Nature and Environment
News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

Saga Of A Wildfire


Coping With Wildfire:

We have just personally experienced the third largest and possibly the hottest burning wildfire in Colorado history. This is a first hand report from our experience and the lingering problems encountered by this wildfire. I have titled this blog ‘Saga’ as it is an ongoing story that will be divided into two easy read segments. We had pre-planned for a wildfire since we knew our state is a semi arid state that is prone to wildfires. Perhaps our personal experience will give others insight into how a wildfire impacts people if found in the same situation.

Restricted Outside Burning:

Prior to the actual wildfire we had been in an extreme red flag warning area instructing us ‘no outside burning’ of any kind for weeks before the wildfire was started. The person who set the wildfire has not been tried yet so I do not want to comment on how the wildfire started except to say it spread rapidly and before it was put out had burned 108,000+ acres. We were in the adjoining community and were only a handful of miles from the origin and where the fire started. There were 134 homes in our community that were destroyed and countless undeveloped lots.

Emergency Notification:

We were enjoying our evening dinner when we received the reverse 911 notification of a wildfire and we were in pre-evacuation status. Since the wildfire was north of us and heading due east we wrongly assumed it would pass us by. We went outside and could observe plumes of smoke a few miles north of us. A few minutes later  we received the second reverse 911 call to evacuate. We gathered our pre-arranged evacuation kits and loaded up our vehicles. Then we attempted to load our three dogs into the vehicles; however two are disabled with seriously weak back legs. That took us far more time than we had anticipated and by the time we turned off the propane tank and closed up the house we were late evacuating.

Evacuation Fail - Turning Back:

As we were leaving the community we could see the flames and smoke ahead of us and with only one way out of our community it appeared we were cut off from escape. We therefore returned home to await further instruction when another reverse 911 call told us it wouldn’t be safe if we didn’t evacuate by 7:30 p.m. We knew the drive out of our community would take us longer than that. We therefore spent a sleepless night watching the fire glow in the sky but not particularly moving toward us. The next morning we readied ourselves for evacuation if it became safe to leave. We knew we were more safe at our home than being on a road that was probably encased by fire.

Evacuating Through A Gauntlet Of Fire:

About noon a sheriff deputy came to our house and told us if we left in the next 5 minutes we could safely get out as the route was open. We left immediately and as we left recognized the wildfire was now moving toward our home. We drove through one area of heavy smoke and flames and could feel the outside heat through the vehicle doors. Once through those flames and embers we came upon a few firefighters in the road who told us to turn around as it was very bad ahead. Being unable to turn around and go back they told us to use extreme caution in going through the second area of flames and embers.

Another Evacuation Plan Failure:

It was nerve racking but we safely managed to get through the second gauntlet of fire. Our evacuation plan included camping in one of the nearby campgrounds. That was another flaw in our evacuation plan because when we finally found a vacancy and were setting up our tent the center support broke making it unusable. We then drove to the nearest town and found a motel (with the aid of a relative) that could accommodate us along with our dogs. We ended up spending two weeks being evacuated while hoping our home and property were safe.

Short Return Investigation:

After one week when it was safer to enter our community we were allowed to return to our property for a 1 ½ hour inspection. Our home was thankfully intact but it had experienced intense heat, spot fires and heavy smoke, plus we still had some hot spots burning. I spent my time putting water on hotspots (we keep two 55 gallon barrels for wildfire) while Carol emptied the freezer and refrigerator of spoiled food.

Misting System Failure:

In our wildfire mitigation plan we had installed a misting system to keep our deck wet without draining our well. Another mistake because the well/system runs off electricity and the first thing the firefighters do is cut electricity so they are not having to deal with live lines. A backup generator that would run off propane when electricity is disrupted would have kept the misting system working but we did not have that benefit. Also we were told to turn our propane tanks off. One week later we were allowed to return home on a permanent basis. Regretfully one hundred thirty four of our neighbors did not have a home to return to.

