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

Homesteader Perspectives on Snow


Timing is important! Perhaps now is not the time to profess the virtues of snow while our state is being hammered with feet of snow as opposed to inches. Adults often see it as something to be dealt with, and children will see it as something to have fun with. Following a year of pandemic, where many of us have sheltered in place, a crippling snowstorm can try our resolve as our current storm is a large one and our governor is once again telling us to shelter in place until it is safe to move about.  

When it comes to shoveling it off our deck and walkways I am still awed with the quiet it produces. It makes me want to sing the song by the Carpenters, whose lyrics go something like this: “There is a kind of hush all over the world tonight, all over the world”. The fresh snow covers the dingy snow and makes everything look new again. Early in the morning I love to go out and shovel as the silence outside takes me into another world where noisy distractions don’t exist and tranquility and peace reigns.  

Homestead Perspectives On Snow

When the sun shines and hits that newly fallen snow, it is like millions of diamonds sparkling around me, and I find myself holding my breath in total awe over the sight. Adults more than not see snow differently than a child sees new snow. Adults sometimes grudgingly see new snow as one more task to accomplish. Children see it as something to play in, make a snowman, go sledding, make snow angels or just have fun in. 

Newness and Silence

New snow makes everything temporarily beautiful. Standing still while the flakes are gently falling around me is so overpowering especially realizing that no two flakes are alike. New snow muffles sound and everything is suddenly quiet, slowed down to where life's struggles and problems are for a moment forgotten.

Ancient Wisdom

Aristotle once said that to appreciate the beauty of a snowflake, you have to stand out in the cold. Now, before the reader labels me a nutcase, let me explain about our snow. We live at 9,800 feet elevation in the mountains and we see snow 6 to 7 months a year. We are out in the cold very often. We can get up to 300 inches of snow some years. We have lived here full time for almost a quarter of a century. We see a lot of snow and this time of year we have snow piles 6 to 8 feet high. I am only a few months short of 80 years old and I am still transfixed by a new snowfall and the silent beauty it produces.

Slow Down and Enjoy Natural Beauty

I am fully aware that I have a lot of shoveling ahead of me but I never hesitate to stop and just appreciate the snow and all it represents. We adults get sidetracked or overwhelmed by new snowfall and the work it entails. I still enjoy sledding down our driveway even though the long walk back up is getting harder and takes longer. I set aside time to have fun and frequently pause to appreciate the wonder and beauty of a new snow.

Nature's Sculptures are Like No Other

In cities where there are many structures that have sharp angles, here in the mountains what the wind does artistically transform the snow into something of beauty. It creates the most amazing drifts that are so gracefully sculpted and designed with smooth, rounded and graceful lines. Like most winter dwellers, when I see a storm headed our way, I say "not again" and do not always look favorably upon another storm. When it gets here, however, I am reminded of  the newness, beauty and silence it provides before I am forced to get down to the grueling work of clearing it.


There is something refreshing to the soul when experiencing newly fallen snow and the wonderful silence and newness it provides. It reminds me of  standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon where I would talk in a whisper without realizing I was doing it. That is the kind of awe I experience when those flakes gently float to earth and how the snow muffles the sound.

Snow Hazards

I’m also aware of how snow can be frustrating and sometimes destructive. There are avalanches, of course, and sometimes the snow accumulates in feet, and not inches. This will test even the most staunch person's attitude, mine included. Then there are the large clumps of snow that fall off trees when you are clearing snow pathways that always manage to somehow go down your collar which can bring a litany of unpleasant words you would not usually utter.

Snow Benefits

Living in a semi arid state we depend on snow to provide summer moisture. That moisture is needed to keep streams flowing into lakes and reservoirs which provide water for growth, agriculture and our very survival. Sometimes it is hard to keep the benefits of snow in perspective, but I have learned that instead of being overwhelmed with several feet of snow, to divide it into portions. We have received up to 6’ of snow in a single storm but mostly we get 1 to 3 feet at a time. When taking it in segments over time it is not so overwhelming and we don’t over tax ourselves physically.

Bruce and Carol McElmurray live in the mountains in southern Colorado with their canine family and take measures to protect them from the wild predators that are around. They lead a somewhat different lifestyle and for more on them and their canine family visit their blog site at: You can read all of Bruce'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.

Read 'Grow Wild' and Learn to Move More

 Exploring nature

Photos by Sheryl Campbell

Children have never moved as little as they move today! And neither have adults! Katy Bowman’s latest book, Grow Wild, is based on the undeniable premise that we are becoming a hazardously sedentary society. And that this lack of movement is harming our children.

