Here’s a copy of the letter I wrote, which was picked up and printed by the editor of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch on 23-July-2016. I’ve sent hard-copy to select Mayors and Chiefs of Police in advance of August 9th 2016. Interestingly, it’s the Police Chiefs who are writing me back…
Re: #Black&BlueBBQ #BBQ #Cooked
When Black Lives Matter activists scheduled a protest in Wichita, the police responded by inviting them to a cookout with hamburgers and hot dogs. The menu should have featured BBQ.
BBQ is a uniquely American food, and also, our most democratic food. Furthermore, it occupies center plate in Missouri food culture, and pairs nicely with baseball, blues and beer.
The “Slow Food” movement from Italy proves beyond doubt that the world will beat a path to your door for nothing more than embracing a strong local food culture. Hamburgers represent corporate culture, while BBQ is more authentically American.
As a Clayton mom who frequents the Ferguson Farmers Market, I know that food matters, and the kitchen table is where my children are slowly but tenderly cooked into productive citizens.
But family is not enough if I want my children to enter a civilized society, so I also organize neighborhood potlucks in the street. This is where my influence ends.
I propose that Mayors and Police Chiefs appoint the necessary resources to host BBQ Festivals and National Night Out events, and use the fire of our times to roast some pigs. Yes jokes will be made; but food heals the community, while humor heals the heart and soul.
I know for a fact that many local restaurants are already eager to donate BBQ to the cause, and that moms and “church ladies” will be only too delighted to organize cole slaw, drinks and chairs. Half the tickets might be distributed by lottery, and the other half sold for fundraising purposes.
We have a unique opportunity to rewire a difficult situation into a celebration of American culture, and we should seize the moment while the eyes of the world are upon us.
As a mother, I know how much work it takes to cook up a community; I also know how hard it is to get everyone to the table, so I know it’s not an easy task or an easy ask. But unless we at least try, in one word from food writer Michael Pollan, I fear we might all be “Cooked”.
Ice Cream is not food; it’s a treat. But it’s a nice start, and the ice cream cone was invented in Saint Louis by an immigrant who ran out of cups & spoons at the World’s Fair, and turned to his neighbor, the waffle maker: 26-July-2016 STLToday Police Ice Cream Truck
I am fresh back from a trip to Piedmont, Italy, which is home to the Slow Food Movement. Slow Food began when McDonald’s tried to first put a restaurant in Rome in 1986. The Romans revolted, and in an uproar, said, basically, “No! We are Italian! We don’t do FAST food, we do SLOW food!” Slow Food doesn’t necessarily mean slow food, rather, it means locally grown food that is cooked with love and care. It was the birth of what we know as the farm to table movement. There are Slow Food Chapters all over the world, including one in Saint Louis. What surprised me, is that the Piedmont region was rather neglected after WWII, and the Slow Food movement has now made it one of the most desirable places to live in the world. We could do this in only 25 years in Saint Louis. People would come from all over the world to eat our BBQ, go to an American baseball game, and drink craft American beer.
Ferguson has one of the best governed farmers markets in Saint Louis, and one of the best organic farm schools in America, called EarthDance Farms. Ferguson is a nice little town, and I visit it often. The Ferguson situation taught me how to use Twitter, because what I was seeing on the news did not match what I was seeing with my very own eyes.
Cooked, by Michael Pollan:
You can find the history of BBQ and why we must sit down and eat together in order to be a civilized society in Michael Pollan’s book, below. The premise of the book is that we need to cook our food to unlock the calories, and we must sit down together and eat together to be a civilized society.
In short, the slaves were given the worst pieces of meat, and used spices to make the meat more savory. That’s called ingenuity. Also, during tobacco harvest time, it was all hands on deck, and the pigs were slowly roasted while the hands worked in the field. At the end of the long harvest, big plank tables were set up under the plantation trees, and everyone, black & white together, sat down to eat, in exhaustion. Later, during segregation, the blacks lined up at the white BBQ establishments, and the whites lined up at the windows of the black establishments, if that happened to be where the best BBQ was located. Technically, BBQ is not necessarily a slave thing, but a mix of Euro, Carribean, African, Southern, and Creole cooking.
Michael Pollan is a food writer widely credited for mobilizing the current food movement, including BBQ. By the way, Missouri has a lot of pig farms; it’s what we do.
Many people are surprised to learn that Saint Louis is home to some of the greenest buildings in the world. This post gives you an overview of the most interesting green buildings in Saint Louis, as well as details about how to see some of these buildings for yourself.
In 2004, Alberici Construction transformed a “brownfield” manufacturing site into a gleaming new headquarters and the greenest building in the world.
You can see their gigantic windmill (turbine) from I70, at Page Avenue, spinning merrily in the wind as a testament to their boldness and lasting achievement. The turbine replaced a billboard, and currently provides about 10 – 15% of the energy for the building.
