How Green Was My Garden?

In 2007, Gay Street in downtown Columbus was changed from a one-way to a two-way street. As part of the project, about $1 million was spent on environmental improvements, including landscaped median strips that were added at points along the street, as well as “rain gardens.” The rain gardens were designated areas surrounded by cement berms that were supposed to look like an actual garden, with flowers and other plantings. They were intended to serve an important purpose: to absorb and filter storm water runoff from the surrounding area before it found its way back to local rivers.

The switch to a two-way street has worked well for Gay Street. The “rain gardens,” on the other hand, were kept up for a time and were a nice addition to the street; they also were featured in The Rain Gardener newsletter and won awards for the consultants who developed the project. But at some point along the way, whoever was responsible for taking care of the rain gardens stopped doing so. The photo above shows one of the rain gardens as it looked yesterday when I walked by on my way to the library. It’s an unsightly, muddy area, but more importantly it probably doesn’t do much to serve its stated purpose of absorbing and filtering storm water runoff–at least, no more than would be accomplished by untended open ground.

Only the sign below remains to remind passersby of what this area was supposed to be. Interestingly, Columbus’ submission to The Rain Gardener newsletter, linked above, stated that one of the goals of the rain garden project was to educate downtown workers, residents, and others “about the issues that storm water runoff creates.” Now the rain gardens serve a different educational purpose: they show what happens after the awards and the fanfare, when a well-intended “green” project is ignored and you wonder why the money to create it was spent in the first place.

A Weeding Weekend

Stonington, Maine is a great growing climate. Plants seem to thrive here, but unfortunately that includes weeds—lots and lots of weeds. So when I returned after a two-and-a-half month absence, I found on the positive side that my lupines had grown to colossal sizes, but weeds had invaded all the beds and were on the verge of overwhelming our plantings. The photo above is an example of just how overgrown things had become.

So this past weekend featured a lot of weeding, to try to get the growth under control. I dug out countless broadleaf weeds, yanked out creeping vines, chopped back encroaching chokecherry trees, and pulled out unwanted grass. My favorite weed to remove, whose name is unknown to me, has a weird hollow stem, grows rapidly, and has a purple flower on top and very shallow roots. You can extract it with a gentle tug, and it is satisfying to then fling it onto the weed pile.

By the end of the weekend, as the photo below shows, I had got things back to about where they were when I last left in May. In the never-ending War of the Weeds, that’s about all you can hope for.

Assessing The Natural Impact Of The Pandemic Shutdowns

When the COVID pandemic struck in earnest in March 2020 and lockdown orders began to be issued by governments around the world, the impact on human beings was immediate and obvious. Most people stopped traveling by air or by car, tourism abruptly dropped, and many travel destinations closed for months as people huddled in their homes. More than two years later, we’re still dealing with the economic fallout from the shutdowns and assessing the positive and negative impacts on homo sapiens.

But because the COVID shutdowns effectively stopped a lot of human movement, it also affected the natural world–and there, too, scientists are trying to sift through the data and determine the impact. Scientists and environmentalists have dubbed the COVID shutdown period the “anthropause”–“anthro” being the prefix for humans–and are in the process of evaluating information about what it meant for various ecosystems. Their preliminary conclusion, according to an interesting article in the New York Times, basically is: “it’s complicated.” The cessation of a significant chunk of human activity clearly had some positive effects, but it had some negative effects as well.

The positive effects are, perhaps, easier to understand. Because humans weren’t going to certain places, making noise, stirring things up, and interacting with the flora and fauna, the natural world had a brief chance to revert to a non-human equilibrium. For example, the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Hawaii, where the photo above was taken, is a popular snorkeling spot. It was closed to all visitors for nine months during the COVID shutdown, which resulted in significantly improved water clarity (without snorkelers kicking up lots of sediment) and increased fish density and diversity (without snorkelers causing a ruckus and causing fish to swim elsewhere). Similar positive effects were seen in other places.

