Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Seize the moment

I was planning to post about something else, but that has to take a backseat to the exciting launch of this Kickstarter campaign by my dear friend and critique partner, Julie Hedlund.

Julie is an extremely talented writer, creator of award-winning storybook apps, and is now developing a hybrid publishing model for her newest book, My Love For You is the Sun. (As I said, she's talented.)

My Love For You is the Sun celebrates a parent's love for a child with lyrical words and stunning clay illustrations by Susan Eaddy. (See above!)

The only way this beautiful book will become a reality is through a crowd-funding effort to fund the initial print run. This unusual approach allowed Julie to choose her own illustrator (anyone familiar with publishing will know that's typically taboo). And as you can see, the results will be out of this world.

If you have any interest in books that celebrate the bond between parents and children, please consider supporting Julie's project. I, for one, can't wait to have the book in my hands.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Unexpected finds

Look what we found!

Nothing quite like finding nature in the middle of a football stadium (that doesn't even have a grass field). Or maybe I should say nature found us--my husband scooped this no-so-little guy out of the air as it flew overhead.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Now out!

As I mentioned a while back, I recently wrote an article about the importance of getting outside into biologically diverse areas in terms of keeping us healthy--specifically helping to prevent asthma and allergies.

It's now out: Some dirt won't hurt, and I'm really excited about it. It was incredible to interview the scientists whose work is uncovering the links between health and microbial exposure. We need to expose ourselves to plants, dirt, and the microbes found in both. This is particularly true of small children, whose immune systems are still developing.

Photo by Ryan Somma

What to do if you don't live on a farm or out in the country? One way to gain exposure to biodiversity is through green roofs and living walls on buildings right there in the city. Check out more in the July/August issue of ASK (arts and sciences for kids) magazine--my article "It's a Jungle Up There" covers how they're built and the many benefits that come from their construction.

But even without a jungle in the city, you can benefit from exposure to natural areas. Visit a park and get back to nature, but don't just look at the view. Get dirty. You'll boost your immune response while lowering stress. What could be better?

Monday, July 1, 2013

An ounce of prevention

I used to be a beekeeper. So when I learned about the 50,000 dead bumble bees in Oregon, I was disturbed. But not just because of my affinity for bees. I'm currently teaching an environmental psychology class, and we just wrapped up a unit on biopsychology and neuropsychology--the study of how internal body processes and brain function affect behavior. We specifically looked at the effect of toxins on those systems. Toxins like neonicotinoids and other pesticides.

Let's look at the big picture, shall we?

The trees in the Oregon Target parking lot were sprayed to kill off aphids, which produce a sticky substance. The trees were sprayed so that customers' cars wouldn't get drops of the sticky stuff on them. It was a purely cosmetic application of the pesticide--as opposed to applications that support food production or human health.

Tragically, those 50,000 bees likely represented over 300 colonies of bees. As Mace Vaughan of the Xerxes Society notes, "Each of those colonies could have produced multiple new queens that would have gone on to establish new colonies next year." Which means the full impact of this event will be far greater than the initial death toll.

Why should you care about a bunch of bumble bees? To start with, they're the only bee that can pollinate tomatoes. Honey bees can't do it. They're unable to shake the pollen free. But bumble bees vibrate their bodies against flowers (a process called buzz pollination), which loosens the pollen.  If you like tomatoes (and pizza and spaghetti and salsa and anything else with tomatoes in it), you need bumble bees.

Whole Foods recently made the extent of our dependence on honey bees (specifically) visual by removing all bee-pollinated items from the produce section.

Striking, isn't it? That's just honey bees. And that's just the produce section. The dairy section would be all but empty, because the alfalfa that farmers feed their dairy cattle is pollinated by bees. And then there are all the other foods that use bee-pollinated crops as ingredients. Honey nut cereal for breakfast? Forget the honey. And the nuts. No apple cinnamon anything, either.

So how did the event in Oregon happen, anyway? What is it about pesticides that people feel free to use them with abandon, even on things that can't harm us? How did it become the norm in our country to spray everything, just because it might have an insect on it?

God forbid a leaf might have a hole in it, particularly when Americans spend 90% of their time indoors and don't actually take a close look at said leaf.

But Americans happily fork over a monthly payment to the lawn care company to come and spray their yard. It's necessary for a healthy lawn, the company says.

Is it?


According to the UNL Pesticide Education Office, those monthly contracts keep the company's income on even keel. That's all.

It's not for the good of your lawn. It's for the good of the company's bottom line.


