Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Welcome Little 3rd Planet

My sister had a baby one week ago. She and her husband decided to wait to find out what the sex was. Not many people do that these days, and I seriously admire their willingness to wait and enjoy being surprised.

At work a few weeks ago, the Modest Mouse song "3rd Planet" came on. It's partly about getting pregnant and made me think of the little one we were anticipating.

"... Didn't know then was it a son was it a daughter.
When it occurred to me that the animals are swimming
around in the water in the oceans in our bodies and
Another had been found another ocean on the planet
given that our blood is just like the Atlantic..."

I love those lyrics, thinking of blood as oceans, babies as a new sea or planet. It reminds me of what is so precious about newborns- that they are tiny helpless humans, but immense and shiningly connected to something big and universal. So small and infinite at the same time. I think that's why we want to hold babies that aren't even ours.

My sister was in labor for about 30 hours, but finally on Wednesday afternoon a healthy baby girl was born. I went to the hospital to meet the tiny bundle just a few hours later. She is beautiful- none of that squishy alien newborn look- just clear skin and exuding serenity. Here she is less than 4 hours old.
The nurse did the footprints, and made an extra copy just for the baby's 4-year-old big sister.
Here is one set of proud grandparents.
I am so thankful both mom and baby are doing well. Can't wait to spend more time with this tiny planet who is already a gravitational force within our hearts.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Occupy Valentine's Day

This Valentine's Day marked 8 out of the last 10 years that I have spent the holiday working at a flower shop. What started as a few days of seasonal help blossomed into a decade of part- and full-time work, driving deliveries, bookkeeping, and learning to design floral arrangements. Even though the flower shop is in Bellingham and I live in Seattle, I can't stop myself from returning for the annual tradition of floral craziness.
(It's also a great excuse to visit old friends and try new restaurants that may have opened recently. I met up with a buddy and had a fantastic bowl of noodles in a konbu-bonito broth the new Dashi Noodle Bar. Besides being able to pick your meat, noodle type, and broth, they have an array of house-made condiments and accouterments for your bowl- kimchi, pickled radish, cilantro, soy water chestnuts, gingered bamboo shoots, etc. Then for lunch I had a real treat of getting to try the recently-opened Ciao Thyme's On.The.Side lunch-time cafe. It was a lovely respite in the middle of a busy day- pulled pork sandwich with spicy mayo, and Tunisian chicken salad with carrot-apple slaw, coriander vinaigrette, and house-made paneer cheese. Soooo good.)
So for most of my adult life, Valentine's Day has been characterized by creative work, good food, long hours, and spending time with dynamic, artistic women. Sure, there has been romance too- casual dates, boyfriends, singleness, dancing, circus shows, champagne picnics, burlesque. But in a way, the romantic side of the holiday seems an afterthought to the flowers. 
While I feel fairly neutral about the holiday, writer Anne Lamott is a little more opinionated. This piece was a Facebook status of hers last week, though I'm not sure if it was originally written for something else. Regardless, I love the sentiment and the reminder of radical self-love for any day of the year.

"We are all so pumped about Valentine's Day. You could cut the excitement around here with a knife.

My first plan was to celebrate by giving the kitty a flea dip, and overeating, but I think I've come up with a better idea.

Now, most of all us have some wonderful Valentine's Days over the years; or at least days that were not SO excruciating that we wanted to die. Which is at least a start. For instance, I had a wonderful man for seven years, who made me the most incredible little cards every year, but because he did not believe in climate science, or that there was any real difference between McCain and Obama, there were tiny tensions off and on the rest of the time.

I would estimate that approximately 17% of people enjoy Valentine's Day. Mostly, women will be given boxes of chocolates that they don't want and can't resist, and will be really mad at themselves for inhaling. Many people will be filled with resentment, anxiety, and guilt at having forgotten, or having shown up late, or having accidentally been having affairs with other people. Many people will feel a sheet-metal sense of loneliness and rejection. They will be comparing their insides with other people's outsides, especially those happy valentines actors in advertisements and commercials.

Most of the day, except for the lucky few, will be a nightmare.

So let's start an Occupy Valentine's Day movement.

Let's begin with the premise that another word for Valentine's Day is Thursday. And on Thursday, as an act of radical self-care, we will celebrate the miracle that a few people love us SO much, that we can go one, and bear up, no matter what; that even though they know the darkest, most human and intimate and disgusting stuff about us, they still love us. In fact, they love us more and more through the years. This is so wild, and is really my only hope. It is what salvation looks like. A handful of friends is the reason my faith in God is so deep. Because they ARE love; they (along with the dogs) are my most obvious connection to divine love in this joint, the looks of love on their faces.

Let's celebrate that all you need is love; and that God is Love and love is God; that Love will heal ALL, although unfortunately, maybe not on our time-- ie by Wednesday, right after lunch. But it will. When all is said and done, Love is sovereign on this earth. So let's go crazy with love on Thursday. If we want to be filled with loving feelings, all it takes is to do a bunch of loving things for others and ourselves. That's all it takes! You take the action, and the insight will follow-- that all you need is love. Crazy. We don't need to buy or be giving a single thing, and we don't need to eat anything we don't really want. We'll just give each other secret love gestures all day. Okay? You in?" (-Anne Lamott)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Master Composter, Part 2: What's So Great About Compost?

Last fall, I told you that I did the Master Composter/Soil Builder training through Seattle Tilth and the City of Seattle. I got all excited about making and using compost, but didn't really explain why. "So," you may be wondering, "what's so great about compost?"

