Water and Trash on the Sea of Cortez

Do you check out the messy side of the places you visit?


When we travel, tidy arrangements for visitors are much appreciated on my end, but it doesn’t seem right to go away without lifting the carpet. When we went to Disneyland, it was all I could do not to open the “employees only” doors, to peek behind the scenes. In New Orleans, we took side trips to quiet neighborhoods where people live and work, despite tourist-book warnings about safety.

Life is both glorious and grubby. When a man-made place looks perfect, it means the people who constructed and maintain it are hiding something. Maybe it’s a good something. Maybe not. To uncover the secrets of a place, I generally try to find out (1) where the water comes from and (2) where the trash goes.

In Singapore, surely one of the tidiest countries on earth, we learned there are almost no native sources of water. That’s pretty amazing for a country with 5 million people squeezed into an area about half the size of Los Angeles. How do they do it?


Botanical gardens, Singapore

Singaporeans are largely dependent on Malaysia for water. They supplement with catchment basins for rain, water recycling, desalination and set aside estuaries for water storage, but for the most part the water has been, at various times, shipped and piped in.

And trash? Very complicated. There is one landfill, on an artificial island.


Photo source: Singapore NEA

Household recycling is voluntary and complex, since most people live in high rises.


There are a lot of construction cranes in Singapore.

Some industrial waste is repurposed. Waste that can be burned is sent to incinerators, which generate energy; also pollution, but apparently not very much. The ash is transported to the landfill. Their goal is a 60% recycling rate, which is phenomenal given how most of the rest of the world deals with trash.

But enough about Singapore.

This week we visited a small outpost on the Sea of Cortez. Spectacular. Remote.


Trash? Most of it dumped, covered with palm fronds, just out of sight of the resort.


Water comes from the mountains, which also supply Cabo San Lucas, about 4 hours from where we were.


It is filtered for drinking, and post-use, processed in a septic field. Or so we hope.

Efforts in Mexico are underway to capture trash for recycling, but as anyone who walks along storm tossed beaches can see, that battle is only beginning. In an hour of trash-collecting on the uninhabited island of Cerralvo, we gathered a full bag of plastic: water and soda bottles, tooth brushes, shampoo bottles, shoe soles, umbrella handle, twine, tubing, and many dozens of bottle caps.

If you are traveling to the La Paz area and are interested in minimizing the impact of the trash you leave behind, check out this post by Fives on the Fly.


What’s going on in your neighborhood in the water and trash departments?

Four Grasses

The other day the newspaper featured a story about two local guys, Charles Wilson and Omar Ellis, who just launched a cricket flour business.


Not this kind. Photo source: ardanea

Knowing me, and in light of my recent post about the benefits of entomophagy, my husband pre-empted any discussion of the matter, saying if cricket flour appeared in any of our cookies, there would be, well, trouble.


I’m not running out to buy a bag of cricket flour. Marital bliss takes priority. Also, cricket flour doesn’t sound very appealing.


We westerners are pretty specialized in our diets. We depend on four kinds of grasses: wheat, corn, rice and millet.

Also, we’ve got a mind set that insists these crops be grown in a certain way, which is expensive, sterilizes soil, puts bad stuff in water and releases a lot of carbon into the air.

What happens if even one of those four species, is wiped out, despite our best efforts to fertilize, water and inoculate?

Maybe put some money in Cricket Flour stock?

If you try Peruvian chocolate cricket flour, I’ll try it. You first.


Farm versus Factory: Battles for open space

Where are the fights over land use in your part of the world?


Seavey Loop farmland. In the fog: a proposed addition to the city of Springfield, Oregon’s, growth boundary. Agricultural land would be rezoned as industrial.

Cities are required by law to incorporate enough land to accommodate future growth. In accordance with the law, the next town over from mine is proposing expanding its boundary. The proposal swallows up farmland in several regions.


One of the businesses looking to expand if Seavey Loop property is rezoned. Photo source: No Industrial Pisgah

It has set off a firestorm of criticism, particularly in one area with several small farms, that borders an arboretum visited by about 500,000 people a year.


