Archive for February, 2009

How to Grow Fresh Air

Friday, February 27th, 2009

     I have good news and bad news.  First, the bad news.  Apparently, there are studies showing that Americans spend, on average, 90% of their time indoors.  I regard this as a shame because the outdoors offers us so much–direct contact with the sights, sounds, and smells of nature, and, for the most part, fresher air than we find indoors.

     Now for the good news.  We can create fresher air in our indoor environment by choosing the right plants for our home and office.  Certain plants, many of which are relatively easy to grow, act as excellent filters, helping to remove common pollutants from our indoor air.    

     Hundreds of poisonous chemicals can be released into our home and office from furniture, carpets, and building material.  Ammonia, benzene, formaldehyde, and many other airborne toxins are often trapped inside, thanks to closed ventilation systems.  Allergic reactions and respiratory problems are an all-too-frequent result. 

     But how do you know which plants will make your indoor air cleaner?  The book  How to Grow Fresh Air makes it easy.  Shared with me by my friend Jeanne, this practical, yet beautiful book lists 50 plants that are champs when it comes to cleaning indoor air.  The plants that made it into the book are also relatively easy to care for.  And author B. C. Wolverton includes basic instructions for growing and maintaining each plant.       

     In addition to freshening the air in which you spend much of your time, deploying the ‘right’ plants in your home or office will also add beauty to your surroundings, making the space a more pleasant place to be.

     Here are some details about just a few of the plants described in Wolverton’s book: 

Boston fern:  This is one of the best plants for removing air pollutants, especially formaldehyde.  The Boston fern has a high transpiration rate, which means that as the plant rapidly takes up water from the soil, the roots are also pulling the (toxin-laden) air in.  Microbes in the soil break down these gases into food and energy for the plant.  Ferns love to be misted and should be fed weekly with a weak liquid fertilizer. 

Bamboo palm:  Like many other palms, the bamboo palm is an excellent choice for cleaning indoor air.  With its clusters of small, slender canes and its graceful fans, the bamboo palm is great for removing many toxins.  The bamboo palm also pumps moisture into the air, a big plus during dry winter months.  The plant needs plenty of water during periods of active growth, and it is quite resistant to insect infestation.

Red emerald philodendron:  A vining plant, the red emerald is one of the best in the philodendron family for removing chemical vapors.  And like all philodendrons, it is easy to grow and maintain.  This hybrid with striking burgundy-red leaves should be misted often.






The Land’s Prayer

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

     This poem was written by my friend Layne Longfellow:

Our Father, Our Mother,
We are on Heaven;
Hallowed be this ground.
Your kingdom will come
If our will is one
on Earth,
As it is our Heaven.
Give all this day their daily bread,
And forgive us our excesses,
As we forgive those whose excess exceeds ours.
And lead us not into consumption
But deliver us from avarice,
For ours is the power
To preserve this realm
In all its glory,
Forever and ever.

Copyright, 2009, Layne Longfellow

Breathe Easier–and Longer

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

     While it makes sense that clean air is more healthful to breathe than polluted air, scientists have recently calculated how much longer we can expect to live, as a result of efforts that have already been made to clean up the air.  The short report below from The Week magazine, February 6, explains.

“Cleaning up the environment isn’t an easy task, but we Americans are already reaping modest rewards for our hard work.  Since policymakers ramped up efforts to reduce air pollution in the 1980s, the nation’s air–especially in big cities–has become significantly cleaner. 

The cleaner air has added nearly five months to the average life expectancy in the U.S., say researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health.  That’s because the tiny bits of soot and chemicals in polluted air can lodge deep in the lungs and cause lung disease, heart attacks, and strokes.  These particulates come from power plants, factories, and automobiles. 

Plenty of policymakers have asked the question, “If I spend the money to reduce pollution, what really happens?”  epidemiologist Joel Schwartz tells The Los Angeles Times.  Now, he says, we can give them an answer:  By reducing pollution, we’re saving lives.”


The Pond in Winter

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

     The following winter scene from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden takes my breath away.–April Moore

Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer;  there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants.  Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

Protecting Marine Life As Easy as Cell Phone Texting

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

     Despite the above title, I have actually never even sent a text message!  I am, to put it politely, “technologically challenged.”  But, fortunately, most visitors to are not so impaired.  And this piece is for you!

     As you probably know, there are several environmental concerns related to the catching and consuming of fish. 

     Many fish species have been overfished, and so their long-term viability is threatened.  In addition, some commercial fishing methods cause undue harm because other marine animals, which may be endangered, are unintentionally swept into the catch.   

     When it comes to consuming fish, there may also be health concerns.  Certain kinds of fish have absorbed a great deal of mercury or PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls)s, making them a health hazard to humans who eat them.

