05 January 2020

Biking in New York

After a bad crash almost three years ago, I've been biking in New York again. Some things have changed, some things have not.

Unchanged: pedestrians. They step into the street without paying attention, they walk in the bike lane, they text and walk, they behave with complete unpredictability. I appreciate the anarchy on a philosophical level, but on a practical level I’d like them to acquire some level of self-preservation.

Changed: a flashy new protected two-way bike lane on 20th Street, between 1st Avenue and the East River. That used to be the scariest part of my ride, with unprotected bike lanes going both directions on a two-way street, constantly blocked by parked and stopped cars, an access road on the other side of a sidewalk, and parked cars that made it really hard to know where the next 2000-pound barrel of death might come from.

Changed: protected on-way lanes on some of the cross streets, with plastic bollards to keep the cars out AND no line of parked cars, so you can actually see the traffic.

Unchanged: construction projects that block the bike lane, forcing cyclists out into the stream of motorized traffic streaming down the avenues.

Unchanged: drivers that use the bike lane as a stopping zone, loading zone, unloading zone, delivery zone, temporary parking. Whatever. Sometimes, every block has an obstruction in the bike lane.

Unchanged: the “protected” bike lanes on the avenues with a line of parked cars that make it so you can’t see the traffic, you don’t know if a driver is going to open a door into your path, and if a pedestrian steps in front of you, your options are to slam on the brakes or hit a parked car. Sometiems both.

Changed: the sheer numbers of cyclists. There are more of them than ever. This provides a certain amount of protection by sheer numbers, because drivers know to look for us. But New Yorkers being New Yorkers, it also means a net increase in chaos, with more people riding against traffic in one-way bike lanes.

Unchanged: the city still doesn't have an infrastructure or a culture that prioritizes anything other than motor vehicles. Vision Zero is still a dream.

02 January 2020

More Biking in the New Year

I teach a couple of classes in which I ask students to undertake a semester-long personal project where they commit to some small change that will benefit the environment. I generally make my own commitment as well, and write about it in the same on-line discussion board where the students write about theirs.

My point: we can’t stop climate change, but we can make it less bad. It’s going to take efforts on the parts of individuals, corporations, AND governments. It’s our problem, not somebody else’s.

In the Fall, I told my Humans and the Environment students that I was going to do my grocery shopping by bike.

I failed spectacularly. I made it to the supermarket twice all semester.

When I’ve lived in Cambridge, I’ve done all of my shopping by bike, regardless of weather conditions. I didn’t have a car, so I had no choice. I shopped once or twice a month at the big supermarket on the other side of town, on weekends at the farm stand, and at the small shop in the center of town when I needed something quick.


And when living in NYC, I’ve always done all of my shopping on foot or by bike. Parking, at both ends, is just too much of a hassle.

But having a car in New Jersey, and the presence of ample free parking everywhere, made it too easy to drive.

I’ll pat myself on the back for this: even though it wasn’t an articulated goal, I always managed to bike to the gym when I wasn’t already on campus for teaching and meetings. I also either walked or biked to work almost every single day, except for the weeks when I had walking pneumonia.

This spring, I’ll try again to add grocery shopping into the biking mix.

Problem in the fall: I didn’t make my goal concrete enough, and I didn’t give myself time to get up to speed. Plan for spring: In January, I’ll aim for at least one trip to the supermarket by bike, in February, at least two, in March, at least three, and thereafter, four per month (or once a week).

Problem in the fall: I didn’t commit to times or days when I was going to shop by bike. Solution: I’ll pick the days and plan ahead to make sure I have the time and equipment.

Problem in the fall: I didn’t plan ahead. I’d be at the end of the work day and realize I was missing a key ingredient for dinner. Plan: always bike to work with an empty pannier, locks, and lights so I can ride by the supermarket on the way home.

Also, I’ll be more careful about planning menus at the beginning of the week and buying groceries that will support them, rather than buying a bunch of random stuff that looks good and assuming it will come together.

Problem in the fall: I didn’t pick specific stores that I was going to bike to. Proposed solution: plan one trip to the health food store, one trip to each of the two closest supermarkets, and one trip to the farmer’s market. Figure out what I can do comfortably, and then do it.

