Milk of happiness

One obstacle to switching to locally produced food is the cost. People on low incomes cannot afford to give up the savings of shopping at discount supermarkets, where local production is not a priority. It is a sad fact that even in a country like Canada, the working poor cannot afford a healthy diet.

I recently read In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan, in which he argues we should concentrate less on what nutrients we eat and more on the quality of food. Buying locally is one of his principles I’m trying to apply, but it’s hard to do. I’ve given myself a new rule about buying meat from the farmers’ market only, so I know where it comes from. It’s also more expensive, so I’ll eat less meat, which may be a good thing.

Sometimes it pays to experiment. Healthy choices may not be as expensive as they seem.

Here is a case in point. I love milk. I used to buy a 4-litre bag (about 1 gallon) of milk and go through it in less than two weeks, easily: a glass of chocolate milk after work and a bowl of cereal in the morning. For a long time I wanted to switch to drinking milk from happy cows. A few weeks ago I started buying 1-litre bottles from Harmony Organic at a local health food store. The Southwestern Ontario company has the goal “to minimize stress and maximize cow comfort in everything we do”.

At $3.50 or so per bottle I would not be buying more than one for a week. That milk has to stretch a long way. Could I make it work, without feeling frustrated and deprived?

So far, so good. Here’s part of the strategy: I choose milk with 3.8 percent milk fat rather than 1 percent partly skimmed. I’m worrying less about reducing fat, and more about eating quality, whole food. This is delicious milk. I have four or five servings per week. Every one tastes like luxury. It is deeply satisfying. This change doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. I’m spending about the same amount of money on milk but consuming less. Meanwhile my consumption has shifted more toward plants: fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, which are healthier for me. I also have the satisfaction of supporting a way of life for happier, healthier cows.

It would be hard to justify going back to cheaper milk, which is more costly in many ways.

Connecting to the planet: Chris Earley discusses the Galapagos

Chris Earley with Galapagos flycatchers

Chris Earley with Galapagos flycatchers, photo by Tom Chatterton

Chris Earley is interpretive biologist and education coordinator at University of Guelph Arboretum. He has written four field guides to birds of North America, such as Warblers of the Great Lakes Region and Eastern North America. Chris has led tours for Quest Nature Tours since 1999. I had the opportunity to interview him about his first trip to the Galapagos, which took place over 10 days in February. Our conversation delved into microevolution and the challenge of keeping parts of the islands a pristine environment. Besides himself, the group included 14 Canadian and American travellers. His father and 14-year-old son were part of the tour. Photos are included by kind permission of Tom Chatterton, Chris Earley and Bev Earley (click for a full-size view).

Q: I understand the tour was particularly focused on bird life.

A: Some Quest Nature Tours are bird specific, but they are nature tours, so we were looking at everything: birds, mammmals, reptiles, plants and geology. We try to be broad-based, but you can’t cover it all. The animals grab your attention more than the plants, but we looked at plants, too.

What are two or three of the most exciting things you saw?

Galapagos giant tortoise

Galapagos tortoise (not Lonesome George), photo by Chris Earley

One of the best things was seeing Lonesome George at Charles Darwin Research Station, where they raise tortoises and iguanas to release into the wild. Lonesome George is the only member of a subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise.They have been trying to breed him to morphologically similar females. Two females have produced eggs but they haven’t hatched. It is sort of a weird feeling. It’s: “Wow, this is Lonesome George! But wow, this is Lonesome George. Hi, so sorry. You are the last one. That was my species’ fault.” Hopefully, at some point the eggs might be fertile.

Galapagos penguin

Galapagos penguin, photo by Chris Earley

We do a lot of snorkeling on the tour. We were snorkeling with penguins. Even though we were on the equator, the water is cool. The penguins don’t go any further north. This penguin started hunting in front of us. It was keeping a school of fish. It would swim around them near the surface, then come up underneath them to catch one.

Suddenly there was this massive splash and it scared the snot out of us. A pelican was sitting on one of the mangroves and when the school got close to it, it dove. All we heard was this splash and saw this huge pouch.

Later we were watching pelicans hunting. (They filter fish by pushing water out of their bills.) Penguins would swim around hoping for fish to come out of their bills. Both species were benefiting from the hunting strategy of the other.

Tell me about the photo of the birds landing on your camera.

The wildlife there is extremely tame. You are literally walking around them sometimes because they are in the way. There are strict regulations about what you can do: you are not allowed to approach them and must stay at least two metres away. But sometimes the animals approach you.

