Category Archives: All Essays

THE LAST STRAW

thWe need to instill a different culture in the consumption of beverages. This change would start with one itty, bitty urge in the direction of conservation for restaurateurs and their patrons. Not to mention a cool branding. In the process, it could save billions of tons of petroleum based waste.

I give you – the straw. When did the straw become an absolutely essential appurtenance for every beverage? God gave us lips for crying out loud! Unless you are elderly, disabled, or a 2-year-old and are in need of a sippy cup, this utensil is superfluous.

Straws are made of plastic and yes, plastic is petroleum based, although we are making huge strides in other compostable bio-based eating accessories.

The reality is that only 27% of all plastics get recycled. The other 73% goes into landfills and particulate matter in the ocean.

The use of straws with beverages goes back to the Sumerians in 3000 BC. Straws were made of gold and lapiz and were presumably used to keep the settled matter at the bottom of home-brewed beer away from one’s palate. Modern day straws were patented by the creative and thirsty Marvin C. Stone, in 1888, whilst sipping a mint julep on his front porch on a hot day in Washington, DC. The straw of choice in those days was made from a type of rye grass. Although tremendously eco-friendly, Marvin did not care for the way it tainted his bourbon. He had the notion (after a few juleps I’m sure, as the most creative ideas appear at such auspicious moments) to take a strip of paper, wrap it around a pencil and apply glue, later perfecting his invention with wax.

Every beverage in most every corner bar and eatery provides you with a straw, even when one asks specifically for its deletion. Try it and you’ll see, even when you remind the well-intended server that you didn’t want a straw, they will take it out of your soda and throw it in the trash. When you order another drink, purposefully leaving the straw on your napkin to be used with the subsequent beverage, they will throw away the napkin and the straw, missing the point entirely.

Every restaurant, diner, bar, coffee house, and deli will insert a straw in your drink, happily toss it in the trash when you are finished, and provide you with a brand new tubular utensil with your next order even though you are drinking the same gin and tonic and possess the same lips.

This oral addiction has been totally engrained in the hospitality industry.

Paper straws are not common. They tend to get soggy, like the rye grass straw, especially with warm liquid. Take in point my Sikh friend who was in definite need of a straw for sipping his chai tea as his mustache and beard (the pruning of which is against his belief system) would coalesce foam remnants on his glorious grey facial cascade. The paper straw at Flora Grubb was a great and heartfelt concept but not exactly practical, not to mention the fact that they are not really earth-friendly either. They are derived from trees after all.

Sometimes a plastic straw is covered with a plastic sheath – both being discarded in regular trash (yikes, a double global assault!)

Let’s say you spend your afternoon at Starbucks on your laptop and drink three Caramel Machiattos, extra espresso, low-fat whatevers. Most patrons will garner three straws. Since it is the same beverage and you have the same mouth, harboring the same germs, wouldn’t it be environmentally prudent to remove the straw from your first oral orgasmic experience and re-use it for the rest of your laptop jabbing afternoon? After all, it has been marinated. Not to mention, straws give you upper lip lines, like those found on smokers’ faces.

Let’s also review the fact that straws are generally loaded by hand into a receptacle at the bar by the bar back, and then handled by the person making drinks. Now I’m sure that these fine servers wash their hands frequently, but…

This conceptual plea has been submitted to Starbucks. In fact, it went to the senior director of global policy who actually took it directly to the corporate Board of Directors in Seattle, a huge deal. As an author and conservationist, I was thrilled to even get that far. My profound disappointment ensued when the supposedly globally conscious Starbucks referred the issue to their internal ‘waste management’, also missing the point entirely…

And, let’s not forget the cost (both fiscally and environmentally) of manufacturing the straw, transporting the little culprits and the price of all that extra trash. Starbucks as well as all of our local dining establishments would not only look cool if they campaigned against straws, they would save tons of cash!

Are straws important for certain people like my Sikh friend and Stephen Hawking? Absolutely.

