How Cycling Can Save the World

You may think Peter Walker, author of How Cycling Can Save the World, is engaging in hyperbole with the title of his book. But he actually makes a case for cycling curing everything that ails us and the world (and perhaps even washing the dishes when it’s done). Does this seem too much like ‘As Seen on TV?’ Wait, there’s more!

Think roads are too crowded and traffic is too heavy? Imagine if more of us were cycling how much volume in steel would be removed from the roads.

Worried about the environment? Fewer car trips equal less consumption of fossil fuel and improvement in air quality because of the reduction in emissions. Fewer cars need fewer asphalt parking spots leaving more green spaces.

Have you put on a few pounds and need some exercise but don’t feel you have the time? Cycling can use time you spend driving somewhere already, so you arrive at your destination and you’ve had a workout. No worries about going to the gym!

Feel unsafe on a bicycle? More bicycles on the road bring more awareness of cyclists, making the roads safer. Pedestrians become safer too. Walker compares death and accident statistics in countries including the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark. As you can guess, ours are not good. And I hate to tell you, but eating junk food and sitting in front of the tv (and, of course, zombies) are more likely to kill you than a bicycle accident.

Want to get to know your neighbors or build a sense of community? Cycling allows you to see and engage with your surroundings in a more intimate way than glimpsing them out your window as you speed by. You can make more friends, too.

Interested in cycling but maybe a little nervous or hesitant? There’s a group ride this weekend: Tour de EFD. You might enjoy it so much, you’ll be selling your car on Craigslist next weekend.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Who needs a good apocalyptic, end-of-the-world story during the holidays? You’re welcome. It’s better than fruitcake.

unamedmidwifeMeg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife gives us a somewhat dismal glimpse of the far future and then throws us into the near future, after all the bad stuff has gone down. Apparently some sort of plague has massively thinned out humanity, taking virtually all the females and most of the males. Another problem seems to be that remaining pregnant women are dying when they give birth, and the babies are dying too. So that’s the state of the world: a minuscule number of females remaining and no children being born. And people are reduced to living like cavemen/scavengers in what remains of civilization.

Our narrator was a midwife pre-disaster, which turns out to be a useful skill even with so few women remaining. We never learn her name, hence the title. Like anyone, she is looking for community even in what seems to be the fall of humanity. This takes her on the road where she meets other survivors, some of them dangerous and some of them also seeking a safe place.

But can anywhere be safe when someone may take everything from you if they find you? However, this book doesn’t turn into a “wander thru the inhospitable landscape and try to avoid crazy people” tale or a story about zombies. Characters in this book are varied and realistic. There is none of that ‘nobody is that stupid’ or ‘they would never do that in real life’ kind of thing here. At one point, Unnamed seems to have found a satisfactory home for herself, but is compelled to begin her journey again. Her trek forces us to examine society in general and gender expectations and roles.

I can’t tell you too much about this book because you need to be surprised as well. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, and Meg Elison seems to be carrying her mantle. If anything, this book is more contemporary in its treatment of women. And there’s a sequel being released in February! Yay!

If I Could Turn Back Time

counterclockwiseExcuse me for inviting you to buy into our youth-obsessed cultural stereotypes, but have you ever wanted to look, feel, or actually be younger? Turns out all of these are possible, although the last may only happen if you lie about your age. Also, they take a lot of work, maybe more than you’re willing to do. Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging by Lauren Kessler will take you along on one woman’s journey to reacquire youthfulness.

The author investigates and personally tries many ways to remain young, some of them expected and some quite surprising or relatively unknown. Of course many of the things she does are behaviors you’ve always been told will keep you healthy: eating unprocessed food, consuming more fruits and vegetables and, of course, exercise. Turns out these will also keep your body young. The goal is to keep your body healthy into old age and then suddenly die quickly, ideally in your sleep (and in bed with your much younger lover). Warning: don’t do it because Madison Avenue tells you to, do it because you want to be healthy.