Photo source: No Industrial Pisgah

City officials say that the arboretum, waterways and most farmland will be protected. Farmers, hikers and residents cry foul.

Fights like these are going on everywhere.

“We are like people living in the penthouse of a hundred-story building. Every day we go downstairs and at random knock out 150 bricks to take upstairs to increase the size of our penthouse. Since the building below consists of millions of bricks, this seems harmless enough … Eventually — inevitably — the streams of vacancy we have created in the fabric of the walls below will come together to produce a complete structural collapse.

When this happens — if it is allowed to happen — we will join the general collapse, and our lofty position at the top of the structure will not save us.”  Daniel Quinn, “The Danger of Human Exceptionalism”

With economic growth a priority and population growth on a steady upward trajectory, it’s inevitable that we’ll chip away at forests and farmland.


Still, many are willing to question, and push back.


Proposed expansion area marked in red. Photo Source: Friends of Buford Park

As discouraging as it may seem, small-scale fights like these help everyone think about and remember how important open space, clean water and the survival of other species is.


Farm land, industrial land, from Mt. Pisgah arboretum.

Have you been involved in land use planning? Have you worked to save open space, or to change zoning for or against industrial use?

The World According to Me

Do you have a theory about how the world works? Can you boil it down to a few sentences?


Photo Source: TZA, from flickr

MY THEORY OF THE WORLD: What we think we are:


 The best creatures anywhere, ever.

What we actually are:


Image Source: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr

Recently evolved bipeds.

What we think life’s purpose is: IMG_1641a

To improve our lot.

 What our actual purpose is:

Staphylococcus aureau Magnification 20,000

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Photo Source: NIAID

To reproduce. Evolve. Host bacteria.

How we think we improve our lot:


By rearranging things and making ourselves comfortable.

What we actually do:

Copy nature.

What we think we’re uncovering:

planet eclipse

Secrets of the universe.

What we’re actually learning:


Photo Source: USFWS on Flickr

Nature does everything better than we do.

We are bit players. Nature is the boss.

We live on a rock in the middle of nowhere. The important stuff — life, air, breath, companionship, joy, consciousness —  is absolutely free. Our own brains are the most complicated things we’ve ever discovered. We have no idea how this happened, or why. It’s a miracle. And geologically speaking, we’ve just gotten here. What’s next? My suspicion is that whatever is coming, it’s going to be a wild ride.

How do you think the world works?

Travel in 2014

Are you a traveler? Where are your favorite places?

This year, as we celebrated thirty years married, we covered a lot of ground.


January, Museum of Modern Art, New York*

Point Lobo

February, Point. Lobos


March, Revelstoke


April, New Orleans


June, Cozumel


Come on in. The water’s fine.


July, Emerald Bay


August, Willamette National Forest


September, Guadalajara.  700-year-old tree.


October, Little Round Top


November, Migrating salmon. Mapleton, Oregon

What do we get from going places for fun?

For me, travel is a wake-up. A trip bookmarks time and place. It humbles.

It’s good to breathe the air somewhere else, and see for myself how big, and how small the world is.

Travel makes me go outside.

Times and places where there aren’t many people, or things made by people, feel the most important: sunset over water, fish in a stream, fog descending over firs.

What does travel do for you? Are there places you want to see in 2015? Before you die?


Happy New Year 

May the year’s journeys be everything you hope for. 


 *”Interior with a Girl,” Picasso

Keystone Pipeline: Sound off Sunday

Your chance to sound off about a hot button issue.

What do you think about the Keystone Pipeline? Why has it become such a lightning rod?

Do these facts change your opinion?

Keystone XL:

Keystone is a multi-phased project. Several sections have already been built and are in use. The Keystone XL pipeline that is under consideration and the subject of controversy is the last of four phases.

Oil extracted from the tar sands/oil sands in Alberta, Canada is called bitumen. At 57 degrees fahrenheit it is as hard as a hockey puck. It must be warmed or diluted before it can be piped. Extraction is energy intensive.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline crosses an international border. Approval depends on a finding by President Obama’s administration that construction will be in the national interest. Proponents say it will help the economy and lessen dependence on oil from hostile suppliers. Opponents say it will worsen global warming, and that spills will cause environmental damage.


