Friday, October 21, 2016

Think Global, Act Local: The 50 Year Program

The news lately has been depressing. Very depressing. A presidential election that becomes increasingly surreal with every passing day, even though it felt like we'd fallen down the rabbit hole months ago. The seemingly endless string of bad news from North Dakota as the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters fight to protect their land and, especially, our water from exploitation in the name of greed. And, speaking of greed, here in Arizona we have Nestlé colluding with corruptible local officials to buy our Central Arizona Project water, which is brought here from the dwindling Colorado River at a high environmental and economic cost, just so they can bottle it and resell it to us. Sadly, the Arizona Department of Water Resources doesn't find the fact that a company is putting tap water paid for by all of us as taxpayers into unsustainable and polluting plastic bottles to then sell it back to us at all ironic. It's hard not to get discouraged in a world that seems to have gone mad.

What keeps me sane is the realization that the one place we can really have an impact is locally. Here in Tucson we may not be able change national policy, no matter who we vote for. It seems like we can't even affect decisions made 120 miles away in Phoenix. What we can do is implement change at the local level and hope that people will be inspired by our example. Change always comes from the bottom up, not top down. Think Global, Act Local.

What can we do locally? Advocate for better mass transit, bicycle and pedestrian safe streets, and put an end to this madness of building and widening more roads, which has the counter-intuitive effect of increasing the amount of traffic. In another bizarre irony, we face an uphill struggle to encourage more solar power here in sun-drenched Arizona.

The simplest thing we can all do at the local level is to protect our water. Water is essential to all of us, and must be preserved - especially here in the desert southwest. Less than 1% of the world's water is fresh and accessible. There will inevitably be cuts to the Colorado River water that Tucson relies on for all of its water needs. Why wait for things to get bad? Watershed Management Group has a 50 year plan to restore our perennial river flows in the Santa Cruz basin. Did you know that our major rivers (and many of the streams that feed them) used to flow year round? Some of them still do, like this stretch of Sabino Creek.

Even farther downstream, the apparently dry streambed of Sabino Creek actually has running water just under the surface.

This is because the Sabino Creek and Tanque Verde watersheds are very shallow. As Catlow Shipek, Policy and Technical Director for Watershed Management Group, points out, those blue areas on the map of Tucson are shallow watersheds. We can raise the level of the water in those areas through some very simple steps that all of us can do.

You don't need to install an expensive cistern system to store rainwater or build a composting toilet (although you may be glad you did). Envision coal smoke coming out of the faucet every time you turn it on (since all of the CAP water we get here in Tucson is provided by one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the nation) and you might find yourself running the tap far less often.  We started by turning the shower off while we were soaping up or not running the water while brushing our teeth. We pour our clear sink rinse water on non-food plants in our garden. There are lots of simple ways to reduce water use. Any water we don't use is water that Tucson Water doesn't have to pump from our aquifer or import from the Colorado River.

Can you think of any water-saving habits you can incorporate into your everyday life? After that simple start, you may find yourself wanting to do more. You can enjoy the free Living Lab tour at Watershed Management Group and start thinking about other ways to save more water - like installing catchment basins or a laundry-to-landscape greywater system. You just have to start somewhere.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Autumn in Tucson: Let the Festivities Begin!

I am smitten with Fall in Tucson. After the long, hot summer, it’s such a delight to open the windows and let in the evening chill. A feeling of nostalgia washes over me with the crisp autumn breezes. Sunlight warms my cheeks like butterfly kisses. Autumn bliss. (Or not...)

When I list my favorite things about Tucson, Tucson Meet Yourself and the Homescape Harvest Tour are right up there with the Tucson Festival of Books and my home away from home, the Loft Cinema. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy this lovely season than to get outside for Tucson’s captivating fall festivals and tours. Here are some of our favorite Fall festivities.

Homescape Harvest Tour

October 1, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

I can’t begin to articulate how going on the Homescape Harvest Tour filled me with wonder, ignited my curiosity and kindled a shared vision. If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you may have noticed that Dan and I are big fans of Watershed Management Group and their efforts to get the rivers flowing again with rainwater harvesting. We’ve become members of their coop and Dan is currently in their docent training program. (So proud of him!) It all started when Dan attended the Homescape Harvest Bike Tour. The next year he brought me along on the walking tour. I’m so grateful that he did. 

I’ve been telling everyone I can about this fascinating excursion. Inspiring home landscapes throughout Tucson will be open to explore at your own pace. The Watershed Management Group have lined up some of the most well-designed, beautifully functional, affordable and sometimes whimsical examples of how to harvest water, energy, and food. You can get ideas for your dream yard – like we did.

