Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

I dived headfirst into Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray and barely came up for breath until I finished. It magically combined several of my favorite themes including nature, childhood, ecology, Southern lore and family angst, trees, trees, and more trees.

Ray interweaves the story of her childhood growing up dirt poor amongst her family junkyard. We have the phrase "poor trash" in our society to denote those souls that grow up in our back country rural places, and Ray lived the story on the soil of Georgia as they survived to make it day by day. The interesting thing about the trash - both in human and physical items - is that there are jewels of interest for things that we might normally throw away.

She played school and wrote with chalk on the sides of abandoned automobiles, made a raft of car gas tanks to sail on tree rimmed ponds, and her Daddy could pull a vacuum out of a heap and tinker with it a bit and soon it hummed just right. Pieces of things would have a second life and provide an meager income for a family growing up in the 1970's.

As a naturalist author Ray intersperses her story with information about trees of the South, mostly the longleaf pine. One of my favorite parts of the book describes the birds partial to nesting in the trees of a longleaf pine, and how they like old growth trees the best. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker is a unique little bird that nests in the nooks and cavities of a live pine tree and carves it's nest out year through year. Ray weaves an eloquent chapter on this little bird and incorporates many of the facts about the species in this chapter. She includes tidbits about the threats to the habitat of this breed of Woodpecker, and I found myself captivated by the information. If you investigate the link above you will journey to the Cornell site that tells you more of this interesting little bird.

Incorporated into the book are nuggets that stay with you, such as the commentary on clear cutting forests. She writes, " If you clear a forest, you'd better pray continuously." " God doesn't like a clear cut. It makes his heart turn cold, makes him wince and wonder what went wrong with his creation, and sets him to thinking about what spoils the child. You'd better be pretty sure that the cut is absolutely necessary and be at peace with it, so you can explain it to God, for it's fairly certain he's going to question your motives........" And she goes on to describe clear cutting, the impact, and the effects on the diversity of the forest with replanting.

Her novel (slash) non-fiction (slash) autobiography is almost a snapshot of many of my experiences in the South. Her descriptions of her grandmother mirror my own Grandmaw in many ways that I was startled. The food, the cooking, the heart of a Southern woman are captured in her descriptions of family and relatives. Add a dash of mental illness in the family history and it makes for a mighty interesting story.

The book won the American Book Award, the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, and the Southern Environmental Law Center Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern environment. It was also chosen for the "All Georgia Reading the Same Book" project by the Georgia Center for the Book. (info from Wiki) Ray went forward beyond her junkyard childhood to become a noted author, naturalist and environmental writer. Her works have been published in Audubon, she is a known environmental activist and has been featured on NPR.

I'm quite intrigued to discover an author that blends many of my favorite elements together so well while prompting me to learn more, to go further, to dive deeper into the environment around me. She blends her facts and narrative elements together so well that I feel she would be a wonderful author for our Green readers to explore - and the combination of a book non-fiction readers will enjoy while satisfying the desire for just a good 'ole read adds up to a 5 out of 5 stars on my tally sheet.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Monday Roundup

Welcome Spring! I'm glad for clover holidays and eggs (almost!) peeking in baskets, a hope for fresh air and sunshine coming our way. I know there are gardening books sitting on the bedside table, seed catalogs scattered about and maybe even a few of the new Green themed publications that are hitting our shelves.

Share what you are working on in the comments section to give us some new "fresh air!"

P.S. Picture of little clover taken on a walk on my lunch break last year. I'd like to start a photo set of little peaceful moments that provide natural connections through our day. It seemed like a fitting picture for the month of clover and start of the season.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Book Review: Big-Box Swindle (a second opinion)

Big-Box Swindle by Stacy Mitchell is a revolutionary book in the style of Omnivore’s Dilemma. Mitchell investigates the effect of big-box stores on the economy and her discoveries range from illuminating to infuriating. Big-Box Swindle covers about 100 years of retail business history. I am too young to remember a time before there were malls, but I found Mitchell’s observations to be fascinating since I live in a place that perfectly illustrates many of her points. She traces the history of retail sales from the time of "Main Streets" lined with locally-owned shops, to the addition of strip malls farther away, to the development of shopping malls, to big-box stores, to bigger-box stores and malls of big-box stores. At each stage, the retail business moves farther out from the city center and customers move from the previous stores to the newest stores, leaving empty stores behind. Each stage also requires a longer drive to get there. This book goes a long way towards explaining why our lifestyle uses so much more oil than that of the Europeans.