     But despite these environmental and health concerns, many types of fish are fine to eat, from both an environmental and a human  health standpoint.  These fish are not harvested in numbers large enough to threaten their long-term viability, nor does their capture endanger other species.  And these fish have not ingested enough mercury or PCBs to pose a threat to human health.

     But how is a fish lover to know which kinds of fish are okay to eat, and which are not, for either environmental or health reasons?

     So here’s the good news.  And it’s easy.  The next time you’re at the fish counter in the grocery store or opening your menu in a restaurant, and you want to select a fish that’s good for the planet and for you, here’s what to do.  Just reach for your cell phone, and type in 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish you are considering. 

     You will receive a text message in return from the Blue Ocean Institute, telling you the environmental and health information you need to know to decide whether the fish in question is a wise choice.  If, unfortunately,  the particular fish poses significant environmental concerns, you will receive the names of some fish that are better alternatives.

     This service from the Blue Ocean Institute is known as Fishphone, and its purpose is to steer consumer demand toward sustainability.

     If you would like to learn more about the environmental and health implications of some of your favorite fish, just visit  There, the Blue Ocean Institute has posted consumer-friendly write-ups on more than 90 commonly consumed species.  They are ranked according to life history, abundance in the wild, habitat concerns, and catch methods.

     To make the seafood guide especially easy to use, each listed fish is accompanied by a fish logo of a particular color.  Bright green, for example, means the fish is abundant and that fishing methods do not harm wildlife or damage habitat.  There are three more colors, with their accompanying meanings, on the way to red, which indicates serious environmental problems. 

     For certain fish, the logo is pierced by a red flag, warning that consumption of this fish poses health hazards to humans and should be avoided.

     So the next time you’re buying fish for cooking or ordering it in a restaurant, all you need is your cell phone.  Oh, and don’t forget to note the number 30644 and the word ‘FISH.’–April Moore


An Inspiring Figure

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

     On a recent day, with an old issue of Audubon as my lunch companion, I read with interest about an ornithologist of whom I’d never heard.  This bird lover, who had died just short of his 100th birthday, was quoted as saying: 

Human life is not purposeless.  Rather, the moments of intense pleasure we experience in our encounters with nature may well justify our existence.

     It must have been my mood;  these words of Alexander Skutch went straight to my heart.   Yes!  Here was a kindred spirit.  I feel the same way.  In fact, Skutch’s words brought back memories of my younger self, who asked, as we all do,  ”Why are we humans here?”  The answer that most satisfied me back then was that we are the ones with the capacity to feel appreciation and awe at the beautiful planet Earth.

     Skutch’s words also aroused in me two perpetually painful questions.  ”Why are we humans destroying this beautiful planet?  Why isn’t it just unthinkably painful to bulldoze wetlands, forests, and waterways to make room for human activities?”  Of course I realize that these questions are simplistic.  The harm we humans are doing to the planet is not limited to overt destruction;  the daily lives of billions of us, especially those of us leading comfortable, middle class lives (myself included) form an unsustainable strain on the planet.

     I decided to learn more about this passionate nature lover, and I found his life inspiring.  Skutch left his native Baltimore in the 1920s and went to Costa Rica to work as a botanist for the United Fruit Company.  He soon became enthralled with the array of colorful birds there and decided to devote the rest of his life to studying them.

     Skutch and his wife lived simply on a farm they bought in Costa Rica, growing much of their own food and drawing their water from nearby streams.  Skutch financed his bird studies by collecting tropical plants for museums in the U.S. and Europe.

     In the world of ornithology, Skutch is best known for his discoveries of cooperation among birds.  His observations showed that many birds help other birds, usually relatives, with nest building and caring for the young.

     Skutch’s intense observations enabled him to detect differences in the appearance and behavior of mates who, at first, looked quite alike.  He realized that birds’ ability to recognize close associates as individuals was necessary for avian societies to persist.

     Skutch wrote many books describing the lives of about 300 species of birds.  He disliked statistics, instead basing his studies on detailed observations and interpretation.  In explaining his fascination with birds, Skutch once said, “they’re not unfeeling automata but sensitive creatures aware of what they do.”

     Clearly, Skutch was a man who deeply loved the natural world.  He strove to ‘tread lightly on Mother Earth.’ And he named as his favorite writer the Roman essayist and historian Plutarch because, he said, ”Plutarch believed in the integrity of non-human creatures.”

     The farm in Costa Rica where Skutch and his wife lived is now being managed as a nature preserve.-April Moore

Pristine Utah Lands Protected

Monday, February 16th, 2009

     Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has taken action to save more than 130,000 acres of pristine Utah redrock country from oil drilling.  In halting the Bush administration’s auctioning last December of 77 parcels of land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, the new administration is protecting air quality in the national parks, as well as keeping pipelines, well pads, and new roads out of some of Utah’s most impressive wilderness.

     “I see this announcement as a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands,” said Robert Redford, actor, director, and a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an organization that, along with many others, had successfully sought a restraining order in federal court against sale of the leases.

