#659 Birds sing like nobody is listening


“A succulent wild woman is one of any age who feels free to fully express herself in every dimension of her life.” ~ Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (SARK)

We know it is spring when this little finch returns to our balcony and sings his full-throated song. The finch who lifts our hearts from spring through early fall never hesitates to sing, never looks around to see if anyone might be listening with a critical ear. He just sings.

Most of us hide our songs behind a muzzle of uncertainty or embarrassment. Not just our songs, of course. We squirrel away our paintings, our dances, our books, our dreams, our whole gloriousness.

Thank goodness the finch doesn’t know about that human propensity. He just sings. He reminds me of the quote so often attributed to Mark Twain but more likely the words of William Purkey:

You gotta dance like there’s nobody’s watching.
You gotta love like you’ll never be hurt.
You gotta sing like there’s nobody’s listening.
And you gotta live like it’s heaven on earth.

That little ditty would not be so popular if the fears behind it were less widespread. Even an author and illustrator as successful as SARK (aka Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) confesses to having to deal regularly with her inner critics. You can watch her recent video for some wise advice on dealing with them.

And, in the video below, you can watch William Purkey telling the story of the 43-year-old, six-foot, red-headed elementary school principal who was determined to take ballet lessons. Whenever she shared her dream with family or colleagues, they rained on it, sure she could never be a ballet dancer. She did not let that stop her, and on the night she debuted with all the little ballerinas in her dance school, she received a standing ovation. Not because she was the best dancer but because the audience was thrilled by her courage and determination.

Purkey’s advice is not just pablum. We all have fire inside. We can warm the world with it if we share our gifts as freely as the little finch on my balcony shares his. When I listen to him, he gives me hope.

Arnold Lobel wrote a story very much like the one William Purkey told, of a camel who had her heart set on becoming a ballet dancer–and did, in spite of all the camel critics. You can read it here.


#658 Seeds from New York’s rooftop gardens

Rooftop Ready Seeds packets in a Chilean wine box; photo from the company's Facebook page

Rooftop Ready Seeds packets in a Chilean wine box; photo from the company’s Facebook page

This clever young man’s seed business inspires me. I also love the nose-tweaking nature of the name Zach Pickens has given his Brooklyn-based company: Rooftop Ready Seeds*.

I have trouble growing any kind of plants on my balcony because of occasional high winds that send even heavy pots flying and beat the heck out of growing things. Plants and seeds that thrive in ground-level gardens are not sturdy enough for my high-rise setting. So I really relate to what Zak Stone wrote for Fast Company about this urban seed company:

Pickens says he first started saving seeds when he moved to Brooklyn six years ago, to save money and find plants that could thrive in the tough conditions offered by New York’s rooftop gardens: intense wind, unfiltered sunlight, hot nights caused by the urban heat island affect, and limited container space for roots to extend.

At the end of each season, he’d collect the seeds from the plants that did best at his rooftop garden in Bushwick, and then plant them the next year, which would lead to a stronger harvest and, eventually, a very-limited edition product line.

Now Pickens collects seeds from growers around the city. This is how he describes his company:

All Rooftop Ready Seeds are open-pollinated (meaning you can save seed from your own plants and regrow next year) and grown using organic methods in several rooftop locations in and around Brooklyn–including a special seed-saving partnership with Brooklyn Grange. Each variety of seed is collected from individual plants that have proven to thrive year after year in the urban garden environment, with some varieties representing sixth-generation seeds.

Because growing space is tight in the city, our seeds are all limited edition.  When they’re gone, they’re gone until next year.

Pickens works full time at the Riverpark Farm I wrote about a while back. His urban-farming credentials are solid, as he writes on his site:

Zach Pickens is an urban gardener, farmer, seed saver, Master Composter, and a full-time urban farmer at the Riverpark Farm at Alexandria Center. Zach has worked on an urban farm and managed youth-run farmers’ markets throughout Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. He helped PS20 in Brooklyn design and implement a curriculum for a greenhouse education program and the eventual construction of a rooftop farm. Zach started Rooftop Ready Seeds in 2010 to develop a stock of vegetable seeds that are tailored to the unique climate of the city of New York.

