Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Complete Fail

Well, it is October 1st and I have obviously fallen far short of my goal of posting something every day for the month of September. There were plenty of distractions, other obligations, etc. I could blame the move, setting up the new house, trying to jump start a career in a new city with no contacts, but that would all just be excuses. The real reason, however, is Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and everything within 18" of the floor.

That's her, the light and darkness of my increasingly small world. Courtney and I knew that getting a small puppy would be difficult, but as it turns out it is exactly halfway between adopting a full grown, well behaved cat (at a 2) and having a baby (an 11) on the scale of responsibility. At her age (8 weeks when we got her, just 10 and a half now) taking care of Cleo is a full time job. About a week ago I realized I had not posted anything for several days, and the pledge I made earlier in the month was hopelessly lost.

"Maybe I can make a deal with myself," I thought, "a post a day is gone, but maybe I can compromise, go for 30 posts by the end of the month. The pledge will be broken, but I will have accomplished the same goal. I will have to post two or three items every day for the rest of the month. It will be hard, but not impossible, right?"

It turns out that it was completely impossible.

Cleo requires constant supervision while awake. She must be taken outside every 30 minutes for a potty break or we run the risk of an accident, and every accident sets the training schedule back several days. She takes frequent naps, but the for the first few days all we did during the naps was sit, shell shocked, wondering why people get dogs.

After a few weeks of trying to train the puppy and retrain ourselves, we have wrangled her nap schedule into 3 two hour naps, at regular intervals throughout the day, and during those intermittent naps we do everything that people have to do to survive in the modern world. Grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, cleaning, going to the bank, paying our bills, reading dog training books and websites, everything must be done while Cleo sleeps, or else it will not get done. She is asleep right now, that is the only reason that I am writing.

But, hopefully, her regular schedule will allow me to use more and more of those two hour breaks every day, and finally I will be able to get back to this blog. So, with that in mind, I will attempt a few more posts today while Cleopatra, Queen of the floor sleeps.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Oregon Trail Part V: In the Company of Giants

Day four of our so far wonderful trip up the coast, and so far we have seen the Hearst Castle, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, and countless coastline vistas. We have also seen a gradual change in ecosystems up the coast. We begin in the chaparral of Southern California, where open fields are populated with dry grass and sturdy bushes, and small trees only grow in the canyons where the runoff from several hills converges. As we head north, the grasses get greener, the bushes get fuller, and the trees get both taller and more numerous.

We are traveling from 34 degrees North, just 4 degrees off from the driest latitude around, to 44, which is half way up to the wettest: 60 (right around Juneau Alaska). Along the way, the evidence of the steadily increasing rainfall is clear: the climate becomes more lush and green as we go. Latitude is not the only determinate in rainfall, however, smaller weather patterns have a large roll to play too, especially near large bodies of water like, oh, say, the Pacific Ocean. For many reasons which I don't understand at all, the coastal redwood groves of Northern California and Southern Oregon get enough precipitation to qualify as rainforests, and it is truly amazing what those trees do with all that water.

After a couple of hours of driving below the speed limit on very curvy roads through the redwood forest, Courtney and I stopped at the Founder's Grove. There, a tiny loop trail guides you around several redwoods, which grow taller than any other species of tree. The trail also takes you past several fallen trees (fallen from natural causes) which are covered in ferns and other plants. The bases of these fallen trees are 20 foot tall masses of gnarled roots, and it is hard to describe what being in the presence of a tree that is more than twice as tall as you when it is on its side feels like.

Courtney next to a fallen giant

If you ever drive through, I recommend the avenue of giants, which follows the old 101 freeway (it will only add an hour, maybe, to your trip). I also recommend that you make time to go for a hike, jump in the river, or even camp for a few days. Sadly, we just blew through. We barely had time to stop and take it in, and really didn't take in enough. Ah, well... I suppose we will have to come back some day and do it right.

I thought about adding some moral about preserving open spaces, deforestation, etc. but while I was there, I wasn't thinking about anything except how beautiful it was, how impossible and amazing that these massive life forms grew from nothing except the water in the ground, the energy from the sun, and the carbon from the air. What could I have to say that would do anything but take away from that?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Oregon Trail Part IV: The City, the rainforest, and the green roof

Day three, we woke up in a 'Good Night Inn' in Salinas, which makes two bad ways to wake up. Not that Salinas is so terrible, it's just a truck stop town (literally, the motel parking lot had a large section devoted to semi parking) with not one building more than 20 years old. And not that the Good Night Inn was so terrible either, for the money (the cheapest motel in three towns) it was surprisingly not gross. But still, we're basically city folk, so we were out of our element. Not too much time passes, however, before we are back in our element: stuck in traffic in 'The City,' as the locals call it (not Frisco, unless you want to start a fight).