Hottest Wildfire Unit Commander Experienced:

While evacuated we did receive daily progress briefings from the incident fire commander if we could get to the scheduled meetings or connect on a live feed. We were told this was the hottest wildfire the fire commander had experienced in his 30 years of fighting fires. Our community was so extremely dry and there was sufficient fuel that it was estimated to have burned between 3-4,000 degrees (F). When we arrived home to stay we observed numerous trees that had exploded from the sap inside turning to gas leaving holes in the charred trees.

Back Home - More Fortunate Than Most:

Upon returning home we still had no utilities and the house reeked of strong smoke odor. Once electricity was restored we set up an ozone machine that we had purchased and it completely destroyed the smoke odor and we were able to live more comfortably. We are now surrounded by total devastation but we are in an oasis of green vegetation and our property, home and outbuildings are virtually untouched. Many others were less fortunate.

Next Part - Dealing With The Aftermath:

The next blog edition will be about the lingering and ongoing problems encountered once we began life again in our home. While most people generally assume that once you are back in your home all is well; however that is far from the reality of dealing with the aftermath of a wildfire.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their life in remote mountain living and their experiences visit their personal blog site

Photo Courtesy of Bruce McElmurray

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.

Why For-profit is the Environmentally Conscious Future: The Tale of a Mayan Village, Part 2

Photo by Atitlan Organics 

This is Part 2 of a four-part series. Part 1 explores the crux between environmental and cultural preservation.

Another morning begins in the Mayan village of Tzununá, Guatemala. Some villagers board boats to get to their jobs or schools in larger towns. Youth wait in tuk-tuks at the dock for lancha boats to bring them business. Other villagers — the old school ones — hike up to parcels of land to tend fields and gather fruit. A few dozen go to building sites where they work in one of the fastest growing industries in town — building houses for foreigners who have bought land in town.

While the first expats moved in two decades ago, the last few years have seen a massive influx of foreigners buying land, bringing with them income, work, development, complications, educational opportunities, and all the challenges of gentrified change.

Marcos, a local Mayan man of 25, finishes his breakfast of tortillas, rice, and fruit and sets off for work. For the past four years, he has worked for Lomas de Tzununá, a family-run hotel in the hills (lomas) of Tzununa with incredible views of Lake Atitlan. He’s their chupusero, capable of chapusear anything — a colloquialism that means, he Macgyvers broken things back together.

In his short life, Marcos has witnessed vast changes in his small village that typify such shifts afoot across the globe.

“Everything has changed from when I was a kid,” he recalls, “There was no water, no electricity, and no roads. We didn’t have schools with good teachers, there was no library where students could study, and my grandparents had to walk very far to sell what they grew. Now people can take a tuk-tuk to sell fruit and vegetables.”

Foreign Impacts on Traditional Life

Marcos attributes these changes to the influx of foreigners for the steady work he has now. “Before,” he says, “I earned a few dollars working all day, gathering firewood, or jocote (a local fruit), or working in the fields collecting coffee.”

Midway through our interview, Marcos doubts he is providing the right answers (though he’s doing great). He apologizes, “I’m sorry. I can’t keep many ideas in my head,” he says. “Because I only know a little Spanish.” At home Marcos speaks Cakchiquel, one of 22 officially recognized Mayan languages still spoken in Guatemala today.

Marcos only studied up to the second grade. His brother was angry that he studied when he could be out in the fields earning income for the family. So he was taken out of school and has worked ever since.

He’s grateful to his current employer and they appreciate him. He’s dependable and honest, two traits that ingratiate locals in foreign enterprises. The couple who opened the hotel were the first foreigners to set up shop in town. They did so only after asking the locals what they thought of their bringing a hotel to town. With the blessing of the village, they opened their doors and have run their business under a social responsibility model that benefits the community and environment while providing meaningful work to the locals like Marcos.

The hotel is really just a front for enabling positive, sustainable social change. As they say outright on their website, “Lomas de Tzununá is our best excuse to do social work that is our real passion. We run our business with Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives to benefit our small town.”

Their model cares for the environment, reforests through a permaculture project, recycles garbage, employs ethical labor practices, attends volunteering events around the Lake, and most recently they used their position to open a community center where they installed capable locals as the leadership.

All this provides well-paid, meaningful work for locals. They’ve set a positive example for the growing number of foreigners of what ethical, environmentally conscious business can accomplish.

