Thursday, December 06, 2012

origami christmas chronicles

Monday, April 09, 2007

Bees in My Bonnet

During the last few weeks I have been reading about pets dying from kidney failure after eating contaminated pet food. For over a week, every news show I watched on TV or heard on the radio seemed to include at least one report about this problem. I followed this news with interest because I have four cats.

Meanwhile, there is another story, largely uncovered, that has huge implications for all who eat: honeybees are dying in huge numbers from mysterious causes.

I happened to see a report about the honeybees on public TV. My first thought was, now what? My second thought was, honey prices will probably skyrocket. Then I felt a chill of fear when I realized the major implications of this problem. It's not just about honey!

Honeybees are pollinators. Several species including some birds, bats, and other insects also pollinate, but honeybees exclusively play that essential role in the life-cycle of many major food crops.* In fact, they are such adaptable and effective pollinators, their role has been built into the life-cycle of roughly a third of the foods we eat.

I have to admit, I have idyllic visions of suited-up beekeepers as gentle, brave folk who remove honey from hives in the far corner of a peaceful, rustic, fruit orchard. My image of beekeeping is probably circa the early 1900s, when hay-stuffed scarecrows also figured prominently in fields. Maybe this vision still holds for the occasional small farm, but it isn't true for larger operations which harvest most of our food.

Many commercial honeybees don't live a year-round pastoral existence in a given geographic area. Instead, they are trucked to different locations to work the bloom cycles of different crops. Once situated among flowering plants, the bees spread pollen from plant to plant, fertilizing blooms, making it possible for the plant crop to bear fruit (or vegetable or nut). At the end of one plant's bloom cycle, the hives are packed on a truck and moved to another field or orchard to pollinate another crop.

What is happening to these honeybees?

Toward the end of 2006, East Coast beekeepers started to report “alarming and unprecedented” bee colony losses. New and unfamiliar patterns for this particular form of bee colony death were recently named "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD). Large numbers of adult worker bees (50 to 90%) suddenly disappear from the hive and die. This sudden disappearance is unheard-of behavior in normally highly-structured bee colonies where typically, dead bees remain near the hive. For colonies where sudden collapse has occurred, small numbers of mostly young bees are left. They are not able to continue pollination or care for the remaining hive brood and the queen.

This pattern of sudden colony collapse is new, and the cause has not been determined. Early studies of collapsed colonies suggest a range of possible causes including: suppression of honeybee immune systems; biological stress from transportation and confinement; poor nutrition; build up of chemical contaminants in the hive or the bees; lack of genetic diversity in the bee populations; new or stronger disease agents like parasites, mites or other pathogens; or some combination of the above factors.

The phenomenon started on the East Coast and has now spread to twenty-four states in the US, and reports of CCD are starting to be heard in Canada and Europe.

This is big news.....big, frightening news. Yet I have had to dig through congressional reports, Web sites for beekeepers, and public radio and television reports to research the CCD phenomenon. I feel frightened as I imagine the long-term impact of this sudden development.

When I ask my friends and loved ones if they have heard about it, many - who tend to be well informed - have heard nothing, or have seen or heard reports only on public television or radio, or have read about CCD on business pages of newspapers. For some reason, honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder is not being covered in commercial news venues.

Why isn't this news getting the coverage the pet food contamination story got? I wonder if my personal response to the news is over the top. Is this simply a financial dilemma for beekeepers and crop industries? To me, it seems much more than that. Could it be the beginning of a Hurricane Katrina story in agriculture?

I think we need to be talking about the future impact of bee colony collapse so we can develop strategies for surviving the possible food shortages that could result from crops that are not pollinated. While beekeepers are frantically communicating about the impact on their industry, the true implications of this development may affect us all. This is not simply an economic concern; potentially, it seems a threat to our basic survival.

This morning I awoke in a state of reverie. I wonder, what stop-gap measures can be taken until the causes of honeybee colony collapse are identified and remedied? I picture a revival of small household gardens where the gardeners hand-fertilize their plants during the bloom cycle. I imagine groups of volunteers doing this in more traditional agricultural settings. I know this is more naive fantasy than solution to a complex problem.

But maybe there is a sliver of wisdom here. The vast majority of us have relinquished our essential relationship with the plant world to professional plant growers. Has this come at a major cost? Might we reestablish our connection by taking a direct hand in plant life-cycles until the bee populations can be revived?

In the end, I am left with questions like this.

Are losses in natural systems occurring because we, as individuals, have lost contact with nature? Can we restore our connection?

*Alfalfa hay and seed, almonds, apples, asparagus, avocados, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, kiwi fruits, legume seeds, macadamia nuts, onions, pumpkins, squash, and sunflowers almost exclusively (90 to 100%) depend on honeybees for pollination. Other crops that rely on honeybee pollination to a lesser degree include apricots, beets, canola (rapeseed), citrus fruits, cotton, grapes, melon, nectarines, olives, peaches, peanuts, pears, plums, soybeans, strawberries, and vegetable seeds.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Cat Food?

