Friday, December 14, 2018

Environmental Etiquette: Finding Flaw or Doing a Favor?

If you are a conservation-minded, fixer-upper type, and are visiting a friend and happen to see something about their house or garden that needs attention, what do you do? Do you point it out and offer to help? Maybe you spotted a weed in the garden that you know will cause grief later if it's not pulled before it spreads all around. Or maybe it's a filter on the air intake for the furnace that looks clogged with dust. Knowing how you tend to forget to change out such things in your own home, you know that your fresh eyes could be of use. Your friend's hosting you for a night or two, after all, and you want to do something in return. At the same time, it can be rude to walk into someone's garden or house and find flaw.

What to do? I was in this predicament while staying with my friend Dan during a recent recording session in Ann Arbor. I was sleeping in the finished basement, and noticed that the rarely used toilet down there had a slow leak. Even slow leaks can waste a lot of water and increase one's water bill substantially.

I hesitated to say anything, but finally did. We looked inside the tank and found an ancient system with a copper "float" that is supposed to automatically shut off flow when the water has pushed it up to a certain level. Something wasn't working, but we couldn't tell what, and the chances of finding parts for such an antique system seemed close to nil.

Intimidated, we left it as is. I had managed only to make my host aware of a seemingly unsolvable problem in his basement. But then a week later, he texted me a photo of the copper float sitting on a table. It had occurred to him to take a closer look at that old float. He discovered that, despite the ancient plumbing, he could remove the float from the toilet, and when he did, he found that it was half full of water. The float wasn't shutting off the water because the float wasn't really floating. He bought a new float, installed it, and the slow leak was stopped. Then, being of a resourceful musical bent, he dried out the copper float, drilled a small hole, put some rice seeds in it, and made it into a shaker, to be used for percussion.

This experience scores in the win-win-win category of sustainability, with two of the wins being physical (copper reuse and water conservation) and the other win being emotional (my relief at seeing my intervention being validated). There would be a fourth win in there if I had miraculously been able to make the trip without fossil fuels.

There's one lingering question: Did the idea for a "copper float shaker" arise before or after Dan repaired the slow leak? That is, did his fascination with the musical potential in objects (he had previously fashioned a guitar pick out of a walnut shell) contribute to his success in home repair?

Friday, December 07, 2018

McCarter-based Seniors Onstage: Free 12/12 performance at the Arts Council

Wednesday, Dec. 12 at 7pm is the last chance to see Onstage Senior's 2018 documentary theater program: “The Road I Travel: Choices and Chances that Shape Our Lives.” 

Onstage Seniors, A Community Program of McCarter Theatre is back for the final performance of its original documentary theater for 2018, highlighting senior memories and experiences. The ensemble – all over the age of 55 – is known for its performances of stories, based on interviews with the local community, in theaters, libraries, schools, prisons, senior centers and communities, and schools across New Jersey. We work up a new show each winter, to be performed from May through December.

The Arts Council's Solley Theater is a wonderful venue for seeing our group perform. Preregistration is encouraged, but no ticket is required. Click here for more info.

(Not shown in photo are Shirley Meeker and newer members Fred Dennehy and Leonie Infantry.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Mr. Sustainable's Easy Fix for a Broken Microwave

When our microwave suddenly played dead--its screen gone dark, its buttons unresponsive--Mr. Sustainable was ready. He immediately remembered the last time a microwave began acting strangely, working some days but not others. Back then, his nephew Rhys, wise in the ways of electronics, suggested checking the fuse. It was easy enough to unplug the microwave, unscrew the cover and look inside, and sure enough, replacing a little fuse was all that was needed to get the machine working again, good as ever. (That's the old fuse sitting on top of the microwave in the photo, after making the repair.)

This time, it was even easier, because Mr. Sustainable had bought a package of two fuses the time before and, knowing how little things can get lost, had affixed the extra one to the back of the microwave where it could be easily found. Didn't even have to go to the hardware store. The unused fuse went in, the microwave came back to life, problem solved.

