Notes from Iowa: It’s Hard to Be a Caped Crusader When You’ve Got a Day Job

July 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Notes from Iowa, Slideshow

The pressure's great on all of us. Sometimes we need to take a break and reenergize so we can get back in there and save the world another day. Photo: Helder Almeida

Even a caped crusader needs some time to do her day job. Photo: Helder Almeida

Just how do superheroes manage to hold down day jobs and save the world?

Frankly, I haven’t a clue (other than the obvious one: It’s fiction). If you’re a full-time working person, a full-time parental unit, a full-time student, or a full-time-searching-for-a-job person, you may be experiencing what I am: fatigue.

There’s so much to do to try to right the wrongs of the world. So many environmental causes to defend. So many social justice battles to fight. And there’s just so little time.

If you’ve been following Blue Planet Green Living, you may have noticed a lack of posts in the past month. I haven’t been off sunning myself on a tropical island (though Iowa has felt pretty equatorial these past few weeks). I haven’t been sitting on my deck enjoying a book. And I haven’t been out fighting those battles I mentioned.

No, like many of you, I’ve been Working. Long. Hours.

Not that I’m complaining. As a native-born workaholic, it suits me just fine. But as a wannabe Protector of the Planet, well… it’s problematic.

One of my favorite crusades comes in the form of this blog. I enjoy sharing stories of people and their small businesses doing good for the world. I enjoy telling you about products and books that you might like for their quality as well as for their mission.

This isn’t the first time I’ve become a temporary slacker. Fortunately, a fair number of volunteers have stepped forward over the years and have generously donated their talents by providing posts for BPGL. They’ve come through when I just couldn’t muster up a post to save my hide. And I’m grateful.

For the past month, I’ve been more-than-usually immersed in my own world of work. And BPGL has been the neglected stepchild. My apologies to those of you who have patiently waited to see if there is still life in this project.

There is. Please hang in there with me a little longer as I finish work that will not wait. I know you understand, because you have to make choices, too. And sometimes your own cape has to hang in the closet while you do the mundane chores of daily life or even the exciting work that pays your bills.

None of us can save the world alone. We need each other. Thanks for all you do. And thanks for understanding as I take a little more time off to do what I need to do—for my day job.

Julia Wasson

Publisher

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Living Green: A Turtle’s Quest for a Cleaner Planet by Artie Knapp

November 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog, Books for Kids, Conservation, Front Page, Slideshow

Living Green: A Turtle's Quest for a Cleaner Planet by Artie Knapp

Living Green: A Turtle's Quest for a Cleaner Planet by Artie Knapp

As a former elementary teacher and the parent of three grown kids, I’ve probably spent thousands of pleasant hours reading children’s books. I know the power of a book to persuade as well as to educate young readers.

When I taught first grade (and as a parent), I carefully chose books that provided a good story and, often, a positive lesson. In the 1970s, my students’ exposure to fictional environmental role models was pretty much limited to Woodsy Owl, whose cry, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute,” inspired us all to care about our planet.

Today, children, parents, and teachers have a wealth of options to choose from for eco-friendly and inspiring books. One environmentally focused book that recently crossed my desk is Living Green: A Turtle’s Quest for a Cleaner Planet. The story will appeal to young readers, who will identify with the heroic turtle, Thurman, in this charmingly illustrated paperback.

Children’s author Artie Knapp spins an engaging tale about Thurman, whose sister’s wedding is nearly ruined by litter thrown from a passing car. Disgusted, Thurman sets out on a journey to stop pollution. He sees trash everywhere he goes, and it’s discouraging to the young turtle.

Yet, he eventually regains hope when he encounters a science class whose teacher is giving a lesson about protecting the environment. When Thurman’s life is endangered by the pollution he wishes to stop, resourceful children intervene to save him.

Living Green isn’t preachy, but it does impart an important message: If we want a clean, safe world, we all have to take responsibility for it. It’s a simple message, but an essential one. And childhood is the perfect time to share it.

The Fine Print

Blue Planet Green Living received a complimentary copy of the book reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.

