Archive for June, 2013

Why I’m Letting This Thistle Grow

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

This playful, yet thoughtful, little essay was written by my husband Andy Schmookler.April Moore


Before I get to the thistle, let me begin with a confession.  I’m not as ruthless as an ideal gardener would be.  I’m generally too reluctant to kill plants I don’t want in order to make my landscape more beautiful.

I have a friend who is a master at creating beauty with his landscaping. Over the years, I’ve learned enough of his practices to know what he would chop down, or prune off, or pull up.  And I love the results he gets on his land, which is a real showcase and quite superior aesthetically to what I accomplish.  But I often don’t do as he would.

One reason for my ruthlessnesslessness –or perhaps I should call it “ruthfulness”—is the philosophy of gardening I articulated in “How I Garden” [posted here on The Earth Connection June 12, 2013]:  I am philosophically disposed, because of my deepest life experiences in the spiritual realm, to give nature a rather strong hand in shaping my landscape, guiding more than dominating.  My ways are toward the opposite end of the spectrum on which the formal gardens of Versailles are on the other end.

Another reason for my ruthfulness is that there are some kinds of plants I especially appreciate. Having a soft spot for these plants, I have trouble killing them off when they volunteer where I don’t want them.

The oak tree is one of those noble breeds.  As a result, this year I’m in turmoil over the predictable results of last year’s extraordinarily abundant acorn drop.  Oak trees are sprouting up by the hundreds around my place this spring.  A couple of weeks ago, I had to screw my inadequate ruthlessness to the weed-whacking place so I could maintain the trail through my herb garden and not let it be turned into a burgeoning oak grove.  The ideal gardener would not stop there, however, but would strike down many other baby oaks that I’ve so far spared.

This kind of respect for breed is a necessary part, but only a lesser part, for my sparing this thistle that’s pushed its way out of the earth along our little road between a hawthorne tree and some Balm of Gilead poplars.

I do think that the thistle is a life-form that deserves more appreciation than gardeners generally give it.  Admittedly, this thistle comes from a less storied family than those baby oaks.  While the oaks are related to the masterpieces of nature that line the driveways of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, this thistle is but a cousin to the artichokes whose marinated hearts improve my salads and sandwiches.  Nonetheless, the thistle does have a beauty of its own.

“Weed” is not a biological category. It’s a gardener’s judgment cast upon an undesired, unplanned-for plant. The thistle is treated as a weed not only because it is not planted, but rather volunteers, but also because of what humans consider its salient quality:  it causes pain to him who trespasses upon it.

But this thistle is nowhere near where we need fear we’ll touch it inadvertently.  And I’m entirely willing to co-exist with a plant the requires of me only that I respect its space.  I can respect, too, its way of making that claim—standing there boldly, stalwartly, on its stalk, venturing out its shapely if pointy leaves and, later in the season, displaying its sweetly pink flowers.

To anthropomorphize for a moment, had this thistle been in my high school class, I’d have been interested in checking out what he had to say.

That explains the first –necessary but lesser—reason I decided to spare this thistle.  Then there’s the second reason.

One way I like to think about my property is as a kind of Noah’s Ark.  I celebrate the enormous diversity of life-forms contained in our few acres, the many kinds of trees and flowers and shrubs and the rest, whether planted by us or by their own parents and chance.  Some of that pleasure in diversity is a collector’s delight. Some of it is more spiritual.

I like to behold us, a community of living things, living well together for all our diversity.  Unlike with Noah’s animals, who boarded the ark two by two, I’m content for my list of passengers to be, in some cases, one by one.

Which brings me back to the thistle.  This plant is the only thistle I’ve seen on our place this year.  I’ve got burdock erupting here and there, so the thistle will not maintain for long its monopoly on prickliness.  But if I were to hack down this thistle, my ark would be one respectable species poorer.