Ever stop to think about what, exactly, they're putting on your yard when they come to spray? Or how it works? Let's take a look at the stuff they sprayed on the trees in Oregon.
Neonicotinoids act as a neurotoxin. Neurons work by opening and closing ion channels on the cell membrane. By shuttling ions (charged atoms) into and out of the cell at very high speed, neurons are able to "fire" or send signals to other neurons, muscle cells, or other parts of the body. Neonicotinoids work by holding those channels open. Ions continuously flood across the cell membrane, causing paralysis and death.

(Incidentally, black widow venom acts by causing an explosive release of neurotransmitter, which binds to ion channels, forcing them to stay open. The result is paralysis and death. Would you spray black widow venom on your yard to make it look good? I think not.)

Neonicotinoids are highly toxic and accumulate in the environment. A recent study by Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex shows that neonicotinoids have a three year half-life (that means it takes three years for half of the compound to break down). He estimates that when the compound is reapplied one year after the initial application, there is still 80% from the year before in the soil.

Bee scientists, including Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota are calling for a change.

We need to plant pollinator gardens--everywhere. In our yards, in our cities, surrounding our farms. And those spaces must be free of pesticides. No herbicides, no insectides, no rodenticides or fungicides. All of these are toxic to the pollinators we need for our survival.

What can you do?

Join the Xerces Society's Bring Back the Pollinators Campaign: sign the pledge, then order a pollinator habitat sign to let people know what you're doing.

There is no place for cosmetic use of pesticides. Not in our lawns and gardens. Not in our cities and shopping areas.

Not any more.

Our lives quite literally depend on it.

How, then, do you prevent insect pests from destroying your garden? Biodiversity. A diverse planting attracts predatory insects that keep the pests down. It attracts birds that eat the pests. It promotes a healthy ecosystem in your yard, so that no pest species has the opportunity to reproduce to such large numbers that they can decimate your favorite plants.

And if you plant regionally native plants, you won't need to fertilize them. You'll rarely need to water them. Your garden will be both beautiful and pollinator-friendly. It will boost your immune system and lower stress.

Eliminating pesticides used for cosmetic purposes is the single easiest thing you can do to help the planet while also helping your wallet and your health.

I think it's time, don't you?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Putting threats in perspective

Recently, I got a letter from a lawn care company with "TREAT LAWN THREATS NOW!" splashed across the front of the envelope. It gave my husband and me a good laugh.

Sort of.

Actually, it was more frustrating than anything else.

When it arrived, I had just wrapped up an article on the hygiene hypothesis--the idea that our lives are excessively clean, a lifestyle that is thought to have given rise to an increase in health problems, including asthma and allergies.

Are we overly clean? Probably. And the end of my article addresses that (I'll link to it once it's published). But what really grabbed me as I researched the story is the importance of biodiversity in keeping us healthy.

What does this have to do with that lawn care envelope? The so-called "threats" to the lawn are nothing more than biodiversity. I'll get to why biodiversity is so important in just a second, but first let's look at a couple of specific "threats":

Dandelions. Every part of this plant is edible (as long as they haven't been "treated", in which case they're toxic as can be). Yes, they spread quickly. If you really don't like their sunny yellow faces in your yard, pull them. But read to the end before you decide dandelions are really enemy number 1.


Clover. Clover is a legume, a member of the bean family. Like all legumes, clover is capable of taking nitrogen from the atmosphere and "fixing" it, or putting it into a form that plants can use. Clover in your lawn is good because it fertilizes the grass--so you don't have to. This is good for several reasons. (1) It saves you money. (2) Almost all synthetic fertilizers are over-applied, which creates water pollution downstream as the excess runs off. (3) Synthetic fertilizers require fossil fuels, thus contribute to climate change.

Henbit. Unlike dandelions, henbit is an annual, so each year new plants grow from seeds. It's quick to fill in empty spaces in the lawn and spreads quickly. Henbit is not native to the United States, and many people consider it an invasive weed. But like dandelions, the entire plant is edible. Right now, lawns with dandelions and henbit in them are alive with color.

Most people respond to these dastardly weeds with a spritz of weed-killer. Or better yet, they cover their lawns with pre-emergent in the spring and fall, to prevent those unwanteds from ever growing a cotyledon.

Ever stopped to think about just what those chemicals are? If they're designed to kill plants, what do you think they're doing to you? No, you're not a plant, and you lack some of the cellular structures plants possess. But that doesn't mean these chemicals are harmless. Far from it.

But that's not what this post is about. Eliminating those weeds decreases biodiversity. Living in a house surrounded by a rigorously-maintained carpet of grass is like living in a biological desert. Why? Because different kinds of plants are covered with different kinds of microbes. Without a diversity of plants, we lack a diversity of microbes.

