Category Archives: environment, activism, localizing, Transition Movement

Why I do not support a pedestrian bridge over Okeechobee Boulevard

Walkable West Palm Beach

Building a pedestrian bridge over Okeechobee Boulevard comes at a high price, trading pedestrian convenience for commuter convenience. In this post, I provide a number of reasons why I think the Okeechobee pedestrian bridge is the wrong solution to the challenge of crossing Okeechobee at Rosemary Avenue.

  • People will not use it. Pedestrian bridges can work when they get you from point A to point B without adding more time and distance to your walk (such as a third level parking garage connected to an office building’s third floor via a pedestrian bridge). In the case of the Okeechobee Boulevard crossing, pedestrians will have to ascend and descend a set of stairs just to cross the road. Most people will choose to cross at street level rather than take a significant detour up and down steps in order to cross. See: Pedestrian bridges, from Pedestrians.org

  • Wheelchair users and moms…

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Slow Is Beautiful

Being Slow means that you control the rhythms of your own life.  ~ Carlo Petrini, Slow Food Founder

As life lessons go, a car wreck on a highway notorious for its fatalities is perhaps among the most life-altering.  Even before a speeding sedan and concrete highway divider interrupted what started out as a normal morning’s drive home from an overnight in Miami, I was feeling a nagging desire to control the rhythms of my life better.  I will be 75 this fall, an age when many of my peers are busy checking exotic destinations off their bucket list.  I wanted exactly the opposite: to travel less, be more selective about how and with whom I spent time.  Now, I would perforce have that opportunity.

Almost every day the local paper brings a grim reminder of how fortunate we were that Sunday morning: the airbags deployed, the seat belts prevented head injuries, we were both healthy and fit, and a trio of young people, heading home to Georgia, pulled over to gently assist two injured and confused old people from their wrecked Honda Civic, and call 911.  Whiplash is a nasty, nagging injury, and a broken collarbone disabling.  But we could and did recover.  “You’re lucky,” the ER staff kept saying as they took vital signs, hooked up the IV, ordered X-Rays, a CAT scan. At the end of that day in a noisy, crowded ER, we got to go home, with a sling for my arm and pain prescription.

Impossible to imagine how we would have gotten through the first weeks without the help of our adult children and many generous friends.  Police reports and insurance paperwork, dealing with a junked car, wait for no one.  Prepared meals, groceries, laundry, a ride to the orthopedic center, were all cheerfully provided so we didn’t need to drive until we were ready.  Never, I remember thinking at a low point.  Is never soon enough?  With little discussion, we decided against replacing the Honda, and turned down the rental to which our insurance policy entitled us. For at least a month, while I took a leave of absence from my yoga teaching and my spouse from his gig, playing piano at a retirement community, we were living the ultimate slow down mantra from my yoga teacher’s handbook, ‘no place to go, nothing to do.’  And puttering around the house, taking naps whenever, felt strange for a pair who preached the gospel of ‘when you rest, you rust,’ who had made ‘retiring retirement’ their later life mission (and small business).  “Wait,” said one of our older grandsons, “you mean the 2young2retire people are … retiring?”

We are still not the retiring kind, but some adjustments in how we live were necessary. The accident turned us into that rare household in our condo community with a single car, a leased Nissan Leaf plugin with a range of 80 miles under ideal conditions — 45 mph, no AC.  Most people don’t roam much further in a day and neither did we.  But that range wasn’t going to work for the long road trip we had been planning this summer.  It wouldn’t even get us to Green Cay, a favorite birding wetland, or to Miami, even if we took back roads and stuck to the 45 mph limit. Now was the time to try TriRail for a lunch date in Delray Beach: 25 minutes from station to station, a five minute free trolley ride to Atlantic Avenue.  Why more people don’t use this affordable, clean, reliable North-South transportation in lieu of the multi-lane nightmare that has become I-95, is a mystery.  Why more people who have the time, or can make the time, don’t take a page from William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways and really see America, is another puzzlement.  I could be wrong about this, of course. But my small sample of perennially jammed multilaners and sparsely-traveled rural routes suggest otherwise.

blue highwayRecently, on a trip to the Northeast for a graduation, milestone birthdays, and a wedding, we decided to stay off the interstates see what the back roads were really like in five different states: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. For this, we acquired an old-fashioned paper map and although, alas, the roads are no longer blue highways, they meander and wind pleasurably, and you’ll find plenty of opportunities to brake for u-pick strawberries, lemonade stands, and out-of-the-way diners. Although Least Heat Moon and Charles Kuralt are no longer practicing the art of the slow road, there remain lots of small towns where time seems to stand still, and it seems to me the locals are good with that.