Happy with himself and a world where problems are so easily fixed, Mr. Sustainable cooked a celebratory bowl of broccoli in the microwave with a little olive oil and salt, and chowed down.

In the process, he learned why people don't stick candles in celebratory broccoli. They melt. Who knew?

For previous adventures of Mr. Sustainable with microwave repair, read "Mr. Sustainable Gets a Twofer."

Friday, November 23, 2018

In Praise of Wood Energy

There's lots of tree worship in a town like Princeton, and often for good reason, but somehow that love seldom extends to the wonderful material legacy a tree leaves behind when it is cut down. In a town dependent on unethical energy, the main renewable alternatives are solar panels and wood. Below are a couple examples of the pleasure that wood can bring, allowing us to take a break from collectively feeding dystopia.

Eating at Nomad Pizza recently, we sat near the two igloo-shaped ovens through which so many pizzas travel on their way to tables. Through the small opening of the oven, we could see in the back of the chamber a glowing orange fuel that looked like plasma. "What heats your ovens?",  I asked one of the waiters. Wood, I was told. Mixed hardwoods. "That's solar energy," I said, approvingly. She went on to say that their foodscraps are fed to the pigs on the farm where they get some of their pizza ingredients. Assuming that some of the ovens' heat radiates out into the surrounding indoor air, then wood is helping to heat the restaurant itself.

Meanwhile, at home, of all the warm and wonderful participants in our Thanksgiving dinner, by far the warmest was our wood stove. The stove radiated such heat that, combined with our own collective physical radiance, we could for many hours break free of that gas-burning furnace in the basement.

Our guests' kids showed an extraordinary and gratifying curiosity about all things, and wanted to see what was making the stove so hot. I opened its front doors, and there inside was a plasma-like glow, hot beyond flame, giving back to our world all that wonderful energy captured from the sun during the tree's life. Fossil fuels feed climate change by injecting additional carbon from underground up into the atmosphere. But the tree is built of carbon harvested from the air, and so simply gives that carbon back when it burns, causing no net increase.

Interestingly, the stove is fed from the top, through the lid where the steam pot sits. No smoke comes out into the room, in part because a wood stove generates no smoke when it's burning well, and because the draft pulls the air back and up into the chimney.

Before warming our indoor world, some of our locally scavenged firewood is fashioned into a curving wall in the backyard garden, rebuilt each summer and slowly dismantled for heat through the winter.

I urged the town sustainability planners to view wood as one of our few ethical energy options. Wood is by default chipped up and piled in windrows to decompose, its carbon released back into the air without utilizing its considerable solar energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

In the meantime, wood brings pleasure to a few of us on the periphery, and the many customers at a local pizza joint.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Pink Dragons Take to the Trees in Protest

It hasn't made it into the news yet, but the pink dragons of the world are really pissed. With the power brokers amping up their brutal attacks on nature and democracy, and the White House transformed into a loony bin, pink dragons everywhere have taken to the trees and are refusing to come down until the world starts making more sense.

One passerby, who took a picture of her friend posing in solidarity with the dragon, said it's time to fight bad crazy with good crazy. Eventually the good crazy will overwhelm the bad, and life will be crazy good. Anyone else have a better plan?

This particular pink dragon is a rescue, put out on the curb on a back street with a neighbor's trash a week ago. Just didn't seem right that it would end up squeezed into a garbage truck headed for the landfill.

I must admit to a little ambivalence about having this bright pink creature in the front yard, but this morning I glanced out the window and saw a young woman with a big smile, taking a photo. People need moments of surprise and happiness, now more than ever.

Friday, September 14, 2018

One Way to Divert Scrap From the Landfill

Another week, another 100 pounds kept out of the landfill. That's the idea anyway. These two rusted out lawnmowers and a very heavy pump, perhaps a sump pump, were rescued from the curb on side streets just before trash pickup, then put out the next day on busy Harrison Street for whatever maven of scrap might be passing by. I never go looking for the stuff, but encounter it mostly while walking the dog, then try to remember to collect it prior to trash pickup.