Have you and your children spent the current pandemic hunched over your computers for work and school in the “safe” comfort of your internet-connected home? Does it often seem too hot or too cold to try to do anything outside? Have more of your external excursions – from shopping to travel to enjoying the arts – taken place online this year?  You aren’t alone.  This has happened to all of us. I kept feeling consummately silly sitting still in an armchair while reading Katy’s insightful book about movement. I found myself walking around in the house and yard while reading and dictating notes.

Movement Matters

It matters significantly to our health yet human movement is in a state of decline.  Now even more so during the pandemic. Our environment used to prompt us to move – now it encourages us to sit still. Katy asserts that our convenience-driven culture is a contributing factor to many of today’s childhood health issues. “Modern food, clothing, education, games, homes, and travel have become attainable with almost no movement of our bodies required.”

Grow Wild Book CoverGrow Wild encourages and exhorts adults to model enjoying movement, especially outside, with the children in their lives. Being outside places us in a movement rich environment, while being in direct contact with nature is critical to our overall health. Already at the turn of the 20th century, Charlotte Mason developed her early childhood educational theories with a core tenant of “never be indoors when you can rightly be without”. Generations of home educators have learned the wisdom of that command. Children are able to move, observe, and focus more fully within a nature-filled environment of permissive movement.

With beautiful and engaging photographs of real people applying the principles of growing wild, the book directly models simple activities in a way that children can emulate just from looking at the pictures. It is our job to give them permission to try, and an environment that gives them the ability to succeed. Grow Wild is not a book of exercises. Rather it is a helpful reference for creating active spaces for children to move in throughout their ordinary day.

 Build a snowman

Environment Matters

Katy gives many simple ideas for restructuring your living spaces, rethinking how you get from one place to another, and how to dress your children for movement success. She has organized the book into relevant chapters for the different environments your child experiences daily: culture, clothing, food, home, education, activity, and celebration. Each chapter addresses the importance of each environment and suggests changes that you can make within each one to get your children (and you) moving more.

 working together

Encourage Movement and Change Their Lives

Learn to think creatively and make some of these small changes in your everyday life to naturally start moving more and create a movement rich environment for your children.

Change their culture from one in which stillness and silence is required to one in which they are given direct permission to move.

  • Walk with them to school rather than putting them on the bus
  • Encourage them to jump up and down while waiting in lines with you
  • Go outside with them every day

Help them to select clothing for more movement.

  • Have them try different moves while trying on clothing to see if they can move in every direction
  • Opt for layers rather than heavy single pieces in winter
  • Get them out of shoes and barefoot with regularity

Involve them in food selection be it in the grocery store or choosing seeds for the garden.

  • Cook outdoors more often
  • Have lots of picnics
  • Plant a vegetable garden

Reshape your home around movement vs. convenience.

  • Plan activities on coffee tables to encourage squatting or sitting cross legged
  • Set up a short jumping-off box in the middle of the room
  • Set up hanging/pullup bars in doorways

 up the down staircase

Stacking Matters

The key to a movement rich lifestyle is fulfilling multiple categories of needs at the same time. Katy calls this “stacking”. She includes work, food, family, rest, play, community, movement, learning, and nature as needs categories. For example, think of all the different ways you could ride a bike to increase your movement:

  • Riding a stationary bike indoors would move your muscles and increase your heart rate
  • Riding around the neighborhood with your children would fill your need for community and family while getting you to move more
  • Riding to work would meet your need to provide for your family as you move
  • Riding a back country road brings you in closer contact with nature

 getting from here to there

Movement is necessary for every one of all ages. Children need it to build their bodies, adults need it to maintain their flexibility and strength, and senior adults need it to remain mobile. When my husband’s partially-paralyzed father lived with us we regularly took to the trail in a comical movement train: Papa with his feet strapped onto a huge three-wheeled bike with my husband jogging at his side, our son on his small bicycle with training wheels while I brought up the rear on my roller blades. Singing as we traveled (moving our lungs), we always came back refreshed and feeling closer as a family.

Read the Book!

“It used to be that the environment demanded our movement and our body needed it; now just our body needs it.” Our bodies’ demands upon us for good oxygen intake, proper circulation, lung capacity, and musculoskeletal strength have not diminished. Only our demands upon our bodies have changed. It’s time we changed that. For our health, and for the health and happiness of our children. It’s time to get moving again!

 fly a kite

Katy’s approach to movement education is to “teach people how to see for themselves the opportunities to move more, as well as to ensure they have the skills necessary to take those opportunities”.  Trained as a biomechanist, she is a bestselling author, speaker, and a leader of the Movement movement through which she is changing the way we think about our need for movement. In Grow Wild: The whole-child, whole-family nature-rich guide to moving more, Katy will convince you of our need to move and the improvement it will bring to your children’s lives.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of 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.