April, who as we all know loves the earth and its creatures with a devoted heart, would be ruthless with this thistle.  But we’ve had our “Woodman, spare that thistle” moment, and for now it stays, representing its prickly but respectable family on our ark’s journey through this year of life on earth, three billion and whatever.–Andy Schmookler


10 EASY Tips for Sustainable Living

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013
I thank my friend Gail for forwarding me this excellent article on how we can all lighten our impact on Mother Earth.  By adopting Bea Johnson’s suggestions, we will use less fossil fuel, thereby decreasing our carbon emissions that are warming the planet.
In addition to dramatically reducing the amount of waste her household generates, Ms. Johnson also reports such benefits as significant savings of money, improved health, and more time with her family.  I call this a win-win outcome.
From my first reading of Ms. Johnson’s article, I’ve decided to put drier lint (from those rainy days when I can’t hang the laundry outside) into the compost bin, rather than in the trash can.  I will also try her homemade shampoo of baking soda and vinegar.  If it works, I will be able to cut back on plastic (made from petroleum) and save money.
I am interested in hearing from EARTH CONNECTION readers about your own experience if you try any of Bea Johnson’s 10 tips.–April Moore 
posted Sep 14, 2011


Grocery cart photo by Bruce Turner

Photo by Bruce Turner.

A few years ago, my husband and I decided that we wanted a better world for our two boys, now 10 and 11 years old. We embarked on a journey to do our part for the environment: My husband quit his job to join a sustainability start-up; I tackled the home.

I started by adopting reusable water bottles and shopping totes, but slowly took it further by replacing disposables with reusables (toilet paper excluded), shopping in bulk with cloth bags, bringing glass containers to the store for wet items (meat, deli, fish, cheese, oil…), and even testing more extreme ideas, like shampooing with baking soda and vinegar for 6 months. A year’s worth of our household solid waste now fits in a quart size jar.

What we discovered along the way is that the benefits of the zero-waste lifestyle go well beyond the obvious environmental impact. It has not only made us healthier (since the healthiest foods do not come packaged), but it has also saved us a great deal of money. Most importantly, we now have more time to do the things that matter most to us, like spending it with our kids.

We find that we have become a closer and happier family in the process. We have found balance without compromising our goals, aesthetics, or sanity. Zero-waste living is on auto-pilot.

The zero in “zero waste” makes it sound scary and hard to achieve. It is actually not as as hard as it seems, and it is as simple as following these five R’s, in order:

  • Refuse what you do not need.
  • Reduce what you do need.
  • Reuse by using reusables.
  • Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.
  • Rot (compost) the rest.

1. Fight junk mail. It’s not just a waste of resources, but also of time. Register to receive less at

2. Turn down freebies from conferences, fairs, and parties. Every time you take one, you create a demand to make more. Do you really need another “free” pen?

3. Declutter your home, and donate to your local thrift shop. You’ll lighten your load and make precious resources available to those looking to buy secondhand.

4. Reduce your shopping trips and keep a shopping list. The less you bring home, the less waste you’ll have to deal with.

5. Swap disposables for reusables (start using handkerchiefs, refillable bottles, shopping totes, cloth napkins, rags, etc.). You might find that you don’t miss your paper towels, but rather enjoy the savings.

6. Avoid grocery shopping waste: Bring reusable totes, cloth bags (for bulk aisles), and jars (for wet items like cheese and deli foods) to the store and farmers market.

7. Know your city’s recycling policies and locations—but think of recycling as a last resort. Have you refused, reduced, or reused first? Question the need and life-cycle of your purchases. Shopping is voting.

8. Buy primarily in bulk or secondhand, but if you must buy new, choose glass, metal, or cardboard. Avoid plastic: Much of it gets shipped across the world for recycling and often ends up in the landfill (or worse yet, the ocean).

9. Find a compost system that works for your home and get to know what it will digest (dryer lint, hair, and nails are all compostable).

10. Turn your home kitchen trash can into one large compost receptacle. The bigger the compost receptacle, the more likely you’ll be to use it freely.

An attempt at going zero waste starts with small changes. It’s within anyone’s reach, and change starts at home.

Bea Johnson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Bea blogs at The Zero Waste Home, where she shares personal stories and waste-reducing tips with a growing community of people are taking a stance on needless waste.

How I Garden (and How I Pursue My Calling)

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Here is a lovely piece by my husband Andy Schmookler, in which he describes his approach to gardening–and to life.–April Moore

Gardening and landscaping constitute an artistic genre I love. The beauty of that art, well practiced, moves me deeply.

One of my favorite places to visit is Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a finite piece of urban land crafted generations ago by Frederick Law Olmstead so that it seems like a special world in itself. Another is the bonsai collection at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., each specimen of which is a beautifully executed work of art by, in most cases, generations of artists—and by the trees themselves.