These were Galapagos flycatchers. Sometimes birds fly at their reflection in a mirror, and we think that’s what was happening. Mine was the biggest camera, and it appeared that they were looking at it. This lens is a little too long for this! Other people had to take the pictures.

When we think of the Galapagos we picture lava fields and cacti, a relatively barren place. Can you describe what kind of habitat you saw?

Land iguana

Land iguana, photo by Bev Earley

There definitely were places like that where it was incredibly barren, like lava flows that were only a few hundred years old that didn’t seem to have a lot of life. But then you would come across a lava cactus or a lagoon in a depression where brackish water had collected. It would have ducks, flamingos, dragonflies and all kinds of plants. Little oases in the middle of the lava fields. There was a huge contrast between barren and desolate, and somewhere on the same island where you are hiking up the side of one of the volcanoes and everything was lush and green. It’s definitely a place of contrasts.

The Galapagos are often considered the classic case for evolution. What did you see that impressed you about this?

One thing I really liked was we got to see a lot of Darwin’s finches. Depending on what you find out about Charles Darwin himself, the finches or more likely the mockingbirds were one of the things that got him thinking, “Something is going on here.” It doesn’t really make sense that there would be different species living on different islands within sight of each other.

Research has been able to show over just a few years that the beaks of the finches were changing. The beak sizes changed depending on the weather and the kinds of seeds available. Darwin thought you can’t see evolution happening, but here is an example where you can.

We would be watching these finches: a small, a medium and a large. You can only tell them apart by the sizes of their beaks, but sometimes you can’t tell which species it is.

Some things are really hard for us to categorize. Evolution is plastic. Life is changing, and it’s changing much faster than you think it is.

The Galapagos also has some controversy over land use, particularly the conflict between those who want to preserve a pristine environment, and inhabitants who want access to resources, and people who want to explore the islands. What insight did you have into these questions from your trip?

Blue-footed boobies

Blue-footed boobies, photo by Chris Earley

Most of our exploration was in remote areas where people aren’t allowed to live and there were no settlements. You could see the national parks were doing a really good job of telling people when and how long you could visit. They’re trying to control that so that it’s never overcrowded at one site. Even though thousands of people are going every year, they’re doing a good job of minimizing the impact on the habitat. You have to be with a naturalist guide at all times. They tell you where you can go and where you can’t walk. Historically there have been problems with people overfishing in different areas, but we didn’t come across that.

How can preservation policies also satisfy the basic needs of people who live on the land?

You can exploit a place in different ways. If you’re using a place for ecotours, you can preserve it and also bring income for people who live there. It’s better than planting sugarcane. You have to get the people who live there to realize this isn’t just a special place to them, it’s a special place to other people. It can be a source of income while protecting the environment.

How did it feel for you to entere areas that are so closely protected?

It was nice to see how the naturalist guides are proud of their sites and they want to protect it. It was great to be able to see these animals where they’ve always lived and how they’ve adapted to their environment. We didn’t see any garbage even though thousands of people visit every year. I never got the feeling that there were problems due to the visitors going there. It seems like a great place to get people connected to the planet.

Speed River Project update

Yesterday Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) Guelph hosted a meeting to discuss its Speed River Project. Guest speaker Dr. Karen Morrison discussed her work on ecohealth, suggesting human well-being is rooted in a sense of place. Communities should be defined by natural boundaries, such as watersheds, rather than artificial ones.

OPIRG Guelph’s work operates on the principle that environmental stability depends on social justice. The Speed River Project has coordinated social action to enhance the local environment, including tree planting and an annual river cleanup. Yesterday’s meeting culminated in a focus group discussion to gain public input toward future initiatives.

I hope to feature more on Dr. Morrison and the work of OPIRG in future.

Making beauty in the city

My first flower of springThe air feels cold like late winter, but the light is early spring: more intense, direct and engaged, having shaken it’s winter detachment. My partner and I went to Kensington Café in Kensington Market (Toronto) for brunch. They serve hard-to-find gluten-free dishes, like crêpes. I tried the lasagna and it was good.

This morning I read about one naturalist writer who finds it necessary to withdraw from city life. It depresses him. I have felt the same at different points in my life, but don’t know what to make of it now. Cities may seem unnatural, and yet we made them and we are part of nature. We might as well call an anthill unnatural. Humans are becoming colonial primates, and this is what we do to our environment. One way or another, things will find their balance. I doubt that it does any good to extract ourselves. We must remain engaged and work to shift society along a less destructive course.

