Monday, December 29, 2008

A Hummingbird Story

In early fall, two years ago, I found this lifeless hummingbird ensnared in our garden gate. We always have lots of half grown hummingbirds around that time of year, swooping down on the feeders and playing tag in the air. This one must have misjudged the nature of chicken wire and run out of energy while trapped. It was beautiful and delicate, even when dead.

I took some photos and then worked it out of the chicken wire and showed it to Anna. She packed it into a little cotton-lined box that had once housed jewelry and showed it to everyone who visited. The next day she took it to school to show her fifth grade class.

On the third day she decided to have a funeral. She dug a hole under the pine tree, and opened the box to say a few words about the deceased. The cat seemed to be participating, so she held the bird out for the cat to say his last words. That is when the cat jumped up, snatched the hummingbird, and swallowed it whole before she could do anything about it.

Last summer Anna had another funeral for the one-eyed baby chick that lived only a few days. The cat dug up the deceased and ate it. I'm hoping she gets this funeral thing a little more finessed before it's time for mine.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Another Lousy picture of my Exciting Life

We were driving to Leland to see my folks, checking out the ice, which was punky today after our record high temps yesterday. We saw something out on the ice, bigger than a bird, and moving fast. It was an otter, alternately running across the ice and then sliding on its belly through the puddles. It seemed to be heading towards the open water of the river, but in no particular hurry.

We have seen otters in the river, in fact one year a mother raised her pups under the dock in front of my parents' condo. We'd never seen one out on the ice before. I think the ice was strong enough for an otter, but maybe not for coyotes and other predators. It was an otter's day to play.
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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Choir Christmas

We are looking forward to this weekend's Leelanau Children's Choir Madrigal Christmas concerts, at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday at the Northport Community Arts Center. Anna is my only performer this year, and my work schedule has been such that I will attend Friday's performance without overhearing any of the rehearsals. Only occasionally do I get to hear a choir concert "fresh" with no idea what will happen, and I enjoy the new perspective.

I have a pet peeve about parents who videotape each and every one of their kids' performances, especially when the lit screen of their camera interferes with my ability to concentrate on the performance in a darkened hall. For me, the here-and-now quality of a live performance is part of the appeal, sort of like a sunset or a rainbow.

This is an old photo, of my three girls and Hunter Bell, standing in front of "Fluffy", the boar whose head is one of the Madrigal props. It was taken
after a performance. You can kind of see Fluffy's snout behind Shelagh.
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Saturday, November 29, 2008


It was a lovely weekend. All three daughters, and our son in law, were home for the weekend, and my sister visited with her family. We ate our Thanksgiving dinner on Friday, all fourteen of us, so as to leave Thursday open so that Shelagh and Liz could spend time with husband's and boyfriend's family. This left me time to do a lot of cooking and prep work ahead of time. After I put the turkey in the oven, there was not much left to do, so I left the rest to the kids, who whipped up appetizer plates while Richard opened wine.

I had sweet potatoes, part of my experiment in adjusting to climate change by learning to grow warm weather crops. The peanuts were a flop, I had little bit of okra, but the sweet potatoes did quite well. I had seen a recipe in the Penzey's catalog for curried sweet potatoes, but I had no garam masala. I sent all the kids down to NJ's to get last minute stuff, and Liz asked Dave Chugh, one of her Leland classmates, who went in back and dipped out of his mom's spice containers. It was only fitting because I had split my okra crop with his mom last summer.

The whole weekend kept folding back on itself like that. The younger kids tumbled around from parlor to stairwell, to the other parlor, to the kitchen, to the first parlor, and then all around again. The girls played piano and challenged each other at Scramble. On Saturday they all rolled out Christmas cookies and decorated them while my sister and I went to pick holly.

Now it's Sunday. The college kids have left and I must get ready to go to work.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sworn In

Today I took my oath of office down at the town hall, swearing to uphold the Constitution of the United States, th Constitution of the State of Michigan, and the laws of Leland Township and the county of Leelanau to the best of my ability.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wildfires as Weapons

We had a wildfire up on Popp Road last week. It burned about 50 acres and threatened our friends' home and farm. In the end, with all county fire crews responding, it was contained and our friends lost only their woods and a row of peach trees. I didn't think that the fire danger was that extreme, but the source of the fire, a brush pile, seems to have smoldered for a week or more until the wind shifted to the east and whipped it up again.

I can't imagine how it feels to live in dry country when the wildfires come up and move fast. This was the terror that the Japanese wanted to turn on the US during WW II, using a simple, ancient, but remarkably effective technology -- paper balloons capable of drifting across the Pacific on the jet stream and then igniting wildfires when they hit the dry land. The fire balloons were kept secret by the US government, both to prevent fear in the US and to deny the Japanese any evidence that their plan was working. But it did work surprisingly well -- over 300 fire balloons landed in the US, one nearly reaching Detroit.

My brother Tim found this WW II training film in the National Archive and posted it with comments about the research for his new novel. Red Rain, based on the stories of the fire balloons. He first heard of the fire balloons while working on a fire crew when he was in college, and he incorporates some of his fire fighting experiences into the story.

Getting the film from the National Archives was, in Tim's words, "Another adventure."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Building Community

This is a poster that hangs in Mr. Evans' music room at Leland School. I liked it so much that I had to find it on the web. The text reads as follows:
Turn off your TV.
Leave your house.
Know your neighbors, Look up when you are walking;
Greet people; Sit on your stoop; Plant flowers;
Use your library; Play together;
Buy from local merchants; Share what you have;
Help a lost dog; Take children to the park;
Garden together; Support neighborhood schools;
Fix it even if you didn't break it;
Have pot lucks; Honor elders;
Pick up litter; Read stories aloud;
Dance in the street; Talk to the mail carrier;
Listen to the birds; Put up a swing;
Help carry something heavy; Barter for your goods;
Start a tradition; Ask a question;
Hire young people for odd jobs; Organize a block party;
Bake extra and share; Ask for help when you need it;
Open your shades; Sing together;
Share your skills; Take back the night;
Turn up the music; Turn down the music;
Listen before you react to anger; Mediate a conflict;
Seek to understand; Learn from new and uncomfortable angles;
Know that no one is silent athough many are not heard.
Work to change this.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mr McFluffers Goes to School

The second hand store cage was too small, so our raised-from-egg chicken, Mr. McFluffers, will be appearing in this weekend's production of Fools in this lovely brass cage complete with a stick perch scavenged from the playground at Leland School. You can see from the photo that the cage was originally topless, but we wove a new top for it from fishing line.

Life in the theater is not all glamor and makeup. Here Mr Mc Fluffers sips some water amid the hubbub of final carpentry work on the upturned cow prop downstage and Mr Cox tuning the piano upstage.

Fools will be presented this weekend only:

Saturday, November 15 at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm

Sunday, November 16 at 7:00 pm

Leland Public School • Performing Art Center

Tickets $8 adults, $5 students – available at the door or in advance by calling 256-9857.

As mother of the chicken, I had a special seat at the dress rehearsal. I was impressed by the expressive and tightly knit cast, hilarious dialogue, and one very talented hen. Don't miss it!

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


From the school newsletter:
One weekend only! • November 15 & 16
Leland High School Drama presents Fools, by Neil Simon. Directed by Jeremy John Evans.

Saturday, November 15 at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm
Sunday, November 16 at 7:00 pm
Leland Public School • Performing Art Center
Tickets $8 adults, $5 students – available at the door or in advance by calling 256-9857.

This story, by Neil Simon, takes place when Leon Tolchinsky, an ambitious young school teacher, arrives in the village of Kulyenchikov, and discovers that the town is suffering under a 200-year curse of stupidity. The curse was cast on them by none other than Vladimir Yousekevitch, after his son’s fiancĂ© was forbidden to see the younger Yousekevitch by her father, who found out the boy was illiterate. She subsequently was made to marry another man. If Leon can’t educate the fiancĂ©s descendent within 24 hours of his arrival in Kulyenchikov, he, too, will fall victim to the curse. The curse can only be broken if he can educate Sophia…or if she marries a Yousekevitch!