The Alberici building is a Platinumbuilding, the highest rating achievable on the LEED scale; it became the greenest building in the world upon completion, and over ten years later, it still stands as one of the greenest and most beautiful buildings in the world.
LEED is a rating system created by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), a voluntary group of building professionals who came together in 1998 to challenge themselves to higher standards of rigor and scrutiny.
Arguably, no other organization has done more to move the green movement forward than the USGBC, and think about this: it’s been done largely without money or politics, and almost entirely through goodwill and self rigor. How refreshing!
Here’s a link to the U.S. Green Building Council – Missouri Gateway Chapter; know that our chapter here in Saint Louis is particularly robust.
Homework ===> Where might you find a small group of like-minded others, who are willing to challenge themselves by measurable standards, and then compete with each other for the greater good?
To tour Alberici, call and ask about the public tours at 2 pm every first Wednesday of the month, OR schedule your own group tour by calling 733-2000 x32430.
When you go, pay careful attention to the way the building orients towards the sun, notice how the air moves inside the building, and find the two different buttons on the toilets. (Toilets are always surprisingly popular features on green building tours, and often saved for the end of the tour).
Be sure to go outside and check out the short nature trail, as well as the natural landscaping around the retention pond. The turbine is surprisingly big, and makes a surprisingly amount of noise!
Just as great performers need great audiences, there would be no great green buildings without great clients; hats off to John Alberici and all clients who have such vision and reach.
Incidentally, the design architect for the project was John C. Guenther, FAIA, LEED AP, of Mackey Mitchell, and the project cost no more than standard construction costs. How is this possible? Two words: teamwork and creativity.
Because of it’s general beauty, excellence, staying power and predictable tour schedule, the Alberici building is a good first stop on your green building tour journey.
Next stop: Schools.
At the time of this update, in January 2015, eleven schools in the Saint Louis region have a LEED rating. Two are of special note:
The first Platinum Schoolto be built in the Heartland makes it’s home here in Saint Louis – Crossroads College Preparatory School, located in the Central West End.
Renovated with a large addition in 2008, Crossroads College Prep is cheerful and bright and full of the sounds of busy students.
It is quickly becoming the standard for new school construction to achieve some level of LEED rating, which is based on the Olympic medal metaphor. Crossroads College Prep School stands out as a first mover, building a Platinum building many years ago.
Schools are busy places, and scheduling makes it difficult to visit green school buildings; fortunately, Crossroads College Prep graciously offers individualized tours which can be organized by contacting Development Director Heather Lake at email@example.com.
When you go, pay particular attention to the effects of daylighting on children, outdoor surfaces underfoot, indoor surfaces for noise reduction, and how sustainability is infused into the school culture and curriculum. Children require additional care and consideration in almost all things, including buildings.
As an addendum to this writing, MICDS opened their new STEM building and auditorium in 2014 to a Platinum rating. The new buildings, classrooms and outdoor study areas are spectacularly beautiful. If anyone would like to request or join a field trip to see the new MICDS buildings, Green Spiral Tours would be delighted to make the necessary arrangements.
It’s important to see best practices and build a depth of understanding from the start of the planning process, rather than tagging LEED certification on as an afterthought; we are lucky to have two fine examples of exceptionally green schools right here in Saint Louis and I urge you to take advantage of every opportunity to visit either of these fine schools.
When you go, bring your school principal, your school board members and as many people with you as you can, always keeping in mind this handy African proverb:
“If you want to go fast, take a few people with you.
If you want to go far, take everyone with you.”
Once you see these clean bright beautiful buildings, you will want one for your children, and for all children too. Green building is a step towards making this world worthy of it’s children.
Now let’s explore the greenest building in the world: The Living Building, located near Eureka and built by Washington University in 2010 as a working lab and learning center.
The Tyson Living Learning Center has met the “Living Building” challenge, and is one of only three buildings in the world to do so at the time of this writing in 2013.
A Living Building must meet criteria far more stringent than the LEED challenge; basically, a Living Building is one that approaches true sustainability, and transforms the “building as machine” metaphor into one that sees buildings as living habitats.
Living Buildings harvest, purify and use their own rainwater, create their own energy and recycle all waste; they create no pollution whatsoever. The process is as important as the product, and the effect is pleasing and authentic. The workrooms include lots of day-lighting, and the flooring is crafted from trees harvested on property. Again, the composting toilets are clean, efficient and odorless, and predictably the most popular feature on the tour.
Unfortunately, the Living Building is a working biology laboratory and closed to the general public. Get on the Green Spiral “short list” for building tours, and when Green Spiral gets another invitation to visit the Living Building, you’ll get an invitation in your email box too.
As a side note, the Franciscan Sisters of Kirkwood show eco-films once a month. Here’s a link to an amusing movie about an eccentric architect who builds “Earthships” in the desert; the movie is called “Garbage Warrior”.