Blue Planet Green Living’s policy is to review only those books we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a book more than we dislike it, we do not review it. We are not influenced by free books and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.

Blue Planet Green Living has an affiliate relationship with Amazon.com. If you purchase this book or any other products through Amazon by clicking on our affiliate link, Blue Planet Green Living will receive a very small financial compensation from Amazon, which we use to sustain this website.

Julia Wasson

Publisher

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

 

Fishing with Nell

Sometimes the kid in us gets lost when we grow up and take on the responsibilities of making a living, running a business, caring for a family, or serving a cause. Nell Newman seems to be different. When she talks about her childhood, a tomboy immediately comes to life. It’s easy to picture her pushing open the screen door at sunrise, with an old fishing pole over her shoulder and a can of worms in one hand, walking down to the river to fish.

While talking with Newman by phone from her home in Northern California, it was as if she was describing me. I was there, sitting on the grassy bank, or a moss covered log, my bare feet dangling into the creek, my red-and-white bobber bouncing circles in the water. Our futures were being molded by the same experience at different creeks. She was a kid in Connecticut, and I was a kid in Iowa, but we both grew up with fishing poles in our hands.

Newman and a hen at home in California.

Newman and her pet hen at home in California.

Nell Newman was an environmentalist from the beginning, though she didn’t know the term back then. She grew up to become the co-owner of a prominent organic food line. You know her as Nell Newman (or as Nell Potts, in film), daughter of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Nell spoke with us about the path she took to become who she is today, co-founder of Newman’s Own Organics.

In Part 1 of a two-part series, we talk with Nell about her lifelong love for the environment, beginning as a young child. In Part 2, Newman talks about the the logical extension of her environmental activism, Newman’s Own Organics.

BPGL: What interested us about you — besides your food, of course — was that you have a degree in human ecology and have worked as an environmentalist. Tell us about your journey to becoming who you are. What makes you so passionate about the environment?

NEWMAN: I lived in New York until I was about five, and my parents bought the house in Connecticut. It was on a little river. At one point, we had five dogs and six cats, and I had a Harris hawk. I even had a cat that would follow us when we would go through the woods. That’s what I did on a daily basis.

At a very young age, I was fascinated by birds, because the woods of Connecticut at that time were really full of birds. I was frustrated because I couldn’t fly, and birds were amazing to me. I grew up in the woods, running around with a pack of dogs and fishing. That’s what made me an environmentalist.

BPGL: Did you go fishing alone?

NEWMAN: I often fished alone, but when I was 12 or 13 I had a best friend my age. She and I fished together almost every day. She lived a couple miles upstream, so we decimated the river between her house and my house. I don’t even think we ate that much fish, but I was mesmerized by them.

BPGL: What was fishing like for you back then?

NEWMAN: I was by nature a biologist, because I spent all my time in the woods. It was a very prolific, diverse river. The biodiversity was amazing: Crappie and pickerel and sunnies — several species. Pumpkin seeds and orange breasts and bluegills, and all of these different species of fish. They were like jewels to me.

I go back now, and I look in the river, and it looks beautiful. And all the people who have moved to Westport still think it looks really beautiful. Yet, it’s slowly but surely silted up. I’ve watched the biodiversity drop in there. And right down from us, they have a fly-fishing only section that’s stocked by Trout Unlimited with non-native species.

When I was little — you probably remember this, since you grew up on a stream — the first thing you always saw was where you couldn’t get your bait through the shiners. And I realized that one of the things that is missing in that river now is that necessary lower part of the food chain — which is why I think everything’s gone to hell. There’s no bait fish anymore.

There would be schools of little shiners — baby suckers. When they’re really small, they don’t have a sucker mouth, they have a little normal mouth. I haven’t seen a school of shiners in there in 10 or 15 years. Usually, if I’d go home, I could catch a trout under the dam. I’ve caught some very unhealthy looking hatchery fish, like rainbows. Rainbows don’t do very well in that river, that river gets too warm.

Newman's love of nature flourished on the banks of a river in Connecticut.

Newman's love for the environment grew and flourished on the banks of a Connecticut river.

BPGL: Are you finding the fish are still healthy enough to eat?