Hilarity ensues as this fast-paced comedy with quick and witty banter takes place on our Leland Performing Arts Center stage. As always, our Leland productions are brought to you in part by the generous donations of the Verdier Circle of Friends.
The Och family's contribution to this production is......a chicken. Jeremy called me a few weeks ago to ask if they could borrow a chicken, in a cage, for the character who is trying to teach a chicken to talk. The chicken is easy to come by, if a bit challenging to wrangle, but a cage suitable for a Russian village is something else. I think I found a candidate at Jaffe's consignment shop in Lake Leelanau, a cute ornamental cage. Now if the chicken will only fit inside.....

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tandem Ciders

Cider maker Dan Young serves a packed house on Saturday afternoon.

Even with gas down to 2.15 per gallon, I know that getting in the car to run just one errand is a waste of my carbon footprint. Still, I needed to go over to the casino to pick up my paycheck, so on the way back I decided to check out the Tandem Ciders sign that has be recently erected on M-22 at Setterbo Road.

I had a idea of what was up there thanks to an article in this week's Leelanau Enterprise, but hard cider has always been something that happened by accident, something that figured in Grandpa Gord's stories of growing up in the UP, or in the case of a friend's old-school grandmother, something that teetotalers drank because it wasn't really alcohol. So it was funny, at least to me, to find that I had inadvertently joined a throng of wine-tasters working their way from one winery to the next. The small tasting room was packed, proprietor Dan Young was swamped, and I ended up talking to a lady who was not quite sure where she had ended up.

"So what is this hard cider?" she asked me, looking at her the contents of her sample glass, a clear, dry, golden cider made from old-fashioned Northern Spy apples. Northern Spys, an heirloom variety from the 19th century, were Grandpa Gord's favorite apple, the same apples that I sought out for him every fall in the last years of his life.

"It's wine made from apples."

"You can make wine from apples?"

"Sure. You know the sweet cider that we drink in the fall? That's unfiltered apple juice. If you ferment it, you get hard cider."

Just as the sweet ciders can vary greatly in taste depending on the apples used, the three hard ciders I tasted each had their own character. The Northern Spy was dry and sophisticated, nice, but a little formal for just knocking around on this beautiful fall day. The Farmhouse blend used the varieties that were the mainstays of the apple industry 30 years ago -- Macintosh, Romes, (did he mention Empires?) a little Delicious -- for a sweeter taste that seemed a little thin, at least when it followed the Northern Spy.

I liked the Bees Dream, a blend made with a different yeast. This one was just nice, a full, friendly hard cider. All three ciders that I tasted were 2007 apples. The folks on the other side of me were drinking this year's Macintosh, which was being served on tap, but the barrel ran out before I could try it. Being new, it was still a tad cloudy and the folks enjoying it, friends of the proprietor, praised it as the best cider there.

I bought a bottle of Bee's Dream, for $10. They were also selling gallons of fresh cider, one of the few places where you can still buy fresh cider so late in the season.

Tandem Ciders is located on Setterbo Road, across from the Toy House. It is the white barn with the bicycle-built-for-two above the door. When you go there, check out the dark-sky-friendly light fixtures above the doors.

Tandem Ciders is open Wed-Sat from 11 a.m - 7 p.m. and Sun from Noon to 5 p.m.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Liz's Night in Grant Park

Our daughter Liz, a junior at Northwestern University, landed tickets to Obama's acceptance speech on election night. Here is her account:
Getting off the train in Chicago was like stepping into another world, one that could easily be called "Obama-land". On every street corner and scattered in between were vendors selling Obama paraphernalia—shirts, buttons, hats. The air was charged with anticipation, even blocks away from Grant Park; it was impossible not to be excited. Although our group had planned to stop to eat on the way to the park, once on the sidewalks of Chicago, it was clear where our feet were going to lead us, and it was not the nearest Taco Bell.

We reached the entrance to the park and went through the first checkpoint. It wasn't even 5:00 yet; gates were said to open at 8:30. Another Northwestern student painted our faces with the Obama emblem while we waited. Soon more people were gathered behind us than in front of us, and around this time the Democratic Party, or maybe the City of Chicago decided to open the gates early, and we began our long journey through more checkpoints and finally, the metal detectors. Polls closed in some states at 6:00, and we began to hear snippets of exit polls and early results from the "outside world" via cell phone. The wait at this point is unbearable. Finally, mercifully, we empty our pockets, walk through the metal detectors…and we're in!

The park itself wasn't even half full when we got inside. CNN was being aired on a giant screen, keeping the rally-goers current on election results. We begin our search for food and find pizza ($5/slice, apparently "slightly more upscale" than the pizza served to non-ticketholders). While we were eating the pizza, a CBS news reporter catches sight of our painted faces and ends up interviewing my friend Dan and I for TV; this wouldn't be the last time our face paint got us noticed. Soon after we finished eating, CNN projected Michigan for Obama. I cheered loudly.

We found a spot to stand with a passable view of the stage and a pretty good view of the screen. My recollection of the next couple of hours is hazy. More and more states were being called for both candidates, with Obama taking states with large numbers of electoral college votes and McCain grabbing up smaller states. At some point Ohio was called for Obama. Then, finally, Virginia. It is 10 seconds before 10:00 CT and we count down to the polls closing in California and other western states, knowing that with California's electoral votes, Obama has the nomination.

8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT! There is an explosion of sound as every single person in Grant Park reads those words on the screen. We had been expecting the countdown to end with "Polls closed", or even "California goes to Obama", but most of us weren't expecting the race to be called at that moment. People are hugging, and crying, and screaming, and jumping up and down. It is surreal and dreamlike and…perfect. As much as we had all thought, wanted, and above all, hoped this would happen, there was no sense of this being the predicted outcome. After two years of hoping for change, we had suspended that hope just in case it didn't happen. Hope, but don't get your hopes up. And now…suddenly…we had every reason in the world to feel hopeful.

There was a lot of cheering and picture-taking and general happiness as we waited for McCain's speech. We had been making fun of the McCain rally when it appeared on the screen throughout the night; here we were, hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside in Chicago, dressed and painted and EXCITED! And McCain was in a hotel in Phoenix with who we could only assume to be the most elite of the Republican Party. There was no joking, however, when McCain gave his speech. The speech itself was so different from what we've heard from McCain lately; he praised Obama as his "supporters" booed. In Grant Park, we clapped for McCain, sometimes to be polite, but mostly because he was saying things worth clapping for. We were looking again at the McCain who won the Republican nomination, the man who could once be thought of as a "maverick". The only time our Grant Park audience didn't perform better than the McCain's Phoenix one was at the mention of Sarah Palin, when the entire park let out a (presumably involuntary) snort of laughter.

And then, finally, it was our turn. Time for Obama to address us with one of his famed speeches. The announcer man said "Ladies and Gentlemen…" and we all held our breath, only to have the man leading a prayer announced to us. And then the man leading the Pledge of Allegiance. And then the woman singing the National Anthem. And then, not one, not two, but three songs. And then, finally, FINALLY… the entire Obama family is on stage. The future First Family of the United States of America is on stage. And we are within (strained) eyesight.

Obama's speech was everything we had been waiting for. He was eloquent, deliberate, and modest. His victory was not his own—it belonged to each one of us who struck a ballot for him, to everyone who worked on the campaign, for every single person who donated even the smallest amount to the cause. I was surprised to discover later that the speech only lasted about 15 minutes; few people can convey such a powerful message in so little time. I have no words to describe how breathtaking the speech was, and I urge everyone to watch it online. The video cannot recreate the surge of positive energy that was in Grant Park, but the words that our future President speaks can provide hope for America.

