living green

state of support

lady slipper in the upper penninsula, MI
lady slipper in the upper penninsula, MI

Something that has crossed my mind more than once in the last 5 months has been moving to California, where they seem to take environmental protections at least a little bit seriously. Realistically, this wouldn’t even be possible for another 3 or 4 years, but the thought has floated through my head.

It seems like every week, on top of the anti-environmental moves being made by the federal government, our governor here in Wisconsin is trying to keep pace. Trying to remove climate change from the rhetoric. Making it against the rules for government employees to work on climate change issues. Trying to take a century old publication away from the DNR. All of the denial is exhausting. Especially when each summer we watch the effects of more severe weather take a toll on the crops. A state with a largely agriculture based economy should be doing everything possible to preserve our natural resources.

But the answer is not really for us to move to a part of the country where more people already think and act like we do when it comes to conservation and care for the earth. Instead it is to plant our feet firmly here and do what we can on this land. Act as an example of how we can not only preserve nature, but we can restore it. We can make the land healthier with each passing season if we act thoughtfully. And we can do it while both enjoying the beauty of the land, and enjoying the benefits of our 21st century life.

We currently live in a town of about 12,000 people. We live in town, just a few blocks from the town square. Our small house sits on about a quarter of an acre, with neighbors on all sides on similar lots. We chose this house because its modest size is enough for us at this stage in our lives and it means we get to have a big backyard. Even knowing that we were only going to be in this place for a few years, we decided to invest in the small bit of land. We began amending the soil with compost, manure, and blood meal. We planted a substantial garden full of herbs, vegetables, and flowers to attract pollinating and beneficial insects. And we dedicated a few hundred square feet of the yard to a prairie garden, full of native grasses and wildflowers. Over the course of two years we’ve seen birds and butterflies flock to our small space. A reprieve amidst the other lawns and driveways. It takes some sweat equity, but we’ve made a little ecosystem here over the last two summers, and we’re hoping to take what we’ve learned and apply it to bigger lands in the future.

Californians, please keep working to protect our beautiful country. The regulations that you enact are important, and your population is big enough, that businesses have to take note, have to make adjustments to be able to keep up with you. Set the path. And we’ll do our best here to hold down the fort in the middle of the country. To act as an example. To vote responsibly when we have the opportunity.

And to hope that someday soon, our government will takes it head out of its ass.

building energy living green

Happy 2015

Happy 2015Happy 2015!

How’s it feeling now that you’ve had a week to break it in?

Let’s start this year off with a bang: We bought a house!  Due to job related circumstances we will only be living in the house part time between now and June, and we will spend the rest of our time in our current apartment. This will provide us with plenty of time to get some updates and projects done before we move in for good this summer.

Now you might be wondering, what does this house have to do with this little blog? Well, it means that as we do house renovation projects, I’ll have plenty of opportunity to share with you all of those green building home renovation projects, like:

  • What are the most earth friendly paints, stains, and adhesives to use?
  • Which are the most sustainable flooring materials?
  • How do you go from lawn to organic garden (hopefully without your neighbors giving you the side-eye)?

Another blog series that I have in the works is on making a house more energy efficient. I’ll take a look at the energy usage of this house, and similar sized houses in the neighborhood, and do monthly updates on what we have done to bring that energy use down.

Aside from the house, in 2015 I’ll be continuing the series on “green” certifications in the construction and home furnishing areas. I’ll also continue to explore passive house design, integrative design, green living habits, and compost.

If there is anything you’d like to see in the upcoming year, be sure to leave a comment or drop me email.

I know I’m excited for everything that 2015 has to bring! I hope your new year is starting out shiny and bright and not too cold!

energy living green

A Bit of Background, Part 2

I mentioned in part 1 that living in the bush in Tanzania changed my post Peace Corps plans. When I returned to the U.S. in late 2008 I began researching environmental and mechanical engineering graduate degree programs. The following is a mildly edited selection from my personal statement used in my applications to mechanical engineering master’s programs.