With young people like Zach Pickens finding solutions to the challenges of food security in urban settings, we can all have hope. Reading about his Rooftop Ready Seeds gives me a real surge of optimism.

You can follow Rooftop Ready Seeds on Twitter and Facebook.

*Monsanto’s big money maker is the Roundup Ready System of genetically modified crops that can survive heavy doses of the company’s famous herbicide, Roundup®.



#657 The healing hug

Jackson twins in 1995

Telegram & Gazette photo editor Chris Christo took this picture in 1995, after the twins were placed in the same incubator.

Perhaps the most famous photograph of twins taken in the last two decades is of Kyrie and Brielle Jackson. The daughters of Heidi and Paul Jackson were born on October 17, 1995, twelve weeks early. Kyrie thrived in her incubator at The Medical Center of Central Massachusetts (now UMass Memorial Hospital) in Worcester. Brielle had heart and breathing problems.

On November 12th Brielle’s heart rate was troublesome. She was turning blue in the face from crying. Her nurse, Gayle Kasparian, asked the parents if she could put the babies together.

In February 2013 Kasparian told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette what happened:

When I put Brielle in with her sister, it was amazing. She immediately calmed down. Her heart rate stabilized and her color changed.

The photograph Chris Christo snapped of the twins went viral. Thanks to the Telegram & Gazette photo editor, we can still see Kyrie, arm wrapped around Brielle, sending healing energy to her weaker sister.

It is more common now to place premature siblings in the same incubator. The power of touch outweighs the risk of infection. At the time, it was unusual in America.

In 2013 the Jackson twins will turn 18. Dianne Williamson interviewed Paul Jackson for the Telegram & Gazette. He said, “They get along really, really well, and they’re each other’s best friends.” (You can see a photograph of them on the Telegram & Gazette Web site.)

Their story is particularly moving for me because my partner is also a mirror image twin. Like the Jacksons, Robin and David are mirror twins. Mirror twins are genetically identical, but they have some opposite asymmetric features. For example, one is right handed, the other left handed. One leads with the left leg, the other with the right. On rare occasions, even the organs are mirrored.

Although Robin lives in Canada, his twin in Australia, they have the kind of close and unbreakable connection so common for twins. The bond that starts in the womb never severs, even after the death of one of them. Even if a twin dies in utero, the surviving sibling feels the loss.

So although Gayle Kasparian does not claim to have saved Brielle’s life by placing the two together, I have a strong sense she did. The weaker twin’s immediate response to the presence of her sister shows the strength that lies within that single egg that divides into two people.


#656 Hope for my bad habit

Camel eating grass

Watching someone chew gum is about as attractive as watching a camel chew grass; photo via Kozzi.com

OK, I’ve decided to come clean about one of my embarrassing habits. I chew gum. Not just from time to time but pretty much every day, when I sit down at the computer to write. I swear it helps me concentrate, and it turns out science backs me up.

A new study appeared in the British Journal of Psychology, with the reassuring title, Chewing gum moderates the vigilance decrement. Only a scientist would love a title like that, but what it means is that chewing gum improves focus and performance.

Kate Morgan carried out the research, along with colleagues from Cardiff University. According to an article in The British Psychological Society, Morgan said:

It’s been well established by previous research that chewing gum can benefit some areas of cognition.  In our study we focussed on an audio task that involved short-term memory recall to see if chewing gum would improve concentration; especially in the latter stages of the task.

Interestingly participants who didn’t chew gum performed slightly better at the beginning of the task but were overtaken by the end. This suggests that chewing gum helps us focus on tasks that require continuous monitoring over a longer amount of time.

This is not the first study to tout the benefits of gum chewing. Among the claims are that it enhances recovery after laparoscopic colectomy, can be an aid in remineralizing tooth enamel, and can reduce plaque acidity. I’m sure there is plenty of research on gum’s ill effects, but you can discover that on your own.

So you will find me at my computer, eyes focused, mind sharp, jaw working. I’ve been embarrassed by that for a long time. No more. I’ve decided to embrace my habit, in spite of its environmental implications, perhaps even some nefarious health impacts. It helps me focus. And for my easily distracted mind, that is a gift.


