Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Project BudBurst - my forsythia offers up data for climate change

Last year I registered the forsythia bush in my back yard with Project BudBurst. I of course completely forgot about my commitment to follow the plant's yearly leafing and flowering cycle and let a whole growing season go by without logging in any data. This year I have vowed to keep a closer eye on the plant and log my data as soon as I notice the first leaf unfold.

Project BudBurst is a wonderful "citizen science" campaign that's collecting data from around the country about when plants are doing their thing. So you, yes YOU, get the data, log it into your site and it will go directly towards mapping climate change. 2008 was the inaugural year for the project so it will be a few years before general trends can be mapped. But there are data from previous years before the project was opened to citizen scientists. Most interesting to me and my little forsythia tree is the following from the 2008 report:

"...in Chicago, Forsythia opened it first flower from April 23 – 25 in 2007 and from
April 17 to 19 in 2008. In both years, the reported observations indicated the first flower for Forsythia occurred in two days, however in 2008 the first flower was a week earlier."

Two years of data does not provide definitive trends. But this year I will definitely remember to log in my data to help the project compile a long-term climate picture. I just went out in the back yard and looked at my forsythia: there's buds about to burst, but no leaves yet....I will keep you posted.

To participate log into Project BudBurst's participation page and get started! There's 75 common tree, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers that you can register from your very own patch of earth.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour - tonight and every night

With all this talk about turning off your lights for one hour tonight, which I'm going to do, I wonder why it's just ONE HOUR for ONE NIGHT. I think it should be far far more often than this. Why not make it a Saturday night tradition? Or if Saturday night cramps your style Sunday night? Sunday night was always a family night at my house anyway. Not that I need an excuse to break out the Scrabble board and turn off the TV, we do this all the time in my family.

So sign up for tonight and all the nights when we should be turning off the television and the lights and the wiis and video games and computers and anything else that distracts us from our beautiful world, our children, our pets and all the other things we should be paying more attention to and not less because of this thing called electricity.

Enjoy your hour, wherever you are in the world. Sign up here at Earth Hour:

Sign up for Earth Hour

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Awaiting the herring

I am still awaiting the spring peepers. The north shore of Massachusetts has been hit with some unseasonably cold nights, last night bottomed out in the upper 20s. I still have hope that tomorrow's rain and forecast of near 50 F might bring the little frogs out. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime my focus has turned away from blogs about motherhood, diapers and frogs and towards fish. Yes, fish. More specifically river herring, or alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and bluebacks (Alosa aestivalis), which return to our rivers here on the east coast starting in March. They swim upstream, spawn and then return to the ocean until, if they're lucky, next year when they do it all over again. Early sightings began weeks ago on the south coast and Cape Cod. The first herring ever seen in my local Ipswich River was on March 31st. So any day now. As soon as that water hits 10 degrees Celsius (50 F) it really gets going. I checked the other day: 6 C. We have a little bit to go.

Historically the Ipswich River had a herring run in the millions. These fish supported a food chain from herons to river otters to humans. There's evidence of seasonal Native American fish camps along the river and documentation of fish so thick you could net hundreds out in one swipe. Last year the river saw 130 fish migrate through the fish ladder to spawn upstream. One hundred and thirty.

Check out this graph from the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife:

So what happened? River herring have many enemies. Their decline started in the 1600s when colonists began installing dams along New England's waterways to run grist mills and eventually factories. These dams blocked the herring's spawning migration and the noticeable decline prompted a law passed way back in 1786 which required dam owners to install fish ladders allowing the fish to pass an otherwise impassable obstruction. These ladders help, but it's only part of the battle.

Off shore fisherman targeting Atlantic herring, a cousin of the river herring, also catch river herring as by-catch. River herring are tossed back, but the chances of surviving being hauled up in a net from a hundred feet down are pretty slim. Most of them become gull snacks.