The role of the trees in creating the beauty of the bonsais calls attention to a general truth: The art form of gardening/landscaping always represents a kind of collaboration between the artist (the gardener, the landscaper) and nature.

But the proportion of each –how much the artist imposes his vision, how much nature has scope to allow the life force to take its own path–varies greatly.

At one end of the spectrum is a garden like that at Versailles –the formal garden—pictured here. The human concept completely dominates that life elements provided by nature.

My own gardening practices are pretty far toward the other end of the spectrum. Nature, in other words, has a will of its own that’s expressed in the unfolding design of my garden.

Some of the reasons for this style of mine stem from my limitations as a gardener. But even if I had no such limitations –even if I were a master of the craft—I’d still work in that style.

First, the limitations. One is the limit on the time and energy I am able and willing to devote to the work of creating beauty on my land. I have other priorities, as readers here know, and with the time that I apportion to gardening I couldn’t impose my will very thoroughly upon this place even if I wanted to.

Another limitation is money. With enough money, one can buy the materials to execute elaborate designs, and buy also the labor of professional gardeners to implement the plans. I’m not willing or able to spend big bucks to buy a highly polished landscape.

Last, but hardly least, there are the limits on my artistic talents in the medium. I admire greatly people with an artist’s eye for fashioning beauty with the physical materials of gardening. But my own talents in visual media –which my mother saw to it very early in my childhood got every opportunity to flower—have always been quite modest. (I love Mozart and Bach, too, but that doesn’t mean I can write great music. So also with gardening.) I get some reasonably good ideas, but I often find that nature has better ones.

I live in the midst of a forest, a powerful living system that could quickly reclaim its domain if we humans disappeared. I have no intention of disappearing, but –for those reasons of my limitations, plus one more—living nature has an ongoing powerful hand in sculpting my landscape. I do create and execute designs. I choose plants and where to put them. Here and there I shape the land a bit. But much of my role is to read what nature wants to do, and then to help it do it in a beautiful way.

• Like the way the mint and the Greek oregano that I placed in my little herb garden have both broken out of their spaces and create a lovely intermingling on the hillside above the official “garden.”

• Like the way I’m allowing this vibrant and shapely sprout of an Ailanthus –a tree the experts have enjoined me to kill off– to grow for a while out of the base of my stone wall, because this shoot is a beautiful brushstroke put onto the canvas by Nature. (Later I’ll follow advice of the experts to extirpate all my Ailanthus which, while being in some ways beautiful, is also a destructive, invasive plant that creates problems.

• No poison ivy allowed. And every year I make casual war on snakeweed, the plant that killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother, and that I feel junks up the place in aesthetic terms, at least until the fall.

Besides the limitations that hinder my own powers, the other important reason for my style is a philosophy that’s grown out of my life experience in following my calling. What I do as a gardener/landscaper differs only in degree from what I do in the heart of my life’s work.

This began in my twenties, when I received a vision that I then spent years crafting into a form to convey to readers what I’d been given in a matter of minutes.

It continues into the present, such as the past nine years, when I’ve been on what I’ve been calling “my mission”: there’s been something beyond me –something springing up from the pulsing core of things—that’s been running the show, while my job has been to channel that flow to get good results in the world.

Almost all the big insights, and almost all the important strategic choices, have seemed to come my way from some spiritual dimension of the life force.

To my craft as a writer, and also as a speaker, I bring more expertise than to my work as a gardener. But even so, the stream moving through me arises from beyond my control. It has a power that commands my deference.

And that respect and deference –the opposite of the formal gardens of Versailles—has become, over the forty years of my following my calling, my spiritual posture and artistic habit. Much of what I do –in my calling, as well as my gardening– is to put the paddle into the whitewater surging around me, working with the powerful currents of the life force to reach a desirable destination.

After a lifetime of being guided by some sacred force from the heart of life, I’m comfortable being as much the midwife as the mother of what’s created.

Were I a master of the genre of gardening, I’d choose for the artist’s hand to play a stronger role in crafting the picture being painted on the canvas of the landscape. Nonetheless, I feel good about the work of collaborating with the life force to create my gardens. And in them, imperfect as they are, I find a degree of beauty that pleases and satisfies me.

[Pictured here, one of the more artist-shaped parts of my landscape.