Photo by Atitlan Organics

Issues of Equity in Modern Advances

With such business in place, it seems less likely unconscious bottom line business could compete or get village buy-in.

Meaningful work is a key element for communities like Tzununa. Shad QusDi, who runs the local permaculture farm Atitlan Organics sees the challenge of modernity and what it could mean for the village if a new generation of meaningful jobs for locals isn’t created.

“One big challenge,” he says, “is the onslaught of consumerism, pop culture, and the desire to participate in the global economy. While everyone should have the opportunity to participate if they want, most people here are highly aware of the U.S. consumer culture, and want very badly to participate, but lack the means to do so. I worry that as this progresses, we will arrive at a situation where we have a large group of disgruntled young people who desire access to the global economy, but lack the opportunities to do so. This can lead to trouble with gangs, theft, and worse.”

And that’s a fascinating piece of thought to chew on. As more villagers move towards — at least in desire — a consumerist market economy, members of consumer market societies have found themselves disenfranchised with such a system and have moved to this Guatemalan village to escape its pressures and consequences. As they pass each other going opposite ways on the same road, the conversation they’ll have and what will come from it is of great import on a global scale.

Giving young people meaningful work that pays well is important in addressing the oncoming challenge of cultural change. Foreigners who have moved to Tzununa have come here to have meaningful lives. Whether that’s guided by yoga, meditation, off-grid living, peace and quiet, ecological harmony, producing their own food, or natural building, that authentic search for personal meaning permeates into the projects they undertake. This has the potential to bring about positive change more fluidly and permanently than initiatives often undertaken by many NGOs.

Having been involved in nonprofit work all of my adult life, I have come to the following conclusion. Nonprofit work is only necessary because most for-profit businesses aren’t philanthropically organized in a way that seriously addresses community and environmental problems.

It reminds me of a question a reporter once poised to Mother Teresa, “What would you do if there were no more poor people?”

She answered with a wry smile, “I’d be unemployed.” 

Photo by Atitlan Organics

Permaculture Offers Private-sector Solutions

Abundant Edge’s arrival in Tzununa last year adds a newly organized example of what profitable regenerative work should look like. The three founders of the permaculture/natural building company deliberately didn’t make Abundant Edge nonprofit in order to express the idea that doing good for the world, the community, and ecology is something that you can make a good living off.

The best way to do that,” Oliver says, “is to start small, start working on projects that you have a skill set for, and directly impact your local surroundings and the people you interact with. It involves getting people involved with your passions and putting together a team to facilitate collaboration.”

Collectively we as consumers allow businesses to entice us with unhealthy products, infiltrate us with manipulative marketing, and succeed at the expense of others losing. Businesses like Abundant Edge are ready to change the paradigm. It’s SO 20th century after-all.

“By being for-profit we know that we can have a bigger positive impact on our local community if we have the funds to do it,” says Abundant Edge co-founder Oliver M. Goshey. “When you hire us, the money you spend goes back to the community. We are for-profit but we aren’t living lavishly on what we make. We are reinvesting it into the community.”

The current state of global affairs “needs” charities to fill social gaps that heart-fueled communities and business models could address in more sustainable ways. Right now this change is happening more from the top down. Grassroots business organizations like Lomas de Tzununá, Atitlan Organics, and Abundant Edge are implementing their ideals within their environments. If more consumers begin to care about who they do business with, what they care about, and why, business operating only for-profit without regard for people and planet would be in trouble.

The “edge” in Abundant Edge is that not only are they providing meaningful work and jobs—the nature of their work is opening doors to lost cultural traditions, like forest agriculture and building homes with local materials. Abundant Edge is passionate about arming locals with knowledge that gives them options to better their situation while teaching foreigners the same concepts alongside these locals in their training and internship programs.

Like Atitlan Organics before them, they look for the most responsible way to engage their own notions of permaculture and ecology with the locals. They understand that community matters, and operate as grateful, not entitled members of the village they call home. Oliver explains, “Like so many places around the world, people here have been duped into believing that the way to modernize is to build with concrete and steel, which come at higher prices for lower-quality buildings.” His global experience working in natural building has shown him that all over the world people are following the same uncompelling, environmentally harmful suit.

