An Introduction To The World Of Letterboxing

On our recent visit to the Edgar M. Tennis Preserve on Deer Isle, Russell, Betty and I not only had our first exposure to the tremendous scenic beauty found on the Preserve, but I also had my first exposure to the world of letterboxing.

Letterboxing, according to the Urban Dictionary, is an interesting combination of hiking, orienteering, travel, and sharing adventure with fellow hikers.  The goal in the letterboxing world is to find waterproof letterboxes that are kept in scenic places like the Tennis Preserve — some of which are harder to find than others.  When you find the letterbox, you’re supposed to leave a message, stamp the message book in the letterbox, and also stamp your own letterboxing book so you can keep a record of all the letterboxes you’ve visited.  Not being aware of the world of letterboxing, or that the Tennis Preserve had a letterbox, I didn’t have a letterboxing book with me when we came across the Tennis Preserve letterbox, so I couldn’t stamp my own book.  We did, however, leave a message and used the cool shell stamp to record our visit to the letterbox.  Fortunately for us, the Tennis letterbox wasn’t hard to find, either.

It was fun to thumb through the Tennis Preserve letterbox notebook to see how had visited — we were surprised to learn that somebody had been there before us on the day of our visit, even though we were hiking early in the morning — and I think letterboxing would be an enjoyable, and very healthy, hobby.  Any pastime that gets you out of the indoor world and into the fresh air in places like the Tennis Preserve has got to be beneficial, both physically and mentally.  And the stamps are pretty cool, too.

Advertisements

White Birch And Birds

There is a white birch tree growing from the rocks at one corner of our side yard. It’s a beautiful tree — who doesn’t have a soft spot for trees with white bark? — but it’s unfortunately lacking any avian occupants.

Stonington is home to lots of birds; in the morning you hear their many different calls. In hopes that one of the birds might call the birch tree home, I put up a nifty birdhouse that a good friend got us as a Maine housewarming gift on the birch tree. it’s freshly painted, has a solid roof, and is in a safe neighborhood. Now we’ll just keep our fingers crossed that a discerning bird will decide it’s their dream house.

Shucking Small Shampoos And Soaps

The bottom drawer of the vanity in our bathroom has a pretty good collection of hotel soaps, shampoos, conditioners, hand lotion, and mouthwash I’ve brought home from business trips over the years.  Now the New York Times is reporting that the days of tiny hotel bottles of shampoo may be ending.

According to the Times, the little shampoo bottles are the focus of efforts by the large hotel chains, and lawmakers in states like California, to reduce plastic waste.  A bill working its way through the California legislature would outlaw the tiny bottles, and some hotel chains are already moving to refillable dispensers instead.  (Of course, the Times being what it is, it quotes “home organizers” who can explain to high-brow readers that some of us in the hoi polloi bring the elfin bottles home to use, and who can tsk-tsk at the unseemly clutter they create.)

The Times article suggests that some people bring the tiny bottles home as souvenirs of place they’ve stayed.  That’s not my impetus — I do it because I’m cheap about stuff like that.  It’s not like my grizzled mop needs high-end shampoos and conditioners; I’ll use whatever.  If I can bring home bottles of shampoo and soaps so that I don’t have to buy them myself, why not do so?  I haven’t bought shampoo in years.  It’s a small savings, I know, but I figure that all of that penny-pinching will allow Kish and me to enjoy a few extra “Early Bird Special” dinners after we’re retired.

I’ve stayed at hotels with the new wall-mounted soap and shampoo dispensers.  They’re fine, of course, although they definitely do have a more institutional feel to them — like you’re staying at the Hotel Kabul youth hostel rather than at a nice hotel.  Nevertheless, I’m all in favor of reducing the plastic waste that is clogging the oceans and landfills, and those tiny bottles seem like a good place to start.  I’m sure I’ll get used to the dispensers.  Besides, I only use small dollops of the shampoo to work my hair into a good lather, so with the collection of tiny bottles we’ve got in the bottom drawer I’m covered for a good long while.