Discovering Nature and Wildlife With a Trail Camera

Cardinal in Snow

The trail camera is used by sportsmen for learning the what, where and when about game animals. These relatively new devices started in their infancy as security cameras about three decades ago. Wildlife biologists quickly repurposed the standalone cameras as game management tools. Hunting equipment companies jumped on the bandwagon and began marketing them to outdoorsmen to promote success. Today the trail camera market is flooded with varying makes and models and prices.

Millions of these spy-eyes are sold at hunting equipment retailers each year. Surprisingly, more than half are purchased by individuals and businesses for security measures or by nature lovers for wildlife viewing. Trespassing, theft, harassment and other misconducts caught on camera have made a case for offended citizens. Just the warning that a security camera is on duty can discourage crime and mischief. For animal observation, the possibilities are limitless.

Photo by Pixabay/sandid 

Have you ever wondered what goes on in your backyard or barn lot when you’re not home or at night? A trail camera offers users a detailed report that sometimes explains the unexplainable. For instance, your bird feeder, filled with thistle seed, literally had multitudes of gold finches visiting it, but now its void of the cheery yellow-black callers. A location-placed camera could reveal that a predator bird, such as a kestrel or falcon, may be using the feeder as its focal hunting ground.

Our farm has a small creek that became backed up by a beaver dam. Small trees that inhibited bank erosion were steadily disappearing, chewed down and converted to dam material. I dismantled the obstruction multiple times with a tractor to discourage these industrious tree-eaters from using the area. Each deconstruction was met with a reconstruction, and—unbelievably—almost overnight. The immediate assumption was that these elaborate rebuilds required the efforts of several adult beavers. Rocks, some the size of a basketball, were moved a quarter the length of a football field to reinforce the dam’s structure.

After placing a trail camera at the dam site, I was astonished to learn that only a single, 25-pound beaver was the culprit; it had moved into the area from a larger creek and was determined to set up house. Since the tractor deconstructed much quicker than the beaver reconstructed, the lone animal finally got the hint  after a couple of weeks and moved back to the larger stream. A beaver can live two to three decades, and though a large one might weigh 60 pounds, I’ve personally seen trapped specimens that tip the scale at nearly 100 pounds.

Eagles and HawksThough a hunter, I gain equal delight from observation of non-game animals as tracking the activity of open-season prey. It never ceases to amaze me what shows up at a road-killed carcass before it is completely consumed: owls, hawks, eagles, turkey vultures, crows, coyotes, foxes, opossums, raccoons, bobcats and even curious members of the deceased animal’s family. My favorite camera location is on a winter bird feeder. My wife Connie and I live between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Migrating birds captured on film in this fly zone offer us the unattended viewing of nearly a hundred different species.

As an independent tester of trail cameras, I would advise buyers to “Beware!” Only two trail cameras are built in the USA where on-site quality can be maintained: ReConyx of Holmen, WI and Buckeye of Athens, Ohio. Though these camera manufacturers are quality-proven marketers, their units are at the top of the price scale. A standalone unit may run $450-$750. Wireless or satellite units reporting to computers or cellphones can cost substantially more depending on optional bells and whistles.

Most trail cameras today—no matter the major brand name marketer—are made in China at just a few factories. Depending on features, these cameras can cost from $50-$500. Don’t be fooled by the two-year warrantee of a foreign-built camera. Many of these do not work straight out of the box, and some only function a few weeks or months. The American marketer, through their Chinese supplier, will keep replacing your camera until your two years is up, or until you simply go away. You’ll often be stuck with the cost of shipping the unit to the supplier.

There are a few respectable Chinese cameras in the $200-plus range. Your best bet to finding one that has some degree of quality and longevity is to get online and read the reviews of independent trail camera testers. One of the better testers is Chasin Game. The three most desired features on a camera are long battery life, quick trigger speed (for catching birds in flight), and ease of use/setup.

Please feel free to ask me even the simplest of questions about trial cameras. We all have to start somewhere.

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.

Recycling Crisis: Is It True?

Sophie in West Paw bed 

The author's dog on her West Paw bed.

Plastics ruining the oceans are a common sight on both TV and internet news. I’m sure it’s a big problem and am doing what I can to stem the tide. Many of us Mother Earth News readers want to help but aren’t sure where to start. Read on to find out some of the challenges and solutions I’ve found to address this dilemma.