NEWMAN: They taste muddy. It used to be you couldn’t drop a worm in there and not catch things. Now, in the spring, they get such a layer of algae growth. It’s not really thick, but it’s just thick enough to keep the sunnies from breeding — and sunnies are usually prolific. It used to be the little sunnie nests were all up and down that river.

Now, in the spring, the water bottom gets a layer of algae, which prevents the sunnies from building their nests. I just don’t see them. I’ll catch one or two sunnies. They’re really small. I think the algae is the result of too much nitrogen running off during the winter rains from the lawn fertilizers used locally. Also you have the nitrogen run-off from the waste of Canadian geese that don’t migrate north like they used to due to climate warming.

I swear I saw a wood duck the last time I was home. That really surprised me, because there used to be wood ducks on that river all the time. Something whizzed by when we were walking upstream — only one.  And I thought, Wow, it must have been a wood duck.

This whole climate change is affecting the environment. I’ve lived on that river for 40 plus years. And I’ve watched the degradation of that river, which has been my own little eco-system. I’ve watched it just disappear. It still looks pretty. But it’s not a gravel-bottom stream anymore — except in the middle of the winter, if they get a lot of rain, and then you can see some gravel. There’s so little in it. I was wondering what Trout Unlimited does. Because, when I catch a rainbow, I’m thinking what is this thing doing in here? It used to be nothing but brookies. They were tiny, and they were beautiful. I haven’t seen a brookie in there in years.

BPGL: Did you have any bass in your river?

Newman still enjoys fishing today.

Newman still enjoys fishing today.

NEWMAN: We had a few large-mouth bass, which would cruise up and down the river. They never grew to much size. We really had diversity: the eels, the turtles, the bass, the pickerels, the shiners, the sunnies. It was a vivid ecosystem of different species. Now, I don’t see bass cruise the river anymore.

I saw the weirdest thing last year, and I completely didn’t know what it was. I was doing my annual go-down-by-the-river-and-fish-for-a-half-an-hour. I kept seeing a disturbance on the surface, and I thought, What is that? It’s a very small river, and my parents had put a dam in there when we were kids so we could walk across. Along the dam, I saw a school of fish that I had no idea what they were. They would swim along the dam toward me, and I was actually trying to net them, because they seemed to be very stupid. It looked like they were small shad.

The water was going fairly fast. One of them swept over the dam, and it still looked like a small shad. I called a friend of mine, Jeff, who’s a striped bass guide in Westport, and I asked, “What the heck were these things? There were about ten of them. Blue backs and silver bodies, deep bodied.”

And he said, “They’re alewives. I can’t believe they’re that far up, because we’re probably three or four miles from the ocean.”

Somebody was putting in fish ladders — I think it was Trout Unlimited. Alewives is a species that comes up into fresh water and spawns, then goes back down. And somebody put a lot of dams in between us and the ocean. My grandmother, right south of us, has a dam that I have no idea how they got up, because it’s four or five feet. It’s stone. And it resembles a regular dam.

NEWMAN: What kind of place did you grow up on, Joe?

BPGL: If you ever look up a map of Iowa, it was a place called Buffalo Creek. It was just crappies and bass, and we had some natural trout that lived in the area. My friends and I kept a frying pan down there under the bridge. We’d keep a little fire going, and when we were hungry, we’d cook up a fish, gut it and scale it and eat it right there. We never had to go home. It was just us kids and nature.

NEWMAN: Me, too.

BPGL: It’s nothing like it used to be. Now, there’s barely any possum, fox, or muskrat. I couldn’t tell you how barren it is. It’s all farmland, and they farm within two feet of the creek. There’s just no protection from the fertilizers and the pesticides. They’ve almost killed the creek. I wouldn’t even want to put my feet in it now.

Newman in her above-ground garden.

Newman in her above-ground garden.

NEWMAN: Ours isn’t that bad. It looks pretty. People say, “It’s so nice in Westport, and there’s so much beautiful woods.” When I grew up, there was a place called the Fairfield County Trail Association that maintained the trails, and it was where you rode. — I actually wonder what happened to it. — Everyplace I rode horseback is now a giant mansion, and I’m sure they don’t have any access. You could ride for miles all over. It still looks pretty, but if you lived there forty years ago… I go home and put my blinders on. I go visit my family, and I have a really hard time going back there.