If a river herring survives a fisherman's net, and can make it past a dam they also commonly face water shortages. Many towns draw their water supply out of local rivers but don't put it back in after the sewage is treated. Believe it or not rivers that should be running at 100 cubic feet per second in the summer actually run dry. This photo (http://www.crwa.org/projects/sustwater.html) is of our beautiful Ipswich River minus the "river". Even if the adult herring make it out before the river dries up there's no way the newly hatched fry can get out since they don't go back downstream until September. Fortunately some savvy folks at the IRWA have battled to stop this practice and we've had water year-round for the past two years, at least in our river....

So this year I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a number at least over 130. Why should I care? Well, river herring are an indication of a healthy river. And having a healthy river for my child to grow up next to, canoe on and hopefully even swim in someday sounds like a pretty good thing to me. Keep an eye out for me at the fish ladder waiting for the herring. If you stop by you might be lucky and see a herring or even one of the two thousand sea lamprey that flopped their way up it last year. That sight alone is worth the wait.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Awaiting the spring peepers

A vet that I work with, and admitted amphibian nut, reported yesterday in a company-wide email that he has heard the first spring peepers of the year. This man lives about 50 miles south of me, so it may be a week or so before we hear them in our neck of the state. But each year I not-so-patiently await them, it's a bigger sign of spring for me than seeing the first robin.

The spring peeper is a tiny tiny frog. The only time I've ever been able to find one in the wild (although I haven't really trekked out in the middle of the night to find one lately) is way back in college and it was no bigger than my thumb nail. They hibernate all winter and come out to breed when the air temperature starts to hit a steady 50 degrees.
And then they gather in enormous numbers in vernal pools, "wicked big" puddles, as we call them here in Massachusetts, that form from rainwater and snow melt that exist only in the spring and evaporate before the end of summer. Starting around dusk in mid-March you might hear one, then two, then hundreds of singular "PEEPS!!". And those are the spring peepers. Their voice a billion times louder than their little bodies. When I hear that noise I throw open my windows, toss an extra blanket on the bed and sleep very deeply knowing spring is here.

After the cacophony of sound they breed, lay their gelatinous egg masses and hop away into the night. Because vernal pools are isolated and not connected to streams or rivers they are free of fish. Without this protection the tadpoles would never survive. Vernal pools are fun places to check out, if you've never been to one all you have to do is fine a huge puddle, often very close to a road, and peer into the middle. If you see an odd object that looks like this you've found a vernal pool!

If you're very very lucky you'll even see one of my favorite, although less vocal animals (in fact I've handled hundred of these animals and I've only ever heard a very soft growl): the spotted salamander. These are beautiful creatures who share the vernal pool's breeding water with the peepers .

They have the most adorable faces, how could you not love this guy?

Unfortunately, as with all amphibians, their future is uncertain for all the usual suspects of habitat loss and global warming. And more specific problems of being run over by cars on their spring-time migration (some towns build tunnels in busy crossing areas!) and even salted roads that change the salinity of their nearby breeding pools. But at least this spring I know the peepers are back somewhere in the state, and I will eagerly await their deafening call of "we're here!" And the first really rainy night when the air is at least 50 degrees I just might grab my rain coat and head in to the woods to see all the action. The "Big Night", as we amphibian-nuts like to call it, is serious fun. I'm not kidding! So go grab your rain coat and flashlight, watch where you're walking, and be ready to see some frogs and salamanders.

Even though amphibians are generally declining around the world we have a wonderful local environmental education organization called Kestrel that's teaching kids from all over Massachusetts' North Shore to love vernal pools and all their creatures. For an adventurous field trip check out what the Kestrel team is up to!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My beautiful piece of the world

During a recent flip through my iphoto library I realized (not for the first time) how unbelievably beautiful my little town is. Enjoy:

Southern tip of
Plum Island

Hood's Pond

Low tide at
Pavilion Beach

Cows at
Appleton Farms

footbridge over the
Ipswich River in
Bradley-Palmer state park

Lobster boats at the
Town Landing

Sunset over the farms
on Rt. 133

Marshes near
Great Neck

Beach grass at Crane Beach

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Yay! for the proposed Mass. gas tax increase!

A lot of people I know would like to tar and feather me right now in the spirit of good ol' Colonial New England. But I actually WANT to pay higher taxes. Our young and ambitious governor, Deval Patrick, has proposed an increase of 19 cents on every gallon of gas. This would bring the Massachusetts gas tax from one of the lowest in the country to the highest at a new cost to the driver of 42 cents per gallon.