Through the training they offer, they are empowering locals with natural building knowledge that has the potential to break through concrete walls. We have to ask: Are locals who have learned how to build a house using rocks, soil, and plants from their local land going to be as inclined to cross illegally to the U.S. (a common undertaking) to work for years saving to build their family a cinder-block home?

Check out Lomas de Tzununá here, and help the local community center by visiting their funding page or emailing them here. If this type of work inspires you, visit Atitlan Organics and Abundant Edge’s websites to get involved with their work. And check out The Abundant Edge permaculture and natural building podcast.

Luke Maguire Armstrong has worked in development everywhere from Guatemala to Kenya, Uganda, and the Bronx, N.Y. He lectures on topics ranging from human trafficking, economics, philosophy, creative writing, and international affairs. He is the author of the intrepidly acclaimed travel anthology The Nomad’s NomadFollow him @LukeSpartacus and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.

How Earth Law Supports Animal Rights

Elephants from

Elephants from

On July 4th, 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court in the northern region of India ruled that all animals have the same rights and legal status as humans, and cannot be treated simply as property. In this historic ruling, a Division Bench of Justices Rajiv Sharma and Lokpal Singh not only granted all animals this distinct status, but they also issued a series of steps that would be taken to prevent cruelty against animals

This decision has made all residents of the district of Uttarakhand legally responsible for the welfare and protection of animals, similar to how parents are legally responsible for the welfare of their children

People Have Cared About Animal Welfare for a Long Time

The famous Greek mathematician Pythagoras considered all living beings as kindred and advocated a vegetarian lifestyle as a result

Medieval philosopher and Catholic priest Thomas Aquinas that because of the hierarchy of creation imposed by God, all animals should be treated with the utmost respect. Burr, Steven I.; “Towards Legal Rights of Animals”; Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review Vol. 4, Issue 2, Article 2; 1975

The first known animal protection legislation in Europe was passed in Ireland in 1635 according to Richard D. Ryder.

The first animal protection group in the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), was founded by Henry Bergh in April 1866.

The Evolution of Animal Rights

The Nonhuman Rights Project was founded in 2007 and remains the only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, public policy advocacy, and education to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.  According to the Nonhuman Rights Project Executive Director, Kevin Schneider, “Whether we’re talking about vulnerable human beings or non-human animals like our chimpanzee and elephant clients, legally enforceable rights are critical to helping individuals protect and, if necessary, regain their liberty and dignity—especially in circumstances where they might otherwise be powerless to confront the people or institutions responsible for depriving them of these vital aspects of existence.”[i]

Though common law mainly views animals as property, numerous people, governments, and organizations (including Earth Law) see them as equals. They are living beings, just like humans, and should be protected at all costs.

How Earth Law Can Help Animals

Orcas By Wikimedia Commons

Southern Resident Orcas via Wikimedia Commons 

Drawing from both indigenous world views as well as a decades-long movement for Rights of Nature, Earth Law holds that nature has inherent rights and legally deserves the same protection as people and organizations. At Earth Law Center, we recognize nature’s right to exist, thrive and evolve: enabling nature to defend these rights in court and protecting nature the way common law protects humans.

Earth Law Center is partnering with Legal Rights for the Salish Sea (Gig Harbor community group), the Nonhuman Rights Project and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to seek rights recognition for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population and eventually for the Salish Sea.

Southern resident killer whales, also known as orcas, are a tightly knit, matrilineal community of whales found within the northeastern region of the North American Pacific Ocean. 

This community of orcas is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as of 2006.

As of June 2018, the total population of southern resident killer whales is 74 whales, having just lost a juvenile named Scarlett. Many organizations, activists, local population and government offices are working to save the Southern Residents. Rights for the Southern Resident Orcas could strengthen the protection of this iconic animal to prevent its extinction.

Get Involved Today

To help us in our efforts to support sustainable businesses, or in general, consider:

Donate to ELC

Sign up to volunteer at ELC here.

Stay informed by signing up for ELC’s newsletter

Connect with ELC on social media;
Darlene May Lee
 is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, which works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. She works to build a force of advocates for nature's rights at the local, state, national, and international levels. Connect with Earth Law Center on TwitterFacebookand LinkedIn. Read all of Darlene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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.