Nothing can ever compare to what I witnessed last night in Grant Park. 24 hours later, I'm still giddy, still wearing a ridiculous grin, and still filled with a hope I've never felt before. Uploading my rally pictures onto the computer, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many pictures I had taken of American flags. Before last night, I associated "patriotism" with the Republican Party, a word too often used to justify unpopular agendas. November 4, 2008 changed that. Now, after 20 years of indifference, I finally understand how it feels to be truly proud to be an American.
Here in Leelanau, I'd be careful to use the term "neocon" instead of "Republican" in that last paragraph. Still, there's a first hand account of the beginning of the future.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

And The Results......

It was at 10 pm last night, as I went on break, that one of my card players told me to call the county clerk's office and check on my election results. In the break room there was already a coworker looking up local election results. I had 719 votes, second place in a three way race for two seats, so I had won.

I left work soon after, as soon as a table closed down, and went home to get Anna. The presidential race was looking good for Obama. Grant Park was filling up with people; Liz was there among them. A group of my supporters were having an election party. Anna and I listened to McCain's concession speech on the way over.

I had been thinking about the 2000 election, the first presidential election that Shelagh and Liz were old enough to understand. Liz and I slept on the floor of the living room watching TV as the race was called, first for Bush, then for Gore, and then a tossup that would take weeks to eventually be decided with a sketchy Supreme Court decision.

I have spent the last eight years trying to keep my kids from becoming cynical, trying to to keep alive the faith that what we do, each of us, matters. It has not been all that easy to keep the faith myself when our very nation, up to and including our economy, our constitution and our very atmosphere, has been cynically offered for sale to the highest bidder. Still, with the help of friends, relatives, teachers, neighbors, the kids are alright. Somehow, while we were "Waiting for the World to Change" and I was despairing that we just couldn't wait much longer, they were forming and testing the new networks that elected this new president.

We aren't out of the woods, yet, not by a long shot. Before the 2000 Bush victory party was cut short, we saw them dancing to the strains of "Louie, Louie", the song that played in Animal House right before they trashed the joint. It has been a long, ugly frat party and there are some big ugly chickens that have yet to come home to roost. Obama acknowledged the work ahead last night:
I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers - in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House - a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends...though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

There's lots of work to be done. But I can breathe again. I sat last night watching Obama speak with Anna on my lap, even though she's way to big for laps. She, and Liz out there in the crowd somewhere, and Shelagh, watching election returns with her husband in a loud crowd at a bar in Ann Arbor , they were all proof that we've survived, that I've raised these kids through the dark times with their spirits intact.

Here is a Chicago news video with a short interview with Liz at Grant Park last night.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day Dispatches

Brother Tim writes from his polling place in Vienna, Virginia:
I did my shift this morning at the polls and several things struck me. First, every 90 minutes to 2 hours, several of the Obama reps came outside with lists of the people who had voted so far. They matched up those names with the lists they had of prospective voters for Obama. By keying names via cell phones into a central computer bank, they were able to quickly determine who had voted and who hadn't. Those who hadn't made it to the polls yet where to be called or even visited in-person. That's what my son was doing later in the day in Vienna -- going door to door for the third straight day.
I was outside, handing out Democratic sample ballots. Of course, not everybody took one. But some people who turned me down going into the poll asked for one coming out. Why? They wanted to hang on to it for historical reasons.
However this shakes out, it will be a memorable night. Either we elect the first person of color to the highest elected position in the land or a genuine war hero mounts the most impressive comeback since Truman beat Dewey a generation ago. Whoever wins is going to need our thoughts, prayers and best intentions. That's what I wrote about in my USA Today column that will appear tomorrow.
Enjoy the wild ride. This has indeed been one for the history books.
Voting in Leland was much less dramatic. There was no line and no last minute campaigning. I was approached twice because I was wearing a button, but it was only Anna's basketball picture so they let it go. There were poll watchers who were marking off names on a voter list when you came through. Ir took 15 minutes to fill out all those bubbles, even though I skipped the unopposed. On the way out we wondered aloud why people in other places had to wait hours to vote, and that voting means so much that people will wait for hours. I was standing outside talking with the neighbors about giving them some creeping thyme when we realized that someone was waiting for their parking place, so we moved on.

Local election results will be posted on the county website as soon as they come in. Liz will send us an account of her night at Grant Park, also.

Election Day

Finally it's Election Day. At least it's Election Day for everyone who didn't vote by absentee ballot. It's another beautiful late fall day, sunny and warm. The chickens are roaming the yard, playing out their little chicken rivalries. Gas prices are unusually low, $2.26 at the BP station in Lake Leelanau. It's the sort of day that tempts us to think that the golden days might just go on forever, even though all logic tells us otherwise.

Richard has been fishing and has voted already this morning. One 14 inch walleye, not a keeper, and a short wait to vote. I keep thinking about my own campaign, thinking of more people that I could have talked to. I did more door-to-door canvassing, more advertising, and more standing in front of the post office than my opponents.

But I am running as a Democrat in an area where running as a Democrat has always been the kiss of death. It turned out that many of my supporters were the orphaned moderate Republicans. Many of the people I met going door-to-door told me that they were so fed up that they were voting straight Democrat this year. The guy I carpool with won't vote for me, nor will his wife, because "We always vote straight Republican." I ended up leaving party reference off of my pamphlets and ads because all it seemed to do was muddy the waters.

Leland Township will face challenges in the coming years, much as we wish the golden days to go on. Energy prices will make our area less attractive as a Traverse City bedroom community. We can expect Big Wind to come back again with tempting lease terms for our farmers; we will also be confronted with the idea of windmills out on Lake Michigan. Our lake shore septic puzzle isn't going to solve itself. Public school funding will continue to be a problem, exacerbated by those volatile energy prices. A combination of the economic slowdown and Michigan's pop-up tax are already affecting our real estate market in unexpected ways. The harbor renovation will fly or falter depending on state funding.

So many of theses issues will be resolved -- or not resolved--by the various levels of government working in combination. Playing chess with Anna yesterday reminded me of trying to figure out these local issues. The best land for wind towers is in the northern tip of Leelanau county, but there are no transmission lines, but the new Comprehensive Energy Plan provides for expediting the siting transmission lines. There are lots of possible scenarios and how they play out depends on who is elected at the various levels. It's hard to imagine a county board that won't require some type of septic inspections, even if it's only for antique lake shore systems. It's equally hard to imagine a state legislature that actually faces up to school funding and the pop up tax problem.

Liz has tickets to go hear Obama speak at Grant Park tonight. I think it will be a victory speech but I'm wary enough that I warned her to take a friend and stick with him. And to wear shoes she can walk in. I can't stop contemplating all possible scenarios.

So I'm off to vote, to do my small part in shaping our future. Wish me luck.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Don't Forget Leland School!

When you are voting tomorrow in Leland School district, don't forget to go all the way to the end of the ballot, past the medical marijuana question and the stem cell question, and vote YES on Leland Public School's operational millage renewal.

This is a renewal, not a new tax. It renews the millage on non-homestead properties and it is a requirement -- if we can't pass this millage, Leland School will not receive money to operate next school year.

We pass this renewal millage, and hold the school board election, in May. Putting this millage on the ballot in November will save the expense of a separate election; it does not accelerate the actual collection of the tax.

There are no candidates for school board on the ballot, but there are two write-in candidates. Andrew MacFarlane is ready to serve another term, although he missed the August filing deadline. Janine Fierberg, who was recently appointed to finish Peggy Miller's term, is also willing to continue her service. We are lucky to have two good people ready to put their time and energy into our school.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What I Didn't Know About Wind Power

Monday night's wind energy class, presented by Michigan State Cooperative Extension, was packed with both information and audience. Although I have written about Michigan's Comprehensive Energy Package in brief, This was the first time I'd heard some of the nuts and bolts applications of the new laws. I had the distinct and exciting feeling of moving toward a hopeful energy future and it was wonderful to be sharing that future with a roomful of over 100 people. (There were also 30 people on the waiting list for the workshop, which will be repeated in January. Watch the Leelanau Extension website for details.)