Are there millions of plastic straw particles swirling around in no less than five global garbage vortexes floating in our oceans? Yes.

Straws are occasionally appropriate. But, every day? With every beverage? For every person?

No way. We have got to get a collective grip!!!

How to contribute as a restaurateur:

We know it has been engrained in the industry, but perhaps an edict to not automatically insert that plastic culprit would be in order. Have your servers and bartenders have straws on hand, but trained to only give a straw upon request. 100% biodegradable bamboo stirrers are available for cocktails that need to be mixed. Maybe even print a small notice on your menu that says something resembling:

“In the interest of our environment and our passion to preserve it, this establishment endorses the conservation of our resources. We offer straws (a petroleum based product that is not recyclable or biodegradable) only upon request.

Thank you for your contribution for the health of our planet.”

At the Rio Grill in Carmel California, I did a small survey asking the fine patrons of Tony Tollner’s masterpiece restaurant if they would feel slighted if they were served a beverage without a straw. The unanimous vote was that they would not and would simply ask for one if need be.

How to contribute as a person who drinks beverages:

Simply ask for your beverage without a straw. Most times, you will get one anyway.

That is, until we start making a cultural change.

And right now, that’s all we’ve got – small stabs. But collectively, on a planet with billions of people, cultural changes could be the most influential.

One straw at a time.

Author and Conservationist, Brandon Wiggins

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Fertilizer, and More!

Ficus carica and sweet allysum groundcover.
Fig tree (Ficus carica) and sweet allysum

Brandon Wiggins, Science Writer at Large

What is fertilizer? Simply put, fertilizer combines the nutrients that plants need to grow—potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus—in a form they can digest. Think of it as plant food.

As crops grow, they absorb, or mine, nutrients from the soil. When crops are harvested, so too are the nutrients that were absorbed by the plants. Commercial  fertilizers nourish the soil by returning the “food” that next year’s crop will require.

Nitrogen is a key element in protein. Like the human body, plants need it to grow. Phosphorus is the plant world’s equivalent of carbohydrates—it provides the energy for plants to thrive. And potassium is a mineral that helps plants fight stress and disease. It helps plants grow strong stalks, in the same way that calcium gives people strong bones.

Are there chemicals in fertilizer? The three main ingredients in fertilizer—nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus—come from nature. They are not man-made. Fertilizer companies simply convert them into a form that plants can use.

Fertilizer producers can blend nutrients into precise combinations to match the unique needs of different farms, crops, and fields. In this way, farmers can feed their soils with the most effective and efficient blend of potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen to achieve optimal yields.

Do farmers need to use fertilizer? In a word, yes. Every season, plants draw from the soil the nutrients they need to grow. When a crop goes to market, so too does the potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen it has absorbed and used throughout the growing season. When farmers fertilize, they put back into the soil the nutrients their next crop will require.

Soils do not naturally contain all the nutrients that crops need. And while some of the same nutrients in fertilizer are found in soil, they are not present in a sufficient supply for today’s high-yield farming.

It can take years—even decades—for nutrients to build up in the levels necessary to nurture a good crop. A single season can wipe out many years’ worth of naturally produced nutrients. Fertilizers give Mother Nature a helping hand.

Where does phosphorus come from?  Phosphorus used in fertilizers comes from the fossilized remains of ancient marine life found in rock deposits in the U.S. and other parts of the world. This raw ore is processed to create water-soluble compounds that make the phosphorus available to plants as a nutrient.

Phosphorus helps early plant health and root growth. It is involved in seed germination and ensuring plants use water efficiently. Phosphorus is the plant world’s equivalent of carbohydrates—it provides the energy that a plant needs to grow.

Where does potassium come from?  Potassium is the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Through natural processes it is filtered into the planet’s seas and oceans. As these bodies of water evaporate over time, they leave behind mineral deposits. Fertilizer companies mine potassium from these deposits.