Big-Box Swindle covers what has happened to our country and briefly touches on how the big-box retailers have moved into other countries like Mexico. This section left me livid since I can imagine the suffering Wal-mart, particularly, has caused to the indigent cultures. Even Costco, who I’ve always regarded as one of the "good" boxes because they pay their employees better, ought to be ashamed of itself. Beyond that, Mitchell writes about how the big-box stores treat their domestic and overseas suppliers (not good). The way they use predatory pricing to drive their competitors out of business should be illegal and the laws should be enforced. I don't know how these people sleep at night.

The last part of the book concerns how our government at all levels has actually helped the big-boxes take over. The short-sightedness is so bad it’s baffling. But then Mitchell outlines strategies that cities have used to successfully take back control of their communities and she devotes a chapter to successful strategies that independent retailers are using to fight back. I think this book ought to be required reading for all members of city councils and planning commissions. It might even help the officials in my own city understand why they’ve been unsuccessful in their numerous attempts to revitalize downtown.

So I thought the book was really valuable and important. It’s well researched with a blend of facts, figures, legalities and case studies. It’s a little thick, but it's readable and it kept my interest. All the way through, though, I kept thinking it was missing something. I could summarize the whole book in four words: Chain = bad, Independent = good. I think there's a lot of middle ground that is completely overlooked. Mitchell isn't just against Wal-mart, she's also against shopping malls, Starbucks, and every chain business from the beginning of time (somewhere in the early 1900's). She gives illustrations so I will, too.

Case 1: One of the biggest criticisms of chain stores is that the dollars don’t stay in the community. My son’s first babysitter was a highschooler who happened to be one of my students. I was aware that her father owned several fast-food franchises here in town, but it wasn’t until we visited her house one day that I realized how well off they were. I didn’t even know that such a mansion, on such an estate, existed in my town! I don't mean to endorse fast-food chains -- I ususally avoid them because of where they source their food -- but believe me, in this case a lot of the profit stayed right here.

Case 2: Mitchell praises communities that put limits on the size of stores and limit the numbers of "formula (chain) businesses." One of my favorite grocery stores is over 100,000 square feet, a size condemned in the book, and it is an employee-owned chain. My town's beloved hardware store is locally owned, and bigger than a Home Depot. For nearly everything else, I shop at Bi-Mart, a box chain here in the pacific northwest. Bi-Mart was acquired by an out-of-state developer a while back, but the employees banded together to buy it back and now it's employee-owned, which means a couple family friends are part owners. My favorite restaurant is Burgerville, a pacific northwest fast-food chain that works hard to source their ingredients from local farmers. By Mitchell’s logic, all of these businesses are bad. Maybe I'm being a little too hard on her, but she never acknowledges a case where a box store or a chain might actually be good.

Case 3: About seven years ago, our out-of-work next-door neighbor went to a garage sale and inquired about a double-wide refrigerator. He was told that it was being sold with the business, an independent restaurant that happened to be on our neighbor’s speed-dial. So he bought the restaurant. How local is that! He changed the location and business took off. So he opened another, and another. Some are in other communities and often someone asks him if they can purchase a franchise. If he becomes a chain, does that make him a Bad Guy?

These are some of the questions that bothered me as I read Big-Box Swindle. So yes, I thought it was good and I got a lot out of it. I already knew many of Wal-mart's transgressions, but now I will also avoid Target and the like (although I'll still shop at Staples since it's so much more pleasant than being stared at by the people in the local stationery store). And I agree with most of what Mitchell said. I encourage everyone to read this book, but consider that life might not be quite so cut-and-dried as the author makes it out to be. I’ll give it 4 out of 5, and I’d love to hear some more feedback. If you'd like to read another review, check out Green Bean's right here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday roundup

I hope this Monday finds everyone well. I’ve been battling a cold for the past week. Sigh. But my cold has a silver lining in that I’ve had a lot of time when all I’ve wanted was to curl up with a book! I’ve just finished "Big-Box Swindle" and I’m hoping to get a review up tomorrow. Interesting book.

So what about you? What have you been reading? Or reviewing? Please drop us a comment and let us know.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book Review: Finding Beauty In A Broken World

This is the first book I've read by Terry Tempest Williams although I've heard her name in the distance for years. And the truth is I set the book down after the first 35 pages and it was only by chance I picked it up after two weeks and began again. The second time I barely set it down until I turned the last page though.

