Climate Resolutions

I am generally not a big fan of making New Year’s resolutions, but the more I learn about climate change, the more I’ve been trying to cut back on my carbon footprint. Each year (and not necessarily starting on New Year’s Day) I have focused on just one thing I can do to reduce my environmental footprint. The first thing I focused on after starting my research for The Witness Tree in 2010 was my driving. I teach on Long Island but live in Brooklyn. For the first few years at my job, I commuted 60 miles a day (return-trip), 4 days a week, 9 months out of the year. This equaled driving almost 9000 miles a year –  just for my job. Some days I took the LIRR (Long Island Railroad), but getting to and from the campus was problematic and frustrating and this deterred me from taking the train. Early on in my research I had learned that one gallon of gasoline produces 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide (diesel produces 22.38 lbs.) so I was determined to find a way to cut back on my driving. I bought myself a second, used bike for $25 which I keep at the train station in Long Island. (I keep my other 25-year-old bike in Brooklyn to use for general usage.) It’s not a pretty bike, thus no one bothers to steal it, but it gets me where I need to go. And since global warming has meant milder winters (this year being the exception) I have been able to ride nearly every day.

me_bike_ncc copy

My commuting now takes longer (about 1:45 hour each way vs 1 hour for driving) but I am much happier knowing I have significantly cut back on my carbon footprint. I actually prefer the train as I can read, answer emails, grade student projects, or just look at the passing landscape. I am also happy to be getting in a little exercise. It’s only about a 15-20 minute ride each way but that’s more exercise than I got sitting in my car. I don’t claim to be a saint. I still have my car which I sometimes use for other purposes – transporting large artwork, getting to sites to photograph for my project or freelance jobs, and occasional weekend escapes. But I have cut back my usage by at least 85%. I feel pretty damn good about that.

An unexpected side-benefit is that I have inspired some of the students. One student saw me bringing my bike into my office one rainy day and asked incredulously, “You rode your bike to school?” I explained how it’s only part of my commute, that I don’t ride all the way from Brooklyn. “That’s cool,” she said. “And you’re a professor?” I nodded. “That’s really cool!” she added. “Thanks. I think it is too.” In the four years I have ridden my bike to school I have noticed more and more bikes locked up along the railing where I often put mine. Although I don’t know if I’ve influenced any of those riders, it’s nice to know more people are joining me. Will you?

It is often said that one person can’t make a difference, but I believe otherwise. Recently I picked up a book of essays about the influence of Rachel Carson. I have enjoyed reading about her life and her influence on the environmental movement but it made me realize I never read her seminal book Silent Spring. Published in 1962, it drew attention to the harmful use of pesticides, primarily DDT. She is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement and although DDT was not banned until 1972, her book and subsequent appearance in Congress clearly brought needed attention to a terrible matter.

Although I am no Rachel Carson, I do have a voice and am also using my camera to draw attention to the critical issue of global climate change. So my first “resolution” or goal of this year is to read Silent Spring. And the second is to start sharing more of what I have learned about climate change on this blog and via more presentations with school and community groups. I want to share more of the stories I’ve collected from the people I have interviewed and photographed. And, as clichéd as it sounds, every journey does begin with a single step. I encourage you to think about what you can do this week, this month, this year to lower your own carbon footprint.

Happy New Year!

Pura Vida – Part 2 – Rancho Mastatal

I am now in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina but wanted to catch up a bit on my postings on Costa Rica before I leave for Antarctica tomorrow.  Internet access has been intermittent which has made blogging a bit of a challenge. But I will try to keep you all abreast of my whereabouts as time goes on!

welcome sign to town of MastatalRancho Mastatal is another permaculture farm started by gringos from the States – Tim (Timo) O’Hara and Robin Nunes – whom I unfortunately did not get to meet as they were in the US visiting family with their daughter Sole. Unlike VerdEnergia which can really only be reached by bus and then car (or a good long hike) Mastatal is on a bus route which does make it a slightly more convenient place to live/visit. Yet, even so, if one wants to run errands in nearby Puriscal it’s an 11 hour return-trip beginning at 5:30 am so it’s not a journey made to pick up a couple items.

bridge at the tilapia pond

Bridge at the tilapia pond

One of the bedrooms in the Hankey House

One of the bedrooms in the Hankey House

The Rancho was begun in 2001 and is spread out over 550 acres. Their buildings are not only sustainably constructed from local wood, mud, and bamboo but they are also very attractive. Located at the crossroads of Mastatal, the rancho sits across from the local soda (a small café where everyone from the finca eats on Sunday nights) and next to that is the police station and across from it is the bar. Thus the area’s main attractions are literally a stone’s throw from the main house, with the exception of The Iguana Chocolate Farm only 1 km down the road.