Within a day or two they were gone, whether to be miraculously repaired, or used for parts, or melted down for metal. It's one small way of bucking the tide of disposability--a tide that has spread from small things like packaging to larger things like democracy and ultimately the planet itself.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Our Very Own Partial Power Outage

There are many silent, hidden connections between our homes and the outside world that we take for granted. Whether underground or overhead, the water, sewer, gas, and power lines feed and drain our homes like the umbilical cord on a babe in the womb. Occasionally, this infantile condition is interrupted. It could be a storm that rips branches from trees, shattering that delicate network of electrical lines that overlays the town like a giant spider's web. Or it could be a break somewhere in that sprawling network of water, gas and sewer lines silently serving us beneath our feet.

We recently had two interruptions of that network of an unusual variety--one involving water, the other electricity.

The first had an American Water crew scratching their heads out in front of our house. Across the street, a rivulet of water had spontaneously begun flowing along the curb, source unknown. They suspected that the water main, buried 6 feet down on that side of the street, had sprung a leak near where our house's water line branches off. To confirm, they tapped into our water line and listened with headphones for telltale sounds transmitted through the pipes, like a doctor with a stethoscope.

The supervisor was not happy, as a leak in the water main meant a lot of sleuthing to pinpoint its location, then a long night of digging to find and repair the leak.

The hours of sleuthing paid off, as their digging led straight to the leak in the water main, about a foot from where our skinny little 1" water line branches off towards our house. The supervisor explained that winter and summer bring different kinds of breaks. A summer one like this is linear, and often precipitated by the increase in water pressure in the pipes. The water company increases water pressure in summer to compensate for increased use--mostly to water lawns. Theory: More lawns means more watering, which means more pressure in the pipes, and more leaks. Another reason to wish people didn't have big, unused lawns?

The other interruption was electrical, and this one was really weird. Over the past half year, we have on several occasions lost partial power in the house after several hours of slow rain. The power then comes back a couple hours after the rain stops. Some parts of the house lose power, others don't, with no clear pattern. Because there was still power here and there in the house, we could run extension cords to keep the frig, microwave and internet going, and full power always returned.

These periodic partial power outages were associated with a loud pop, coming from outside in the general area of our electric meter. The first time, the pop was loud enough to prompt the neighbor to go out with a flashlight in search of the source.

The situation seemed dangerous, so we called an electrician, who couldn't find anything wrong with our wiring. And a PSEG guy came out and told us that nothing was wrong with their supply lines. We learned that PSEG's responsibility ends at the connection to the house, before the lines drop down to the meters. Everything beyond that is our responsibility.

We didn't do anything more, other than hope it wouldn't happen again. This, interestingly, is the same response people have to climate change which, in contrast to a foreign invasion, contributes to disasters that come but don't stay. As soon as the threat recedes, be it a flood, drought, or forest fire, the tendency is to return to life as usual without making any changes.

Recently, the partial power outage happened again, and again I heard a loud pop, this time associated with having turned on the microwave. Fortunately, the electrician was able to come before full power returned and run some more tests. He confirmed that wiring inside the house was fine, and asked us to get the power company out to unlock the meter so he could have a look. This time, we got one of the better PSEG employees, who confirmed the electrician's diagnosis that one of the two "legs" coming into the house lacked power. Rather than claim the problem was ours and not PSEG's, he looked over towards the utility pole across the street, and said he thought he'd found the problem.

He parked his truck next to the pole, went up to have a look, and a half hour later the problem was fixed. Turned out a connection for one of the "legs" at the utility pole had gone bad. Rain may have been able to get into the wiring out there. He said it was strange, since water usually improves connections, but in this case made it worse. I shook my head--yet another baffling aspect of electricity--but was happy and relieved to have the problem finally solved and full power restored.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Clouds and Fountain

One of the more magnificent places to spend time in the summer, next to the Woodrow Wilson School. People still wade in the water, though it's kept shallower than before, and when we were there this past weekend, a monarch butterfly, as if a tourist visiting from Mexico, was exploring the space all around.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Marginalization of Thrift

We're livin' large at the Toyota dealership, waiting for an oil change. Ten cars in the show room, complete with celebratory balloons, with mpg's that don't go beyond the lower 30s. For comparison, our 1986 Camry hatchback got better mileage than the current diminutive Yaris.

