Notes from the Glebe

I Speak for the Leaves

Nov 16, 09:48 AM

by Dana Swanson

The daylight is shorter, the mornings are crisper and the leaves are littering the ground; it is officially autumn.

Each year, Augustana’s fall break brings me home for one of my least favorite family traditions. Not-so-creatively dubbed “Leaf Day,” it is the day my parents, my brother and I rake the leaves off the lawn. (I thought when I left for college I was escaping this chore, but alas, the past four years my father has intentionally waited for me to be home on break. Thanks, Dad.) No surprise, I found myself present to participate in the festivities when “Leaf Day” rolled around last weekend.

I claimed conscientious objection to the leaf relocation this year; safe to say, my sentiments were not respected. Despite my childish reluctance to complete an assigned chore, I was sincerely questioning why we rake leaves. Why not let them be? I don’t mind the quilted spectrum of leaves littering the grass. I appreciate the colors on, as well as off, the trees.

From what I gather, we rake leaves because we don’t want them to suffocate our lawns. If left on the lawn, the grass will brown from the leaves. I also understand that leaves can create potential safety hazards when covering sidewalks and roads, especially when damp. So instead of leaving the leaves, we collect them. What do we do with the piles and piles of raked leaves? Some are burned, creating air pollution. Others are collected by the city, which requires fossil fuels for transportation and disposal. At Augustana, Facilities terrorizes campus with loud leaf blowers and then sucks up the leaves with a vacuum-like hose attached to a truck. Nevertheless, a few leaves actually prove themselves useful.

Last fall, the city of Moline brought truckloads of leaves to Wesley Acres Produce, the farm where I interned this summer. The massive wall of leaves shrunk all winter, releasing heat as it decomposed. By the summer, the leaves were ready to be used as compost; in this picture, the leaves were used as compost around a tomato plant. I had the pleasure—and I use that word loosely—of spreading the decaying leaves between the rows of crops. When I pitchforked the leaves from the back of a wagon into the rows, the scent from the compost overpowered my own perspiration. The odor was pungent, yet not unpleasant. As the leaves decomposed, they released an earthy aroma, rich in substance, similar to the way it smells in the woods after rainfall. The leaves I spread as compost keep the weeds down, but they also improve the quality of the soil.

When we rake the leaves, we are preventing them from fulfilling their role as soil enhancers. The leaves should continue the natural cycle, contributing a layer of humus, enriching local soils and local culture.

Every autumn the leaves will fall—let them. If leaves must be cleared, use a rake. Listen to the rustling teeth of the rake grazing the grass rather than the obnoxious leaf blower’s scream. Instead of burning the leaves, use them as compost in your gardens. “Leaf Day” comes but once a year, best to make the fruits of your labor count.

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The Age of Aquarium

Nov 15, 04:34 PM

by Katie Fick

I found myself romping around the Shedd Aquarium this fall break with some Augie students who had never been to Chicago. Admission was free that day, and heck, who doesn’t love dolphins? Somehow I didn’t experience the complete carefree wonderment that my ten-year-old self did when I last visited. I was actually a little distressed at the sight of those incredible marine animals in captivity instead of where they naturally belong. I felt a tugging in my conscience. It’s wrong to meddle, to remove animals from their natural habitat, to play God.

The dolphin show, called Fantasea (not a good start), was troublesome for a different reason: it was ridiculous. Granted, it began with a video that gave reasons for our needing to take better care of our own local cultures because it affects the animals’ habitats in the wild. I’m hoping that message sunk in for some of the kids there, but I fear that most of them were picking their noses and waiting to be overly stimulated by the show. If so, they got their wish. The show began with a dramatic closing of the curtain on the window that looks out to Lake Michigan, loud music, and colored lights, as well as the appearance of characters (animal trainers?) in attire that suspiciously resembled the costumes from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At the risk of sounding like my grandpa, what’s more concerning is that I suspect that show represents a standard for capturing kids-these-days’ attention. Yikes, America. We’re in trouble. Just a decade ago, I was awed by the animals and their trainers, in their plain old boring wet suits. I asked Mom, “What do I have to do to play with dolphins like they do?” She answered that I should study Marine Biology, and after that Bio was my major of choice until Middle School when I realized the closest I’d get to a major in Bio was watching Animal Planet. Can I get an “Amen!” from all the English majors for whom the Sciences are elusive? Anyway, I felt for the trainers. They studied Marine Biology, not Musical Theater, but here they were, dancing and looking like fools. My little brother summed it up nicely when he said, “If I ever have to fanta-see that show again, I’ll poke my eyes out.”

