Upcycling is the process of turning materials from the wastestream into new materials of higher environmental value.
Upcycle Yourself is a similar concept on a human scale, turning from agents of pollution into agents of environmental change.

Feb 24, 2012

Winter staycations

This winter I've been developing a joy for vacationing in the sun, basking in the heat, and visiting tourist attractions and beautiful natural sites... all by bicycle, all in sub-zero weather.

The word "staycation" was coined a few years ago to describe vacations where we stay in our home area. While many people do this for economic reasons, I value "staycationing" for its ecological sense. I gave up on airplanes in 2004, but since then have done significant motorized land travel around North America, mostly for the personal enjoyment of seeing beautiful places. In the last two years, I've shifted my vacationing primarily to bike-driven destinations, and have found this type of travel more valuable and rewarding, and the places I visit just as beautiful. This winter, I made my first attempts at sub-zero staycationing in our glorious nordic environment.

Each year we have a multi-day winter bike ride in Québec called Action Citoyenne à Vélo (more info here and here), where a group of riders roam around the landscape regardless of the weather: rain or shine or sleet or snow. In previous years they rode for 3-4 days around the countryside. This year (my first time), we took two days to ride 100km around Québec City, stopping to see the tourist attractions of Old Québec, the waterfall at Kabir Kouba, and the impressive hills north of the city.

Visiting the sights around Québec City

We spent an afternoon climbing through the hills, generating heat through the internal combustion of our bodies, despite it being one of the coldest weekends of the year (varying between -12C and -20C). I frequently had to stop to cool off or remove layers (though cheated a little by using heating pads for my fingers and toes since it was an especially cold weekend). There was a moment of absurdity when we pushed our bikes through half a kilometre of impossibly deep snow... taking this "short cut" seemed like the most adventurous option, so we embarked. Just before emerging from the woods, we were greeted by a snow-dappled lazy river. There is something glorious in hiking along a snowy mountain pass, brought there by the power of our own energies.

Doing a group ride bolstered my confidence and enthusiasm for winter biking. Before I was learning to ride in the winter because it fits with my ecological values. Now I'm enthralled by winter riding because it's freeing, relaxing and a fantastic way to appreciate the outdoors in Canada.

Yesterday I received an invitation to go polar-bear plunging in an icy river with my family farmer, who has been snow-bathing since his childhood. Being a balmy -2C, atypically warm for February, it seemed like the right time to become intiated in the extreme art of winter river plunging. A 30km round-trip bike ride, we hiked down to a gorgeous river bed, and took a 5-second jump into the frigid water as the sun set. Afterward, aside from cold feet, the surrounding air feels warm. There's no need to travel across the world to enjoy a sunset or a beautiful landscape; and no need to travel by motorized vehicles to have thrilling experiences.

Perfect spot for a quick dip

Local sights with my local farmer

When traveling by bike, or on foot, we see more than we would typically see on other types of vacations. When moving at a few kilometres an hour, we can always stop to appreciate the details, rather than driving or flying past them. We discover and value the beauty of our region, and become acutely aware of the landscape and weather conditions that surround us. And best of all, if we like where we visit or make connections with people along the way, it's always accessible and ecological to repeat the experience.


Jun 21, 2011

Bike gardening = sock gardening

Bicycle gardening has made its official return for 2011, in a totally primped up green vehicle including tufts of wheat on the fender and handlebars, as well as a classic spinning garden in the center of the wheel. After bicycle gardening took first place in the chef category of Earth Day Canada's How did you do that? contest, mobile microgreens were certainly bound for a second run this summer.

Differences from last year's experiments in bicycle gardening? This time, I grew the gardens on my socks. My old socks. Under my bed.

Last year when bicycle gardening was first developed, my bike and I lived alongside each other day and night, so I was able to water 15 times a day and let the garden grow slowly over the course of a 1000km ride. This year, the garden was serving purely as fleeting greenery and snackfood on a two day walk to protest shale gas exploration. Growing the garden on my bike in advance would have been a hassle, as the gardens require *very* frequent watering when left in direct sunlight. And so the "instant bike garden" was born, grown indoors in low-maintenance conditions, and then slipped onto the bike when the time is right.

Enter my socks. My old socks with holes in them. What is to be done with old organic socks that are 90% intact, but 10% not intact in inconvenient places like the heel and toe? Call me a hoarder for keeping broken socks in my closet, though something told me that they would eventually have a curious second life. And indeed, socks proved to be a perfect reclaimed medium for growing extreme gardens. Over a dozen people helped me eat the wheatgrass on the road, and few seemed bothered about its (clean)sock origins. A new era of sock gardening begins... (a recipe to grow your own is included at the end of this post).

