You can learn all about hydrology and ecosystems, you can weed out invasive plants and establish anti-erosion structures along banks, but the most important thing is to know your water, know your stream, your river, your lake, and what better way to bond with your water than to walk along side it and listen to it. The idea of a water walk is more about meditation and observation than action.
The following is a photo journal of my solo bike ride along Plaster Creek to the Grand River in Grand Rapids, MI. Some of the way was paved trail, some dirt, some roads.
Plaster Creek is considered one of the most polluted streams in Michigan, and I have been involved in many trash clean ups and invasive plant removals and rain garden projects in service to the health of the stream. But I had never taken the time to meditate in the sound of its brooks or walk beside it through tangles of invasive oriental bittersweet or admire the array of wild flowers and bird calls or lament of the concrete restraining walls and massive erosion or rejoice in the beauty of the parks it runs through or see it as a whole system not on a map or diagram. Today, I became the creek and the river. I cut through over-grown terrain and navigated through concrete cityscapes. I listened to the sounds of industry and cars blending with bird calls and the soft melody of the creek. Instead of working at one location or enjoying a specific park, I journeyed with the creek. I let it lead me through good and bad. I let it show me how it lives.
After a busy day and the pressure of a lot of work still to be done, I often find myself taking a short bike ride at dusk. There’s a place where I often end up stopping to watch the sunset. It’s at the top of a slight hill where the view opens up, clear of trees and buildings, and I can watch the panorama of clouds and sky changing as the sun descends.
Yesterday, I found myself in that spot again. My bike parked on the sidewalk, I sat in the grass and let everything slip away except for an immense awareness of the present: the tension in my lungs from the ride, the slight chill to the air, the songs of robins, the pulsing heat of the sun’s light. The sky was all clouds except for a few inches just above the treeline where the sunlight emerged in an intense orange. It seemed to take forever for the sun to descend those few inches, but I waited and watched it with my full attention.
I heard the skid of wheels coming up the path behind me and then a voice called my name. “I thought that was you. I love that you’re just sitting here watching the sunset,” the girl said as she stepped cautiously into the grass with her inline skates.
It struck me that there was a certain nostalgia implied by her comment. To take the time to watch the sunset, one is assumed to be in a state of Zen and total awareness. It’s very Buddhist. It’s very hipster. But for me, I wasn’t conscious of all that; my initial reaction to her comment was Of course, I am. What else would I be doing? I could not even consider that I could be somewhere else doing any multitude of other things because this was where I felt I was supposed to be at that moment.
As we chatted, she made some comment about how unsuspecting that a view of the sunset and such peace could be found squished between a giant parking lot and a busy road. I knew that I was looking over the parking lot at the sun and that there was a road filled with the traffic of the evening commute behind me, but I hadn’t even thought about it. I had been focusing on the colors dancing in the clouds to the accompaniment of a robin’s chorus.
I realized that I wasn’t being fully aware of the present but rather creating a mindset to match that of a different location. The peace and nostalgia I felt watching that sunset was how I feel when I’m in the Appalachian Mountains. In an attempt to escape the city, I had found a connection to another place through the sunset. The sun and moon and stars have the power to teleport your soul to anywhere in the world if you’re open to it because they rise and set and shine everywhere around the world.
I didn’t watch the sunset in order to “feel at peace,” but I think that’s what such experiences have been diluted to in our times. In the psychiatrist’s office, you’ll find framed landscapes of remote lakes and mountains and brilliant sunsets with the clouds placed just right. The patients look at the images and find a sense of peace because that’s what the image was meant to portray. The lens doesn’t capture the days where it’s so cloudy you can’t see the sunset or let you feel the brisk wind or the chill of rain or hear the buzz of gnats, but these are all part of the place of these images.
With our world progressively moving to the internet and other forms of media, we’re presented daily with images. Images of people, images of places, images of items—all depicted in a way to frame the way you see them and induce a reaction. The picture of a perfectly symmetrical plant in the therapist’s office aims to calm you. The homeless children and abused animals look up at the camera as emotional music turns not just your ear but your heart. Images do not represent reality in its entirety. They are created with intentional blinders to create a tone and therefore invoke a specific reaction.