As you explore home landscapes, you’ll have the opportunity to learn firsthand from the homeowners. Experience enchanting rain gardens, cisterns, passive & active solar systems, greywater systems, composting toilets, shady desert oases, lush food gardens, and wildlife habitats.

Click here to purchase tickets: 

Tucson Meet Yourself

October 7 - 9

Tucson Meet Yourself, that has been lovingly dubbed “Tucson Eat Yourself,” can occasionally even lure my apathetic teens out of the house for some Danish pancake balls with lingonberry jam. That’s just one of the many delectable tastes offered from Tucson’s diverse cultural heritage. I have happy memories of my kids making Mexican cascarones (confetti eggs). It’s become a family tradition to make Mexican cutout flags from colorful tissue paper. You can catch anything from Irish clogging to belly dancing to Native American flute music to Polish pierogi cooking demos on the festival stages. 

Envision Tucson Sustainable Festival

YWCA, 525 N. Bonita
Sunday, October 16, 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.

Check out the wave of the future – sustainability! Don't miss the Envision Tucson Sustainable Festival. The Tucson Electric Vehicle Association will be there with a wide variety of electric vehicles. Solar cooking demonstrations on a creative collection of solar ovens.

And learn other easy, but effective steps for energy efficiency. Another hot trend is going “back to the future” with rainwater harvesting techniques inspired by ancient people and adapted to the modern urban life style. How cool is that?! Learn how to glean delicious foods from the desert! Some of my favorite groups: XerocraftMission Garden, Iskashitaa, and Watershed Management Group (among others) will have displays.

The festival is dedicated to promoting all aspects of sustainability in Tucson and Southern Arizona. This is a great place for sharing ideas and information and for finding opportunities to get even more involved in local sustainability actions. There will be delicious local food available for purchase. ETSF is striving for a zero-waste event, so plan on bringing your re-usable water bottle. Mine is packed and ready to go!

Make a day of it and catch both the Envision Tucson Sustainable Fest AND the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Tour. 

Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Tour

11th Avenue and University Boulevard
October 16,  1 PM - 3 PM

See how this once barren neighborhood was transformed into an oasis in the desert by using curb cuts to direct the rainwater to irrigate mesquite trees along the street and a native food forest in the medians – a great example of green infrastructure. Before Brad Lancaster pioneered these successful rainwater harvesting techniques, curb cuts were illegal in Tucson. The enjoyment is heightened with a community mural and metal sculptures.

Brad uses only rainwater for his household and gardening needs, harvesting 100,000 gallons of rainwater annually. His property is an example of how passive and active solar power work together with passive and active water harvesting in a beautifully integrated design. 

The Dunbar/Spring Tour will have homes, gardens, local businesses, public art, and water harvesting features on the tour. Tickets are $5 day-of the event and can be picked up at the Neighborhood Garden - NW corner 11th Ave and University. Self-guided tour on foot, or bicycle tour provided by BICAS.

Hear neighborhood stories by author Aloma J. Barnes at the Dunbar School Project!

The Dunbar Coalition and Aloma Barnes book “Dunbar: The Neighborhood, the School, and the people 1940-1965” is available for purchase.


October 30th, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

What better way to feel the autumn breeze on your face than to hop on your trusty metal steed to join thousands of bicyclists as they take over the streets. Cyclovia is Tucson’s semi-annual celebration of living streets. For five hours on a Sunday, the streets along the Cyclovia path are closed to automobile traffic and opened to the community: bicyclists, pedestrians, community organizations, and people wanting to meet their neighbors. There’s a new route every time, so different neighborhoods get to celebrate. This Fall is central Tucson’s turn. While the route doesn’t quite make it to our neighborhood, it does cover the part of Tucson that is like our backyard - including a number of our favorite places. The route starts in Miramonte, makes a stop at the Watershed Management Group’s Living Lab, and ends at the Tucson Botanical Gardens - where everyone can get free admission to the gardens and the unique Frida Kahlo display. Revel in the small town feeling that makes Tucson so great while getting a glimpse at what our streets could be if we weren’t so car-obsessed!

Tucson Celtic Festival

November 4-6

As a member of the MacGregor clan (from Dan's mom’s side), Fall means it’s time for him to pull on his kilt, strap on hissporran, stash a dirk in his stocking, and head up to Rillito Park to eat haggis, drink dark beer, and watch grown men throwing telephone poles around. That’s right - it’s time for the annual Tucson Celtic Festival. Food, music, dance, and games. It’s a time when everyone’s inner Celt comes out - even if you aren’t Scottish or Irish!

