Saturday, January 31, 2009

One Mile Barn Project

Standing on a busy corner near my son's middle school, the barn above most reminds me of the barns I played in as a child. Slowly deteriorating, fading, not long for this world. My childhood barns are long gone, victims of urban sprawl as I suppose this barn will soon be too.

It makes me sad to think of losing barns because I have a special fondness for them due to my many years playing in barns as a child. They remind me of a connectedness to not only the land I knew growing up but also to those people I shared those times with. My parents and siblings, my friends, grandparents, and cousins. A time so obviously gone by, but also still very much here in the memories I retrieve each time I pass a barn in my life today.

Because of the connections and memories that barns invoke for many people, I believe that they are a valuable resource that should be protected. One day last week I decided to see exactly how many barns there were in a one mile radius of my home and I was surprised to discover there were thirteen. Upon further investigation, I discovered a fantastic book called "Built for Farming: A Guide to the Historic Rural Architecture of Kane County" which is a survey of all the rural structures in my county conducted as part of the county's historic preservation plan.
Obviously I am not alone in wanting to preserve my rural heritage. Kane County recognizes the pressures development is putting on rural structures and has a historic preservation plan in place that will hopefully minimize the negative impacts of growth upon them. So that not only I, but future generations can continue to find connections to this land we now live on.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Winter Wednesday Light Pollution

We have been enjoying our Winter Wednesday activities being offered by The Handbook of Nature Study blog. Each week we read a new chapter from the book "Discover Nature in Winter" and do the associated activities. This week our focus was on the winter sky. Last Saturday night, after reading up on winter constellations and the movement of stars, I convinced my family to leave the warmth of our house and step outside to do some star gazing. Problem was, there were no stars to see due to the effects of light pollution.

Not knowing much about light pollution, I decided to do some research on the Internet and within minutes I stumbled upon The International Dark Sky Association's website. This organization's mission is to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting by following the three goals listed below:

1. Stop the adverse effects of light pollution, including;
-Energy waste, and the air and water pollution caused by energy waste
-Harm to human health
-Harm to nocturnal wildlife and ecosystems
-Reduced safety and security
-Reduced visibility at night
-Poor nighttime ambiance;and

2. Raise awareness about light pollution, its adverse effects, and its solutions; and

3. Educate about the values of quality outdoor lighting.

While I knew and understood that unnecessary outdoor lighting wasted energy, I had no idea that outdoor lighting also caused disruptions to plant, animal and even human life. Through the Dark Sky website, I discovered that artificial outdoor lighting affects flora and fauna by preventing many trees from adjusting to seasonal variations. Animals are impacted because light pollution can alter their behaviors, foraging areas and breeding cycles. Birds are additionally affected when they are attracted to the lights coming from tall buildings and end up colliding with the building. The impacts to humans are shown in an abstract featured on the Dark Sky website called "Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution" by Ron Chepesiuk.

Source: © 2001 P. Cinzano, F. Falchi, C.D. Elvidge

The picture above shows how we have increased our use of artificial light over the years and the increases that are expected through 2025. There are some things that we can do right now to reduce the impact of light pollution:

-shield all outdoor lights and lower the wattage.

-use only the light you need to get the job done.

-use timers, dimmers, and sensors to darken unoccupied areas.

-Shut off lights when you can

I have always felt it was a good idea to keep an outdoor light on in the areas around my house at night in order to discourage intruders, yet the Dark Sky website mentions that night time outdoor lighting may actually be lighting the way for those that want to break into homes. Makes me wonder how much safer street lights or parking lot lights really do keep us, especially when considering the amount of crime that happens during the day.

After learning about light pollution and its harmful effects on plants and animals, I realize I need to rethink my use of outdoor lights. I was glad to discover that the city of Chicago is leading the way in this effort. Chicago is the first U.S. city to dim its lights and thus reduce its light pollution in the interest of saving birds. "Lights Out Chicago" is a collaborative effort of the Chicago Audubon Society, the city of Chicago, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, and the Field Museum. Throughout the city, lights are either turned off or dimmed during spring and fall migration which results in the saving of 10,000 birds each year.