However, with some images becoming so iconic, the media has conditioned us to think we must feel at peace when watching a sunset, to feel moved to help when we see a homeless person, to take in that stray dog. But for most people in the real situation, that’s not how they feel or are moved to act. When you’re stuck in traffic and late for dinner, you don’t even see that stray dog on the side of the road. When you’re a young girl alone in the city, that homeless guy can seem more of a threat than a person in need. When we’re in the present, we put on our own blinders. We pay attention to certain things and ignore others and that process is what creates our mindset and determines how we feel and act.
When I’m in the city, I must consciously shift my focus to see the beauty in the buildings and people because my initial focus is on things that build my anxiety rather than create a sense of awe. Likewise, people in the mountains watching a sunset may be too caught up shivering and swatting mosquitoes to really feel a sense of peace.
Images have made molding our mindsets too easy. Images tell us what to see. Because of that, I wonder if people are just looking at things right in front of them expecting that what they are seeing is what they need to see. I wonder if they’re looking at reality at all.
Smartphones have made it easier than ever to capture a moment, a place, a feeling. But there are times when I’m so moved by what I’m experiencing that I know that I can never capture it in any form of art because the reality is too complex, so I don’t even try. I leave my camera lens shut and leave my heart and soul open. When we take a picture, we’re reframing the experience and often diminishing it because it’s difficult to capture so much in an image. Even film that can capture visual and audio senses still has a limited, focused view and lacks the complete feeling of a real experience.
Though images represent parts of reality, they can never fully capture the experience of being in the moment. But even when a person is in the moment, they will frame the experience by focusing on certain elements over others. The ability to be conscious and choose how to frame your view and therefore choose your experience is something that images and other media don’t as easily allow.
I chose to watch the sky and listen to the birds, thereby transporting myself into my former experiences in the mountains and my dreams of being there in the future. When the girl sat down beside me, she also chose to watch the sunset, but she saw it differently than me. She was still conscious of the parking lot and the traffic noise, so she saw a glimpse of natural beauty in the mundane routine of the city.
When the girl decided to leave and continue skating, she thanked me for making her stop and look at the sunset. But it wasn’t me who stopped her or made her see. It’s ultimately up to the individual to decide what they will focus on and therefore how they will react to what is around them.
A fellow student contacted me with an interesting question. We go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and while our campus advertises being environmentally sustainable in many ways, the more you get into the issues you realize that we could be doing much more. My fellow student was working on a class project related to social and sustainability issues on our campus. She noted that many students are not living in a sustainable manner (even just as simply leaving lights on), and she asked if this may be because students simply don’t care about environmental sustainability.
While I can’t speak for each individual, in general I would say that Calvin College students are not apathetic to sustainability specifically.
I think that a lack of information and understanding is the main problem that ends up looking like apathy, but really people just aren’t aware of the issues. To combat this it is important to inform students and Calvin has a lot of programs in place to attempt to do this–such as Kill-a-Watt and Mad Farmer Food Fest and the Faith and International Development Conference and student leadership Sustainability Coordinator positions in the dorms and apartments. A lot of courses also have a sustainability focus. (Specifically in the Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies Department and Biology Department. I also know of some economics and engineering courses with a sustainability focus. There’s even an environmental writers English course offered some January terms. There’s usually a handful of January courses having an environmental or sustainable focus, including at least one or more options for the required freshman course: “DCM”.). And there are also several student organizations with sustainability aims from food to political issues. My club, the Environmental Stewardship Coalition, addresses a wide range of environmental issues depending on what our participants are interested in.
However, these programs often have the dilemma of attracting people who are already interested in the issues, and while it may enlighten a few “new-comers” to the sustainability world, it is difficult to attract new people because there are so many other opportunities vying for each individual’s time, and they’re most likely to choose to do something they already have an interest in.