I went to the vet twice in the last couple of weeks to take my cats for their yearly check-ups and shots. Kitty Carlyle's appointment was the day after the news broke about deaths linked to pet food. Not much was known at that point but it looked like pets who were eating "the good stuff” - foil packages of premium food - were victims. Phew, we were safe; my cats eat dry kibble from industrial-sized bags I buy at Costco.

The following week, I showed up with Brondis, my big yellow male cat. The vet had a long printed list of recalled pet food products. Again, it was mostly the high quality stuff from cans, chunks-in-gravy style food. My cats share only an occasional can of mushy stew served as a treat. Relief - safe again!

I started to follow the news coverage. There was an undertone of apology: this isn’t soft news; after all, our pets are family members. My thought was: exactly, I love my cats.

As the days pass more information is emerging. There is speculation about the safety of some dry food products and wheat gluten is identified as the problem ingredient. I read the list of ingredients on our bag of cat food. Thank goodness, no wheat gluten. Again, we're OK. The cat food I buy is made with chicken and rice and a whole host of chemical-sounding ingredients.

The problem wheat gluten is from China. What the heck is gluten anyway? It’s the protein in grains after starch is removed. Wheat gluten makes bagels and pizza dough chewy and delicious. Pet food gravy is thickened with wheat gluten and it is probably a protein source too.

The problem with this pet food gluten is that it is linked to a contaminant. During the last few days, the news vacillates between naming the culprit as aminopterin, a chemical used as rat poison or cancer chemotherapy; or melamine, a chemical found in plastic resins and pesticides. The source of the contaminant is not identified.

With the exception of formerly-feral Brondis who adeptly hunts (and eats) birds and small rodents, my cats eat a human-engineered diet of kibble - neat pellets nutritionally balanced to promote long, healthy lives. I always read the packages carefully when I buy a new food. I want my feline buddies to be healthy (and I want the vet bills to be manageable).

When I really think about it, what self-respecting cat wants to eat wheat gluten or rice? I am mortified when I see feathers or slain, partially-eaten small rodents on the patio. (Brondis likes to share.) But, then, he is being true to his nature. Cats are, after-all, carnivores. Carnivores eat meat!

Beloved carnivore pets ate scraps and bones when my parents were growing up. Now, our pets dine exclusively on meals from bags, boxes, and cans. Scientific research goes into the development of these products. Everything is engineered for species-appropriate nutrition. Key words hearkening good health for humans like antioxidant and Omega 3 are strategically placed on attractive packaging. Feline-specific maladies are mentioned: hair balls and urinary problems are minimized by this food. Coat and skin health are promoted. Yes, I read the product descriptions carefully.

This whole story has an undercurrent I have not heard explicitly spoken about in the news coverage. The coverage is very specific: this is pet food.

My thought is this is food (period).

The factor that causes most concern for me is that the list of pet food products being recalled grows longer every day. Today a feline favorite in my household was added to the list. I don't serve it all that frequently, but a Pounce product is being recalled as a precaution. The contaminated wheat gluten now seems widespread in the manufacture of pet food.

As I learn about the manufacture of food products, I am beginning to realize that a complex list of altered food subtances coming from a large range of sources is commonplace. If something goes wrong with one ingredient, the implications can be massive. This holds true for food that is manufactured for pets and for people.

I was hiking in the woods this weekend and my companion and I stopped and shared what one friend optimistically calls "a protein bar". This "nutrition bar" is made specifically for women. The attractive foil packaging extols the virtues of the product as having more fiber and less sugar. Antioxidants are mentioned. I squinted to read the ingredients. Many are organic, some are isolates and extracts; brown rice is included as brown rice syrup. I picture people in lab coats researching these virtuous cookies for women who like to eat well while they exercise...or in my case hike or bike.

My thought this weekend was Hmm, human kibble.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Vernal Equinox

It's spring! The vernal equinox happens today. The days and nights are equal length. I can definitely see the change in the light. It is stronger and things seem more vivid. This year is special because Daylight Savings Time started a month earlier so the sunset seems to be happening much later in the day. I love this change.

I live in New England where spring is a light phenomenon. The weather does not always fit the season. We had a major snowstorm last week and massive icicles are hanging from my eaves and snow is sliding off the roof. However, I have heard a few birds.

Spring is a time of hope for me. I feel like I am ready to crawl out of my cave and take a good look at what is happening in the world. After I stretch, I want to get moving again. It's time for fresh beginnings.

What is next? Where will I focus during my high energy time?
It is time to cull the seeds and decide what to plant.

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Tuesday Virtual Dinner Partner

The weather is warmer and most of the ice on the roads is gone. Today, I walked country roads instead of in the woods. It was a consolation walk...better than a neighborhood walk but definitely not the woods. I walked in the crusty snow edging the road and ventured a few side trips to take pictures. The weather is supposed to get warmer all week so I hope I will be back in the woods soon. Maybe I'll walk my snowshoe trail one more time.

I am dying to get out my bike. Lots of melting needs to happen before I bike however.