An “Earthship” is a home made of rammed earth, sometimes utilizing trash, like old tires or soda bottles to give the building structure. The result is a beautiful and inexpensive “hobbit house” with it’s own water supply and sewage treatment, plus solar greenhouses for growing food. It’s “design for the other 90%”, or in other words, for the majority of the world’s population — the people who can’t afford architects.
The above link is a long YouTube video. There is a lot of foul language in the movie — but it did not seem to overly offend the Franciscan Sisters. If anyone knows of an Earthship, or plans to build an Earthship in the Saint Louis area, Green Spiral families and followers would love to come see it!
As we spiral through each winter, Green Spiral hunts for interesting buildings to tour, and in early spring 2013 two cutting-edge homes neared construction and are now interesting additions to the diversity of green buildings in the Saint Louis area.
One is the Active House in Webster and the other is the Passive House in Dogtown.
The Active House makes it’s home in Webster Groves; it is the very first Active House to be built in America. The Active House concept was developed in Denmark, probably in response to the Passive House movement. What distinguishes the Active House most is it’s attention to the health and well-being of the inhabitants, while of course bringing much care to the use of sustainable materials as well as energy efficiency.
Since people (not materials or energy) are the most valuable and expensive resource in any organization, the Active House marks an evolution towards embracing human capital as a primary philosophy of design in building. In terms of the broader green movement, people are more likely to pay up for new technologies that benefit them directly, such as health and well-being, rather than paying to protect an environment “out there”. The Active House is all about the health and well-beingof the people inside the house.
This particular building, the Active House, is a private residence that blends seamlessly with it’s neighborhood, while using recycled, local and sustainable materials as much as possible. Private homes are limited for touring once they are occupied, so try to see them during construction Open Houses if you can. Above is a photo of the Active House during the Final Open House for the public in March 2013, which over 2,000 people came to visit! It’s beautiful inside, like living in a sunny spa. Interestingly, both the Active House and the Passive House are occupied by doctors and their families.
And here’s a link to the Active House and it’s builders: Active House
Now on to take a look at the Passive House:
The Passive House, not to be confused with Passive Solar, was under construction in Dogtown at the time of this blog writing, and has now been finished and occupied by the homeowners. The Passive House is all about thermal mass and minimal energy usage.
Passive Houses have super-thick walls that help maintain a pleasant internal climate, and are designed to require no HVAC systems whatsoever, remaining entirely comfortable through cold dry winters and hot humid summers. The Passiv Haus is the building standard in Germany, it absolutely works, and that’s good news for a troubled planet; but it takes some work to get the typical American brain around the concept. This is the first Passive House to be built in Missouri.
As a side note, these newer building methods cost only 5 – 20% more than traditional building styles, with no economies of scale yet factored into play. Future energy savings easily outweigh the upfront costs, depending on the price of energy.
The Passive House orients towards the sun, to take advantage of solar gain, and windows are exactly placed, along with overhangs, to maximize sunlight while minimizing energy loss. The walls are thicker than a bank vault, and constructed of interlocking insulating forms, kind of like building a house with giant lego blocks.
Both the Active House and Passive House have rigourous peer communities supporting their work; watch out for fake green building certifications, this is called greenwashing. There is money to be made on going green; this is why it’s important to find professional peer groups to help sort through the subtleties involved. We all need each other to keep each other honest.
Our hot humid summers and cold dry winters are a challenge for green builders; that’s why Saint Louis gets picked to test cutting edge buildings. Ironically, our challenging weather becomes our greatest strength; as the Dalai Lama says, don’t be in a hurry to wish away your hardships, for they often become responsible for making you stronger, and better, in the end.
Here’s a photo of the Passive House at the Open House in June 2013, plus three links for more information:
A good overview of the Passive House by the Beacon:
And now for a few random side notes as we wrap up a tour of green buildings in Saint Louis:
Saint Louis is home to the greatest number of Gold level LEED private residences in the world. Surprised? Thank the RCGA.
Novus International has one of the greenest buildings in the world, in Saint Peters, but Green Spiral has not toured it yet. Anybody wanna go?
The William A. Kerr Foundation has a super cool green building in an old bathhouse in downtown Saint Louis that is definitely worth visiting; they are champions of all things green and often sponsor interesting programs you can attend around town. Here’s the link to their programs and projects: http://wakfoundation.org/projects
Whew! Who knew that Saint Louis had such a surprising constellation of cutting-edge green buildings?
“If you build it, they will come.”
That’s why exploring your place on the planet is so important; you learn more things in one hour than you could possibly discover from hours and hours of research on the internet. Joining a learning community helps supercharge the learning; other people will ask questions you would never think to ask.
To join future building tours with Green Spiral, watch the Green Spiral newsletters in January, or get on the “short list” for building tours.
This post was updated in February 2015, when we spiraled back to the Alberici building for a tour with the design architect. Watch for future Green Spiral invitations in your email box, and as always, come on out and bring a friend!
