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Posts Tagged ‘environment’

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She hangs there, upside down, eyes fixed on me as I open the gate and ease into the garden. I leave it open behind me, a gateway to the wild air I hope will call to her. As I draw near, she unclamps her talons from the netting and explodes out of the corner. She bumps against the overhanging net, this oddly constrained sky, and latches on again. I try to herd her to the open gate, but she’s not having it. The yellow toes, tipped with tiny scimitars, cling even tighter. The sharp eyes, bright and lucid, do not blink. The beak–that deadly instrument–gleams and menaces.

I have to get her out, but how? How, exactly, does one extract a wild peregrine from one’s tomato garden without either party being wounded? Bird netting is supposed to keep birds out, not in, but here we are. Bees, I remember suddenly: my long-cuffed goatskin beekeeper’s gloves are just the thing. I fetch them from the house and slip them on, feeling anxious, desperate, and hopeful. Somehow, I have to manage this.

She lets me get right next to her, eyeing me intently but without complaint. I stand still for a moment, then reach out both hands and cup her body gently. The heart beats at the speed of light–hers and mine alike–and I feel her anger, fear, and hope. With one hand, I softly stroke her back and head, and tell her it will be alright. We stand like that for several minutes. Gradually, the toes begin to uncurl, and I pull her free of the netting. Her wings quiver once, twice, and I hustle to the open gate, my hands full of impatient, flapping falcon. At the threshold I open them, arms high. She soars away, without looking back.

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The squeals were incredibly loud, for such a small creature. The chipmunk who’d been despoiling my blueberries was in the planter munching away when I approached. She panicked, and somehow got neck and all 4 limbs tangled in the bird netting I thought was protecting the bush from just such meddling. My first thought was serves you right–maybe now you’ll leave my plants alone. The next was even worse: I could just leave her there, trapped, and put an end to the marauding. Maybe I’d get to enjoy a few berries myself, if she were out of the picture. After all, wasn’t that why I’d planted the bush, and nurtured it painstakingly? Then I drew that picture to its one possible conclusion–a slow, tortured death from fear and dehydration–and I couldn’t do it. I turned and went into the kitchen for a pair of scissors.

Holding the netting up and carefully untwisting it, I found the strands that bound her and cut them, each by each, taking care not to cut her or let her bite me. I could only imagine the terror she felt, and the bewilderment. Seconds later, she was free, and promptly scampered off to hide beneath the grill, chittering as she ran.

Will she remember our encounter? Will she be grateful? Will she and her progeny forswear forevermore my garden’s bounty? I have no reason to believe it. No doubt a day from now, or a week, or a month, I’ll search in vain for the plump, ripe purple berries I desire….and have second thoughts. Maybe I’ll wish I had left her there to die. I’m not a fanatic, after all: I do kill mosquitos, gophers, and other assorted pests. But this was a line I could not cross–I can’t say precisely why, but I can say I’m glad of it.

update: I’ve since started using Havahart live traps to catch and relocate the chipmunks, with some success. They sure do love almond butter!

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This essay aired on KQED FM as part of its Perspectives series on August 16, 2011. See their website for the downloadable MP3 file, as well as some interesting listener comments.

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copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Some have called farmers markets the ‘theater of the affluent’ but I beg to differ. Farmers markets, like most things, come in many shapes and sizes–as do their patrons. My local market, which just opened for the season this week after a winter we all feared would never cede the field, attracts a wide range of folk: old and young, well-heeled and food-stamp recipients, artists and laborers, who seem to have in common only their concern for food. Some fear the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used in conventional agriculture. Some are foodies, seeking rare or heirloom varieties that simply can’t be found in supermarkets. For others, supporting local farmers is paramount. For others still, it’s an afternoon out in the fresh air, sun on their face and cares temporarily forgotten. For all, it’s about community. Like any community, it has some rules–and a few lessons to be learned. Herewith, my top 10.

10. Get there early. That young asparagus or crusty bread your heart is set on may sell out.

9.Bigger isn’t always better. This is never truer than for strawberries–who hasn’t been disappointed by the giant ones that look amazing but have little taste and dry, mealy texture? Next time, try their tiny cousins–unassuming and shy, but packed with aromatic ecstasy.

8. Enjoy the scene–and the scenery. Many farmers markets have live music, activities for kids, and booths with boatloads of fantastic flowers. Stroll around a bit, and take it in.

7. Get your business done, but allow yourself a treat. Maybe it’s shave ice, kettle corn, or an olallieberry turnover–whatever it is, buy yourself one thing that isn’t on your list. I guarantee it’ll make you smile.

6. Sometimes a trend is just a fad….and sometimes it’s a find. Last year’s darling, green garlic, has become a springtime favorite for many. The jury’s still out for me on this year’s craze, fava greens.