Living in a place devoid of microbes might sound good, but from a health standpoint, it's a problem.

A really big problem.

You see, microbes help us in many ways (probably more than we even suspect at the moment, since this is a fairly recent area of research). They provide us with nutrients, crowd out the germs that can make us sick, and prime our immune systems.

It's looking more and more like we need microbes, specifically the ones found outside in the soil and on plants and in biologically diverse areas. Exposure appears to train the immune system, teaching it what's in the environment--teaching it what poses a threat and what's not worth a response.

People who lack that exposure to a wide range of environmental microbes have immune systems that are overactive. Because those immune systems have never learned what's safe and what's a threat, they are primed to attack everything.

The result: asthma and allergies. And more recently, researchers have learned that other diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, even some forms of depression, may have roots in an improperly-primed immune system, too.

So back to that lawn care letter. What "threat" lurks in my lawn? Certainly not the weeds, nor the microbes with which they associate. That so-called "treatment", on the other hand, just might qualify.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day!

In case you missed it, today is Earth Day. Celebrations have been going strong all weekend long. So join in the fun!

What can you do to note just how vital the earth is to our survival? (And it really is, down to the soil you walk on and the critters that burrow in it.) Tons of things! Pick one, try it out for today, then again tomorrow--see if you can keep it up all week. Make it a habit. But at least make an effort of some kind.

Waiting in your car for a while? If you will idle for longer than 30 seconds, turn off the engine. The amount of gas your engine needs to start is equivalent to the amount used in 10 seconds of idling. Not only will it put money in your pocket (since you are burning money when you idle), it will also improve local air quality for all those people who are ...

riding bikes! Why not try a day without a car? I spent five years in Germany without a car (we borrowed one -- once). We walked, biked, rode buses and trains. And let me tell you, we were in good shape. It might have taken a little longer to get places, but we never had to go to the gym (hey look--more money in your pocket!)

Not up for a two-wheeled commute? Try carpooling. Not only will it save you money (around $650 per person if you ride with one other person each work day for a year and up to $1000 per person if you fill the car - source), but fewer cars produce less pollution and reduce your carbon footprint.

Or, if you work from home, maybe you could make some changes there.

Install a rain barrel. Climate change means more extreme weather events happening more often. Ninety degree weather in March? Two feet of snow in April? Yep. This is the new normal. And that means there will be periods of drought intermixed with heavy rain events. Rain barrels are a great way to catch some of the precipitation to use during the dry spells.

Head to your local garden center and ask for regionally native plants for your garden. they'll be better able to tolerate the extremes with a lot less input from you (they usually require little to no fertilizer, no pesticides, and little water other than what falls from the sky). Choose perennials and they'll come back year after year.

Or plant a tree! Trees not only provide shade and cool the local area, they also play a critical role in maintaining the water cycle by drawing water up from the soil and releasing it into the air. This is why rain forests are rainy--the trees literally create rain by constantly releasing huge amounts of water into the air. Areas (like the Middle East) that have long been deforested eventually become too dry to support trees, which leads to further drying and eventual desertification. Don't want your area to become a desert? Take care of those trees.

What will you do to celebrate Earth day? I'm waiting for the weekend to put in dozens of native plants, shrubs and trees. Can't wait to watch my yard transform.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

School visits!

I know, I'm blogging twice in one week. I don't *think* the apocalypse is nigh, but I'm probably not the best gauge.

I've been doing lots of school visits over the past couple of weeks, and I just want to say a big
to Belmont and Morley teachers and librarians for inviting me, and to their fabulous students for being so attentive, asking such great questions, and generally making my job a ton of fun.

From researching and writing non-fiction with fourth and fifth graders to the adaptations of native plants and the extraordinary world of native pollinators with second graders (complete with getting dirty and planting some seeds), it's been an extraordinary series of visits.

Thank you all for letting me share my knowledge and my writing with you! I hope someday soon to return with my books--in addition to my magazine articles--in hand.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Not so far and away

I recently visited "Away"--that place things go when you put them out with the trash, otherwise known as the landfill. It was a really eye-opening experience, and I highly recommend it. Really. It's not at all what you think it will be, and it makes you rethink what happens to all that stuff you throw out (although I do recommend visiting before summer heat hits).

Think recyclables are reclaimed? Think again. It's too dangerous to go through garbage to remove items. So what goes into the trash truck by and large goes into the landfill. Appliances--"white goods"--are the exception. They are removed and the people who left them at the curb are fined (your trash collector will remember you if you leave out items they're not supposed to take). These are deconstructed to reclaim hazardous materials and scrap.

