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.

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.