Image Source: Wikipedia

Existing pipelines: Three segments of the pipeline are already in use: (1) Hardisty, Alberta to Steel City, Nebraska and Pakota, Illinois. (2) Steele City to Cushing, Oklahoma, and (3) Cushing to Port Arthur, Texas. The controversial route more or less duplicates the Hardisty to Steele City route, but is shorter (see green line on map, runs through Baker, Montana).


Image Source: Wikipedia

Several additional pipeline routes to carry oil across Canada are being planned; and, a pipe parallel to an existing line from Hardisty to Wisconsin, has been proposed.

Spills: Over the last ten years, 4.1 million gallons of petroleum and hazardous liquids have been spilled each year in pipeline accidents, causing an average of two deaths per year. Property damage: $263 million annually. The Keystone Phase 1 pipeline, which opened in 2009, has had 12 reported leaks. In 2010, over a million gallons of Canadian diluted bitumen spilled from a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River. As of Aug. 2013, Enbridge Corporation, the company that built and maintains the pipeline, had spent more than $1 billion to repair and mitigate the damage. Cleanup is still underway.

Train transport: The number of train shipments of bitumen-derived oil has increased exponentially in recent years. Transporting by train is more dangerous than by pipeline.

Train accidents involving oil transport in 2013:

  • July, Lac Megantic, Quebec: Oil train derailed and seventy two tanker cars exploded and burned. Forty seven people died. Forty downtown buildings were destroyed. Cleanup estimate: at least $200 million.


    Lac Megantic, Quebec Image source: CTV

  • Oct., Gainford, Alberta: Four rail cars carrying crude oil and nine carrying liquified petroleum gas derailed in Alberta. The fire burned for days.
  • Nov., Aliceville, Alabama: Crude-oil tanker train derailed and burned. Released up to 750,000 gallons of oil.
  • Dec., Casselton, North Dakota: 20 cars in a train carrying crude oil ignited after colliding with a derailed grain train near Casselton, N.D., sending up a fireball and spilling an estimated to 476,000 gallons of oil.

Environmental impact of bitumen vs. ordinary oil: From shale to tail pipe, bitumen releases 17 to 20 % more carbon into the atmosphere than regular gasoline.

Jobs: temporary jobs (one year or less, full and part time) 42,000. Permanent jobs: 30 to 50.

Scribbler’s view: It was a surprise to learn how much of the Keystone Pipeline is already finished, how common pipeline spills are and how much oil is transported by rail. Tar sands oil extraction is more dangerous and dirtier than I thought, and more of a done deal.  

The last phase of the XL project will probably be approved. Even if it isn’t, stopping the construction of the pipeline will not end the extraction, shipment and burning of bitumen-derived oil from Canada. At most it would increase costs. This is a symbolic fight, a line in the ‘sand,’ and rallying point to organize fights against practices which worsen climate change.The legacy and value of the controversy will be new political alliances, and that the fight has brought the issue to the headlines. 

How do you think Congress and the President should/will resolve the Keystone controversy? 






Attention all eaters: Five things to know about new food safety rules


Have you ever written to a government agency on an issue you care about?

If you’re interested in local farming, and minimal use of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, now is a good time to write to the The Food and Drug Administration.


In 2011, the FDA updated its food safety regulations with the most comprehensive overhaul in seventy years, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). They are still working out the kinks. Anyone with an opinion is invited to comment before December 15, 2014.

Here are the new rules in their entirety. If you don’t have time to wade through all of that, Scribbler is here to help.

About fifty years ago, we made a U-turn in how we grow food. We introduced nitrogen fertilizers and new practices that allowed us to exponentially increase the amount of food we produce.


We are a long way, however, from understanding how best to grow food for billions of people. Scientists are discovering practices that encourage microbial activity in the soil, and are healthier and safer than some of the chemical-based practices most farmers use.  Until we know more, farmers who work and experiment with soil, water conservation, composting and organic methods need to be allowed — encouraged — to continue.  The new FDA rules will make that difficult. Some farms could inadvertently be put out of business.