Everything else? Into the day's "cell" it goes (more on that below).

Perfectly good things, like used furniture, clothes that didn't sell in a big sidewalk sale or clearance (really--stores would rather throw them away than allow people--even the needy--to have them for free), and leftover food.

That last one's a huge problem, because it attracts animals by the thousands. In fact, there are so many birds at landfills, they have to be located at least six miles from the airport.

Gulls and starlings--tens of thousands of them.

In 2007, our local landfill kept track of what went in:
16% was compostable
46% was recyclable
Together, 62% of what people threw away could have been put to better use, cut down on animal pests, and saved money. How much money? Over 16 million dollars of what is thrown away each year (in my small city's landfill alone) is recyclable.

Why does that matter? The energy saved by recycling ONE aluminum can will power a computer for three hours. If you want to save energy, recycle.

Ever wonder what happens to those bags of yard waste you leave out? The leaves wind up in huge rows.

Those white things are the bags the leaves came in.

So do grass clippings. Branches go into a brush pile 1.5 stories tall. Then the leaves, grass, and chipped branches are mixed in massive rows about 8 feet wide by 6 feet tall. A special machine straddles the rows, periodically turning the yard waste from the inside out.

A quarter-mile of compost.

The temperature inside gets up to 140 degrees (F), where the landfill employees try to keep it for at least 3 weeks--compost that hot will kill disease pathogens and weed seeds. Months later, they've got mountains of compost that's pretty much free for the taking.

The landfill itself is a carefully engineered, highly organized structure where the trash trucks dump your garbage. They don't back up to a big hole in the ground and let loose. They have to go to that day's "cell" to dump their load, and someone with GPS marks the location. That way, if they ever need to recover something that was thrown out on a certain day, they know where it is. What could you possibly want to recover from a landfill? A diamond ring, maybe. Or a body (sad but true).

Heavy (100,000-pound) equipment compacts the loads. Their goal is to fit 1700 pounds of garbage into one square yard of space. Think about that for a second--just how much garbage they're cramming into landfills that fill within just a few decades.

If everyone composted and recycled, the life of the landfill would almost triple. That's pretty phenomenal.

Want to do your part? Here are some resources for getting started:

Build a compost bin. This can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be (we have the three-bin one, which is great because we fill one of the side bins and leave it to compost while we fill the other. We put all finished compost in the middle until we're ready to use it). Not for you? Near the bottom of the link are the two simplest methods.

And in case you're wondering, NO, it doesn't smell. Not unless you put in too many "greens" (grass clippings and kitchen waste) and not enough "browns" (dried leaves, paper bags, sawdust, etc.) As long as you've got a good balance, it just smells like soil.

If you're not recycling, start. Check out the programs in your area. Most offer curbside recycling. To make it easy, look for one that doesn't require you to sort. Some take more than others, so do your research and find the ones that accept more recyclable goods.

Frustrated by the things your local companies won't take? (All that food packaging, for instance?)

RecycleCartons takes paper milk and juice cartons. If they're not available close to you (and you don't mind spending a little money now and then), you can mail your cartons in.

TerraCycle takes all kinds of "unrecyclables." Sign up for a brigade (or two or three). TerraCycle pays for shipping for most brigades. The best part? You earn points that can be donated to your favorite school or charity. Want to have a positive impact on your school? Have them set up a station for families to bring in their packaging and turn recycling into a fund-raiser.

Remember, you don't have to do everything at once: even small steps make a difference. But often people who start with small steps decide to take additional steps once they realize it's really not all that difficult or painful. I hope that's true for you.

What's your first step going to be?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Change can be good

I've been working toward becoming a Climate Master -- an expert (of sorts) on all things related to the climate and our environment. It's a lot like the Master Gardener program, just with a different focus. I've learned some pretty incredible things, and I'm going to spend the coming weeks sharing them here.

My main focus will be on things you can do to reduce your impact on the environment. And if you don't really care about the environment, or don't accept that humans are changing the climate, those things will still help you save money and eat healthier.

Change can be good--individually, locally, and globally.

Do you need to take out a second mortgage to install geothermal or solar? No. Do you need to trade in your car for a hybrid or electric? Nope. They're great if you can afford them, but they're not necessary.