Around lunch time one day, we found ourselves on Route 13 just over the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border.  At Milford, where we would pick up 101, we passed a small free-standing building with a verandah and a packed parking lot.  A U-turn brought us back to Papa Joe’s Humble Kitchen, where at barely noon, there was a line almost out the door, luckily most of it for take-out.  The people behind the counter were friendly and clearly, this is a neighborhood destination for working folks including uniformed first responders. The menu includes fried pickles, a burger recipe that includes ground salami, and perhaps in deference to their visitors from Canada, poutine: French fries topped with curds and gravy.  It was Friday, Fish Fry Day, featuring the best fried haddock sandwich we’ve tasted to date.  I didn’t notice whether there were 2 or more calendars on the wall — Least Heat Moon’s marker for excellent roadside food — but this is exactly the kind of experience that restores one’s faith in the goodness of ordinary people carrying on, and we could certainly use that about now.  If you’re ever in the area, stop by and see for yourself or go find a humble kitchen of your own to brag about.

Sprawl is getting worse in my adopted state, despite the obvious risks from rising seas to property and personal safety, and with that comes more congested highways, more frantic, multi-tasking, speeding drivers, more accidents.  Our own brush with disaster six months ago made us hunger for a different, more human rhythm to our days.  So far, so good.

Recommend: Rand McNally Easy to Read New England

Fans of the original book, check out Blue Highways Revisited

Now Hear This

Last Friday evening, I was in good company and I don’t just mean the company of other artists at The Box Gallery’s The New American Patriot: Climate Art in the Public Interest, though the work — mostly visual — was often powerful, and my contribution in keeping with the theme.

FreeVector-23So Little Time: A Spoken Word Performance on Climate Crisis in Four Parts is a 15-minute compilation of poetry and prose drawn from several sources and includes one original work.
I had been thinking about doing such a piece for over a year, as my passion for climate and women’s issues began to overlap. Putting the show together was fulfilling in itself in that I drank deeply from a very large spring. I am grateful to the curators for accepting my proposal and to the friends who showed up to hear my performance, and hung in there despite significant acoustic challenges.

As I need hearing aids myself, I know intimately how frustrating it can be to miss what is being said. But those who struggled to hear me are only part of the good company in which I found myself during the performance. It later dawned on me that my voice – and I don’t mean to overstate this relatively minor event given the scale of the issue – was just one more that isn’t being heard because 1. There is too much other noise, 2. Listening well is an endangered skill, and 3. We have trained ourselves to turn a deaf ear to whatever messes with our worldview. And that is a huge part of the problem for which there is no other solution but to do what climate scientists, activists, shamans, actors, writers and poets have been doing: keep telling the inconvenient truth, in as many places as possible, in as many ways as possible with the intention that words will become deeds. Just keep on keeping on. And I plan to.  If my readers have thoughts about venues and/or other outlets, including social media, I’m all ears!

I am immensely grateful to Green Writers Press for permission to use work from So Little Time: Words and Images for a World in Climate Crisis, compiled largely by poet/climate activist, Greg Delanty. I also chose, and was granted permission to use, a poem by Rachel Lewis, a 2014 winner of the Cape Farewell/ Young Poets Network Competition for poems exploring climate change. And I drew from The Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground collection, under fair use permission. My friend, Jean Cavanaugh, allowed me to quote from an uplifting Facebook post entitled Scarcity is a Myth. We all deserve a hearing.

I end for now with a poem from So Little Time.

Global Warming ~ Jane Hirshfield

When his ship first came to Australia,
Cook wrote, the natives
Continued fishing, without looking up.
Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be comprehended.

More:

See internal links for my sources, including the excellent volume, So Little Time (available from http://greenwriterspress.com/books/our-first-books/so-little-time/, Amazon and other book outlets). The Guardian’s collection, curated by UK poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, is read by actors, James Franco and Jeremy Irons, among others.

Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner speaking at the UN Climate Leaders Summit in 2014

Almost anything by Wendell Berry

Appreciating Dean

Nobody said it was going to be a walk in the park, although it did sort of start out that way. Okeeheelee Park in West Palm Beach, that is, site of monthly Transition Palm Beaches meetings. Okeeheelee was chosen for Transition meetings by its founders, two home schooling mothers, because it was a centrally located public space, had a nice sheltered Tiki hut and picnic tables, and plenty of playground space for their children. It all worked beautifully unless the weather didn’t cooperate. As luck would have it, my first meeting with the group had to be relocated to a nearby library due to rain and high winds. Maybe it was an omen.

I met the late Dean Sherwin, my friend and colleague in the Transition movement, at one of those outdoor meetings. It was immediately evident that we were both transplants to both South Florida and the USA. Like me, Dean had lived in Asia for periods of time. In fact, he was known to wear a sarong around town occasionally.

Dean and his wife, Susan, had been members of Transition Town Media (PA) before moving to Lake Worth, and the group was excited to have someone with direct experience of Transition join our little band, especially this gentle, kind, well-spoken pair of Quakers.

Our group was (and still is) registered on the main Transition site as ‘mullers,’ a word that would be more familiar to British-born Dean than most Americans, meaning to ‘contemplate’ or ‘ponder.’ It seemed pretty tame for my inner revolutionary, all fired up as I was by Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook, essentially a blueprint for the movement. We believed – and I still do — that Transition was the most positive way to address climate disruption and peak oil. Having done some foot-weary protesting on behalf of climate, I was drawn to a movement that described itself as “more party than protest.”

M, MJ and Dean at Climate March

Marika Stone, Mary Jo Aagerston and Dean Sherwin

Whether intentionally or not, our group gravitated to Open Space technology – a self organizing style of leadership that encourages creativity, learning and the taking of responsibility for one’s interests. Transition encourages groups to begin with the people who show up, what they feel passionate about, and the knowledge and experience they bring to the effort. The home schooling families were already deeply committed to lowering their carbon impact by growing and preserving much of their food, one of them on a fairly large spread of land in a rural area, and the other within city limits. Jean and her family were concerned about keeping their free-range chickens safe from predators, while Holly and hers had to defend their urban farming from their own neighbors. Homesteading of this type takes a lot of focus and effort, and granted, food security is critical in challenging times. No surprise, our meetings revolved around topics like composting, canning and foraging rather than on how to optimize energy savings in home and work spaces, let alone challenge the existing power and transportation grid juggernauts. I, for one, had not anticipated how entrenched conventional utility interests were; how solar would become a battleground in the state; how net metering would be a non-starter; indeed, how much in denial elected officials could be about the facts of a warming climate.  In retrospect, I would have encouraged us to focus on more ways to recruit people to the movement in the first months when we were all so fired up.

Dean was an architect by training, had built a LEED certified ‘green’ house in Media, where he also had his own construction estimating business, and had taught construction estimating. I sensed he had a lot to teach us, different ideas and directions we could explore in time. He brought a quiet strength and leavening sense of humor to the notion of Transition Palm Beaches. I think he quickly saw that even our name was a bit of a stretch for a movement founded on the importance and value of a strong local community. In square miles, Palm Beach County is the largest in the state of Florida. In population, it ranks third. The geography of I-95 could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to real localization.

As it happened, geography has a lot to do with why after about a year, Dean and I were the last ones standing for Transition Palm Beaches. Holly and her family moved to North Florida. Jean and her family returned to their roots in Michigan. Linda, another ardent Transitioneer, decided the Slow movement in Vermont suited her better. So, in true ‘open space’ manner, Dean and I made the executive decision to rebrand Transition Palm Beaches – though without changing the registered name just yet — into Transition Town Lake Worth. As a resident, he knew that Lake Worth had many of the features of successful Transition towns elsewhere, including the one in Media he knew most intimately. Although my home was in another community, it felt like the right place to transplant the Transition seed. Dean and Susan offered Friends Quaker Meeting House for our monthly meetings, and so we began. Again.

Dean and I would have lunch at Too Jays and plan programming. We had some hits, including his presentation on modular solar panels, another on Tiny Houses, another on school gardens, and the wonderful presentation by the Colony 1 folks on January 5, 2015, with the highest attendance at 40 people. We did potlucks. We exchanged seeds and cuttings along with ideas on how to live more simply and joyfully, while reducing our impact on the planet. I know I enjoyed the meetings and the camaraderie. But what we didn’t gain was significant attendance over the period of the year, or, more importantly, traction as a leadership team. However supportive our spouses – and they were — two do not a movement make.

