Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Guest Post: Our Exotic Urban Forest

This is a guest post by Nancy Nordman from Our City Forest, San Jose’s urban forestry group. Our City Forest is a non-profit organization that provides free trees and tree advice to San Jose residents and promotes greenery in our urban environment. They’ve planted some 65,000 trees in San Jose! Here, Nancy takes us on a tree walk of the urban forest around San Jose’s Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. Why not poke around and see what’s growing in yours?

When I first started as an AmeriCorps member at Our City Forest, I probably couldn’t name even ten different tree species, let alone classify the species I was standing under.  I knew plenty about how trees used photosynthesis to make food and I definitely had an appreciation for the benefits trees provide to us and the environment.   But ask me to tell the difference between an Ash and an Elm?  At that point, your guess was as good as mine.

Once I found out I would be leading tree tours around the city, I began to poke around looking for any information that could help me – field guides, the internet, and my enthusiastic co-workers.   I found there to be incredible diversity just among the 65,000 trees planted by Our City Forest. I  began to see opportunities everywhere I looked for more greenery to be added to this city to make it healthier, more efficient, and more beautiful.

At Our City Forest, we are often asked why we allow any planting of non-native trees.  While we are a strong advocate of planting native trees, there are numerous situations where planting non-natives actually makes more sense.  As the city of San Jose has grown, urbanization has drastically altered the native environment, so some natives can no longer thrive in the urban setting.  Oftentimes we plant drought tolerant non-native trees from similar Mediterranean climates that can handle harsh urban challenges such as smog.  Species diversity is also incredibly important to maintaining the health of an urban forest so that if a disease comes through, the tree population can make a comeback.

The wonderful thing about all this diversity is that you don’t need to go somewhere special to see a bunch of different trees!  I encourage you to take a walk along your street and just try to notice the urban forest around you.  To get you started, here are some great trees to check out at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose.  (There are around 50 different tree species within the grounds of the Rosicrucian Museum alone!)

Canary Island Palm. Photo credit: Our City Forest

Canary Island Palm (Phoenix canariensis)

Where better to start than a “tree” that is not really a tree?  Palms are technically classified as grasses.  Unlike true trees, palms do not undergo secondary growth and therefore do not produce true wood, but rather a fibrous trunk structure.  There are also differences in their growth and structure as well as their root system.

In contrast to the equally common Mexican Fan Palm, Canary Island Palms are shorter and stockier and have pinnate feathery leaves instead of the fan palmate structure of the Mexican Fan Palm.  If you still aren’t sure which palm it is, look underneath the feathery stalks hanging down and you can usually see what looks like a large pineapple.   The Canary Island Palm does in fact come from the Canary Islands and is highly ornamental, sporting large, orange, edible dates.

Jacarandas in bloom. Photo credit: Frank Reyes

Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia)

If you are looking to see some color in our urban forest, keep your eyes peeled for the gorgeous Jacaranda trees!  Though found all over San Jose, these trees originate from the tropical environment of Brazil and Argentina and have since been introduced all over the world.  Their popularity is thanks to the large showy violet flowers that appear in late spring or early summer.  Also interesting to note is the large brown clamshell seedpods and the fern-like compound leaves.  These trees are located throughout the museum grounds, but are mainly located near the obelisk.

Irish Yew. Photo credit: Our City Forest

Irish Yew (Taxus baccata)

On the side of the museum directly across from the Starbucks, you will see two short stocky bush-like trees.  But don’t be fooled, they may look tiny but these trees are some of the most formidable trees on the whole grounds!  Bearing toxic wood and leaves, these trees are also extremely long-lived, up to 4000 years!  It is said that bow makers and other wood craftsmen would get sick from working with this wood.  Originating in Europe, this tree was often planted in cemeteries as a symbol of transcendence after death.  They can be identified by their flat dark green leaves and red seeds, which are very much enjoyed by bird species that don’t find them toxic.

