Nature and Environment

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

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Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Pisgah National Forest, with the Great Smoky Mountains to the southwest, Asheville, North Carolina, is the perfect basecamp for an ecotour, cultural trip and culinary adventure. Experiencing the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair held here this past April was just the start for my wife and me.

Because of the abundance of activities and diversity of experiences, don’t even try to cover the city in a day.  Why would you, anyway?  Whether you’re already penciling in the Fair date for next year or plotting a trip to this vibrant and eco-minded city this summer or fall, this blog offers some adventures not to be missed, broken into three distinct days.

Each day comes with a unifying theme:
Day 1: Culture and Nature
Day 2: Eco High Adventure
Day 3: Wellness and Health

Tied to each day, we discovered unique restaurants and accommodations that, each in their own way, set the bar on convivial and eco-minded hospitality.

Biltmore Estate

The Biltmore Blooms, on Foot and Segway 

Since Asheville is perhaps most well known for America’s largest private residence, the Biltmore Estate, we started here on Day 1. With the famed Biltmore House, 8,000 acres of forests, splendid gardens and even a winery, leave time to explore.  Much of the grounds were designed by acclaimed Frederick Law Olmstead, the “father of American landscape architecture.”  Due to the size and magnificence of this estate, we broke our visit into three distinct stops.

First up, a tour of George W. Vanderbilt’s French chateau-inspired home, completed in 1895.  Weaving through most of the 250 rooms, our self-guided tour revealed the fascinating history, remarkable furnishings and architectural splendor of the place.  Grab their audio tour for your walk, but leave yourself at least three hours, if you want time to take in the vistas possible from various balconies or windows.

A leisurely stroll through the Shrub Garden to the Walled and Rose Gardens followed our tour of the house.  In early spring, grab a seat in a section of the Walled Gardens containing thousands tulips in bloom.  Not to miss is Vanderbilt’s Conservatory, nurturing exotic orchids, palms and ferns.

Our final stop, a scenic half hour drive away (but still on the estate), is the Antler Hill Village and Winery.  After about forty minutes of instruction and some practice, we departed with our guides, Bob Jackson and Bistra Hristova, on a three-hour Segway tour.  We visited the less accessible western parts of the estate around the vineyards, crossed the French Broad River, and sped through 50 acres of non-GMO canola that gets converted to biodiesel every year for use as fuel for various machinery on the estate.

“Gentle, fluid and slow,” Jackson reminds us, every time we moved along to our next stop.  The Segways, a first for us, provided a motorized and autonomous way to zip around.  Steering them involves leaning forward and backward, or tilting the handle left or right. Completely recharged by a 9-acre photovoltaic array, the Biltmore’s fleet of solar-powered Segways is the largest in North America.

Walking Asheville

Intersected by the Blue Ridge Parkway and the French Broad River, Asheville hosts a cornucopia of culinary destinations – more than 250 independent restaurants at last count – and a thriving artist community where you can visit their working studios or cooperatively operated galleries. The River Art District features more than 165 artists and the Downtown Asheville Art District has 30 galleries within a half-mile radius.  Second only to Miami, the city also proudly preserves its Art Deco architecture from the 1920s and early 1930s.  Time travel at the Grove Arcade, one of the country’s premier public markets from 1929 through World War II; it’s back as a boutique mercantile since 2002. Hop on the 1.7-mile-long “Asheville Urban Trail” for a ramble past various public sculptures, artwork and landmarks.

Laughing Seed Cafe

As America’s first Green Dining Destination, with more restaurants certified by the Green Restaurant Association in one city than any other city in the nation, Asheville’s “foodtopia,” among other things, showcases farm-to-table cuisine long before it became hip and mainstream. 

Leaning toward eating as low on the food chain as possible, we grabbed a seat outside at the Laughing Seed Café for some vegetarian dishes with a fusion of global flavors, like their Asian Fusion, with its organic whole wheat udon noodles tossed in sweet chili-peanut sauce and served over a salad of mixed greens, grated carrots, red cabbage, blanched broccoli, and daikon radish; it’s topped with organic pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Plenty of vegan and gluten-free options here, too.