I did a little math (mind you, I have a fear of math) and this would only cost me about $2.20 a week since I fill my tank once a week, if that. A normal year might see me paying a mere $130 more in taxes. I did a little more math and realized that with the current gas price of $1.88 a gallon (which is RIDICULOUSLY cheap!) if I drove the 30 miles into Boston for my job I would pay about $4 round trip for the commute. I usually take the commuter rail which costs me a whopping $13.50 round trip. You can see just there that if I didn't have to pay $15 to park at the garage nearest my place of business I'd obviously opt for the drive.

So every time the gas tax creeps up, the price of fuel creeps up, or anything of the sort I cheer, my husband cheers and most of my acquaintances cheer. We should be paying MORE for the luxury of breezing into the city in our little cocoons of comfort and LESS for the not-so-luxurious chance to cram one's self onto a train and most likely get stuck near an annoying 25-year-old woman talking on her cell phone the whole way whilst ending all her sentences in questions (my ipod battery always dies in this situation).

We are so unbelievably spoiled in this country that is supposed to be an example for the world. On a vacation in the UK in late 2007 my husband and I rented a diesel Volvo wagon, loaded it up with camping gear and drove from Heathrow as far north as we could go, jumped on a ferry to Scotland's Isle of Lewis and drove some more. We paid on average 99 pence a liter, this translates to a whopping $9 a gallon with the exchange rate for that time. We probably spent about $900 in gas in 18 days and never once complained about it. The Brits are used to taking trains, buses and even walking as their cities are set up more like villages and they CAN actually walk places and ditch their cars.

We've screwed things up in this country pretty bad by thinking sprawl is a good thing. I like not having to use my car, we live in a little sea coast village and if I had to I could walk to everything I needed in our village in about ten minutes. And we're two blocks from the (overpriced) train that runs into downtown Boston. People always ask me now that we have a child "aren't you going to by a bigger house with some land?" No. I'd rather the rest of the state pay the gas tax so I can enjoy better public transportation, fewer cars on the road when I do drive, cleaner air and hopefully a cooler planet. And when I do fill up my car it will be so nice to know that those extra pennies will be improving our subway and train system, filling in those nasty potholes and maybe even keeping a few people off the road so we all can go the speed limit and get better gas mileage.

So go ahead Deval, raise the tax higher!! No, higher still! Let's get gas back up to $4 a gallon so we see some change.

Friday, March 6, 2009

To cloth or not to cloth: defending cloth diapers in a plastic age

I feel like just about every friend of our family is either trying to have a baby, expecting a baby, or already has a baby. I figure in just our close circle of friends alone we know about 21 babies currently in diapers. Taking an average from newborns to three-year-old these babies collectively go through about 160 diapers a day. And that's just the babies we know!!

Now, only a mere SIX of these babies (including ours) are in cloth diapers. I don't want people to think I'm being preachy and righteous (because I'm not, I swear), mothers and fathers are free to choose whatever diaper works best for their family. In our case we chose cloth for a few reasons: it's cheaper, we don't live in an area of restricted water use, we felt bad making more trash.

I'm blogging about this issue because I'm sick of people taking bets on how long we'll last with our daughter in cloth. It's like the world would end if they had to put their kid in cloth. News flash: for the past thousands of years babies have crawled around in cloth diapers! Five months and counting and I've been happy with every minute. And I'm even more sick of people (who thankfully are not in our inner circle of friends) who criticize us for using cloth saying that they read somewhere that it's more polluting than disposables. I would like a chance to dispel this myth.

YES: cloth diapers can use a lot of water in the washing process. You have to wash them once in cold then once in hot to get them clean. And I wash them about every five days. Like I said, we don't live in an area of water use issues. Coastal New England generally makes it through the summer just fine. Plus our family uses very little water in other areas of our life.
-We don't water our lawn (we have 0.06 acres most of it taken up by our house) and I have two 100 gallon rain barrels that I use to water my vegetable garden.
-In the summer my husband rarely takes more than two or three showers a week. He claims if he went surfing then he showered. Fine with me. Salt water has cleansing properties.
-I don't think we've washed either of our cars more than three times in their collective 15 years of existence.
-We have a low-flow toilet as well as dishwasher.