The right part of our “amphitheater:

garden 1


The left part of our “amphitheater”:
garden 3

The center part of our “amphitheater”:
garden 2

Climate Change and NPR

Thursday, June 6th, 2013


I’d like to share with you a letter I wrote to National Public Radio a few days ago in response to something I heard on one of their programs that disturbed me.

Dear NPR folks,

First of all, I love NPR very much. I learn so much from it every day that my life would be diminished without it.

But yesterday I heard just the latest example of something that bothers me a great deal about NPR in recent years–a false even-handedness. During the Talk of the Nation program on apologies, a caller said, “Look at the Republicans, for God’s sake. They don’t apologize. And they say. . . ” At which point, the host cut her off with “Now, now, we’re trying to be even-handed here.”

Even-handedness is a virtue, but not when it is at the expense of the truth.  NPR should have no place for the kind of even-handedness that hands out the same sentence to the robber and the victim.

[In my letter, I didn't go into cataloguing examples of bogus even-handedness.   But NPR does this phony 'even-handed' thing a lot.  I've heard them treat climate change deniers the same as climate change warners, as if a set of beliefs held by just 3% of scientists holds just as much weight as the beliefs of 97%.  NPR helps create the false impression that scientists are evenly divided on the notion of human-caused warming of the planet.] 

In this particular instance, the caller was not unfair; she was accurate. Among the GOP’s transgressions in these times–a propos the subject of apologies–has been accusing the President of apologizing for America when he’d done no such thing. The Republicans were explicitly repudiating the idea of apologies. But even if the caller were unfair and inaccurate, since when is it the host’s job on Talk of the Nation to correct every caller who displays a bias? The host’s unseemly haste in this instance, like the various other instances of this bogus even-handedness that prompts me to write you today, bespeaks a kind of terror on the part of public broadcasting not to offend the powers on the right.

While such fear may be understandable, given NPR’s exposure to the political winds and the Right’s tendency to punish those who speak the truth about it (c.f. the Plame affair), I would rather that NPR stand on good journalistic principles, standing for the truth and let the chips fall where they may.


April Moore

Blueways a Blueprint for Healthy Rivers

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

the beautiful Connecticut River


River activists and recreationists  in Minnesota have their fingers crossed.  They are hoping that the Minnesota River will become the third river to win the designation of National Blueway.

If the 332-mile long river that empties into the Mississippi meets criteria set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, it will join the Connecticut River and the White River as National Blueways.

Launched a year ago, the National Blueway System recognizes and supports exemplary river system stewardship and is meant to serve as a blueprint for communities in managing river systems for conservation, education, recreation, and economic opportunities.

Unlike a ‘wild and scenic river’ designation that typically applies to a section of river and a narrow riparian corridor, a National Blueway is a whole river, from source to mouth, and includes a river’s entire watershed.  

The National Blueway System is part of America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, President Obama’s  effort to create a community-driven conservation and recreation agenda for the 21st century.  National Blueways are recognized for integrating water and land management to promote resilient river systems that benefit human and natural communities.  

The first National Blueway, the Connecticut River, was announced in May 2012.  New England’s largest and longest river, the Connecticut begins at the New Hampshire-Canada border and flows south through the heart of New England, emptying into Long Island Sound.  The Connecticut River’s 7.2 million acre watershed stretches through New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

The Connecticut River’s excellent stewardship is the result of efforts by more than 40 entities:  state agencies; the Connecticut River Watershed Council;  Audubon Connecticut; and numerous other organizations.

The second National Blueway to be established, the White River, was named in January.  With its source in Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains, the 722-mile river flows through the states of Arkansas and Missouri and through two national forests to empty into the Mississippi River.  

“The resources made available through this designation,” says Tom Vilsack, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary, “will support and promote needed conservation efforts and bolster valuable economic growth and job creation in years to come.”  

A National Blueway designation offers many benefits.  For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is engaging in dozens of projects aimed at improving habitat in the White River watershed, including removing non-native invasive plants, and increasing outdoor recreational opportunities and access.

The National Blueway System is exciting, and I hope it expands significantly.  With more than three million miles of rivers and streams flowing through our country, most Americans live within a half-mile of a river or stream.   When nearby waterways are healthy, individuals can  enjoy opportunities for recreation and learning.  And entire communities benefit from economic opportunities provided by healthy waterways.–April Moore 




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