Posts Tagged ‘outdoors’

green books campaign review

November 10, 2010

This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

For the campaign, I chose Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills by Thomas J. Elpel (Hops Press). This book is printed with 100% soy-based inks on 100% recycled paper, bleached without chlorine.

I have a confession. This book was actually my second choice to review for the Green Books Campaign. But when it arrived and I began to peruse its pages, I’m glad that my first choice (Less Is More, which is being reviewed by everydaytrash) was already taken.

I was pleasantly surprised by the personal approach to the writing of Participating in Nature. The writer takes us on a day’s journey, both literally and metaphorically. We start out at sunrise, awakening our senses to the world around us, all through the writer’s observations. He guides us through his experiences and demonstrates shelter building, fire starting, water collecting, edible plant IDing skills and more. The journey naturally ends with sunset.

Being a city girl with dreams of the wilderness, this book was just the thing to entertain my fantasies of roughing it out in “nature.” The funny thing about that is, as the author points out, nature is all around us, even in urban settings. In fact, it’s a big misconception that we are ever separate from nature. It is easy to forget that we and everything in our lives is of the earth when the material items we’re exposed to daily include technological luxuries like computers, televisions, and refrigerators. Their components are so highly processed that the natural sources from which they’re derived are unrecognizable.

“Our modern lives have become so removed from hand-to-mouth survival that we delude ourselves into thinking resources come from the store rather than from nature. We think of ourselves as separate from nature. We think we can draw lines on a map and separate “wilderness” from “non-wilderness,” but there is only one wilderness, one ecosystem, and we are part of it. Like the deer eating grass, or the robin bringing materials back to build a nest, we all must use the resources of the earth for survival. This is true whether we live in an apartment building in the city, or in a wickiup in the woods.”

He goes on to drive home the paradox of our being a part of nature while simultaneously being seen as its destroyer.

“We are similarly admonished for consuming resources at home. We learn that we negatively impact the world from the moment we get up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night. We cause harm every time we drive, or go to work, or entertain ourselves. We learn that we are destroying the planet, and we are told to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” to slow down the pace of destruction. It may be true that we are destroying the planet, and certainly there is nothing wrong with reducing, reusing, and recycling, but there is something wrong with an ideology that tells us on the one hand that we are part of nature – and on the other hand that we are the bad part! The best we can ever achieve is to be less bad.”

This is where I smiled to myself and was reminded of my permaculture studies. The author touches on several concepts which I learned from permaculture, especially the notion that “attitude matters.” This is further brought to light in the second chapter titled, “Mind.”

“Reality is ordered by our perception of it.”

There is a humility in the tone of the writing in what is essentially a primitive living skills guidebook. Although it is clear the author knows his stuff, there is no air of superiority in this knowledge. He makes it clear that he is continually learning and is sure to let the reader know of certain shortcomings of the guide. Specifically, he attempts to make the guide applicable to most regions of the United States, but only to a point. His most direct experiences are in Montana and he reminds us this when necessary. And although this is the case, I think people in all regions can benefit from this introduction to primitive living skills. The instructions are fairly clear, though of course not as clear as learning from a video or in person. In between the demonstrations, the chapters are peppered with narrative and first-person accounts of interactions with plants, animals, and the elements of nature.

Aside from the entertainment value of the insightful stories the author tells, Participating in Nature serves as a great introduction to survival and primitive living skills. There may be other guides out there that are more definitive (though I haven’t met them yet). But the book satisfied the initial curiosity I had for certain skills like building primitive shelters with on site materials, making cordage from natural fibers, and butchering a roadkill deer. I would love someday to be able to attend a wilderness school to learn firsthand some of the other skills covered in this book such as making a bowdrill and starting a fire with it, creating shelter with a hot coal bed, and fishing by hand. Perhaps I’ll even get a chance to attend the author’s school, Green University. I’m going to try felting wool on my own, based on the instructions in the book.