5. Scope out all the options–several vendors may be selling the same thing, but they’re not all created equal. Plant varieties, growing conditions, and other variables can make a huge difference in flavor.

4. Don’t be afraid to try new things. I’d never heard of red Russian kale till a few years ago, but now it’s one of my staples. And beet greens–they’re delicious, but who knew?

3. Talk to farmers. They appreciate your interest, and have great cooking and growing tips. Often they’ll remember you, and maybe even set aside a few choice favorites.

2. Don’t judge by looks alone–sure, scan for rot and bruises, but use your other senses too, especially smell. If you can’t smell a peach, you won’t taste it either. If in doubt, ask for a taste.

1. Be open to the moment. The seasons will speak, if you will listen.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

I suppose it was inevitable. After years of living in the mountains, I’d seen enough to know it was a matter of time, no matter how careful I was. Still, I thought I could escape.

It was dark, and raining, but that’s no excuse. I’ve driven in far worse conditions without an issue, though there have been some close calls. The most serious was due to fog: creeping 5 miles an hour up a narrow, windy road at dusk with zero visibility , I heard–and felt–a soft, fleeting thud against the left front fender. As I realized what had just happened, the deer sprinted off across the road, a brownish ghost emerging briefly from the mist. A second later, unharmed, it was swallowed by the fog again.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This time, I saw the blur of motion in the corner of one eye–a few erratic stops and starts off on the side of the road–and thought the animal had decided against crossing. I was wrong, and because I was in a hurry I did not slow down. The thump and crunch were sickening, not least because right before I hit it, I saw the little skunk run toward the road again–and knew it was too late. I’m so sorry, baby, I told it, wishing desperately for a different outcome.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

One skunk more or less may seem insignificant, but I’d just contributed to the estimated one million vertebrates killed on US roads each day–one every 11.5 seconds. This includes wildlife from mice to moose, endangered species, and household pets. Human injuries and deaths result too, and pricey damage to vehicles. Fencing, signs, and wildlife crossings can reduce roadkills, and high-tech solutions may help in the future, but awareness and reducing speed are still the best bets for avoiding these tragic incidents. It’s a lesson I know I’ve taken to heart.

This essay was aired as part of the Perspectives series on KQED-FM on April 6, 2011

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Since I just returned from another fabulous trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, I thought I’d post this article I had published a couple years ago about its magic. The bird count this year is 32,000 geese and 9000 cranes, but that’s the only change. You can see many more photos of the birds on my Facebook page.

“Wildness incarnate,” conservationist Aldo Leopold called the sandhill crane. Standing at the marsh edge in the freezing January wind, I close my eyes and feel his meaning as a cascade of plaintive hoots sets my brain afire. A group of sandhills flying overhead, headed for their evening’s refuge, is the source of this eerie anthem. The sound is unlike any other birdsong I know—primitive, strange, and heartfelt, it evokes an era and its creatures long since vanished. Yet the cranes are still here, very much alive after more than two and a half million years on earth. They may be even older: some fossil evidence from Nebraska suggests the sandhill crane may be ten million years old, the current version little changed from that ancient prototype. Unlike the dinosaurs, however, they have somehow managed to escape time.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

I’ve come to southern New Mexico to see and photograph the migratory birds over-wintering at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. This means mainly snow geese (an estimated 48,000 “light geese” this week, according to the posting at the visitor’s center) and sandhill cranes, though there are other waterfowl and shorebirds here, and a handful of bald eagles. The geese are spectacular, rising en masse from an icy pond at first light amid a literal thunder of wings that fills the rosy sky mere feet above my head. The din conjures a freight train in the frozen air, and the first time I hear it I look around for one, not realizing that it is the rush of feathers assaulting my ears. All around me on the observation deck, gasps of wonder and amazement escape from seasoned birders and photographers and first-timers alike.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