Potassium is a mineral that helps crops fight stress and disease. It helps plants grow strong stalks, in the same way that calcium gives people strong bones. 

Where does nitrogen come from?  The air around us contains huge amounts of nitrogen. In fact, nitrogen makes up about 78% of the atmosphere. Fertilizer producers combine nitrogen with natural gas to change it into a form that plants can digest.

Nitrogen is nitrogen, whether it’s used by plants, animals, or people. It is a key element in protein. Like the human body, plants need nitrogen to grow. Often used in greater amounts than other nutrients, nitrogen helps make plants green and plays a major role in boosting yields.

What are the essential mineral nutrients?

  • Macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulphur
  • Micronutrients: boron, chloride, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc
  • Essential or beneficial for some plant species, not all: silicon, sodium, and cobalt
  • Essential for animals but not for plants: selenium
Grapefruit Tree
Grapefruit tree (Citrus paradisi)

FERTILIZER AND FOOD

What role do fertilizers play in feeding a growing world population?  Fertilizers play a huge role in helping feed the world. Thanks to modern fertilizers, world food production has more than doubled since 1960. Today, an estimated one-third to one-half of our global food supply is directly linked to use of commercial fertilizers.

If we are to meet growing demand for food, however, we will need to double our current levels of production. We can’t do that without fertilizers. Just to match current production, we’d have to put into production every available acre outside urban areas—including forests, wildlife habitats, and leisure areas.

In Canada, an estimated 40% of yield increases achieved by farmers are a direct result of commercial fertilizers. Continuing to make better and more efficient use of fertilizer will help us feed the planet.

What would happen to food prices without fertilizer? 

Orange Tree
Orange tree (Citrus sinensis)

One of the biggest benefits from efficient fertilizer use is inexpensive food. Worldwide, one in three people can neither grow nor afford to buy enough food. With the help of commercial fertilizer, North American farmers are able to produce the most abundant, nutritious, and affordable food on the planet. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why people on this continent spend less for food than any other nation on earth.

California Oak Moths—Not All Bad…

 

Carmel Valley Oaks
Carmel Valley Oaks

Brandon Wiggins, Science Writer at Large

Perhaps the California Oak moth is not such a pest after all. Carmel Valley, as well as many other central and northern California areas, has been inundated with squishy worms, defoliated trees, and a brownish-gold detritus covering every surface from the driveway to the kids’ bikes. Albeit messy, the oak worm has its positive aspects.

With two breeding cycles in most years, the Oak Moth (Phryganidia californica) can heavily infest our local Quercus agrifolia, the coast live oak, every five to ten years. Locals have noted that the last infestation this severe was in 1984, yet another year of apocalyptic trepidation. During May and June, the juvenile half to one-inch multi-colored caterpillar will skeletonize the perennial oak’s leaves, cover decks and patio furniture in wormy goo, and chrysalize into many vein-winged oak moths within a few weeks.

Here in Carmel Valley where we have a unique mix of Quercus species, we are prone to these infestations. The deciduous oaks, the Holly Oaks (Quercus ilex), for example, are not eaten by the insatiable larva, but do host the female Phryganidia’s nesting requirements. Although the moths do not ‘eat,’ a job completely undertaken by the larval caterpillar stage, they do lay eggs on the underside of the deciduous oak’s leaves, ready to restart the cycle. Therefore those who have coastal live oaks near perennial oaks will suffer defoliation the most.

A completely fascinating process on its own, chrysalization encompasses the complete morph of liquefied stem cells that re-invent themselves into entirely new beings. Whose idea was that?