The bicycle has also been my main tool of transportation this spring for gardening in the city with our neighborhood urban ecology collective. I've been transporting straw, compost, dirt, sand and edible perennials with this radical set of wheels. My fender sticker that reads "One Less Car" is now becoming outdated. Time to upgrade to "One Less Truck".

The biggest challenge? Wet compost. Like 15 bags of it. What would normally be called "an ever-so-slight incline, almost imperceptible" was now viewed as an "insurmountable hill" that required the aid of random passersby in order to reach the top. The second-biggest challenge? My back wheel starting to detach after surmounting the slight incline. One thing I've learned: stare at your bike and scratch your head, and help will come. Hail the good deeds of friendly strangers in the successful completion of yet another bicycle gardening exploit!

Organically yours,


Unintentional colour coordination on a wet compost expedition.
Note the second compost trailer hiding in the background.

Recipe to grow an instant bicycle garden on old socks:

To clarify, when I say *instant*, I really mean six to ten days... the *instant* part is when you transfer it onto the bike.

As an alternative to old socks, try the same technique with reclaimed jute coffee bags, as used here in an instant horn-grass garden.

-Soak wheat kernels for 8 hours. Drain and rinse. Optionally, you can pre-sprout them in a jar for a day as they form their initial roots.
-Take an old sock, wet it, and stick in on a plastic tray or in a reclaimed plastic container.
-Put the wheat kernels on the sock. Spray the wheat kernels with a spray bottle.
-Put it under your bed or in a cupboard, as the darkness will compel the plants to develop their root systems.
-At least twice a day (preferably more), spray a little with a spray bottle. The goal here is making sure the wheat kernels don't dry out, but not sooo wet that mold forms.
-When the wheat forms its root system and has young plant shoots that are an inch or two long, transfer it to the sunlight. Keep spraying regularily with a spray bottle.
-When it's green and bushy, attach it to your bike (or anywhere else) using the metal from twist-ties. The root system of the wheat should have penetrated the fabric enough that the plants will naturally cling to the sock. Water very frequently if you want it to stay green and lively.

Special tips:
(1) Make sure there is enough air flow that mold doesn't develop.
(2) Consider sticking a plastic lid *inside* the sock before adding the wheat kernels, so the roots only go through part of the sock. When the wheat is done growing, remove the plastic lid, and you can slip the sock garden straight onto your mudguards.
(3) If you grow multiple gardens under your bed at the same time, do make sure that you remember to move *all* of them into the sunlight. Trust me, forgotten sock gardens are not the most pleasant surprise. Unless you're into that kind of thing.

Jun 7, 2011

Moratorium for a generation

I took a walk last week with the Moratoire d'une génération. These dedicated folks are walking over 600 kilometers from Rimouski to Montréal to raise public awareness and call for a moratorium for shale gas exploration in the province of Québec.

Shale gas exploration involves hydraulic fracturing, or fracking: drilling a hole in the ground up to 3,000m deep, creating mini-seisms in the rock bed, and pumping down millions of gallons of water that is mixed with several tons of assorted chemicals. The millions of gallons of water are then contaminated by the chemicals, and, if you're unlucky, your drinking water supply may also become contaminated. All to produce natural gas to continue fueling our unsustainable lifestyles. Want to know more? Check out the movie Gasland. Or if you only have two minutes to spare, check out the trailer.

Non means no!

Unfortunately, shale gas exploration may become the next big thing in Quebec. In Canada, you can buy land, but you don't really own the land under your land. Which means that the government can sell off the exploration rights to private companies because of grossly outdated mining laws that favour exploration. Rather than encouraging people to practice healthy land stewardship, we're disempowering people of the simple decision about whether they'd like 596 chemicals pumped under their houses or farms. If the government has no business in our bedrooms, surely they should have no business in our bedrock either, unless it's to stop environmentally-problematic exploration.

And so, a group of committed volunteers are walking from Rimouski to Montreal, an immense area slated for shale gas exploration. They are calling for a moratorium for a generation. The shale gas has been in the ground for about 200 million years, and it's not going anywhere: why not put exploration on hold for 20 years to wait for appropriate scientific reports, health and environmental assessments and public debate? A recent 2011 study from Cornell University shows that shale gas has a worse environmental footprint than coal when viewed over a 20 year period. I can't imagine how we'll feel in 2031 if we're drinking tainted water and realizing that the government's premature and unbacked choices were worse than burning coal. Better to reach 2031 after a 20 year moratorium, and perhaps during those 20 years we can look for more appropriate solutions and embrace much needed energy-use changes by individuals and industries. People say that shale gas will bring jobs and energy, though this ignores the greenhouse gas emissions, contaminated water and potential health implications. Planting massive numbers of edible perennials like fruit trees and blueberry bushes would also bring jobs, along with benefits of long-term food security, sequestering carbon, cleaning the air and water, and providing habitat for wildlife. I know which one I'm voting for.