Across from the entrance to the Biltmore, down a side street, pick up a feast of local goodies from Katuah Market for a picnic. If you’re working up a thrist after all the walking around, grab a nice cold one.  There’s plenty from which to choose.  With eighteen craft breweries in Asheville, this medium-sized city earns the distinction of having more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the country!  Katuah Market stocks most, if not all, of the beers.

Garden Oasis Awaits at Hawk & Ivy Bed and Breakfast

Hawk And Ivy

Tucked into the hillside with abundant organic gardens spilling over with fresh product that owners, Eve and James Davis, turn into scrumptious, homemade gourmet breakfasts served in the dining room of the 1910 home, is Hawk & Ivy.  “I don’t use a recipe,” laughs Eve Davis, as we chatted before breakfast. Could have fooled us, with her savory scones and egg omelette adorned with homegrown edible flowers.

The centerpiece of the quaint and peaceful country estate is a lovingly cared for and productive organic garden.  Annual crops and perennials flowers are interspersed by hundreds of gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries and the like. No wonder birds are everywhere. “I have four or five difference kinds of everything,” says Eve.  “I’m a berry nut.”

While a bit of a journey out of town, it’s worth it. The attraction of this twenty-four acre private nature preserve becomes clear when we perched ourselves on the meadow above the rural retreat. To cool off in the summer, splash about in their pond.  Newlyweds come here to share their vows up on the hill; innkeeper James Davis even officiates some of the ceremonies.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.


Whilst enjoying my Easter break recently, I was lucky enough to enjoy the setting of numerous small coastal towns. The weather was incredible and the streets looked very smart indeed. I wasn’t surprised to see a few locals quietly beam with pride upon seeing my jaw drop at the beauty of the places I was visiting. What struck me as the tourists descended upon these towns, though, was the rate at which waste gathered. It was both shocking and fascinating to watch as quiet little streets were transformed from being idyllic and picturesque to being dumping grounds for hotels and holiday home owners.

On a brighter note, I also noticed in two of these small towns that there was a willingness amongst local residents to get their hands dirty and clean up other peoples litter. This was most apparent on the beaches where I was told that on a weekly basis a range of volunteers all come out with black bin bags to spend an hour chatting with their friends whilst picking up all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. Usually these groups are made up of about twenty people – young and old – and in the space of one hour they nearly always fill at least 10 black bin bags full of rubbish. This is then taken away to be sorted out and recycled accordingly.

So what did I take away from this? Well, it showed me that people were happy to put in a bit of effort correcting the wrongs of others if it meant that the spaces they love and cherish remain unspoilt. So whilst it’s sad that they are forced to do this, it’s also reassuring to know that people actually will act. Given the serious problems with rubbish in our countryside wherever tourism plays a big part, this is a vitally important character trait to foster and encourage.

The beautiful area of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in Scotland illustrates the problem very well. Being relatively near large population centres like Glasgow, it is hugely popular in the summer. But it has been reported in recent years that rubbish has become a genuine problem, with picnic and camping equipment just left to rot by the roadside.

This got me thinking whether a new national campaign was needed to push rubbish to the forefront of people’s minds when they’re in the countryside. In Britain we have a couple of organisations which aim to do this in the form of Keep Britain Tidy and Clean Up Britain, yet these have never truly left a proper mark on people’s consciousness like other campaigns have. What would perhaps work would be to piggy back, so to speak, on the success of the ‘5 a day’ programs found globally which aim to encourage us to eat more healthily. The aim would be to encourage people on their scenic walks to just pick up 5 bits of litter. Something like this could have a massive impact even if it only changed the behaviour of 5% of people.