But there were negative effects as well, because in many places humans either are affirmatively acting as protectors of habitats or species, or because human activity has the effect of discouraging predator species. The Times article cites an island off the coast of Sweden that is a popular bird-watching destination, where scientists have found that the reduction in human visitors emboldened eagles whose activities affected the hatching activities of still other birds, causing a 26 percent drop in the breeding activity of that species. In addition, many environmental conservation and monitoring programs were impacted, and in some areas illegal poaching spiked.

In short, because the totality of human interaction with the environment is immensely complex, trying to assess the full impact of the cessation of human interaction also is a difficult question. There are a lot of falling dominoes to evaluate and causal chains to consider, and the ultimate results of the analysis may not be known for years, if at all. What does seem clear is that areas where limitations on human activity had an obvious positive impact are likely to take steps to make sure that some form of limitations remain in place. The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, for example, has imposed new limitations on the number of snorkelers who are permitted and is totally closed two days a week.

It would be nice to think that we could learn something positive, and ultimately helpful to the environment, from the COVID shutdown period.

Green Spaces (IV)

I like the tucked away, somewhat hidden green spaces that you find in downtown Columbus and other urban settings. They show that someone went to the effort and expense of creating a pretty area when they could have simply eschewed grass and trees and turned the area into a soulless, uninviting, and low-maintenance concrete patio instead.

One of these little gems is found just off High Street, on the block north of Nationwide Boulevard. As you head north on the west side of High Street and approach the bridge over some railroad tracks, a sidewalk suddenly appears to the left. If you follow it, the winding path allows you to cut over to Front Street, but also takes you past this sliver of green with grass, trees, and landscaping and a cool view of the Hyatt Regency hotel building. Whoever designed the area did a commendable job, because the row of trees between the area and High Street act as an effective screen against traffic noise, creating a quiet, calm oasis in the middle of a busy city.

This attractive green spot is right next to an office building. I’m sure there are workers who enjoy looking at the windows at it, and also appreciate it as a lunch spot where they can sit under the trees and enjoy some carry-out from the nearby North Market on a sunny day. Whoever created this little area has enriched their work days.

The Kayak Tell

In poker, a “tell” occurs when players exhibit some visible sign that betrays their view of their position. They might touch an ear, or blink, or shift their position in response to a very good hand, or a very bad predicament. The experienced poker player watches for such tells, and profits from them.

“Tells” extend beyond the poker table. Rivers have tells, too. And when I took my walk along the Scioto River today, I saw one of them. In two different places along the river, in the heart of downtown and near the Audubon Park dam, I saw groups of kayaks on the water, as well as a pop-up kayak company along the riverbank near the Main Street bridge.

Kayaks are a significant “tell” for the Scioto River, because they indicate that what the Scioto River project hoped to achieve is, in fact, moving closer to reality. When the project began years ago, the designers hoped that by narrowing the river and removing some of the dams, the river might be transformed from a shallow, muddy, debris-choked mess into a real river, with an actual, discernible current. Kayaks are a pretty good tell that the goal is being achieved, because they move with the current. Even more important, no one would have wanted to be at seated kayak distance from the sluggish, smelly Scioto of days gone by.

The Scioto has a long way to go before it could be viewed as a natural river, but every journey begins with a single step. Kayaks on the water are a good sign.

A Friendly Visit From “Hank The Tank”

South Lake Tahoe, California is, by all accounts, a beautiful community on the shores of bucolic Lake Tahoe, on the state line with Nevada in the Sierra Nevada mountains. You can imagine a happy homeowner sipping from a steaming mug of coffee in the morning, serenely contemplating the coming day in his Tahoe Keys neighborhood as the sunrise gilds the placid surface of the lake . . . when suddenly the peaceful scene is disturbed by the sounds of trash cans rattling and the alarmed homeowner notices that a massive, 500-pound black bear is snuffling around immediately outside the house, looking for a way in.

“Hank the Tank” has decided to drop by for a snack.

“Hank the Tank” is the name the folks in South Lake Tahoe have given to a huge black bear that has broken into dozens of local homes in search of food and is responsible for “152 reports of conflict behavior.” In the most recent reported invasion, Hank broke and then squeezed through a small window to get inside a home. The bear also has used his bulk to break down front doors and garage doors in search of food.