Meanwhile, there's no balloon for the 50 mpg Prius, here shown in the foreground, tucked away in comparative darkness, back near the bathrooms. And, new in my experience at the dealership, the salesman tried to add all sorts of things on to the oil change. Didn't seem to be that way, back before the major renovation.

Rental companies also push the oversized cars. It's like entering a gun store and being smoothly ushered towards the assault rifles, with nature and our shared future as the target.

I thank Toyota for the engineering brilliance that created the Prius, but it's strange to live in an era, knowing what we know, when the one car in the dealership's showroom that tries to minimize its chemical assault on the planet's atmosphere is tucked away in a corner.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Trees Take a Hit for Pedestrians: the New Thoroughfare Along Walnut Lane

Back in early July, when local media were focused on four Norway maples threatened by construction on Hawthorn Avenue, there was considerable carnage going on just blocks away along Walnut Lane. About twelve mature London plane trees (or sycamores) met their demise.

The rings could be counted to tell the age.

Further down, across from JW Middle School, the roots of a row of hackberry trees next to the ballfield were dealt a considerable hacking when the old, uneven sidewalk was removed.

Soon, the only evidence that shade trees once stood near the highschool were neat mounds of woodchips left by the root grinder.

The reason for the logging and root disruption became clear in the weeks that followed, as workers removed the old curb and sidewalks and began installing new, along with upscale Belgian block curbs.

Judging from the double-wide sidewalks being installed on both sides of Walnut Lane, the trees were sacrificed as part of a vision for a broad pedestrian thoroughfare that, it can be hoped, will encourage walking and biking to school.

The new sidewalk construction includes the area where the highschool has been inundated by stormwater runoff twice in the past.

This is what the same spot looked like two years ago, after a flash flood sent runoff cascading into the school basement and onto the performing arts stage, requiring once again a replacement of the wooden stage. The recurrent damage is due to the school and its detention basin being lower than Walnut Lane. When the street's drain pipes become overwhelmed, there's no place for the water to go other than into the school.

A few of us had proposed a solution so that the high school would not be flooded the next time Princeton gets hit by another of those thick, heavy rains that all our earth-warming is making thicker and heavier. It's an approach influenced more by landscape thinking than engineering, and focuses on surface flow rather than putting faith in pipes that can clog and overflow. The solution would take advantage of a wonderful open field on Westminster property that Westminster's own consultant had declared unbuildable because of its wetland status. It might seem that Westminster would not be excited about having runoff directed onto its own property, but Westminster has a vested interest in preserving the high school performing arts center. I heard that they provided some of the funding for the construction of the facility, in exchange for access for periodic use. The idea, then, was to create a means--essentially a swale--for excess water from the street and the school to more easily flow into the adjacent Westminster property's field, thereby preventing the water from rising high enough to enter the school's basement and music facilities.

That idea seems not to have made much headway with the powers that be, and yet the sidewalk construction is still being used to make some positive changes.

Here you can see that the new curb is lower than the current street level. The street will actually be lowered,  knawed down by a giant asphalt-eating machine, so that the street can hold more floodwater. In addition, the town engineer informed me via email, "We are installing upsized pipes across Walnut Lane and adding an inlet to assist in getting overflow into the storm sewer system. All this increased capacity still runs into a smaller pipe that goes under the Westminster property.

The most positive change is that they lowered the sidewalk and driveway on the Westminster side of the street two inches. This is not as much as we suggested, but two inches could conceivably be the difference between inundation and preservation of the high school's basement and performing arts wing. As any beaver will tell you, when backing up water, an inch here and there can make a big difference.

A view down Walnut Lane, with hackberries on the left and Norway Maples on the right, in front of the middle school.