But are there any other options available which could help lessen the rubbish problem in our rural landscapes? Well, not really. Fines have aimed to stop the problem, but short or living in an Orwellian land filled with security cameras, these are virtually impossible to be able to enforce on any meaningful scale. So it really does come down to just educating people and encouraging them to do the right thing; to think about the consequences of their actions. The only way to do this right now, it seems, is through awareness campaigns.


Spring is the perfect time to give your home cooling equipment a check-up. Fixing any problems now will help you avoid air-conditioning problems when hot weather arrives for good.  And, well-maintained air conditioning systems cool more efficiently, saving energy and money.

Viewer Tip: You can perform a cooling system check-up yourself or ask a professional for help. According to EPA’s Energy Star program, a typical check-up should include:

Tightening electrical connections. Faulty connections can be unsafe and reduce the life of your system.

Lubricating moving parts. This reduces friction in motors and increases energy efficiency.

Checking the condensate drain. A plugged drain can affect indoor humidity levels and cause water damage in your home.

Checking system controls for safe operation. Make sure your system starts, stops and operates as it should.

Cleaning air conditioning coils. This increases energy efficiency and prolongs the life of the equipment.

Checking refrigerant level and adjusting if necessary. Too much or too little refrigerant can affect system efficiency.

Cleaning and adjusting blower components for good airflow. Problems with airflow can reduce an air conditioning system’s efficiency by up to 15 percent!

Source: Energy Star. “Maintenance Checklist.”

Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Energy



Individual environmental actions only take a few seconds. Together, we can make a huge impact with simple everyday actions. The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) invites you to learn about the environment and learn how simple everyday environmental actions add up to a huge impact.

Watch NEEF's Take a Second video and be inspired, learn from EPA how a few seconds add up to a huge impact, and share how you are taking a few seconds for the environment to help inspire others at

Share a short Vine or Instagram video by May 26 with the #takeasec hashtag showing how you are taking a few seconds to conserve water to win an Apple MacBook, an Apple iPad, or a $300 REI gift card! Hurry, the deadline is right around the corner!

Check out this example from NEEF:



Did you know the five most common trees in the United States are the red maple, loblolly pine, sweetgum, douglas-fir and quaking aspen? National Arbor Day – which falls on April 25, 2014 – is the perfect time to plant them! Founded over 135 years ago, Arbor Day is dedicated to planting and celebrating trees across the United States. Trees add beauty and value to our landscapes, and provide many environmental benefits. They help clean the air by absorbing pollutants, provide oxygen that we breathe, absorb rain water and snowmelt, prevent erosion and more!

Several states celebrate their state Arbor Days on April 25, too. Check out the list below.

Viewer Tip: You can celebrate National Arbor Day in more ways than one!

Learn about trees in your area and take a hike with friends and family to see how many you can identify.
with a local tree-planting organization to plant trees in your community.
Plant a tree at home. After choosing one from the many different species of trees that can grow where you live, consider the location of the tree before planting it. Add deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in the fall) on the south, east and west sides of your home to provide shade during the summer, reducing cooling costs. Plant evergreen trees along the north and west sides of your home to block chilly winds.



States Celebrating Arbor Day on April 25

(Interactive Map)

Arizona – Palo Verde
Connecticut – White Oak
Delaware – American Holly
District of Columbia – Scarlet Oak
Idaho – Western White Pine
Illinois – White Oak
Indiana – Tulip Tree
Iowa – Oak
Kansas – Cottonwood
Massachusetts – American elm
Michigan – Eastern white pine
Minnesota – Norway pine (or red pine)
Montana – Ponderosa pine
Nebraska – Cottonwood
Nevada – Bristlecone pine & Single-leaf piñon
New Hampshire – White birch
New Jersey – Red oak
New York – Sugar maple
Ohio – Ohio buckeye
Pennsylvania – Eastern hemlock
South Dakota – Black Hills spruce
Rhode Island – Red maple
Utah – Quaking aspen (as of 2014)
Virginia – Flowering dogwood
Wisconsin – Sugar maple
Wyoming – Cottonwood

(Sources: Arbor Day Foundation. “Benefits of Trees.”;, “Trees and Forests Reduce the Impacts of Stormwater,”; Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, “Native Plant Database,”

From Earth Gauge


April 13-19, 2014 is National Environmental Education Week, and throughout April, students, educators and others around the country are taking part in learning focused on how the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, specifically engineering, can be used to solve some of today’s biggest environmental problems, leading to sustainable solutions for a healthier planet and healthier people.