I can't begin to cover the whole workshop, but here are some of the points that have got me thinking:

It's not just for hippies anymore. In Leelanau we've had neighbors using wind generators for decades now. They were usually "back to the land" types, ready to accept limits to their electricity use and able to tolerate outages that required an investment of their own time or money to resolve. Often people lived "off the grid"on sites so remote that the cost of erecting a tower, installing a windmill, batteries, and an inverter to change from AC to DC was still cheaper than stringing wires to the nearest utility pole. The new generation wind energy systems are designed to work "on the grid", feeding electricity into the same power lines that bring the rest of us power. The new systems require no extra inverters or batteries; the grid itself functions as the battery. The many windmills or solar panels plugged into the grid function as a lot of little power plants in this new system of "distributed generation". Many smaller generation sites result in more power being produced and used locally, lessening the strain and waste of moving large amounts of electricity from one region to another.

Michigan's laws have changed to favor home generated energy. Just three weeks ago our legislature signed a Comprehensive Energy Package, committing to meeting 10% of Michigan's energy from renewable sources needs by 2015. This is not just a matter of feeling "green". Right now Michigan imports almost all of our energy at a cost of some $20 billion per year. Producing more electricity by harvesting our own wind will allow more dollars to go to work building our state's economy.

The Comprehensive Energy Package changes the rules for "net-metering" or selling a wind or solar generating household's excess energy back to the utility. Under the old rules you bought power when you needed it at retail rates but you sold you excess power at wholesale rates, or roughly half of retail. Under the new rules, you can sell your excess electricity for the higher retail rate. Each net metering household gets two meters, one measuring what you use and one measuring what you produce. At the end of a billing period, if you have produced more than you used, you get a credit for the excess. Right now both Cherryland Electric and Consumers Energy, the two power companies who sent reps to speak at the workshop, have billing periods of about a month, but that could change in the future if they invest in more sophisticated metering systems that can charge different rates hourly or daily according to the real cost of electricity. As the rules stand now, you can carry credit forward from month to month, but not year to year, and you can't register a net-metering setup that is rated to produce more than your home currently uses. You would never have a negative electric bill, or even a zero electric bill, as there are base fees that must be paid by everyone. But your bill could be pretty darn cheap.

We can look forward to the cost of electricity going up slowly but surely. For years, residential electricity rates have been kept artificially low because they have been subsidized by business and industry paying higher rates. Michigan needs to encourage energy efficiency and avoid penalizing industry, so the residential subsidy is being gradually phased out.

While not part of the legislative initiative, I also think about the next generation of cars, the plug-in hybrids, and how they will increase our total need for electricity. A plug-in hybrid could also function as a storage device for excess electricity. You would recharge your car at night when your household energy use (or the utility's rates) was low.

With the cost of wind generators falling, the cost of electricity rising, and everything else so unstable, I suspect the next generation of wind aficionados will be people disgusted with the stock market and looking for a more predictable return on a $10K or $20K investment.

Size matters. A few days ago I posted a photo of Mariah Power's Windspire, a compact, vertical axis wind generator designed to provide about one quarter of a typical household's electricity while conforming to most neighborhoods' height and noise ordinances. (Mariah Power is of special interest to northern Michigan because their next generation Windspire will be manufactured in Manistee. Read more and watch a video about their design here.) The windspire' vertical axis design is also bird-friendly, addressing a concern for the many Leelanau residents who live near important bird migration paths.

But the laws of physics still apply. If you use a higher tower, you will be able to take advantage of faster winds. As wind speed increases linearly, the potential power increases exponentially. We may well find that taller towers supporting smaller generators will seem less intrusive. Another physics fact: the colder the temperature, the more energy in the wind, because cold air is denser.

Scale matters. My interest in this class was to learn more about zoning for wind energy. There were a few guys in the audience who make their living installing home-scale wind systems. They were adamant that zoning needs to consider home-scale wind and utility-scale wind as two different applications. One installer decried "cookie cutter zoning" that required him to "put a flashing light on top of a 40 foot tower." The last presenter of the evening was an attorney who advises on utility-scale wind leases. Because of the length of these leases and the expense involved in decommissioning an obsolete wind tower, local planners would be wise to require that any such projects include a performance bond or escrow arrangement to insure that today's wind farm is not the next generation's brownfield. Tomorrow I am attending the Council of Government's class on Zoning for Renewable Energy so I'll write more about zoning later.

Wind generation is an attractive option for utilities. Utility scale wind is less expensive to build from scratch than coal plants or nuclear plants. Wind energy is perhaps difficult to predict on a day-today basis, but in the long run the cost is less volatile than the cost of crude oil or natural gas. Even if we leave climate change out of the equation, wind seems destined to play a major role in our future because it is becoming affordable.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Windy Week

Home wind generation is coming of age. This is a windspire from Mariah Power, who bill their design as a quiet, unobtrusive, and inexpensive option for home wind energy production. Mariah Power recently announced plans to build their next generation windspires in Manistee.

One of the themes of my campaign for Leland Township has been 21st Century Vision. I tell anyone who listens long enough that we have to make sure that our zoning ordinances allow for home-based wind and solar energy generation. Leland Township is drafting new zoning laws to follow up our new Master Plan; I want to do everything possible to see that our new zoning ordinances don't cost our residents money by denying their right to make their own power.

Knowing what we need to do and knowing how to do it are two different things. I jumped at the chance to sign up for a Home and Farm Wind Power workshop at the MSU Experiment Station this afternoon. This is a timely topic; I was one of 90 people to sign up. With another 30 on the waiting list, there are already plans to repeat the workshop later this winter.

I will be at an all day class later this week called How Do We Plan For Our Renewable Energy Future?, covering more of the planning and zoning aspects of wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower.

I'm also running ad ad in the Leelanau Enterprise this week, listing some of my supporters and issuing this challenge:
Adjusting to higher energy prices and an unpredictable world economy challenges us to reweave the threads of our local economy, planning for home-based businesses and alternative energy while preserving our natural beauty. Our community has the natural resources and talent to thrive in the 21st century –let’s do it together!
When I think about "reweaving" I think about the threads of money and energy leaving our region: money spent on fuel and energy, on pumping holding tanks, on food from far-flung places when our farmers raise such nice food right here. I always told my kids "You can't spend the same money twice." and that goes on a township level, too. We need to spend our paychecks enriching our local economy.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Michael Pollan in the NY Times

I can't write anything better than what I read in the New York Times Magazine this week. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, published an open letter to the next president, Farmer in Chief, outlining a plan to wean American agriculture from fossil fuels, fighting climate change, obesity, and a host of other problems in one fell swoop. Here is one of his last suggestions:

Since enhancing the prestige of farming as an occupation is critical to developing the sun-based regional agriculture we need, the White House should appoint, in addition to a White House chef, a White House farmer. This new post would be charged with implementing what could turn out to be your most symbolically resonant step in building a new American food culture. And that is this: tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.

When Eleanor Roosevelt did something similar in 1943, she helped start a Victory Garden movement that ended up making a substantial contribution to feeding the nation in wartime. (Less well known is the fact that Roosevelt planted this garden over the objections of the U.S.D.A., which feared home gardening would hurt the American food industry.) By the end of the war, more than 20 million home gardens were supplying 40 percent of the produce consumed in America. The president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population. Eating from this, the shortest food chain of all, offers anyone with a patch of land a way to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption and help fight climate change. (We should offer grants to cities to build allotment gardens for people without access to land.) Just as important, Victory Gardens offer a way to enlist Americans, in body as well as mind, in the work of feeding themselves and changing the food system — something more ennobling, surely, than merely asking them to shop a little differently.
I know it's nine pages long, but read it anyway. Pollan takes the whole big subject of food and wraps it up in a neat package of science and flavor then marinates it in culture and common sense.

Friday, October 10, 2008

From Whence This Panic?

We are back in Minnesota this weekend for my nephew's wedding. In the motel breakfast room I am surrounded by Canadians talking about the tanking stock market. They are not surprised that the US economy is faltering; they think that Americans have been living beyond our means for years. But they are surprised that the rest of the world is so linked to the US economy.