Though trees have been sacrificed or traumatized, the new double-wide sidewalks represent another of Princeton's improvements to the pedestrian experience near schools. It's a contrast with what many of us have to deal with in neighborhoods, ducking around shrubs left to grow by inattentive homeowners.

Some of the shade trees were saved along Walnut Lane, but it will take a lot of thoughtfully chosen and strategically placed new trees to eventually shade this new pedestrian-friendly corridor.

Update: With the passing of Aretha Franklin, the thought occurs: Why not name the walkway after her. "Aretha Way," perhaps. The sidewalk intersects with Franklin Avenue, and runs between two great centers of music.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Resourceful Californians Serve Themselves Gas

A trip to California for some gigs gave this New Jersian an opportunity to witness some remarkable behavior. People--young people, older people--were getting out of their cars, and doing crazy things. Like cleaning their own windows.

This driver managed to find a hole towards the rear of his car, and put something in it. I've never seen anything like this in New Jersey. The concentration, the resourcefulness, the skill to manipulate devices, indeed the courage to take on this sort of task was astonishing.

But I worried. What if a driver is unable to get out of the car, or it's too hot, or too cold?

My eyes grew wide as I looked around the corner of the station and saw the most amazing feature, a full service pump! With an attendant! Californians really do have it all.

(As of 2018, New Jersey is the only state that doesn't allow self-serve gas.)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Beta Bike Lane Presentation Tonight at Town Council

For one brief week or two in May, bikelanes bloomed in Princeton on Hamilton Avenue. They called it a beta bike lane, a trial run that left a trail of comments/impressions on the town website, by bike enthusiasts and, no doubt, disgruntled neighbors who saw parking spaces displaced to make room for the bike lanes on the narrow street. We get to hear all about it tonight (Monday, July 23), in a report on the results of the experiment in bicycle empowerment.

From emails urging attendance at the 7pm meeting at council chambers on Witherspoon Street, it sounds like the public will have an opportunity to speak of what it's like for a bicyclist to actually have designated space on the street.

For me, using the bike lanes was a revelation. I still remember, years ago, when I switched, mentally, from car to bike, when I overcame the ingrained impulse to grab the car keys any time I needed to go out. Over time, I became more of an optimist, slow to be deterred by a threat of rain, and I found myself feeling an inexplicable happiness while riding. What's that about? Fresh air? A new-found sense of empowerment, of freedom from the need to feed dystopia just to get where I need to go?

But the happiness is mixed with an awareness that there's no pavement upon which I can feel I belong. The sharrows were meant to show that we have a place on the street, but it's hard to feel comfortable when my uphill labors are testing the patience of the car driver close behind. My strategy is to stay out of the way of cars and pedestrians as much as possible, to be unobtrusive, unobstructive.

The bike lane removes that ambivalence. It gives a bicyclist a home, even if only for a few blocks.

Potentially relevant to tonight's discussion will be the town's policy on parking in driveways, which seems to forbid using driveways for parking except behind the house. If parking is to be sacrificed to create bikelanes, parking options for homeowners may need to be reviewed.

Sec. 17A-387. Required parking spaces - Size; design; signs.
(b) Areas counted as parking spaces include any private garage, carport or other paved off-street area
available for parking, other than a driveway; except, that in the cases of one-family and two-family dwelling, and
secondary residence buildings, driveway space not in the front yard may be counted as parking spaces.
(c) Parking spaces shall not be provided within a required front yard. If in a rear or side yard, parking
spaces shall not be located within four feet of any lot line.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Blue Curtain Concerts July 14 and 21

Every summer, Blue Curtain brings to Princeton a welcome infusion of music from around the world. The Princeton Recreation Dept. hosts the free concerts at Pettoranello Gardens, just off 206, with parking accessed from Mountain Avenue.

The concerts are tonight and next Saturday, at 7pm.

Princeton Rec. Dept staff were out this week, sprucing up the grounds in preparation.