Distressingly, the Oak Moth may temporarily feed on other species that are not oak related. These insects will be unable to mature on this material and most will perish before crysalizing into moths. Along that line, if the oak has been completely defoliated, the caterpillars will become malnourished and eventually die without maturing into an egg laying entity. That would explain the putrefying material under the BBQ cover that was left in the corner…

The good news is that the caterpillar droppings, also known as frass, have a tremendous benefit to our overall ecosystem. That thick grainy substance is full of nitrogen and mobilizes overall carbon distribution. It also increases soil respiration and has a direct and indirect effect on nutrient and nitrogen cycling. The best treatment of this material is composting, along with other spring and kitchen waste, for your high nitrogen (green as opposed to flowering) crops.

As for our precious oaks, the University of California – IPM website states, “Healthy oaks generally tolerate extensive loss of leaves without serious harm, so treatment to control oak worm is usually not recommended.” Spraying for Phryganidia could harm birds and beneficial insects and only add more chemicals to an already inundated ecosystem. The oaks will completely recover unless they were weak and ready for their timely demise in any event. As of mid-June 2011, we are seeing new growth on the beleaguered oaks sprout with wild abandon.

As in life in general, the messy bits, also known as “squishy goo,” can nourish the most barren but fundamentally strong beings, given the opportunity and enough time to cycle through the natural processes. The oaks will come back more beautiful than ever. Maybe a few weeks of unsightly mess are worth it!

 

 

How to Save the Planet While at the Bar

Enjoying your drink even more.
Enjoying your drink even more.

Brandon Wiggins, Science Writer at Large

Out on the town on a Friday night? Celebrating your big corporate promotion as a project developer in a green company? Perhaps putting a rough week to bed? Maybe your mother-in-law is—well, just who she is…

Here is a way to help the environment, and your future sustainability with no sacrifice on your part.

Let’s say you intend on having more than one cocktail (as if you were going to only have one). After we get past the bartender insisting that you need a straw like you were two years old, ask that your next drink be provided in the same glass with the same ice.

After the look of incredulity from the bartender, you explain that the ice has been “marinated” and since you are having the same drink and possess the same germs, it saves fresh water if you re-use your glass, both for the water used for washing and ice creation.

The reality is that for every glass washed in every bar (let’s just leave out restaurants, diners, etc. for mathematical purposes) a minimum of .2 gallons of fresh water is used to wash them. If you add in the electricity (often provided by polluting sources, i.e. coal or nuclear power, etc.) to heat the water, the detergent used to disinfect, the chemicals needed to treat the water, the sewer runoff into the bay, and a myriad of other toxic and semi-toxic scenarios, the well-intended bartender has unnecessarily harmed the planet.

Changing glasses is a cultural habit that became ingrained somewhere in the mid twentieth century. Cowboys in the Old West used the same shot glass and bootleggers undoubtedly clinked multiple use vessels.

So next time you belly up—speak up for a positive change in our beverage consuming existence. It is up to us to change the culture—one cocktail at a time.

LET’S STIR THINGS UP! In an eco-friendly manner

Ah, a delicious cup o' java!
Ah, a delicious cup o’ java!

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

Coffee Stirrers. These, my friends, are perhaps the biggest environmental affront in the entire array of unnecessary disposable culinary accessories.

Stirrers come in red and black, tall and short, wood and plastic. They are displayed on the coffee condiment tables of every cafeteria, diner, break room, and beatnik java house from Berkeley to Boston, Pike’s Market to Pensacola.

The issue is, as tiny and seemingly inconsequential as these little buggers are, if you mathematically assess each coffee stirrer thrown in the trash from every borough in every country, it adds up to tremendous tonnage poised to infect the natural order of chemistry.

And yes, the balance of global chemistry is precisely the issue.

Plastic is a petroleum product. Due to the worldwide political and industrial machine, plastic is light, accessible, and cheap. Wood is not as bad, as it is also biodegradable. That being said, did you know that the average Smart and Final java stir stick is made from the White Birch (Betula pendula)? That this majestic beauty is cut down for stirrers? Seems kind of superfluous, don’t you think?