I’m looking up Trout Unlimited, and it makes them sound really lovely, but the thing that always amazed me is the little section of the river that they “restored.” I’m wondering, what did they do? You see people pull up in their giant SUVs with $10,000 worth of fishing gear on and flail away for hatchery fish. It’s just odd.

BPGL: We’d love to post a photograph of you with a fishing pole or with a little bait on a hook or something.

NEWMAN: You know what’s sad — and I keep hoping if I talk about it enough, maybe it’ll come back to me — when I moved out here, my mother did a photo album for me of all my old pictures. My parents were prolific photographers.

In February, I’d had a bicycle accident and smashed up my face, and had stitches, and broke some teeth off. In April, I went to visit Dad, who was shooting a movie in Louisiana. That’s when my mother gave me the photo album. I said, “Mom, take this home so nothing bad happens to it.” And I think it got left there. Every single picture… I still have a few, but all of my old pictures… There was a picture of me, age 8, with a four-pound brown that I had caught. It breaks my heart. My mom used to ask me about the album periodically, and I would shudder and try to divert the conversation, because it had all of my childhood pictures. I have some, but I keep thinking I need to put a plea out.

BPGL: We’ll put a plea out for you with the article.

NEWMAN: I can still see that picture in my mind’s eye. It completely blew away my father. I’d been reading Sports and Field, Field and Stream, and something else. I had read an article that I didn’t quite comprehend. It was about fishing for catfish on a trotline in the South. You put bait on a hook, and you put a bunch of hooks on it, and you throw it out in the water. You put it out overnight, and then you come back in the morning. That’s what they do in the South for catfish.

So, I went and caught a big shiner. I put it on a hook, and I cast it out at night, and I tied my fishing rod to the handrail. When I came back in the morning, there was a four-pound brown on it. They’re nocturnal. There’s this picture of me with this smug smile, and this fish touching the ground.  It breaks my heart, though. Somebody stole the album, and I don’t know where it went.

BPGL: That is so sad.

NEWMAN: It’s awful. I hate it. I have some pictures, but I don’t have this huge pile that I used to have. I wish I had my old photo album.

BPGL: You’ll probably find it on eBay someday.

NEWMAN: I don’t go on eBay. But if you ever find it, tell me.

BPGL: We sure will.

End of Part 1

Part 1: Fishing with Nell (Top of Page)

Part 2: New Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Silent Spring

Springs like these were the subject of Carson's book. Photo: Joe Hennager

Springs like this were the subject of Carson's work. Photo: Joe Hennager

The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


First published in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is undoubtedly one of the founding texts of the modern environmental movement. Indeed, as Al Gore noted in his introduction to a 1994 edition, “without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.” I suppose it is a credit to the book’s influence and power that many of its ideas have become widely accepted by the great majority of the public (surely by visitors to this site) and appear so obvious that it seems incredible someone had to write a book to prove them.

Silent Spring was the first popular work of nonfiction to document the dangerous and deadly effects of pesticides on the environment. We now take for granted that chemicals can blight the landscape and cause cancer, but in Carson’s day those ideas were largely unheard of, at least among the general public. The book was actually quite unusual for its time, not only for its scientific revelations, but also for the fact that it flew in the face of Progress — that great American ideal — and refuted the common view that the natural world was a limitless, yet easily subjugated, resource. In Silent Spring, Carson contended that science and industry would perhaps not be able to deliver on their promise of a better world. On the contrary, she told us, the scientific wonders ostensibly developed to help grow the food of humanity could perhaps be the end of it.

The present-day reader can be forgiven for being less than awed by Carson’s thesis, which is as follows: Through an overuse and over-reliance on pesticides, humanity is poisoning the flora and fauna of the land, as well as itself. The application of these chemicals causes them to become a toxic, almost ineradicable presence in the ecosystem, a presence which affects virtually all plants and animals. In addition, it is nearly certain that exposure to these substances causes disease (especially cancer) in humans. Oh, and by the way, pesticides are largely ineffective.