When I read a story in the Baltimore Sun’s June 24th issue about recycling efforts going to waste, I was shocked by the amount of items meant for single-stream recycling being sent to landfills. The article points out one of the most significant problems is consumers don’t know how to recycle correctly. The author also tells about China cutting back on purchasing our recycled paper, and other recycled items. Here are some of the things you can do to help recycling centers and the environment.

Clean those plastics you’re tossing in the bin. The good news is the recycling of single-use plastics like water bottles, soft drink bottles, yogurt containers, etc. is encouraged. The problem is, items must be reasonably clean for the facility that receives to process them or else these dirty items are worthless. Think of yogurt or peanut butter containers coated with remaining product, and it’s easy to see that would contaminate the mix when melted down. Then there are the half-full drink bottles tossed in the recycling container. Clean and empty all items you put in the recycling bin if you want them to have a chance at another life cycle.

Plastic straws are said to be non-recyclable and over 500 million per day are used and discarded. Just say no to straws that restaurants most often put in glasses of water and other drinks. Perfectly good non-plastic straws can be sourced from companies like Aardvark. I applaud Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants for adopting Aardvark's eco-friendly straw. Ted’s goes one step further. Instead of putting straws in all drinks, they place a container of Aardvark straws on each table and let consumers choose to use or not use a straw.

Glass Versus Plastic

Some consumers think that purchasing food and drink products in glass containers does the environment a favor. Recycling centers typically find that glass is worthless to process but do so as a service to residents of many US municipalities. Glass is heavy and costs more to transport. From a consumer’s point of view, glass seems safer than plastic. Some studies report that plastic particles are released into the beverage or food products they are packaged in. I don’t want to eat or drink plastic and prefer glass or aluminum over plastic bottles. It’s a tough choice to make when deciding if glass or plastic is the lesser evil. While touring the Las Vegas recycling complex, I was told at best only 16% of plastic bottles are collected for recycling. I suggest you opt for glass or aluminum, even if you are recycling your plastics.

Paper, Not Plastic

Paper bags are better than plastic bags for the environment. Who hasn’t seen plastic grocery bags flying from tree limbs and barbwire fences? Yes, paper bags cost more to deliver and use more fuel to do so, but it’s a renewable resource. Better yet, use a shopping bag made from recycled plastics or a canvas bag. My Pike Place Market canvas bags are more than 20 years old and still holding up well. I keep extra canvas bags under the seat of my car so I always have reusable bags for shopping.

Reusealble grocery bags

My 20 year old canvas grocery bags holding up well.

Support Those Who Produce Recycled Plastic Products

Supporting businesses that create useful consumer goods from recycled plastic is a great way to help the environment. I recently found out about West Paw in Montana. West Paw makes superior dog beds from recycled plastic bottles. They also make leashes, toys, and collars for dogs. Check out their toys made from Zogoflex, a strong chew-resistant product. West Paw has a program called Join the Loop where they encourage consumers to send in worn out Zogoflex toys for recycling. Read more about West Paw.

Samsonite has a line of eco-friendly luggage called Eco-Nu made from recycled plastic bottles. Light and durable, these bags are a smart solution for travelers who want to help the environment. I only recently found out about this line of luggage and will give it a try next time I’m in the market for a new suitcase.

U-Konserve is a company out of Sausalito California making some of their products from recycled plastics. I read this on their website, Americans discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year, and only 8% gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, is incinerated, or becomes litter.

Photo by Pixabay/shirley810

Started by two moms that wanted to cut down on the waste created by packing lunches for their school-age children, this company is at the forefront of eco-friendly food-carrying products. Not only are their lunch totes and ice packs made from recycled plastic, but U-Konserve also makes a full line of eco-friendly food and beverage toting products. U-Konserve stresses the importance of using functional implements for packing lunches that can be reused hundreds of times. They even have a Lids for Life program where if the lid on their stainless steel container wears out, they will replace it for free.

A Better Grocery Store

In Maryland, a new kind of grocery store was born in 1987. Scott Nash is the founder and CEO of MOM’s (MOM’s Organic Market).  Scott has taken this small business started in his mother’s garage and turned it into a model for the future of grocery stores. Now spanning four Mid-Atlantic States and the District of Columbia, MOM’s stores accept a variety of hard to recycle products in their store. Customers can drop off used corks, shoes, foil-lined snack bags, eyewear, and other hard to recycle items. They also recycle Christmas lights during the holidays.

MOM Organic Market's recycling

MOM's Organic Grocery Store recycling station.