And that’s the problem. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Hank is a “severely food-habituated bear,” which “means that the animal has lost its fear of people and is associating people with access to food.” When a bear has lost his fear of people and is perfectly content to break into houses for food, that doesn’t leave many good options. Wildlife officials are trying to trap the bear to stop the break-ins, and in the meantime they, and a local bear protection non-profit organization called the Bear League, are trying to find an animal sanctuary where Hank can be released. If they can’t find him a safe new home, euthanasia is the only other option.

It appears that the bear’s visits may be a bit of a self-inflicted wound for the Tahoe Keys area that has been Hank’s favorite destination. The neighborhood bans the use of “bear boxes”–free-standing garbage can enclosures that are supposed to be bear-resistant–because they are “unsightly.” The Bear League says that Hank goes to Tahoe Keys because he gets rewarded with garbage in unsecured garages. If there is any positive in this unfortunate situation, it may be that Hank’s visits have caused the homeowners’ association to change the policy and allow “bear boxes,” which may allow this scenario to be avoided in the future.

As between “bear boxes”–“unsightly” though they might be–and a live, 500-pound bear that has lost its fear of people, I’d go with a “bear box” every time.

How Now, Snow Plow?

Walking to work during a Midwestern winter poses many challenges. Storms pelt the pedestrian with snow, sleet, and freezing rain, and frigid temperatures turn the precipitation into sheets of slippery ice ready to produce a fall.

But the most galling challenges of all are man made: the huge snow piles that are plowed into existence after a big storm like the one that hit Columbus last week. They are galling precisely because they demonstrate beyond dispute the second-class citizenship of the walker. The streets are cleared, to allow speedy passage of the almighty cars, buses, and even bicycles, and in so doing new and absurd obstacles are created for those who are hoofing it to work.

At intersections, the plows seem motivated by an evil, anti-walker animus, because they shove the snow into huge piles placed precisely at entrances to crosswalks–like the these piles at the intersection of Fourth and Main that I had to navigate yesterday. You almost need a sherpa to climb them and find just the right pass. And, as the snow piles melt and refreeze, ultimately turning black and filthy with cinders, asphalt pieces, and captured car exhaust, they will pose a new, ever-more disgusting impediment to safe passage for days to come.

Of course, the snow plow operators aren’t motivated by hatred of walkers. Instead, they are oblivious to walkers, and simply don’t care that pedestrians might be inconvenienced by the plowed piles. That’s what makes the piles so galling. No one even thinks of the walkers.

It’s ironic when you think about it. Cities like Columbus make big shows of adopting “green” policies and creating bike lanes and other nods to environmentally conscious forms of transportation, yet at the same time they not only ignore the basic needs of those who commute by the most environmentally friendly method of all, but also create new and totally unnecessary obstacles for them. Columbus’ green policies would have a lot more credibility if snow plow drivers were simply instructed to not create ludicrous barriers at crosswalks.

Bird, Undeterred

Here’s what I consider to be pretty much conclusive evidence that the behavior of creatures is not solely determined by genetics, and that environment has an impact: Caribbean birds. St. Lucia, the southern Caribbean island we are visiting, has many familiar bird species, but the conduct of the birds is definitely different from the conduct of the birds of the Midwest.

This pigeon-like bird rested on the guardrail of our cottage, about a foot away from me, for a long time this morning. Unlike jumpy central Ohio birds, he didn’t flutter off at any movement on my part. Instead, he confidently strutted up and down the railing, eyeing me with apparent disdain because I wasn’t eating anything that would yield a crumb or two for him to seize. His pugnacious attitude reminded me of the tough-guy pigeon gangs you see in New York City, or Paris.

The pigeon’s haughty ‘tude, however, was nothing compared to the sparrow-like birds that hang around the breakfast patio. Those little guys hop closer and closer to the food on the plate, undeterred by repeated shooing, until they finally dare to perch on the side of the plate and take a nibble of a half-eaten pastry. And when guest rise from their table, the birds descend in force and tear away every scrap of food they can get in their beaks like they own the place.

