Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Failures in Composting

I've been keeping a compost pile going on six years now and I don't think I've ever had a good batch that I can use in my garden.  I'm so frustrated I'm about to give up.  I just had the last straw when I went to go turn over my (spinning drum style) composter and saw that I have an entire ecosystem of fruit flies flying around it.  Gladly, it's in an out of the way part of my yard, but it's a nuisance and a reminder that composting is an art, not a science.

Composting experts will tell you to have a 50/50 ration of "dry or brown" to "wet or green" ingredients. I tend to put more green ingredients, my kitchen and garden scraps, and forget to put in more brown ingredients, such as shredded bills, newspaper or leaves.  The result is an anaerobic mess that never quite cures and attracts pests.

But as much as I want to, I'm not giving up.  In fact, I'm doubling down and getting a cute little crock that will sit on my counter when I have kitchen scraps (instead of a plastic bag out the back) and I'm going to go dump a bunch of leaves in the composter.  Then I'll cross my fingers and hope that history does not repeat itself and I have usable compost by the time planting season begins.

An idea for entrepreneurs out there - start a composting service.  Green minded folks with no ability to compost (me) will sign up.  You can pick up our kitchen scraps once or twice a week, compost it, and then sell us back our waste in the form of local, organic garden soil.  I know the awesome community Prairie Crossing has a similar service in Gray's Lake, Illinois.  Someone needs to start one in my town.  But for all the reasons mentioned above, it won't be me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Learning about Resilience from a Sea Star

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I am continually amazed by the diversity of life on this planet. I remember walking the beaches of Sanibel Island as a child and seeing shells and seaweed in so many forms, and having difficulty understanding that these "things" aren't inanimate objects, but forms of life. They are all so unique and so unlike us, and there is so much we can learn from them to naturally inspire our creativity. On my recent trip back to Sanibel, I was particularly fascinated by the sea star, which as an echinoderm and related to the sand dollar, an organism that has fascinated my mother for as long as I can remember. Thinking about the sea star's regeneration abilities got me thinking about natural resilience, so I did a little research.

We all learned in grammar school that a starfish can regenerate limbs and even reproduce asexually from a severed arm when they are attacked by a predator (talk about leveraging disturbance to your advantage!). And this ability alone is amazing, but their structure is equally so. The five arms that reach out from a central core, called pentaradial symmetry (think soccer ball, instead of the bi-lateral symmetry that we have), has inspired architects and packaging designers with its efficient 3D enclosure. But when I looked at a real (albeit taxidermic) starfish that my daughter picked up at a souvenir shop, what I was most curious about was the texture.

The sea star is covered in thousands of bumps of varying sizes. Large protruding bumps, small recessed bumps, all which serve its radial geometry. But there had to be there for a reason other than looking good. So, I looked it up in the amazing website and found out that the holes I saw on the surface of the organism are also present at a microscopic level. The reason for these macro and microscopic holes have to do with its resilience to fracture. By creating thousands (millions?) of holes, tiny cracks that try to form in the structure of its limbs cannot become very big before they hit a hole and are stopped. Creating tiny holes also lessens the amount of material the organism must create, saving energy. True multi-functional design!

What I found through my research was that the sea star is also an indicator species. The sea star is greatly affected by water quality because the pump untreated water directly into their bodies through their vascular system. Therefor, mass die-offs of a population will indicate that toxins or contaminants have disturbed the water, such as an oil spill.

Lessons for natural resilience:
  • Create business structures that can survive, reproduce, and thrive after being severed from the main organization due to disturbance. 
  • Use material efficiently. 
  • When a system is vulnerable to one particular type of stress, look for structural or built-in ways to arrest that disturbance before it is allowed to grow too large. 
  • Create barriers to yourself and your environment. 
  • Create filters or similar structures that provide a buffer for you from the elements so that you have a chance to react before it is too late to respond. Or, create test subjects to test the elements for you. 


The Bees are Out - and it's March!

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As I sit here in my backyard on this record breaking warm day in March, I am buzzed by bees and wasps flying near my head.  While this is a startling occasion at any time, I wondered how the bees will fare when this unseasonably warm weather cools to the normally chilly spring that we normally have.  We will still have a frost, right?  And thinking about it, how do bees survive Chicago winters at all?  And is there anything we can learn from them?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How do you recreate Africa in Orlando?

I recently returned from my first trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida for the first time in over twenty years and I'm exhausted, but my kids had a great time. At 2 and 4, they were rather overwhelmed, but my 2 year old son really took toAnimal Kingdom, which was the one I was most looking forward to as well. And it got me thinking - how did the designers really make it possible that the flora and fauna that is adapted to an African climate can survive in a former swamp like Orlando? I would have thought that the two climates would be too different, but as I sat outside of my room at the Animal Kingdom at night with a constructed savanna outside my balcony, they somehow did it.

Africa is so large that it encompasses the majority of biomes on the planet, from arid desert to tropical rain forest, and the animals at Animal Kingdom are from a variety of African climates, from the savanna to the forest to the swamps. But the Disney experience is only possible, of course, with heavy management and density. It is a zoo on steroids and it could not exist without heavy management - tigers sit atop a constructed hill just above gazelles, separated by a carefully concealed electrical fence. Fish swim in ponds so densely they are rarely 6" from another. Alligators climb on each other for sunny perches. And from my balcony, I would see managers driving in food for the zebras and giraffes to eat because they are too densely packed to survive by grazing.

But in it's own way, it's lovely. Although a true African safari is still on my "bucket list", it is far off in my future. And the ability to travel a few hours from my parent's home in south Florida and see large, magnificent animals is an experience I'm glad to have had - and to expose my children to. On a 25-minute safari, I saw all of this as well as termite mounds which I thought were just for show but supposedly they are real because certain animals feed off of them. And the Lion King show was fantastic! Seriously - FANTASTIC.

I'm not sure how much I learned about the world by coming here, but my kids had a good time seeing exotic animals and being outside all day. And they now love to hear me read about different animals from the First Animal Encyclopedia I bought there, so it was worth it.