Finally, as it turns out, all is not lost when it comes to star gazing opportunities for my family. The Fox Valley Astronomy Club holds monthly star gazing parties at Peck Farm Park where members of the club set up their telescopes and interpret celestial happenings for the public. We will be sure to head over there the next time they are offered.

To view past Winter Wednesday posts please click here

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Nature Speaks

Traffic noise is one of the problems one can run into when seeking the quiet of the woods in and around the Chicago area. But today, while cross-country skiing in the 590 acre Burnidge Woods Forest Preserve, the loudest thing we heard was the rustling of winter-dried leaves still hanging on some of the trees.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

3 Simple Changes...

1) Consider napkin ring use to save time and money. Napkin rings aren't just for fancy dinner parties anymore. My family now uses them on a daily basis so that we can tell whose napkin is whose from meal to meal. This practice started when my college son was home for Christmas break and we were generating 12 dirty cloth napkins per day that I quickly grew tired of laundering. We decided that we could easily reuse the napkins from meal to meal if only we had a way to tell which napkin belonged to who. That was easily remedied when we purchased different shaped napkin rings and assigned each person a different ring. The result- far less washing of napkins!

2) A cheaper alternative to bottled water is filling reusable stainless containers with your tap water. Tap water comes from a local source of which the quality can be determined, and doesn't need to be transported all over the country to get to you. Adopting this practice also reduces the amount of plastic produced for single use bottled water.
3) A reusable stainless mug has many cost savings benefits. First of all, if you fill your mug in the morning before leaving the house, you won't have to stop at a coffee shop to purchase their overpriced coffee or tea. Plus, because the coffee or tea in your mug stays warm for a long, long time, you will not need to run out to get a second cup because your coffee went cold. Beverages in mugs stay warm forever it seems whereas those in paper cups go cold very fast. Later in the day, if you do need to stop at a coffee shop for coffee, they will often give you a discount for having your own mug. I have also been known to bring my own tea bag and fill up my mug with hot water provided by the restaurant to make my own tea free. Granted, I do purchase other items while at the restaurant, I am not quite that cheap.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Suburban Sunrise

I envy those that were able to enjoy this morning's sunrise to its full extent, the colors unbroken in all directions. Maybe an early morning runner caught it while cruising along the lakefront in downtown Chicago, a red ball rising out of the waters of Lake Michigan. Or a farmer checking on his herd, stopped to appreciate the vivid reds and yellows stretched out along the horizon.

But here in my neighborhood, the sunrise was broken by the rooftops of the houses surrounding mine, locking me in and keeping me apart from something so very beautiful. Typically, only when one is fully in nature, near large bodies of water or large tracts of land can the sunrise be found unbroken. It is almost like nature saves its best beauty for those that seek it out, beckoning you to come into the fold of nature, so that you can behold all of the wonders that it holds.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Winter Wednesday Snow Experiments

Our Winter Wednesday activities for this week allowed us to make many new discoveries about snow. Working from the book "Discover Nature in Winter", we read Chapter 2 and learned that snow is made up of ice crystals of many shapes, and that its moisture content depends on different factors.

Our first experiment involved laying construction paper on the snow and leaving it for 3 hours to see which color would soak up the most sun and thus sink the furthest into the snow. My son guessed that black would sink the most and he was right. The next color that sank the furthest was blue, followed by green, orange, yellow and finally white. No surprises there.

Above is a picture of the snow after removing the construction paper. The black snow above represents where the black paper was and hopefully you can see the indentation of the snow along with where the other colors were. The black snow also has a particularly deep depression where my dog decided to check out our experiment and stepped on the black paper. A controlled scientific experiment this wasn't.