All Souls Procession

November 6th

Is there any event more representative of Tucson than the All Souls Procession? (OK, maybe Tucson Meet Yourself edges it out.) The All Souls Procession started out as a small group of Tucsonans who decided to celebrate a Mexican holiday to honor their departed loved ones. Before long, the little sidewalk procession was filling the street with people of all ages in fanciful skeleton make-up carrying paper lanterns, gigantic puppets, and creative floats. Now it is one of Tucson’s most beloved celebrations, bringing thousands Downtown to remember, protest, cry, laugh, sing, play music, create, dance, and - most of all - celebrate living in this unique place we call home.

Now that the summer heat has ended and the temperate fall weather has arrived, it's time to venture out of the AC, plant our fall veggie gardens and go enjoy all the things Tucson has to offer us. See you at the fests!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

3 Sisters: Sowing Strength in Solidarity

This summer Dan and I conducted a little experiment. We wanted to find out if hardy desert crops could survive the long, hot Tucson summer on just monsoon rains. Dan tried the traditional Iroquois method of building mounds for the 3 SISTERS: Tohono O'odham 60 day corn, brown tepary beans, and Ha:al squash. These complimentary crops become stronger by working together. The beans provide nitrogen to the soil. The corn provides stalks for the beans to climb and shade for the squash. And the squash, in turn, provides ground cover to keep out weeds. (Of course, the Hohokam had a system of channels that drew from the Santa Cruz River that flowed year around back then and the Tohono O'odham did flood plain irrigation.) 

After a couple of light showers, we watched as the seeds began to sprout. (Though some mysterious varmint was eating the leaves off of the tops of the beans and only a couple of squash leaves unfurled.) A volunteer squash in our compost pit was doing better. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a monsoon this summer, so we watched disheartened as our garden withered away. On one of the mounds, a single bean plant survived, and there were two wilted corn stalks still clinging to life on another. So I dug three holes next to the bean plant, put some compost at the bottom, and replanted the corn and the volunteer squash. Storm clouds came and went as we waited... and waited... and waited for rain.

As I watched the effect of the drought on our garden, I became more conscious of how much water we use in our home. We started saving dishwater for our thirsty hummingbird trumpets. We bought what we thought was environmentally friendly dish soap. But it turned out to contain more salt than we would have liked, so we have to alternate between the soapy dishwater and the clear rinse water to help flush the salt build-up out of the soil.

The downspout we installed was useless without rain. So we began to use the water from rinsing off our produce to water a little kitchen garden where I had planted some potatoes that sprouted. We also watered the remaining 3 Sisters mound. (You don't want to use water with meat particles in food gardens because it could transmit pathogens.) The bean plant is still hanging in there, and the potato plants are growing nicely all from water that would have gone down the drain. I know, I know, it would be so easy to just turn on the hose. But this is just a drop in the dish bucket compared to how many Hopi and Navajo have to conserve water.

While we are "experimenting" with saving water, members of 280 Native American tribes have gathered together at Standing Rock, South Dakota to fight for water! They have put their bodies on the front line to stop the construction of the crude oil pipeline that will go under the Missouri River - the main source of water for the tribe and 17 million other Americans. A federal judge recently rejected the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's petition to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. But later that day, the US Army, Justice, and Interior departments jointly announced they would temporarily stop the pipeline work until the environmental impact is investigated. The pipeline continues to be built in other areas.

Dan and I celebrated that victory with a symbolic dinner of the 3 Sisters. To me it represented the strength these courageous protectors have shown by working in unity.

Corn, beans, zucchini. tomato, and onions topped with queso fresco on a masa patty.
The tribes understand that this is just the beginning. Many have set up camp for the Winter. The Sioux have been joined by other tribes who have also been exploited for their land and water, including: the Navajo, the Hopi, the San Carlos Apache, and our local Tohono O'odham. It is inspiring to see these tribes uniting for a shared cause and working together to meet the needs of the camp - educating the children, keeping up morale, providing firewood, medical care, spiritual support, and traditional meals.

Water is Life!
We may not be on the front lines fighting for water, but we can march in solidarity here in Tucson, sign the petition to stop the pipeline, contact our representatives, and try to conserve water. (Here are some other ways we can help.) Like the 3 Sisters, we are stronger when we work together.

Sign the petition to stop police in riot gear from arresting the brave journalists covering this historic fight. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

"There goes Jana again..."

A while back I rushed out of the house to attend a panel on food security in the desert.  Struggling to catch my breath after my mad dash (more like a hobble) to catch the bus, I settled back into my seat with my feet hanging out into the aisle. Next thing I know there’s some guy stopped in his tracks, staring down at my feet. “Oh, sorry…” I muttered as I pulled them out of the way.  Only later did it register that he had been smirking at my mismatched sandals!