James enjoying some quiet time on a Sunday afternoon

James, one of the volunteer interns, enjoying some quiet time in the Hankey House on a Sunday afternoon

The Hooch, mi casa for several nights

The Hooch, my home for several nights

I stayed in “The Hooch” – a lofty two-story “hut.” Built primarily from native bamboo it is very elegant and airy. I felt privileged to stay in it as I think it’s one of the prettiest buildings on the property. There are no windows or walls, just tarps to help keep it dry during the rainy or “green” season as it is often called. The only downside of this hut is that it sways when there is a strong wind or when someone else walks across the room. The other issue is that to get to the second floor bedroom you have to climb up a ladder so it’s not good if you are afraid of heights or need to make a trip to the bathroom (a couple buildings away) during the middle of the night.

Which brings me to the subject of the bathrooms.  Both the fincas I visited had flush toilets in the house reserved for just peeing. All toilet paper goes in a trash bin next to the toilet and then gets composted (something I found is a common practice in Costa Rica to avoid clogged toilets).  Both places also had separate composting toilets that TP would go into along with a scoop of sawdust to help the process along.  But unique to Rancho Mastatal was their “Bio-D” toilet.  I had seen a video once about these bio-digestor toilets so it was interesting to get to see/use one in person.

The Bio-Digester toilets.  On the outside are mosaics illustrating the cycle created by using them.

The amazing Bio-Digester toilets. On the outside are mosaics illustrating the cycle created by using them. To note: the views from all the bathrooms and showers are quiet lush and green!

A bio-d toilet is similar to a composting toilet but is used for solid waste.There is a hose next to the toilet to “flush” down the contents into a holding tank underneath it. I believe this added water also helps with the process of converting the waste into methane fuel that then gets pumped up a small hill to the kitchen and gets used for cooking.  I know this might seem a bit repulsive to the uninitiated but I can attest from the cup of tea I made using the little stove it fuels that there is no residual smell.Actually, I think it’s kind of brilliant and is a good example of how Rancho Mastatal is committed to the full cycle of sustainable living.

The 3 stages of Mastal's composting stalls

The 3 stages of Mastal's composting stalls - another sign of their commitment to the cycle of sustainable living: The signs read: Let Me Be, Use Me, and Feed Me.

a shelf of books on food issues in the Rancho's library

Just one shelf of the Rancho's great collection of books on food, environmental and political issues

When I first arrived I was given a tour by Katina who, along with her partner Tyler, is acting as caretaker while Tim and Robin are away. The gardens here contained many of the same fruits and vegetables as at VerdEnergia: bananas, pineapple, passion fruit, cranberry hyacinth, peppers, water spinach, and various herbs to name a few. They also have lots of fruit trees spread out across their property. By the main house are hydroponic beds in which some eggplants and small tomatoes are being grown. The main water container for this set-up contained tilapia fish that will become food for their table once they got bigger.

A view of the main house looking across the verdant front garden.

Looking across the verdant front yard gardens to the main house.

Chepo, a local Tico who has worked at Mastatal since its inception

Chepo, a local Tico who has worked at Mastatal since its inception, carrys greens to feed the goats.

The Rancho employs several local Ticos who help cook and maintain the property. They are in integral part of the Rancho’s success. Besides various jobs around the farm, the volunteer interns help cook in the kitchen and are fully in charge of Sunday brunch. Needless to say the food here – like at VerdEnergia is delicious and farm fresh.  I got very spoiled.

The farm has 6 goats, about 25 hens, and 1 cocky rooster plus several cats and dogs. Approximately 30-35 eggs a day are collected, not always enough to feed all the guests but a fair amount all the same. I left the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and there was talk having chicken for their holiday dinner. I am sorry I had to leave before then since, as an occasional meat-eater, I would like to have participated in the butchering of the hens to feel more connected to what I eat.

Simon carrying a basket of fresh chicken eggs

Simon carrying a basket of fresh chicken eggs

The two billy goats in their stalls

The farm's two billy goats (Oliver and Fenway) in their stalls

Liv, her hands sticky from making empanadas, stands in front of the Rancho's wood burning stove

Liv, her hands sticky from making empanadas, stands in front of the Rancho's wood burning stove

Priscilla and Chet from France - making crepes and falafels for Sunday brunch.

Prescilla and Chet, volunteers from France, making crepes and falafels for Sunday's brunch.

The current residents at Mastatal were mostly Americans but they often have Europeans, such as Chet and Prescilla from France, who find their way there.  Most visitors are young adults ranging from their late teens to their early 30’s but there was also Stacy, a mom in her early 40’s, and her two adorable daughters – Mica, 11 and Liv, 9. One lasting memory I will take away with me from my stay there was Liv asking her Mom if she could use the machete.  (The answer was “yes” as long as there was adult supervision. Talk about trust).