I got “unliked” for taking the Food Stamp Challenge on my Green Spiral Facebook Page last week. I was equally unprepared for the interest people would take in the challenge, and the rich conversations that followed as the week unfolded.
Championed by food activists and faith groups, The Food Stamp Challenge is a nation-wide program designed to raise awareness about hunger and healthy food. The basic idea is to eat on a food stamp budget of less than $31 per week, or $1.50 per meal. That means $5 dinners for a family of four.
My purpose was to look at the Food Stamp Challenge through the lens of sustainability, so I bent the rules of the game from ‘no cheating!’ and ‘no sharing!’ to that of deepening empathy and cultivating understanding; the point of the exercise was certainly not to inflict pain. I basically kept myself to simple meals and served $5 dinners, invoking a discussion around the family dinner table each night.
Taking the challenge a week before Thanksgiving turned out to be a handy way of eating down the pantry while increasing appreciation for a feast in the making, thus preparing the heart for giving true thanks.
The Food Stamp Challenge will come around again, so watch for it; I encourage you to embrace it and adapt it as you see fit. If reading is inspiring, experience is the best teacher, and reflective writing fixes the learning into place. Doing the Food Stamp Challenge within a community of writers and bloggers heightens the learning and support; in my case, the original inspiration came through Rabbi Susan Talvey and the Central Reform Congregation (CRC). I am forever changed for the better after one short week, and gladly enter this season with a bigger heart, and after making a contribution to a local food bank, a lighter gait.
Lesson from Day #1: Meat is dear, so I skip lunch in order to serve chicken for dinner. Indeed, mothers all over the world skip lunch everyday in order to put food into the mouths of hungry babes, and since roughly half of recipients of food stamps are children, that’s a lot of hungry mothers out there. I skimp on lunch all week and fuel empathy for the hungry mothers of the world. It’s a hard enough job on a full stomach.
In anticipation of Sunday Dinner, I google crock-pot chicken and I bake brown rice in the oven, skipping the vegetables, not that the kids noticed or cared. Even so, I’m hungry, and there’s not nearly enough food; the kids get up and make themselves another dinner in a pattern that follows all week long. (Other than suffering through the daily dinner discussion, my family was largely exempt from the Food Stamp Challenge.) I begin to lose weight, an unanticipated benefit.
Menu: Dark meat chicken in the crockpot for six hours on low, 20 cloves of garlic and one cut-up onion. S&P. That’s it! The chicken makes it’s own broth. Somewhat bland, but that’s how kids like it! Bake brown rice in a small covered casserole dish in the oven: combine one cup of rice plus two cups of water and bake at 350 degrees F for roughly one hour. Never worry about burning rice again.
Lesson from Day #2: Addictions rise up like monsters, and the thought of being forced to give up an addiction, like sugar or coffee, makes one cling to the addiction ever more tightly. I trade in a few cappuccinos for green tea, and throw an eye over the expensive stack of breakfast cereal on top of the refrigerator, knowing that in a real world situation, they would have to go.
Releasing my family from the Challenge released me from the greatest real-world stressor: the conflict and turmoil surrounding making your children sacrifice and suffer. Suffering yourself is one thing, but making your children suffer is a different beast all together. Making your spouse suffer can get you into real trouble.
To eat inexpensively AND healthfully, processed foods would have to be dumped in favor of grains, so I eat a simple breakfast of oatmeal all week. I break the budget with a handful of walnuts for both protein and good fat, and repent with the proper amount of gratitude.
Menu: Pinto beans in the pressure cooker, brown rice again, and quesadillas for dinner. Not much different that a typical “Meatless Monday” night dinner at our house. I harvest the last cherry tomatoes from the garden for salsa, and get mad when I drop one or two and can’t retrieve them.
Lesson from Day #3: Traditional foods are traditional for a reason, it’s how women the world over have fed big hungry families for generations beyond counting. When meat is scarce, and bellies are hungry, grains fill the gap.
Much of the world’s population can afford only small portions of meat, dovetailing neatly with the sustainable practice of eating less meat, albeit of better quality (per writer Michael Pollan). At the moment, the best sustainable practice for meat consumption seems to hover around one chicken per week, along with some fish, and a fist-sized serving of other meat. Fill-in-the-blank with beans, lentils, other legumes and quinoa. If I write about milk, people will have their opinions about that.
Grains feed a hungry planet, and while as a whole we may be malnourished, we are alive enough to procreate bountifully, passing the 7 billion people mark in 2011, and exponentially going up. With more than 2 billion people living on less than $2/day, my house suddenly feels both big and cozy at the same time, and a simple pasta dinner becomes a feast. I point out that the pasta sauce has half the meat we might normally eat at a family dinner, but nobody seems to notice or care.
Menu: Pasta, sauce, and a zucchini, which broke the budget by a dollar.