See, change doesn't have to be difficult. It doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Change for the better can be as simple as a series of small steps that cumulate to become something greater. If everyone commits to making small changes, just think what our collective actions can do.

coremediagroup (source)

So to get you thinking, here's a breakdown of how a typical U.S. household uses energy (from Energy Savers):
45% - heating
18%  - water heating
9% - cooling (e.g., air conditioning)
6% - computers and electronics
6% - lighting
5% - other
4% - cooking
4% - refrigeration
3% - wet cleaning

How can you easily reduce your household energy use? 
  • Heating your house is by far the biggest chunk of that bill--Turn down the heat! For every degree you lower your heat, you save 3% off your heating bill. Set your daytime temperature at 68 and wear a sweater.
  • Get a programmable thermostat (one that's easy to program). Use it to turn the heat down 8 degrees at night, when you're bundled up under a pile of blankets (yes, if you're doing the math, that would be 60). Then have the heat kick in about 30 minutes before you get up, so the house isn't freezing.
  • Wrap your water heater with an insulating blanket. Yes, touching your water heater can be scary if you haven't done it before, but the insulation will make a big difference.
  • Hang your clothes to dry. This one is a huge energy saver. If you live in a dry area with lots of sun, you clothes will be dry in about the same amount of time as using the dryer, but with zero emissions and zero addition to your electric bill. (As an added bonus, sunlight will erase vegetable- or fruit-based stains. For serious, try it out sometime. It doesn't work on grease or dirt, but other stuff, like tomato or blueberry? Sunlight, baby, all the way.)

Those are things that will put a big dent in your utility bill. Line-drying clothing in summer will also help reduce the energy needed during peak times, which will help prevent an overloaded electric grid. That reduces the need to build new power plants, which saves you money in the long run (since the power company will pass on those costs to their customers).

See? Small, painless, and puts money back in your wallet.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Marketing Monday - Gail Gauthier

Marketing Monday is back!

Please welcome Gail Gauthier, author of eight children's books, including The Hero of Ticonderoga, an ALA Notable Book, and the Hannah and Brandon Stories series. Gail just re-released her book Saving the Planet & Stuff, this time as an eBook. She's here to share what it's like to go through the eBook marketing process with a book that was originally released in hardback.

So without further ado ... welcome, Gail!

Saving the Planet & Stuff first appeared in 2003 as a hardcover book traditionally published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons and marketed for grades 5 and up. This year it has been re-released as a self-published eBook marketed for YA and up.

Back in 2003, my marketing efforts were pretty much limited to the website and blog I was already maintaining and a few press releases that I sent out to publications in Connecticut, where I lived, and Vermont, where the book was set. The bulk of the marketing was done by my publisher, while I worked on my next book.

I am the publisher of the eBook, so this time I’ll be doing all the marketing. Ten years have passed and my platform is a little more extensive, anyway. In addition to the website and blog, I have a professional as well as personal Facebook page, an author page at Amazon, and I’m active on Goodreads, where I have a second blog.

Beyond that, my marketing plan has been developed around the fact that Saving the Planet & Stuff is now an eBook. The first marketing task was acquiring a new cover, which was created by Eric Bloom. This eBook cover carries a little more weight than the covers of my traditionally published books did. For one thing, it includes the tag line “An Eco-Comedy” because I wanted to make sure potential readers knew that this book is funny.

In addition, you’ll see “Gail Gauthier Author of Happy Kid!” printed at the bottom of the image. It’s not unusual to see an author’s earlier work noted on the cover of a traditionally published book. The reference to the earlier book could help sell the new one.

With eBooks, it’s supposed to work the other way, too. If readers like the new eBook they’ve just read, it’s possible they’ll buy another eBook by the same author, assuming they know it’s available. That explains why Happy Kid! is on the eBook cover of Saving the Planet & Stuff instead of my ALA Notable book, The Hero of Ticonderoga. G. P. Putnam’s Sons has published an eBook edition of Happy Kid! while Hero is out-of-print. With my new Saving the Planet cover, I’m trying to market two books, Saving the Planet, of course, and Happy Kid!.

I understand readers moving from one eBook to another because I’m an eBook reader myself. I’ve been known to finish reading one eBook and buy another in the same series in the middle of the night while I’m in bed. My own eBook purchasing habits have shaped another aspect of my marketing of Saving the Planet & Stuff. With an eBook, you don’t have to wait to go to a bookstore to purchase it. You don’t have to pick up the phone and order it from a store or go on-line to do so. You don’t have to wait for the book to arrive in the mail. You can order the book from your e-reader and be reading it seconds later. I wanted that kind of availability for anyone who saw or read anything about Saving the Planet & Stuff.

While I have been talking about this publishing project at my blog, website, and Facebook pages, I waited until the eBook had actually published before posting the book trailer to YouTube or approaching many bloggers to request reviews or guest posts.

I didn’t want people to see a trailer or early review and not be able to buy the book right at that minute. I’m making the assumption that other eBook readers shop the way I do.