Sorry if it seems like I'm always in a tizzy. That’s just me doing what little I can do to protect our planet.  To be honest, I have been struggling with that lately.  I began questioning what difference I could make - taking into account all my weaknesses.  Recently, I spoke up at a public hearing at the Arizona Corporation Commission. (TEP was petitioning to double everyone’s basic rate, while lowering the credit to rooftop solar users to discourage people from installing solar.)  I was scared to death because the last time I spoke I got nervous and lost my train of thought. I decided it was important to work at overcoming my fears, so I prepared a statement to read.  My hand shook as I held the paper at arm’s length to see it.  Next time I’ll do even better – I’ll bring my glasses.

But there was something that one of the commissioners (Doug Little) said that motivated me to carry on. He said that the commission was currently in the process of investigating the value of solar. The problem is that they aren’t doing it fast enough! That reminded me of TEP’s unambitious plan to transition to using solar for 1/3 of its power by 2050.  Scientists have warned us that if we keep going the way we are, the tipping point (or point of no return) could happen within the next five years.  So you can see why I feel this great sense of urgency - so much so that I'm willing to make a fool of myself to get people's attention.

And I'm not the only one. The commissioner on the left got a good picture of this guy....

I admit that sometimes I come across as sorta ditzy, or too intense.  I talk (or chat text) too fast so my words get away from me, and on a rare occasion even post a facebook meme without checking the sources.  I'm sure some people are thinking, "There goes Jana again!" There are days I totally relate to the absent-minded professor as I “blubber” away. " There is so much vital information taking up space that I don’t have room for practical, mundane thoughts – like how to articulate a discernible sentence. I am grateful for my ability to write it down in my blog and for my fact and spell checkers Dan and Josh.

There are so many urgent developments happening in the world today that lots of people aren’t aware of - so many important events that our corporate owned media doesn’t profit from sharing with us. For instance, many Tucsonans don’t know that we are currently in a 17 year drought.  We just turn on our tap and water comes out.  Most Tucsonans don’t know how we get our CAP water – that our CAP water is pumped 360 miles UPHILL, using up the water in the Navajo and Hopi’s confined aquifer to run the coal burning generating station that powers those pumps. Those tribes get none of that water or electricity. Many people on the reservation don’t even have running water and electricity in their homes. Most Tucsonans don’t know that we get enough rainfall every year to meet all of our water needs – if we allow that water to sink into the ground to restore our aquifers. Most people have never heard of Watershed Management Group or how they are trying to get our rivers flowing again with rain water harvesting.  Every day I see people do things like put in new drip systems that use more of that CAP water when they could irrigate with rain water. So, yes, I feel a real sense of urgency to let people know.

So, please, excuse me if I make a fool of myself by babbling on.  Forgive me if more and more of my facebook posts are on environmental disasters or if I make you uncomfortable with a request to share a video on fracking.  I’m doing what little I can to get the word out.  One thing is clear - I can't do it by myself. So if you could help out by occasionally taking a moment to “like," share a post, tell a friend, or sign a petition, I would greatly appreciate it. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Our Desert Community Plants the Seeds for a New Doc

Since Dan and I started blogging about our journey to a more sustainable lifestyle we have had the opportunity to come in contact with so many inspiring community groups cultivating an oasis of sustainability here in Tucson.

Emma demonstrates how to shore up a catchment basin.
Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) is reviving their cultural traditions by having tribal elders mentor youth on their native foods. Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace re-built the Mission Garden, a living museum, to demonstrate how to grow crops from pre-Columbian to those that Father Kino established in that location.  Native Seeds/SEARCH 
maintains community food traditions by preserving diverse and heritage seeds. Manzo ElementaryChangemaker High and City High tend to the next generation of desert gardeners. Through their community garden programs, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona doesn’t just feed the hungry, but teaches them to grow food for themselves. Iskashitaa Refugee Network assists refugees in becoming self-sufficient (and reduces food waste) by harvesting fruit that would otherwise go unpicked. Dunbar Springs neighborhood worked to make their street an example of an edible, urban forest irrigated by rainwater. Watershed Management Group is building a community that works together to restore Tucson’s aquifer by implementing rainwater harvesting techniques and desert landscaping in people's yards, gardens, streets and businesses. These groups (among others) are gleaning from Tucson’s rich cultural history ways to live in harmony with the desert. This is truly an exciting time to be a part of this vibrant community!

