Nature and Environment

Because at 160,000 years, the party is just getting started.

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One of nature's key strategies to respond to environmental change is maintaining the genetic diversity of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the trends are toward decreasing genetic diversity while the risk of climate change is increasing. Whether or not our industrial system is the cause of climate change we will have serious problems if our food system is unable to adapt to those changes.

Two things all of us can do to increase genetic diversity are 1) stop spreading poisons and 2) stop tilling.  Both of those choices will increase the amount of carbon tied up in the soils potentially reducing the rate of climate change and both choices will increase the number of species participating in our gardens. In addition, we can start saving seeds that are adapted to our conditions and begin breeding domestic animals adapted to our conditions. That way appropriate genetic variations will be available as the climate of other places begin to look more like our own. Hopefully, someone else will be doing the same for us.

Genetic Diversity

If you want to make money in agriculture you must discover something patentable and convince the rest of us that buying from you is better than just doing it the old way. Since that is were the money is, the option of buying seeds and breeding stock is the option that gets advertised and that advertising has been highly successful. The problem is that hybrid seeds and breeding strictly for production reduces genetic diversity in the system. That makes the system vulnerable to things like new plant diseases, pesticide resistance in pest species and a changing climate.

Our society as a whole is better off if we understand the value of genetic diversity. Adapting to climate change will require it. Genetic diversity means that each element of the system has multiple ways to respond to any given change. Hopefully, some of those responses will be successful . . . or that element goes extinct. Genetic diversity is what makes the system resilient. The money you don't spend buying hybrid seeds and specially bred animals is money you can invest in helping nature select the best variations of crops and livestock for our conditions.

Seed Saving

Seed SavingOne of the most profitable marketing ploys ever made was the one promoting hybrid seeds. If we are buying our seeds every year anyway, then of course, we buy the ones that give us the best chance at a bumper crop. It may be true that we get marginally more production as a result of “hybrid vigor”, however, the advantage of the hybrid is limited to a fairly narrow set of soil and weather conditions and we must buy new seed every year. Seed saved from a hybrid variety will not grow out the same as its parent. Only the parents of popular hybrids are grown out in any volume and genetic diversity is therefore diminished.

If we save seed from year to year, we are cooperating with nature's plan to develop the best varieties for each combination of soil and weather conditions. After a few years of selecting the best performing plants from an open pollinated variety, we will have a variety specifically adapted to our precise conditions.

One of the things we like about neighbors working to improve their habitat is the opportunity to cooperate in saving seeds. It takes time and planning to save seeds for all the plants we want to grow. With a team, each member can specialize in the type of seeds they want to save and then share all the seeds come planting time. The other problem with seed saving is cross pollination. If we grow multiple varieties of squash in the same garden, for example, the varieties will cross and we cannot tell what the seed will produce next year. With a team, with gardens spread throughout the neighborhood, each garden can have a single variety of squash while the team can still enjoy all the varieties.

If you are going to continue to buy seeds you can still help maintain genetic diversity in our food crops by buying open pollinated varieties from local seed producers.

Line Breeding

The flockIt is equally important to maintain genetic diversity in the animals participating in our system. At the Living Systems Institute we maintain a breeding flock of chickens in order to supply laying hens to our team members. We produce one new generation each year. From each generation we select a few hens and one cock to renew the breeding flock. When the new hens start laying we cull an equal number of the older hens. After the eggs are hatched each generation, we cull the subordinate cock.

The hens most represented in each generation are the ones that are laying the most during the ten days in April when we are collecting the eggs to go in the incubator. We only incubate those eggs that have the characteristics we like to see when we are cooking breakfast.

As usually practiced, breeders use line breeding to optimize a single characteristic such as egg production. That process can reduce the genetic diversity of a flock. Our goal is to select for the variations best suited to thrive in the precise conditions we have provided while still maintaining the genetic diversity that will allow the flock to adapt to a changing environment.

One group of neighbors saving seed and breeding their own chickens is not enough to prepare for climate change. We need groups of neighbors working at increasing genetic diversity all over the world. Climate change is a sign of the end of the industrial age. If humans are going to survive the end of the industrial age it will be because individuals and groups of neighbors take these matters into their own hands. It cannot happen any other way.