White mulberry. Photo credit: Our City Forest

White Mulberry (Morus alba)

If you cared for silkworms in elementary school, you may know that they will only eat mulberry leaves.  The White Mulberry is appreciated here in San Jose for its fast growth and ability to handle pruning.  Less known but certainly more impressive is its ability to shoot out pollen at 350 miles per hour — one of the fastest movements in the plant kingdom!  There is a particularly great White Mulberry on the museum grounds next to the Akhenaten Shrine and near the Peace Garden.

Olive tree. Photo Credit: Our City Forest

Olive (Olea europea)

Possibly my favorite tree yet is the Olive tree, mainly for its incredibly beautiful silver-gray leaves and whorled trunk.  You likely know this tree for its production of olives, or perhaps from its history of use for crowns in ancient Olympic games. The Olive tree does very well in San Jose’s climate because it originally comes from the Mediterranean Basin, making it quite drought tolerant.  Worldwide, the olive tree stands for peace and wisdom and the museum has dedicated a large section of the grounds to these magnificent trees.

Dawn Redwood. Photo credit: Our City Forest.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

Tucked in a corner by the library and rose garden of the museum, you will find a gem of a specimen—a huge Dawn Redwood!  These fantastic trees were actually widely thought to be extinct, but as they were attempting to classify fossil records of the leaves, a matching specimen was found in an area of central China.  Similar to the ginkgo, this tree is considered a “living fossil.”  Don’t be surprised if you find this tree looking dead in the autumn and winter.  The Dawn Redwood is the only living deciduous redwood species and so it will turn a beautiful bronze color and then drop its feathery leaves, taking on a skeletal appearance.

Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwilli)

To the left of the main entrance to the museum are a couple of Bunya Pines, which are an interesting evergreen species from Southeastern Queensland.  Take a close look at the branches which have tufts of leaves at the ends and few by the trunk — but do watch for large falling seed cones!  The edible cones get as heavy as 10-15lbs, so during fruiting season this tree can be quite dangerous!  From far off, it is very pretty with its branches forming a rounded dome structure toward the top.


I hope you enjoyed this brief tour of the unique non-native trees you can discover in San Jose!  As I continue to learn more about trees, I find my appreciation of their beauty and function is constantly growing.  Trees are already working hard filtering pollutants out of the air, cleaning our water, and providing home for critical wildlife species.  I hope you will join Our City Forest in advocating for a vast and healthy urban forest!  If you wish to learn more about trees and urban forestry, check out the Our City Forest website, like us on Facebook, come out and volunteer with us, or consider getting a tree from our nursery!  We also have free educational tree tours and classroom presentations.  Our City Forest is a nonprofit that has been providing free trees for residents, schools, and parks across San Jose since 1994.  For more information on our planting, tree care, and educational programs, visit our website or call (408) 998-7337.

Jennifer: Do you know what’s growing in your urban forest? On my street are maples, ashes, sweetgums, olives, birches, redwoods, redbuds, gingkos, and Chinese pistachios, just to name a few. Going on a tree walk with a knowledgeable local is a great way to learn about the forest you live in. Thanks, Nancy!

Support the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly. Image credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

I recently attended a mushroom talk held by my local California Native Plant Society chapter. (No, mushrooms aren’t plants — they are more closely related to animals than to plants, which is why it’s hard to treat fungal infections — but it’s cool.) One of the things that came up at the talk was a project that has been in the works for the past decade to preserve a good chunk of open space not very far from me. The various cities and counties involve will be voting on it this October.

I had never heard of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan before. Which is silly, because I’m reasonably up to date on deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia and a number of other areas around the world that are threatened by human economic and population expansion. Yet in my own backyard, here’s a unique ecosystem under pressure from urban development. It’s easy to say, “Save the rainforest!” when you don’t live in one and your economic future doesn’t depend on encroaching into that land. It’s harder when you have to measure the economics of your area against the long term benefits of habitat preservation.