YES: there are detergents used in the washing process. But, cloth diapers can't be washed in just any old detergent. It screws up their absorbency. Most diaper-friendly detergents are better for the environment, phosphate-free and work better with the rest of your laundry than regular detergents. Even when my kid is out of diapers I'll still use the detergent I've switched to.

YES: you have to dry them which uses electricity. But I line dry mine and only fluff them for 20 minutes in the dryer to make them soft. And you don't have to do that step.

YES: they are manufactured and shipped via truck to my front door (since I mail ordered them). But they are shipped ONCE. I don't have to drive to the store every week and stock up on plastic diapers wrapped in more plastic (which are also manufactured and shipped). And the ones Lizzie wore when she was a newborn are organic cotton made in Pakistan. Which I know is very far away (i.e. lots of fossil fuels to get them here) but I'd like to think I did a minor part in helping a Pakistani family stay chemical free. Plus I bet most disposables are made in China anyway.

YES: the diapers themselves are expensive. The ones I chose are $12 each and I have 30. That's $360 that luckily friends and family shelled out for them and gave to us as gifts. But it sure beats the $500-$700 a year if I was using disposables!

What I'm NOT getting with my cloth diapers are the nasty chemicals that plastic disposables have in them. The polluting bleach that factories use to bleach the disposables. The landfill space. The gas used to truck all those boxes to the store. The gas I use to go get them from the store. The billions of gallons of water used in the manufacturing process to make the disposables. The ridiculous chunk of my budget that would have to go to buying disposables (I read once that cloth can save about $1000 per kid!) And best of all: the diaper rash. As long as Lizzie is in cloth her butt is happy :)

OK. So after that rant I have to admit here that I do use disposables at night. I like my sleep. Cloth just doesn't keep sensitive baby butts as dry. But I use a chlorine-free diaper that has, from what I can tell, no plastic. And they're made in Vermont so they don't go very far to get to my local organic food store. And I mean local. I can walk there to buy them. Which I do about once a month. So I might use 30-40 diapers a month. Line me up and execute me, I'm just not THAT obsessed with cloth. But I figure I'm doing my best.

So hopefully that is a good rebuttal to all my acquaintances who claim cloth is worse for the environment. You're not making me switch. And I'm not asking you to switch either. Cloth works for us. And we love it.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

PLEASE don't make me do a sing-along!!!

Is it bad that I can't stand a singalong?

OK, I feel like I terrible mother. I brought my 5 month-old daughter to a new play group this week and ten minutes into the session the child care professional running the group brings out his guitar. I need to explain that my husband plays the guitar for our child all the time. But he makes up lyrics that tend to go like this:

Lizzie Lizzie Lizzie-Lou. You're the one that makes the poo.....

....and so on and so forth. (This is an improvement from lyrics he used to make up before Lizzie was born that usually found himself trying to find words that rhymed with bobbies, vagina and butt.) No matter what he comes up with it's always hysterical and I end up crying with laughter. I look forward to his jam sessions, you never know what he'll come up with next. "Hey Katie! What rhymes with smelly diaper?" would not be an unusual request.

Anyway, I'm getting away from myself. The childcare professional grabs his guitar and I get excited thinking he's going to sing some fun made-up song for the kids. And then it happened. As soon as he sang the opening word of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" every mom starts to sing along. I broke out in a cold sweat. I HATE sing-alongs. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DON'T MAKE ME SING ALONG WITH THESE WOMEN!

I can't explain it. Being forced to sing in public with strangers just makes me feel icky all over. Does this make me bad person? I feel that there's just something wrong with twelve women clapping along to "The wheels on the bus" while their barely sitting-up children sit there looking completely overstimulated. I know there's a million developmental benefits of singing along with your child. And I do sing to my kid. Between her father and me she gets sung to most of the day. But they're songs that don't make sense even if they do rhyme. And at least it's just Lizzie hearing me, I can sing whatever I want.