Let's take a step back before I answer that. First of all, what is soil? That question stumped me when I first thought about it. "Dirt? Like, the ground. Rocks? Stuff."  It's funny, because we've been playing in the dirt since we were toddlers, but it's hard to say what it actually IS.

First, it's about 45-50% rock particles, meaning rock, sand, and inorganic matter. Second, it's about 45% air and water, or what we call pore space. Finally, it's 5-10% organic matter, meaning anything that was once alive (plants, animals, manure, etc). Notice that this organic matter accounts for a very small percentage of your average soil. But that small amount is extremely important, and it's not necessarily better to have more past a certain point. Small-scale organic farms may have up to 12 or even 15% organic material in their soils, but that's about as high as you'd want to go. Any more would make the soil too acidic and would not be beneficial for the plants. So what about buying a bag of compost, and planting your potted tomato in pure compost? Nope, not a good idea!

Here's what the Seattle Tilth website says about what compost is:

The natural biological cycle of growth and decay creates compost. A plant that has grown by gathering nutrients and water from the soil, energy from the sun, and carbon dioxide from the air, dies and becomes the raw material of the decay process. Microorganisms, worms, fungi and insects recycle materials from the decaying plants into their bodies and eventually back into the soil. Compost is the material that results from the decay process and is similar to organic matter in the soil.
Compost has many benefits for the soil. It improves drainage and aeration of clay soils, preventing water logged plants. It increases the moisture and nutrient holding capacities of sandy soils, and reduces drought damage to plants. Compost helps keep nutrients in the soil near plant roots, and it can immobilize and degrade pollutants. By preventing crusting on the top of the soil, compost can help seeds to sprout and water to soak in more easily.
Wowzers! That a lot of benefits. So not only does the compost provide nutrients, but it also makes the nutrients more available to the plants to use! It filters toxins! It invites beneficial insects and bacteria!

Compost also improves soil structure by moderating two extremes. On one end you have a really sandy soil- Perhaps you've watered a potted plant, and water just rushes out the bottom. You would have to water that plant more often, because the sandy soil is not holding on to moisture. That flush of water is also washing away nutrients more quickly. So adding a little bit of compost actually helps with both moisture and nutrient retention.

On the other extreme you might have a heavy clay soil- perhaps you've watered a plant, and the water hardly soaks in, just sits on the surface or runs off. When it finally soaks in, the soil stays wet for a long time. This soil type has the opposite problem- it will hold on to water for so long that a plant could get water-logged. Also, because clay tends to be very compact soil type, it is not as aerated as it should be, and plants aren't able to germinate or develop their root structure as easily as they could. So what's the solution? You guessed it, add compost! You can add compost to the top of the garden bed as a mulch, or work it in. Either way will ultimately provide similar benefits, and your garden will be much more water efficient, vital, and nutrient-rich if you do.

Another benefit of using compost is that it helps you keep materials from your yard on-site, and it turns a waste material into a resource. Here in Seattle we are lucky enough to have a large commercial composting facility, but that still means your leaves, grass clippings, and branches get hauled away in a truck, only to get brought back to the city in a truck, in a bag of compost that you then have to purchase. If you compost at home, you take out the middle man. Even more importantly, if you live somewhere with no commercial compost, then yard waste gets thrown into the garbage and eventually a landfill, putting valuable organic material into an anaerobic dump where it will break down and release carbon dioxide and methane gas. A simple yard-waste compost pile in the backyard can minimize that problem.

"Well," you might be thinking, "I'm not really into making my own compost, and I'm not a gardener. Why would compost matter to me?" Great question! It turns out that compost/organic matter in soil is critical on an urban planning level. Almost every winter there are heavy rains all around the country, and every year there is massive property damage as a result. There are more floods now than 50 or 100 years ago, but why?

It has to do with permeable surfaces in the city. Think about western Washington a century ago. There was little pavement compared to today, fewer buildings, and a lot more trees. When rain fell on our precipitation-happy corner of the world, it first hit leaves and pine needles, hanging out on branches for awhile before falling down on the ground. That forest floor was full of organic matter- fallen leaves, pine cones, decomposing logs, etc- that acted as a sponge, and held on to the water for awhile. In short, a couple inches of rain had a lot of area where it was absorbed, and it happened  s  l  o  w  l  y.
In contrast, a lot of land today that was once farmed or forested is now paved or roofed. A couple inches of rain will fall over square miles of impermeable surfaces, so where it can soak in gets overloaded. Plus, most urban soil that rain does hit is likely to have had much topsoil (with its spongy top humus layer) removed in the construction process, and be a lot of more compacted and less absorbent than it used to be. Both of these factors lead to run off and massive flooding in urban areas.
In Seattle there is a program called RainWise through Seattle Public Utilities. Being "RainWise" means doing your part as a resident to help manage storm water runoff, for the purpose of "reducing flooding, protecting property, and restoring our waters for people and wildlife". Their website has great little PDF fact-sheets, on all sorts of ways to be RainWise, including: planting trees, increasing permeable paving, disconnecting downspouts, installing cisterns, building rain gardens, and my favorite, improving soil with compost. I think any amount of increased compost use on a residential level is a great thing, though it's important to note that compost is also used on a commercial scale. Various blends of compost are available from Cedar Grove and used by commercial construction companies as well as the WS Department of Transportation in building projects, erosion control blankets, living walls, mulching, meeting soil quality regulations, and many other things I'm sure.

There is a ton more I want to say about the benefits of compost (we didn't even touch on compost biology!) but that's all for today. Stay tuned for the next compost post- "What's the difference between hot and cold compost?" Coming soon!