Improve Your Homestead Through Notebooks

November Sunset

As a homeschooling family, I am discovering new learning tools that I often want to try out for myself. One tool that we make a lot of use of in our homeschool is notebooks. I’ve come to see the value of keeping notes, and in particular, how such notebooks can benefit modern homesteaders. So, taking a cue from my children, I’ve started keeping some notebooks about our property and all the activities that we pursue upon it. These books have proved themselves very useful, so I thought I might share with anyone interested.

We keep track of annual milestones in a book of firsts. This “book” is actually an ongoing log where I track when the natural world’s milestones occur around our homestead. What results from my keeping a book of firsts is a growing awareness of the natural rhythms that surround us. We’ve come to know when to expect certain events or to recognize if something is occurring later or earlier than it typically has in the past. We can also anticipate when to begin looking for particular milestones. For example, when to start looking for certain mushrooms, or when the wild black raspberries should be ripe.  

Here are a few examples of what I include in my book of firsts: spring peepers peeping, cicadas singing, first ripe tomato, and ice on the pond. These items are relevant to my place on this beautiful planet, southern Ontario. Obviously, people living in Arizona, Florida, or Oregon would want to keep track of milestones relevant to their locations. That’s the beauty of keeping notebooks, you keep track of what is important to you.

In addition to a book of firsts, a person can keep a more formal notebook/journal. We could call this a farm journal, homestead journal, property journal, or something else. Such notekeeping is nothing new. A lot of gardeners already keep a garden journal, in which they document what they plant, where they plant it, how it fared, and if it’s worth growing again. Furthermore, It’s rather common for some people to carry around a notepad and pencil to jot down to-dos as they pop into their heads.

A farm journal could be an expansion of a garden journal or observations noted alongside a list of to-dos. Or it could be something else all together. Maybe it would only be useful for a short span of time. For example, prior to starting a new venture, spend some time in careful observation and note what takes place at a given location; how it changes with the seasons, where the water pools, where the soil is richest, how weather patterns affect it. Maybe the journal would become more of a diary and become something that you make notes in each day, perhaps even sketches.

Keeping notes in a journal not only encourages careful observations, but also affords a place to consolidate any observations for quick reference. At minimum it can be a spot to record relevant information. At best, it will become a habit of careful observation and study. Either way, you’ll come to know your homestead on a deeper level by keeping notes.

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.

Rights for La Bievre River in Paris

Bievre by Hubert Robert

La Bievre in 1768 Source: Hubert Robert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Centuries of overuse and abuse from the businesses that depended on the Bièvre polluted it so badly that it became a health hazard for Parisians. By 1912, the Parisian half of the river was completely concealed. Today it is a sad part of Parisian sewage systems.

"Earth Law Center is proud to work with Valerie Cabanes, Notre Affaire à Tous (NAAT), and others leaders in France to daylight the Bievre River in the enforcement of its right to be free" said Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney of Earth Law Center. "We also hope that daylighting the Bievre will inspire other communities to restore their entombed rivers," notes Wilson.

River restoration – the restoration of water flows and aquatic life to a largely ‘natural’ state – has been a topic of increasing interest over recent years, and organizations like the River Restoration Centre and the European Centre for River Restoration have formed to promote restoration work.

According to Adam Broadhead, who has created a daylighting website to map deculverting projects around the world,“Buried watercourses receive no sunlight, and so can be ecological deserts to life in the water and around the river banks (fish, birds, insects, plants, mammals). The darkness and other modifications to the channel often prevent passage of fish just like weirs do. Opening them back up can bring back all of this ecology when done properly.

More recently in the US, $19m was invested to daylight the Saw Mill river in downtown Yonkers, New York. The aim was to regenerate the area and bring back habitat for a range of species including muskrats and snapping turtles.

Through this initiative and others, Earth Law Center intends to lay the groundwork for a significant shift in how the law addresses questions of natural resources and environmental integrity. Changes that recognize the inherent rights of species and ecosystems will create more effective and durable mechanisms for protecting the natural world.