(Home-made Sauce: Favorite-Brand Tomato Sauce, sauted shallots, pinch sugar, dab of tomato paste from squeeze tube, oregano, basil and 1/2 pound of ground beef).
Lesson from Day #4: Eat soup, and share. Soup turns out to be filling, nutritious and remarkably inexpensive, especially if you make it yourself, including the broth, from Sunday’s chicken bones. It takes time or a day off, and some skill and practice, but you can bank it in the refrigerator and whip it out for a superfast meal after a hard day at work.
One of the biggest problems that comes from living on a strict budget is boredom — it’s boring to stay home and eat the same old thing every day, and leftovers go to waste. When you’re hungry, ‘Zero Waste’ becomes a survival strategy, as do sharing, trading and cooperation. One dollar can hardly get you dinner, but bundled together with the dollars of six hungry roommates, those dollars can get you a decent pasta dinner, if you know how to cook.
It would be difficult to escape poverty without access to community, economies of scale or transferable skills, “that’s why teaching cooking is so important in inner city schools,” notes friend and cooking teacher Beth Diamond. With the internet, a cooking coach and a supportive community at my fingertips, I was fully challenged (and mostly failing) to put healthy food on the table, thus earning me a deeper understanding of the impossible task of eating well on a Food Stamp Budget.
Knowing boredom and waste would be a problem, my friend Amy and I agreed to swap soups at the start of the challenge. Sharing brings up the question of situational vs. generational poverty, which turns out to be a crucial distinction, especially in one’s own mind. Most people who get Food Stamps use the program as a temporary emergency measure, and my situation was definitely temporary. We swapped soups, and my husband loved it.
Menu: Butternut Squash Soup, Noodle and Bean Soup, and muffins as a gift.
Soup Recipe: One butternut squash, peeled and diced. (On a better day, you can buy squash pre-peeled and pre-diced in the grocery store). 2 carrots, chopped. Saute one shallot in oil or butter, add squash, carrots and chicken stock. Simmer for 20 minutes until squash is softened. Season with the following: 1 tsp coriander, 1 tsp turmeric, ½ tsp. cumin, S&P. Easy delicious recipe from my friend Amy, but beware, peeling the squash is a chore.
Lesson from Day #5: Eat from the garden. Only five days into the Challenge, other blogs suddenly went wobbly, and we had a mild meltdown at our house with the kids shouting out they were “sick of the Food Stamp Challenge!” which I thought was pretty funny considering we had eaten pretty close to our typical weekly menu, and they didn’t even have to think it up, shop for it or cook it. They did have to do the dishes.
However, deprived of veggies all week, I couldn’t take it myself anymore, and broke the Challenge with a spinach smoothie equivalent to a whole day’s worth of food. It became abundantly clear that while grains rule the day, a hard daily choice must be made between proteins and veggies, and while I could happily choose veggies, the mother in me kept choosing protein for my menfolk. The only possible way out of the box would be to eat free food, the kind you grow outside.
Here’s a photo of ‘My Little Garden Barrel,’ which produces a surprising amount of food in very little space. (It sells for $54 and ships from right here in Missouri. Here’s a link: www.mylittlegardenbarrel.com). The first frost of the season whacked my lettuce just as the food challenge began, which made me sad, until my gaze landed on the bok choy so prevalent in Chinese cooking.
We came close to chucking the Food Stamp Challenge in favor of Chipotle on Thursday night, but I suddenly remembered the potstickers my family loves, and inspired by the bok choy, I made fried rice for dinner. In hindsight it seems silly that it took a hard frost and the Food Stamp Challenge for me to realize that refried rice isn’t just another nifty offering on the menu, it’s how mothers in China solve the daily dinner dilemna with zero waste by turning leftovers into something their families will actually eat.
Menu: Potstickers from the frozen section at Trader Joes, fried rice, bok choy
Lesson from Day #6: Be charming and get invited to dinner. There are plenty of people in the world who would happily trade food for something else of value, like entertainment, and mercifully, my cooking coach invited us to dinner on Friday night while agreeing to keep the cooking within budget guidelines. Here’s her link, I’m hereby trading free advertising for my dinner: www.diamondkitchenstudio.com
Beth Q. Diamond, of Diamond Kitchen Studios, teaches inner city kids and suburban moms how to cook beyond the recipe. As Beth says, “ethnic cooking is just home cooking in somebody else’s kitchen!” Here’s the Indian dinner she whipped up, for which we were more than grateful, and because we’d been hungry all week, we ate far too much:
Menu: Curried chick peas, butternut squash, potatoes and spinach, home-made naan bread on the grill, and chutney.