MOM’s quit selling still or flat bottled water in 2010 as part of their commitment to protect and restore the environment. They don’t use plastic grocery bags and encourage customers to bring re-useable bags when shopping. MOM’s gives customers a ten cent credit for each reusable bag used for toting groceries. One of the aspects of MOM’s commitment to the environment that impresses me the most is their donations of over $500,000. This money goes to environmental organizations that share in their global view of protecting our planet. If you don’t have a MOM’s store near you, pressure your favorite grocery store to adopt MOM’s eco-practices.

Mr. Trash Wheel to the Rescue

John Kellet got tired of seeing trash floating in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on his way to work and took action. After 12 years of creating a workable prototype, Kellet’s Mr. Trash Wheel was put to work. This marvel of modern engineering scoops up tons of floating trash from Jones Falls, Harris Creek, and Masonville Cove. Powered by the force of flowing water supplemented with solar panels, Mr. Trash Wheel is saving the Bay.  Mr. Trash Wheel keeps thousands of plastic bottles, chip bags, plastic grocery bags, and more junk out of the Chesapeake Bay. What’s not to love about these machines!

Mr. Trash Wheel

Harris Creek trash wheel dubbed Professor Trash Wheel.

Volunteer events help sort some of the trash and send appropriate items to a recycling center. The rest is sent to landfills. And while I’d like to see all the plastics recycled, it’s better to be sent to a landfill than float out into the Bay.

What We Can Do

  1. Reduce, reuse, and recycle is still vital as ever.
  2. Consider buying beverages in aluminum instead of plastic containers.
  3. Contact your local municipality if you aren’t clear about proper recycling methods. It would be a shame to have your efforts end up in the local landfill unnecessarily.
  4. Be a part of the change by posting some of your favorite recycled products on the Mother Earth News Facebook page. By sharing eco-friendly products sources our health and the health of the planet will benefit greatly.

Kurt Jacobson writes about travel, food, wine, organic gardening, and most anything else from his varied professional life. His articles appear in Alaska Magazine, Fish Alaska Magazine, Metropolis Japan Magazine, Edible Delmarva Magazine, North West Travel and Life Magazine, and Mother Earth News. Kurt lives in the Baltimore, MD area with his wife, dog and cats. Kurt is a regular contributor to writing about Alaska, Colorado, New Zealand, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic areas.

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.

Our Giving Trees: Appreciating Wood for Warmth and Beauty

giving tree

An image from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, a story in which a tree loves a boy so much that she gives everything to him, her shade, her apples, and, eventually, her entire body to sell so that he might be happy. At the end of the story, the boy comes back an old man, and sits on his tree’s stump. They are ancient and broken, but they are together, “and the tree was happy.”

I’m on a walk with my friend Kate in the forest. It’s the College Woods out behind William & Mary, where we go to school. It’s misty and some water begins to condense and form little droplets on my brow. Kate’s clad fully in denim with a painted-on sweatshirt underneath. We jump across the access logs placed in the low-lying swampy bits of the trail that it always takes me minutes to traverse alone. Kate’s confidence is palpable, and it makes me feel better. We don’t know each other all that well, but I feel close to them out under the trees in the little bits of rain spitting down from the grey sky now occluded by one-thousand branches.

When we arrive at an outcrop just below the Keck Lab, William & Mary’s hub for environmental sciences nestled on the edge of campus, Kate discovers something up ahead and suddenly becomes quite giddy. They’re generally very even-keel, so I was interested in the kind of cute forest creature, lost ruin, and/or resplendent gemstone that could have caused such a reaction. When I catch up to Kate, they are staring at a pile of light-colored wood, the remnants of a tree that had been cut up into pieces and dumped down a hill, eventually coming to rest in a ravine right off of the walking trail. Kate senses my surprise at seeing their discovery, punctuating their chuckle with the words: “Sorry, it’s just that, I love wood. Man, I have to get my car and come back here. I’ve got all of these tools for making wood prints and so many sketches and paintings that I want to get down on these stumps.”

Appreciating Trees for Art, Warmth and Beauty

They exhale. With one short paragraph of conversation, I’ve been schooled anew in the art of appreciating trees and their warm, beautiful bodies. Wood is a resource that is perpetually undervalued in western society, on account of what I believe to be a tragic disconnection with the material’s ever palpable and tactile nature. In the suburban U.S., the closest that most kids get to wood comes in the form of paper and self-lighting fireplaces. Unless you live up north, you don’t see too many wood stoves for heating these days, and the idea of using wood for art – be it sculpture or prints, like Kate enjoys – is something that only the artsiest of folks might consider.