#655 Meet organics’ new friend, the fruit fly

Fruit fly

I will never look at Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly, in quite the same way again; Photo by Mr.checker, via Wikimedia Commons

When a 16-year-old from Plano, Texas has her research published in a peer-reviewed journal, I take notice. When the research supports my bias toward organic produce, I pay special attention. But her giving me a new appreciation of fruit flies takes me by surprise.

Ria Chhabra is one smart young woman. She was still in middle school when she had the offbeat idea of studying the effect of organic versus conventional diets on the health of fruit flies. The New York Time’s Tara Parker-Pope brought her to my attention with an article whose headline grabbed me: Is Organic Better? Ask a Fruit Fly.

Chhabra was driven by curiosity about the ongoing controversy over whether consuming organic foods makes any difference to our health. It was a topic of debate for her parents because of the higher cost.

Enter the fruit fly. With its short life span, it offered the right opportunity to study the impact of diet over many generations. Also, as Russell McLendon wrote for Mother Nature Network, “about 77 percent of known human disease genes have a relevant match in the fruit-fly genome.”

Chhabra worked with Dr. Johannes Bauer, biologist at Southern Methodist University. They fed their tiny research partners plant extracts (bananas, potatoes, raisins, soy beans). Some of the produce was organically raised; the rest, conventionally. Then the fruit flies were tested for various health impacts. The abstract of their paper says:

Flies raised on diets made from organically grown produce had greater fertility and longevity. On certain food sources, greater activity and greater stress resistance was additionally observed, suggesting that organic food bestows positive effects on fly health. Our data show that Drosophila can be used as a convenient model system to experimentally test potential health effects of dietary components. Using this system, we provide evidence that organically raised food may provide animals with tangible benefits to overall health.

This is just one study. Bauer and Chhabra are not making exaggerated claims. However, with Big Food regularly pummeling organics and claiming conventionally raised produce is just as good and a whole lot cheaper, the young scholar and the seasoned researcher give me hope that a more earth-friendly agriculture will eventually gain the upper hand.

Dr. Bauer and Ria Chhabra talk about their research in the video below.


#654 Bike sharing goes international

Bike Share Stand, Montreal

Bike Share Stand, Montreal; photo by Michael Pick; via Flickr Creative Commons

When cities consider bicycle paths and shared-bicycle systems to be part of public transportation, something like BIXI Montréal happens. Amsterdam was a pioneer with bike sharing. Montréal came on board in 2007, with a plan to reduce car traffic.

By May 2009, Wikipedia reports they had 3000 bicycles and 300 stations. Subscribers can pay a monthly or annual fee, and anyone can give it a try for 24 hours, for a $5 fee. With more than 400 stations now scattered around the city, access is reasonably easy.

The idea is simple. Pick up a bike from one dock. Ride to your destination and pop the bike into another dock. When you are ready to ride home, hop any available bike and be on your way.

There are BIXI schemes in other major Canadian cities, as well as in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. BIXI is only one of the many sharing systems. Others can be found in central and South America, Asia, eastern and western Europe, and North America.

Finances can be tricky, as they generally need a fairly hefty subsidy. In addition to the initial costs, maintenance is expensive, although companies such as Spain’s Urbikes are coming up with bikes that are easier and less costly to repair. On the plus side of the financial equation, bicycles reduce traffic- and environmental-related costs to a city.

Another challenge is helmets, where they are required. It seems unlikely people are going to walk around with helmets under their arms or in their backpacks so some cities provide those as well. When Brisbane, Australia bought helmets for sharing, 70 per cent of them disappeared.

Another challenge is persuading people to switch to bikes. The Age reported mixed results for Melbourne’s established bike-share scheme. On days of major events, usage increased but dropped to less than one trip per bike on other days. By contrast, the 20,000 bikes in Paris are used at least five times each a day. Dublinbikes has been so successful its bikes are rented an average of 10 times a day.

Bike sharing is worth promoting. I stumbled across The Bike-sharing Blog as I was surfing around for more information.  Looks to me as if it’s a good place to start for any city contemplating bike sharing as part of its public-transportation system. It is a portal with information on everything from health risks and benefits to cost-benefit analysis to bike-sharing schemes around the world.