The California Academy of Sciences
, in Golden Gate Park, was pretty cool. Amazingly, having come from the Monterey Bay Aquarium just the day before, I was not disappointed by the Aquarium they had there (and I don't like fish that much). But the crown jewel here is really the tropical biosphere (literally, a giant sphere of Plexiglas). You walk around a path slowly sinking into the ground towards the entrance, which is kind of like an airlock to keep the hundreds of live butterflies inside the sphere. The sphere is a living museum of the tropical rainforests, full of specimens of plants, insects, snakes, amphibians and birds. The more venomous and carnivorous specimens are caged, but the butterflies and many birds roam free, and occasionally engage in human encounters.

You walk up a twisted path that takes you through the different layers of the rainforest, and at the top, there is an elevator back down, guarded by two attendants armed with butterfly nets. I am not kidding. The elevator lets you off in the Aquarium, so I recommend going that way first.

Another interesting feature: the green roof. The entire roof of the Institute (minus skylights for day lighting and a small paved area for guest observation) is planted with indigenous species of grasses, flowers, and other small plants. It is an ongoing experiment, actually, they are watching how the species interact with each other. So, I thought I would take a second to talk about the many, many reasons I love green roofs.

California Academy of Sciences roof

Green roofs provide many practical functions for a building, whether residential or commercial, single family or multi-unit. For one thing, they provide excellent insulation, which can help to reduce heating and cooling bills. If you live in a place with hot summers, they also actively cool off the roof using no energy whatsoever (the plants evaporate some of their water, which releases heat naturally). Also, if designed well, they provide usable open space for the occupants of the building, like adding a little extra park land to your site. If you commit to planting local species, you might not need to water them, and they can actually strengthen the local habitat by providing a safe haven where the bees can get and the local herbivores cannot. On the subject of water, if you live in an area with storm water runoff problems, green roofs help by absorbing excess instead of flushing it straight into the drain.

Finally, although they can cost more to install (extra structure to hold the extra weight), they actually require significantly less maintenance than traditional roofs, and can last many years longer before major repairs are required. In the long run, they can be much cheaper than many customary practices for roof construction.

Back to the trip, we capped the day off with an excellent meal in Sonoma at The Girl and the Fig, where I had sweet meats for the first time. Oddly enough, I had just heard an old episode of Good Food about someone cooking through the Whole Beast cookbook, so I was sharply curious about these lesser used pieces of animal flesh (the author of Whole Beast, utilizing all of his British dry humor, said [roughly]: if you're going to kill something it is only polite to use the whole animal). And one the subject of food, now that I think of it, the cafeteria at the Institute was the best cafeteria I have ever eaten at, bar none.

All in all a great day, but nothing that has happened so far was even close, really, to day four - the redwood forests.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Oregon Trail Part III: Sea otters and Sustainable Fisheries

Day two, we wake up in Cambria tired from sleep deprivation and a long day of driving. We are also excited about the day ahead of us, and glowing about the day behind. The main attraction today is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which we have been told is The Aquarium by which all others are measured. It is an impressive measuring stick.

As we drove up the coast, through foot hills along cliffs and over bridges, I was listening to back episodes of Good Food, a favorite radio show of Courtney and I. In one episode, Mark Bittman (author of "How to Cook Everything" and "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian") came on to discuss sustainable seafood, and mentioned the Monterey Bay Aquarium, specifically the fact that they offer a simple pocket guide to sustainable seafood. So of course, we picked a few up.

Of course, the 'simple guide,' as Bittman points out, glosses over some issues and provides some information that seems useful, but is impossible to apply at the market. So, I thought I would recap a little and provide some links.

Here is the issue in a nutshell: for most of human history the ocean has provided much more fish than we can possibly catch and consume. But recently, and I mean very recently, we have started catching and consuming much more fish than the ocean can provide. And really, that is impressive. Fish farming is sometimes a good alternative, but in some cases it is much, much worse. Farmed salmon, for example, requires feeding tons and tons of wild caught fish, and their waste flows directly into coastal waters (the 'farms' are pins in the ocean) contaminating the areas where they are grown. Meanwhile, wild salmon fishing in the pacific is sustainable (even if the way the fish gets to market is not), so farmed salmon is essentially a useless practice.