The headlines are using the word "panic". I've been surprised at how many of my coworkers -- people who are usually analytical thinkers-- have been contemplating panic moves, asking me things like, "Should I borrow all the money out of my 401K?" I'm going back to my last winter's ruminations on the tendency to base or self-image on our consumption, to identify ourselves primarily as consumers. If spending money is the basis of your perceived self worth, then losing money is more than just a financial problem. It's enough to make a person, or a nation, panic.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


There was nothing in the weather report --cool, windy, rainy-- that would have alerted us to look for patches of awesome skies and rainbows. I walked out the back porch to get some more canning tomatoes and saw a full double rainbow about slapping me to "Wake up and see the show!"
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Linking Livestock and Kids

I'm spoke last weekend at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy conference in Kalamazoo, on the topic of engaging kids in livestock through 4-H.

Of course, 4-H has been putting kids and livestock together for the last 100 years. 4-H, and its parent organization Cooperative Extension, were formed at the turn of the last century to fill a technology gap. The nation's land grant universities were churning out research that had the potential to substantially improve farming practices, but the nation's farmers. set in their ways, were slow to take advantage of the new research. 4-H was formed to train the youngsters in more scientific farming methods in hopes that they would grow into better farmers. Soon the opportunity to meet others, demonstrate their skills, compete for fame at fairs, and sell their livestock for cold hard cash made 4-H the community organization of choice for farm kids across the nation.

In the past few generations the farm population has dwindled, but 4-H is still involving kids in livestock projects. It takes a little more imagination and flexibility to do livestock projects with kids who are city dwellers or suburbanites, but the principles remain the same.

The best projects take an established curriculum and tweak it to suit the situation. Many resources are available at the national 4-H websites:

National 4-H Council

National Directory of 4-H Materials

4-H Online Community:

Every county or regional fair has its own rules, expectations and record books. Here are some samples:

A Goat Project Book for the Cloverbud (age 5-9) member. The focus is on learning about the animal. I like the questions where the child is asked about their goat's diet and digestive system:
My goat is a ruminant. Unlike me, she chews her cud.
_____ I have watched my goat chew her cud.
_____ I have seen a cud.

Unlike me, she has four parts to her stomach. One of these sections is the rumen where food is fermented by tiny bugs or micro-organisms.
_____ I have smelled my goat’s breath to see how these bugs produce stinky gases when they are digesting her food.

Roughage is food that is high in fiber.
_____I have scraped grass with a serrated plastic knife to find the fiber in the grass.
A roughage I feed my goat is:
My goat started to eat this when he/she was _____ weeks old.

Record keeping is just one part of the 4-H livestock education. Most kids who show their animals at the fair compete in the showmanship ring. To excel at showmanship, you must be thoroughly knowledgeable and practiced with your animal and your animal must be thoroughly comfortable with you. 4-Hers must work with their animals, exercise them, handle them, brush them, wash them, hang out with them. You can't just toss them some food and water and go on your way. This Rabbit Showmanship Guide gives a good example of what is involved.

The livestock auction is a big part of our local fair. The profit from a successful pig or steer project is an important source of income for the older kids, but there are sales in the goat, rabbit, and chicken barns as well. This year the goat clubs cooked up some goat dishes and offered samples at the livestock auction to raise interest in their meat goats. One of the buyers at our auction is the Fresh Food Partnership representing local food pantries; people who want to support both 4-H and the food programs donate to this program, and some money for the program is raised by 4-H clubs.

At the ALBC conference, there was a lot of frustration with the 4-H fair system. Many of the rare and endangered breeds of livestock were developed before the era of cheap corn feed; they grow well on pasture and forage, but their mature size may be smaller and it takes longer for them to reach maturity.

Fair rules often specify the dates when the 4-Her takes possession of the animal and a minimum weight to show an animal at fair. The heirloom breeds don't grow fast enough to qualify. A 4-H leader from New Jersey wanted to get his kids involved in the ALBC mission by letting them try some Tamworth pigs, but he wasn't sure if they could make the weight minimum. A 4-H leader from Indiana was just plain frustrated with the fair schedule -- their county fairs were held in July to accommodate the State Fair schedule.

I ended up defending 4-H. 4-H was teaching kids how to better raise livestock 100 years ago. 4-H kept up with the tradition of livestock and kids through the years when the family farms were disappearing and the art of working with animals seemed quaint and anachronistic. If the 4-H fair system seems set in its ways, that's because there's a lot of momentum. It's not uncommon for 4-H volunteers to have 10 or 20 or even 30 years invested, or for a family to volunteer over two or three generations. If it is hard to change the direction of the program, that's because 4-H has a heck of a lot of momentum.

At the same time, 4-H has been under siege as state and federal budgets become strapped and funding is cut or eliminated. Talking to people from across the US, I felt lucky that in Michigan and in Leelanau, that when we fought the budget battles we were largely successful. Still, it is hard to be forward thinking when we spend so much time in "Save 4-H" mode.

I challenged the audience to volunteer on some level, whether the fair process was immediately accessible to their breed or not. Dependable adults who know how to work with animals are needed for all sorts of jobs. Meet with the fair board to explain the conformation of your breed and how it's supposed to be shown. In Leelanau, there is a network of Scottish Highland Cattle owners; they were able to negotiate around a dehorning requirement and show their animals with their horn tips covered.

A club could also be primarily engaged in working with rare breeds, but raise a few standard breed animals to take to the fair. I appreciate my older breeds so much more after raising a few Cornish Cross "meat blobs".

Beyond the fair, sometimes instead of the fair, there are many ways to get kids and livestock together. Once kids become knowledgeable about their animals and secure in their skills they are eager to talk others about their animals, and are great ambassadors for their breeds. Here are some ways that 4-H kids in my county are teaching about their animals and helping to re-integrate livestock into the community.
  • We usually have 3 or 4 clubs that join forces to stage a petting zoo at the horticultural station during the National Cherry Festival, and again at the Horses by the Bay horse show.
  • We have a rabbit group that volunteers at the Tractor Supply Store every spring, bringing rabbits to sell but also giving demonstrations on all aspects of rabbit care and answering individual questions.
  • Family Llama Fair: Our local llama clubs cooperate to put on a fair for the llama loving public and other llama owners. It is a chance for 4-H kids to practice their skills, tell the public about their animals and learn from the invited speakers. This idea could easily be replicated by a breed association or even cross-species group of rare-breed aficionados. In our county, we do both a spring 4-H Expo and a July 4-H Livestock Achievement Day in addition to Fair. (The leader from Indiana who was so frustrated with her July fair schedule started thinking out loud about a "Heritage Livestock Fair", in late fall. )
  • Horseless Horse: learning about horses without actually owning a horse, or before owning a horse. This curriculum is a basic horse curriculum and would serve as a nice intro for draft horses as well.
  • Day camp for kids who want serious training, or as an introductory experience. One of our most successful horse groups never goes to fair. They can't see the logic of taking their animals off of pasture to spend a full week in a hot noisy stall at fair. They do a week long day camp to provide young kids with a first horse experience. The club members organize the event, limiting it to one camper per kids with two club members assisting each camper. I could see a similar camp-style training for kids who were already doing livestock projects but wanted more experience in draft horses or sheep shearing or butchering.
  • Michigan State Proud Equestrians Volunteers assist disabled riders. We had 4-H kids and leaders volunteering in this program for years.
  • Many kids are rearing livestock in backyards in residential areas, as in this headline: Suburban Kids Sell Their Livestock at Fair Auction. About 15 years ago we got a call from the 4-H office alerting us to a meeting of our local planning commission; they were contemplating an ordinance that would outlaw backyard livestock in our neighborhood. The 4-H families turned out in force and the idea was dropped.
  • Raise a pig for Rotary. Our local Rotary club approached 4-H a few years a go with an offer centered around their annual pig roast. The Rotary members offered to interview 4-H members, select one or two, and then have those kids raise an extra animal specifically for the fall pig roast. Local restaurants, especially the upscale restaurants that are selling a story along with the food, could be another place for kids to market their projects. Heritage turkeys? Christmas geese?
  • While not strictly a 4-H project, our local spring tradition of hatching eggs in the preschool and kindergarten classrooms could be a nice service project for a poultry group. The process of hatching eggs in an incubator, counting down the days, candling the eggs, letting the chicks work their way our of their shells, and then learning to gently feed, water, and handle the young chicks reinforces many parts of the kindergarten curriculum. A 4-H group could provide eggs, equipment, and mentoring to a classroom hatching project.
  • Our 4-H groups often choose, as a service project, to visit nursing homes with their animals. Small animals like dogs and rabbits are an obvious choice; larger animals like lambs or llamas are more unexpected but also appreciated. I'll confess that I've always thought about nursing home visits as sort of a knee-jerk response to the question of "What sort of service project shall we do?" One of the people at the ALBC talk pointed me to the Delta Society's research on the measurable benefits of including animals in the day to day lives of the elderly.
  • Arizona State University Hunkapi Program. I saved this example for last, as it has become, for me, somewhat of a muse on the meaning of the efforts to pair livestock and kids:
Hunkapi was founded as a research program in 1996. When compared to other sports, the research showed that horseback riding was the most positive intervention for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism. The positive results prompted the launching of the community outreach program in 1999. Hunkapi believes that interacting with horses can serve as a non-drug intervention alternative.
and, from ASU's research magazine:
Animals have long been touted for their therapeutic benefits. Horses are especially effective. Crews says that horses are generally able to interpret a person’s emotions and will mirror those emotions. For example, if a participant is upset and tense, then the horse will be tense and upset. But when the child is comfortable and confident, the horse will relax and follow the child’s lead.