Shooting the first segment with Brad Lancaster at Dunbar Springs
I decided to make a documentary about the accomplishments of these communities with the hope that it would inspire others. So I approached activist/ documentarian Evan Grae Davis with the idea. Evan had just read Edible Baja Arizona’s article about Tucson being the first US city to be designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy for the same advancements. He was excited to tell our story!

Our last shoot was for the rainwater harvesting segment featuring Watershed Management Group. Dan and I have planted our roots into the WMG community. In addition to being members of their co-op, Dan recently got the good news that he was accepted into their docent training program!  We love being a part of a community that is working to restore our groundwater and get our rivers flowing again.

Here we are shooting in Jason and Connie Carder's yard. (See Jason working alongside of Emma in the pic above.) They had 3 roadside catchment basins (wow!) and berms installed to control the runoff after their house had been flooded during a recent storm.

Happy owner Connie Carder
Co-op members Grant and Carrie Stratton share why they volunteer
Where's Waldo...uh...Dan? 
Emma helps a co-op volunteer arrange rocks 
Two hard workers: workshop instructor Emma Stahl-Wert and my baby Dan
A little patch of purslane ignited a conversation about edible weeds. Later in the day, Dan heard someone call out, "Don't step on the purslane!" A woman after my own heart! It's so great to work alongside kindred spirits who feel as passionate as we do about getting our rivers flowing again and protecting purslane

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Are you a good weed or a bad weed?

You may have heard the saying: one person's weed is another person's wildflower. Since I began harvesting edible weeds, I've really started looking at them. Really seeing them. Some are pretty even before they bloom. They make lovely ground cover. But we've been taught to weed out any that aren't in Better Homes and Gardens. Perhaps businessmen called them weeds because they are free. They can't make money off of them, so they invented weed killer.

I guess I would call weeds unwanted, intrusive pants. Most of us call Bermuda grass a weed. It's such nuisance! But my husband Dan sees it as a desert survivor. It needs very little water, and you can't get rid of it. It's here to stay! The lawn in our neighborhood park is made up mostly of Bermuda grass. Dan also dried up some and used it (successfully!) as mulch for our gardens. It's all a matter of perspective.

We have a weed (yes! I call it a weed!) that starts off innocently enough with two sweet little leaves, and then grows into a pretty bush with fuzzy light green needles.

These "bushes" climbed up the garden fence and over the top and dropped tiny red berries (seeds) into our garden. I spent hours pulling those bushes that lined the fence out by their deeply embedded roots. These cute little weeds are the bane of my existence.  Every morning there are new ones to pick out of our garden. On a good day, it's just a handful. But I usually fill up a medium mixing bowl. These bushes took over one quarter of our yard and threatened to take over the whole alleyway before Dan and I spent a brutal morning pulling them out. Dan has since planted another garden in that plot.

Anyone know what this is? 
One person's weed is another person's fresh greens. In fact, the Tohono O'odham called purslane and amaranth summer greens.

Last summer we discovered purslane behind the neighbor's wall.  I was determined to make sure that the patch returned. I bet Dan thought I was crazy for pulling Bermuda grass in the utility road. But I wanted to make sure people didn't use roundup on my favorite edible weed. For a long time nothing grew. Until... we had a couple of big storms. Then we had horse purslane. More rain, more purslane. Common purslane and amaranth! It grew every place I had pulled out the grass!

horse purslane

Our alleyway buffet
Nearly everyday we pick some purslane or amaranth from our backyard buffet. You can snap off common purslane (with the tear-shaped leaves) and pop them in your mouth. To me it tastes like a combination of parsley and citrus. Some people think it tastes slightly peppery. It's great raw, stems and all, for salads. It's also yummy sauteed like spinach, on meat, in soups and sauces.

If you snap off the branches where they meet the stem, you can leave the rest of the plant in the ground to grow more!

We've got tons of native horse purslane growing in our alleyway. You can identify it by it's round leaves. Unfortunately horse purslane makes my throat scratchy if eaten raw. So I saute the leaves or cook them in sauces or soups and enjoy all that omega 3.

Horse purslane sauteed with garlic is delish on crusty bread with goat cheese!

It was a pleasant surprise when amaranth popped up next to the purslane! Our guide to native foods suggested that we eat the leaves when the plant is still small. If you pull off those on the outside and leave behind the little ones in the middle, the plant will produce more leaves to eat. 

Dan puts uncooked amaranth in his omelet, then tops it with sauteed purslane and salsa! 

Who gets to decide what's an ugly weed and what's a useful plant? It all depends on how you look at it. When I walk down the street, I don't see pesky weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. I see lunch.