I’m also considering doing some paid advertising through Amazon at some point. Because Saving the Planet & Stuff is an eBook, I don’t have to worry about making big sales right out of the gate in order to keep a traditional paper and print book on store shelves.

This whole project is an experiment for me. At this point, the experiment is going to involve approaching bloggers and continuing with on-line marketing for quite some time, instead of putting everything up front, at time of publication.

Thanks so much for the glimpse into the marketing differences between traditional and e-publishing, Gail! Best of luck with your marketing efforts. Saving the Planet & Stuff looks like a lot of fun--can't wait to read it!

 * * *

Gail Gauthier is the author of eight children's books, including The Hero of Ticonderoga, an ALA Notable Book, and the two volumes of the Hannah and Brandon Stories series, A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat, and A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers, which were both selected as Junior Library Guild offerings. Her books have been nominated for readers' choice awards in six states, and published in foreign editions in Italy, Germany, France, and Japan. She has spoken in schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, as well as at professional conferences. She maintains the weblog Original Content, where she writes about children's literature, writing, and time management for writers.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Death by Snow Day

You know how deadlines tend to cluster? No? Well mine do. And I've got a bunch coming up. So naturally last week was a complete bust in terms of getting any writing done. President's Day on Monday, sick child Tuesday-Wednesday, snow days Thursday-Friday.

Two days off of school for a whopping 6 inches of snow. Every parent I know was tearing their hair out last week. And then yesterday, the local weather people said it would snow from last night until tomorrow.

So far, not a flake. Which is a good thing. School's in session today, and I might actually have a shot at squeaking in under these deadlines. Of course the flip side is that, once again, we're going to get no snow, and we desperately need the moisture.

And my boys and I didn't get to build an igloo, which I'd really wanted to do. Because really, if there's no school due to snow, you ought to be able to build an igloo. Don't you think?

But on the positive side of things, my article on Concussion came out in Science News for Kids. If your kids are out sledding, playing hockey, ice skating, or doing other winter sports, you might want to check it out.

How do you get work done when life gets in the way?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Staying curious

Saturday was one of those wonderful days when my contributor copies landed in the mailbox. This time it was the March issue of Highlights for Children, which has an article I wrote about a scientist and her research on black howler monkeys.

Black howler monkey by LeaMaimone. (source)

She discovered that they can count, just by listening to the roars of other troops. Very cool stuff. Highlights isn't available online, but I have also written about her work (and research on many other clever critters) in this piece on Animal Cognition, if you'd like to learn more.

Many of the non-fiction pieces I write profile a scientist or scientists and their work--all of my Science News for Kids stories do this, and most of the ones I've written for Highlights, too.

I absolutely LOVE that part of my job. Scientists do the coolest stuff. I mean, who else would think to drag a sled filled with speakers, poles, a tape player, an amplifier, and a boat battery into the Belizian jungle to find out whether or not howler monkeys can count?

Who else would take life-sized stuffed-animal lions with removable, velcro-able manes into the Serengeti to find out why lions have manes at all? You can find out more about that one in the March issue of ASK (Arts and Sciences for Kids) magazine.

photo by Robek (source)

Scientists look at the world around them and see things they can't explain. They ask interesting questions and design fascinating experiments in their search for an answer. They are the most curious people on the planet, second only to kids. Some are probably more curious than your average kid.

And that's what makes science so much fun.

Which is why I have a hard time understanding why our school kids, who are naturally incredibly curious people, aren't doing well in science. I don't teach in K-12, so I'm not in the classroom to know what activities they're doing to learn about science. I do know that many elementary teachers don't have a background in the sciences, and perhaps that's a contributing factor. I really don't know.

Are we not letting kids observe and ask questions? Not giving them the directed freedom to figure out how to find an answer? Kids are good at that. It comes naturally to them. Just imagine what could happen if we harnessed that potential. All it takes is a creative mind and a supportive atmosphere. Science doesn't have to be costly. Some of the best experiments are incredibly simple.

So why aren't our students performing well on science tests? Scientists are just kids who never lost their curiosity about the world. How can we help our kids keep theirs?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Putting warmer winters to good use

I've been trolling the garden catalogs lately. Seems to happen this time of year, when a burst of warm days catches everyone by surprise, although early spring seems to be rapidly becoming the norm. Even the groundhogs say so.

Punxatawney Phil's not the only game in town.
Meet Unadilla Bill. (source)
This year, as we enter our second spring in our home, my husband and I (well, mostly me) are determined to do something with the front yard. The grass pretty much died last year. Drought does that. And I must admit, I encouraged it. I tried to kill off a couple of shrubs, too, but they were hardier than I'd expected.