Walking home we saw these yellow crocuses on the street where my partner lives: my first sight of spring flowers. While I crouched there photographing them, a woman came out on the porch and asked me what I saw down there. She didn’t seem to know anything about them. Maybe she rents.

Of this I am certain: if no people had made this city, there would be no crocuses blooming amid snowdrifts in late March on the north shore of Lake Ontario. It may be an exotic species, but it’s part of the world now, for good or ill. To my eye it is simply beautiful, and I’m grateful.

Reconciling science and spirituality

Where lies the intersection between science and spirituality? As a former evangelical Christian who one day realized he no longer believed in God, I have struggled to define what spirituality means for me now. Can I in fact still call myself spiritual? Chris Mooney of Discover blog The Intersection answers this question eloquently in an article published in Playboy (warning: the online link includes erotic visuals), The Born Again Scientist.

People have asked me whether I am a rationalist. The term makes me uncomfortable because it discounts the sense of unspeakable wonder one feels when faced with the complexity, beauty and terror of nature. I have similar qualms about materialism. What we feel is just as important as what we know. Science might one day break the workings of the physical universe into a complete set of laws and equations, however I doubt that we can ever thoroughly understand our own personal or collective inner cosmos. If magic exists, it is here. True pilgrimage happens within.

I prefer the category of philosophical naturalism. One need not resort to supernatural explanations to insist that the human spirit transcends logic. Over millions of years this powerful, untamable experience has evolved naturally: intelligence, sensory complexity, love, and capacity for awe. This also gives clues to the basis of a morality: we owe sacred allegiance to the world which bore this richness.

Tree bark gallery

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This winter I got in the habit of feeling tree bark. One weekend on a stroll through cedar woods along the Grand River, I discovered the bark of these trees is extremely soft to the touch and not especially cold, even on a bitter winter day. On my walks around the city I began taking my gloves off to explore the sensation of various trees. Smooth-barked trees like cherry and beech feel as sharply cold as the surrounding air. This gallery shows a visual exploration of bark I have made over the years.

Today I walked up to a maple I had groped a few weeks ago. The bark is rough, and I expected it to feel warm in the early spring sunshine. But my hand strayed into the unseen shady side and found instead cool moisture: either from rain earlier in the day, or perhaps sap seeping down from overhead buds. In the shadows it was coated with a patchwork of lichen like blisters of emerald and jade. On the sunny west side, the bark was indeed warm and comparatively barren.

Pukaskwa National Park 1I was reminded of the epiphytic lichens that coat the upper branches, or entire cloud forests such as this one I visited in Pukaskwa National Park on the north shore of Lake Superior last spring. A single tree is a miniature ecosystem, holding innumberable organisms in the halo of its branches.

Consciousness and eyesight

Addressing Why did consciousness evolve? Malcolm MacIver at Science Not Fiction theorizes it arose as animals left the sea and adapted to terrestrial environments. Life underwater requires short reaction times, he argues, because the range of senses, particularly sight, is limited. These circumstances don’t allow an organism to contemplate multiple futures or outcomes. In contrast, a terrestrial animal may see a predator or prey at a distance, and gains an advantage by being able to choose the best way to pursue or evade.

Lake Erie fogI suggest his argument fails to consider other animals making efficient use of senses other than sight, for example a dog’s smell or a bat’s echolocation. Sharks and other aquatic creatures rely on electroreception for remote sensing or communication, because salt water is an efficient conductor of electrical charge.

If consciousness were not useful underwater, it would follow that animal lineages returning to aquatic life would lose the capacity over time, cetaceans for example. However, whale and dolphin intelligence relies heavily on sonar for sensory input. On a completely different branch of the tree of life which does not descend from terrestrial organisms, octopuses possess powerful vision while demonstrating learning and problem-solving abilities.

Further to MacIver’s post, he argues that for “range for detailed imaging, there is nothing that beats vision.” He also mentions the theory that whales, in order to develop effective sonar, required the complex sensoria inherited from their terrestrial origins. Octopuses, in contrast, do not demonstrate the capacity for forethought so much as “powerful reactionary brains.”

The other part of MacIver’s question is: how we can modify our intelligence for more effective planetary citizenry? Good question. The role of vision may offer clues.


Climate change and the stages of grief

Today as I watched footage of the tsunami sweeping away cars, houses, lives and entire towns, a wave of sadness washed over me. Japan was well prepared as any country to minimize damage from such a disaster, but generally people are not good at addressing certain kinds of risk. We would rather not think about it. Such avoidance leads to the widespread denial of climate change. As I sat feeling miserable about the loss of hundreds of lives in Japan, I realized denial of environmental disaster may be likened to the first of the five stages of grief.

