Monday, April 22, 2013

How did you celebrate Earth Day?

Happy Earth Day!! It's April 22, and since 1970, this has been celebrated as Earth Day across the US and now much of the globe. Look at these great pictures of the first Earth Day in 1970 from National Geographic.

What did you do to celebrate it? Oh, what the heck, let's just give up on Earth Day and try to do things year round. Add good, healthy habits to our daily lives. Make decisions consciously which may influence the environment around us. Take our surroundings into consideration.

First, let's look at what the environment provides us. In recent years there has been an expanding study and valuation of the environment. Imagine being able to quantify the beauty and utility of rain and put a dollar (or British pound) value onto it. These valuations are made on environmental goods and services which benefit humans which we now call "ecosystem services" (a phrase popularized by the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, a report released by the United Nations in 2005).

This graphic from the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment nicely sums up the idea of ecosystem services (on the left) and the benefits these services provide to humans (on the right) and the importance of the linkages between these (arrows).

This year am improving our currently bare backyard from a bit of decking and open space to a lush little backyard. I am planting herbs so far, and soon I will be adding some vegetables and native flowers to the terrace area. Not only is this providing food ecosystem services, but this small act also supports an astonishing variety of ecosystem services:
  1. pollination service - I hope my flowers will attract bees, insects and perhaps some bat pollinators if I can find some good large white flowering plants
  2. aesthetic services - yes, prettiness is an important cultural ecosystem service
  3. stormwater regulation - rather than allowing rainwater to runoff the terrace, the rainwater will soak into my plant pots, be filtered by the plants and the soil, and will increase evaporation of rainwater from the surface
I'm dreaming of something like this:
Click on this picture for more ideas from Apartment Therapy
What will you do this day/year to improve or maintain ecosystem services provided by the environment around you?

Happy Earth Day to everyone!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Join the Fight Against the Keystone Pipeline

If you have a moment, come join me in signing a petition against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Friends of the Earth are asking people to sign this petition against a proposal by TransCanada Corp to create a 2,151 mile long pipeline from Canada to the southern United States (Texas and the Gulf Coast states). Although some portions of the pipeline are already under construction, the fourth phase, which is currently proposed would extend over 1,000 miles from Canada to Nebraska. This a major travesty against the environmental issues we are currently facing, including climate change, contamination of water aquifers and a major impact on Canadian tar sands. And even if we close our eyes to these environmental offenses, apparently, TransCanada Corp has been using eminent domain laws to seize US lands through which this pipeline will go. That's including a number of farmers and ranchers who have worked hard to grow food for our nation and their land is now being seized for the use of a private, foreign corporation, despite the fact that eminent domain is meant to be used only for public uses. If you want more information, come read this nicely composed synopsis of the process and issues.

So, please sign this online petition. It's very easy, just go to the Friends of the Earth website, enter your name and email address and this letter will be sent to President Obama and Secretary Kerry:
Dear President Obama and Secretary Kerry,

I am writing to urge you to reject the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all. This dirty, dangerous pipeline remains one of the largest threats to our climate. If it is completed, it will enable the oil industry to exploit the Alberta tar sands, which contain enough carbon to radically alter our climate. The pipeline would also threaten Midwestern communities' fragile aquifers and increase air pollution from refineries on the Gulf Coast. The fact that the State Department’s recent draft environmental review of the pipeline was based on work done by Big Oil’s contractors only confirms that this pipeline is being built to benefit the oil industry.

You have both spoken passionately about the need to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. If you approve Keystone, your eloquent words will ring hollow and only feed peoples’ cynicism about how Washington works. For the sake of generations to come, please reject the Keystone pipeline once and for all. Actions speak louder than words.


Sunday, April 14, 2013


The buds are unfurling, Spring has arrived!! I took a nice long walk through Battersea Park along the Thames River in London yesterday and it was glorious to see all the signs of life amid the muddy puddles and brown leaves of winter.
Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)
A Judas Ear fungus (Auricularia Auricula-judae), which despite it's gelatinous texture is actually edible and quite popular in dishes in China. Boy do I like eating crazy things outdoors, and I wouldn't mind taking a nibble, but this is not a texture I want to eat regularly.
This is a holly (leaf on the left, bud on the right), but not the type of prickly common holly I usually imagine (Ilex aquifolium). This is a Highclere Holly (Ilex altaclerensis), which has either no spines on its leaves or just a few forward pointed spines. Like a common holly, the leaves are thick, but they are relatively flat and remind me a bit of waxy tropical leaves.

Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum), smells amazing when it's growing in the forest! I remember the first time I smelled a field of wild garlic growing beneath the beech trees in a Swiss forest and was just carried away with the amazing smell that reminded me of dinner. It's edible too!!

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
The elderberry has sprouted too. My Mom and Dad used to make the most amazing elderflower champagne (lightly fermented) in the springtime. I will never forget the sweet flavors in those reused Grolsch swingtop bottles that we waited weeks to taste.

Blackthorn blossoms
And the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is in bloom. This gorgeous tree blooms beautiful cherry blossoms on a bare tree. Even before the leaves have sprouted, these flowers pop open and welcome springtime! It looks like snowflakes hanging on a tree, so wonderful! It's dark fruits can be harvested after the first frost and used to flavor liquors. These are most often called Sloe Gin (after the berries which are referred to as sloe). I would absolutely looove to make Sloe Gin someday, it sounds just lovely. Come see the recipe here.

Blackthorn blossoms and the first leaf buds popping

Blackthorn tree. See all the white snowflake-like blooms?
Oak buds (Quercus sp.)

And let's not forget, spring is also mating season. The birds are wide awake and beginning to pair, squawk, grow fancy plummage, and court their potential mates. This Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) was friskily checking out the dock.

While these Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have already decided on each other and are happily waiting for bathing season.
This Magpie (whose scientific name is aptly Pica pica) picks and dances it's way along the puddles in the park looking for worms.
 And a few other flowers and sights along the way:

Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

Welcome Spring!!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hail the Red London Buses

I hailed my first bus today! Yes, oddly, in London, the buses do not automatically stop for you, but rather, you must stick an arm out to let them know that you are at the bus stop for that specific bus. It's quite intimidating and certainly feels like an honor when this massive, double-decker red bus stops just for you! I thanked the driver, who nodded in approval of my matching long red coat and swiped my Oyster card. Triumphant!

Turns out, the iconic red 2-level London buses have recently received a green upgrade. The environmentally conscientious buses, introduced as early as 2006, operate on 38 routes across London. These are diesel-electric hybrid buses which utilize regenerative braking, like a Toyota Prius does. They use less fuel, produce less pollutants and greenhouse gases, and they are quieter than the older buses. The Mayor of London has promised to roll out 600 new buses for London (TBfL) by April 2013 (NOW!) which will be even more improved and will look a bit sleeker. I'm not sure if I have been on one yet. And to take it one step further, by 2015, buses will be retro-fitted with NOx (Nitric oxide and Nitric dioxide) reducing technology. They are really ontop of this!

And they should be. There are an astounding 19,500 bus stops and stations across London which have the capability of serving up to 90% of the city population. Impressive!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Recycling in a new town

So as some of you know, I have recently moved to London where I am slowly but surely settling in and making myself at home. It's fantastic so far! I am really enjoying it and I already feel like I fit in here better than I ever did in Zurich. I hope this feeling continues!

As always, along with the administration and paperwork and all the other little details of change that accompany a move, I am learning to navigate the London recycling system, called Recycle for London. Their website is impressive to say the least. They give you ideas for the original 3 Rs of recycling (which are so drilled into my head since grade school that I haven't consciously considered them in years):

1. Reduce
  • reduce your food waste because it can be used for compost instead and creates methane gas in the landfill
  • buy less! (wow, this is a novel idea for a market economy)
 2. Reuse
  • reselling or gifting used furniture, clothes, and other goods
  • selling things at a "car boot sale" (now, I had to google this because I didn't think it sounded legal...apparently it looks something like this and it's like a big flea market but with car trunks instead of stand. Erik, we're doing this when you come to visit! And here's a list of them in London)
3. Recycle

I am super excited about the London recycling system. Not only can I recycle all kinds of things including some I never could in other towns (MD, Tampa or Zurich) like detergent and shampoo bottles and drink cartons, BUT I can also just throw everything in the same bag and then into the big recycling container for the building! Once recycling becomes this easy to do, there's definitely no excuse to slack on it! I like it already!