 

TMI, 40 Years Later

Forty years ago today, the “incident” at Three Mile Island Generating Station in eastern Pennsylvania occurred.  Due to a series of small-scale mishaps with cooling systems, the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor heated up to alarming temperatures and suffered a partial core meltdown. Fortunately, the overheated radioactive material itself was contained in the core and did not escape to the environment.

towers-1979The concern then turned to what to do radioactive gases that had been generated.  For days, “Three Mile Island’ dominated the news, with news reports always featuring the forbidding cooling towers venting steam in the background.  Ultimately, some of the gases were trapped in tanks, but other gases were vented to the atmosphere after migrating through a series of filters that were supposed to trap the most dangerous radioactive elements.  Residents were instructed to stay indoors, with the windows in their homes closed, but there was great concern that exposure to the gases could cause all kind of health issues.  People panicked, and thousands of frightened people fled the area.  It was one of the first instances of major federal government communications failure in the modern era.  Eventually, President Carter visited the site to let the general public know that the situation was under control — but by then the perceptual damage had been done.

It took about a month until the engineers at the site had the coolant systems under control, but the aftermath of TMI lasted for years.  There was significant litigation about the possible health effects of the incident, although authorities eventually concluded that the only significant exposure was experienced by four employees at the TMI plant.  Concerns about widespread birth defects and the development of radiation-related illnesses turned out to be unfounded.  In the meantime, clean-up operations lasted for almost 15 years and cost nearly a billion dollars.

TMI was the worst nuclear incident on U.S. soil.  In terms of its health effects, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Chernobyl incident, and many people now living in America either weren’t around when it happened or have forgotten about it.  But TMI has had one lasting impact that is undeniable — since it occurred, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States, and every time one is considered, the grainy black and white photos of the TMI cooling towers with steam rising from them get displayed.

But as America increasingly focuses on lessening its carbon footprint and relying on renewable energy sources, nuclear power is cited more and more frequently as something that has to be considered as part of the solution.  Technology has changed a lot, and for the better, since 1979, and people also have come to realize that nuclear power offers some significant environmental advantages over other forms of power generation that are dependent upon fossil fuels.

Maybe now it is time to let TMI and those scary photos of cooling towers fade into the past, and take a fresh look at nuclear power without being hamstrung by 40-year-old fears.

Einstein On A Toilet Seat

I was in the bathroom of my hotel room in New York City and noticed some printing on the toilet seat.  Because toilet seats aren’t the normal forum for announcements by hotel management, I was intrigued and just had to read it.

The announcement stated:  “In an effort to increase sustainability, this auto flush has been deactivated.  Please press the button to the left to flush.”  And beneath that statement the notice read:  “‘The environment is everything that isn’t me.’ – Albert Einstein.”

Did Einstein ever actually say that?  It’s not easy to confirm whether he did or he didn’t.  A Google search will send you to lots of different websites where you can buy t-shirts, posters, or refrigerator magnets with that quote attributed to the Father of Relativity and printed over some peaceful pastoral scene, and also a lot of general quote websites where you can go to find a quote that fits every occasion (including, apparently, a notice on a toilet seat).  But those quote websites don’t seem to provide any attribution for the claimed Einstein quote.  The closest I could find was a website that referred to the Boston Vegetarian Society as the source for the quote.  But I’ve seen no citations to a book or published writing, or a speech given on a particular day, or one of Einstein’s letters.

Did one of the greatest minds in human history actually say: “The environment is everything that isn’t me”?  As is true with so many facially plausible quotes that are attributed to historical figures and thrown around like footballs these days, it’s really difficult to say.  But we can certainly be reasonably confident of one thing:  if Albert Einstein did say it, he probably never dreamed that it would end up on the toilet seat of a Manhattan hotel room as part of an announcement justifying a reversion to manual flushing.

 

 

Escape Of The Cocaine Hippos

When murderous cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, Colombian authorities no doubt thought his days of affecting the country were over.  They didn’t count on the impact of his . . . hippopotamuses.