I think the most successful way to inform people is not just through programs that preach sustainability but also by personal conversations and individuals living in a sustainable way sharing their knowledge with people they interact with. I don’t think that there is a lack of these people on campus, almost everyone I know is concerned about the environment and interested in sustainability issues. But, I think that we often stay in our own circles, so sustainability-minded people don’t interact much with people that don’t know much about it.
There’s also a bit of a hesitancy when newly introduced to sustainability issues because it goes against our current systems so much. The very basis of our American (and possibly world) economy is market-driven with the only aim to grow profits without any enforced conditions or concern to protect people or the environment. While there have been laws put into place to try to protect people and the environment, there’s still a lot of cutting corners and illegal action because the media and economy promotes money above all else. And there’s a lot of skepticism encouraged by the media and businesses because they want people to buy more and being sustainable means buying less. There’s so much skepticism in the public eye on Climate Change, not because they haven’t heard the scientific facts, but because the oil industry and many other would be threatened if action against climate change was enforced and they have convinced the public that it is a hoax. The public doesn’t believe science, they believe media. But more than media, they believe family and friends, and that’s where we can get in and start changing people’s perspectives.
These profit-driven narratives are so present in people’s lives and worldviews that when introduced to sustainability that pursues balance rather than continuous growth, it is a dramatic shift of perspective that they must undergo to understand sustainability issues and practices. And since sustainability is so different than our current systems, it’s a challenge to live in a sustainable way. I honestly believe that it is impossible to live in a completely sustainable way today because there are so many issues (many hidden by the media and market) and all things are intertwined so tightly. Going vegan or vegetarian may protect a few animals that you may have eaten otherwise, but all of the substitutes and high-protein foods you need to consume instead are still surrounded by unsustainable practices.
I think the second biggest problem is a lack of convenience. Especially when people are used to the current systems, they’re unlikely to put in much effort to change. It’s a rare person that would carry an empty can around until they find a recycling bin if there are no recycling bins and a plethora of easy-access trash cans. Even in my apartment, my roommates stopped using the compost when we moved it to the porch, but when it was right beside the trash in the kitchen they would use it all the time (unless it was already full, because they would not walk all the way out to the compost site to empty it–too much effort, apparently). If sustainability was easier to do, more people would do it, no doubt. And especially if there was a reward (especially an economic reward) more people would do it. That’s why sustainable low-energy appliances have grown popular and common, because it saves money.
I would say that Calvin is on the right track to make students more sustainable, but the college has to stick with it and continue pushing the informative programs (especially in all courses and fields to reach all students) and making sustainable systems more efficient and convenient to get students into sustainable habits.
But I think the issue is beyond Calvin–it’s our economy, it’s our whole world. Until we change the basic systems underlying our lives to be sustainability-driven rather than profit-driven, sustainability is always going to be a challenge and a struggle.
Eeeeeee—BANG! Eeeee—POP! Crackle, crackle, crackle. Momentous firework displays occur annually on the 4th of July all around the United States of America created by artisans of design and explosives. Crowds gather around grills as they chow down on the most Americana food: hotdogs and hamburgers. The sizzling grease and charred lines of the grill add to the authentic taste of beef mingling with a zesty mustard and pickle, blended with the sweet tang of ketchup and tomato, topped off with a creamy cheese and the crunch of iceberg lettuce. Stomachs sloshing with watermelon and beer, fingers picking strings from corn on the cob out from between teeth, people ooo and ahhh at the flashing fireworks until their ears go numb from the explosions. Then, when the last explosive has lit, ascended, and dissipated into smoke, everyone packs up under the sulfuric air and waits in a line of car exhaust as police direct traffic out of parking lots and through four-way stops.
Few people pay attention to the dark clouds that drift away after firework displays when RED, WHITE, and BLUE, PINK, PURPLE, GREEN, ORANGE are lighting up their eyes, and POPS and BANGS numb their ears. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fireworks as much as any other person, but I cannot block out the amount of pollution they create.
It’s hard to give an exact amount for the pollution created as displays and individual fireworks vary and atmospheric conditions also play a large part in the amount of pollution fireworks create. But, it is not hard to agree with NOAA’s 2015 study that showed 42% more air pollution on July 4th in given locations.