Like all good relationships, the bond between a horse and child must be based on mutual respect. Horses can be loyal, obedient, and good listeners. But their respect must first be earned.

Horses are immense animals. They can be intimidating. They also can be frustrating because they force the child to communicate congruently with words and body language. Hunkapi specifically uses these qualities, challenges, and opportunities to encourage change and growth in each child....

.....For Crews, these positive results come with the hope that interventions such as equine therapy may some day reduce or perhaps even replace medication for these children.

“Medication often simply allows these kids to sit in the classroom at school, to just be there. It doesn’t help them excel. They might be ‘C’ students, when really they could be ‘A’ students,” she says. “The physical interventions are meant to help them actually exceed to their ability and, maybe in some cases, to reduce or eliminate medication.”
Humans evolved alongside animals for countless generations; yet in the last two or three generations we have contrived to live lives in isolation from our animals. Somehow, we are losing much more than eggs, milk, and meat when we leave animals out of our lives, and out of our children's lives. The ALBC's work centers around forgotten breeds of livestock, but I found myself wondering if "made to work with livestock" might be a description of a forgotten breed of kid, one that we might soon wish we had nourished.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dan Scripps with News on Michigan Energy

I would read Dan Scripps' blog even if he wasn't running for the State House in my district. He writes about the things that I'm interested in, about the issues and problems that keep me up nights.

Two weeks ago he wrote about the differences between himself and his opponent on climate change. What a treat to be able to cast a vote for someone who is willing to confront climate change without a lot of mealy-mouthed caveats or head-in-the-sand denial.

Last week Dan broke the news on Michigan's comprehensive energy package.
The legislation passed by the state legislature yesterday is an important first step in building a long-range energy plan to make Michigan more competitive and in creating jobs now in this exciting growth area. What’s more, the fact that the legislation was supported by groups ranging from the Michigan Environmental Council to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Manufacturers Association shows that renewable energy solutions can help slow global warming and protect our natural environment while creating jobs and sparking investment in Michigan. This truly is a win-win, and a step towards a more diversified economy and a more prosperous Michigan. The cost for this: $3 a month. Not bad for a plan that can add 30,000 jobs to Michigan, and as part of an overall clean technology strategy than can reduce our highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate by nearly two points.
Pretty good stuff if we can slow climate change while putting people back to work.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Future of Livestock

I've been revisiting livestock issues in preparation for an invitation to speak at next week's American Livestock Breed Conservancy conference in Kalamazoo.

I first became aware of the livestock breed conservancy back in 2005 when I was writing about avian flu, and watching TV footage of culled flocks in Hong Kong headed for the incinerator.
Keeping chickens is a sort of window to the wider world. The everyday chores of caring for poultry is something that humans have been doing in similar fashion for most of recorded time. It is also something that is done, with little variation, almost everywhere that people live.

It was hard to stop thinking about those first bird flu reports from Asia. I saw fleeting images of beautiful birds on the evening news as they told of killing all poultry in whole provinces. At first I wondered how many interesting breeds of chickens were going extinct.
Later, I became worried that we were destroying the generations of intellectual property, and the secret to the avian flu problem, in this wholesale culling effort:
Each breed is the result of generations of breeding. I suspect the smarter, thriftier birds are the result of breeding that spans human generations, not poultry generations. There are countless more varieties of chickens, a different variety living in each little corner of the world, bred for centuries to best suit the microclimate and needs of the people who live there.

This is the old-fashioned method of genetic engineering: selective breeding and cross breeding to secure the traits that are favored. In good times, you might breed for a fancy tail. In bad times you might breed for survival in famine or resistance to the latest disease.

Now, confident that the only answer is in gene splicing, we are depopulating the country sides of their locally-bred chickens, in a losing battle to contain the virus. The disease is devastating to flocks; the birds look fine one day and the next morning 80 to 90% are dead. One wonders if the clue to flu resistance in poultry lies in that small sliver of surviving birds, the ones that are being culled with the rest. Or maybe it lies with the flock next door that appeared untouched by the disease but was culled anyway.

The first images of avian flu showed us armloads of chickens, held upside down by their feet, on the way to incineration. As someone who has catalog shopped chicken breeds, I wanted to shout: "Wait! What kind of chicken is that? Show me again, right side up! What a cool bird!"

Just those few short years ago, it seemed that, except for a few of us hobby farmers and the tiny boutique foods market, the trend would continue towards out-of-sight, out-of mind, larger and larger factory farming operations. All cows looked alike because they all were alike; in 1997 it was estimated that 60% of our dairy cows came from the same four breeding lines. Every commercial specie of livestock had been bred to be the most efficient at turning cheap corn into edible protein. Traits like ability to forage, curiosity, even the common sense to get out of the rain took a backseat to feed conversion or disappeared altogether.

That was then. These days, avian flu takes a back seat to bigger problems. Cheap corn is no longer cheap -- beyond the lunacy of trying to run automobiles on corn-based ethanol, there is a new awareness that corn yields depend on large doses of nitrogen fertilizer and that nitrogen fertilizer is made from ever more pricey natural gas. Feedlots are implicated in the rise of new, deadly E.coli strains. Climate change, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester CO2 is front and center, and we are looking at the role of pastures and grasslands in global carbon sequestration. In the US, our current food production is dependent on the rapidly depleting aquifers of the western states; we use our expensive fossil fuels to move food long distances to the food producing areas of the 1900's which are now covered with homes on one or two acre lots where the fertile soils and abundant rains now grow shrubs and lawns.

I'm intrigued by a comment that I read in a discussion of home food production. A person familiar with the history of her suburb noted that the original lot size was meant to provide a family with the land they would need to raise most of their own food in gardens, orchards, and with some small livestock. Last summer we saw many families return to gardening in response to higher food and fuel prices. If trends continue, we may see many more backyard poultry flocks, rabbits, or even milking goats.

If you see suburban poultry, goats, or even pigs these days, chances are it's a 4-H project. 4-H has fostered the relationship between kids and livestock for all of its 100 year history, even as the bulk of us have moved away from the traditional farms. Rabbit and poultry projects are ever popular for small yards, and there are new projects like Horseless Horse, Small Pets and Goldfish for kids with no yards at all.

The traditional large animal projects prosper around here. Northwest Michigan Fair's livestock auction signed up 125 new buyers this year, not surprising considering the renewed interest in eating local, and knowing what you are eating. Where else can a person choose meat for the table by perusing growth, feed, exercise and medical records of each animal and interviewing the person who raised it?