Luckily the government enacted a temporary moratorium earlier this spring... a good start... let's keep encouraging them to commit to a long-term halt...

Jumping for a moratorium: listen up, government!

I walked with the Moratoire d'une Génération for two days, a wonderful 58 kilometer stroll on the first hot days of the year. I brought along my bicycle, which blister-footed walkers happily accosted during the two days I was with them. And I was able to get back to Québec City using pedal-power on the morning of the third day. The moratoire has now walked past Trois-Rivières, and will be in Montréal on Saturday June 18th to make some noise and raise public awareness. Come and join us if you can make it:

May 27, 2011

Schtroumpfanto and the talking legumes

Two short films were recently made by Globules Verts, a micro-media production un-company that covers environmental issues on a string-bean budget. I'm super impressed with the stop motion film, The Legumes Speak to Us, showing that eating legumes is much cooler than eating animals any day of the week. It's only a couple of minutes long and definitely worth watching:

And here's the newest film, Schtroumpfanto, made in a 3 day period, now with English subtitles. To explain the etymology of the title, it's a combination of Schtroumpf, the French word for Smurf, and Monsanto, a chemical company that has patented genetically modified food crops and that now controls a sizeable portion of the world seed market (including GMO, conventional and organic seeds). Smurfs and problematic multinationals together in one movie? Indeed:

I actually cycled 203 kilometers in a 36 hour period to go see the debut screening of Schtroumpfanto at the Festival de films de Portneuf sur l'environnement. Foolish perhaps, though I helped plant the living scenery and wanted that big screen effect. And it was sunny out. And windy. And totally over-ambitious for a first ride of the season. But it was certainly liberating to start pedalling my way into the countryside after the great winter melt.

The films were made by Stéphane, the perpetual activist who conveniently lives 10 metres away from me, where he accomplishes marvellous feats like making vegan accordions and vegan poutine. Here is a photo of Stéphane, sporting an edible tie of wheatgrass grown on a reclaimed jute coffee bag. Eco-chic.


May 22, 2011

May harvesting and media revamping

Friday morning woke up to the sunrise, and was brought on an expedition by my roommate down to the riverside in search of wild food. It's fiddlehead season in Quebec, the young plants still edible before they unravel into full-fledged ferns. Boil for twenty minutes, throw out the water, and they're good to go.

Inspired by the fiddleheads, I started rummaging through the garden, the cold cellar and the freezers to see what a local meal would be like in Quebec in May, before the gardening season begins. The morning smoothie featured fresh dandylions, ground sorrel, rhubarb and jerusalem artichokes, last year's frozen strawberries, gooseberries and raspberries (all from the garden), as well as apples I picked a couple of years ago in a public park and then dehydrated. For dinner, we had roasted potatoes from last year, and had fresh May harvests of boiled dandylion roots with sautéd greens of fiddleheads, shallots, lovage, dandylion tops, and garlic greens. Mmm. We shared the meal with my family, who are visiting in Quebec this week.

I'm once again feeling lucky to be largely cut off from the mass media. I live in a big city, where most of the "media" I'm exposed to is educational and in-person, the talks and workshops and documentary showings that spread positive messages, incite critical thinking about problems the world is facing, and encourage action toward positive solutions. Occasionally I garden in a small village, where I feel relaxed and at home, where there is very little contact with the larger world. Within an hour of my family arriving at my garden, I learned about horrible things that had happened in the region in the 1990's, and learned details of floods, hurricanes and tornados across North America in the past few weeks. I was blissfully unaware, and I don't think that my new-found awareness serves any benefit for myself or the rest of the world. A couple of times a year I end up in front of a television watching the news (it happens!) I'm always disappointed by the negative energy and fear that the mass media brings into people's lives. Anyway... it certainly reminds me of the importance of surrounding ourselves with meaningful and empowering media, and being active in choosing the sorts of messages that we expose ourselves to on a regular basis... and even moreso, the importance of being the media, and being active collaborators in creating solution-based messages, however small the diffusion. Moving from mass-media to micro-media, from scare-mongering to change-mongering.

Also heard through the mass-media pipeline that the world would perhaps end on Saturday. On Friday afternoon a gigantic black storm cloud came out of nowhere over our garden. My family had given us a gift of a gooseberry plant, and my roommate was racing to plant it before the impending rainstorm. As he jumped on the pitchfork and mulched with hay, I couldn't help think of the Martin Luther quote from the 16th century, "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." The world is still in one piece, with the addition of a perennial plant that will provide fruit for years to come. And in the end it only rained a little, just enough to water the gooseberry bush.