My husband and I want a beautiful flowering, fruit-producing tree out front, surrounded by beautiful, habitat-producing native plants. The tree's the sticking point, though. We really want to put in a Mexican plum.

Mexican plum trees in full bloom by TexasEagle.
Lovely aren't they? (source)
Why choose a tree that grows naturally in our state but is nowhere to be found in local nurseries? Several reasons, actually.

They are drought tolerant. (Number one biggest criterion: check!)

They are native to our region. (Number two biggest criterion: check!)

They like full sun. (Important when putting a tree on the south side of the house.)

But for some reason, they are listed as doing best in zones 6-8. (If you're not a gardener, all you need to know is that the country is divided into zones, depending on how cold it gets in winter, and plants are grouped depending on their cold tolerance.) My husband and I live in zone 5, which means winters would be too cold for this tree.

That's not so good. Because this tree seems perfect in every other way.

Then I stumbled on this. Unfortunately, I can't import it into the blog, but it's worth the jaunt over to the Arbor Day Foundation to check out the animation. Seriously. It's pretty eye-opening. I'll wait.

Incredible, isn't it? The zones are migrating north at a rapid clip, and that animation showed the change over a 16 year period. Only 16 years! Winters aren't getting nearly as cold as they used to. There are some benefits to that (like lower heating bills and planting the plum tree!), and some drawbacks (like flea outbreaks due to lack of a hard freeze to kill off the eggs). 

That's why I'm working so hard to put in regionally native plants that can tolerate the harsher climate we seem to be moving toward. I don't want my yard to turn brown in summer. I want it to be full of color and life.

Curious about what kinds of trees and plants would be native to your area?

There are a couple of great resources that I use on a regular basis. The Arbor Day Foundation has a searchable tree database based on where you live (caveat: they only list the trees they carry in their nursery, so you might not find what you're looking for, but it's a good starting point).

My favorite resource is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which has lists of recommended species for each state and for all kinds of native plants.

Have you noticed a warming trend in the winters? How has it affected you?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Soothing the soul

I just placed an order for 100 trees and shrubs. Keep in mind that I don't live out in the country, not even on a small acreage. I think 100 trees might be a bit much for my family's quarter-acre property, and we're not planning to surround our house with a forest.

by Amos Oliver Doyle

Why, then, would I order so many? To start with, because I have to. It's the minimum order I can place with our natural resource district. Also because I want a nice privacy screen between my house and the neighbor who lurks in his garage smoking cigars. It would seem that he's our self-appointed neighborhood watch. While that has its benefits, I don't like that my windows are in his direct line of sight. I work at home. And every time I look out the window, he's there.

But the main reason is because I want to create a place in our yard where my kids can play, where they can explore the natural world and all it entails. Where they can pretend they're in a forest or a fort or a cave. Where they can experience nature first-hand and reap the benefits.

I'm working to create a place that will keep them, my husband, me--even that neighbor--healthy.

Because when trees die, so do people.

This article in The Atlantic describes the most recent piece of research linking trees to human health. The researchers discovered that as ash trees in the Midwest began to die by the million (thanks to an introduced pest, the emerald ash borer), more people in the areas with dying trees died of cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illnesses. Now I'm not suggesting that if a tree in your neighborhood dies, so will you or one of your neighbors. But the relationship is there.

We need nature, and we are just beginning to understand the extent of our dependence. Sadly, we are dangerously close to the tipping point--the point at which we will have pushed nature beyond its ability to spring back from the punches we keep delivering.

But it's not too late. We can take small steps to help heal the natural world. Small steps to heal ourselves, as well.

My husband and I are replacing large sections of our yard with regionally-native plants. No sprays, no fertilizers, but lots of habitat for wildlife (including our boys). If the rest of the yard turns out as well as the small strip of native plants we put in last year, it will thrive even in drought. To watch something thrive when everything around it struggles? That's good for the soul.

As for the eighty-some trees and shrubs we won't use? We'll share them with others. We will happily give them away to friends and neighbors who want to add a little nature to their yard. I can only hope to find each seedling a home.

Out of curiosity, do studies like the one above make you stop to think about your relationship to nature? Why or why not?

Monday, January 21, 2013

In search of the perfect workspace

I have lots of goals for the year (though I'm not going to disclose most of them), one of which was to write without pain. That's right: was. Past tense. Because even though we're only three weeks into the year, I've already accomplished this one!