Even so, I am definitely in favor of protecting more open spaces from being paved over and turned into a condos. In the Bay Area, we’ve already done a whole lot of paving, and have already lost a lot of habitats and species. Time to learn how to share.

San Joaquin Kit Fox. Image credit: USFWS Endangered Species

What’s so special about the 46,000 acres that the Habitat Plan would protect? They include some unique serpentine ecosystems. Serpentine soil is rocky and low in nitrogen, potassium, and other things plants like. But it’s far from barren: some extremophile, highly adapted plants and animals have evolved here and live nowhere else. Endangered native wildflowers, burrowing owls, checkerspot butterflies, and kit foxes all thrive in the Bay Area’s shrinking serpentine ecosystems. 

The Habitat Plan would ensure long term protection for these 46,000 acres of open space while directing urban development back within cities and towns. You can learn more about it at their website or on Facebook.

Santa Clara County, Gilroy, Morgan Hill, and San Jose vote on the plan between October 9 and October 23. If you’re local (and even if you’re not), I hope you’ll join me in urging elected officials to approve the plan.   I’m trying to work up the courage to attend some of the city council meetings, even though I am totally the kind of introvert who would rather do almost anything than speak in public.

I firmly believe that conservation should extend to, and maybe even start at, home. Checkerspot butterflies may not be as sexy as jaguars, but that doesn’t make them less worth protecting.

What local conservation projects are happening around you? If you don’t know of any, I challenge you to find out!

The inevitable TMI post about menstrual cups


Well, it’s not here. You’ll have to visit Elephant Journal to read it. But I promise you that there’s no hard sell or judgment if you’re grossed out by the idea of cups. Thanks to Emily from Living Lightly in a Wavering World, Lynn from Upcycled Love, Jeanie whose website is in progress, and Lori from Groovy Green Livin for contributing!

Green Lessons from My [Cheap] Asian Parents

The green movement is often seen as a white movement. A white, Whole-Foods-loving, Prius-driving, upper middleclass, leftwing movement. Which strikes me as sad because your ethnicity, car, and politics have nothing to do with being a concerned earthling who doesn’t want to see humans screw up a perfectly good planet.

Here’s something you might not have known about me: I’m green(ish), but I’m not white. My parents are Chinese immigrants, which makes me first generation Chinese-American. But I’ve never considered being Asian an essential part of my identity and am what you might call white-washed (English major? Check. Has been known to eat fried rice with a spoon? Check. Please don’t tell my parents.)

Still, when Lori from Groovy Green Livin tweeted an article about being green and black, I started to think about my non-white upbringing. Without ever being treehuggers, my parents raised my sister and me in a pretty low impact way. (When we were growing up, we thought of it more as skinflint-y, but the bottom line is what counts, right?) I think Americans, including the green movement within America, could actually learn a lot from simpler, more cost-conscious immigrant lifestyles. None of this ‘eco’ recycled plastic cupcake holder crap, please.

So here, in no particular order, are some lessons my [cheap] Asian parents can teach us about being green.

Lessons about food:

  • Being able to cook is a critical life skill. Processed food is carbon intensive, produces a lot of packaging, and wastes a lot of money. It’s not good for your own body or the environment. Thanks to my mother, I grew up on mostly homecooked meals and still regard eating out and packaged foods as an indulgence. (See an older post, Lower your impact: learn how to cook.)
  • Meat isn’t the centerpiece of a meal. Homecooked Asian meals are mostly about lots of different seasonal vegetables with small amounts of meat. If you go to a Chinese supermarket and watch what people buy, you’ll see mounds of leafy greens and fresh vegetables on the conveyer belt with proportionately tiny amounts of meat and packaged foods. The traditional scarcity and expense of meat makes many Asian cuisines a lot lower impact than meat-centric western meals.
  • Backyard gardens can produce surprising amounts of delicious food. Our yard was tiny, but I grew up plucking raspberries straight off the vine and polishing dusky plums on my shirt and eating them while they were still warm from the sun. I learned what fresh produce should taste like and where it came from.
  • Lawns are a waste of water and space. See above.

