Thursday, August 30, 2012

Some Day The Cars Will Stop

I have been doing a great deal of highway driving in the last few days, much more than I really like, and ironically, it was because of a friend from Scotland who is an avid cyclist.  He came to see me in Nanaimo, and, blissfully unaware of the distances between places on the island, planned to bicycle from the Mill Bay ferry to Pacific Gardens.

Alas, he realized that it would be too much to cycle 70 kilometres, especially when there were no continuous dedicated bicycle lanes like those he was used to in the UK, and he had to compete with massive trailer trucks for space on the highway.

So I drove down to Duncan to pick him up, where we had agreed to meet at a Starbucks café in the central mall (unbeknownst to us, there were three Starbucks, which made finding each other a rather interesting exercise). As I hurtled towards the Cowichan Valley in my subcompact, it made me realize how much of our transportation is overwhelmed and dominated by cars and trucks.

I was in about the smallest car on the road, surrounded by great big honking SUVs, vans, trucks, and trailers, all careening down the highway at speeds more than 20 kilometres over the limit, weaving in and out of lanes, often without signalling.

No wonder he found it a bit daunting. Back home, he would have had a bicycle lane separating him from the worst of traffic.  There would have been far fewer trailer trucks, because there is a fast and efficient railway system that covers the country. If he wanted to stop cycling for a while, it would have been easy to hop on a bus or a train with his bike. But not here.

Our fondness for cars puzzles me.  They're expensive, stressful, noisy, polluting, life-threatening, and a major hassle (compare finding a parking space for a car versus a bicycle). But still we plan our communities around cars, despite the social and environmental damage that they cause.

At Pacific Gardens, we have at least three people who use their bicycles as their main mode of transportation, and they all are lean and fit, and look at least 10 years younger than their age, whether they're in their 40s or their 60s. 

Before I moved here, I used to live in a place that was near a major arterial road, and the roar of traffic could be heard all day and night, making it difficult to sleep.  When it was especially bad, I used to say to myself, "Some day the cars will stop."

I hope some day that will be true, and all that we will hear are bicycle horns, and the occasional purr of an electric car.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Green-Weenie Rage

I am a Green-Weenie - as one friend of mine sardonically calls environmentalists - and I look at everything through the lens of my environmental values. You would think that would be a good thing, but I'm not so sure.  I sometimes feel as if I am in a perpetual state of Green-Weenie rage.

Of course, living at Pacific Gardens, where those values are nurtured and encouraged, has only made it worse, and being a former hackette, it is the media coverage of the environment - or lack of it - that really gets me going.

For example, the CBC has been doing news items about the melting of the sea ice in Arctic - but only to extol the economic benefits of exploiting the oil and gas deposits now more readily available, the boon to the tourist industry, and the profits to be made from shorter shipping routes through the Northwest Passage.

Nothing about the release of methane from the melting permafrost, nothing about the destruction of the fragile ecosystems in the north, or the traditional way of life for the Inuit, or the effect the loss of ice will have on levels of global warming.

Then there's the deliberate refusal of the Globe and Mail and the CBC to cover the Green Party of Canada's national convention.  I could understand that happening when the Green Party had no MPS, but now that the leader of the party, Elizabeth May, has been elected, what is their excuse?

This year's convention, held in Sidney, B.C., had Ronald Wright, Massey lecturer and award-winning author, former prime minister Stéphane Dion, and independent MP Bruce Hyer, as speakers - all articulate Canadians with newsworthy ideas.

Is it too much to ask that our national media take the threat to our environment seriously, as do newspapers in the UK,  where I once lived?  Are the threats to the environment not going to affect us here in North America as much as in Europe? You would think so, looking at the way they cover what will be the major news story of this century.

And that makes this Green-Weenie angry.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Killer Whales and Potlucks

A few days ago I saw a news item on the CBC news about the decline in killer whale pods off the coast of British Columbia.  Scientists were seeing a far smaller number of whales in the pods, as well as less vocalizing, and were trying to figure out why.

One possible factor was the lack of chinook salmon this year, which is the preferred dinner dish for killer whales. Perhaps the whales were eating in smaller groups because there wasn't as much to go around, and vocalizing less because they didn't want to signal to other killer whales that there was food available.

The scientist interviewed on the CBC noted that killer whales always eat together - "perhaps because they consider it rude to eat alone", he said, somewhat in jest. That got me thinking about the connection between their behaviour and ours.

Maybe they're eating together just to be polite - who knows? - but more likely for the maintenance of their own health and well-being.  There is a considerable amount of research out there that shows families that eat together are happier and healthier, and if it's true for us, it most likely is for them.