Our second experiment involved seeing how much moisture was found in the different layers of snow on the ground . We took 2 cups of snow from the bottom of the snow pack and 2 cups from the fluffy snow at the top of the pack so that we could see which part of the snow pack contained the most water. The snow at the bottom of the pack near the ground contained 1 cup of water per 2 cups or 50% water, where the snow at the top was 25% water.

Our final experiment involved discovering which would begin to melt first, an equal amount of water frozen into into an ice cube or contained in a snowball. As you can see above, I made my first fatal error when I made the snowball the same size as the ice cube rather than having the water amount in each equal. The snowball (using snow from the top of our snow pack) would have to be 4 times bigger than the ice cube for this to be the case.
I didn't realize this mistake until my results varied dramatically with what the book said would happen. The book says a snowball will melt faster than an ice cube because the snowball has more surface area than an ice cube has. My results were exactly the opposite by a long shot. Both times I ran the experiment, the snowball took almost 3 times longer to begin to melt. Of course my son was happy because he guessed the ice cube would melt faster. Once I realized that I had done the experiment improperly, I should have run it again to see if the snowball really would begin to melt faster but by that point, I was tired of running back and forth between the yard and house scooping up snow and snatching ice cubes from the freezer and waiting for things to melt. Maybe another day. If anyone has done this experiment successfully, I would love to know what you discovered.
To view past Winter Wednesday posts, please click here

Monday, January 19, 2009

Where is everybody?

You would think the forest preserves that fall within the Chicago metro area, which stretches from the Wisconsin to Indiana borders, housing a population of 9.5 million, would be overrun with people enjoying the outdoors. If only a small fraction of those folks decided to head out into the woods on any given day, it would be wall to wall people. But instead my experience has been, no matter what the season, most preserves are completely empty.

I discovered that forest preserves were just as empty in Atlanta when I lived there several years ago, as they are here in Chicago- while strip mall parking lots overflow in both places. Some western parts of the United States seem to have a different philosophy and I noticed when I lived near Denver, Colorado and Portland, Oregon that people embraced the outdoors. In those areas, no matter how far up a mountain I had hiked or skied, and no matter what the weather, there were always other people out there with me. l liked the camaraderie that could be found on the trails in those areas and I miss it here.
The next time you are wondering how to spend a winter weekend, consider visiting a forest preserve and rejuvenating your mind as well as your spirit. While I know it takes some effort to bundle up and get out, you won't be sorry you did. Hopefully next weekend when my family heads out to cross country ski, the parking lot won't be empty. Hope to see you out there!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Finding Local Food in the Winter

Our outdoor Farmer’s Markets closed down at the end of October around here, but that didn't mean the end of being able to find local produce, dairy and meat. Because we live in the far western suburbs of Chicago and are perched between high density suburbs and farmland, it only takes a couple of minutes for us to get out into the country filled with its many farms that grow or raise food. This proximity to farmland works to our benefit, especially when it comes to being able to buy our food year round directly from its source.

Yesterday morning, my husband and I headed over to Heritage Prairie Market to pick up some milk and honey. Heritage Prairie, located on a beautiful farm, just minutes from our house, is a unique market in that many of its offerings come from local farmers in Illinois and Wisconsin. Very little is trucked across the country to come to the store which saves on fossil fuels and also provides us with fresher products.

On this winter day, grass fed beef was available along with chicken, eggs, cheese, milk, butter and many cold weather crops including beets, spinach and winter squash. Additional offerings included locally made muffins, pumpkin butter, and other treats. The honey produced at the farm comes from the hives of honey bees I have seen foraging for nectar in my own backyard. Pretty cool!

With our milk and honey purchased, we headed over to the Inglenook Pantry to check out the Green Market’s Winter Farmer’s Market and pick up some meat from a local farmer. Inglenook Pantry is a restaurant that serves organic and local food and houses the Green Market on Saturday mornings in the winter. Here it is possible to pick up locally grown vegetables, herbs, apples, mushrooms, cheese, milk, and meat during a time of year when it is usually impossible to obtain local food. At the market, we talked to Mark of Farm Direct Black Angus, the farmer who raises our meat. We have been buying from him for several years now and it is nice to have a relationship with the person growing our food. We also ran into Beth of Erehwon Farm who runs a local CSA but was offering up freshly baked breads and vegetables on this winter day.