Four years ago, the concert continued into the night, allowing for some photos of the actual blue curtain for which the nonprofit is named.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Serving as a Redistributor of Scrap Metal

I never go looking, but often encounter metal placed out for the trash along town streets--slightly rusted lawn furniture, file cabinets, folding bed frames. During World War II, citizens would gather scrap metal and contribute it to the war effort. People back then felt like their small efforts could add up to a big success, and they proved right. We're cheated of that sense of empowerment today, as the ideology-based attacks on collective effort have left people feeling isolated and powerless.

Growing up in the post-WWII years, I absorbed enough of that can-do collective ethic that I can't let good metal languishing on back streets end up buried in the landfill. So I pick it up, put it on the curb of my busy street after trash day, and it quickly disappears into the truck of this or that scrap guy passing by.

A very nice wooden table ended up on the restored patio of Veblen House.

A lot of this is driven by imagination. The way my mind works, I instantly imagine the lost potential of the metal, the needless space taken up in the garbage truck as it drives to the landfill an hour away, the potential utility an object still has. All of these are real things--the long drive to the landfill, the lost potential--but can only be accessed through our imaginations. All too often, as political sabotage increasingly allows us only to use collective power to unintentionally create problems (climate change, water pollution) rather than intentionally solve them, people spend their mental energy not on thoughts that spur action, but instead on rationalizations for inaction.

Meanwhile, the pleasures of serendipity and steering stuff towards a better end await.

Using Parks to Demonstrate Sustainability

People tend to emulate what they see, but many sustainable practices are invisible. Composting, raingardens, leaf corrals--these tend to be in the backyard. Buildings don't advertise their carbon footprints. Making sustainable practices visible is an important step towards more widespread adoption.

Parks can be a great place to teach both kids and adults about sustainable practices--simple things, like letting the nutrients in leaves cycle back into the soil from which they came, or separating out recyclables from trash, or utilizing water runoff to feed a raingarden. The small municipal park behind my house holds a few examples.

First is the humble bucket hooked to the trash bin that makes a handy place for park users to put their recyclables. Nothing could be simpler, or cheaper to install, yet the duct-tape on this bucket testifies to its many years of service, and the copious, clean contents testify to the visual clarity this setup provides. Many high-priced recycling/trash dual containers encountered elsewhere may look good, but provide no clear visual cues as to where to put recyclables.

Second is the mulch mowing done in the fall. As the oak trees whose shade provides a haven for birthday parties and other gatherings in the summer have grown, they've generated more leaves. Two autumns ago, I watched as a crew of five spent four hours blowing the leaves into piles and hauling them away. Why not mow the leaves back into the grass, and save lots of staff and trucking time?

The parks department agreed, and now mows the leaves back into the grass. Yes, the lawn may appear less verdant for a month or two in the fall/winter as the leaf fragments break down and return to the soil, but the extra nutrients and organic matter sustain a healthy lawn the next year.

Aesthetics is a recurring issue in sustainable practices. The consequences of nature-abusive behavior (fossil fuel use, landfills, water pollution) are not seen by most people. For anyone who can visualize those consequences, though, the park's highly functional recycling bucket, or a solar panel on a telephone pole, or a mulch-mowed lawn, or a leaf corral in the frontyard, are welcome sights.

The water faucet offers an opportunity to demonstrate how water runoff, whether from sump pumps, air conditioners, water fountains, roofs or asphalt, can be used to feed a raingarden. This park has yet to take advantage of that opportunity.

A leaf corral--this one's in my front yard--is another possibility, though it would likely need to be made out of sturdier materials to endure the (welcome) hands-on curiosity of kids.

Parks are a place where people have some time on their hands to take a look around, and where some learning can happen. Let's use them.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Shade and Sustainability

Our house stays cool deep into the morning thanks to two trees, both imperiled. The one on the left in the photo is an ash, which in its love of the sun has bent southward like a shielding hand over the roof. Though it has yet to show any symptoms, we almost certainly will lose it to the appetites of the Emerald Ash Borer. If its lopsided growth were to cause it to fall against the house in an ice storm, we've decided it would do little damage, like the giant elm on Murray Ave that simply tipped a few feet in Hurricane Sandy's fierce winds to rest softly against a house. And so we keep it, for now, feeling fortunate when we think of those who have to crank the A/C in houses or apartments unprotected from the sun.