Lesson from Day #7: Mom’s home cooking. Out of ideas and out of inspiration, I was thinning the canned goods for the Boy Scout Drive on Saturday when I uncovered the last dinner for our Food Stamp Challenge: Tunafish casserole.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the apple never falls far from the tree. A trip around the world of traditional foods inspired by Mexico, Italy, China and India brought me back home to the Heartland where I grew up, and to my mother’s tiny kitchen table where she fed six kids and a family of eight, night after night on a limited budget. Especially when stressed, we fall back on what we learned around the family dinner table, if we are lucky enough to have dinner and a family at the table at all:
Menu: Half bag of year-old noodles, cream of chicken soup, smallest can of tuna fish in the world. Cheated and added a handful of frozen peas. Milk for kids. No veggies.
On Sunday: After the Challenge, we went to Chipotle to celebrate. One more thing — when you’re hungry, you suddenly realize that the cute little dog would have to go.
Like a great green sleeping dragon, the sustainable world has woken up after a long sleep, tickled awake, no doubt, by new growth in the economy. The continuing drought and recurring hurricanes have helped roust the dragon, because they hurt.
A new poll from Yale reports that a stunning 88% of Americans think ‘the US should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs’. This is evidenced by the fact that major educational institutions in Saint Louis are on the move, and connecting around a constellation of green conferences settling into place in early November.
Non-profits are often the first movers, and Trailnet leads the way with the “Livable Saint Louis Conference” each year. This year’s keynote speaker, the Mayor of Oklahoma City, spoke compellingly about turning a tired city into a regional magnet for young talent. He talked at length about building cultural and athletic attractions, creating pedestrian and bike access, incorporating streetcars, reclaiming waterways, and enriching quality of life. I noticed he didn’t mention the word ‘sustainable’ even once.
Webster and SLU recently teamed up to sponsor speakers and a student competition based on global ‘One Planet’ living principles. Washington University has jumped into the game with significant muscle and big name speakers in their first “Sustainable Cities” Conference, in partnership with the City of Saint Louis. Grade schools have lots of gravitational pull, and are often the last to move, but have been conferencing for a while now under the “Green Ribbon Schools” initiative.
As the sustainable field unfolds, it’s worth watching vocabulary evolve, because language reveals collective understanding. The world ‘resilient’ has long been bandied about in both the sustainable and educational fields, and is now being picked up like candy by mass media in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It’s a good word for thinking about how to move forward, along with words like locavore, biomimicry, solving for pattern, and plentitude. The word ‘restorative’ is bubbling up strongly now, and on the very cutting edge of the movement, watch for the word ‘generative’ to pop up.
The great green dragon is a modern elephant, and we are the blind men. Whether we call it local food, social justice, climate reality, quality of life, healthy living, systems thinking, or just plain green, what we are doing is really quite simple: We are simply waking up and re-making our world into a more beautiful place for all.
The monarch butterflies have been flying through our area, and for me, that means school is fully in session. The ageless way to mark time is through the intersection of relationships, rather than the march of a clock: plant your corn when the dogwood trees have leaves the size of squirrel ears, and begin working on your school garden when the monarchs head back home to Mexico.
Butterflies are symbolic of education, because ideas can set you free. Creating an herb garden is the first step in gardening, a butterfly garden is the second step in creating a rich schoolyard or home learning habitat. Much is written about the symbolism of butterflies and education, and much is written about exactly how to create a butterfly garden. Little is written, however, about why we should devote ourselves to the study of native butterflies.
Creating a butterfly garden at school extends our sense of community; it is good to expand our reach to include animals, creatures, plants and winged things into our realm of care. It takes no stretch of the imagination to realize that all species now suffer from habitat loss, and schoolyard habitats can supply a meaningful amount of nectar and energy that makes the difference in whether birds and butterflies complete their long seasonal migration, or not.
Good teachers gravitate naturally to the school garden and already draw a number of science, math, art and english lessons from the metamorphic cycle of the butterfly, easy to do with the right plants just outside the classroom window. Butterflies are marvels of design, somehow managing to flutter through the most wicked of hurricanes, emerging battered but not broken on the other side. Studying creatures and applying nature’s elegant design to human products is a relatively new field of study called Biomimicry. Innovations derived from the study of butterfly wings are currently being applied to wind turbines, solar film and self-cleaning products.
Knowing where you come from is important to knowing who you are, and where you come from is shaped heavily by your environment. We are people of the oak trees, monarch butterflies and big rivers, we are different from people of the cactus, sun, and sand, or the people of the sea. This idea of knowing who you are, and where you come from, is called “Sense of Place.” Butterflies help us know who we are, and where we come from; imagine never seeing a monarch butterfly, hearing a cicada or catching a lightning bug, many people haven’t.
Teaching children about butterflies is a very easy way to develop a sense of place, deepen empathy for for an expanded community, and engage in the timeless study of good design. The monarch butterflies are heading south, and for me, it’s time to focus on setting new ideas free.
My mother called a family reunion this summer, and like many families, we needed something equitable, meaning free, to do. So we ventured down to a flat place along the river, all 22 of us, plus a dog, in search of arrowheads and other treasures. We had young children and princesses with us, along with kids who don’t unplug for long.