If you are interested in finding out what local sources of food may be near you, check out the website Local Harvest. This national site lists where one can find CSA’s, farmer’s markets, family farms, and organic food in many parts of the country. It was through this site that I discovered what local foods were available to me and hopefully you will find a source of local winter food as well.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Freezing your Clothing, a Choice for Change.

I will admit, I felt a bit silly dragging my son's sheets and blankets out onto the line last week when the temperature outside was 10 degrees, but I just needed to discover if things could really dry in below freezing temperatures. I had been reading on the internet about others who had successfully dried things outdoors in the winter and was intrigued. As I trudged through the snow, I could just picture the woman that lives behind me, peering out her window, and shaking her head. As I wrestled with the quickly freezing bedsheets, even I wondered if I was nuts.

Sometimes it is really hard to strike out and do things a bit differently than those around you, even if you know you are doing the right thing environmentally. What helps is by looking for and discovering other folks who have also chosen a different path. By coming together with these people, both locally and on the internet, one can become empowered to continue making the choices that are right for the planet, no matter how unusual they appear to those following the status quo.

On that sunny wind-whipped day, as I clipped the last clothespin onto a pillowcase, I felt a bit better about my choice to venture outdoors and hang my clothes, if for nothing more than to get back indoors where it was warm. As I returned to my house, leaving behind my frozen stiff laundry, I doubted anything would dry in those bitter temperatures. But six hours later, when I returned to remove the bedclothes, I was surprised to find that most everything had dried. I removed the stuff from the line and discovered the damp things quickly finished drying once they came into the warmth of the house.

Later that night, as I made up my son's bed, the fresh smell of winter on his sheets, I felt really good about the choice I made that day. Little choices added collectively together, become bigger choices. Being the first one to make a different choice in my neighborhood, may encourage someone else to make the same choice at which point change grows exponentially. It has got to start somewhere and why not with me?

For more of my experiences in outdoor line drying, please click here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Winter Wednesday Winter Colors

Ryan and I just started participating in the Winter Wednesday program being offered by the blog Handbook of Nature Study which is based on the book "Discover Nature in Winter" by Elizabeth Lawlor. Each week we will read a chapter in the book and do its corresponding activities. This week we were asked to spend time outdoors noticing the many colors the winter landscape offers.
We ventured out into our yard in the 10 degree weather, knee deep in snow, and looked high and low for any signs of color. After nine straight days of accumulating snow and gray filled days, the clouds had cleared and we could see the blue sky. A white Quaking Aspen stands in the foreground.

Black berries stood out against the snow on a Black Chokeberry. This shrub is native to my area and enjoyed by local wildlife.

Red rose hips on a Pasture Rose, along with the brown of its stems.

Even the yellow found on this switch grass was more vibrant against a field of white snow. While we enjoyed our time outdoors, the cold wind forced us quickly back indoors. The next few days are calling for -35 to -45 degree days factoring in wind chill, a good time to work on our nature journals.
To view past Winter Wednesday posts, please click here

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fullersburg Woods Nature Preserve

These icicles did little to obscure my view of Salt Creek as I looked out the window of the nature center at Fullerburg Woods this afternoon. While my son was participating in a nature program called Mighty Acorns, I was passing the time enjoying the beauty of this wonderful site.
Fullersburg Woods was purchased by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in 1920 and as part of the Roosevelt administration's New Deal Program, a Civilian Conservation Corps' camp was established here in 1934. The CCC built the nature center shown in the picture above along with many trailside shelters that remain from this Depression-era program.

Inside the nature center, there are comfortable chairs in which one can enjoy a cup of tea and a good book. Telescopes are available for bird watching along with many other hands-on activities geared toward teaching children about the natural world.