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Behind The Water Film 


When a mother goose calls her offspring, they can make a choice to follow — it also seems to be the same when Mother calls on filmmakers. A new film called Behind the Water is an engaging story of the men and women searching to find clean water. The film takes viewers on a wild ride through some of the world’s most rural and restricted areas, many captured on film for the first time. Behind the Water is slated to be released in 2015.


Doug Clevenger of National Geographic directs this film, while Fraser Kershaw accompanies viewers on the journey as host. Brent Kutzle from Grammy-award-winning One Republic will score the film. We asked Kershaw why he decided o host this film. He said, “Wherever there is a shadow, it is because there is light. I wanted to shed light into the pitch dark and this is where we went, to bring some folks clean water.”


We asked Kutzle what his goal was with the film. He said, “My goal is to accent this amazing story that’s being told here, in some way help be the glue to connect the story to the heart.” We look forward to seeing Kutzle and Kershaw bring the pieces together for not only Mother Earth but also her offspring. Likewise, we look forward to seeing Clevenger deliver a one-of-a-kind film so mothers around the world can rejoice.


Catch a glimpse of the film at

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eco-friendly beer

In the past decade, an environmentally-conscious revolution changed the way manufacturers and businesses operate. Here are 6 eco-friendly products challenging traditional industrial design and even the process of brewing beer.

1. Beer

New Belgium Brewing, operating out of Fort Collins, CO, is one of the top producers of craft beer in the country. Their greatest hit is perhaps Fat Tire Amber Ale, which is popular among beer connoisseurs.

Brewing companies aren’t traditionally known to be environmentally-friendly due to processes and cultivation practices they use to manufacture beverages, but companies like New Belgium Brewing are trying to change that.

The Colorado brewing company launched a powerful initiative to be more eco-friendly in their practices. They even have a page in their website dedicated to providing data and reports regarding their green initiatives.

2. Solberg Filters

Solberg Manufacturing is a company based in Itasca, IL, a suburb just outside Chicago, which manufactures oil and vacuum filters. Solberg actually partnered with the U.S. Energy Department’s Better Buildings Better Plants program. The manufacturer’s goal is to cut down its energy use by up to 25%. A majority of Solberg’s products are already made from renewable materials.

3. Bathmats

Designer Nguyen La Chanh created a natural moss-covered rug that actually grows interdependently with the temperature and moist environment of your bathroom.

The design takes “eco-friendly” quite literally, and offers a unique, quirky product that will make you feel good just by stepping out of the shower.

4. Sports Car Engines

Ford introduced the first popular commercial car with the Model T during the peak of the Industrial Revolution. Almost a century later, Ford is pushing the boundaries again by leading the charge in designing eco-friendly sports car engines.

The engine provides lower EPA emissions than traditional V6 engines, but doesn’t sacrifice the Mustang lineage’s legendary performance. American car manufacturers weren’t known for environmentally-conscious, innovative designs decades ago — something German and Japanese car makers masterfully executed — but Ford and even Cadillac are changing that.

5. Remote Controls

A Taiwanese student from Dong Hwa University designed an energy-efficient TV remote control after Sony launched a design challenge in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The program by the Japan-based megacorporation was inspired by the initiative to create more eco-friendly tech devices.

The student’s invention embodied everything great about the innovative technology trends of today: a sleek, attractive design married with environmental consciousness.

Its functionality is actually pretty simple. You wave the remote control around in different motions — as you would with a Wii remote control — that correspond with specific commands, such as turning the volume up and down.

What’s brilliant is the remote control is dependent on motion to recharge, which you can stand up in its center of gravity and sway side to side. A green LED light indicates its power level.

6. Pet Toys

West Paw Design manufactures pet toys using plastics from bottles and other reusable materials. The Bozeman, Montana company, founded in 1996, definitely takes the Three Rs seriously. They even reduce gas emissions from shipping trucks by producing up to 98% of their products in-house.

As you can see, the eco-friendly product revolution is still very much progressing forward.

In fact, the products above show it’s actually picking up steam. With new technologies such as 3D printers and cheaper solar energy parts, young designers and even established manufacturers have more resources to change the way we relate with our products, and the way products relate with the environment.

Image by PublicDomainArchive

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Mining Pollution In Armenia 

This is the year that global warming and its causes, including emissions associated with unchecked mining, have raced to the top of headlines and become the focus of seminars and increased interest worldwide, including at the United Nations. The tiny Republic of Armenia is facing an environmental crisis of its own, this one largely a result of its own actions. Overmining is polluting water sources and making parts of this mountainous country uninhabitable. Since Independence, Armenia has dealt with a devastating earthquake, a war with Azerbaijian and blockades on two of its four borders. As a result, it has turned to almost any options it has to generate revenue, including unrestrained mining, which it practices without any type of studies or restraints.