Kids learn responsibility, business skills, grace under pressure, time management, teamwork, and a host of other skills from working with livestock. 4-H folks have been extolling these character building themes for years as the rest of the world asks why we want to keep doing something as old-fashioned as raising livestock in our backyards.

Lately I've been rethinking the purpose of making sure that kids get experience raining livestock. When I think of the challenges facing us, I want to everyone -- our leaders, our families, our communities, our kids -- to have as all available tools. When policymakers are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring our food supply, they need to know a lot about cows, not just that they produce methane. Community planners need to recognize that backyard food production is part of the health of a community and not just reflexively zone out livestock because they want to head off potential factory farms. If times get really tough, we could send our 4-H livestock kids, leaders and alumni out to the suburbs to teach people how to feed themselves from that good farmland under those lawns.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Thisledown Yarn Shoppe Warms the World

The community organizers at Thistledown Yarn Shoppe are at it again.:

Warming Northern Michigan One Hand Crafted Project at a Time

The Goodwill Inn estimates that any any point in time there are 591 homeless individuals in the surrounding five county area (Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau.) Local shelters serve approximately 700 to 800 folks per year; many are turned away due to lack of room. Some are double up with friends or family some live on the streets and in parks.

We estimate the number of people who knit or crochet are three times the amount of the homeless in the five county area.

We are calling on Northern Michigan yarn lovers to pick up your needles and create just one hat, one scarf, one pair of mittens or socks (adult or children size) for donation to the Goodwill Inn where they will be distributed to the homeless in Northern Michigan.

We will start collecting donations October 15, 2008.

For more information contact us at 231-271-YARN (9276) or Demarie Jones at 231-271-4812.
I need to pick up knitting again, Mittens are easy, as the pattern is always close at hand.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dan Scripps Talks Broadband

Dan Scripps, our Democrat for State Rep, wrote his weekly Thursday economic issues column on the importance of broadband internet to the rural economies. He described the rural Electrification Project of the 1930's and spoke of how a similar effort to provide broadband service today could provide a boost to our area:

By making loans available to local electrification cooperative, which were often driven by farmers, the Rural Electrification Act helped farmers modernize their operations, provided the encouragement necessary for private electric companies to connect rural households (which ultimately lowered electric rates), and made it possible for businesses to remain and grow in rural America.

So what?

Well, as important as extending electricity to rural areas was to reviving the economy of the 1930s, access to broadband is at least as important to growing Michigan’s economy today. Indeed, as former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and media expert Robert McChesney noted, broadband represents “a technology that, in terms of powering economies, could be the 21st century equivalent of electricity.” Moreover, while many assume that access to broadband is universal, 60% of American households do not have access to broadband either because it is unavailable or unaffordable, and our global position is getting worse: “since 2001, according to the International Telecommunications Union, the United States has fallen from fourth to 16th in the world in broadband penetration.”

I'm told by local real estate people that "Can I get broadband here?" is one of the first questions that prospective buyers ask about properties in Leelanau county. Recently Higher Grounds coffee company, after struggling to get broadband access in Leland Township's only zoned industrial district, relocated to Traverse City. Broadband is the key to attracting and keeping the right-sized businesses in our township, and to keeping our farms and businesses competitive.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Saying No to Coal

One of the questions at Bill McKibben's talk was about the meaning of the phrase on many politician's lips: "clean coal".

McKibben was very clear that, from a climate change point of view, there is no such thing as clean coal. We know how to use stack scrubbers to take out the sulphur and lead from coal plant emissions, but any technology to remove the carbon and put it back underground is only imagined, not in in use.

After the talk, the Sierra Club organizer was overwhelmed by the people lining up to sign a petition to Governor Granholm asking her to:
fight against climate change by issuing an executive order that prevents the permitting of more coal plants until stronger protections are put in place against dangerous global warming carbon dioxide pollution.
You can sign the petition too, online, just click here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Notes from Bill McKibben's Traverse City Talk

About halfway through McKibben's talk it dawned on me that I had posted, last fall, parts of his essay entitled Climate Crisis in National Geographic magazine. I quoted from it with abandon because I so admired his calm way of talking about a situation that tends to overwhelm people into ignoring or denying it. I also admired his ability to break this big problem down into manageable pieces.

The word "connections" is in the title of this blog because I'm usually quite good at connection ideas from many different sources. But I've been overworked this summer. I knew I wanted to go see Bill McKibben, and so did Liz. I wrote a rather lame announcement of his appearance, forgetting that I could have quoted myself from a year ago.

Back then I described how the people around me were living in two different worlds:
Most folks seem to recognize that the world is getting warmer, and that something needs to be done. I have seen the average size cars in the parking lot shrink. I am seeing people considering relocating to be closer to work, or looking for jobs closer to home. Nobody brags about their new snowmobiles anymore. I also have small, concerned conversations with people who are worried about the future but unable to figure out the best way to prepare for change or to shoulder their responsibility.
Watching the Republican convention last week was truly watching another world. While most of the people I talk with are looking for strategies for using less energy, the people chanting "Drill, Baby, Drill!" on the floor of the Republican convention seemed to think that finding more oil to burn would automagically fix everything.

McKibben's talk was calmer, more thoughtful, and much more grounded in everyday reality. McKibben has a quiet, everyman persona, much like talking to one of my more reticent neighbors. He has a habit of rubbing the back of his head as he formulates his thoughts, much like a farmer swatting flies away with his tractor hat. He used a lot of self-deprecating humor; it was interesting to me that after a while the women were still responding to these jokes but the men were silent.

He spoke of two different worlds. He described the mood in the world of climate scientists as "terrified" and related the new evidence that suggests that climate change is progressing faster than most had believed possible. He described the response in the world of policy making that was basically no response at all, and told the story of a walk across Vermont that eventually included about 1000 people meeting in the capital and asking their elected leader to pledge support for a goal of an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

"80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050" is included in Obama's platform. (McCain's goal is 66% by 2050). Nobody was talking about any goals fro 2050 before McKibben and his friends started walking. This was one of his main points -- that regardless of how cynical the American people have become about the political process, the process can still be made to work.

McKibben's new goal is to publicize the number 350. He wants the world to embrace a target of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the number that we need to attain in order to stop the course of dangerous climate change. Before the industrial revolution, before we started burning large quantities of fossil fuels, the Earth's atmosphere was about 280 parts per million of CO2. This year, in 2008, the number is 387 and gaining every year.

How do we do this? McKibben spoke of how we keep looking for a "silver bullet" that will fix things without too much individual effort. We tried that approach with ethanol, and the results have not been good. He introduced a new metaphor: "silver buckshot" to describe the many smaller changes that are going to add up to the change we need:
Make no mistake--getting back to 350 means transforming our world. It means building solar arrays instead of coal plants, it means planting trees instead of clear-cutting rainforests, it means increasing efficiency and decreasing our waste. Getting to 350 means developing a thousand different solutions--all of which will become much easier if we have a global treaty grounded in the latest science and built around the principles of equity and justice. To get this kind of treaty, we need a movement of people who care enough about our shared global future to get involved and make their voices heard. ( from
The video at the top of this post is part of the international effort to publicize the 350 goal worldwide. The is more of an explanation of this effort at McKibben was enthusiastic about the potential of using the internet to organize a worldwide citizens' movement, saying "If there is a reason for the internet, if God decided that humans needed to create the internet at this point in history, it is surely so that we can use it to solve the climate crisis, the most dangerous problem we have ever faced."

I think that we are not facing this problem because we are scared. We have amped up our our economy on cheap energy for so long that we fear that no more cheap energy means, as one audience member put it, "a return to the horse and buggy days." McKibben cited surveys in which Americans have been asked, every year since 1956, how happy they are. Every year since 1956 we report that we are less happy, even though our consumption of material goods has increase threefold since then. McKibben spoke of how our bigger homes, spread out across the landscape and the miles of roads to connect them all have left us all more isolated and lonelier.