Lessons from around the house:

  • Function is more important than form. Our coffee table was a Goodwill reject, a graceless rectangular block of black press wood with chipped corners.  (It was free.) Our dinnerware never matched. I survived 18 years of shag brown carpet turning green from the sun, and I came out fine. Ironically, both my sister and I appreciate aesthetics and design now and like things to be both functional and beautiful, but we learned the difference between the two and choose things that don’t need upgrading every couple of years.
  • Line-dried clothes smell better and save electricity. My mother line dried even in the winter, as long as it wasn’t raining. Our laundry line was jerry-rigged by my dad. Line drying might have been a chore, but it had its own quiet pleasures.
  • Water is money. California was in a drought for part of my childhood, but even before that, my parents were water conscious. We saved the clean, cold water from running the tap for a bath or shower to water plants or flush the toilet.
  • Knowing how to sew is not anti-feminist. There’s something to be said for a mother who could mend, hem, sew Halloween costumes, and repurpose worn out clothes. She taught me, and I’m grateful.
Lessons about the car:
  • Car trips should be minimized and consolidated. I can’t remember ever making impromptu trips to the grocery store for a single ingredient. My mother, a talented strategist, made lists, gathered coupons, and plotted routes before ever heading out the door.
  • Stick shift cars get better mileage than automatic transmission. My dad’s car was a blue, budget Toyota Tercel with stupendous gas mileage (comparable to some hybrids) and no creature comforts whatsoever. For my parents, a car was something that got you from A to B, not a status symbol.
Random other lessons:
  • Don’t have more kids than you can afford college educations for. The vast majority of Asian parents I know — the first generation to have access to good contraception — have one or two kids. A handful have three. While I’m pretty sure the cost of higher education was a major deterrent, as it turns out, not having kids, or having fewer kids, makes the biggest dent in your total environmental impact.
  • There’s a big difference between what you want and what you need. My sister and I were not deprived, but our toys were modest, and gifts were generally reserved for special occasions. Neither of us had a cell phone or personal computer until college.

Ironically, I rebelled against a number of my parents’ teachings and only saw, years later, that they made a lot of sense from an ecological as well as economical perspective. The advantage of growing up as the daughter of immigrants is that I know for a fact that living this way is possible. Living simply, frugally, seasonally wasn’t several generations ago for me; it was my own childhood. And despite a brief detour into good old American consumerism, maybe it paved the way for a greener adulthood for me. I’d like to see immigrants brought into the green movement. They clearly have a lot to offer — ideas, techniques, mentalities, inspiration.

What do you think about the whiteness of the green movement? How do you think we can open it up to more cultures and ethnicities?

Photo credit: Laundry Day by Roy Montgomery

Is your green blog bad for the planet?

Warning: snarkiness ahead.

My basic line is that there are lots of ways to be green — that is, to consciously try to reduce your impact on the planet, use resources more wisely, think about the effects of your actions, or care about the earth and its future. I respect that some people choose very different paths than I do in promoting sustainability, and I have tons of respect for the people who get out there more than I do and canvass, call, write, agitate, and activate (or whatever the verb is for what activists do). Plenty of people have smaller footprints than I do, try harder, and do more. Plenty don’t, are but are working hard to get there.

I really try to be fair, patient, and tolerant, but I fail more often than I let on. And although I don’t rant much on here, I have to say that certain types of ‘green’ behavior or ‘green’ blogs drive me quietly but absolutely crazy. (Note the Quotes of Scorn.) Regular programming will continue after I’ve gotten the snark out of my system.

Let’s talk about green blogs. I have one. If you’re reading this, you might have one, too. Everything we do has an impact, including blogging, and including green blogging. Does the amount of planet-saving mojo we create balance out the impact? Or are our green blogs quietly wrecking the planet along with everything else we do as first world citizens? 