Sleep: about 8 hours

1/2c nf cottage cheese, mineola orange, 2 tbsps walnuts
whole wheat crackers
chocolate heaven
big salad with chicken breast and 4 g fat canola based dressing
whole wheat mini pitas with 1 tbsp hummus
Dr. Kracker flatbread
50% cheese
home made pizza with whole wheat crust, soy cheese and veggies

Totals: 4 veggies and 3 fruits
Movement and Meditation: country road walk about 45 minutes

The great consolation in life is to say what one thinks.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Monday Virtual Dinner Partner

Someone I am close to describes some of her experiences as "off"...things don't go as she expects and as a result, she feels fuzzy, or fussy, or out of sorts. Today was an off day. I don't know why...nothing terrible happened. I didn't have big expectations and I didn't feel disappointed. I got to most things on my lists and still I felt "off."

This seems to tie in with my organization expectations or more accurately the expectations I have about the role organization will play in the quality of my life. One of the maxims I have tattooed in my mind is this: "I will get organized. Things will go well. Life will be good."

When I look at those last three sentences, "will" stands out. In other words, all of this takes place in the future. Maybe a better maxim is "Things are going and life is good." Or maybe "Things are going and life is."

You are probably wondering what happened to my first statement..the one about organization. Today I am rethinking that one. I wonder if I need live from the standpoint "Life is messy and you've got to love it."

Yesterday I wrote from the vantage of keeping a living kitchen...I walked in, discovered a sink and counter full of dishes, a refrigerator drawer with a more than dead eggplant and my thoughts immediately went to "I HAVE to get organized." This was not a happy thought. Then I loosened up and actually enjoyed the cleanup.

Today it's about a bigger picture. AND it's about what I say to myself.

I want to wake up and celebrate the mess.

Sleep about 8 hours

1/2c nf cottage cheese, fresh pineapple, walnuts
oatmeal (1/3c before cooked)
hoisin chicken breast
butternut squash and New Balance
whole wheat crackers
salmon burger
sweet potato and New Balance

Totals: 3 veggies and 2 fruits
Movement: rest day

Life isn't like a book. Life isn't logical or sensible or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived in the midst of that mess.
~Charles Caleb Colton

Yesterday, it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
I should be depressed
My life's a mess
But I'm Having A Good Time...
~Paul Simon

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Living Kitchen

One of the life lessons I seem to need to revisit on a constant basis has to do with organization, or cleaning..or maybe the relationship between both areas. I convince myself that if I find the right system, everything will take care of itself. As I am writing this I am looking at a clean kitchen. Dinner was over about half an hour ago and the dirty dishes are in the dishwasher and the counters are scrubbed. Actually, the kitchen usually looks decent...but then there are those horrible moments when I wake up and realize the dishwasher needs to be emptied and the sink and counter are full of dirty dishes and I in the world did this cyclone pass through again?

I had another version of the "cyclone wake-up" this afternoon when I opened the refrigerator. The shelves were packed and I had no idea what was there. I opened the vegetable drawer and found a rotted eggplant I bought probably three weeks ago. Organic parsnips were starting to wilt with dehydration. Beets were stuffed into a tiny space on a top shelf of the refrigerator where jars of condiments are usually located. I bought them over a week ago and forgot about them until today. A big bag of curly endive is blocking the view of everything else.

I like to live with a certain level of spontaneity. I don't want to eat meals planned days in advance. I want to shop for what "looks good." I want to go to my kitchen and create what "calls" to me. I need to find a way to marry my creative urges with a need to know what supplies are on hand and just how messy and time consuming a particular cooking escapade is going to be.

It's complicated. I want easy solutions...and maybe that's how I get nailed. I expect a foolproof system to organize shopping, storing, preparing meals and clean-up. I assume I won't need to will just be done.

Keeping a kitchen stocked and ready for creation is not the same as keeping a bathroom stocked and clean. Extra towels, soap, shampoo and toilet paper are easy to restock. Fruits and vegetables wilt and rot, meat or fish goes bad when I don't pay attention to storage and timing.
Food is all about living.

Maintaining a good relationship with food is like keeping a good relationship with any other living being. These relationships require awareness, sensitivity and responsiveness to stay on course, to be sustaining.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Saturday Virtual Dinner Partner

Some days feel like a loss, although I know that is never really true. I didn't sleep well last night. The Nor'easter snowstorm brought 14 inches which brought plows and it seemed I woke up every hour to the loud engine noises. At one point I considered getting up and reading I felt so awake. As a result, I felt groggy and out of sorts today. I did things around home and shovelled lots of snow but I didn't really get out and enjoy it. I took a nap late in the afternoon.

Sleep: fitful 8 hours

1/2c nf cottage cheese, mineola orange, 2 tbsp walnuts
2 cups tea
oatmeal (1/3c before cooked)
kitchen sink salad with chicken breast and 6 g fat canola based dressing
chocolate heaven
Egg Beater omlette with escarole, onions, and 50% cheese

Totals: 4 veggies and 2 fruits
Movement: shovelled lots of heavy snow

Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o'er lost days.
Are you in earnest?
Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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