I'm one of those people who has a terrible time with neck, shoulder, and back trouble, especially when I sit for long periods of time. Yoga helps, but not enough to counter the sitting.

Toward the end of last year, as my writing career started taking off and I found myself spending more time sitting in my desk chair, I started to have hip pain, too. It was awful, to the point where I seriously wondered if I would be able to continue writing.

So one of my goals for 2013 was to write without pain.

My original plan was to get a treadmill desk. We don't have a treadmill, which meant that not only would I have to buy the desk for one, but I'd also have to buy a treadmill. And that gets really expensive really quick.

Factor in my tendency to stop walking when an idea pops into my head, and I wasn't sure a treadmill was what I really wanted. The last thing I needed was for a treadmill to shoot me off the end and into the bookcase on the far wall. Kind of goes against the whole pain-free thing.

I looked into manual treadmills, given their potential benefits: less expensive, non-motorized and therefore incapable of throwing me against the wall, and environmentally friendly (relatively speaking) because they don't use electricity.

Naturally, all the reviews I found indicated a manual treadmill wouldn't work. It turns out that you have to hold on in order to gain enough traction to make the tread go. Kind of defeats the purpose of having a treadmill desk if you can't type when you use it.

And then, just to further complicate matters, my husband said he wanted to be able to use the computer. The kicker? He wanted to be able to sit down.

I threw my hands up in frustration, and started researching desks all over again. And guess what? I happened across this blog post, which addressed every single issue I'd encountered.

I researched the components individually, weighed people's complaints against what I was looking for, and took the plunge. This is the result:

The Ergotron Workfit S workstation (the thing on the desk itself) raises and lowers with minimal effort (you do have to adjust it so that it stays when you move it, but once you get it set right, it's a piece of cake). In its lowest position, I can sit, but I rarely do. I'm usually on the mini-elliptical, although sometimes I move it out of the way and just stand.

It takes getting used to the up-and-down motion, but I find that if I go slowly enough, it's not a problem. Except when I need to use the mouse. Clicking on a link is nearly impossible while actually ellipticating (that's a word, isn't it?), so I've had to learn a lot of keyboard shortcuts. There's a bit of time invested in that, but once I've got them down, it's much faster to get things done, whether I'm using the elliptical machine or not.

The one thing I would love to add is a dynamo. How great would it be to charge up the dynamo with the elliptical, and use that energy to power the monitor? Talk about motivation to keep moving! But that's somewhere down the line.

But I absolutely LOVE this set-up. I'm far more productive with this than I ever was sitting in a chair. I'm no longer in pain. And I've already accomplished one of my goals for the year.

Do you experience pain when you work? How do you deal with it?

Monday, January 14, 2013

It lives!

Those were my husband's words when the 4YO bounded down the steps, chattering away like a happy, non-feverish child (for the first time in a couple of days--thank you flu virus, for invading our house before our vaccines could take effect).

Like a child awakening from a long, feverish delirium, the blog is making a similar comeback. It might be sluggish at first, or it might burst with energy like the 4YO. I really don't know how that's going to play out--it will be interesting to see.

I was actually planning to get back to blogging right at the start of the year. I sat down, ready to write a post about my goals for 2013, when a friend sent me this:

How could I possibly share my goals with the world--or the very small part of it that stops by here (I love you all for doing so)--when sharing them would stop me from accomplishing them? Then I realized that not posting about my goals was stopping me from accomplishing at least one goal--blogging. Make of that what you will.

But here I am! I do plan to get back to blogging. Be forewarned that the topic of my posts will focus less on writing (thought there will be some--always) and more on environmental stuff.

Don't worry. You will not find any out-to-scare-the-pants-off-you posts about how the world is going to end if you don't sell your car and become a vegetarian. Not here. I promise. Doomsday predictions accomplish nothing but an overuse of hashtags (#apocalypse, anyone?).

I'm all about sharing the latest research on changes we can make to improve our lives. And not only ours, but the lives of our kids and their kids and generations to come.

I realize it's infinitely easier to keep on keepin' on, but I'm not talking about major changes. I'm talking about small things. Things you can do at home, at a local school, in your town or city. Things that will benefit YOU. The kinds of things that will reduce stress, improve health, make your neighborhood safer, and save you money (zoiks, I sound like a used-car salesman). Things that will make life different--but better. Really.

But as I said, it won't just be about the environment. I'm sure I'll share my new writing set-up soon (because I loves it, Precious, loves it). I have a delightful author lined up for a new Marketing Monday. And I'll be unveiling my new citizen science project soon, too.

Welcome to the 14th ba'k'tun! It's a brand new world (literally, for the Maya). What wonderful things is it bringing you?