Kessler learns about many different philosophies of eating with the goal of keeping you young for as long as possible. These include the idea of eating fewer calories than necessary-that is, semi-starving yourself for life. In studies, this practice has been shown to maintain the health and increase the longevity of rodents, but no studies have been done on humans. Guess they can’t find volunteers to be hungry the rest of their lives. No one would want to be around them, they’d always be so crabby.

She speaks with experts about the various food-specific diets that have you eat or avoid certain things. We also visit the big world of supplements. A lot of it seems natural, altruistic (they only want to make you feel better) and kind of hippie-granola-crunchy, but it is a big business with very little oversight.

And we can’t forget detoxification. Apparently we all need to do it, according to the popular press. The scientific community thinks it’s a load of bunk, and questions what it means and whether it is an effective or healthy activity.

Spoiler alert (but not really): Kessler finds that the things that work best to keep you young also keep you healthy and are the things your mother nagged you to do (or she should have). Don’t eat junk food! Get off the couch and get some exercise! Don’t let the TV turn you into a zombie (for real-brain activity and positive thinking can help keep you young and healthy)! Now go call your mom and thank her.

The Mushroom Hunters

The Mushroom Hunters cover imageAs our days grow dark, dank, and dismal, I like to read books about people who work outdoors in all types of weather. Maybe it just makes me feel warm and snug as I sit inside reading.

If you are interested in foraged foods or just eating, The Mushroom Hunters by Langdon Cook takes you out into the woods with the people who make their livelihoods collecting the mushrooms that go to restaurants and stores for our eating pleasure. The woods where they find these mushrooms are deep and dark and lonely (and sometimes scary and dangerous and home to drug manufacturers). Most mushroom pickers are secretive and protective of “their” picking patches, even though most are on public lands. Langdon Cook makes a friend of one picker, Doug, who allows him to tag along and introduces him to their world.

We meet pickers, most of whom are not friendly to strangers, and some of whom are downright paranoid. They work year-round in the woods, traveling up and down the coast, as different varieties of mushrooms come into season. Over the years they have become very knowledgeable and intuitive about the growing habits of mushrooms.

The pickers sell the mushrooms to buyers. As you’d expect, there are some buyers who are less honest than others. Doug introduces Cook to one of his favorites, Jeremy Faber. Faber started as a picker and wholesaler and went on to become a buyer who now sells to upscale restaurants and grocery stores. He also sells from a booth in Pike Place Market. He is very ambitious and focused , working both to expand the market for mushrooms and wild foods, and to grow his business.

Cook works with pickers and buyers, many of whom are colorful characters you might not want moving in next door to you. We also get to tag along for visits to fancy restaurants and hear from some of the chefs who use the expensive mushrooms. This book allows us entry into a world and lifestyle most of us will not experience. I personally prefer to continue eating the mushrooms rather than searching the woods for them (I’m afraid of running into a zombie). I’m planning to seek out different varieties after reading this work.

If you’ve had a chance to read this excellent book and would like to discuss it further, you are in luck. On Monday February 24th, starting at 6 in the Northwest Room at the Main Library, you can join in a book discussion of The Mushroom Hunters lead by our northwest historians.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

gulpWho would want to read a book about the alimentary canal?

Wait, the author is Mary Roach?

Who wouldn’t want to read it?

After all, eating is one of my favorite activities, and I don’t think I’m the only one. As they say on Arrested Development:

Michael: What do I always say is the most important thing?
George Michael: Breakfast?

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal takes the reader on a journey that follows our food from intake to outgo. Mary Roach just gets better with each book she writes. She’s got a dry sense of humor, but one that would make a 12-year-old boy lose milk up his nose (think body noise jokes if you’re unsure). She is also a tireless researcher. I wish I could ask people the off-the–wall kinds of questions she asks her interviewees.