In the Midwest, birds are timid creatures who don’t want any part of interaction with humans. In the Caribbean, birds are aggressive in taking what they want, whether humans are nearby or not. And I have no doubt that if you transported Columbus birds to St. Lucia, they’d get roughed up a bit by the natives at first, but then would quickly learn that if they want to rule the roost, they’d better adopt the Caribbean approach and take what they want.

The Scientific Pursuit Of Happiness

Scientists have been analyzing happiness for a long time–probably for as long as “science” has existed as a discipline separate from philosophy or religion. The basic questions being explored are straightforward: Why do some people seem to be happier than others? How much personal happiness is genetic, and how much is the product of environment or intentional activity? These age-old questions have taken on added urgency recently, with so many people in the modern world struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety–and COVID isn’t exactly helping, either.

A recent article summarized the current scientific landscape on the analysis of happiness. It notes that the modern framework for the analysis was set by a 2005 article in General Psychology called “Pursuing Happiness: The Structure of Sustainable Change.” The summary of that article describes its analysis as follows: “surprisingly little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”

Only scientists would use a phrase like “chronic happiness level.” But stripped of the scientific verbiage, the article posited that some element of individual happiness is determined by genetics and therefore beyond your control, another element is based on your environment, and yet another element is based on activities and practices that affect your happiness–activities and practices that you can control. The 2005 article even attributed percentages to each of the three elements, with 50 percent of the variance in happiness attributed to genetics, 10 percent to environment, and 40 percent to activities and practices. This 50-10-40 hypothesis was seen by some as a “happiness pie.”

As with any scientific hypothesis, the “happiness pie” analysis has been criticized, primarily on the ground that it is pretty hard to distinguish genetic factors from environmental factors. One 2019 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, there evidently is such a publication) noted: “We conclude that there is little empirical evidence for the variance decomposition suggested by the “happiness pie,” and that even if it were valid, it is not necessarily informative with respect to the question of whether individuals can truly exert substantial infuence over their own chronic happiness level.”

It’s the scientific equivalent of the theological argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But there does seem to be consensus on three basic propositions: (1) genetics play a role, and some people are genetically disposed to be in a happier frame of mind than others; (2) your environment has an impact on happiness; and (3) what you are doing at a particular point in time–such as running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day, like the happy kid in the photo above–can affect your happiness.

In view of that, what’s the point of arguing about what percentage of happiness should be assigned to each of those three factors? You can’t control your genes, and you can’t control how your environment shaped you when you were growing up. But you can identify what you enjoy–whether it is exercising, listening to your favorite music, spending time with friends and loved ones, volunteering, or some other activity–and try to work those activities into your day. And, in big-picture terms, you might be able to change your environment going forward to a place or setting that is more likely to make you happy, too. And part of changing your environment is identifying what makes you unhappy–like jerky behavior on social media, for example–and trying to change or avoid it.

So why debate percentages? If trying to structure your day to maximize the conduct and activities that you really like can make you happier–even if it is only an incremental increase–why not do it? What have you got to lose?

White Paint, Squared

Scientists at Purdue University have created the whitest white paint ever made–a paint so white it has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the whitest paint in history. (Who would have thought there was even such a category?)

This isn’t of interest to only those people who like to go to paint stores to get those little paint squares and then debate whether their ceilings should be painted in eggshell, or pearl, or alabaster. The whole point of the whitest paint invention process was to try to develop a paint that could actually conserve energy, and thereby address climate change, by making a paint that is as reflective of sunlight as possible. As scientists worked on the problem, they discovered that sunlight reflection and dazzling whiteness went hand in hand.

The new paint is much more reflective than commercially available white paint–bouncing back 98.1 percent of solar radiation–and it also emits infrared heat. As a result, a surface coated with the paint, such as a roof, or the walls of a house, becomes cooler than the surrounding temperature. Using the paint therefore could help to cool buildings and reduce the need for air conditioners and their power consumption, which could relieve the pressure on the nation’s already taxed power grid and the environmental effects associated with generation of electric power.

It’s a pretty ingenious, and painless, way of conserving energy. And who knew? It turns out that inventing a brilliant new white paint is a lot more exciting than watching paint dry.