Despite the temperatures hovering around 10 degrees, I decided to venture out onto the trails and came upon a picnic shelter situated along the creek. A beautiful spot to linger in warmer weather.

I hated to leave this peaceful respite in the woods. Luckily, I will be back many more times between now and May so that my son can attend his nature class here. That is the beauty of homeschooling...being able to learn about your subject in a more hands-on way. To actually learn about nature in nature.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Buy Quality, It Lasts!

I discovered a new blog called Saxton Road this afternoon and while reading the different posts, the one titled "It's Easy Being Green...", made me think. The post listed 10 different things that one can do to be green in the kitchen, one of which said to buy quality things that last. A really simple idea...yet difficult to do, especially when so much of what we buy comes by way of China. The post got me thinking though of all the things my husband Mike and I have bought over the years we've been married. With quality in mind, we have always tried to buy the best we could afford and after 23 years of using this philosophy, it is amazing to discover how long things really can last, much to our more style conscious kids dismay. I thought it would be interesting to go around the house and take pictures of some of our more longer lasting purchases and to see what shape these things are in after many years use. To take a look at what the practice of "buying quality" amounted to.

I figured I'd start out slow and take a look at one of our newer items. A Sony analog TV purchased in 2000. We don't plan to buy a new TV anytime soon, especially when we consider the fact that the oldest television we have in our house is almost 20 years old.

This Univega bike was purchased when my son Jimmy was a year old. We put a baby carrier on the back of it and carted him all over the place. Jimmy just turned 21 in December and is an avid cyclist. I wonder if all his early years spent on this bike has something to do with that. My son Ryan now uses this bike to get around the neighborhood all summer long.

Our Toyota 4-Runner was bought by us new in 1999 when we were living in the Colorado mountains and discovered the only way we could get to our house was by using a 4 wheel drive vehicle. Now, 10 years later, with only 125,000 miles on it- it is still going strong. Granted, it is not politically correct to own an SUV anymore, especially when I care about what my personal actions are doing to the earth, but I keep the miles down and consider the resources saved by not buying a new car. This is such a great mulch hauling, flea market shopping, dog to the vet, family going camping, and traversing Chicago in the winter car and I figure I will still have it when my son Ryan, who is 12 turns 20.

We bought this Toro lawnmower when we moved into our first house in Lexington, Kentucky back in 1989. Here we are almost 20 years later and believe it or not the mower still works. It is not because of regular oil changes or tuneups either. Nope, it has had only one tune up over the years and that happened only because we hit a big rock in our backyard and bent the blade. Another minor problem we encountered was when the self-propeller part broke, I took off that feature and we now have to push it, which as I understand it, has the benefit of saving gas. Hopefully by the time the mower breaks for good we will no longer have a yard to mow because we will have converted all of our lawn to garden beds.

Mike and I acquired this stereo just after we got married in 1985. We were living in Portland, Oregon at the time and Mike was awarded points toward this purchase for work well done through his job. The stereo was considered fancy for its time, but according to our kids, it is hopelessly outdated now. While the receiver portion of the stereo still works, the tape player doesn't. Of course, who listens to music on tape anymore? Mike and I are fearful that the stereo may be nearing the end of its life. Occasionally, when we turn it off, it stays on. Something is wrong with the power switch which is easily remedied by simply unplugging it.
As I see it, the only problem with buying quality is that things eventually go out of style which drives my kids crazy. They don't like being the only ones on the block with an analog TV. They kid us about Mike's alarm clock which he has owned since he was in high school or the patio set we have had for 15 years. Mike and I on the other hand don't care about being in style and simply laugh when our kids raise these concerns. The good thing about buying quality is that it keeps us from having to buy new again every few years and it helps to keep our flow to the landfill slower. It also feels good to look around our house and see all of the things that we have had for a long, long time. To remember when we purchased them and to think about the part they have played in our lives over the years. To have history with the things I surround myself with.