There was some trepidation at the river’s edge, and then, in one glorious moment, everyone spontaneously entered the river, skipping rocks, flipping shells, happily exploring the river and it’s many wonders. Nature is the great equalizer and the great individualizer: everyone found something unique, and completely compelling to do, to the point of ignoring the first pouring rain in a 90-day drought.
Knowing there would be crawdads to be found, I brought along some highly specialized equipment, including paperclips, to make “crawdad catchers.” To make a “crawdad catcher” simply unfold a paperclip into the shape of a fishhook, tie a piece string to it, and fix a bit of meat to it. Teenagers and toddlers alike can safely “fish” for crawdads, who pinch the meat with their claws and won’t let go, even when you lift them out of the water to watch their spiny legs claw frantically at thin air.
The proper name for crawdad is crayfish, and surprisingly, Missouri is a biodiversity hotspot for them, largely due to our rivers, which are among the biggest and most beautiful spring-fed rivers in the world. Sadly, our rivers are under siege, from many point sources, including monster vehicles that wheel through the riverbeds, crushing delicate creatures in their wake.
Our children, our rivers and our crayfish are three of our greatest treasures in Missouri, and the simple act of crawdad fishing integrates three important actions: it helps nurture and protect the nation’s most endangered species, the “last child in the woods,” while promoting beautiful rivers and affirming the biodiversity of life.
Won’t you join me in crawdad fishing, posting pictures to your social media pages, joining advocacy groups and helping to protect and promote our true treasures, treasures that can be enjoyed and shared by everyone everywhere?
Author Richard Louv recommends that we start family nature clubs, much like the “family adventure school” called Green Spiral Tours I started a year ago. Join Green Spiral Tours, and come crawdad fishing with us in August (it’s free!); or find champions of the natural world through the Green Spiral Facebook page and help support their work.
Better yet, start your own family nature club and help others connect with the natural world. It takes effort to get kids out into nature, and it’s important to do so with friends, for to paraphrase our very own and very great Mark Twain, “to have the full measure of joy, you must have someone to divide it with!”
We are past the full “Worm Moon” of March, and spring stirs the soil to life, while winking at us from blossoms above. The soil is incredibly alive, with billions of microbes and bacteria, creatures like worms and nematodes, and great strands of mycelium, which eventually fruit into what we call mushrooms.
With more microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than inhabitants in New York City, the teeming aliveness of the soil is a fairly new scientific understanding and a wide-open field of study. TheMissouri Botanical Garden offers brand new classes on this topic, called “Don’t Kill Your Soil!”
Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” writes about the importance of microbes on the immune system in his latest book for adults “The Nature Principle.” Indeed, volumes are written about the theories and benefits of walking barefoot and having direct contact with the earth and soil.
Children, especially young children, need sensory activities everyday to help them make sense of their world; activities like playing in the sand, pouring water, making mud pies, or simply digging in the dirt with sticks, which is deeply satisfying to them.
As a nature teacher with a practical eye, I see the inexorable march towards safety surfaces and plastic equipment, and understand their necessity. I also feel the obligation to encourage parents to purposefully and intentionally put kids in direct contact with the earth, and with soil, either by letting them go barefoot in summer, by setting up a “mud kitchen” in the backyard, by finding an odd place in the garden for “Army Man Land,” or by creating a fairy garden with sea shells and fairy furniture made of sticks and twisty ties.
There are a couple of phrases that come to mind when it comes to dirt: “Dirt is not dirty, people are dirty.” And, “We all must eat a peck of dirt before we die.” Words matter, and there seems to be a new distinction emerging between dirt and soil: dirt is dead, and soil is alive.
While on my lecturing circuit, a teacher came up with a story about raising her child in New York City, where the playgrounds were disgusting, strewn with hypodermic needles and spit. She went to her doctor and the wise doctor replied, “Well, you have two choices. You can either let your child play in the sandbox and build his immune system, or you can keep him out of the sandbox and pay for therapy for the rest of his life.”
Create a compost pile, play in the mulch, turn a flower bed into a mud pit, get out the microscope, dig for worms, flip over bricks in search of roly polys, bring out the little construction trucks and sacrifice the plastic jungle animals to the teeming life of the soil. It’s good for the kids, it’s good for the immune system, and it’s absolutely free.