In the village I lived near the power lines did not stray far from the main road. The rolling hills and trees in the valley muted most of the lights and sounds of electricity. At a certain point, walking down the dirt path to the foot bridge over the river and up into the hills towards my house outside of the village, the shadows that could be seen were only those cast by the light from the moon. The fingers of the power plant didn’t reach any further into the mountains in this direction. But looking around the walls of the bowl created by the surrounding mountains, a sharp glimmer would pop out of the darkness. Sparkles of electricity shone out from the hills. Batteries charged by solar panels were providing some families – some of my students – light to enjoy dinner with and light to study by. Light from the sun still burned brightly for them long after the sun’s last rays had slipped behind the mountains for the evening.

building earth - waterfall in TanzaniaFor two years, those hills in Tanzania provided me with a shelter, a family away from home, an education, an opportunity to share my education, and an inspiration. Watching the effects of “progress” tear down trees, wash away soil nutrients, and pollute our river and source of drinking water for much of the year cemented my desire to work with our natural resources, not against them.

building earth - palm tree in Tanzania

In the middle of my second year in the Peace Corps, my school took our students on a field trip to a local hydro-electric plant that harnessed a natural waterfall. As the engineers explained to my students how the plant changed the energy from the moving water into the electricity that ran into the outlets at the small shops where they charged our cell phones and watched the football matches huddled around small grainy televisions, I stood absorbing the information. And I knew. I knew I was not ever going to be fully satisfied until I had taken everything apart and put it back together again, and ensured that it ran better than before. I knew that this was a way I could put together my love of science and my passion for living a sustainable life. I knew that I was going to finish my service in Tanzania and come home to study renewable energy and mechanical engineering.

Now I find myself, 5 years out of the Peace Corps, graduate degree in hand, looking ahead to the next steps, trying to figure out exactly what this means.

Life continues to be a grand adventure, and my hope is that I can live it in such a way that builds rather than destructs.

living green

A Bit of Background, Part 1

I’ve always been a nature lover. We spent many summer trips hiking through the woods at my grandparent’s house; camping in state parks; canoeing in the boundary waters; and getting pruney in the water at the nearest lake beach. My dad’s house sits atop a hill that has been having erosion trouble for years. Many spring and summer weekends during high school and summers home from college were spent planting various ground covers on the hill, a crop of strawberries along the path, and herbs in the back yard. I remember talking with my dad about bee keeping and how cool it would be to have our own hive, planting flower gardens in small patches of the yard, and hunting for raspberries or blueberries on various camping trips.

building earth autumn trees

But I don’t think it was until I was living in the mountains in Tanzania during my time in the Peace Corps that I fully grasped my connection to the earth. You’d think the fact that I’d joined the Peace Corps in the first place would have tipped me off to my crunchy-hippy-tree-hugging nature before then. But for whatever reason it took until probably about 9 months into my stay in Tanzania for me to realize that nature was my church, and appreciating and caring for the earth was my prayer.

When I left for the Peace Corps my intention was to return in just over two years and start applying to grad school programs in the area of aeronautical engineering. I intended to be an astronaut. Or at least as close to one as possible, working in the space industry. But, as so often is the case, plans changed.

building earth succulant

I lived amid subsistence farmers. Farmers with no running water and no electricity. No plows, nor tractors, nor work animals to ease their burden. These families were at the mercy of their own physical abilities,  the land (in this case mountain clay) and the weather to make their living. And they were living with the effects of ongoing climate change. The rainy season was shifting and growing more extreme in the Usambara mountains. For generations my neighbors had known when to prepare their fields and plant their crops in preparation of the oncoming rainy season. But recently the rains have been coming weeks or months late. And when they do come, they have been torrential downpours rather than the slow, steady rains they had once been, washing away their mountainside farms, and their income for the year.

Living in a community that so relied on the earth for their livelihood was one of the experiences that began to shift my post Peace Corps plans.

building earth light house

We may not have the ability to change or control the weather, but we can help each other live with the effects of climate change. And we can reduce our negative impacts on the earth and replace them with positive impacts. We have such a beautiful and bountiful rock on which to spin around the sun. I think we need to take care of it. Because that’s what you do when you have nice things.