We start our journey with the food we eat and how we experience it, which is much studied by scientists. Surprisingly, a lot of that experiencing is done through the sense of smell rather than taste. Roach, however, brings the common sense opinion to the table that we don’t actually choose our food based on nutrition but tend to base that selection on other emotions instead.

The author takes a few side trips to see how gastric research was done before sophisticated testing and instruments were available. She starts off with the curious case of Alexis St. Martin who accidentally had part of his side shot away. This left him with an opening to his stomach which never properly healed. His doctor, William Beaumont, was able to view the workings of his stomach through this hole, and insert various food items (eww-dinner and a movie) directly into the stomach to watch the working of the gastric acid.

I’ve never given much thought to saliva, but this book had me fascinated by it. Did you know there are 2 kinds of saliva? It is kind of gross, but these chapters really made me laugh as they described various experiments to measure and classify spit. How fun would it be to visit a spit lab?

The book goes on to describe the rest of the bodily processes that digest our food and convert it to nutrients and eventually waste. I know it seems like I’m gushing, but it was fascinating and often hilarious reading. Bodies are complex. Bodies are also funny and awesome.

One of the doctors interviewed by Roach points out that we should be thankful that our guts have evolved the way they have. The gorilla, a fellow ape, has a digestive system that must ferment the vegetation he eats, and thus is less sophisticated than our own. “He’s processing leaves all day. Just sitting and chewing and cooking inside. There’s no room for great thoughts.” And be thankful you’re not a zombie, because their digestive systems are set up to digest only one thing: brains.

While the topic might seem a bit off-putting at first, after reading Gulp you will find yourself agreeing with the author when she asks:

How is it that we find Christina Aguilera more interesting than the inside of our own bodies?


Spring Gardening (Well Weeding Actually…)

With our good weather lately, lots of us are outside and many are gardening. At my house you could just call it weeding because I think we have more weeds than plants. For all the gardeners who are also busy weeding, and maybe planting vegetables, here are two books that look at gardening in different ways.

paradiselotIn Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier, two plant geeks have a lifelong dream of designing and growing permaculture gardens with plants that provide food. Permaculture promotes sustainable, long-term agricultural systems. These gardens substitute perennials for annuals so you don’t need to replant each year, or ever, if you’ve planned it right. Ideally, the garden forms its own ecosystem.

Unfortunately, most people have permaculture gardens in the tropics, so the plants that are known to grow well and reseed themselves year after year are only suited for warmer climates. The author and his friend live in Massachusetts, where it gets below freezing over the winter, so tropical plants won’t work. They have always lived in rented places, so these become their first experimental gardens. Finally, they buy a duplex that sits on 1/10 of an acre, which adds another wrinkle to the problem in that 1/10 of an acre isn’t much land to grow a food garden on. The lot is also overgrown with weeds, and the soil underneath is better suited for a parking lot than a garden.

The book details their work over the course of several years of planning and planting their garden. Their garden eventually provides a lot of their food, including bananas, persimmons, grapes, pears, kiwi, pawpaws, and much more. For a place that gets below freezing in the winter, they’re surprised to find that they can grow tropical fruit. Take that, Florida! Their garden becomes a classroom for others interested in making their own permaculture gardens. This book was inspiring both for seeing the amazing variety of plants they could grow and for the dream of not having to weed much because the plants you want crowd out the weeds.

harvestHarvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms by Richard Horan follows a man who decides to participate in the harvests of a dozen different crops on small, family-run farms (and then write a book about it). He goes coast to coast and lives in the farmers’ homes while working in the fields with them. He finds similarities among the farms and the farmers, even though they differ in many ways.

Some of the farmers have chosen their crops for historical or heirloom value, some chose them because they like growing them, and some seemed to have just happened upon this lifestyle and found that it suited them. Obviously, these are all people who care deeply about the land and its health and ecology, yet most of them are not from generations of farmers.