Beginning with one river and extending locally creates both community commitment to the environment and governmental protections that span jurisdictions and support a cleaner and healthier environment. Victories at the local level also build interest and a sense of momentum about our work – as time goes by and more local governments grant rights to local ecosystems, the idea gains in political credibility and a groundswell of support that can translate into motion at the state and ultimately federal levels.

Victories everywhere help build international norms and the political will for collective solutions to global problems. Personhood for rivers has already been recognized in New Zealand, India, 43 and Colombia, and nature’s inherent rights are recognized in the countries of Bolivia and Ecuador as well as Mexico City and over 30 municipalities in the US.

If La Bievre had full legal rights, then any unsustainable exploitation that would impair those rights could be challenged, with the river itself having standing in a court of law. When making such a claim, the river would be considered a legal entity, fighting for its own legal rights. In practice, humans would have to stand in a court of law to enforce such rights on behalf of the river, acting as legal guardians – a model that is already familiar to lawyers who represent children, disabled persons, and so forth. This model would, in turn, empower local communities, environmental groups, and others seeking to support the rights of rivers near them.

Take Action Today to Help Restore the World’s Rivers

Act today and join the growing global movement of Earth Law by:

Staying informed of Earth Law Center and also Notre Affaires a Tous

Volunteering with ELC or join a work group

Sign the petition here

Supporting ELC and Notre Affaire a Tous

Contact ELC if you want to work on your own river rights campaign

Darlene May Lee is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, which works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. She works to build a force of advocates for nature's rights at the local, state, national, and international levels. Connect with Earth Law Center on TwitterFacebookand LinkedIn. Read all of Darlene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.

To Create a Sustainable City, We Must Re-Engineer our Thinking


Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, I did not have an immediate knowledge of where our food and water came from.  I turned on the faucet for water, plugged cords into the wall for electricity, and went to the store for food. Yes, my city had been engineered for me, and I was just mindlessly playing my role.

At a young age, I felt that there was something wrong with my ignorance. Even worse, no one else seemed to be aware of our unawareness.  Everything came from somewhere else.  One salvation for me was that my mother grew up on a farm, and would tell tales of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl where many people had no food, and some starved to death. My mother’s family were poor by most standards, but they had 51 acres in rural Ohio and they fed themselves and many others. My mother’s stories inspired me to become an ethno-botanist, and to learn about how all plants were used in the past. 

Though I did not pursue the path of “urban planning,” I realized that I had many choices within the framework of my suburban life where I could ecologically engineer my life.

Personal Choices

My first teenage forays were into backyard urban gardening and raising chickens in a tiny space.  I didn’t want to be dependent on commercial fertilizers and bug-sprays, so I learned the ages-old methods of agricultural, methods that people today call “organic” or “perma-culture.”  I learned that anyone could indeed produce at least some of their food in the least amount of space. 

Even in my late teenage years, I had critics who told me it was not practical to grow foods without artificial fertilizers and pesticides.  Really?  I followed the path of Fusuoka and his “One Straw Revolution,” and the Rodale family, and insisted on growing everything with nothing artificial. I learned to keep down the bug population with natural methods that had been practiced world-wide for millennia.  I knew that the so-called Green Revolution, based as it was on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides was partly a fraud, and was not sustainable into the future centuries.

I continued my botanical studies by learning about the uses of wild plants of the Native Americans. I found to my surprise that all the foods used by the indigenous population could still be found throughout my homeland, though it was necessary to hunt a bit more because of all the houses, roads, and modern landscaping that has taken over the land.  Yes, the engineering of the concrete city has destroyed much of the territory for these native foods, but they were not entirely gone.

I began to eat these wild plants that had sustained people for millennia, and I incorporated them into my regular diet.  When I first began to share with others my excitement of these floral treasures, I  was treated with mostly apathy, sometimes scorn, and even pity.  I was amazed! 

Re-Engineering My Own Mind

In the mid-1970s in Los Angeles County,  I began publicly teaching and writing about the practical skills of self-reliance and practical survival in the city.  I was not engineering the city, but I was working to engineer a new mindset that says we can live ecologically (and economically) in the city.