Maybe one day we will overcome the biggest challenge for cyclists in cities around the world. Most cities are car friendly, bicycle hostile. But bike paths are expanding, along with the share schemes. It all gives me hope for the cities of the future.


#653 A green hotel in my own home town

Okanagan Lake

Okanagan Lake, the jewel that draws people to our city

Sometimes inspiring reasons for hope are right under my nose, and I keep looking over the top of them at things farther away. One of those is the Best Western Plus Hotel & Suites on the highway through Kelowna.

During my years as a storyteller and then as a community developer, I stayed in a lot of hotels and was just grateful for quiet rooms, comfortable beds, and clean bathrooms. My environmentally friendly soul often fretted about my fat carbon footprint as I traveled to meetings and conferences and consultations.

Once I was working here, I had many occasions to organize or attend meetings at the Best Western. My focus then was on the food, since I was heading up a food security initiative in the region. I was always hoping for something local, organic, sustainably grown and processed, and I was generally having to settle for something less because of budget constraints.

I overlooked something at the Best Western. Actually, I overlooked a lot of somethings. While I was staring at the food, I missed the huge bank of solar panels on the roof. It powers the hybrid water-heating system with a 90-tonne advantage. That’s the quantity of greenhouse gases the system keeps out of our valley.

Here are some other things I overlooked:

  • Energy-efficient lighting inside and out
  • Energy-efficient heating system
  • Silver reflective film on the windows, which cuts down on sunlight during our hot summers and retains heat in winter
  • City of Kelowna’s Nature’s Gold fertilizer on the lawns instead of chemicals
  • Energy-saving appliances

Part of the orientation package for new hires asks staff to be part of “the hotel’s overall commitment to doing everything economically feasible to keep our air, water and earth safe and clean for future generations.”

Greg Salloum is the mastermind behind the hotel’s green commitments. When he took on the task of renovating and managing the Best Western Plus Hotel & Suites, he set out to make it the most sustainable hotel in Kelowna. He succeeded, and his LinkedIn profile tells us he has still more plans for doing his part to safeguard the environment:

My next goal is to develop a biodynamic permaculture mini resort/farm in Kelowna that supplies healthy food for area restaurants and homes. Also, I’m working with a company to develop phytochemical separation of wood waste for a variety of industrial uses including bio-plastics and bio-fuels.

Given that kind of vision and the evidence he can make things happen, Greg Salloum and the Kelowna Best Western Plus Hotel & Suites give me hope.

You can follow the Best Western Kelowna Hotel on Facebook and Twitter. Oh, and that’s another thing that gives me hope. There are real people sending the Tweets.


#652 Pilobolus tests the boundaries of dance


Clip from Pilobolus performance of Shadowland for the German show, Wetten Dass

Pilobolus Dance Theatre has been wowing audiences since 1971. I remember seeing them years ago but had lost track of the company after moving to rural British Columbia. Thanks to a friend’s sending me the link to one of their YouTube videos, I’m once again feeling a sense of wonder at this creative company.

The company’s name comes from “a phototropic fungus that thrives in farmyards”, which Jonathan Wolken’s father was studying when the company was formed. (Wolken, who died in 2010, was one of the founding members.) The fungus is a light seeker that, as Wikipedia describes it, “propels itself with extraordinary strength, speed and accuracy.” That sounds like the right name for a company the New York Times described as “known for its antic visual wit; unbridled, even slapstick athleticism; and periodic lack of clothing.”

The very things that have made the company so intriguing to its supporters have driven its detractors crazy. The company is constantly testing the boundaries of dance. That irritates critics and audience members who prefer a more recognizable and accepted art form. Others cut them slack and just sit back and allow themselves to be caught up in the company’s experimentation. Still others hire the company to inspire creativity in business and marketing.

You will have to make up your own mind, and I will embed two very different videos for you to contemplate. Shadowland takes shadow puppetry to astonishing levels. The second video is a performance of Symbiosis for TED Talks.