Finding Beauty opens with TTW's experience with making mosaic in Italy, the metaphor of which is carried through the remainder of the book. I could have done without this part but the art ties the remaining two seemingly disparate sections of the book together.

The first half, after the opening, is about prairie dogs. Yeah, I know. Prairie dogs. I saw one once and have never given them another thought. Given their shrinking numbers I'll likely never see one again either. And I was fascinated with them.

TTW spends two weeks with a leading prairie dog researcher in the Utah desert observing the dogs 14 hours a day. Her observations are all over the map. They're part memoir, part poetry, part educational, humor, despair, part hope. I fell in love with prairie dogs. They live in communities, communally nurse the young and are brilliant in their contribution to the natural landscape. And they have language. It's amazing.

The second half of the book is about the author's experience in Rwanda with a group of artists building a memorial in a survivors town. It's a world away from the Utah desert but TTW ties it in with the mosaic metaphor. I appreciated reading the ways in which the Rwanda people are healing. And it was hard to read what individual people went through, are still going through. But there's beauty; the never ending beauty of spirit, of community, of courage and renewal. A miracle really.

I not only learned about prairie dogs and the people of Rwanda from reading this book but it reminded me to look for beauty in the broken places too. My only disappointment is I can't read it for the first time again.

I recommend this book to all people. It's our story regardless of landscape or borders.
I rate it 4.5 stars only because the beginning nearly kept me from the remaining beautiful stories.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Monday Roundup

The cute guy and I have started haunting the library after work on Mondays. It's an old building with arched wooden framed windows, a door that creaks and hard covered books from a time when there were no pictures on the cover. We carry home poetry, pages of images, books we think we might want to read or ordered; books that we wonder what the hell were we thinking. And then we carry them back. It's a privilege.

And finally after so many months of barely reading I devoured a book that I plan on reviewing this week, Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams. I loved the book but even more I loved remembering the magic of getting lost in a good read, of letting the routine go, of learning something new, of getting inside an author's head and going where they take me. Another privilege.

Second best only to what I manage to read is reading reviews of the books I'd like to read or know I'll never read but want to know about. It makes the library and the bookstore juicier recognizing a title and then flipping through it, often bringing it home while remembering a blogger's enthusiasm. Or the other side, setting it back on the shelf with a nod of agreement remembering a tepid commentary.

What's going on in your reading life? Have you gotten lost in a good book? Learned something new? And new reviews to lure us to the library or bookstore?

Let us know. Books are even better when they're shared.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Book Review: Big Box Swindle

Last December, I wrote an article on the importance of buying local for my city's green newsletter. I played up the importance of supporting neighbors in a bad economy, the fact that local businesses give 350% more support to non-profits than do non locally owned businesses, and the value of preserving local culture.

Within hours of sending out the newsletter, a very active and very green citizen shot me a blistering email. She found my article divisive and offensive. What was more, she hated our downtown. It was too expensive and didn't carry some of the items that her 17 year old niece wanted for Christmas. She scoffed at donations made by local businesses to our schools and community organizations. They couldn't possibly compare, in size, to the 5% that Targets allegedly give back to their communities. And she wanted a Target in our town, darn it! A green one, that she could walk to. Never mind that there is a Target the next town over. She needed one here.

I put together a lengthy and, I hoped, eloquent response, declaring my allegiance to Main Street. The other green task force members piped in with positive thoughts about buying within the city limits but it was the response from the task force's fearless leader that made the biggest impression.

"Mary, have you read Big Box Swindle? Let me send a you a copy so that you can better understand the importance of supporting locally owned businesses and the impact of big box stores."

Here I sat, a green bookworm if ever there was one. Heck, I even blog at a place devoted entirely to green reads and yet I'd never heard of this book much less read it.

I immediately logged into my library's online reservation and reserved a copy of Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight to Save America's Independent Businesses by Stacy Mitchell.

Before reading it, I had intuitively known that local businesses provide more interest, more diversity in the marketplace and I had supported other bloggers who felt the same. I had read, with great interest, the chapter in Affluenza that pointed out how chain businesses erode our communities and ship our dollars to corporate headquarters instead of to city hall. I had nodded in agreement with Bill McKibben when he explained, in Deep Economy, that, when chain stores come to town, the individual benefits (through cheaper socks and shampoo) but the community suffers. Indeed, I had immediately agreed with Katrina, from Kale for Sale, when she suggested that, at The Blogging Bookworm, the book list link to independent bookstores instead of Amazon. And the first ad we ever put up at The Green Phone Booth was for IndieBound, an online cooperative of independent bookstores across the country.

