and memory loss.
ScienceDaily 23 April 2009

The cause of suffering as identified by the Buddha is clinging – the desire for things to be other than they are – and the cure for suffering is acceptance or equanimity, which as far as I can tell is the same attitude as the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

Reinhold Niebuhr

My sister-in-law was reminded of As Time Goes By in a recent comment.  A running joke was Rocky’s devil-may-care youthfulness in contrast to Rocky’s stodgy son Lionel, old before his time.  Rocky married Madge, in their 80s, and they honeymooned in Outer Mongolia, riding camels and who knows what.  As Rocky would say “Rock on!”

Low-Carbon Living

Sleuthing the origins of a Margaret Mead quote mentioned on Dave Bonta’s excellent blog eventually led me to a welcome cheerful site on global warming and what we can do about it. It was created by a son of the editors of Resurgence , a British environmental magazine founded in the 60s, “at the heart of earth, art, and spirit.”

I read some peak oil blogs for a while, as well as global warming sites, and mountain-top removal, surface mining and Marcellus shale gas drilling are concerns of mine.  I know a lot of people who are concerned about environmental and social and economic justice issues.  I’ve put a lot of hours into health care reform this past year.  I was feeling sapped by the anger, urgency, grimness, and, often, self-righteousness of all of these movements.

Global warming and climate change are not going to destroy the earth – just change it, maybe to where the kinds of life it sustains is dramatically different – but why should we be so arrogant as to think we should control or decide what life on earth should look like? My concern with mountain-top removal, coal-fired plants, and consumption in general is not really what it does to the earth in the long term, it is what it does to the immediate environment and the people who depend on it in the short term, and to the values of those people and how they relate to each other.  We end up with people who make other people miserable, directly or indirectly, because they believe that he who dies with the most toys wins.  So I have turned back to more spiritual explorations – how can I live, and help others live, in ways that are less materialistic?

So I was pleased to find this no-nonsense, reassuring, Low-Carbon Lifestyle website:

The best way to start is to calculate your current emissions, so you can see how much you save in a year – you’ll be surprised how well you do! To calculate your emissions use the calculator at Don’t feel guilty about your carbon emissions! We’ve only just found out about the dangers of carbon dioxide.

The site says “Don’t Panic” in the very best low-key British style.  Of course, “Resurgence” is a very positive name, too; whilst Rachel Carson was delineating a Silent Spring, the British were plotting improvements.  A newish term in environmental economics, “resilience,” is positive, too.

Leave us not continue to weep, wail, and gnash our teeth in the best tradition of Jeremiah.  Let’s spend our energy on figuring out and using practices to make things better.  Those who are not yet convinced will not be convinced by continuing ugly facts, but they may well be convinced to live a life that is easier and more pleasant.  Whatever happened to the idea of the rat race and getting out of it?  A few did, but far more are still in it.

The Housewife

My several years of reading mysteries seemed to have dulled my enthusiasm, and Monday I found myself wandering rather aimlessly through the public library for alternative reading.  I eventually ran across Sixpence in Her Shoe, by Phyllis McGinley, and rediscovered what was undoubtedly a large influence in my attitude to homemaking and housekeeping.

She begins:

This is a book by, for, and about the American housewife….And it is the rewards as well as the challenges and difficulties of creating a home that I discuss here….When I speak of housekeeping I do not, of necessity, refer to housework.  This is no manual on how to polish brass or clean ovens or have the whitest wash on the block.  Being a housewife may or may not entail all these tasks; it has, at times, for me.  But tasks is what they are, nothing more.  They do not touch the heart of the matter.

For McGinley, the heart of the matter was the home as the core of society.  She was writing in 1960, before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique kicked off the second wave of the feminist movement, but at a time when American women were criticized for being in the workforce, for being educated and staying out of the workforce, for not adequately supporting or even emasculating their husbands, for smothering their children, and a variety of other, often conflicting, faults.

I was nine.  My mother, and almost every other woman I knew, was a mother and a homemaker, and had a job.  My mother was a teacher.  Johnnie Keith next door had two boys, a husband who was a manager at the Farm Bureau and ran cattle on a farm out in the county, and she kept the books for the monthly cattle auction, which kept her at work after midnight on that Saturday night.  Fannie Reed across the street was the buyer for the department store her husband managed, and glamorously went to New York City on buying trips twice a year.  Never mind that the top end blouses at Morrison’s were Bobbie Brooks, a brand now sold mostly at Wal-Mart.  Other mothers ran or worked in local stores, as well as teaching school or nursing, and many worked at the state mental hospital or the sweater factory.  My great-aunt Iona worked in the family jewelry store, and her sister Eunice was a dressmaker.

So I didn’t have much experience with McGinley’s world, which was homemakers in the suburbs and small towns of New York and Connecticut, graduates of the Seven Sisters or other liberal arts colleges, married to husbands who commuted into the city by train, to jobs in finance, advertising, or law.  But I did see the point of the importance of the home as well as the office – and like most of my generations, wanted to “have it all.”  Unlike the girls who grew up in those commuter towns and subdivisions, I had the example of women who were doing it all.  And I found a husband who had had the same; not only a mother who worked,  but a father who worked in town, and was as involved at home (as mine was) as our mothers were in the world outside the home.