The other tree, taller and to the right, is a red oak, planted by the builders and first residents of the house, the Dubas, who love oaks in part because their family name is derived from the Ukrainian word for oak. That tree, too, is threatened, by the introduced bacterial leaf scorch that causes increasing dieback in the upper limbs.

The ash's sheltering embrace is most evident when seen from the inside of the house.

These trees are on the east-north-east side of the house, where solar panels are not an option. Trees on the south and west sides of the house, however, stir ambivalence. The shade is appreciated, as is the additional cooling effect that comes from all the water being transpired through the leaves.

But the two trees shading the southwest side don't come close to the beneficial effect of solar panels, which not only would shade the roof like trees do, but also would generate energy that would otherwise come from fossil fuels. Trees pull carbon out of the air, until they give most of it back when they die and decompose. Even more important in the longterm is to not be adding more and more carbon to the above ground world as we combust coal, oil and natural gas. The more carbon being pumped or dug up from where it has been safely sequestered underground, the less likely it is that the plant world can ever pull enough out to sustain a livable planet.

If I had my druthers, I'd cut down the large trees on the south and west sides of the house, which also are suffering from dieback, and use their collected solar energy in our wood stove to heat the house in winter. I'd install solar panels from the opened sky, and replant our southwest exposure with smaller tree species that will still provide cooling but not shade the solar panels.

Some people view trees as an unalloyed good. Others view them as pests that keep making a mess. What I'd advocate for, and would wish to see better reflected in our shade tree ordinance and in the actions of homeowners, is a more complex view of trees that integrates the many ways a tree can contribute to or interfere with sustainability, depending on location, size, and species.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

How Raingardens Reduce Plastics Pollution

Chances are, this trash would have ended up in Carnegie Lake; might even have continued downstream and out into the ocean to join those massive gyres of plastic we hear about. But something filtered it out before it could get into the local waterways.

That something is a raingarden, in this case the two raingardens I've "adopted" at Westminster Choir College. You can see how the curb dips down to allow water to enter from the pavement.

People think of raingardens as plantings that reduce flooding, feed pollinators, and filter pollutants out of stormwater, but they also serve to protect waterways from trash.

Here's the typical stormdrain along the edge of a town street. A plastic water bottle and other small bits of trash, along with the nutrients in the leaves, stand poised to enter the stormdrain that will carry them down to Harry's Brook, then on to Carnegie Lake. Most storm drains have openings large enough to allow plastic bottles and other trash through. An additional issue, as can be seen in the photo, is that the asphalt around stormdrains eventually breaks down, requiring repair. Many stormdrains around town show signs of being patched multiple times in the past--a time-consuming, labor intensive proposition.

Here's another broken stormdrain. Not the most flattering depiction. Most are in good condition, and they certainly are a compact way to get rid of stormwater, but they essentially convey the problems of trash and nutrient pollution "down the pipe", for downstream aquatic life to deal with.

The raingarden, by contrast, traps the problems at the source, protecting the local waterways. Somehow, this fact didn't sink in for me until I found myself picking up the trash while doing some weeding. I was essentially cleaning a runoff filter, like one might clean the lint filter in a clothesdryer. That concrete structure in the photo is the drain. Water rarely if ever rises high enough to flow into it, seeping instead into the soil.

The photo, taken in the spring, doesn't show the raingarden at its aesthetic best. The native plants planted here are warm-season species that don't grow up and fill in until the beginning of summer. Below is a more flattering example of a wetland planting with species that get going early in spring,

The soft rush (dark green), sedges (light green), and sensitive fern grow naturally along a seepage slope at Smoyer Park.

The lush growth owes to the more stable supply of water from the seepage slope, while a streetscape planting will have greater extremes of dry and wet.