Ideally, someone should invent a firework that can create colors and patterns without releasing fine metals and CO2 into the atmosphere; however, there are real alternatives to firework displays that could be more environmentally friendly.
I remember being blown away the first time I saw a musical fountain lights display. The Grand Haven Music Fountain in Michigan has numerous displays every summer. Colored lights illuminate the sprays of water that dance through the night synchronized to music. Such displays can also be found in locations such as Las Vegas.
Now, you may be saying, “Yes, it gets rid of the air pollution, but what about all of that water and the energy for the lights?” Water displacement and pollution is as big an issue as air pollution, so precautions should be taken to make sure that water is not soiled or displaced. The Grand Haven display is built right on the Grand River and pumps water out of the river and back in. The water stays nearby its source and although part of it evaporates in the air, most of the water is returned immediately after the display without pollution. As for energy, as long as production is made with the least energy use possible and that electricity comes from a renewable source, there’s not much more we can ask for anything that involves a lot of lights.
Laser light displays and other types of celebrations and shows are alternative to fireworks, but personally, I think the Musical Fountains are the most magical option.
Thousands of bombs are launched. They spin through the atmosphere, twisting around the whole Earth. Then, they explode! Toxic material rains down into the oceans. Animals become mutilated. They suffocate or starve. Many die.
This catastrophe may sound apocalyptic, but it is already happening. Such a simple thing as a balloon release in celebration or mourning can cause detrimental effects on wildlife and ecosystem health.
There’s a lot to say on packaging designs and pollution, but I’m going to focus on four plastic products and their effects on ocean species.
Plastic as a light-weight material is easily picked up by winds and blown up into the atmosphere where it can fly around the world before coming back down. Plastics also float which allows them to be transported by water currents through stream systems and eventually end up in the ocean or larger lakes. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is where a lot of our plastic waste gathers in the ocean. But plastic can float in water or air anywhere around the world and endanger animals everywhere.
Balloon releases are one thing that upsets me immensely. Any time a balloon floats up into the atmosphere, I see the soul of an animal floating up with it. While some balloons say that they are biodegradable, that only means that they break down. That plastic is still around and can get into an animal’s systems. Many balloons are not biodegradable. If I’m walking around a forest or floating down a river, it’s disgusting to find a shriveled plastic balloon or bag snagged in a tree branch.
A major problem in today’s culture is that we don’t think about the end results of what we do. If everyone thought about where those balloons and plastic bags end up, they’d be less likely to let them fly away so easily. Now, I think balloon releases do have a happy energy to them—a bunch of colorful dots floating up into the sky. But, we can find alternatives or at least make sure that the balloons are biodegradable. It’s easy to just change our personal choices and not buy balloons or plastic bags. Personally, I think bubbles are a beautiful option.
Plastic rings are another big culprit that kills many animals. Surely, you’ve seen a sea turtle with a six-pack ring around their neck or back fins in a picture or commercial. Entrapment can be prevented by cutting the rings apart, which is what I do whenever I end up with plastic rings. I recycle all of my plastic, but you never know what might fall out of the truck on the way to the recycling facility. Although, even if the rings are cut, animals may still try to eat the plastic. This video shows another alternative that uses waste-product from beer processing to create an edible and biodegradable packaging material: Edible Beer Packaging.
Lastly, microbeads. Many hand soaps, face scrubs, etcetera use tiny plastic beads as an exfoliating agent. But when you wash the bubbles down the drain, those tiny plastic beads spiral down the pipes and slip through filters and into water sources. These tiny plastic beads don’t break down. Fish end up with the beads inside their gills just by breathing in the water. The plastic can clog up their gills and suffocate them. There are plenty of cleansing products that do not use microbeads or that use natural particles such as sand or shell particles that accomplish the same exfoliating effect.
There are many other products that need redesigned and plastic is used more often than necessary, but balloons, plastic bags, packaging rings, and microbeads are a few of the destructive products that we see every day and can find easy alternatives with our personal choices.