I think what finally relaxed my conscience a bit was the message implied by the signs next to each exhibit, the Aquarium employees, and even the dolphin show: one has to know about these animals in order to want to protect them. What better way to do that than to watch them eat, play (did you know that some scientists think otters are one of the only animals that play for pure enjoyment in the wild?), and communicate? The Shedd’s rather honorable aim seems to be to awe ‘n educate. For example, they get kids hooked by showing them baby sharks growing in their eggs right before their eyes (scroll over the above image), and then let them know what’s happening to that species of shark in the wild because of the lifestyle we choose every day. It’s a rather sneaky and effective way to teach kids at an early age about responsible, sustainable living. So, over the holidays, visit the Shedd with your kids, siblings, or little ones you babysit. But for goodness’ sake, save the $16.95 it costs to watch the Shedd’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and perhaps donate it to WWF.

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Pre-Serving Our Communities and the Icy Hand of Complacency

Oct 25, 12:28 PM

by Jaron Gaier

I face a crisis. I know no local culture. My family is healthy, but the surrounding community lacks a healthy cohesiveness. My friends are great, but my peers are, at large, in danger. This is especially a problem, because I was recently asked to be a part of this here team, these bloggers, these “sustainables,” editors, Glebes. I am now engaged in a project to help maintain any semblance of locality, of approximation, and to help my peers to realize for ourselves a truly “sustainable” future. But my twentieth birthday approacheth, and I find that I know this future animal less and less. All I can know is the past, what is history (and I know this seemingly less and less, too), what remains, what I can see. And I can see only a few things. The five-fingered, opposable-thumbed handprint on the ass of the natural world. Vacant seats in children’s school plays. Welfare homes with doorbell-high lawns and yawningly hungry doorways.

This website calls for communities (built to human scale, of course) preserving themselves and their respective places. But what does it mean to preserve? It’s from the Latin praeservare, “to guard beforehand”—I can say that much. But what does it mean in my life? I’ve always negotiated it in my mind to a near past-tense affectation. Maybe it perpetually associates itself with “preserved”—like a dead body, or “preserves”—not the same as jam or jelly, mind you. And both variations of this key term ascribe themselves to actions done in the past, in order to be consumed (by mouth or by earth) later.

Later. What a strange term. I have a dubious time preparing for this later business. Money never wants to stay in a pocket for later, food never keeps ‘til later. Preservation of even the smallest things in life poses a great challenge to me, as it surely does to my peers and the world at large. Everyone’s in debt, they say. Everyone’s hungry, they say. If we cannot preserve our dollars, our food production and intake, and our words, how can we expect to preserve, to keep safe beforehand, entire communities?

Much is wrong ‘round here—evidence of our ancestors inadequately pre-serving in their own time. The flooding of the Cedar River in Iowa put thousands of people out of their homes in the summer of 2008. The Iowa River, once surrounded by some of the most nutritious soil in North America, now ranks as the third most toxic river in the United States. A vast ice shelf (one much different than the receding, melting few, way up north and way down south) encloses us on all sides—one of ignorance and complacency. And, until we learn to pre-serve our way out of it, our communities (built on a human scale, of course) will remain in danger. Like this picture here, we must reawaken our structures left dormant in the winter. Our bridges, our connecting structures must be reopened—but, differently than is documented in this picture, without the use of dynamite. We must use sights and sounds—“lore and story and song”—to pre-serve, in a non-destructive way, our future communities. We must create something (not destroy something) spectacular, so that young men like me will not be deprived of two decades of local culture. We must pre-serve this future, this waiting world, and guard beforehand everything cooperating in that community, so that each, respectively, might pre-serve their subsequent communities and cultures.