But it is the cranes that captivate me: roughly 13,000 are in the refuge at the moment, every one a beautiful enigma. Necks out straight and wings spread to the limit, they trail their legs behind as they travel from their daytime feeding grounds to the pond they have chosen for the night. Watching them land is a delight, and often I find myself not even reaching for my camera—though that is the reason I am out here like a fool, shivering in the wind chill and bemoaning the icy needles tormenting my fingertips—the better to enjoy the sight of their wings tenting upward as they spot a likely landing site, followed by those legs! Those long crazy legs now stick straight down, prehistoric toes spread wide like forks, as the cranes spiral slowly to the water. The ballet is the same every time, and I never tire of it, this odd vestige choreographed back in the Pleistocene.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Sandhill cranes are large birds, weighing in at roughly 7-10 pounds and with a wingspan that can be five to seven feet, depending on the subspecies. On land—and especially on ice—they are gawky, even hesitant in movement. This is most affecting as they tap their toes against thin ice in the low-slanted early morning light, gauging whether it is thick enough to run and lift off from. Satisfied that it will bear their weight, they lean forward ever farther till it seems they must pitch over headfirst. A few more tentative steps forward, a few more degrees of tilt, they inch across the ice, toes still tapping. Just at the point where you think capsizing is inevitable, the wings bow upward in a feathered arc. Legs and wings begin to churn, and suddenly there is liftoff. Watching it reminds me of being on an airplane, trying to feel the precise moment when the wheels lose contact with the tarmac: it always catches me like perfect magic. One moment you are rooted, solid, and the next—without ability to name it—you are loose, weightless, flat earth slipping out the corner of your eye.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Once the sandhills are aloft their gawkiness morphs into grace, as anyone who has seen it will attest. The goofy tuft of feathers on their rump, so odd and frumpy when the birds are earthbound, becomes elegant and streamlined in the air. The long neck and legs fuse in one elongation punctuated by slow beats: up, down, up, down, up, down. Unlike the geese, whose rapid wingbeats seem more than a little frantic, the cranes have a laid-back flying cadence. Feathers at their wingtips fan out wide to catch the currents. The long downbeat is unhurried and imposing, huge wings like hushed grey blankets descending through thick air, while the upstroke is more lively and ephemeral. As the wings rise, widespread feathers at each wingtip are etched with burnished back-light. Coupled with the cranes’ haunting cries, this flight pattern is a spell that binds. I know I should raise my camera and get to work, but I just can’t, not yet. Time enough after this batch passes, or the next, or perhaps tomorrow morning.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

One morning there is mist, some odd conjunction of warm sun the afternoon before and chill pre-dawn air causing it to rise from the ice like spirits seeking consolation. The cranes huddle in the cold, resting on one leg with the other folded up against the body. Many have their heads tucked under one wing, turning them into an orchard of fuzzy lollipops planted in the ice. Others preen their rump feathers, narrow bills darting here and there to put them right. The mist turns mazy orange as the sun begins its morning circuit, and the mass of birds is silhouetted in breathtaking luminosity. In front of the cranes are rows and rows of snow geese seated on the ice, heads popping up in random agitation to show against the coral-shaded mist. I’d seen photographs of mist like this at Bosque, and hoped fervently that conditions would be right during my visit. This truly is amazing luck, and there is no way I will waste it. Despite the bitter cold, and the folly of having left my tripod in the car, I click the shutter furiously as the color shifts from tangerine to cantaloupe to honey and the mist begins to dissipate. Wide-angles and tight zooms, artistic blurs and requisite crisp-focus shots, I fire away until the mist—and the memory on my camera card—is nearly gone.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The sun rises, and the mist vanishes. The geese and cranes are still on the ice, and give no sign of taking off anytime soon—or none that I am able to interpret. After several days in the refuge, I’ve begun to think I know their pattern: sleep on water safe from predators, rise in tandem with the sun, fly to corn fields for a full day’s feasting, return to marshes as dusk nears, and sleep again. But now it’s bright, sharp morning, the light is fast becoming flat, and they’re not going anywhere. It’s nearly time to stow the camera gear and find a way to fill the hours till late afternoon, when shadows lengthen and the angle of the light is sweet again. For now, though, I will stay and wait, watching these old spirits and wondering at how little we understand of the rare wild things and places left to us. Finally, after what I’d swear is hours but is really more like twenty minutes, a few cranes forsake the ice and fly over me. I look up and listen keenly as wildness, made flesh in these great birds, sends a haunting call into the sky and trails its dark legs high above.  

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

A shorter version of this essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on February 3rd, 2011, as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

I’ve posted a few very short video clips of the cranes, and snow geese, on my Facebook page. Check them out, and be sure your speakers are turned on!

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Smoke

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copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

I know I shouldn’t do it. It’s as bad as smoking, maybe worse according to some data, but I just can’t help it–like a moth to flame, I am powerless. I open the vent and breathe in through my nose as outside air streams into the car.

These winter mornings on my way to work, the mountain air is laced with wood smoke. Blue, grey, or white wisps and tendrils curl up from chimneys by the roadside, revealing silent houses tucked between the redwoods. The aroma is intoxicating, and evocative.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

We all remember campfires, roasting hotdogs or s’mores, good friends and scary tales, stars beyond number high above. It might have been a forest, or a beach, or just your parent’s yard, but somewhere, sometime, you’ve been imprinted with the smell of wood on fire, linked to happy times. It’s primal too: we crave warmth, and light brought to the darkness can hold back leopards. Safety is a good thing.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

These days, of course, the predators we fear are vastly changed–more abstract, more varied, and perhaps more deadly. Obesity, climate change, greed, terrorism, and intolerance are just some of the new bad guys. Wood-burning stoves are pretty small potatoes on that scale, but the smoke they put out is just as deadly. Dioxin, arsenic, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide are some of the toxins found in wood smoke. Its small particles, many carcinogenic, get deep into the lungs–and from there to the bloodstream.