Here’s what’s important for organic and small farms:

1. Farms vs. Facilities 

When food producers get big enough, the FDA stops defining them as “farms” and starts calling them “facilities.” The new rules update standards that facilities, i.e., large institutions, must comply with. Farms have separate requirements, designed for smaller operations.

The new definitions of what qualifies as a facility and what is a farm are fuzzy. For instance, small farmers who work jointly to store and package what they produce, or who have plots of land that are not contiguous, might be inappropriately classified as facilities.

According to laws passed by Congress, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSA’s) are farms, not facilities, but the FDA rules don’t make that clear. Small farmers who decide to, say, add a U-pick strawberry business that brings in $5000, might find themselves subject to rules requiring putting together and maintaining an expensive Food Safety Plan. To understand what that means, have a look here.  The plan could cost more than the income from the strawberries.


2. Due Process

Legal remedies and processes need to be clarified. If a grower’s status is changed, say a “farm” gets classified as a “facility,” there is no requirement for prior notice, leaving farmers no opportunity to correct the problem. The agency also  doesn’t have to list reasons for a change in status, and there is no clear path to appeal the FDA’s decisions. All these issues need to be addressed.

3. Soil Amendments 

The words “compost” and “manure” don’t appear in the new food safety rules, but they are in the subtext. Here’s a good breakdown of new rules governing soil amendments. Basically, the FDA is trying to prevent crops from being contaminated with bacteria like Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli. The trouble is, the new FDA rules conflict with those of the Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. There is disagreement about how long compost tea and manure fertilizers must be cured before they can be applied. The science is not clear. The National Organic Program, which was adopted after many months of research and public comment, in cooperation with the National Organics Standards Board (part of the USDA), should be the standard.


4. Water

Water is different everywhere, and the quality needed for safe drinking and swimming, is not the same as what’s needed to safely grow food. The FDA is proposing narrow rules that set one standard for all water use, both recreational and farming. This will lead to over-use of chemical water treatments. The rules need to be flexible to accommodate water in different geographical areas, and for different kinds of water use.


5. Sound off

It’s not just mega businesses that control what happens in Washington. When enough people speak up, policy makers respond. Witness the influence of the Tea Party, and the delay of Keystone Pipeline. The FMSA itself is being revised because of a huge response from the public. If you want to send a comment or statement to the FDA, here are instructions. Several sites also have templates and more information. See The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and the Friends of Family Farmers.

 Do you follow the ins and outs of rule-making about how we grow food? Have anything to add about the FDA’s new proposals?

Additional Resources: 








Meal Worms, Anyone?

Of all our food sources, what is the most efficient at converting carbohydrates to protein?

Not cattle, certainly. Ten pounds of feed generates one pound of beef. Plus each cow raised in the industrial system needs about 2000 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat, and a single cow can produce up to 132 gallons of methane a day. Methane is twenty times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide.

Chicken? It takes ten pounds of feed to generate five pounds of chicken meat, and 468 gallons of water to produce one pound of chicken.

The most efficient protein source? And the most environmentally friendly?



I don’t actually know if ladybugs are edible

Ten pounds of feed produces nine pounds of cricket meat. Insects barely need water, and generate almost zero greenhouse gases. Insect meat is high in fat, which, contrary to the diet soda hype in the U.S., is critical for health. Insects reproduce rapidly, in small spaces. They can be used as food for livestock.

compare insects

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, and the US Dairy Export Council, Finke 2012

Two billion people already rely on about 2000 edible insects as a source of food. We’re not just talking exotic chefs in Asia. Here in the U.S.A., the FDA allows up to:

— 30 insect parts in 100 grams of peanut butter
— 30 fruit fly eggs in 100 grams of tomato sauce
— 10 insects in 8 ounces of golden raisins
— 10 maggots in 100 grams of drained mushrooms

Bottom line: Americans eat about 500 grams of insects and insect parts every year. That’s the equivalent of a little over a pound of chicken.