Let’s also not forget that every tree on this planet sequesters an amazing amount of carbon. Putting together the eradication of a live tree, the dirty fuel used to harvest it (gas burning farm and forestry implements are the worst offenders), and the manufacturing process consuming tons of fresh water, and we have issues on the larger scale…

If each coffee-drinking inhabitant of this tiny planet could just make a few miniscule changes in their daily rituals, we could begin a cultural change in favor of our Mother.

Here is the dilemma. You have coffee. It must be creamy—and of course you need sweetener. I for one dislike coffee but love cream and sugar. Nonetheless, they must be as one. So how can one accomplish a pleasing formulation of that silky sweet chemical concoction?

Here are some suggestions.

There may be a utensil on the table you can use. The use of your spoon is by far friendlier to the environment than any disposable stirring apparatus, but not as good as the next suggestion (unless your spoon was going to get dirty anyway).

If you want a sure-fire environmentally kind fix, try this:

Colloidal suspension: In your empty coffee cup, put in your sweetener. Liquid or powder, the science works the same. Add cream and swirl the mixture about while holding the cup. Then add your coffee. This is called a colloidal suspension. You will find that it mixes itself with absolutely no damage to the planet! If you use a powdered creamer, just pour a little coffee to mix it with in the beginning to achieve the same effect. The energy expended is your own, not the lumberjack, exporter, manufacturer, distributor, stocking clerk, waste management facility, or the regal Birch (not just any tree!) all who utilize countless ecological systems to create this beverage emulsifying product.

Now, I don’t mean to preach like your hippie Aunt Moonbeam but we have got to get a collective grip! We can do this. It requires our conscious choice.

We can start here, one little beverage accessory at a time.

The Pursuit of Fluff—A journey into the everyday life of reality

MatherVernalPond
Young naturalist enjoying Mather Vernal Pond, Sacramento, California

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

The pursuit of anything is nebulous.

It takes a great deal of clarity, conviction, and perseverance.

The dilemma of the 21st century human is to decide how much effort to dedicate to the pursuit of (fill in the blank). There are many distractions, delusions, and detritus. It is hard to actually tell what is important for the individual—and what is fluff.

It is not for anyone to say for another what is “fluff” and what is not. It means different things to different beings. Can my kid get into the “right” private school? Will my boss recognize the great work I’m doing? Can I ever possibly be the member of society that the media, my friends, and my parents think I should be?

Let’s take a look at the other 99-point-something percent of the bio-mass on this planet.

There are two rules for the survival and perpetuation of species in the natural world, according to Dr. Richard Merrill, a brilliant man and my mentor.

  1. Reproduction
  2. Conservation of Energy

That’s it. Everything else is superfluous.

“Reproduction” may be translated by Homo sapiens as making a contribution to the betterment of our species. The “conservation of energy” reflects the individual’s utilization of available resources. There are only so many minutes in a day, but ever so few moments in a lifetime.

The “energy” that we conserve is finite. It serves all of us to use it wisely.

 

Wanting What One Has

Gorilla with baby
Gorilla with baby

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

The unique thing about humans is that they are the only species—on this entire planet—that has the psychological ability to be dissatisfied with their lot in life.

Plants make the best of their situation—even ones of horrendous adversity—and either try to survive or disseminate progeny in a last-ditch effort to perpetuate the species.

Sea life attempts to adapt to climate change and pollution—even the floating islands of plastic detritus the size of Texas—sometimes surprising us their resilience.

Terrestrial creatures attempt to adapt but are hardwired to do so over multiple generations—not decades. Yet still they seem to survive with what Providence has thrown them. Well, that is except the most intelligent and sentient beings such as whales, dolphins, upper (perhaps most) primates, and elephants. Surely there are many more intellectually aware species (I, for one vote for octopi—I NEVER eat tako at the sushi bar). However, anthro-egotistical views and the overall analysis based on the separation between what is researched on a scientific level and what is felt on a human emotional level (a trait for which I don’t think we own the patent), seems to prohibit that the two shall meet.