Coincidentally, Kate does hail from far up north, Connecticut to be exact, and in their next sentence they tell me about their routine over winter break: “I’d get up, put the coffee on, and light the rest of the fire we had from the night before, before heading out to the shed to get more fuel.” It was poignant, I thought, that wood for Kate was both a medium through which they could express their artistic passion and a source of heat that they and their mom relied on to get through the cold New England winter. For the first time in my mind, it made sense that the same fuel that we’ve relied on for survival throughout human history, could be made into works of art that take us back to our roots.

kate wood

Kate's bright and beloved wood covered in this morning's snow.

Finding Connection through Wood-Based Chores

Specifically, this conversation took me back to Dayspring Farm, where, the week before, I was stacking splits of hickory with my mentor, Charlie, and best friend, Gabe. The wood was to be stored in the shed outside the barn to feed Charlie and Miriam’s stove for the rest of February, and we sure did have a big pile to get through. During the work, Charlie talked about his favorite writer, Wendell Berry, and resilience. He talked about how doing a job with one’s full effort and care was a simple way to express love. I smiled so wide when I took in a full picture of what was happening. We were two young men in our early twenties, stacking wood for hours with their 70-old farm teacher. We broke into sweat and laughter.

We watched the sun go down together. With the sliver of remaining light, we packed the last bits of the pile into the tattered shed that Charlie’s oldest son, Jason, had built when he was only 17. That was almost twenty years ago. I felt very simple in this moment, calm and so in love with what was happening.

All that Trees Give

We make so much out of wood: instruments, furniture, supplies of all sorts. We interact with wood every day in overt and subtle ways alike. Many of us will spend over half of our lives sleeping on wooden bed frames, losing ourselves, during certain nights, in the euphonious sounds ringing out of a musician’s acoustic guitar. It’s made of Rosewood, of Mahogany, Ash, Maple, Basswood, Agathis, Alder, Poplar, Walnut, Spruce, and/or Holly. In short, of trees.

And we certainly won’t be able to appreciate the living wonder of these gorgeous beings if we can’t first accept our intimate reliance on their bodies. In order to live and, indeed, live well, we must consume them. Therefore, no walk in the forest should be without gratitude for the many cousins of the trees who give us shade for our rest, and leaves for compost and cover, and the flowers and fruits and nuts of spring, and natural ticker-tape in fall, who weren’t so lucky. For those who we’ve cut down and made into tables, and chairs, and boats, and dolls, and paper. The least we can do is appreciate their warmth, whether it be through art, fire, or a quiet walk amidst the trees left living. A wholesome life, I would argue, should include all three.

So, this winter, I encourage you to get outside and start engaging with the trees that stand. Go out into the woods and find your own medium for art, your own warmth, from the very place where all humans come from. That ancient forest of earth, in whose shade our ancestors survived and evolved, has now all but been destroyed in the wake of our incurious modern craving to consume. But we, together, can break the mold.

Go into the forest. Go in the snow, the rain, the sun. Feel her chill, hug her trees, engage with her floor, the ever-shifting weight of her many creatures. Meet friends there. They don’t even have to be people (in fact, it might be better if they’re not). Other humans can sometimes make us feel like we’re the only ones here in this world, that we are all who matter, around which the rest revolves. But this isn’t true. Your forest is close. It gives and gives and gives.

Jonny Malks is a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Read all of Jonny’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.

Removing a Tree by its Roots: Pondering Farm-Grown Imagination in Dark Times


A happy boy running for a shovel!

I was back at Dayspring Farm this week, volunteering on Friday, as I will do weekly for the coming months. We painted tables and dug trenches and pruned the blackberries that stretch in long rows of wooden post and line. We cut and sorted ginger, repaired caterpillar tunnels, ate lunch and did some laughing. However, the most satisfying part of the day was removing a tree by its roots from its place deep within the ground outside the greenhouse.

The tree had been growing, for many years, off to the side of its grafted rootstock, sprouting a whole other root system that meant it wasn’t going to produce fruit. It was about as tall as a one-story building with a relatively slender trunk and flaky, milk-brown bark. James, our farm manager, first tried to pull it out by wrapping a chain around the base of the trunk at ground level and attaching it to his most powerful tractor. But all that did was break the stump in half, leaving a fractured yet stubborn nub peaking up out of the grass and mud. And so, we got to digging.

Emotional Learning through Farm Life

Now, in the week leading up to my day on the farm, I’d felt wracked with grief and shame, for various (and slightly quixotic) reasons. I had a little non-COVID-related medical scare that made me feel like a hypochondriac. I’d left my loving family at home to return to the small room that I live in near campus for my last semester of college. I’d gotten rejected from (what I’m sure will be) my first of many grad schools. I turned 22. I’d been turned-down and confused by a romantic interest. I’d lied to a lifelong friend (someone I love!) for no apparent reason. And I felt very alone.