Fans of the film “Snow Piercer” will appreciate the potential for insects as a food source. Or maybe not.


Image source: StackExchange


Feeling brave and looking for your own arthropod recipe? If you’re in New Orleans, drop by the Insectatorium where the Executive Bug Chef is whipping up holiday treats.

How about this as a gift to yourself or a loved one?


Image source: David George Gordon

David George Gordon’s Eat-a-Bug cookbook was listed as one of the New York Times best cookbooks of 2013. If you’re in Seattle, Mr. Gordon’s home town, you can join one of his cooking demonstrations.


Image source: David George Gordon

Moi? Truth be told, the only insects to pass my lips (except the FDA-allowable ten bugs per eight ounces in my raisins), were chocolate covered ants a so-called friend fed me for a joke, many, many years ago. She watched me chew with bright-eyed glee that would have tipped off anyone but the most ardent chocolate lover. They tasted, incidentally, the way ants smell.

Still — Scribbler is willing to bet there will be more insects on plates in the not to distant future. Maybe even on mine.

Have you tried eating or cooking with insects? How did they go down? Or up?

Book Review: A solution to global warming right under our feet

We know there are billions of tons of carbon floating around in the atmosphere that weren’t there 200 years ago.

What if there was a way to put it back, for free?

There is.

Microorganisms  —  billions in a tablespoon of healthy soil — can absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into soil carbon, reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seed, protecting land and crop from drought, improving crop yield, restoring range and grasslands.

It sounds too good to be true.

That’s why New York Times bestselling writer Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us, is worth a read. Ohlson takes readers on an around-the-world tour, from Zimbabwe to Oregon to Australia, visiting agronomists, horticulturists, farmers, ranchers and herders who are changing the way we grow food. She profiles farmers experimenting with low tech solutions to some of our biggest challenges — sustainability, food shortages, obesity, and yes, climate change.


Not necessarily because farmers are joining the fight against climate change by design. 70%, according to the industry-connected American Farm Bureau, don’t believe humans are causing climate change. Farmers do, however, prize carbon in soil. It’s what makes soil black, rich and fertile.

Take her introduction of a farmer in North Dakota, Gabe Brown:

          He [Gabe Brown] had been carrying around a slim 4-foot metal rod. … We walked into the cornfield, which seemed to be at least a foot taller than any of the neighbors’, and he nudged it into a bit of bare soil. And then — and then! — he pushed all 4 feet of the rod straight into the ground, all the way up to his knuckles.
         “I can’t believe that!” I think I dropped my recorder. “Do it again!”
          So he walked a few feet away and shoved the rod into the soil again, then it pulled it out and held it out to me. “You try it.”
          My arms aren’t nearly as substantial as Brown’s. Where his arms bulge with muscle, mine jiggle. Without much expectation of success, I took the rod and pushed it into the ground. I tried it in several places. And each time, I pushed the rod all the way up to my knuckles.
          I knew what an amazing thing this was, since I’ve been a backyard gardener ever since I was 25. Even after years of babying my beds with bags of compost, I never had soil like that… I could hardly stick a fork in my lawn back in Cleveland! But through his management of this harsh landscape, he had created soil that was so rich with microbial life that they had built aggregates going down at least 4 feet. Four feet of carbon-rich soil, stacked with billions of tiny cups to hold water.
          Brown shrugged. “I don’t worry about drought.”    
                                                              from The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson

Brown, who owns land outside Bismarck, started out as a conventional farmer. “He tilled, he applied fertilizer, he sprayed pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and he hung fly-killing ear tags on his cows.” He also experimented with no-till and organic farming, but with mixed results. Then, a 4-year cycle of hail, drought and late frost left him too poor to afford fertilizer. He took another look at the soil in plots he’d been experimenting with and realized it had improved dramatically. He began to study and apply practices such as no till and mixed crop farming. Before long, his neighbors were asking for tips. Then farmers from all over the world began consulting him.