Sharing a meal is something that unites communities. It's hard to stay angry at someone you've had supper with. Breaking bread with another person establishes an emotional bond.

That's why potlucks and communal meals are so important in cohousing communities. Like the killer whales, we know it's better to eat together, and not just because we think it's rude to eat alone.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sprinkler Malfunctions and Lessons Learned

Summers are very dry in British Columbia, and so just about every garden here has some sort of sprinkler system. Pacific Gardens is no exception. When we had the initial landscaping done, we installed what we thought was a well-calibrated sprinkler system. However, our supposedly fine-tuned system has, like most of the residents here, a mind of its own.

Water spurts in strange directions and locations, and at odd times, and last night we had a particularly spectacular sprinkler malfunction - a geyser of water shooting straight up into the air and threatening to flood a pathway.  I immediately rushed to the rescue, but after wrestling with  the sprinkler bip (as it's called), I was soaked.Then my neighbours Chad and Susana came to take a look. Chad managed to turn it off, but not before he got soaked, too.

This afternoon  a group of us had an impromptu meeting on the lawn to discuss the sprinkler snafu, and, in best cohousing fashion, the conversation meandered onto other problems that needed a solution.  What to do about the fellow who needed a place to stay but couldn't find a room to rent?  We had a room available. Where could we find more volunteers for cleaning?  The teenage relative of a friend was keen to earn some extra money doing chores, as was a new tenant.  How were we going to pay for the new blackout blinds in one of our units?  A resident came up to us and offered to help cover the cost. One of our three-bedroom-and-den units was up for rent; how we could help the elderly owners find new tenants? We still had an ad posted for another unit that was now rented, so we would just re-direct any inquiries to them, and help out with writing ads for Craigslist and Kijiji.

So, in about 20 minutes, we solved four problems and got started solving a fifth (the sprinklers are still going to need more work, alas). And that's the synergy of cohousing.  There's so many opportunities to meet that you just can't help coming up with some great shared solutions!


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Farmer's Markets - Are They For Everyone?

I've recently started frequenting one of the local farmer's markets in Nanaimo.  It's part of my desire to support local farmers, and help create food security on our island, where more than 90 per cent of our food is trucked in by ferry. If for some reason the ferry service shut down for more than two or three days, we'd be in big trouble.

But, I have to admit, after shopping there for a few weeks, I have some misgivings.  Are they part of the solution, or part of the problem?  First of all, to get there, you need a car, and you have to drive a lot farther than you do to the neighbourhood grocery store.

Second, the prices are way higher - and yes, I understand that locally-produced, organic food is more labour-intensive, and that farmers on small acreages can't take advantage of economies of scale.

Third, there is a great deal of duplication.  Several vendors sell the same kind of salad mix and the usual array of seasonal vegetables and fruits, plus eggs.  The ones who aren't selling these have high-end products that the average family could not afford or would have on their dinner table on a regular basis.

And finally, the customers are all the usual suspects. Most of them I recognize.These are not your ordinary working Canadians, as the NDP would say. To me, it looks like they are serving a relatively affluent niche market - people with the time and money to drive long distances to buy high-priced food.

So, what's the solution, you ask?  I don't know. It's difficult for local farmers to get their products into supermarkets, because they can't supply them in big enough volumes at the prices average folks are willing and able to pay.

I'll continue to buy produce at the market, because it tastes so good, and I enjoy the camaraderie of the people who go there and the personal connection with the vendors.

But until they become more accessible to people of all classes, I think farmer's markets are more of a food fashion than a food revolution.


Monday, August 13, 2012

It Takes a Community To Make a Tart!

I love to cook. I have happy memories of cooking for a house full of teenage boys with wild abandon, knowing that no matter what I made and no matter how much I made, it would all get eaten. Now that I live in cohousing I am grateful to have the opportunity to whip out the pots and pans and try new recipes without worrying about what I will do with the leftovers.

July is peak cherry season in BC, and a few weeks ago I happened across a recipe for a cherry custard tart that looked appealing to me. I decided to try and make one for a community potluck dinner, so made a grocery list of ingredients and noted that the instructions called for the tart to be baked in a 9" tart pan, one of those shallow metal pans with a fluted edge and a removable bottom. Off I went to a nearby shopping center to purchase the ingredients, and to search the kitchen section of the London Drugs for such a pan. Alas, the store did not carry any tart pans, but as I was getting ready to leave I ran into Gloria, one of my cohousing neighbours, examining the products in  the immersion blender section.