Like VerdEnergia, Mastatal also accepts volunteer interns who are eager to get some dirt under their fingernails and learn more about sustainable agriculture. Just spending three days at each of these fincas left a lasting impression on me.  I look forward to the day I can return for a longer visit and help with more than just photographing their exemplary work.

Rancho Mastatal, where even the dogs are politically engaged

Rancho Mastatal, where even the dogs are politically engaged.

Pura Vida – Part 1

view from VerdEnergia Farm

View from VerdEnergia Farm

I’m on the road at last. After weeks of planning (getting vaccines and visas) and packing (four pairs of socks or five?) I left for my first international destination: Costa Rica.  My original focus in this laid-back land was just going to be The Monteverde Cloud Forest which due to climate change is turning into more of a rain forest. But after my friend Jose Conde spoke to me about several fincas (farms) based on Permaculture, I knew I wanted to visit them to show the flip-side of the story of climate change. Much of our world is being altered by our putting too much carbon dioxide in the environment but there are many concerned citizens who are working to restore Mother Earth’s greenery.

Finca # 1 – VerdEnergia

VerdEnergia mural

One of the many colorful murals painted around the finca

Located in the ultra-small town of Lanas, down a narrow-muddy-bumpy road southwest of San Jose, past Puriscal and Salitrales, it’s an adventure just getting there. But the warm welcome I received from the members of the VerdEnergia tribe made all the jostling worthwhile. Begun in 2006 by American Joshua Hughes and some like-minded compatriots who were seeking an alternative to the traditional consumer-based rat-race, they began this finca to embrace a more conscientious, sustainable way of living.

mushroom growing from a crack in the cementVerdeEnergia is a magical place where a mushroom grows from a crack in the cement to mirror its painted shadow and a late-night impromptu batch of chocolate  is made from cocoa beans from a local farmer. Food is,of course, of the essence here … from the fresh goat milk which is stirred in coffee, drunk straight-up or made into yoghurt and cheese, to the yucca that is chopped down in the field one morning and then graces the table that night in the form of crispy chips and a cheesy casserole. Yummm. My mother asked if I was eating well on my travels. She need not worry. The food was fresh, flavorful and plenty at both farms I visited.

Maiju making yoghurt

The resulting yoghurt with granola sprinkled on top

The resulting yoghurt with granola sprinkled on top

Cheese made with jalapeño peppers for some extra kick

VerdEnergia is on 20 acres of a former deforested cow pasture.  They are letting the jungle take back part of the property and structuring the rest to maximize the land’s potential for agriculture and to avoid landslides during the rainy season that are all too common on such deforested lands.

Swales cut into the earth help prevent landslides and make better use of rainfall for crops

Swales cut into the earth help prevent landslides and make better use of rainfall for crops.

A landslide created by deforested area down the road from VerdEnergia

Everyone who is staying at the farm takes part in the daily cooking schedule as well as with helping with the various farming and construction projects.

Two residents planting peanuts

Angel and Douwe readying the earth to plant peanuts

Caspar varnishing boards for new living quarters

Caspar varnishing boards for new living quarters

view of the main house at dusk

View of the main house at dusk

The farm is a colorful place with murals painted on many walls and a cool blue pool outside the main house. The current group living there is a multinational bunch hailing from the US, The Netherlands, and Finland.

The current crop of residents and volunteers at VerdEnergia

The current crop of residents and volunteers at VerdEnergia

A fledgling Jatropha plant

A fledgling Jatropha plant

Besides the farming and building a bigger “village” to extend the size of their community, a large part of their plan is creating biodiesel from the Jatropha plant (or tempate as locals call it). It takes several years for a plant to become capable of producing fuel from crushing its leaves and collecting the oil, but they have already started production. VerdEnergia plans to use this “green energy” for their own use as well as selling it to put equity back into the farm. I was amazed at the ease of planting the Jatropha and other plants by just sticking a branch into the ground and letting it sprout.

overhead view of a Jatropha plant

Overhead view of a Jatropha plant

With composting toilets, manual labour under a hot sun, and early-morning starts to the day, this lifestyle is not for everyone, but if you are interested in community living, fresh food, solar-water showers, and learning about sustainable agriculture VerdEnergia welcomes volunteers.

Maiju in the goat barn with a rabbit visiting from the other side of the fence

Maiju, one of the full-time residents, in the goat barn with a rabbit visiting from the other side of the fence

Pura Vida more or less translates to “pure life” but it is used in a much broader sense in Costa Rica to mean things like – full of life, awesome!, this is living! or even – this is awesome living!! It is often used in greeting someone or saying farewell.  It’s a catchy phrase that aptly describes my experiences in Costa Rica. I left VerdEnergia with renewed faith in our ability to reclaim land that has been deforested and depleted of nutrients. In my next post – I’ll talk about Rancho Mastatal, another permaculture finca down the road  from VerdeEnergia.