Even amidst the excitement of going back to school, my attempts at expending creative energy through songwriting and drawing, hugging those I love most goodbye, I couldn’t shake myself out of a narrative that I’d been building up in my head. This narrative, this cat-faced conscience that spoke in my voice, said that I was a failure, a shameful, wrecked, and vain fake who claims to identify as an empath whilst going around oblivious to how others feel and hurting them all the more for it. I imagined myself an ugly and strung-out creep. I still do now, in some moments, even after learning what I learned at Dayspring.

What I learned was that we had to dig, and after our first attempt at uncovering some of the tree’s upper roots, James tried his tractor and his chain once more. Still, nothing. The tractor was so helpless against the little stump that it popped up onto its back wheels which dug into the soft ground like rotors, while the smaller ones in the front dangled in the air. The engine groaned amidst the placid January day, and James revved back and forth. Nothing. There was a lot more to this tree than we’d first thought. And so, we kept digging. The hole got wider and deeper. There were some grunts and a little bit of laughter as we fell over ourselves in the awkwardness of the pit. Dirt was everywhere. I thought.

Putting Imagination to Use During Trying Times

For someone who thinks, oftentimes, that their greatest strength comes from their imagination, I sure do imagine hurtful things against myself pretty much everyday. I’ll write a song that I think is good, that I think might help other people feel a little more understood if they take the time to listen, and yet, throughout the entire process, I’m telling myself that I am a sad person, a perpetrator of petty crimes against good friends and lovers, an interrupter of the very grace about which I sing.

I tell myself that no one will ever listen, and, even if they do, they’ll not understand and take my words too literally and spread (true) rumors about how I’m messed up and how I should never be taken seriously. And, while anything is possible, most all of this is in my head. These scenarios are like metal flowers that grow softly but weigh heavy, cut upon an overactive imagination that borders and blurs, sadly, upon paranoia in my darkest moments. 

It took about a half-hour to get deep enough for another pass. At the end of this bout of digging, my best friend Gabe and I had to use trowels to get beneath the posterior roots that we’d uncovered in order for James to fit the chain again. And, though we started out this third attempt with more tractor wheelies, eventually there was a slow and satisfying CRRRAAACK as the first large root was displaced. James backed in and tried another pull. Then another. There was more movement in the stump now, more than we’d seen before. More cracks accompanied the groaning of the tractor. There was movement, change, refreshment, payoff. And then, with one great yawning lurch, the stump came up and out, roots and all. It was massive, getting bigger rather than tapering the farther that it penetrated into the clay. Later, I did a little research and found that woody root tissue typically accounts for anywhere from fifteen to twenty percent of an adult tree’s total mass; there is an entire limb below the surface, an organ no one ever sees, unless they dig. 


Lessons from a Pear Tree

The depth of this wayward pear tree taught me that there are two sides to our imaginations, one good and one bad. Now, I know that it never turns out to be that cut and dry. There’s no hero imagination that rises to fight a villainous one. There’s no Freudian dichotomy built into the neocortex and the thalamus. However, this unmistakably human trait, this facet of our lives and culture that lets us create something from nothing every single day — be it big or small – this characteristic that defines our species can be, in itself, so destructive. And it’s the destructive side that we don’t see, and that we never label as such.

Even (and, oftentimes, especially) while we paint, or write, or sing, we feel immense sadness, longing, and/or shame. We temper and inform our positive (read: imaginative) exercises with what we think are negative “emotions,” loosely-defined thoughts and moods that add up to color our views of the world. But our imaginations are the entire tree. They don’t just stop at ground level. Below, there is a world we don’t see that forces us to envision scenarios where we’re not the hero, where we hurt people, and, consequently, where those we hurt turn around and call us names and oust us from the group. Additionally, just like the tree, the imagination flows throughout its fruit and leaves all the way down into its deepest roots, making use of our entire structure. Bad mixes with good, and shame blends with hope in a way that confuses us and flattens many feelings.

And I will never rid myself of feeling down in certain moments. Nothing about our stump removal or this drawn-out metaphor will change that. Forgiving ourselves takes a lot more than some entitled, college-aged blogger telling us about a silly moment on a little farm in the Middle Peninsula. However, that day offered me perspective, and perspective can sometimes lead to healing.