"Oh hi, what are you looking for?" asked Gloria.
"I was hoping to find a 9" tart pan, but they don't have any," I replied.
"I have one that I'd be happy to lend you," Gloria offered.
"I have a hand-blender that you could borrow," I added.
We both laughed, and lamented that we should have had a cohousing meeting before going shopping!

Although it was too bad that we had to meet at the London Drugs to come to the realization that we had what each other needed, it was a great reminder of the great benefit of knowing and trusting your neighbours. Pooling and sharing your resources helps save money, and makes smaller demands on the environment.

The tart was delicious!


Thursday, August 9, 2012

It Takes A Community to Make a Sandbox!

Here are some pictures from our sand delivery - lots of male bonding over a wheelbarrow, with sweat and a heavy sand load for our sandbox. All of them ready to help in the hot midday sun! 

Men in action  are great. The guys get the job done and  they are so wonderful how they go about it all. I was totally impressed with their expertise dumping and loading the wheelbarrow so the kids could have a clean sandbox to play in.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Susana's Garden

This is Susana's garden, which I see just outside my door. It has a plethora of flowers, blue, purple, mauve, yellow, and white, with butterflies, bees and hummingbirds weaving in and out of their blooms.

Three years ago when I first moved in, when I looked out my door all I saw was something resembling the Gobi desert.  Despite our pleas to the construction manager to preserve the rich farm topsoil, it had been carted away, leaving us with a thin layer of dirt littered with pebbles and rocks.

The natural flora and fauna had left, and it seemed like a wasteland. But in the years since, there has been a transformation, and Susana's garden is a living example of what can be done to restore the beauty of nature.

She diligently planted flowers that would attract bees - bee balm is a favourite - and blossoms with loads of nectar for the hummingbirds.  Butterflies have returned in abundance, as well as garter snakes, frogs, and birds of all kinds who feast on the insects and worms that now live in our fertile soil.

This is what just one person in our community has accomplished with her own small plot.  Imagine what the world would look like if more of us did this!


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Kaj, the energizer bunny

I'd like you to meet one of my neighbours, Kaj (pronounced Kai).  He's not a young fella - in fact, he's in his 80s - but he's the energizer bunny of our community.

In the three years he's been here this octogenarian has built: our all-encompassing, super-duper deer fence; a teeter-totter; bike racks for both the kids and grown-ups; a system of composting bins that are efficient as well as attractive; and a garden shed that looks so much like a cottage some folks have asked if they could rent it.

He is also another one of comunity's dedicated gardeners, and as you can see from his picture (with his wife Doris, another active community member), he grows some amazing produce.

You would think this would be enough to keep a guy busy, but no. Kaj is known as the go-to person when anything needs to be fixed, mended or installed.  Just yesterday he put up my umbrella clothes dryer. Tomorrow it could be power-washing a sidewalk or some balconies, sanding a wood pillar, or painting.

Kaj has been a logger, fisherman and farmer since he came to Canada from his native Denmark.  When you ask him which he liked doing best, he'll tell you he loved them all.

We think he's pretty fantastic.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What, me worry?

It's not easy being Green.  As an environmentalist who is deeply concerned about the fragile state of our ecosystems, I want to do all I can to reduce my footprint.  But I'm often in a quandary as to what the best action is.

For example, I started going to local farmers' markets because I want to support the production of food closer to home (and also, admittedly, because the produce and goodies you find there taste a lot better than the supermarket variety!) But, to get there, I do a lot more driving.  How ecological is it to spend 30 minutes in the car to pick up some tomatoes and lettuce as I did today?

Another vexing question is transportation.  A public transit user all my life, it is only when I moved to Nanaimo that I began driving everywhere, because the transit system here is terrible - buses come once an hour, there are few, if any shelters, no service on statutory holidays, and several areas with no bus service at all (there is none to the Duke Point ferry, if you can believe it!).

So I have a car, a small, very fuel-efficient one.  But now hybrids are widely available and affordable, and I've been thinking I should replace my reliable but aging vehicle with a less gas-guzzling form of transportation. But what about the energy costs that go into producing a new car?  And although my car's manufacturer makes great claims about recycling, how much of a car can you really recycle?

It's hard to figure out what is right to do. What helps is that by living in cohousing, I have a community of people who share my values and are struggling with some of the same questions. We are trying to do the best we can, and perhaps that's good enough.

As a wise friend of mine once told me, "In reality, we can only do things one small step at a time. So I focus on the small things I can do and find satisfaction and contentment in that."