And speaking of wool… Since the first time I went wilderness camping in high school, I was taught that cotton is the “death cloth” (in camping circumstances that is). So I was surprised to read that the author wears cotton sweatpants and sweatshirts while out in the wild. He does wear layers and insulates the sweatpants with found natural materials like grasses, but what happens when the cotton gets wet? Cotton does not wick away water like wool does, so it stays wet and cold, contributing to hypothermia in some cases. Perhaps the insulating grass provides this wicking barrier. Or maybe the cotton phenomenon is exclusive to the Northeast where we have consistent precipitation throughout the year (unlike Montana). This was one of my only gripes or “huh?” moments while reading the book. The other pertains to the images in the book which were sometimes hard to decipher. They are in black and white and in many cases there is little contrast, making it hard to see what is being demonstrated. Color photos would vastly improve this guide.

These small criticisms aside, I truly enjoyed Participating in Nature. What I respect most about this guide is that it’s based on the direct experiences of the author. It is not a distillation of other guide books, it is not all theory or hearsay. Thomas J. Elpel lived these tales, and continues to teach us the skills he accrues as he learns them. This is evidenced by the number of editions he has put out – this is the sixth edition of the book since 1992. The author has the freedom to revise his books this frequently because he also runs the press that prints it. Learn more about the author, his school, and printing press at his website.

Do you have the urge to learn more about the world around you? Do you want to learn how to survive in the wilderness?

raganella’s adventures in nyc

October 19, 2010

When I’m not working on my next workshop idea or helping clients choose (or make) healthier household products, I’m off in the wild. The wild of the city that is. Recently we (my boyfriend & I) experienced a series of local excursions of note all around the city. There is an urban wilderness to be found out there and I’ll be sharing more of my explorations as I experience them. Stay tuned!

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Inwood Hill Park

This 196.4 acre wild park at the uppermost tip of Manhattan holds the last forest (Oak-Beech-Hickory) of its kind on the island, as well as the last salt marsh.

Out to the river, out to the sea

We were amazed by both the unkemptness (in a good way) of the park, as well as its proximity to the Westside Highway (we had to traverse it twice, both times via tunnel). We heard many uncommon (to our ears) bird calls and upon encountering a couple of birders, learned there were kinglets and black-capped chickadees in our midst. NYC boasts a diversity of wildlife way beyond the grey squirrel (and black & albino varieties) and pigeon. Check out this great article by Robert Sullivan to learn more.

Another thing NYC has that might surprise people is some great foraging finds. We spotted a chicken-of-the-woods from the path and without much hesitation (possibly) broke the park rules by hightailing it up the side of a hill to check it out (and grab enough fungi for 4 meals!).

From the woods we could see the salt marsh below. The marsh meets the Spuyten Duyvil (for the most part, the East River) before it heads out to the Hudson. Sea gulls and other wading birds seemingly lounge about, scooping up crustaceans and fish during low tide.

In the visitor center, one of the rangers showed us a flounder and striped bass that were caught in the marsh the day prior. They also had turtles, snakes, and walking sticks, all native to the area.

Marshy marshy marshy

To get to Inwood Hill Park, take the A to Dyckman St (200 St) or 207th St or the 1 to 207th St (10th Ave) and walk west. You can’t miss it!

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Brooklyn Navy Yard

Open House NY (OHNY) is a free annual event that introduces otherwise closed off parts of NYC to residents and tourists alike. Our first OHNY excursion was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

What was once an active port is now home to artists, fabricators, industrial companies, and film set builders.

After checking out an art exhibit, we wandered around a bit (until we got “caught” by security). It’s a bit like wandering through an abandoned town, albeit a bit more maintained.

on the waterfront


Visiting the Brooklyn Navy Yard seems to be a tricky venture. You can visit during Open House events like we did, or if you’re interested in leasing space, you could probably make an appointment to get inside. Otherwise, you can stand outside the gate, staring in longingly. To the south of the visitor’s gates, you can get a glimpse of the decaying old Officer’s Row residences in the yard. A great way to see how nature takes over when we don’t interfere. Directions to the Navy Yard.