120824_ex_hippopod-crop-rectangle3-largeEscobar was a quirky narcoterrorist who kept a zoo on his sprawling estate.  After his death, most of the animals were removed, but his four hippos were left in a pond there. You’ve probably guessed what happened next.  The four hippos soon lumbered out of the pond and off Escobar’s property to the nearby Magdalena River, where they made their new home.  In the last 25 years they’ve been thriving.  Nobody knows exactly how many there are, but estimates are that between 40 and 60 hippos are there on the river, swimming about in that curiously dainty hippo way, breeding like crazy, and otherwise doing their hippo thing.  Colombians have dubbed them the “cocaine hippos.”

But here’s the problem — hippos aren’t a native species to South America.  In fact, they are an invasive species, and some Colombian conservationists and biologists are concerned that the hippos are wrecking the environment and harming the other occupants on the river, such as otters and manatees.  And, because hippos eat on dry land but deposit their waste in water, the hippo discharges are changing the nutrient composition of the river and nearby waterways.  Even the hippos’ swimming may be affecting the indigenous species, by affecting the muddiness of the rivers and thereby upsetting nature’s delicate balance.  As a result, some ecologists say the hippos need to be removed or their population otherwise curbed — which may be easier said than done, when you’re talking about territorial, thousand-pound creatures living in the wild who aren’t exactly eager to interact with humans.

But others say, “not so fast.”  They think the escape of the hippos was an inadvertent example of “rewilding” — the concept of putting non-native flora and fauna into an area to fill a vacant ecological niche.  It’s like the decision to release timber wolves back into areas of the country that they had vacated decades ago, except in this case some are arguing that hippos are in effect replacing large herbivorous creatures that went extinct in the South American ecosystem in the last 20,000 years — creatures like the toxodont (which incidentally sounds like the name for a dental care product).  Still others argue that having a surplus population of hippos in South America is a great thing, just in case the African hippos might be subject to extinction due to changes in their environment.

While the debate rages, the hippos continue to enjoy life on the Magdalena River.  Their escape and success reaffirms once again what the Jeff Goldblum character said in Jurassic Park:  life somehow finds a way.

Reduce, Reuse . . . Compost

Austin, Texas has come up with an interesting new approach to addressing its landfill and waste issues.  Starting Monday, every restaurant and food business in Austin can no longer throw away any food.

The initiative stems from a 2015 study of the materials that ended up in Austin’s landfills.  The study found that 37 percent of the landfill deposits from businesses was organic material that could have been composted or put to some other use.  Accordingly, when the city enacted its Universal Recycling Ordinance, which has the goal of reaching the point of zero waste by 2040, one of the first targets was to reduce, and ultimately stop, the flow of organic material into landfill space.

compost-488988734The ban on throwing away food by local businesses is a first step in the process.  According to the article linked above, Austin city officials hope that the restaurants and food businesses either donate the food to the needy, or give it to local farmers, or compost it.  The affected businesses have to submit an “Organic Diversion Plan” each year.

The Austin initiative raises a lot of questions.  Aren’t there health risks in giving leftover food to shelters and food banks, and how will they be dealt with?  What are local farms and food banks supposed to do with leftover organics they can’t use?  How much composting is really feasible, and what kind of environmental and health and atmospheric (i.e., odor) impact will lots of new composting piles and devices have?  How is the city going to police compliance with the ordinance, and how many additional city workers will need to be hired to accomplish that?  How much will prices charged at Austin restaurants have to increase to pay for the new activities that restaurants and food businesses will have to undertake?  And, ultimately, when will individual residents in Austin have to establish their own compost piles to meet the zero waste goal?

Cities and counties are often viewed as laboratories of our democracy because they are willing to experiment, on a small scale, with different and creative potential solutions to societal problems.  Local governments have long understood that we can’t simply keep burying trash and other discarded materials in landfills and have been looking for workable alternatives — so far, without a lot of success.  I expect that many local governments will be paying careful attention to how Austin’s experiment with its Universal Recycling Ordinance works.  Depending on how some of the questions noted above ultimately are answered, we may all see more composting in our future.