     Anyone concerned that failure to drill in the Utah wilderness could undermine U.S. energy security will be interested to know that these lands would produce, at most, only 1.5 hours worth of the oil we use in a whole year, according to Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney involved in the court action.

    I believe we can look forward to more such protective actions from Salazar.  After all, he says that President Obama has charged him with “cleaning up” the Department of the Interior.  And Salazar explains that while the vast majority of Interior employees are wonderful people who do a great job, ”the policy decisions were driven out of the White House.”    

     Indeed, Salazar’s action in Utah sends an important message about the Obama administration’s approach to preserving America’s public lands, according to Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  “This is a great decision and indicates that Secretary Salazar and President Obama take very seriously their responsibility as stewards of our public lands,” he said.


Basho on Nature

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

     I came to love Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, several years ago when I was teaching fourth graders.  I loved sharing his tiny Haiku appreciations of nature, and the children responded enthusiastically.

     I also found Basho an appealing person.  Although he achieved fame and success early on as a great poet, he did not take to the culture of the literary salon.  What he really loved was to walk about the countryside, enjoying nature and expressing his appreciation in verse.–April Moore

     Here are a few of Basho’s more wintry poems, translated:

The sea darkens                                                                                                                                                   
And a wild duck’s call
Is faintly white

The sound of hail–
I am the same as before
like that aging oak

Against the brushwood gate
Dead tea leaves swirl
In the stormy wind

Will you start a fire?
I’ll show you something nice–
A huge snowball

Wind Power and Our Forests

Monday, February 9th, 2009

     Wind power is a promising source of electricity that we need in a green energy mix.  But since my husband’s and my return to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I have been learning that giant, commercial-grade wind turbines do not belong everywhere.  

     As I study the issue, I have come to believe that wind technology is best placed on open plains, on privately owned land.  Wind turbines will do a great deal of harm if they are built atop mountain ridges on national forest land. 

     To find out why, you can click on the link below to read an open letter to President Obama.  Written by Chris Bolgiano, the author of books and articles on forest ecology, the letter is an excellent primer on appropriate and inappropriate placement of wind turbines.–April Moore

Such Exquisite Beauty Could Be Lost

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

     This morning I glanced out the window to see a titmouse sitting in the little plastic feeder that is suctioned to the glass.  I watched the bird grab a sunflower seed and pirate it away to a nearby tree branch.  Just a moment later, the titmouse’s feeding spot was occupied by a chickadee.  It too darted quickly off, soon to be replaced by a nuthatch, then a junco.  It was as if the birds had lined up, each taking its turn for morning snacks.  And in the process, I got to enjoy a little parade of the different birds that animate our winter woods.

     As I watched with delight, tears sprang to my eyes.    For intruding on my pleasure almost immediately was the thought that all this beauty, the wondrously intricate workings of nature that took millions of years to evolve, could be snuffed out.   

     This sad thought had been stimulated by a book that is constantly at the edge of my consciousness these days.  The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is a dark and beautiful story about a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.  It is a charred world devoid of almost all life.  Immersing myself in this vision of the future has awakened an intensified love and gratitude for the magnificence of nature that is all around me, that has always been here.   

     What would it be like, this book has caused me to ask, to live entirely without beauty, to see no living green leaf or blade of grass, to live on a mostly dead planet that my kind had destroyed?

     I used to work in the arms control movement in Washington, DC, and the prospect of a nuclear war felt real.  I knew that all of nature could be destroyed forever.  I am now much less worried about the possibility of an all-out nuclear war (although it is worrisome that so many nations are members of the nuclear ‘club’).

     The threat of a nuclear holocaust has been largely replaced, I believe, by climate change, a global emergency that is already well underway.  We have yet to stop increasing our carbon emissions so that we can begin to reduce the dangerous warming trend.  I was disappointed to read yesterday that global warming ranks last among 20 issues that Americans say should be their elected leaders’ top concern.  The economy, terrorism, energy, and immigration all ranked higher, the Pew Research Center reported.

     I notice that, paradoxically, my love for the natural world seems to be heightened by the fact that we humans are damaging the ecological balance, cutting short the lives of many species.  Knowing that populations of the common birds I dearly love are in steep decline makes me cherish the little fellows all the more.  Knowing that bears are threatened by a warming climate and by encroachments on their habitat makes me sigh with relief when I hear a forest ranger say that the bears in the nearby George Washington National Forest are ‘doing fantastic.’

     Of course, as individuals, we are all temporary.  And I have often felt that my own temporariness deepens my appreciation for all that I love–nature, family, friends.  After all, my time to enjoy them is limited.  If I were going to live forever, I doubt I would appreciate all that I love nearly so much.  The ephemeral nature of life is what makes it all so precious.

     But what I can’t accept is for the incredible web of life on this planet to be rendered temporary by our human actions.–April Moore     

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