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Lessons Learned from Children’s Television; or, Captain Planet is Still My Hero

Oct 16, 07:48 PM

by Lindsey Haines

Does anyone else remember Captain Planet? I maintain that it was from Captain Planet (as well as movies such as Fern Gulley) that I received my first introduction to environmental awareness. Recently, this phenomenon of terrestrial responsibility as a theme of children’s popular culture has resurfaced. For instance, if you failed to see the environmental message in Wall-E, you and I did not see the same movie. Like when we were growing up, kids today also encounter examples of sustainable practice often and from a very young age.

For instance, my three-year-old niece is better about consistently recycling than my twenty-eight-year-old brother. My family and I teach her all we can about responsible habits, but she also has the benefit of reinforcement in the media for her age group. Case in point: on the Sprout network, a TV channel aimed at preschoolers, there is a friendly yellow moose (Moose A. Moose, in fact) who does puzzles and songs with the audience in between shows. One such interlude involves Moose guiding children through separating recyclables and items which can be donated to people who can use them, and another focuses on turning off electrical appliances when they are not in use. Very basic things, I know, but how many adults follow these practices as unfailingly as an enthusiastic child? Moreover, how many episodes of “The Office” and “Desperate Housewives” have had themes of sustainability and environmental responsibility?

The point I am trying to make here is not about topics in the media, but about the mindset of children. When you’re a kid, everything is a big deal because it’s new, and children have plenty of reminders to recycle and conserve water and energy, and therefore they do. So why is it that a girl in my dorm last year kept the faucet on full blast while she brushed her teeth and sauntered lackadaisically around the bathroom? Was it a kind of pop culture deprivation she suffered as a kid? I suppose it is possible that she lived under a rock in her formative years. More likely, however, she probably just forgot. Because once you start to grow up, the things which at one time were so important begin to seem less and less significant as more and more new experiences come your way. Also, as adults, we don’t get so many reminders to do the right thing, and we are therefore allowed to forget what that even is.

Well, we shouldn’t forget. Turning off the water while you brush your teeth should matter; picking up that plastic bottle and putting it in the recycle bin should be important. Just because an action is small doesn’t mean it is not worth doing. We should continue to approach environmental responsibility—and life, as long as I’m on this handy soapbox—with the zeal and enthusiasm we had as children. After all, we were all kids once—all we have to do is remind ourselves now and then.

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The Loss of Cultural Knowledge (In Microcosm)

Oct 05, 09:45 PM

by Nick Borchert

This little expository rests upon the premise that the disappearance of practical skills from middle-class America is a bad thing. The persistent illusion that humankind has progressed beyond the necessity of physical labor has no place here. It is one of the chief efforts of this journal to aid in dispelling said illusion, but in this particular case I am taking for granted a reader sympathetic to our cause. If you do not yet believe that the abstract character of human labor has contributed to cultural diseases like oil dependency, environmental degradation, moral relativity, and the McDonalds “Drive-Thru,” then go read the likes of Ralph Emerson, Henry Thoreau, James Howard Kunstler, and Wendell Berry. If you have done as much, and you still do not believe it, then close your browser.

For you others, let’s try for a moment to grasp what has happened. How has it come to pass, for example, that a nation which was made up of 95 percent farmers at its founding and 45 percent as recently as the turn of the 20th century has today relegated gardening to the status of a hobby, culturally on par with, say, stamp-collecting and video-game playing? And if we fancy ourselves different here—that is, if we have come to recognize the value of activities like growing food and building and fixing things, then how is it that the cultural knowledge which our ancestors inherited for these activities has today passed from memory?