Not everything they do works for every critic or audience member. That is part of any creative endeavor. Pilobolus gives me hope because they stretch not only the boundaries of dance but also of our own perceptions of what is creatively and physically possible.

You can follow Pilobolus on YouTube.


#651 Incredible Edible world

Food to share

Incredible Edible vegetable bed in Brittany; photo from Incredible Edible Facebook

Signs like this are popping up around France:

“Nourriture à partager. Servez-vous librement, c’est gratuit!”

My French is rusty, but I recognize this generous sentiment: “Food to share. Help yourself. It’s free!”

The idea behind Les incroyables comestibles had its genesis in England. Incredible Edible Todmorden is such a brilliant local-foods scheme it has inspired communities around the world.

The two women who started it, Pamela Warhurst and Mary Clear, are of the school of thought that believes asking forgiveness is better than waiting for permission. Instead of wading through months, and even years, of meetings, they started planting food gardens in small beds throughout Todmorden. Instead of “private” or “keep away” signs, they invited people to help themselves and to get involved.

Metro News quoted Warhurst’s speech at the 2012 Thinking Digital Conference:

For some it’s about self-sufficiency, but the truth is, it’s about something bigger.

We believe in people and the power of small actions. We are not prepared to wait on the off chance a leader somewhere will twig that we are creating huge resource problems for our children and their children….

We don’t take too much notice of bureaucracy and rules. We say ‘just do it;’. If you don’t harm anybody just do it, get on with it. I don’t think I’m going to go to prison for changing an ugly space into a beautiful space.

That message resonates with people around the world and has turned Todmorden’s good idea into a global movement. In Germany it’s called “Ernte für Alle”. In France it’s Incroyables Comestibles. Travel the world, and you’ll find Incredible Edible initiatives in Africa, Holland, Canada, Qatar, Romania and all points in between.

So don’t despair about the takeover of our food systems by Big Food and Big Ag and their insistence on polluting the planet and increasing climate challenges. There are many ways to raise a flag for good food. Plant a garden full of open-pollinated, heritage seeds. Save and swap the seeds. Do some guerrilla gardening. Support urban agriculture. Buy from local farmers. Insist on good food, sustainably produced, and the right of everyone to have access to it. Avoid the middle aisles of the supermarket.

Best of all, have fun! Food is life. It is celebration and fellowship. It is a sign of the earth’s abundance and generosity. Incredible Edible honours the gift. It gives me hope.


#650 Indian village plants trees when a girl is born

Textiles of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Textiles of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan; photo by Thomas Belcik, via Flickr Creative Commons

One village in India not only welcomes girl babies. It plants trees and starts a fund for each of them.

The village of Piplantri is in Rajasthan, in northwestern India, a state where women’s lives are precarious. Child marriage is still common. Sexual abuse, violence against women, female infanticide, maternal mortality, witch branding and dowry deaths hang like omens over the births of girl children.

Things are different in Piplantri because of Shyam Sundar Paliwal. He was head of the village when his young daughter died. To honour his beloved child, he proposed the village plant trees for every girl born.

Although Paliwal is no longer village head, his idea lives on. When a girl is born, the authorities give her family 111 trees to plant. They open a fund for each girl, with the family contributing 10,000 rupees and the community another 21,000 rupees. The money bears interest and cannot be withdrawn until the girl’s 20th birthday. Paliwal told The Hindu:

We make these parents sign an affidavit promising that they would not marry her off before the legal age, send her to school regularly and take care of the trees planted in her name.

In half a dozen years, Piplantri has planted over a quarter of a million trees, 111 for each girl child born, 11 for each person who dies. Since the trees are susceptible to termites, villagers plant aloe vera around them and now have a small industry of families producing aloe vera juice, gels, pickles, and other products.

The progressive scheme that welcomes girl babies in Piplantri is having an impact on every part of the community of 8,000. The village is greening its environment, changing attitudes toward women, reducing crime, and creating economic opportunity.

It all started with the decision to celebrate the birth of girls. This gives me hope.

UPDATE May 15, 2014: Shyam Sundar Paliwal (son of the man in the post) sent me a link to this very hope-filled article in Aljazeera: ‘Eco-feminism’ helps save girl child in India