Today, there is a renaissance and a great interest in the knowledge of our ancestors.  And it’s never too late to begin to seek our roots, and to turn around some of habits of ecological suicide.  I believe that we can solve many of our problems today by looking to the past for some of our solutions.

Here in Southern California, we have barely gotten over a four-year drought, which has finally inspired politicians and water department movers-and-shakers to encourage the millions of people who live here to consume less water.  With water usage averaging about 131 gallons a day for Los Angeles residents, and an ever-growing population of about 5% a year, water must always be a concern, as it will always be for most major cities of the world. 

The mayor of Los Angeles, and water department officials, are encouraging people to tear out their lawns and install drought-tolerant plantings.  I encourage people to go even one step further. Actually, a few steps further.  Yes, learn about the wild plants which are edible and medicinal, and encourage them. They will grow without your care.  And never merely plant “ornamentals,” that is, plants who do not provide food, or medicine, or good mulch from their leaves.  Plant with a purpose to feed your body  and your soul. 

To help irrigate these useful plants, I’m a big proponent of simple grey-water recycling, where your sink and washing machine water are piped into your backyard garden or front yard orchard.  Not every single city dweller can do this, but enough can do it to make a large difference.  Yes, certain changes are essential, such as buying soaps that contain to dyes, colors, or harmful chemicals. Continuing education is a big part of self-reliance and sustainability.  Recycling your grey-water means that you are getting at least two uses from water which previously you used only once.  Practically speaking, for every gallon of water you recycle, you have effective created another gallon of water for your use which does not have to be imported from somewhere else!

With the population of Southern California that continually grows, there is the growing need for more food and more water, as a function of increased population.  This unfortunately means even more land paved over for more houses or apartments.  Thus, the very soil which all ancient civilizations knew was the foundation of a healthy society becomes more and more rare. This should not be the case, even though it seems all but inevitable.

Our very lifeblood is dependent on the soil in so many ways.  Water, food, everything.

However, urban people need to re-learn these very basic ecological principles.  Our very laws, and attitudes – especially in the more-“developed” countries -- work against our long-term sustainability.

Urban Sustainability

Here in Southern California, the green lawn is still the norm in the sprawling suburban flatlands.  Never-ending flows of water (from somewhere) is the expectation.  The mindset must turn around, and it will begin with enlightened individuals who see that inappropriate lifestyles in an over-populated dry terrain are the antithesis of survival. As attitudes change – and slowly they are – the laws of the land need to support the water-wise practices that support sustainability. 

As a lifelong-educator in the uses of common wild plants, I cringe when I see television advertisements for such products as Roundup, and others, designed to kill off the unwanted vegetation of urban gardens and landscapes.  You know, such plants as dandelions and other healthful herbs called “weeds” which they picture in their ads.

To me, a student of the wild plants and the things growing in the faraway and neglected places, using a chemical like Roundup to “clean up” a wild area is a sacrilege.  Further,  bankers and land investors do not necessarily see the land as a source of life, recreation, fulfillment, and community. Rather, increasingly, the desire is to extract the greatest financial benefit from the land. Land that has nothing built upon it is all too often described as “non-performing real estate.”  That is the mentality which has caused the urban sprawl to sprawl even further, while diminishing the very sustainability from the land that we all need.  “Engineering” the city should not be simply building ever-more structures on the diminishing landscape. We should be re-engineering our thinking so we can get more from less, in ways that are both healthful and ecological. 

The Quiet Revolution

I am a pioneer of the path of the green and sustainable revolution.  You won’t find me protesting in the streets for changes, but you might find me in a city council meeting, or in a garden, or in a wilderness area.  I work with people one at a time. I have found that once an individual sees that the so-called weeds in an empty field are actually great nutritious food or medicine, they suddenly take a very personal interest in protecting and care-taking the land. Once individuals learn that the water from their very households can water their own garden and herb-patch, they become quite alert and aware of the quality of any soaps they are using, and they begin to use only those that are biodegradable, as a result of enlightened self-interest.  Suddenly, living an ecological urban life becomes very personal.

There are many paths to urban sustainability. This is the path I have chosen.