As many noted in memorializing him, Dean was a dreamer and doer, a joiner and a bon vivant. I found myself admitting to Susan at the reception, that what I knew of Dean was the tip of the proverbial iceberg – to my loss. He had lived large and in many fascinating places, and he had done worthwhile work his whole life. A lot of people in Lake Worth loved and respected him, from the men of his Mankind Project group who offered the most moving tributes, to people who worked with him on various public projects. In the best sense, Dean knew how to work the system, too. At the time of his death, he was vice chair of the Lake Worth Planning and Zoning Board, a proponent of the Little Free Library movement (and builder of his own cottage-shaped lending unit), and chief writer on The Cottages of Lake Worth Book, a celebration of living large in small spaces. I hadn’t realized this would be his final project when I ordered my copy.

If you’re a Facebook enthusiast, you can still find Transition Palm Beaches there, with close to 200 members, mostly inactive. Dean, Holly, Jean and I are still listed as admins to the page, so clearly it is in need of updating. The description makes it pretty clear what the page is about, and yet we have had a few ask to join thinking of a different kind of transition (here insert a wry emoticon). A Facebook page can devolve into a bulletin board for anything its members feel like making public to this group. I take down the most egregiously self-promoting as soon as I notice them. I’ve shared Susan’s beautiful tribute to Dean here.

A Facebook page can and often does support action but it cannot substitute for it. If I were able to ask Dean’s opinion, I suspect he would agree that it’s time to turn this particular page.

Two Cheers for COP21

Julia's tour Eifel

Image: Julia Sakellarios

It was the best that could be achieved under the circumstances, and better than nothing.  One could quibble with the timetables, the fact that the carbon reduction targets are voluntary, i.e. depend on the honor system, and that our Congress as currently composed, will never agree to any action that impacts the economy, let alone something with teeth, i.e. a carbon tax.  My mood today on this topic puts me in mind of the great essay by E.M. Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy, from which this quote: “… two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism.” So let me end my post here and invite you to take a break from the festivities, click on the live link (above), and experience one of the great minds of the 20th Century.  And for some recent commentary from two of the best of the 21st so far (see below).  I’m going to have myself a merry little Christmas and trust you will, too.

Falling Short on Climate in Paris

Good Reasons to Cheer the Paris Climate Deal

COP21- My Annotated List, Part I

While some of my activist colleagues were rallying at the French Consulate in Miami this morning, to deliver an urgent letter to Laurent Fabius, Foreign Affairs Minister and President of COP21, I decided my readers might appreciate some guidance to the information about the conference that has been accumulating.  COP21 began today in Paris, the largest gathering of delegates ever, and will run until December 11.

cop21cmp11_logo_hp_159x216As good place to start as any is Five Things You Need to Know About COP21 from the U.S. Department of State.  In case it isn’t obvious, COP21 means there have already been 21 previous meetings of world leaders to address climate change.  Or, to put it another way, we have had over two decades to try to figure out what to do about climate change, while the target has been moving at an accelerated pace.

If you’re familiar with Britain’s The Guardian (home to environment columnist, George Monbiot), you won’t be surprised that its article, Everything You Need to Know About the Paris Climate Summit and UN Talks is somewhat less upbeat than the State Department’s take.  One thing you need to know is that previous agreements on greenhouse gas emissions are about to run out, which makes agreements at this conference even more urgent. The article also inconveniently brings up the 1997 Kyoto protocols, which were signed by then Vice President Al Gore but never ratified by Congress.

Too many American politicians, including those running for president (yikes!), have tried to mask their failure to confront climate change behind the “not a scientist” statement.  Alas, recommendations from scientists on a ‘carbon budget’ to set a cap on carbon emissions do not appear to have gained any traction at COP21 either.  The New York Times’ Paris Climate Talks Avoid Scientists’ Idea of a Carbon Budget is an excellent overview of the thorniest aspects of the stalled agreements. Look also at the excellent ‘cheat sheet’: Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change.