Wish me luck. Hold me accountable. And tell me what you’re doing this year to make a difference.


20 November 2019

Green Holiday Gift Guide

The holidays are hard on the environment. In the US, people generate 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day -- including uneaten food, giftwrap, packaging, decorations, and last year's phones and computers. Then there are the unwanted gifts that people don't know what to do with, many of which also end up in the trash.

It's time to rethink gift-giving. Regifting can be a positive thing. An older family member who was downsizing gave me a lovely wooden salad bowl one year. It became a treasure. If you're just passing on something that the recipient won't want and can't use, it's not going to be appreciated, but regifting can be done thoughtfully and tactfully.

It's time to rethink giftwrap. My family has a long history of wrapping gifts in paper tied with ribbon, no tape used, that can then easily be saved for another year. We also cut taped paper and re-use that. One year, my mother sewed a bunch of cloth gift bags. I usually use gift bags with tissue paper -- with a little care, endlessly reusable.

But with those caveats, we want to give gifts to our loved ones. So, a few thoughts.

Don't go overboard. I'll admit, I like to have a little gift for my son for every day of Hanukah. One day it might be the skateboard or commuter bag he's had his eye on. Another day it might be a shirt or a hoodie I think he'll like. Other days, it will be a snack or treat of some sort. But I try to keep most of it low-key, and a combination of food he'll enjoy, clothes he can wear, and stuff he's been wanting. 

I know some folks appreciate it more than others, but I often make a charitable donation in lieu of a physical gift. Planned Parenthood, Heifer International, and the Sierra Club are some of the organizations I've supported in this way, but that's something that has to be personalized to both giver and recipient.

Another alternative is to give green products, and this is also a way to communicate with friends and family members about why you're doing this. You might give shade grown coffee, responsibly sourced tea, or ethically grown chocolate, with an explanation of what fair trade and environmentally responsible farming practices mean. 

If you're going to buy someone clothing, save up for a quality piece that will last, both in terms of construction and fashion, and look for a company with policies friendly to both labor and environment

Beware of green-washing. Overconsumption is a major driver of climate crisis, and even "green" products have production and transportation related emissions.

And don't forget folks who can't afford to give their families gifts. Consider making a donation to an organization that helps poor people at the holidays. And then vote in politicians who will raise the minimum wage and enact single-payer health insurance and make other inroads into the American scourge of poverty.

Just keep thinking. The holidays are stressful for all kinds of reasons. But try to keep environmental issues in sight as well. Other ideas? Please post in the comments, and I'll update.

03 November 2019

Mitigation, or Retreat?

Climate crisis is driven by the drive for constantly expanding profits and markets and the assumption that the earth’s resources are limitless. This letter is being sent to California homeowners in areas at risk of fire:


This is ugly, and represents the market- and profit-driven expectations of capitalism taken to their extremes. The insurance industry is refusing to insure those who need it most. The fires are caused in the immediate sense by greedy power-company executives who chose profits over equipment maintenance, but the droughts promoted by human activities over recent decades created the conditions that enable them.

But we are not going to be able to stop drought and flooding and other effects of climate change, and in some cases we are going to need to retreat from areas that we have destroyed or placed at high risk of fire and flood. If the insurance companies drive this because they are accurately assessing risk when no one else is, it’s tragic in the short term but may help us find a way forward in the medium and long terms. Which is, literally, cruel irony.

03 October 2019

Action at Different Scales

Yesterday, I sat in a faculty meeting concerning the fate of our first year seminar (it lost) while fighting the urge to jump up and point out that it was 94 degrees outside, demolishing the previous record for October 2 in our coastal town, which will surely be threatened in coming decades by rising seas.

I went home and sat outside my house in the remnants of the day’s heat. I read the day’s news out of Washington, pondering what looks like the collapse of the American experiment in democracy, and scrolled social media posts about the explosion in medieval studies, with senior scholars (white and privileged) ignoring or outright denying the need for changes in how we teach and talk about our discipline given its roots in British imperial expansionism and its current appeal to white supremacists.

I heard squealing. Two squirrels were fighting, and when I got up to investigate, the larger squirrel fled, leaving the smaller one nearly unconscious.