Here, for your pleasure and enlightenment, is a totally unscientific and unapologetically snarky quiz to find out what kind of impact your green blog has on the earth. 

1. How much time do you spend on your blog, promoting your blog, or schmoozing with other bloggers so they’ll become your faithful readers?
a) 0-2 hours a week. I blog when I remember to.
b) 2-5 hours a week. I put some time and effort into promoting my blog.
c) 5-10 hours a week. I might be slightly obsessed in getting my page rank up.
d) 10+ hours a week. Whatever it takes to get companies to contact me for reviews.

2. Where does the electricity that powers your computer come from?
a) 100% renewable energy. I live off the grid and rigged my laptop to run on solar panels.
b) 50-99% renewable energy. I tried hooking my computer to a turbine, but it didn’t work out.
c) Less than 50% renewable energy (but my energy provider gets a little juice from solar or wind).
d) I have no idea, and don’t really care.

3. How many product reviews do you do each month?
a) 0-1. But mostly 0.
b) 2-3 on an average month (less than 1 per week).
c) 4-5 (at least 1 per week).
d) 5+ or as many as I’m given the opportunity to do. I heart stuff!

4. How many of them are for products you genuinely need and can’t find a local, lower impact solution for?
a) All of them (or n/a, since I don’t do any product reviews).
b) Most of them, with the occasional fun, green-ish one thrown in.
c) A few. But I’d review an eco-cupcake holder made from recycled plastic if I were given the chance.
d) I’ve never thought about the products I review that way.

5. Would you get green blogger business cards and/or stationery?
a) No way. Think about all the dead trees that went into those things.
b) They’re cute, but I don’t think they’re necessary.
c) I have the sweetest blogger cards printed in soy ink on 100% recycled paper.
d) Have you seen my laminated glitter business cards?

6) How do you feel about green blogger conventions?
a) The whole phrase is an oxymoron. Flying out to promote my blog and have ‘green’ products sold to me is not low impact.
b) I wouldn’t go to one unless it were in my town or within a short drive.
c) They’re OK. I picked up some great swag at the last one.
d) If a company sponsors me to go, I’m there. If it has green in the title, it must be eco-friendly, right?

Mostly As: you officially have a low impact green blog. You might also be just a little on the self-righteous and curmudgeonly side. Oh well — sustainability first!

Mostly Bs: your blog is pretty low impact, although you don’t have a do-or-die approach when it comes to reducing your footprint. Depending on how many people read your blog and take something away from it, it’s possible that the beneficial impact of your blog outweighs its use of resources.

Mostly Cs: You’re heading into the territory of the quotation marks, as in the ‘green’ blogger. You may have other motives for blogging, such as generating income or getting cool free stuff. You still think you can achieve greenness through buying stuff.

Mostly Ds: You think green is a nice color. But your blog is not low impact by any stretch of the imagination.

How’d you do? I’m mostly As and Bs with the occasional C. (By the way, if you’re not sure what percentage of your power comes from renewable energy, it’s easy to find out through a quick web search. My provider gets about 30% from renewable sources.)

It’s completely impossible to quantify how much good my blog does in educating or reaching out, but it is easy to see what kind of resources go into it. Is it worth it? I have no idea. But I do think that a green revolution starts with consciousness, conversation, and real, meaningful change, and our blogs are one place to begin.

Do you think about the impact of your green blog? What are some ways to improve it?

In praise of stillness

Last weekend Kevin and I went up to a friend’s remote cabin up in the Sierra Nevadas. Three hours out of our boring little suburb, and everything looked, smelled, and sounded different. There was still snow on the ground, though the conifers had melted small bare patches around their bases. Leafbuds and early daffodil shoots were just starting to emerge.  