Gabe Brown in one of his fields. Photo credit: Prairiefire Newsletter

Brown’s expenses are now a fraction of what he paid as a conventional farmer. His yields are above average in the community. He hasn’t used fertilizer since 2008, doesn’t use fungicides or pesticides, and only uses an herbicide every couple of years.  Brown has no doubt that what he calls regenerative agriculture can help solve our problems with atmospheric carbon.

The hitch? There are several. Our current farm program is geared to a monoculture system. As Gabe Brown says, we are “stuck in the current production mode.” Many people are invested in the sale of chemicals. Farmers are understandably risk-averse, and leery of the 4 to 5 years it takes to restore soil health.

But we can change. Ohlson writes, “As entrenched as chemical farming seems to be, it’s only been with us for 50 years.” It won’t be easy to turn this boat around, but we can do it. A lot of people have already started.

Ohlson’s book will make you rethink the potential for soil management and farming, and offers hope for a new way to address many of the challenges we face, including climate change.

Don’t miss this great 3 minute talk by Gabe Brown, on his farm.

Here’s an interview with Ohlson on Science Friday.

Wise Ones Correspond About Monsanto and GMO’s

Where do you stand in the GMO debates?

Oregon (my home state) and Colorado, will vote this fall on whether or not genetically modified foods should be labeled.



The vote is not, of course, about labeling, but about how easy it should be for people to opt out of the grand GMO experiment.

In 2012 and 2013, Pepsi, Monsanto, DuPont, General Mills, Kellogg, Dow, BASF, Cargill, ConAgra, PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Hormel, Syngenta, Bayer, and other corporations donated $68 million to defeat similar labeling measures in California and Washington.

It’s no wonder. Eighty percent of the foods produced by these companies contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Also, these companies no doubt would like to keep the focus on whether or not to label, rather than on whether or not messing with the gene pool and saturating the soil and water with glyphosate is a good idea.

The issues aren’t simple. Genetic engineering is credited with saving the papaya industry, and almost all of the sugar beets in the US are genetically engineered — how that happened is a whole other story.

Scribbler relies heavily on friends and family to help untangle sticky wickets like this. Professor M and Judge A, who are in their mid 80’s (and request anonymity), agreed to share part of their e-mail discussion on the subject.


Aug. 22

M –

I feel hornswoggled, bamboozled, deceived. Monsanto, in its latest reincarnation, proposes to become a universal ag. extension agent, advising its customers how to cash in on carbon credits.

They will do this by farming with new GM products while using carefully selected, superficial, organic methods; methods to reduce but not significantly eliminate environmental, biological and soil degradation. Run-off, water pollution and erosion caused by glyphosate, pesticides and manufactured fertilizers will be less troublesome. Promise! A little improvement will be better than none, I guess, but hardly worth further experimentation on us by bio-fuel manufacturers, junk food producers and cattle feeders.

As before, Monsanto has produced zero science that proves its products (as distinguished from sound agronomy), will benefit yields or crop quality beyond a few years. Soil improvements it promises are likely to be near the surface rather than deeper down where needed. Great PR though.

Most countries outside the US are not buying this latest, cynical ploy and there has been vigorous opposition here also. But Monsanto is now too big in the US to fail? Right?

Have a pastry made with GM flour. Protect yourself against agent orange.


August 23 2014. 8:35 PM

A –
We agree the world is going to the dogs. They made the catastrophic error of not letting you and me run it when we were younger.

Monsanto has indeed significantly replaced the ag. schools in dealing with the farmers. Not quite sure why. They cost much more, but maybe they also more often deliver what the farmer wants?

Data on CO2 impact of deforestation in today’s Economist. Not as bad as I thought. Comparable to international flying, such as we do next week. Much less than auto use.



August 23, 2014,. 10:04 PM

M –

I expect you will enjoy your flight even more now that Monsanto will take care of your plane’s CO2.
What a brilliant marketing tool: use faux extension agents to sell product! Much better than writing mortgages for people with no money.


Monsanto at Oregon State University? Using organic methods? Hiring themselves out as — expensive — extension agents?

Clearly more investigation is called for.

Where have your inquiries on GMOs led you?