The Milkweed Diaries

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Product Placement and Free Things

I admit that I am not immune to the bright, shiny, appeal of good design and eco-consumer-culture. I have an expensive refrigerator along those lines. However, the "green" products market has really reached a point of absurdity lately. And I am usually skeptical, and often even downright testy when people start pitching products to me. This holds true whether the product is a breakfast cereal, some supplement or herbal formula that will supposedly make me feel like I am 21 again, a kitchen or garden tool that will cut my work in half, or the newest eco-designer item that looks like it is going to save the planet one purchase at a time.

Recently this skepticism/testiness was engaged when I saw this post from the Sierra Club about "furniture made from reclaimed materials." Always up for some inspiring DIY projects that keep "waste" out of the trash cycle and look cool doing it, I clicked on over. Turns out the post features "green" consumer items ranging in price from $220 to $2,450. Really, Sierra Club, has it come to this? Is product placement really the best you have to offer?

There used to be a cult in Asheville that produced and disseminated bumper stickers reading, "Stop Bitching and Start A Revolution." This slogan has become a useful catchphrase in our household, and in that spirit, I offer this reply to all of those pitching green products:

Five Free or Super-Cheap Things Greener, Healthier, and Cooler Than Any Newfangled Product

  1. Clotheslines: You can buy one if you want to get fancy, or you can make one out of practically any string- or rope-like material. In Nicaragua, we saw clotheslines made of barbed wire. Which reminds me, if you want to see ingenious and inspiring, simple, and inexpensive design solutions, I suggest looking to the Third World. People who don't have much in the way of material resources do amazing and beautiful things with trash. Something about necessity being the mother of invention comes to mind, and I wonder if maybe we could do with a little more necessity. If you really want to splurge, get a clothes-drying rack - for under $10 you can experience the pinnacle of non-electric clothes-drying technology.
  2. Potato Patches: Of course growing your own food in general is a way to reduce your carbon footprint, yadda, yadda, yadda. But I mention potatoes in particular because they are a) easy, b) able to grow practically anywhere, and c) able to produce more food per square food than any other common garden vegetable (although I think sweet potatoes can give them a run for their money) and d) full of the calories and starch that are the bulk of what we eat, unlike let's say goji berries or pomegranate juice. Chop up some potatoes. Throw them on the ground and pile some soil or straw on top of them. Wait a few months. Enjoy your home fries, vichyssoise, or latkes. And guess what? It's gluten-free, organic, and local and you didn't have to pay extra for it!
  3. Libraries: One of my favorite examples of the commons. I was raised by a librarian, and spent some of the best times of my childhood in the cool, quiet, aisles of libraries. Watching a movie recently that included a scene depicting the looting and burning of the Library of Alexandria, I cried my book-nerd eyes out. The internet, of course, is kind of like a big library, but libraries have the advantage of being a place - a physical space devoted to sharing information, stories, knowledge, and art. What could be better?
  4. Gleaning: The term gleaning was originally used to refer to collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after the harvest. But these days there are many food-producing plants left unattended and food left unharvested altogether. Old fruit trees, in particular, are often ignored. I always imagine someone hurrying by an old apple tree on the way to the car on the way to the grocery store, where s/he will buy apple juice, or maybe even an actual apple (in rare cases). The crabapples pictured at the top of this post were gleaned from trees that produce abundantly every year - and are ignored as the fruit ripens, drops, and rots. Another form of gleaning is (with permission, of course) digging up plants from friends' gardens. Along with seed swaps, this is a great way to participate in the gift economy. There is no reason for garden centers to sell lemon balm, for instance, or anything else in the mint family. Plants make food. Plants make more plants. Don't let all that food and all those plants go to waste.
  5. Rescuing cool stuff from the waste stream: At the risk of embodying the Portlandia Dumpster Divers stereotype, I have to note that a lot of useful and beautiful things are thrown "away." Long ago, someone pointed out to me that there is no "away." It's one of the things I've noticed when travelling in the Third World, where trash is often not hidden away. Walking down the street in some towns in Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Mexico that I've visited, I initially bristled at trash being strewn everywhere seemingly at random. Then I thought about the fact that we produce way more trash here in the USA, but we hide it, or export it to poorer countries. I have come to appreciate the honesty of just leaving trash out in the open, where someone who might use it can come across it. I'm not advocating litter, just saying that when a place looks "trashy" or "redneck" it might be because people are hanging on to potentially-useful stuff, things that need repair, or materials for making things, rather than just sending broken or messy items to the landfill. My friend Puma is the queen of making truly beautiful, artistic, and useful stuff from scraps and trash and someday I should do a whole post on his craft. In the meantime, I refer you to a cool little collection of photos that he sent me the other day involving furniture made from shipping pallets. Now those are some reclaimed, repurposed, recycled objects I can get behind.
Stepping down off the soapbox. Time to go earn some money so I can buy some stuff.

Monday, May 2, 2011


After day three of the three busiest days in our farm's life (selling more than 2,500 plants at the biggest grower-to-gardener sale in the region, with an estimated turnout of 25,000 people) I was ready for a slow and easy evening with a glass of wine and my couch. Christopher and I had finally collapsed in a limp pile of plant-selling exhaustion and were preparing to lie still for as long as possible when Christopher looked out the window and said, "WHAT IS THAT?!?!?!"

A beautiful swarm of honeybees had settled in a small hawthorn tree in the garden, about three feet off the ground! (If you click on the image above, you can see a larger version in which you can see the individual bees.) From the depths of my foggy, exhausted brain, I somehow located a dusty memory of learning about swarms at Bee School. I remembered that it is a rare and special occasion when a swarm crosses your path, and I felt certain it was beyond my beginning beekeeping skills to capture it. But I knew you have to act fast with a swarm, or risk the bees moving on.

I called two super-knowledgable local beekeepers, Joan Chesick and Calvin Robinson. Joan wasn't home, and Calvin was in another state, but answered his phone and talked me through the process, encouraging me and telling me I could do it, giving me step-by-step instructions and the confidence to peel my tired self off the couch and get out there and give that swarm a home!

Thanks to Calvin's calm and clear instructions and my best efforts, the new bee colony is housed in an empty hive body I had. The hardest part was robbing a frame of drawn comb and honey from my existing hive to keep the swarm interested in their new home. Normally our bees are easygoing and don't seem to mind my intrusion, but this time they were riled up, and I got stung a few times through my clothes and even through my rubber gloves.

Dealing with the swarm was much easier, and really magical. Here's a poor-quality video Christopher shot on my phone - it was dusk, so it's a bit hard to see, but captures the process.

What a blessing from the universe on a busy Beltane. I am so grateful for the overflowing abundance - the overwhelming turnout at the plant sale, the hundreds of gardeners who bought plants from us and the few who even brought us gifts of special and rare plants, the other vendors who created a lively barter and gift economy at the sale, and the BEES who decided to make Red Wing Farm their home!