So, how is engineering helping to solve some of our biggest environmental challenges?

Biomimicry: Whale Fins and Wind Turbines

Many of the environmental problems that engineers are working to solve already have hints to solutions in the natural world. Using the complex sciences of fluid dynamics and biomechanics, researchers discovered that the bumps on the front edge of humpback whale fins (called tubercles) increase lift and reduce drag for maximum efficiency as the whales move through the water. Now, a company called WhalePower is applying this bumpy-edged design to wind turbines and fans to increase efficiency – researchers have found that adding tubercles to wind turbine blades increases efficiency by 20 percent.

Designing Green Buildings: Seattle’s Bullitt Center

One of the significant challenges engineers are constantly working to improve is the sustainable use of resources. Seattle’s Bullitt Center is one of the greenest commercial buildings in the world. The building is powered by 575 solar panels and uses extremely low-flow toilets and composting toilets reduce water waste. Greywater from sinks and showers is cleaned in a constructed wetland, where plants help to remove nutrients and pollutants – the clean water eventually recharges the aquifer below. Rainwater is collected on the roof and used throughout the building. These are just a few of the features that make the Bullitt Center an innovative space to learn about green building technology.

Capturing Carbon: Artificial Trees

Researchers are developing a device called an air extractor that removes carbon dioxide from the air. The device is playfully referred to as an “artificial tree.” Sodium carbonate on the plastic “leaves” pulls carbon dioxide from the air and converts it to baking soda! The artificial “leaves” remove about one ton of carbon dioxide from the air per day. This new technology could be in large-scale use in 10-20 years.

You may not be able to install a wind turbine or an artificial tree on your property, but there are still ways you can put innovative engineering practices to use at home.

Build your own rain barrel. Use these instructions to construct a rain barrel that will capture rain water from your roof – you can use this water for gardening or washing cars and windows. (Be sure to check local regulations before installing a rain barrel, as some communities prohibit them.)
Build a rain garden. 
Much like the Bullitt Center’s constructed wetland, rain gardens are shallow depressions with water-tolerant plants that capture rain water and filter out pollutants before they reach our rivers, streams and aquifers. These resources will help you create a rain garden that suits your property. There’s even an app to help you get started!
Add efficient appliances to your home.
 Check out EPA’s WaterSense program to find low-flow toilets, faucets, showerheads and other appliances that use innovative manufacturing to save water (and money) without compromising performance.

Learn more environmental problem solving in the Engineering & Our Planet infographic.



Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. IEEE Spectrum. “ Biology Inspires Better Wind Power.” September 23, 2013

Biomimicry Institute. “Ask Nature: Flippers Provide Lift, Reduce Drag: Humpback Whale” ; Scientific American.

"Bumpy Whale Fins Outperform Smooth Turbines.” July 8, 2008

Bullitt Center, “Building Features,” 

The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, “Artificial Trees as Carbon Capture Alternative to Geoengineering,”

EPA WaterSense Program


Sometimes life’s disappointments teach the greatest lessons of hope, and that’s exactly what happened at our homestead on a particular day in June 2007. It involves what’s probably the oldest living thing on our property, a legendary apple tree we call the “Old Man Tree.”

The fateful day was bright and clear until about 2 p.m., when sinister greenish-black clouds rolled in from the west. We don’t get tornadoes up as far north as Manitoulin Island, Canada, but this wind might as well have been one. Century-old barns came down, roads remained blocked for days because of broken trees, and entire homes were damaged as windows gave way under pressure of the wind, letting driven rain soak everything.