Noshing nearby: If you’re peckish and up for a little walk, check out Vinegar Hill House. Delicious!

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Newtown Creek Digester Eggs

After eating a tasty and fitting omelet breakfast at Williamsburg’s Egg, we hightailed it to the Newtown Creek’s digester eggs.

From digesting eggs to digester eggs

If you’ve ever looked across the East River to Brooklyn from the midtown Manhattan side (east), then you’ve seen the giant silver orbs that are the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment facility’s anaerobic digester “eggs.” I didn’t really think of them as beautiful until I got upclose & personal with the eggs at a recent tour (another OHNY event). We actually got to go to the top of the shiny lovelies to learn more about their function from one of the employees.

Here are a few fun facts about the facility & eggs:

  • Each egg (there are 8 of them) weighs 33 million lbs. They were manufactured in Texas, shipped to New Jersey, and piece-by-piece transported over the George Washington Bridge over 4.5 months. The eggs were assembled on site as they received each piece
  • The eggs utilize anaerobic bacteria to digest sewage. Three million cubic feet of methane is one of the byproducts of this anaerobic process. Only 20% of this methane is used to heat the plant. The rest is currently burned off (in carbon filtered cylinders). The facility is in talks with National Grid to channel this methane back into the grid. (Keep your fingers crossed!)

Methane release

  • The facility currently handles 240 million gallons of wastewater per dry day, 500 million gallons on a wet day, and when the facility is fully complete, it will handle 700 million gallons per day at its max
  • Wastewater enters the facility at 150 parts per million of pollutants and leaves at 15 to 20 ppm, an 85% reduction in pollutants (which apparently exceeds the EPA standard)

To learn more about what happens to the water that we flush down the toilet, sink, or shower, check out this fact sheet about wastewater treatment in NYC.

The view from the top

To get to Newtown Creek visitor center – which is open to school groups on Tuesdays & Thursdays and the general public on Fridays & Saturdays – take the G train to Greenpoint Ave. Use the Greenpoint/Manhattan Ave exit. Walk along Greenpoint Avenue one long block east and cross McGuinness Blvd. Continue on Greenpoint Ave to the next traffic light and cross Provost. The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant will be on your left. Follow the fence-line and continue walking until you reach the main gate to the plant, at a traffic light on Humboldt St.

I also highly recommend the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, which runs along the East River and includes native plantings and insightful sculpture work.

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Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood has been on my list of places to visit for a while. And on this past super-sunny Sunday, away we went to the famed cemetery. We walked from our apartment (stopping for brunch at the yummy Thistle Hill Tavern on the way) to the gates at 25th St & 5th Ave (a 2.5 mile walk).

The light was intense & dreamy as we made our way around the windy pathways, stopping to admire the graves of people like Louis Comfort Tiffany & William “Boss” Tweed.

My favorite grave marker was that of Peter Cooper (of Cooper Union fame). It’s an amazingly thought-out memorial, including all of Mr. Cooper’s achievements, a poem by Joaquin Miller, as well as his wife Sarah Bedell’s epitaph.

Peter Cooper's amazing epitaph

Patriot, philanthropist, sage

Peace on the dim Plutonian shore

Aside from the interred humans of note, there are some stunning tree specimens throughout the 478-acre cemetery. It’s also home to at least one very large hawk, a growing flock of wild parrots, and it’s a stopping-off point for many migrating birds as well.

Persimmon tree

To get to Green-Wood Cemetery, take the R train to 25th St in Brooklyn. Walk east one block to Green-Wood at 5th Ave and 25th St. (There are also entrances at 9th Ave & 20th St and on Fort Hamilton Ave, though not as grand as the main entrance.)

Watch this space for more city-centric adventures!