Responsible Mining

The American University of Armenia, Center for Responsible Mining, and the young for-purpose organization ONEArmenia, are teaming up to help create data that will evolve the face of mining in Armenia. The center is firm in stating that it is not anti-mining, meaning they acknowledge that mining and mineral processing can be important to the livelihoods of communities. However, they also recognize that international best practices must be introduced to ensure the environmental, social and economic well-being of communities all over Armenia.

There are currently over four hundred active mines in Armenia, twenty-two of which are heavy metal mines. This is quite astounding considering that the country is barely the size of Belgium. For rural communities these mines present job opportunities that are much needed, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the economic benefits and importance of the mining industry, irresponsible mining is leading to some major environmental consequences and poses risks to the health of mining communities.

Human Health Risks from Mining

Irresponsible mining in Armenia has led to human health and environmental risks such as heavy metals contamination, acid rock drainage, tailings deposits and harmful particulate emission. Pollution of this kind impacts the soil, water, plants, animals and air that communities rely on for their welfare and livelihood. Overexposure to lead is common near mining activities and causes diminished IQ’s in children, fertility problems in both men and women, as well as digestive issues and serious nervous system ailments.

AUA has launched a new initiative hoping that it will be a first step on a long path towards empowering communities, and using knowledge to manage risks and advocate for change. A crowdfunding campaign is currently underway for urgently needed environmental lab equipment that will enable scientists and communities throughout Armenia to assess the levels of five toxic heavy metals found in soil, water and food in mining communities.

Protecting Armenia from Toxic Pollution

Giving communities the knowledge they deserve will help everyone make more informed decisions and lead to improved practices and ultimately, a healthier environment for everyone.

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Backpacking Tarp For Shelter 

For many people, the thought of backpacking conjures visions of physical hardship and heavy, cumbersome gear. It’s a grueling challenge of man vs. nature, a battle in which each contender fights to overcome the other.

It doesn’t have to be.

Imagine this scenario. Your total pack weight, with food and water, is well under twenty pounds, and you save money doing it. I typically carry just seven pounds of equipment. No longer are you competing with nature, but you’re traveling lightly and living in harmony with you environment.

Ultra-light and minimalist backpacking has taken off in recent years for a number of reasons. Most importantly, less gear and lighter weights means it’s easier than ever to skip out for a weekend in the woods. The first step in lightening your load is to consider your shelter.

A Tarp for Minimalist Backpacking

Using a tarp, instead of a conventional tent, will cut your pack weight considerably.

Tarps, when pitched properly, offer complete protection from the elements and will cut pounds from your pack weight. For most three-season (spring, summer, and fall) backpacking your shelter is meant to do one thing, and one thing only, keep you and your gear dry. With that in mind, there is therefore no reason to involve yourself with zippers, fancy poles, or multiple layers of fabric or netting of a brand-new feature packed free-standing tent.

Anything from a conventional “blue” tarp bought at the local hardware store, to a contoured sil-nylon tarp, to a high-end cuben fiber tarp will do. It may take a little more effort pitching your tarp, but consider the effort you have saved in carrying a lighter shelter.

Tips for Tarping

The following are a few tips for those hardy folks ready to consider tarping:

Location is crucial. Unlike a fully enclosed tent, tarps are more easily affected by the terrain they are pitched upon. Look for sheltered or protected areas to decrease the effects of wind and ensure your tarp will stay put throughout the night.

Assess the weather. Depending on your specific set up, it is likely that you will have a leading edge and an exposed opening to your tarp. Be certain to pitch your leading edge into the wind in order to block any precipitation. Having to re-pitch your tarp in the middle of the night is not fun.

Carry a ground cloth. Because a tarp does not have a floor built into it, you will want to carry a ground cloth to keep you and your gear out of the mud if it does rain. Thin plastic painters ground cloth is cheap and works great.

Tarps will not protect you from bugs. If it is mosquito season you may wish to consider another shelter. At the very least, bring a head net!

Practice makes perfect. It is highly recommended that you practice pitching your tarp before taking it on its maiden voyage. As with all outdoor gear, your tarp will only work if you know how to use it.