Andrew C. Revkin at Dot Earth points out this denial falls into a common pattern of behaviour. Japan has the wealth and technology to ameliorate the affects of earthquakes, but also enough temblor frequency to provoke action and preparation. By comparison, the American Pacific Northwest also faces an earthquake of devastating proportions, but public buildings have not been brought up to safety standards necessary to withstand it. Revkin compares this to our refusal to take adequate action to address climate change.

This reminds me of the Kübler-Ross model, also know as the five states of grief. Denial of environmental degradation is to be expected. Nobody wants to think about the worst case scenarios: our planet turning increasingly to desert, or at least we lose a quality of life we have come to expect. We have received a grave diagnosis, and not everyone handles it very well. Here is what we might expect to see across the population:

1. Denial: “These prophets of climate change are hysterical. The scientists are lying. Their research is politically motivated. There is nothing wrong here. We don’t have to change anything. This severe winter weather proves they are wrong.”
2. Anger: “This isn’t fair. Other countries pollute and devastate the environment worse than we do. Let them pay for it.”
3. Bargaining: “It’s not as bad as they say it is. Nothing is going to happen for a long time. I recycle my newspapers, so I’m already doing my part. Maybe if I buy a nice hybrid vehicle, that will help.”
4. Depression: “Okay, so the world is turning to hell. It’s too late to do anything. Anyway, I am just one person. What difference does it make?”
5. Acceptance: “We may lose some of our luxuries, but this doesn’t have to be the end. Maybe the world is going to become a lot different. I might as well do what I can to secure a better future for the next generation. I am part of this global community so it’s time I took some responsibility.”

As may be the case with a terminal illness or other personal loss, not everyone goes through all five stages. People with a strong sense of life purpose may have an easier time approaching acceptance. Unfortunately, some never move beyond denial, and fight death to the bitter end. Nobody can force anyone to see the way through. We will have to find what this means for our collective future, but the more people who take responsibility for the problem, the better chance we have of finding solutions.

Personally I tend to get stuck on depression. Where do you stand in the process?

I am saddened by the suffering of people in Japan, and encouraged by their example in preparing as best they could for such a disaster. Maybe we can learn from them.

Fern frost gallery

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It’s too bad we have to worry about energy efficiency. As new windows replace old ones in our homes, fern frost is becoming a lost memory. Fern frost is the stuff that forms on glass when humid air inside meets cold air outside. The first two images in this gallery show the enchanted sapphire forest I found on my bathroom window yesterday at dawn.

We used to see it in the windows of the house where I grew up. After I left home, I forgot these fanciful visions from childhood. Many years later I moved into a flat in an older building. The place was poorly maintained, in fact it declined during the years while I lived there. It was hard to keep the place warm in winter. One benefits of living there was seeing the winter window displays.

The structure of the formation depends on dirt or other particles or imperfections on the glass. One of the windows in the apartment featured distinctive striated feathers like those in the fifth image. Sometimes it looked more like strings of pearls. The dark third image shows the same window one night, back lit by the streetlight. Another window in the same apartment usually had a pattern of jagged plates like a jigsaw puzzle (sixth image). Every window has a unique way of expressing itself. The glowing fourth picture appeared on my office window at dawn on February 20, 2008, the day my mother died. It reminds me of milkweed seeds.

Some people call these patterns frost flowers, however that term may also be applied to a different phenomenon. When the weather turns sharply cold over unfrozen ground, it may cause plant stems to squeeze out, by capillary action, layers of ice resembling leaves or petals. I have yet to observe this peculiar beauty.

I was glad to move out of the old dive, but sorry to say goodbye to those windows. My current apartment has mostly newer ones. Fern frost can form on double-paned glass when the air outside is extremely cold, but this seldom happens. This place still has two old windows in the bathroom and hall, and I was delighted to discover this glass attracts foliage patterns much like fern fronds. It’s a nice sight to discover when I crawl out of bed on a winter morning and head for the toilet.

I must pay for the show. A lot of heat must escape through these windows. Maybe I should petition the landlord to replace them, but I’d rather not. Continue reading

Urban conservation

Here are two stories about people working to protect wildlife in urban setting (with apologies for the advertisements attached to these BBC news clips). The city of Austin, Texas, has protected its two million free-tailed bats, while generating $10 million in tourist revenue every year. Meanwhile hundreds of people in Hanoi are working to make a lake in the city more hospitable for a giant turtle nearly two metres long.