Christopher Nyerges works to engineer a new mindset that says we can live ecologically (and economically) in the city. He has taught self-reliance and sustainability his entire life through the teaching of ethnobotany and principles of permaculture. Nyerges is the author of 23 books including Self-Sufficient Home: Going Green and Saving Money, Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City, How to Survive Anywhere, and others. He is the co-founder of the School of Self-Reliance, and works actively with various non-profits for the goals of urban sustainability.

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.

Monitoring Air Quality in Homes and Workshops

workshop photo 

Photo credit: Skitterphoto 

Having clean air to breathe is essential for our health. Maintaining good indoor air quality is difficult under normal circumstances, but when working with tools in your home workshop, it becomes even more challenging. Some of these tools, such as soldering irons, electric saws and sanders, send particles into the air that can have negative health impacts if you inhale them. Monitoring air quality in your home and workshop can help you prevent indoor air quality problems and the potential resulting health effects.

Factors Affecting Air Quality

Many different types of gases, solid particulates and liquid droplets can mix with the air and affect air quality. These pollutants can come from both natural and synthetic sources. Some common types of contaminants include:

Particulate matter refers to tiny particles and drops of liquid in the air, such as dirt, dust, smoke and exhaust. Particles that are under 10 micrometers in diameter are the biggest threats because they can easily enter your lungs and bloodstream.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemicals that substances emit as gases into the air. They can come from paint, cleaning products, motor fuel and other products.

Biological pollutants include mold, bacteria, viruses, pollen, pet dander and mites.

Some of these factors, such as pollen, may come indoors from the outside environment. Others, such as mold, may grow inside. Others may come from using certain products in the home. These types of substances and goods may be especially likely to be used in a home workshop.

Glues, solvents, paints and other products may emit harsh chemicals into the air. Some solder includes lead, which is especially dangerous to children. Lead-free solder, however, also releases particulates into the air. Using powered woodworking tools such as sanders and saws releases significant amounts of sawdust into the air.

Health Impacts of Poor Air Quality

Poor indoor air quality can have substantial negative health impacts, especially with prolonged exposure. Breathing in particulates, chemicals and other contaminants can cause acute symptoms such as headaches and throat and eye irritation. Regular exposure over long periods can cause heart and lung problems such as occupational asthma, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks and cancer.

It doesn't take long to start developing health problems from inhaling contaminated air if it occurs regularly. Thirty minutes per day for just 14 days is enough to notice issues arising.

People who work in industries where they get exposed to poor air quality are especially likely to contract health problems related to breathing in contaminated air. While contamination is usually not as concentrated, you may be exposed to it for longer, since Americans spend close to 90 percent of their time indoors.

If you have children or older adults living with you, you will have to be especially careful about air quality. If using potentially dangerous substances in a workshop, make sure to seal your shop off from the rest of the house and have a good source of ventilation to the outside.

How to Monitor Indoor Air Quality

Sometimes, it is obvious when there are air quality issues in the home. You can smell or see many common pollutants. Others, though, you wouldn't notice on your own. That's where air quality monitors come in.

These devices measure the quality of your air and alert you if levels of certain substances get too high. Some include integrated air purifiers, while others only monitor the air and require you to purchase a purifier separately.

Some of the top-rated indoor air quality monitors include:

Foobot measures VOCs, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity. It displays a red light if your air quality gets bad. It has a companion app that lets you analyze your air quality information, and it can connect with a range of smart home devices. It sells for $199.

Dyson Pure Cool senses contaminants in your air, captures them and then releases purified air into your home. You can monitor your air quality with the LCD or the companion app. Depending on the model and size, it goes for between $299.99 and $599.99.

Awair keeps track of VOC, CO2 and dust levels in your air as well as temperature and humidity. It gives you an air quality score out of 100, as well as personalized recommendations on how to improve your score. IT also has a companion app where you can access detailed air quality data and has several smart integrations built in. The flagship model sells for $189.

If you get one of these devices and find your air quality is worse than you like, you can use the information they give you to improve your air quality.

By using these devices, you'll get an idea of what's reducing the quality of your air. You can then decide whether to stop using certain substances indoors, purchase an air purifier or take other steps.

Kayla Matthews is a journalist and blogger with a passion for living healthily and happily. You can read all of her latest posts by following her on Google+ and Twitter. Read all her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.

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