Still not sure if you’re ready to take the plunge into the world of tarping? You may be able to pitch your existing tent using only the rain-fly. This compromise will save you from carrying the physical tent body, but still allow you the comfort of a familiar pitch. Best of all, it won’t cost a dime!

With these tips in mind and a willingness to forgo the advice of the salesmen at your local outfitter, you’ll be well on your way to a lighter pack and hopefully a greater outdoor experience.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page. 


For passionate gardeners and farmers, there’s an immense joy that comes from browsing through garden catalogues on the dark, cold days of winter. Cuddled up with your favorite steaming, delicious beverage, hours can pass as you peruse and dream about your next backyard adventure. Perhaps this year you are going to try a permaculture mound full of your favorite vegetables or you’ll create a native wildflower pollinator patch or, perhaps, design a bird sanctuary outside your favorite window? Wherever your imagination takes you, it is always advisable to begin with a map, a YardMap!Cornell Ornithology YardMap Yard Map

The YardMap Network is a citizen science project designed to cultivate a richer understanding of bird habitat, for both people concerned with their local environments and professional scientists. The program is housed at the Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York. We collect data by asking individuals across the country to literally draw maps of their backyards, parks, farms, favorite birding locations, schools, and gardens. We connect you with your landscape details and provide tools for you to make better decisions about how to manage landscapes sustainably.

In the United States, there are over 40 million acres of non-native lawns[1], about the size of Wisconsin. Some lawns serve practical purposes, such as space for kids to burn-off extra energy in a neighborhood game of soccer, but many acres of lawn exist out of horticultural habit, a default American garden landscape of sorts. With over 75% of endangered or threatened species occurring on private lands[2], the individual homeowner has the capacity to make a big difference in encouraging dynamic, native landscaping in place of non-functional lawn. So, keep a little lawn, the stuff you use, while letting us help you transform the rest of your property into a wildlife haven. 

We will ask you to outline your property and indicate the basic land-cover types in your yard.  Then, you can use simple drawing tools to showcase trees, bird feeders, compost bins, and the like, to show us the types of features you use to encourage wildlife and live more sustainably. It is a fun process that allows you to understand where you are at while beginning to envision where you want to go with your landscape.

YardMap has an active citizen scientist social network. There are 1,000s of others who have already joined the project, who have a wealth of knowledge to share with people just starting their wildlife landscaping journey.

With thousands of acres being transformed into residential landscape each year, we want to encourage everyone to think creatively about how to use their homes, apartments, farms, schools and parks to meet human needs, but also maximize habitat for North American plant and animal life. Join the YardMap community and become inspired for your next landscape adventure.

You can also follow YardMap on Facebook and Twitter for inspiration on gardens, birds, landscaping and much more.

[1] Milesi, C., S. W. Running, C. D. Elvidge, J. B. Dietz, B. Tuttle, and R. R. Nemani. 2005. “Mapping and Modeling the Biogeochemical Cycling of Turf Grasses in the United States.” Environmental Management 36 (3): 426–38.

[2] North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2013. The State of the Birds 2013 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, D.C.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Many of the traditions that we associate with Halloween ­— including dressing up in costumes, going trick-or-treating and carving jack-o’-lanterns — are modern interpretations of Samhain (pronounced saw-win). Gaelic for “summer’s end,” Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival celebrated from sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 1; this falls about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. The festival marks the end of harvest season and the beginning of the darker, colder half of the year. During Samhain, people bring cattle down from their grazing pastures and choose which animals to slaughter for winter. Households take careful stock of their pantries and food supplies in order to prepare for the long, cold weather ahead. Unlike the Gaelic festival of Beltane, which celebrates life and growth, Samhain honors the darker side of things.

Samhain is considered a “liminal” time, as it straddles the line between the abundance of summer and the harsh realities of winter. The liminality associated with the evening of October 31 creates a window during which some people believe spirits can easily enter the world of the living. Believers think that during Samhain the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and deceased family members and friends can return to their previous homes to bestow gifts or seek revenge. To appease the wandering spirits, the Celts would place a dinner plate at their table and bowls of food or treats by their front door. People took special care not to offend any wandering spirits, and if they left their homes they would disguise themselves with masks and costumes to avoid recognition. Eventually the tables were turned, and the masked citizens started imitating the spirits they once feared by going door-to-door demanding treats and threatening to perform mischief of their own.