Take my own case. My paternal great-grandfather was a farmer. My grandfather, being not the eldest of his thirteen siblings, did not inherit the family farm, and instead went off to college and a career in accounting. But in spite of his move to the white collar world, he retained a great many practical skills. He was, for example, an amateur carpenter—he built the wooden playground in my family’s backyard and the grandfather clock that sits in our living room. He knew his way around under the hood of an automobile and he was chief handyman and repairman when anything broke down in his house.

It might be supposed that with such a lineage, I would have inherited at least some measure of practical know-how. Not so. My great-grandfather cultivated the land for a living; I am just as likely to uproot your spinach crop as your chickweed intruder. My grandfather was a carpenter; I have difficulty assembling a ready-made desk from Ikea. I can’t fix the toaster, I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the water heater, and I don’t know why your car is making that sound. At least I can console myself with not being the first in the family tree to inherit manual inability; my father, M.B.A., C.P.A., fares marginally better than me as a handyman, but only by virtue of longer experience with things he doesn’t have the experience to deal with.

So blame Grandpa! Well, maybe not. Another case study suggests that the instance of my family’s descent into ineptitude may be part of a larger cultural trend. Let’s look at my brother-in-law. (I am here considering men only, because women probably have had or still have more variables working against them insofar as acquiring practical skills is concerned.) Although he has some experience hunting and fishing, he recently confessed to me that, if pressed, he would probably be unable to clean his own game. And beyond the ability to fire a rifle and bait a hook, his practical abilities extend about as far as mine.

His father, on the other hand, fares better than mine. For one, he cleans his own game (and my brother-in-law’s). He is also a sailor and a gardener, and he knows the basics of electric wiring, plumbing, and auto mechanics. That is to say, he is, like my grandpa, a passable handyman. His profession? Project manager at a major bank. So whence comes this technical competency? I’ll tell you the root of my theory at least: his father was a welder.

In both of our case studies, the first-generation white collar worker has retained practical competency, while the subsequent generations have lost it. What does this mean? Them confounded kids doesn’t respec’ they’s elders? Partly. But it also suggests that people who earn a living with their hands assign a greater priority to passing on their practical knowledge than do their white collar counterparts.

My great-grandfather, though he knew my grandfather would not inherit his farm, likely made every effort to ensure that his son was equipped with all of the practical skills that had sustained him throughout his lifetime. He knew the value of self-sufficiency, of growing one’s own food, of being caretaker of one’s own home. So willing or no, his young son learned how to grow, build, and repair.

More than likely, my grandfather would have liked his own son to be able to service his car, or build the playground in his own backyard. He may have even taken for granted that my father, being a man, would somehow or another acquire such knowledge, since probably all of the men he knew could do these things. But he also knew that my father would never want employment for want of manual abilities. He knew, from experience, that this was a world where the most marketable skills were practiced with pen and paper, not with nail and hammer. Whether his son could build and repair the things in his home would not matter when he had the economic means to buy them and have them serviced by people who earned a lower income than him. So if the son did not show a natural curiosity or aptitude for mechanical pursuits, that was okay in the end. What had priority was discipline in the classroom and an understanding of the economy.

I do not claim that the trend I have described here will hold for every family, but it does seem to be indicative of the cultural attitude of the past several generations. The sons of blue collar workers inherited their fathers’ cultural knowledge, but their sons never did. The home economy was laid to waste because we assumed that the cash economy would provide for all our needs and desires. But for a population largely incapable of operating the dishwasher, lean times may be ahead. We face oil shortage, inflation, climate change, and economic spiral, all of which could change the rules of labor and purchase that we have become accustomed to. The grocery store, that magical spring of endless bounty, might well run out of food; we may not be able to pay the electric bill, or there may be no electrical company left to pay. If these things happen, we are going to be required to re-learn a great many of the things we have allowed ourselves to forget, and fast.

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