Camping on all sorts of soils, hiking winding wildernesses, and exploring the National Parks are some of my best and earliest memories. The parks that I’ve visited have become a part of my identity. An image or mention of one of the parks brings back memories or bestows dreams of future travel. This is not just my experience, but the experience of many families, explores, hikers, campers, and people of all sorts who have visited these beautiful parks over the past 100 years.
August 25, 2016 is exactly 100 years after President Woodrow Wilson penned his authority creating the National Park Service. The NPS is calling this year the “Centennial Summer,” and many parks are incorporating special programing for the occasion.
In celebration, here are some interesting facts about the National Parks.
Yellowstone was the first National Park.
America has over 400+ National Parks.
Several parks were established before the 1916 Act, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, and a few others which have been protected and managed as early as 1872 and 1890.
Delaware was the last of the 50 States to get a National Park with the establishment of the First State National Monument in 2013.
The land of Acadia National Park in Maine was almost entirely donated by private residents and some private property still exists within boundaries of the park’s circumference.
307,247,252 people visited the National Parks in 2015.
President Ulysses S. Grant and President Woodrow Wilson:
Both signed acts that started the preservation of land for National Parks.
President Theodore Roosevelt:
Being a big hunter, President Roosevelt grew concerned about the decreasing amount of game animals and other species. During his time as president in the early 1900s, he created the Forest Service, established new National Parks, and preserved many other locations and signed acts for conservation and management. During his time in office, Roosevelt protected around 230,000,000 acres of land.
The late 1800s writer, naturalist, and scientist spent significant time in the Sierra Mountain wilderness that is now Yosemite National Park. Muir’s inspired words drew attention to the beauty of the landscape and encouraged the preservation of the land. The Sierra Club is a remnant that continues Muir’s dreams of protecting the environment.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Olmsted Jr.:
While the Presidents passed the legislation to protect the land and Muir admired and shared the natural beauty, the Olmsteds shaped the land of many of the parks. As two of the major figures in the field of landscape architecture, the Olmsteds shaped the roads and trails of several famous parks: Yosemite, Acadia, Everglades, and the Great Smoky Mountains.
John D. Rockefeller Jr.:
The Rockefeller family enjoyed their cottage on Mount Desert Island and contributed a lot of land to Acadia National Park, including 57 miles of carriage roads and 16 stone bridges constructed of local granite. These carriage roads prevented much of the island from getting cut up with roads. Motor vehicles are prohibited on the carriage roads, providing vast, safe spaces for hikers, bicycles, and horseback riding without the sound and air pollution cars create.
I love all thinks National Parks, but I also enjoy coin collecting. The convergence of my passion with my hobby has me maybe spending more money than I should.
National Parks Quarters
While USA coins have traditionally featured past presidents, political figures, and historic figures and places, they have been branching out more. The series of State Quarters were very popular among the population, but many people have yet to hear about the National Parks quarter series, entitled “America the Beautiful.” The National Parks quarters can be distinguished from the State quarters by a ring border around the picture on the tails side of the coin with the name of the National Park along the top and the State and Year of print along the edges of the border.
Starting in 2010, the mints release five quarter designs—featuring a National Park, Memorial, Forest, Lakeshore, etc.—each year until 2021. The America’s Beautiful National Parks Quarter Dollar Coin Act of 2008 determined one National Park from each state to be featured on the coins. U.S. House Representative, Michael Castle, introduced the idea for the State Quarter series and the National Parks Quarters.
2016 holds the release of: Shawnee National Forest (Illinois), Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Kentucky), Harpers Ferry National Historic Park (West Virginia), Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota), Fort Moultrie/Sumter National Monument (South Carolina).
100th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Set
Congress determined that the US Mints should produce $5 gold coins, $1 silver coins, and half-dollar coins featuring images in honor of the National Parks for 2016. The surcharges for purchase of these coins goes to the National Park Foundation to continue protecting and improving the parks we love.
