Archive for June, 2017

Dawn Awakening

At this time of the year I often tuck my pillow directly on the sill of an open window next to my bed. While lying down I can easily position my head next to the window screen. The advantage is that while sleeping in the comfort of my bed I enjoy the fresh air benefits of camping outside. The disadvantages are the loud exclamations of the neighbors.

Earlier this week as the morning light washed over the treetops, I opened my eyes at “crane o’clock.” Rather than a rude buzz or radio blather waking me, a pair of sandhill cranes were trumpeting, bugling and rattling from a nearby hayfield. Their raucous wildings had me wondering if I had awakened in a Paleozoic jungle.

I am reminded of Aldo Leopold’s description of sandhill cranes. Leopold is author of Sand County Almanac (which incidentally should be required reading by all Americans): “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

The morning following the crane reveille, a male robin blasted his song from the canopy of oak branches just a few feet from my second story windowsill nest. And “robin o’clock” is definitely earlier than “crane o’clock. How can I get angry when this common member of the melodic thrush family initiates the dawn chorus?

Now consider how most folks wake up in the morning. An alarm clock startles them awake from a deep sleep. It’s no surprise we use the word “alarm,” for the way it accelerates our physical self out of restful sleep. The damn thing is alarming.

When we are abruptly awakened, our brain accelerates our heart rate. We experience the flight-and-flee response. Following the rude awakening we often experience a period of wallowing grogginess before we are fully awake. Sleep experts refer to this response as sleep inertia. Even with a shower and a cup of coffee, it can take several hours to fully awaken.

Many sleep experts feel that people who use a regular alarm clock have an 89% chance of sleep inertia.

Compared to our ancestors, who went to bed when it got dark, modern humans have developed poor sleep patterns. Television, computers and cell phones rob us of quality sleep. The blue light emitted from these devices halts the natural release of melatonin, an important hormone regulating our sleep cycle.

To awaken naturally we would rely on our circadian rhythm, the internal system that responds to intervals of light and dark. It regulates cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals.

Few of us honor our natural circadian rhythms. For a majority of folks this would require going to bed soon after it gets dark outside, and awakening naturally as the day dawns. Waking up naturally to the dawn’s light and a pair of cranes or a singing robin is best for my health.

On the third morning I woke up at “swan o’clock.” A pair of trumpeter swans passed directly overhead calling their deep “oh. . . Oh” calls.

The swan’s deep notes remind me of a meditator’s “ohmmm.” There is evidence that the vibration and rhythmic droning slows the human nervous system and calms the mind.

Now get to bed. Shut off all electrical screens and don’t forget to open the window. And I dare you to unplug the alarm clock.

Wanted: A Lawn Revolution

I just finished mowing the lawn. I find it a mindless and boring job. Through the years Nancy and I have intentionally reduced the monotony of our lawn and let the wild and diverse woods slowly reclaim what was once its own. What used to take an hour now takes just over 38 minutes.

Decades ago I gave up the silly notion of fertilizing the grass each spring. Why in the world would I want it to grow faster? And on top of that, why add a host of poisonous weedkillers that sicken far more species than the target weeds. Such a practice sounds like a potential sequel to the comedy Dumb and Dumber.

Lawn mowing is a thief of valuable summer time. I could be using that time to embrace meaningful activities in my life like cycling, watching birds, fishing, or reading a book while lazing the summer hours in a hammock with a cold beer at my side.

The growl of gas-powered mowing assaults and batters my hearing. Its stink washes into my olfactory system. And it releases more carbon in one hour than my car does in 40 hours of running. It’s all a choice.

So why is it that 80% of all Americans have a manicured lawn? Pooled together, these “Made in the USA lawns” equals 40 million acres. That translates to more than 50,000 square miles or an area larger than Pennsylvania!

Some landscape architects believe that our infatuation of lawns come from our desire to attain status. Status often can be shown by appearance. In the 16th century, French and English aristocracyl kept lawns so guards could have clear sight lines for potential hostile invaders. They also used them for recreation such as playing  croquet.

The love of lawns was an immigrant product and came to North America by those who could afford such a luxury. By the end of the American Civil War lawns were becoming the norm.

A controlled lawnscape came to be considered a thing of perfection. From the perception of many, the natural world is a “mess.” We like to control things and that means controlling the march of the natural world into our living area.

Over the past couple of years I am noting more and more rural ditches being mowed by the adjacent landowners. I’m sure County Commissioners are smiling in glee as this means the local jurisdiction is not spending taxpayer money on their roadside maintenance budget. However, the loss is severe for bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects as well as for roadside nesting birds like pheasants and many songbirds.

Accompanying our gas-powered mower in the garage is a quiet reel push mower. It requires our muscles rather than a combustible engine. Admittedly, I threw in the towel on using the non-gas reel mower. Moles have created an undulating surface with their serpentine upraised tunnels that makes pushing more difficult. I harbor no animosity for moles. They love worms and insects and are unaware of yard boundaries so I deem them innocent of wrong-doing.

To keep lawns looking  homogenous requires a drug-pusher’s tenacity. Homeowners with mono-lawns are encouraged and brainwashed to purchase what I call “lawn drugs.” Every year, Americans spread more toxic pesticides and herbicides on lawns than farmland. It’s true. Nearly 200 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides are used on lawns alone. According to the EPA, approximately 100 million pounds of glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient are applied to our nation’s lands each year.

Monsanto’s product Roundup has been touted as a safe weed killer to conveniently spot spray on evil floral insurgents like dandelions and creeping charlie. Now we are learning that the supposedly inert ingredients in Roundup “might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.” (Scientific American, 2009)

Roundup is so effective at killing weeds that it has decimated milkweed abundance, which has resulted in a crippling crash in the monarch butterfly population in the last twenty years by nearly 90 percent.

Businesses that depend on our hamster-wheel- chase of the perfect lawn often define the natural world as bushy, weedy, tangly, scruffy and even spooky. This is the place that evil mosquitoes and ticks might be amassing to rush your home. It is the job of herbicide and pesticide companies, as well as those that manufacture lawn mowers, to make you feel insecure about your yard.

The profits of lawn products are tied directly to keeping the message of fear and insecurity in front of your face. Not surprising, these messages of doing battle with dandelions, creeping charlie and other so-called noxious weeds air more frequently in May and June. In my world these “undesirables” add diversity and color into my lawn. Bumblebees seem drunkenly giddy as they lob into nectar-rich patches of purple creeping charlie. Dandelions are visited by pollinating insects and Nancy and me. This time of the year there is no need to buy salad greens. We have all we want only steps away from our back stoop.

The other day, I processed a jar full of delicious dandelion pesto. And we are drying creeping charlie for a minty tea. All this is free organic food. I would never collect these foods in an area that has been sprayed.

I would argue that the manicured lawn is a greater threat to our collective well-being. Biodiversity loss can even affect important (free) ecosystem services, such as removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) and pollination services.  More biodiverse ecosystems can uptake more CO2, a greenhouse gas, than ecosystems with less species diversity. (Source: Research paper published in Nature, 2001 by Reich et al.)


What are the alternatives?

•Mow less often or not at all.

•Save money by avoiding pesticides and herbicides. Poisons have a way of making their way into our waters and potentially into our bodies.

• Plant a diverse prairie or wild flower, pollinator-friendly garden. There are even shade loving sedges that look like grasses and they never get tall so there is no need to mow.

•Plant native and diverse plants along lakes and wetland to create a filter strip that helps retard contaminants from entering the water. The strip acts like a buffer and creates a natural shoreline.

Time for some of that pesto, chips and a cold beer.