My partner wrapped the little guy in a piece of old towel and deposited her / him in the crotch of a tree to recover. When we investigated an hour or so later, she looked brighter of eye, but frightened by flashlight-wielding humans. By morning she was gone. The scrap of towel was undisturbed, and we hoped she had scurried away under her own power, rather than being taken by a hunter seeking weakened prey, or a scavenger.

In the face of what looks like impending global catastrophe on both climatological and political grounds, it seems ridiculous to worry about squirrels or professors fighting for territory. It seems pointless to plant a few flowers to support the local monarch butterfly population when global systems appear to be on the verge of collapse.

But I think it’s precisely because catastrophe seems so imminent that it’s important to keep attending to the small things. Being able to hold in mind and heart the fate of the smallest beings keeps me from getting lost in the whirlwind of terrifying global events. Helps keep me from losing faith in the possibilities for positive change. Maybe, too, it keeps me human.

I didn’t get a photo of the little squirrel. But here’s a chipmunk that visited my back yard a few weeks ago. Stay grounded, y’all.


25 September 2019

Wildlife-Friendly Flowers and Shrubs

This post is written as part 2 of a series to help students in my First Year Seminar course at Monmouth University, Humans and the Environment, to understand and participate in our ecological restoration project at Ross Lake Park in Long Branch, NJ.

In the first part of the project, students removed aggressive invasive species, focusing on Japanese knotweed, porcelain berry, multiflora rose, and oriental bittersweet, and in the process revealing oak  and pinchberry seedlings as well as native flowers that were being choked out by the faster-growing vines and other invasives.

In part 2, they planted several varieties of native flowers and shrubs that support pollinator species of bees and butterflies, and also provide haven for the numerous insects needed by native and migratory birds. Many native plants are quick to establish themselves, growing back from roots year after year as well as reseeding themselves, and are ideal as the base of a food chain that supports the growth of numerous varieties of insects that in turn feed cardinals, wrens, and woodpeckers, among many other species of birds either local to New Jersey or that migrate along the New Jersey coast.
 boneset
 brown-eyed susan
 coneflower (echinacea)
 goldenrod (foreground) and boneset
 jewelweed
 milkweed
 mountain mint
 New England aster
phlox
For more information, visit the Native Plant Finder website, where you can enter a zip code for anywhere in the US and get information based on the research of Dr. Doug Tallamy, who is an expert on the science of interactions between insects and plants (and Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware).

All photos courtesy of Catherine N. Duckett, Associate Dean, School of Science at Monmouth University, whose research is on evolutionary entomology.

23 September 2019

Identifying and Removing Aggressive Invasive Species

This is written for students in Humans and the Environment, a first-year seminar at Monmouth University in central New Jersey, but may be helpful for others working to shift their lawns toward species that support local and migrating pollinators and birds.

Students in class undertake a two-day "ecological restoration project." Part one is removal of invasive species and part two is planting native flowers and shrubs. On day one, we will focus on four different invasive species that have colonized the park.

Japanese Knotweed (native to Japan)
Note the large leaves that alternate along the stem, red bamboo-like stems, and small white flowers. Japanese knotweed flowers in late summer to early fall. In spring and early summer, the leaves are red.

Porcelain berry (native to Siberia)
Porcelain berry has five-sided leaves of various forms, long, branching vines, and tough stems. Whitish berries appear in midsummer and ripen to purple and blue. Porcelain berry has long branching taproots that are quite difficult to pull up, especially once established.

Multiflora Rose (native to China, Japan, and Korea)
This is a thin-stemmed bramble with small but tough thorns requiring leather gloves to remove. It has small flowers in mid-summer and small fruits later in the season.

Oriental Bittersweet (native to China)
Oriental bittersweet has medium sized, medium green leaves with a pronounced point.
Long, tough vines climb the trunks and branches of trees, blocking sun and choking them out.

Tools and Information

Tools include gloves, pitchforks, shovels, and clippers. For more information about these and other aggressive invasive species, see the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Fact Sheet.

All photos courtesy of Catherine N. Duckett, Associate Dean, School of Science, Monmouth University, whose research specialization is evolutionary entomology.