The impact of this book is hard to overstate. It is one of the few books in American literature that can safely be said to have changed the national discourse, belonging to the same rarefied circle as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. Upon its publication, it was immediately the subject of much discussion and controversy (as it is even today). As the clamor grew, so did the sales. The general public was fascinated and appalled by Carson’s findings, and Silent Spring enjoyed a long stay on the bestseller list, helped by its excerpting in The New Yorker and its selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her critics denounced her as a fraud, a liar, a pagan, and a Communist. (The reasoning behind this last epithet followed from the observation that Carson was unmarried, despite being attractive.) Ironically, the massive propaganda campaign waged against her by the chemical industry and big business only contributed to the book’s fame.

Before long, President Kennedy was forced to appoint a special panel to investigate the book’s dire findings. The panel confirmed Carson’s claims, and eventually Congress held hearings on the matter; Carson herself testified. Though she died of breast cancer in 1964, her book and her ideas lived on. The major environmental achievements of that era — the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the banning of the pesticide DDT, the passage of the Endangered Species Act — can be directly or indirectly traced to Carson’s explosive book and the outrage it provoked among the general public.

Silent Spring is one of those books that is talked about more than it is read, its fame and influence overshadowing its very considerable merits. This is really too bad, because the work is beautifully written, and Carson’s arguments are as devastating and persistent as DDT.

The book begins with a pastoral portrait of a prosperous, small, American town. The crops are plentiful, the fish bite, the birds sing, etc. But suddenly, the crops begin to wither and die, the fish are found belly-up in the river, and no birds sing. This results in a (wait for it) — silent spring! The rest of the book is an attempt to explain “what has already silenced the voices of spring in countess towns in America.”

Carson was a naturalist before she became a writer, and her fine prose demonstrates that the project was the perfect pairing of author and subject. She was already recognized as a great writer before Silent Spring, her fourth book — she was so good that The Atlantic Monthly even published her brochure copy — but she clearly pulls off something quite remarkable in this work. She writes like a woman who divides her reading time between scientific studies and poetry (the title was inspired by a John Keats poem). Here’s a sample:

“One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands.  If ever an enterprise needed to be illuminated with a sense of history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.”

In chapters with names like “Rivers of Death,” “Indiscriminately from the Skies,” and “Needless Havoc,” Carson thoroughly makes her case against the careless and excessive use of pesticides (she never comes out against them entirely, as her detractors have claimed). She touches upon many subjects: the toxic effect of pesticides and their misuse, the prevalence of carcinogenic chemicals in daily life, the deceptive practices of the chemical industry, the natural cycles of different ecosystems, and the better, less dangerous (and even more effective), alternatives to pesticides.

Along the way, Carson takes the reader on a tour through the natural world, and I think it is this aspect of the book that makes it something special. Carson’s passion and enthusiasm for the natural world are evident even when she is writing about dirt (the “realms of the soil,” she eloquently calls it); the reader cannot help but share in her wonder. She reveals nature to be an extraordinarily interconnected system, a glorious monument to complexity, diversity, and — ultimately — empathy. In charting the murderous journey of a drop of poison up and down the food chain, she demonstrates that every living thing is connected to every other living thing. “In nature nothing exists alone,” Carson tells us.

For me, this revelation is what makes Silent Spring worth reading, because it is a revelation that is so easily forgotten. Sure, the science and statistics are old, but the message, the overriding theme of the book, is just as relevant today as it was then, if not more so. Indeed, if we consider ourselves environmentalists, it is our duty to remind ourselves and others of the reality of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. The book is almost fifty years old, so read it not for an up-to-date account of agriculture or medical science today, but to be inspired and stirred, as others were before you. Unless we do something soon, we will inhabit “a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight,” a world of devastation, of silent springs.

Jordan Jones

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Other Posts in Jones’ “Environmental Canon”

The Revenge of Gaia – Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity

John J. Audubon – Iconic Painter of Birds

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

The Creation – An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

The World Without Us

Ansel Adams at 100