Bill McKibben's new book is Deep Economy, The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. His premise is that rebuilding our communities is neccesary for both energy efficiency and to reach the sense of well-being that we have been seeking, but not finding, through our last half century consumption binge. While I'm skeptical of uniform measures of happiness, I find such satisfaction in the nuances of community that I'm interested to read the new book.

Bill's Traverse City talk can be heard online here.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Bill McKibben in TC on Sunday

Nationally acclaimed author Bill McKibben will speak at Lars Hockstead Auditorium this Sunday from 6-9 pm. McKibben is an author, educator, and environmentalist with a respected voice among those who are envisioning the post peak-oil world. His latest book, Deep Economy, advocates reviving local economies as a tool in fighting climate change.

Liz and I will be attending this event together. One thing I have heard over and over again from college kids this summer is the idea that, for them oil is the past. They want to face climate change instead of avoiding it. They don't expect oil to last through the next decade, let alone through their lifetimes. They are looking for walkable lives, or at settling in places where there is public transportation (and, of course, a night life.). Nobody is interested in investing their careers in old technology. The guy who was at mechanic's school said "Nobody wants to waste time learning gasoline engines. There's no future in it. We're all learning diesel."

The McKibben should be interesting, both for the speaker and the crowd.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Lake Shore Septic or Sewer Question

My Grandma Mimi, as a child, with a bow in her hair, on a mule at Castle Rock in Colorado.

I had hoped to base my campaign for Leland Township Trustee on opportunities for economic development in our township, with a serious effort at expanding broadband internet in our township. Instead I have been talking about septic systems and sewers because that's what people want to talk about.

Last month's Leland Town Board meeting featured a spirited discussion of the role of septic systems, sewer systems and government. This is not a new topic. We had questions about sewers and septic systems at the Leland Township candidates night. There was more talk about septic system inspection at the county candidates night. I was surprised to hear some of the candidates for county board saying that inspection of septic systems was a township issue. The county health department regulates the building of septic systems. The county Board of Commissioners has been trying for over a decade, unsuccessfully, to draft regulations that would require some sort of septic system inspection. The regulations as they stand right now do not require any septic inspections, not even when property changes hands.

Of course, a person would be nuts to buy any property without having the septic system inspected. But many lake front properties change hands within families, passing from one generation to another. According to Michigan State University, the life expectancy of a septic system is 20 to 30 years; septic haulers estimate more like 40 years. Eventually the gravel in the drain field becomes clogged with small particles and the drain field will no longer accept water.

Replacing a drain field is a big expense and it may be impossible for a lake front property owner. Every time you add a bedroom or a bathroom the required drain field area goes up, and overall standards are stricter these days. The septic system that was installed fifty years ago to serve a two bedroom seasonal home is much smaller than what is required to serve the same home after multiple additions and upgrades. If, over the years, that two bedroom cabin has gained another bathroom, turned a few porches into bedrooms, and installed a furnace, you may well be trying to serve a four bedroom year-round residence with an antiquated system designed for a two bedroom summer home. According the the Leelanau County Health Department's codes, a three bedroom home on a site with sand loam, a typical lake front soil type, requires 1050 square feet of drain field. It must be no less than 10 feet from any building, and the lowest part of the drain field must be at least four feet above the maximum high water table. The whole system must be 50 feet from the lake, 50 feet from any well or spring, and 10 feet from the property line.

If a homeowner can't fit a modern septic system onto their lot, they may be able to use a mound system. The county health department defers to the Michigan DEQ on these regulations; DEQ requires that the mound, essentially a thick, above ground drain field fed by a pump instead of gravity, be located over 100 feet from the lake.

Property owners who find that they cannot build a new drain field usually opt for a holding tank. The health department will allow other alternatives, but they are considered experimental and the property owner is responsible for the cost of regularly monitoring the performance of these systems and for replacing them if they don't work.

If a holding tanks seems like a less dicey option, it is certainly not cheap. We have friends who are renting a lakeside holding tank house while their new home is being built. They have two elementary age boys, not a demographic known for excess bathing, they are actively conserving water, even to the point of only flushing every third or fourth use, but they are still paying $270 every three weeks to have their tank pumped.

Without a requirement to inspect septic systems, it is easy to just procrastinate. A homeowner can procrastinate, saying "Well, the system only floods the yard when our house guests stay too long." My son-in-law, Jordan Fehrenbach, worked for his father's septic pumping company, Bay Pumping, when he was in high school. Although it is recommended that we pump our septic tanks every few years, he said that many of the calls he answered were from people who had procrastinated until their systems didn't work right anymore. "People just don't know much about their septic systems. The subject doesn't come up in polite conversation, so there's not much opportunity to learn about it."

A township can be pressured to procrastinate, worrying that sending out a questionnaire about a possible new sewer district could be construed as "drumming up business" for the township. The people who think that government is already too big jump on sewer projects as an example of "big government getting bigger." They decry "a shotgun approach" and encourage us to wait until we know each septic system goes bad before deciding that there's a problem.

I heard Leelanau County Commissioner Melinda Lautner say these lines at the Leelanau County candidates night. Unfortunately, she is also one of the county commissioners standing in the way of any sort of septic inspection. If you don't have inspections, you may procrastinate until your well, or a neighbor's well, is contaminated. You may procrastinate until your family, or your neighbor's family, falls ill from hepatitis or blue baby syndrome or dysentery.

Or we could use a conservative, common sense approach. In Leelanau County, we have required permits for all septic systems installed since 1972. Since it is now 2008, we could expect that any property that does not have a permit on file probably has a septic system that is living on borrowed time. It is easy to drive around North Lake Leelanau and see plenty of homes that are on lots too shallow to site a septic system 50 feet away from the lake, or too low to site a system four feet above the maximum high water table. These people need a sewer or holding tanks, whether they want to think past the flush or not. Both sewer systems and holding tanks are expensive options, but they are both better options than sticking your head in the ground while your effluent seeps into the lake.

David Marshall, Democrat for Leelanau County Commissioner District 6, described the common sense approach this way: "You fix the bridge before it collapses." Most of my conversations with township residents express the same expectation that county and township government should be proactive and prudent in protecting our lakes and groundwater with appropriate inspections of septic systems and construction of sewers where necessary.

The talk at last month's meeting was of creating a new sewer district to serve Leland Township's lakefront properties, with its own assessment so that the lakefront property owners were paying for their service, not the township at large. There was a chicken-and-egg discussion about whether we could assess interest without knowing the cost, and whether we could estimate cost without knowing interest. I'm afraid the discussion ranged far towards the philosophical while ignoring the idea of aging septic systems as a simple math problem.

Congratulations if you've followed me this far! You've earned the right to know why I would preface this piece with a photo of my grandmother on a mule. Writing this piece reminded me of the stories that my Grandma Mimi used to tell of growing up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Every summer all who could afford to would flee the city, taking the train west or north, to escape the waves of cholera and typhoid fever that plagued American cities in the early 1900's, largely due to poor sanitation. Mimi was riding that mule in Colorado, where her family spent summers. Lake Leelanau has hosted city refugees for over 100 years, with travelers at the turn of the last century taking the train to Perrins Landing the south end of the lake and the ferry up the lake from there. Here in Leland Township, where our century-old resort economy is benefiting us in so many ways, it is imperative that we protect our reputation for clean, safe water.

Note: 9/4/08 The ads that appear on this blog are chosen by web robots, or "web bots", programs that attempt to read each article, decipher its content, and then assign relevant ads to each piece. I earn a negligible amount of money from these ads, but I keep them because I find it interesting to see what an artificial intelligence thinks of my writing.

Today I see that I am advertising several "miracle cures" for septic system failure. That these ads appeared so quickly, and that there are so many of them, is further evidence that many people worry privately about their septic systems, even if they don't talk about them around the water cooler. Every reputable source of information about septic systems, from MSU to my son-in-law, tells me that those products that claim to fix an aging septic system are bunk, and may actually make your problems worse. Feel free to read the ads for your own amusement, but please don't think that I, or anyone else, is endorsing these products.