I know all this, and I don’t burn wood myself–for heat, light, or ambience. I know my neighbors need their stoves, and I can’t fault them for it, though I do hope they use dry, seasoned wood, and have clean, efficient stoves. Meanwhile, for a few seconds on a frosty morning, I’ll enjoy the smoke from their fires–and all the memories that it can carry.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 12/17/2010 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

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copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

It’s complicated. Most things that have to do with life and death are, it seems, but eating meat is way up there on the list. I’m not going to get into the debate over whether to eat it or not, or why or why not, though it’s something I struggle with myself. There are no easy answers to those questions.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

One answer that is easy, though, is how to eat it if you do. More precisely, how the meat you eat is produced–every step of the chain from birthing pen to plate–matters: for your health, the animals’ welfare, the planet’s well-being, and the survival of the family farm.

copyright TLC Ranch/Tana Butler

By now you probably know our food system is a mess. Michael Pollan and many others have written eloquently on this subject. Both government policy and consumer demand have driven the goal of producing larger and larger quantities of food at lower and lower prices, without regard for what that ultimately means for everyone. Antibiotic resistance, pollution, deforestation, and greenhouse gas production are just a few of the problems large-scale commercial agriculture has given us. Its dependence on fossil fuel, for production, harvesting, transport, and storage of food is another major weakness. We need to eat greener for a lot of reasons. The final straw for people of conscience is the unspeakable cruelty that’s at the very heart of meat, milk, and egg production in our country.

Livestock raised on factory farms, which account for about 99% of meat eaten in the US, endure short, miserable lives with no opportunity to know what it really means to be a pig, a chicken, or a cow. If you’re not familiar with what factory farming entails, I encourage you to read the powerful books on this topic by Jonathan Safran Foer and Peter Singer. The truth isn’t pretty, but it is important: ignorance is not a substitute for ethical behavior. It’s simply not OK to satisfy our taste for steak, or omelettes, or bacon if these animals aren’t treated humanely, with respect and care.

copyright TLC Ranch/Tana Butler

There has to be another way–and there used to be, in our own country. Joel Salatin and Wendell Berry remind us that till fairly recently, the small family farm was the norm, not the increasingly rare exception it is today. Lack of access to affordable land, demand for cheap–rather than good–food, and poor quality of life are all critical issues facing small farmers, driving more and more of them out of the business. Tyson Foods, meanwhile, keeps churning out the low-priced, chemical-laden factory-farmed beef and chicken we can’t seem to get enough of, even though it tastes like crap and makes us sick.

copyright TLC Ranch/Tana Butler

I don’t eat meat very often, but took comfort in knowing that I had a local source that was ethical, humane, and honest. Since 2004, farmers Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop have raised animals on pasture and organic feed at TLC Ranch in nearby Aromas, doing their best to educate consumers about food, farming practices, and why we all should care. After 6 years of struggle, though, they’ve done the math—and made the only viable decision for their family: TLC Ranch is going out of business. Another dream has died, and it’s a damn shame.

copyright TLC Ranch/Tana Butler

I can understand people who don’t know better not doing what it takes to ensure that farms like TLC survive. But here in northern California, and Santa Cruz most especially, we do know better. We pride ourselves on eating organic, fresh, and local, patronizing independent businesses instead of big-boxes, and being green (greener than thou, most certainly!). We think we understand what seasons mean, and life cycles, and we eagerly chat up the wait-staff at our favorite restaurant about their food’s sustainability. But when push comes to shove, we still buy organic food from Wal-Mart or eggs at Costco (see my earlier post, The Price of Eggs), because they’re cheaper….and we ask for, and expect to see, asparagus in October, strawberries in March, and lamb year-round.

So what can we do, now that another family farm has folded, to ensure that safe, wholesome, humanely-raised food will be available? This too is a question with an easy answer–or, rather, a lot of easy answers. Rebecca Thistlethwaite listed many of them in a recent 2-part blog post that’s essential reading for those who want to make a difference. The bottom line? What we do, what YOU do, does matter, and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. My heart aches that it’s too late for TLC, but if enough concerned and educated consumers try, it may not be too late for other small, sustainable farms that are still hanging on.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Meantime, I will hoard and savor the four packages of bacon I bought at the farmers market today–the next to last week meat from TLC will be available. This treasure will be parceled out in precious aliquots, and eaten with respect and gratitude toward the animals and farmers who made it possible. I hold every good wish for Jim and Rebecca, and thank them profoundly for the effort they made on our behalf. They’ll be traveling around the country with their daughter, checking in on small farms and ranches across the US to see how other farmers are meeting the challenge. I look forward to hearing about those journeys and discoveries, and trying to do my part.

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