Large fires were lit on hilltops to protect the community from wandering and unpredictable spirits. It was said that the fires mimicked the sun and also helped hold back the darkness of winter. The bones of recently slaughtered cattle were thrown into the fire, and hence the term “bone fire” was coined, which eventually turned into the modern word “bonfire.”  This protective fire was carried around by community members and mischief-makers alike by placing a hot coal inside a hollowed-out turnip, potato or beet. These makeshift lanterns were frequently carved with creepy faces to represent and scare away the wandering spirits. The term “jack-o’-lantern” comes from an old Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to lore, the drunkard Stingy Jack tricked the devil into never condemning him to Hell. When Jack died, however, God wouldn’t allow such an unsavory soul into heaven, either, so Jack was sentenced to eternally wander the Earth with nothing but a coal nestled inside a hollowed-out-turnip for light. The Irish referred to Stingy Jack’s ghost as “Jack of the Lantern,” which eventually became “jack-o’-lantern” as we know it today.

These vegetable lanterns took a modern twist when large numbers of Irish immigrants settled in the United States during the potato famine and discovered our native pumpkin, a vessel which is much larger and easier to carve than the turnip. Pumpkin carving eventually became so popular that American farmers began to breed varieties specifically for carving. Breeders paid special attention to pumpkins with thick stems, shallow ribs, thin flesh and large bodies. A few of the carving pumpkin varieties that have withstood the test of time include ‘Howden,’ ‘Casper’ and ‘Young’s Beauty.’ For tips on growing the best carving (or pie, or decorative) pumpkins, see gardening expert Barbara Pleasant’s article “All About Growing Pumpkins.”

Foods for Thought (And Divination!)

Divination and ritual have been a part of Samhain festivals since ancient times. Because the veil between worlds was thought to be at its thinnest on October 31, people would play divination games in an attempt to predict their future, specifically future events related to death and marriage. One particularly quirky divination game was called “Pou (Pull) the Stalks.” In this game, eligible young men and women were blindfolded and led to the garden, where they would uproot a kale stock. The piece of kale was thought to determine characteristics about the participant’s future husband or wife. One would hope for a tall, healthy piece of kale that tasted sweet. The amount of dirt clinging to the kale stalk was believed to represent the size of the dowry — a clean root represented poverty. Kale has been ridiculously trendy lately, between kale chips and kale smoothies, but perhaps its true popularity was during ancient Samhain divinations games. Who knew?

The song below, which is excerpted from Halloween: A Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear, breaks down the rules for “Pou The Stalks.”

“A lad and lassie, hand in hand,
Each pull a stock of mail;
And like the stock, is future wife
Or husband, without fail.
If stock is straight, then so is wife,
If crooked, so is she;
If earth is clinging to the stock,
The puller rich will be.
And like the taste of each stem’s heart,
The heart of groom or bride;
So shut your eyes, and pull the stocks,
And let the fates decide.”

If you’d like to celebrate Samhain by making a traditional Irish comfort-food dish that happens to include kale, the charmed divination vegetable, check out this delicious recipe for colcannon.

Halloween as We Know It

The term “Halloween” is a result of Catholic interference with Samhain in the year 609. All Saints Day is a Roman Catholic holiday that honors and remembers all Christian saints both known and unknown. Pope Gregory IV decided to officially move the date of All Saints Day to November 1, the same day as Samhain. All Saints Day is also called “All Hallows” because “hallowed” means sanctified or holy (for those of you who know The Our Father prayer, think of the part “hallowed be thy name.”) The evening before All Hallows was a popular time to celebrate, so the term “All Hallows’ Eve” was used quite a bit. Eventually the term All Hallows’ Eve morphed into Halloween as we know it, and along the way it snatched up and mingled with many of the Samhain traditions that had already been happening for thousands of years.

The history of Samhain reminds us that we once celebrated holidays because of a shared human connection that resonated with the Earth’s cycles — the weather, the moon, the harvest — instead of a celebration of consumerism or "heroic" dominance. This year I plan on skipping the tacky costumes and the individually packaged candy bars. Instead, I think I’ll light a bonfire, cook up a little colcannon and see if any mischievous spirits come a knockin’.

Photo by Fotolia/irene1601

This article is based off information found at and Click on either of these links to learn more about the history of Samhain. 

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