Clams, oysters and mussels, on the other hand, are best when farmed. And just to highlight the confusion, sustainability of fisheries is only one small part of the seafood minefield. The next biggest mine is mercury. If you haven't heard, it's in almost everything that we take out of the sea. And the crazy part is we put it (the mercury) there.

Our experience at the aquarium was awesome, especially the otter exhibit (did you know that otters eat floating on their backs, and use their chest as a table? neither did I). Sea horses and jelly fish are also amazing, but I don't have enough room to talk about them here. In short, the Monterey Bay Aquarium was a great experience, and very educational. I highly recommend it to anyone who is going through the area, and also highly recommend making one of the scheduled otter feedings.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Oregon Trail, Part II: A new beginning

It is Monday, August 31st, 2009. Courtney and I planned to leave at 6am, but after breakfast, some last minute packing, and about 20 minutes of me rigging the bikes onto the 'Hollywood' trunk mounting rack, we end up leaving about an hour and a half behind schedule. As locals know, there was a huge fire in the valley, and as we crested the hills on the 405, headed for the 101 north, we saw an orange and gray wasteland. As we took the interchange onto the 101, with the huge plumes of smoke behind us, I thought it was strangely fitting. Driving away from a wildfire and leaving Los Angeles were literally one and the same.

The first stop was Santa Barbara, a quick coffee pit stop, a visit to the courthouse, and back on the road. The courthouse is a historic site, and it is beautiful. From the observation deck of the tower, the tallest building in town, we looked out across the entire region, and for the first time it really sank in that this was going to be an amazing trip.

The main attraction that day: the Hearst Castle. Basically, if you haven't been there, it's Xanadu. Hearst had two pools, one indoor and one outdoor, several guest houses that were ornately decorated and furnished, and a main house that was designed to look like a church.

As we were guided around the grounds, I was blown away by the opulence. But much more than that, I felt a kinship with the owner. I understood, or at least sympathized with the desire to create a perfect place, a paradise on earth.

The place was absurdly large for just a single family and (albeit many) guests. And yet, from the point of view of sustainability, it was more efficient when working than many middle class single family dwellings today. The owners and designers had no care, not one thought about sustainability, but the technology of the day demanded that things be done a certain way. No central air meant that everything had to be naturally ventilated, no running water meant that pressure was provided by gravity, and supply to the house was balanced against irrigation to the operating ranch run by the Hearst family.

Not to say that it was a beacon of sustainability, it was absolutely not, it is just amazing how unsustainable our lives have become in such a short period. Today the average working class house hold consumes more energy and probably wastes more water per person than the Hearst Castle, which was the symbol of opulence at its prime, when Charlie Chaplan played tennis there with Bill Tilden.

We finished the day in Cambria, an exquisitely charming little town with three shops offering local wine tastings and not one fast food chain. The hotel had a barbecue available for guests, and we bought fixings for dinner at the local grocery store, the Cookie Crock Market, where they made their own sausage (delicious), and potato salad (possibly more delicious). Like a movie script, when we asked about the 'Cambria sausage' that they were selling, and if it was any good, the man the behind the counter said "Yeah it's good, I should know, I made it."

We took our bikes off the rack (only 15 minutes this time) and rode along a semi well kept trail to the coast. It was the first of many times on this trip that we walked out to the edge of the ocean and were greeted with a beautiful view.

The Oregon Trail: Part I

So what's green about driving two cars, packed to the roof with random stuff, one with two bikes strapped to the trunk, from Los Angeles to Eugene OR? Nothing! But sometimes you get stuck.

As much as I would like to pretend that I live a perfectly sustainable life, the reality is that we were not about to abandon our cars. We tried to sell my wife's Honda Prelude, but in Los Angeles the car you drive is a statement about your self worth, and no one wants an old car with some body damage (even though the engine has another 100k in it).

So, upshot: we took a 5 days to drive up the California coast, through the redwoods, and through southern Oregon, and it was a beautiful experience. Watching the climate change from the chaparral of southern California to the forests of the pacific north west was a unique experience, and the vistas along the coast were unbelievable.

The long hours of driving also gave me a lot time to meditate on some things that have been kicking around in my head recently, and I have decided to try and distill them into a few blog posts, one for each day, loosely paralleling our journey up the coast. Also, it will be the first five posts of a new plan: post at least one entry to the blog every day for the rest of September.

I realize that this is a new blog, and most new blogs fail very quickly, so now that most of my excuses are in the past (the move, a weird schedule, etc), I am going do dive into the deep end and get this ball rolling. If those metaphors mix.

So, a post a day, every day this month, starting with a new post today: The Oregon Trail Part II.