Vote No On Issue 7

In recent years I’ve tried to avoid discussing politics in this blog, but Issue 7, which will be on the ballot in the City of Columbus in November, will have to be an exception to that rule of thumb. It’s an egregious example of misuse of the referendum process, misleading ballot language, and a crass attempt to divert City of Columbus funds into unknown pockets, all rolled into one ballot proposition. If you’re registered to vote in the City of Columbus on November 2, I urge you to get to the polls and vote “no” on Issue 7.

Issue 7 would require Columbus to create four funds–an Energy Conservation and Energy Efficiency Fund, a Clean Energy Education and Training Fund, a Minority Business Enterprise Clean Energy Development Fund and a Columbus Clean Energy Partnership Fund–and would require the city to redirect $87 million in city general funds to fund them. According to the city, two of the funds, worth $67 million, would be transferred to an unidentified group with no legislative oversight, and the removal of $87 million from the general fund would likely require significant cuts in other important city services. Columbus city leaders have spoken out against this attempt to put public funds into private hands and bypass budget processes–all of which could imperil the city’s overall financial health and its bond rating, at a time when Columbus, like other cities, is trying to deal with the many different consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Columbus Dispatch has also been outspoken about Issue 7, both in reporting on the checkered history of the issue and the lack of transparency about how the millions of dollars in public funds would be used, and by whom, and in editorializing on how the issue attempts to use “green energy” concepts to cover what the Dispatch editorial board calls a “grift.” The editorial describes Issue 7 as “a shameful attempt to confuse well-meaning voters and bilk Columbus out of money that should be used for critical services such as police and fire protection, trash collection, health services, and recreation and parks programs.”

And finally, Issue 7 is an example of an increasing problem in the American system, where standard processes in a representative democracy are being bypassed by ballot issues and referenda that have voters set policy and direct the expenditure of public funds, without the public hearings, scrutiny, and other elements of actions taken by our elected representatives that bring transparency and expertise to decision-making and public spending. And when the ballot issues contain language that obscures rather than enlightens, and seems consciously designed to mislead voters, the problem becomes even greater.

The election on November 2 is an off-year election, when turnout is likely to be small. The group behind Issue 7 no doubt hopes that most voters won’t go to the polls, and those that do will be uninformed about Issue 7 and think that the “green energy” and “clean energy” funds that it would create sound like good ideas, without realizing the true impact of the initiative.

Let’s not be fooled, folks! Let’s get to the polls on November 2 and vote “no” on Issue 7.

Trailblazing

I’ve spent a few days working over at Russell’s property this summer. He has multiple acres of some lovely, largely wooded property at Cape Rosier on the mainland, and among many other projects he’s been working on creating hiking trails through the property to particularly scenic spots. Earlier this summer Richard, Russell, and I worked for a day on clearing out a path and glade along a cool, stony brook that spills out from a natural spring on Russell’s land, and on Sunday I continued the path along the stream and then turned inland to follow an obvious animal trail and see where it led.

Trailblazing is hard work, but it is also a lot of fun. Basically, the goal is to identify the logical route for a trail and then convert landscape that looks like the photo above into something walkable, like the photo below. That means breaking up and removing rotted logs, gathering up and moving fallen timber that blocks the way, and cutting down scrub trees and dead trees and low hanging branches along the route. Armed with a small saw and limb-cutting shears, I let my pathfinder instincts run free, cutting and chopping and hefting armloads of branches and fallen twigs. As the trail signs turned inland, I followed what looked like a deer trail, shown running through the moss in the photo below, that led to a pretty natural clearing where sunlight dappled the ground under towering trees.

Russell’s property is beautiful and full of surprises—like the brook, the spring, a big round boulder I dubbed Cannonball Rock, and a natural granite promontory that affords a view of Cape Rosier and Castine in the far distance, and others yet to be discovered—and there are lots of ways the trails could run. I’ve finished my trailblazing work for 2021, but I’ll gladly return in 2022 for more scouting, brush cutting, and trail clearing.

The Last Days Of Lobstering?

The people of Stonington are concerned about the future of their community. They aren’t worried about an approaching nor’easter or the remnants of a tropical storm; they’ve survived many of those. Instead, they are worried about federal regulations, designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, that they are afraid might sink the Maine lobster industry–the industry that supports many of the businesses and households in Stonington, which is the largest working lobster fishing community in Maine.