We went there with no plans, and were not sorry for their absence. For two days, we drank sweet, clear well water that had never been chlorinated, woke with the dawn (there were no curtains) and went to bed when it was dark. Nothing but stars broke the darkness that cradled us to sleep. The stillness was punctuated only by the slow drip of melting snow. We ate simply but well; even a sparse meal of roasted root vegetables over polenta was deeply satisfying, eaten with the warmth of a wood fire at our backs. On one afternoon, I started reading, appropriately enough, a book on silence. 

I never noticed how constantly I was surrounded by light, noise, neighbors, cars, technology — until they suddenly weren’t there. In the absence, my senses reached out and found new details and experiences. Watching a hawk wheel in the sky above, I could almost feel the individual feathers catch hard against the wind that lifted them. The water smelled cleaner.

I wonder a lot about the price we pay for technology, and whether what we consider advancement is really no more than change, or exchange. I suspect that one of the steepest prices we’ve paid is our sense of intimacy with the planet we live on and respect for its rhythms and cycles. I don’t wish to idealize the past nor demonize what technology has accomplished (I am at least as much of an internet fan as you are), but I feel far from certain that technological advancement is a way out of our current mess.

On a more personal level, being at the cabin, even for a few short days, brought me a new certainty. While I was there, something inside me said, insistently, “I want this.”  The last time it spoke up, I ended up bringing home a blind, unfriendly cat — currently lolling around begging for a tummy rub. My instincts are generally sound. I’m at a crossroads right now, wondering whether to pursue the responsible, adult career I always thought I’d have, or freelance and live on very little somewhere far away from the burbs. Both paths, I think, will eventually lead me back to a remote cabin in the woods somewhere. Soon, I will need to make decisions about my life and priorities. But for now, I’m standing still, waiting for clarity.

Things I made, replaced, and learned to do without

Maybe I didn’t save the world in 2010, but I did make a number of earth-friendly changes in my own slow inching towards sustainability. Odds are good that if you’re reading this, you did too. So although they might seem pretty paltry and insignificant against things like ocean acidification and mass extinction, well — we need some encouragement to get us to continue making more changes, bigger changes. These are some of the things I acomplished last year. You?

Things I made instead of buying

  • cat toys (bet you never knew dried up twigs were fun)
  • kitty litter bags from newspaper
  • cleaning supplies
  • sugar facial scrub
  • almond milk
  • ‘nut milk bag’ (i.e. square of cotton muslin)
  • orange juice
  • ceramic bowls
  • roasted pumpkin seeds
  • granita
  • applesauce
  • candied citrus peel
  • pizza
  • popcorn
  • a whole lot of other food. This was my year for cooking.
  • frozen dinners (thank you, leftovers)

Things I replaced with better things

  • cloth dishrags in the kitchen instead of paper
  • clothesline instead of dryer (whenever possible)
  • baking soda, vinegar, and lemon juice instead of bleach and ammonia
  • all natural skin and hair care instead of chemical-laden products
  • cloth pads instead of disposables
  • plant-based milk instead of resource-intensive dairy milk (some of the time)
  • organic produce instead of conventional (wherever I have a choice)
  • local honey instead of imported
  • bulk bin items instead of packaged foods (rice, beans, salt, flour, polenta, oatmeal, popcorn, olive oil, etc.)
  • reusable produce bags instead of plastic ones
  • glass tupperware instead of plastic
  • reused packaging supplies instead of new.
  • recycled tin foil for regular
  • biodegradable kitty litter instead of strip-mined clay litter.

Things I learned to do without

  • Single serve anything. It’s a waste of packaging.
  • Having every appliance plugged in all the time and ready to go.
  • New clothing. I may have gotten one or two pieces last year. The rest was all used, and it was fine.
  • Buying shoes. I really only wear two pairs anyway.
  • Cushy toilet paper. Virgin forests deserve more dignity.
  • Conditioner. My hair is fine without it.
  • Shopping for the sake of shopping.
  • Driving for the sake of driving.

It’s likely 2011 will bring more changes as I think/learn more about my actions and how I’m part of the problem. Now it’s your turn. What changes did you make in 2010?

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