Both sides of each coin feature iconic images of the Parks’ history. John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt look out from the gold $5 coin. Old Faithful bursts her timely geyser blast from the silver $1. A hiker explores a mountainous landscape and a child discovers a frog on the half-dollar. The National Park Service emblem is engraved on the reverse sides of the coins. And you may wonder who the woman is on the back of the silver dollar. She is a Latina Folklorico dancer, chosen to depict the many cultural experiences one discovers in America’s National Parks. More descriptions can be found on the usmint.gov website.
Wherever you are, take a look around with a “fossil fuels” lens and see how much of the world around us depends on fossil fuels.
Everyone knows about the issues around gas for our cars and planes because it affects your costs as a consumer, but look even farther. Plastic bins and bags begin to drip off your shelves into puddles of oil. The ink in your pen spews out that same oil. Perhaps your house and stove are heated by propane gas. Electricity is used everywhere, and most of the United States power plants that produce that energy involve burning coal or other fossil fuels. The more you look, the more you realize that without fossil fuels, we wouldn’t just be without our major forms of transportation, we wouldn’t have half of the things we live with every day.
In 2014, the United States consumed 6.97 billion barrels of petroleum products. 1.67 billion barrels went toward product manufacturing, not related to fuel for automobiles or heating. (US Energy Information Administration)
Many people don’t realize what raw materials go into a product. Take a look around and count how many things have at least part of them made of plastic. Almost all plastic is made from crude oil and some percentage of recycled plastics.
Even recycled plastic, shouldn’t be given the green leaf right away. The problem with recycled plastics is that it eventually breaks down too much after repeated melting processes. Recycled plastic is weaker than freshly made plastic so raw material must still be added to it to make it strong enough; this doesn’t end our dependence on fossil fuels, it simply reduces the consumption rate.
The thing is, there are other options besides fossil fuels. There are vegetable-based plastics that can be recycled and use renewable raw resources.
Pen ink, as well, has an easy alternative with vegetable-based ink instead of crude oil. Dolphin Blue produces refillable Goodkind Woody pens that are made of recycled wood and steel and use a vegetable-based ink.
Ultimately, we can do without a lot of these fossil fuel materials. Everything that is made of plastic could be made of wood or metal or cardboard or some other renewable resource. I really like my cardboard pen. And who doesn’t like a glass coke bottle over a plastic one? I hear that coke even tastes better in glass!
It is important to note that all things have environmental impacts. Replacing fossil fuel products with other products may cause other impacts elsewhere, but as long as those issues can be addressed, a renewable resource is always more sustainable than a non-renewable resource.
Ever since I read The Story of Stuff and Cradle to Cradle, I’ve been particularly critical of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and plastic. However, there’s always new things I discover that are connected to this unsustainable cycle that I would have never expected.
I recently had a small surgery, and the doctor’s instructions to care for the open wound was to use Vaseline. Triple Antibiotic ointment would add too many extra things to the wound, but Vaseline is “sterile” and will keep the wound moist for healing on its own. I had heard of Vaseline before, but I didn’t know what it was exactly.
When I got a jar of this translucent, yellow-tinted goop and saw that the product is called “Petroleum Jelly,” I had to do some further research. It turns out that the thing I’ve been rubbing on my open wound is the slime they find in the bottom of oil barrels.
Now, don’t worry because Vaseline is triple-purified and tested to be non-carcinogenic (sarcasm implied). Several websites admit that petroleum jelly may not be the healthiest option and that off-brands might still retain some of the heavy metals and toxins from the oil. I’m all for using by-products, but not when we’re putting a possible toxin in our bodies. I cannot accept that doctors are promoting the use of such a substance over more natural options like beeswax, coconut oil, and olive oil or some other method or product.
Every day, I’m more and more aware of our dependence on fossil fuels, and it is frightening to think what we would become when there is none left if we don’t change soon. Innovations for energy efficiency and reduced consumption are great for stalling the problem, but they don’t fix it.
We need alternatives—real alternatives that do not pollute or harm, that can be sustained naturally, and that provide for our needs. And the thing is, they’re already out there. The general public needs to push for healthier, sustainable options, and innovations need to be made to improve these sustainable options rather than prolonging our dependence on fossil fuels.