On August 31, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative (NOAA) issued final regulations that will close a part of the coastal waters off Maine to lobster fishing from October to January, which is traditionally a lucrative time for those in the lobster trade. And then, by May, lobster fishermen will have to configure their lines and traps to meet other new regulations that are designed to limit the number of lines connecting buoys on the water’s surface to lobster traps on the ocean floor and to weaken the strength of the rope lines, so that any right whale that becomes entangled can break free.

That’s a source of significant disagreement between the Maine lobster industry, on one hand, and NOAA and environmentalists on the other. The Mainers say that lobster lines aren’t responsible for a shrinking whale population and that it’s been two decades since a right whale became entangled in a Maine lobster rope. NOAA says, on the other hand, that since 2017 34 right whales have died and 16 were injured by entanglements or ship strikes. NOAA also adds, however, that at least some of those whales were entangled in Canadian gear, and the Maine lobster advocates point out that the NOAA regulations of course won’t affect Canadian lobstermen while the Maine industry is being punished. The Mainers also grind their teeth when regulators say that they use survey data on “predictive density” of whales to close hundreds of square miles of waters to lobster fishing, when the lobster boat captains who are out on the water every day say the practical reality is that whales really aren’t affected.

And the lobster boat captains also note that the alternative fishing method allowed by the regulations–called “ropeless gear”–uses technology that is admittedly “not mature” and would be enormously expensive for individual lobstermen to implement. In all, the NOAA says that it expects the regulations will cost the lobster industry between $9.8 million and $20 million in the first year, and there is no federal money available to help them. That’s a lot of money for an industry where the front-line fishermen who bait and set the traps, deposit the buoys, and hope for a good catch, are primarily independent businessmen who own and man their own boats. That’s why Stonington’s assistant harbormaster, quoted in the first article linked above, says bleakly: “This will sink a lot of people.”

It’s a classic example of the push-and-pull between industry and environmentalism, except this time the “industry” being affected isn’t faceless corporations, but individual, blue-collar lobstermen, many of whom are from families that have engaged in lobster fishing, using the traditional rope-and-buoy approach, for generations. If the new regulations, which are expected to be challenged in court, stay in place, and those independent boat captains can’t afford to comply with the new requirements, it will take away a huge source of both jobs and year-round revenue that hundreds of families count on. It’s not hard to understand why the locals are concerned that the regulations will dramatically change the Stonington community.

Smashed Apple Season

In the spring, everyone loves apple trees. Their delicate blossoms scent the warming breezes, and their pretty bright flowers foretell the growing season to come.

But in the fall, no one is very excited to have apple trees around. Once, perhaps, people actually tended the trees and carefully harvested the apples for consumption, but those days are long since past. Nobody picks the fruit anymore. Instead, the overripe apples fall to the ground, rot on the pavement, and eventually are smashed and ground into the asphalt by passing pickups and pedestrians who want to indulge their destructive impulses. And when the apples get obliterated, they coat the roadway with slime and emit an overpowering, cloying smell like applesauce gone bad, on steroids.

It’s not pleasant.

We’ve got a few of the smashed apple zones in Stonington that I pass on my morning walks. As bad as the smell is for a passerby, at least the unpleasantness is fleeting. Imagine living within one of the zones and smelling that smell constantly. It’s something for everyone to keep in mind the next time they are tempted to play Johnny Appleseed.

Circling Gulls

On my walk this morning I noticed a few dozen seagulls circling one of the piers near the mailboat dock, with more gulls joining every minute. They were raising an unholy racket and clearly had spotted some potential food that they might grab off the pier. It was either that, or a reenactment of a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The gulls looked very picturesque, silhouetted against the sunrise, but the harsh reality is a different story. Seagulls are trash birds that will try to eat just about anything and will fly off with the disgusting items you can imagine. We know this because we’ve found items dropped by seagulls on our deck. This summer’s seagull gifts have included a large, rotting, eyeless fish head and a gross bait bag with fish guts that probably was snatched from a lobster boat.

It’s just part of the price you pay for living in a seaside community.