But knowing, or suspecting, that it is better to support local businesses is one thing. Having the marketplace laid bare, with all its secrets and swindles set forth, is another.

For me, Big Box Swindle is the next The Omnivore's Dilemma. It rocked my world and opened eyes in a way no other book has since I plodded along with Michael Pollan through factory farm feedlots and the fields of PolyFace Farm.

In Big Box Swindle, the author systematically explains how chain stores have changed American culture. They've moved us out of our downtowns, into our cars, and out to the fringes where we buy things shipped from Asia, made with toxic ingredients by people paid unethical wages, and rung up by a cashier who works full time but lives below the poverty line.

They've ripped up our forests, torn down our historic buildings, and polluted our rivers and streams as they pave over more and more of the country.

They've limited our selection. We wear the clothes, dance to the music, and read the books that an ever-shrinking group of people choose for us. "The pressure [the mega retailers] place on manufacturers to lower costs has sharply curtailed investment in product research and development." (138).

They've taken subsidies from well meaning but ill informed city councils and demanded tax breaks in return as they bring in lower paying jobs and drive local businesses out of business.

They've stripped our country of its meeting places, whittled away at the idea of community and left us paying the same price for shampoo as we did before - but with a smaller paycheck, fewer community amenities and for a lesser product.

If you care about rebuilding your community, about rebounding from this economic collapse, about preserving those beautiful natural spaces and those binding community places, if you want to have more choice in what you use to wash hair or paint your walls, if your city is struggling to pay it teachers or keep its park and rec classes open, this book is for you.

It is impossible to move forward without truth. And of truth, this book offers plenty. But it also offers solutions. Ways to overcome the big box syndrome sweeping the country. Ways to fight it within your own community. And ways to support those independently owned businesses the provide our country with the beauty, the diversity, the flavor the heart that makes up America.

The politicians have bickered enough about bailouts and stimulus packages. This book provides the blue print for the only one that matters but the only folks who can do it. Together, we can bail out Main Street and get back the community we all want.

Rating: 10 out of 5.
Recommended: For everyone who has ever paid for anything.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Book Review: Green Housekeeping

My green book club recently met to discuss the book, Green Housekeeping by Ellen Sandbeck. The book was a breezy read - more how to and encyclopedia on green cleaning techniques than book, really. Ms. Sandbeck touches on nearly every aspect of cleaning a home from doing the dishes (Yes, Greeen Sheeep was right! You can use a combo of washing soda and borax in lieu of dishwasher detergent!) to mopping to organic gardening.

The group's number one take away? Throw our your sponge! It's nooks and crannies are full of all kinds of icky stuff that you really can't kill (even in the dishwasher or microwave) and you certainly don't want to spread that stuff around your kitchen table, counters and sink. The author's suggestion, and I think it was a good one, is to switch to soft towels to use as dish rags. For those stubborn pots and pans, fold your dish rag up in a square and use it inside of a mesh bag (like the ones onions or oranges come in). Works like a charm! Then, remove the mesh, rinse it out and set to dry, while tossing your dish rag in the laundry.

The book is chock full of useful little tips like the ones above - ways to chip away at your dust and grime as well as any chemicals still residing in the dark depths of your cupboards. For the most part, the tips are helpful and make sense. Less clutter results in less cleaning time. Vodka shines, vinegar cleans. And so on.

Ms. Sandbeck does go a little overboard here and there, She drones on and on about fire safety and about botulism. Still, the book is a worthwhile resource for anyone looking to keep a greener, cleaner home.

Recommended: for the green homemaker in all of us
Rating: 3 out of 5

Monday, March 2, 2009

Monday Roundup

March brings spring and the awakening of our yards and gardens, the vacant lots, the untended fringe along the suburbs and the forests along with it. March is a time when I usually leave books behind - just for a bit - to rush outside, tuck dainty seeds into the ground, turn under cover crop, count fluttering white butterflies over the peas, and ogle the quiet worms temporarily unearthed by a carefully applied trowel.

I suspect this March will be much of the same. The books on my bedside table boast titles like Carrots Love Tomatoes, Gaia's Garden and Golden Gate Gardening. But that doesn't mean I don't have reviews of some over-wintered books to share. Stay tuned this week for, hopefully, reviews of Big Box Swindle and Green Housekeeping.

Are you too sucked outside in spring? Or have you found a great green read that can compete with the sunshine and soft breezes? Did winter leave you well-read and ready to share some reviews? Please leave a comment and let me know.