We are headlong into the planting season, and for busy families with small children, that means creating a “kitchen garden.” Drawing from our rich French heritage, a French “potager” kitchen garden would consist of flowers, vegetables and herbs, all mixed artfully together just outside the kitchen door. For busy St. Louis families, the winning formula for maximum success mixed with minimum effort = zinnias mixed with cucumbers and herbs. Be sure to plant parsley, and here’s how I did it when I was a nature teacher at a public pre-school: Plant the parsley in a terracotta pot, and sink the pot into the ground, where it won’t dry out easily. Yes bunnies will eat parsley, so you may have to cage the pot, or elevate it and thus commit to watering it twice daily during the heat of the summer. Square foot gardening also works nicely, as baby bunnies can’t/won’t hop into the raised beds. Come September, and the start of school, your parsley plant will be filled with about a dozen baby black swallowtail caterpillars. Pop the pot out of the ground, dust it off and put it on your kitchen table, or your preschool table. Have kids touch the caterpillars and watch their crazy yellow “alarm” antennae pop out. It’s wildly exciting to have living creatures munch their lunch with you, and the caterpillars won’t leave the parsley pot for any reason whatsoever. (Until they are about two or three weeks old, when they want to wander off to form a chrysalis.)
When the caterpillars magically start to double in size every day, put the pot into a breathing terrarium, with a few sticks, and each caterpillar will soon form a chrysalis. Put the terrarium against a cold wall in the basement and forget about it until Spring Break. Before Spring Break, remember to put the terrarium in your refrigerator: it is so sad to come home from Spring Break to discover dead butterflies, and the refrigerator technique averts this unfortunate circumstance. After Spring Break, bring the terrarium out of the refrigerator and into the classroom to warm up the butterflies, and see what unfolds. If you are lucky, you will discover a brand new droopy butterfly one morning; or you may get super-lucky and get to witness the butterfly actually hatching out. There is nothing more thrilling than setting a brand new butterfly free on a beautiful spring day, and it often inspires the children to burst into spontaneous song; so have your recording device at the ready. Planting a “potager” garden demonstrates the “Land Ethic” that Aldo Leopold espoused, the idea that our community is comprised of not just people, but also the creepy crawlies, the plants, the animals and the land.
It is an old indigenous idea that the creatures are our brothers and sisters, and we are in harmony when we plant a kitchen garden not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters as well. Children must be taught directly how to care for the earth and each other, and a kitchen garden is a simple way to do it that works easily within the confines of our busy modern lives. So that’s it! Plant parsley, and you have already made the world a better place.
Here’s a picture of a “grown-up” terrarium I bought from ‘Contained Beauty,’ a mom-owned business that sells flowers, fairy gardens and terrariums at the Clayton Farmer’s Market.
Anyone with children in the house knows that kids need to be outside every day in order to feel right; and, it’s hard to act right when you don’t feel right, so extra outdoor inspiration is needed to get through to winter’s end.
Kids can make their own indoor, and recyclable, terrarium with a Ball jar and lid. Simply add a few scoops of dirt, and go on a “moss hunt” with an old kitchen spoon or butter knife. Scrape a layer of moss, like a green carpet, from the yard or a crack in the sidewalk, and put it in the jar. When you get home, you can add little farm animals if you like, or fairies if you wish.
Moisten the terrarium, or spritz it heavily with water, screw on a tight fitting lid with no holes, and wait for the magic to happen.
Tiny insects will hatch out, and in a few days, delicate fronds will begin to unfurl and stand up like little trees. Put the tiny terrarium on the kitchen table where kids can inspect it before meals, perhaps with a loupe or magnifying glass. It is surprising how engaging a tiny terrarium can be, even for busy boys, and a “wild” experiment like this helps to stretch the powers of observation as well as the all-important imagination.
One can’t help but think of the book “Horton Hears a Who!,” along with the empathetic question of who will care for the small unseen things.
Families of mixed ages can enjoy a giant terrarium within easy reach: the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden, a wonder of inspiration and delight that helps more than a few of us get through the last few days of February every year.
As the dreary days of winter begin to linger, the sight of a single red cardinal can bring a certain gladness to heart. Children learn birds one by one, at the pace of about one bird per year, usually starting with a cardinal or robin. Children must be taught directly about nature, and since schools can’t possibly get wild birds to appear on cue, the study of wild creatures falls firmly in the family camp.
Starting with the first bird, a cardinal, puzzle aloud together the question of gender. Is it a bright red male cardinal, or it’s duller longtime companion, a female? Perhaps your family is like the faithful cardinal family, in which the male dutifully brings food to the female while she sits on the nest.
If the moment allows, give yourselves a mini-vacation, and spend time-out-of-time simply watching the bird together, deploying rich descriptive language such as red crest, black mask, orange wing tip and red tail feather. Not only does this help build word power, it teaches children the crucial life skill of observation and description, beyond label and categorization.
Come spring, the cardinal’s call is easily identifiable: “What Cheer! What Cheer!” Kids can sometimes entice a combative cardinal to come closer, by pretending to be a male cardinal and imitating the call, which turns into a life remembered thrill upon success.
Why bother to teach kids about birds? Rachel Carson’s father taught her about birds as a young child. When she grew up, she wrote a short fable about waking up to a world without birdsong as an introduction to her famous book Silent Spring, thus launching a movement that is still gaining momentum fifty years later.
Who can really say what cheer a child and a cardinal can bring?