The storm struck in less than a minute, and after getting my kids down into our limestone root cellar, I raced around outside battening down everything that might blow away. Just as I was running for the root cellar myself I noticed a young maple tree bent over double in the wind. Just that very morning I’d removed the support stakes from this 10-year-old tree, figuring that it was now strong enough to stand on its own. I spent the rest of the storm standing next to that tree, holding it up against the wind. It was perhaps the longest 15 minutes of my life. I still remember a robin’s nest blown down next to my feet while I was holding the maple, the young ones never to survive the fall and the rain.

When things finally got quiet, I surveyed the damage and found that the Old Man Tree had suffered a seemingly fatal blow. The wind had split the trunk, and about 80 percent of it was now severed from the ground, with all but one measly branch still attached to the remaining wisp of a trunk. Our outhouse was ruined, shade trees were heavily damaged, my hay elevator had blown down and broken irreparably, and the door had blown off our chicken house. All this was bad enough, but losing the Old Man Tree was like losing family.

One of our old neighbours, a man named Ivan Bailey, was born in 1909 and had lived on the property his whole life, and even Ivan could remember picking apples from the Old Man Tree as a boy. As far as I could tell, it was a Maiden’s Blush variety, and folklore had it that a traveling salesman offered these especially hardy trees to the settlers in our township in the 1880s and '90s. It’s said that the legendary hardiness of the old Manitoulin apple trees came from being grafted onto wild ironwood root stock. I don’t know if this is even horticulturally possible, but I do know that Manitoulin Island isn’t exactly the tropics, yet these ancient apple trees thrive. They hardly have any pest damage even without spray, and they’re vigorous enough that they’ve gone wild and now populate the edges of roads and fields wherever deer drop their seeds.

As valued a member of the homestead as the Old Man Tree was, it was history now. If only I’d pruned it more heavily, perhaps the trunk could have withstood the wind. Or maybe I should have braced the trunk with threaded rods, nuts and washers, as I’d done for other trees. All this went through my mind as I was cutting up the fallen branches, laden as they were with young apples. When all that remained was to nip off the bit of trunk still standing with its one, wispy branch, I stopped for a second. It was, I see now, a pivotal moment.


My urge to be tidy and wipe away all traces of the pain of the Old Man Tree’s loss was strong, and it had control of the trigger finger on the throttle of the saw. But then, hope stepped in. Why kill what remains of this old icon of our homestead? Doesn’t an apple tree that’s borne fruit for more than 100 years deserve one last chance?

I cleaned up the downed branches and broken trunk, then let the Old Man Tree show me what it was made of. And what happened over the next few years is where the lesson of the Old Man Tree comes from.

That one wisp of a trunk with its one wisp of a branch grew and thrived like I’ve never seen any apple tree do before. Where the Old Man Tree always used to give medium-sized apples at best, now all the wisdom and power of a full root system made the fruit surge in size, twice as big as usual. The fruit was less in number, but much better in quality and sweetness. And that great old tree, seemingly destined for nothing more than the burning pile, still preserves its ember of life today, pumping out wonderful old-time apples. We’ve enjoyed countless homestead apple pies from that tree, and all the kids here know exactly how the Old Man Tree stands for much more than just the world’s best organic apples.

The biggest blessing of the Old Man Tree isn’t just fruit, but rather an idea. The thing I’ll always remember about it is this: The old, the ugly, the much-less-than perfect things in this life can, and often do, deliver the things of greatest value. So often in life it’s the stone that the builders reject that becomes the all-important cornerstone. We just need to have eyes to see, and the patience to let wisdom and age and experience have its way.

Steve Maxwell and his family have homesteaded on Manitoulin Island since 1985. You can learn more about Steve’s mortgage-free homestead story at his Real Rural Life blog.

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