May 8, 2011

Scenes of the ground in springtime

Scene 1: Riding my bike past municipal employees who are raking leaves from beneath the trees and loading them into a truck. I wonder where they're taking the leaves. I wonder why they are being paid to remove a natural source of fertility from urban environments. Wonder what the soil organisms are going to eat if we remove the organic matter.

Scene 2: Riding my bike past a farm along the St-Lawrence River. The soil has recently been tilled. I wonder if the farmer knows that the short-term boost from tillage leads to long-term losses in soil fertility. I wonder if the farmer knows that tillage leads to increased erosion and nutrient leakage when the soil is bare. Wonder if the farmer will try to make up the difference with chemicals.

Scene 3: Walking into the backyard in the countryside, sent on a mission by a friend to see What's happening of interest near the compost pile. All I find is wild strawberries. He points out the small tree branches and twigs that are scattered on the ground, having fallen from the tree above. If we leave them over the years to decompose, they create a stable humus, leading to soil aggradation (the opposite of degradation), like the natural fertility cycle in a forest. Most people remove these to mow the lawn.

Scene 4: Walking with my bike past a retirement community near sunset. There are bales of straw. They've been mulching the gardens. Last year's decomposing mulch is still visible, protecting and feeding the soil. Wonder if knowledge of sustainable techniques will continue with the next generation of retirees.

Scene 5: Being told by a friend that he just bought a new lawnmower. I answer, Aw, that totally sucks that social pressures have convinced people to buy machines to cut down plants... and even to grow grass lawns in the first place. He answers, I don't think it's social pressures. I answer, If everyone around you had a garden and a tall meadow with pathways, would it come to mind to buy a machine to cut it all down? Social faux-pas perhaps.

Scene 6: Watching a utopic black-and-white film from France, l'An 1. The citizens replace their sidewalks with gardens. They only use bicycles. They end the notion of property. They visit a museum that showcases useless modern conveniences, including a lawnmower. The daughter asks, What is a lawnmower? and What is grass? Wonder if this society can ever come about.

Scene 7: Seeing dandylions growing on a deforested and eroding hillside. Thanking the dandylions for being hearty enough to establish themselves and slow down the erosion.

Scene 8: Seeing a father and son raking leaves together and putting them into plastic bags. Sunday bonding activity. Wonder if I should say something. Social faux-pas perhaps. Decide to leave them in peace and write about it instead.

May 3, 2011

Growing in the face of adversity

After nearly 9 million Canadians cast their votes for the NDP, the Bloc, the Liberals, the Greens, and various independent parties, the Conservatives won a majority government (more than 50% of the seats) with only 6 million votes. This certainly shows the basic need for a re-haul of the political system towards proportional representation. Basically, the Conservatives now have free reign to do whatever they'd like, with a political agenda that includes increased militarism, the seal massacre, and unapologetic capitalism at the expense of the environment. At least I can take some solace in living in Québec, one of the few provinces that is strongly in favor of an alternate government. Perhaps I'm in good company.

So, when coming to terms with four years of government that runs contrary to my value system, what is to be done? Grow something positive in the face of adversity. Literally.

The elections signs that are lining our streets with the faces of politicians are made from corrugated plastic, an ephemeral political message for the month of April resulting in trash that will still be around long after our lifetimes. When reclaimed, elections signs can become an integral part of self-watering container gardens, which makes gardening simple in urban spaces like rooftops, balconies, concrete surfaces and contaminated lots. So, grab some scissors (or visit your nearest election office and ask for their signs), and you can grow this summer's vegetables straight from the face of your favourite or least-favourite politician (depending on your sense of humour... I'll be growing on all of their faces, as a non-partisan attempt to grow something positive from the totality of our current political situation).

Find a styrofoam cooler to serve as the container. These can be reclaimed pre-wastestream from food markets or hospitals. Then, the election sign can be used to create a frame that will act as a water reservoir, meaning that you only need to water your plants two or three times a week instead of daily. My friend JP developed this technique for revaluing materials after the last elections. You can find full instructions here. Self-watering containers can be used to grow fruits and vegetables, as well as native flowers to help nourish the waning bee populations.

Four years is a long time... enough time for young trees to start bearing fruit... in four years there is an immense amount we can accomplish on a local level by planting gardens, creating community, educating ourselves, offering information to others, and steadily contributing to a much-needed paradigm shift.

It's springtime, there are election signs abound... there is every reason to begin a garden.