It is improbable that any of these creatures whine about what they don’t have. It is highly doubtful that the Silverback Gorilla is upset that he does not live in Pompano Beach—or wherever. I recently saw a video of an eco-tourist hotel in Rwanda (I can’t wait to go!) where a guest was the unwitting new family member of a troupe of gorillas, mother, babies, dad, and all. It was one of the most amazing YouTube videos I’ve seen.

The primate family waltzed through the eco-village like they belonged there, grooming the man’s head and body. The human village welcomed these indigenous neighbors. The gorillas didn’t want for anything.

So why is it that many, perhaps most, humans (including myself) want more? Why does man/woman perpetually seek to improve his/her lot in life?

In actuality, this is perhaps what separates us from the rest of the mammals and certain cephalopods. Humans strive for more. This is how we have “come so far so fast”(“The End of the Innocence,” lyrics by Don Henley, made famous by the Eagles). In the grand scheme of things, this is both a curse and a blessing for earth. In the hunt for keeping up with the Jones’s, humans have lost touch with the reality of this tiny planet and its finite resources. What we do have, as a species, is incredible. The knowledge and resources available to Homo sapiens is unparalleled to anything that has ever been contributed to intelligent life as we know it.

So why is it that we want more? It is engrained in our DNA, hard wired—as it were. That is a good thing as long as education is the primer. Resources on this planet are infinitely finite. An old Quaker saying is that “one should not have what one wants, one should want what one has.”

And what one has is fleeting.

Wind and the White Bird

Red Bird of Paradise flower
Orange/Red Bird of Paradise flower

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

The unpredictability of gusts is the fertilizer of structural stability.

Strelizia nicolai, also known as the “White Bird of Paradise,” is unique in a number of ways. Strelizia is one of the most widely used ornamental species in the world. Unlike most other cultivars, the “White Bird” is used in both interior and exterior applications. Check out any casino in Vegas or senior facility landscape in Tampa and one can find the strelizia genus, especially the “Red Bird,” in lobbies as well as parking lot dividers.

The Bird is able to not only survive but to flourish in a multitude of habitats. She exhibits incredible flexibility in both genetic structure and fortitude. There are very few species that can, and perhaps in an abstract way will, achieve success through sheer botanical determination under such circumstances.

The “Bird of Paradise” has a willowy stem structure. In the interior placement, the “branches” (technically petioles) tend to droop. In the exterior landscape model, Strelizia reginia remains upright and vigilant, needing only an occasional nitrogen fertilizer supplement for the ideal “V” shape.

Wind, coming from multiple directions with a variety of speeds, strengthens stem structure from all angles. The fibers and cellulose in the tissues of the long stems react to breezes with a growth habit constructed to keep its foliage during storms. Without gusts, Strelizia leaves are flaccid.

The stem structure of Strelizia needs controversy to be strong and resilient.

Unexpected gusts are beneficial once in a while. Humans also have the capability to bend with the wind and rebound from adversity. Winds strengthen our structural stability as well. Without the occasional tossing about, the human psyche could be weak during more serious torrents.

Unpredictability is perhaps the greatest psychological threat to humans. It seems that the modern-day Homo sapiens have lost genetic touch with the inevitability of change. One can surmise that Homo habilus and “Lucy” (H. australopithicus) were deeply entrenched in the absolute certainty of change on a daily (most likely hourly) basis. They had a much shorter life span than twenty-first century humans, yet grasped the concept.

Climate change will bring about the obsolescence of “normal.” This is certain. Unless Homo sapiens can join the strength from a lifetime of wind gusts with a conscious, intelligent, bipartisan action to affect political policy, Homo s. will face the consequences of a flaccid global action and a non-effectual result.

If the unpredictability of adversity, i.e. the change of the wind, is not embraced as the fertilizer of stability, there can be no strong structure to weather the change that is coming.

The “White Bird of Paradise” has the right idea.