Shanghai Bund skyline landmark ,Ecological energy renewable solar panel plant

Shanghai Bund skyline landmark, Ecological energy renewable solar panel plant

I love Andrew Revkin’s DotEarth blog for its crisp, clear take on the subject, and this piece, As World Leaders Kick Off Paris Talks, Prescriptions Abound From a Carbon Tax to a New Nuclear Push is particularly insightful, albeit deeply frustrating.  We have no shortage of answers, but as has been noted many times elsewhere, relatively little public pressure or political will to act.  A tax on carbon, a idea argued for repeatedly by New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, and others, seems in the current political climate a complete non-starter.

OK, saving the best for last: Transition founder and champion, Rob Hopkins’ Why COP21 Matters, and Why I’m Going.  Let me quote a passage and urge you to read the rest:

…in many ways, the world is already changing, and it’s happening at pace, it’s fast and it’s deep…If you believe things aren’t changing, you’re looking in the wrong place.  More and more forms of renewable energy, such as onshore wind, are now the cheapest form of electricity in many places…COP21 is acting as the catalyst for many organisations, businesses and governments to refocus on climate change, move finance into climate change, put pressure on governments to create a stable environment within which to build a low carbon economy.  All manner of shifts and realignments are going on behind the scenes.  And the politics are changing to accommodate this new worldview…

I believe with Rob Hopkins that things can flip quickly when enough people are prepared for better alternatives to the status quo. Something is happening when BP and Shell start to worry about ‘stranded assets,’ when Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are on the same page, and when a young Canadian premier announces to the opening session in Paris, “Canada is back, my friends, … and here to help.”

The Martian

It’s 4: pm on July 20, 1969 on a quiet street in the yet-to-be Yuppie-ized suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. My infant daughter is propped up in her kid carrier plus cushions on the backyard swing while her 4-year old brother keeps cool in an inflated pool. We’re building a porch ourselves off the back of the colonial house we purchased the previous year (for $28,000). While I hold a 2′ x 4′ steady, my husband hammers it into place. In case the date doesn’t immediately resonate with you (confession: I had to Wiki it for precision), it is the day three American astronauts landed on the moon. We have a small black and white TV with a long extension cord sitting on a plank-saw horse stand, and we are, like millions of other people, waiting for the words soon to be uttered by Commander Neil A. Armstrong: The Eagle has landed. Cheering broke out from houses all around us. Reading the log of Apollo 11 now still gives me goosebumps. That Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr. was a Montclair boy and would next year be marching in our July 4th parade, only adds spice to the momentous occasion.

After a week that brought personal horror and loss to many people, and unleashed a firestorm of paranoid, xenophobic trash-talking that recalls the worse of the McCarthy era here, The Martian, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and a sterling supporting cast, was a balm for the soul. And not only because it recalls a time when for a few days, large numbers of people put aside their national identities and petty concerns and celebrated ‘One small step for a man, one giant leap …”

Apollo 11 bootprintIn case you’ve yet to see the film, I’m not going to spoil it for you with too many details about ‘the making of…’ which you could better read afterward. You’ll turn up a lot via a Google search, but one of my favorite citations is about the central role played by the Jet Propulsion Lab in getting the details accurate. Suffice to say that: “The Martian” is steeped in decades of real-life Mars exploration that JPL has led for NASA.  If they handed out film awards for length of time on camera, Matt Damon would win hands down (though Sandra Bullock in Gravity, another plausible space adventure, comes close). But as space castaway/astronaut, Mark Watney, Damon earns his actor stripes in perhaps his best performance to date. See interview with director, Ridley Scott, for a fascinating glimpse into how the film was made.

My takeaways on The Martian (and why you must see it), in no particular order:

  • It makes a strong case for science education
  • It reinserts NASA and JPL into the public consciousness at a time when funding is falling
  • We see the important role of international cooperation (U.S. and China)  — the Russians get left out of this one
  • We are reminded of our common humanity, the risks we will take to save the life of another
  • It helps put into perspective the current political climate and reminds us we are better than media suggests we are.

It bears repeating that we owe a great deal to the space program (by-pass surgery and digital photography, the tip of the iceberg), and this Thanksgiving week seems like a good time to acknowledge that.  If The Martian gets you newly excited about and appreciative of science as a worthy human enterprise, and awakens your support for the space program in particular, mission accomplished!

Technology from space program

Apollo 11 overview

Apollo 11 log