But, friends, healing is slow. A tree doesn’t instantly disintegrate. It takes its time to decompose, just like we must take ours. To decompress, to work hard at loving ourselves in spite of all of the bad things we’ve done in our lives that we know are our fault, to understand that negative imaginative cycles are damaging yet natural. That they’re there and will be there. That no one will pull us out of our own ground. Not even James, with his tractor and his chain. There’s happiness in knowing that. In knowing that, in some ways, we – alone – can help ourselves.

Jonny Malks is a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Read all of Jonny’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.

Sunset Hills Vineyard: Eco-Friendly Wine Excellence in Virginia


Few wine enthusiasts know of the vibrant winery culture in Loudoun County, Virginia, or have heard of Sunset Hills Vineyard. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States of America, envisioned a day when quality grapes and excellent wine were a product of his home state of Virginia.

Fast-forward to the 21st Century, and we find Jefferson’s dream has come true. Sunset Hills would please our third president for its quality wines, eco-friendly practices, and philanthropy. In 2006, owners Mike and Diane Canney purchased an old worn-out farm next to their vineyards in Loudoun County, Virginia, to expand the growing acreage and add both a wine-making facility and a tasting room.

The farm was an old one from 1870 and had gone through several owners. By the time the Canneys bought the farm, it had a large barn falling apart, over-worked soil, and was generally a mess. With a vision for a world-class winery, the work to restore the farm began in earnest.

Sunset Hills hired Amish craftsmen to restore the barn to a condition better than the original. Not only was the barn stripped down to the posts and beams as part of the rehab project, but when restoration work was finished, they added a solar power array that produces 80,000 Kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

A Solar-Powered Winery

On their website, they state: Turning sunshine into wine is something we’ve been doing since 2010. While solar power has been gaining in use throughout the U.S., it’s not often one sees a winery on the east coast utilizing the sun’s energy to make wine.

Solar power geeks will like Sunset Hills’ webpage where the annual power production, as well as daily power stats (in real-time), can be viewed. The webpage also includes positioning data, installation notes, and system performance information.

While solar power was a great start to having an eco-friendly winery, the Canneys were just getting started. To clean up the soil, they committed to eliminating wide-scale pesticides, choosing to let beneficial insects do the work in place of chemicals. Sunset Hills installed Bluebird houses with guidance from the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy that has attracted numerous bluebirds and swallows that help with insect control.

Supporting Monarchs, Addressing the Waste Stream, and More

Pollinator gardens and Monarch Butterfly waystations add to the holistic approach to farming techniques. Visitors to Sunset Hills are welcome to walk the Bluebird Trails and view the pollinator gardens with a glass of wine in hand.

Other eco-friendly practices include recycling all cardboard and glass while continually seeking ways to “reduce and reuse.” The winery has an artesian spring-fed pond that provides water for humans and fish. Tesla charging stations, also powered by the sun,  provide four parking/charging spots for electric cars, both Telsa and others.

All wines from Sunset Hills and their other vineyard 50 West, use estate-grown grapes. In 2012, three additional farms were purchased to supply the two wineries with enough grapes for producing 100% Virginia wines. With five vineyards, the Canneys can experiment with better ways to control insects in an eco-friendly manner.

Award-Winning Virginia Wine

All of the above attributes wouldn’t mean much if the wine wasn’t of high quality. In the tasting room, I noticed over twenty bottles of wine with award medals adorning them. I tasted several of the wines on offer that day and found them to be very good. I attended cook school in Sonoma County, California, back in 1975, and for decades thought the only acceptable wine made in the U.S. was from California or Oregon.

Wineries like Sunset Hills have changed my mind about other states being able to make wines that appeal to a wide group of consumers. The Cabernet Franc, Sunset Red, Petite Verdot, and Sunset White all impressed me enough to buy several bottles to enjoy at home.

When spring comes, I look forward to walking the bluebird trails to see insect control up close. I’m also interested in seeing their monarch butterfly waystations in use. Chances are I won’t be the only one visiting Sunset Hills for a dose of nature.

To bring together an excellent lineup of wines, a gorgeous winery just an hour from D.C., generous philanthropy, and exhibit above-the-bar eco-friendly practices makes Sunset Hills a winery worth visiting.

Kurt Jacobson writes about travel, food, wine, organic gardening, and most anything else from his varied professional life. His articles appear in Alaska magazine, Fish Alaska magazine, Metropolis Japan magazine, Edible Delmarva magazine, North West Travel and Life magazine, and MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Kurt lives in the Baltimore, Md., area with his wife, dog and cats. Kurt’s articles also appear on several websites like:,,,, and several others. Kurt is a regular contributor to writing about Alaska, Colorado, New Zealand, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic areas. 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.

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