Surprisingly, when you consider the premium we pay for organic food (those organic bananas better taste organic), most of these farmers have partners or spouses who need to work at other jobs in order to make a living wage. The work is extremely hard and Horan recalls his youth when he was able to do this kind of physical labor that is now so wearing on him. He also gives us some background on the new growth of family farms and compares their practices to commercial agriculture. This sounds clichéd, but Horan re-discovers his soul and purpose and a new optimism by working on these farms.

Not many of us get to do what we love. So, get out there in your garden and put your hands in the dirt. Get dirty. Get downright filthy. Eat healthy food and get enough fruits and vegetables (because they just might keep you from turning into a zombie).


Eating Dirt

eatingdirtSilviculture. The word makes me think of mining, or maybe something to do with manufacturing metal. Surprisingly, it refers to the cultivation of forest trees, or as Wikipedia tells us:

Silviculture is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values. The name comes from the Latin silvi- (forest) + culture (as in growing).

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill takes us into the world of the people on the ground floor of silviculture, the ones who re-plant the forests after logging companies cut them down. Their life-style is foreign to most of us, but fascinating.

Perhaps this isn’t the best time of year to talk about a book that details a life of working outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, but since I’m sure you’ll be inside while reading, I’ll go ahead. Gill’s writing is lyrical and not at all dry as dirt. Though Gill does state that dirt tastes like sand mixed with cold butter at one point. The book details a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, with people working outdoors in all but the harshest weather of winter. If you spend much time outdoors here, you will recognize the feeling of water drip, drip, dripping down the back of your neck.

Much like nomadic herdsmen, Gill and her co-workers consider themselves a tribe mostly separated from the rest of society. They are the workers in the background that we don’t even suspect exist, but who are essential to our lifestyles. They allow us to harvest the planet’s natural resources without worrying about replenishment. Yet they are as unsentimental about it as a farmer is about butchering cattle. Their jobs are never going to be mechanized or done by anything other than human hands.

Gill recounts the time spent waiting for the planting season to begin, which we would consider free time but to planters seems just like waiting. Then the planting season begins and it becomes their whole life. With a job that is outdoors, completely isolated (horrors!-even out of cell phone range in an emergency), and seemingly monotonous, your mind is completely free to wander and notice details. The whole world belongs only to you, and you are the only human living in it. The work is endlessly variable in that the terrain and your surroundings are always changing, yet the end product is constant. This job is the very definition of long-term investing, since most of the trees planted by these workers will not be available for harvest until close to the planters’ retirements.

We learn about the history of the logging of our forests, and when the realization hit that it couldn’t go on forever without re-planting. We also learn about the day-to day events that define their characters. One chapter tells of being stationed in a small town where the townspeople give them the stink-eye look of ‘It’s them again!’. As the author describes it:

We look hungrily deranged, like crazy gypsies descended from the mountain to pick through the dumpsters for chicken bones

This book didn’t make me love going out into the rain, but it made me appreciate our environment and the people who work out in it. Thanks to their hard work, hillsides and forest will no longer look like a barren and desolate landscape out of a post-apocalyptic movie (and we won’t, hopefully, have zombies any time soon).


The Last Hunger Season

With the good weather upon us, I’m sure that many of you are out working in your gardens. I’m pulling lots of weeds that did very well with the rain and sunshine, but lamenting that a lot of my vegetables didn’t get a good start this year. Even if my garden doesn’t produce well, however, I can always buy food at the store ensuring that I won’t go hungry. 

This is in stark contrast to the situation described in the book I just read, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow. The Last Hunger Season is the story of families that do go hungry if their garden doesn’t grow, no matter how much strenuous work they put into it. If their home-grown food runs out, they go through a hunger season while they wait for the next harvest. The irony is that the hunger season comes after the crops have been planted, and hopefully those plants are thriving, but before the crops have matured enough to eat.

The majority of farmers in Kenya are small-scale farmers, most with an acre or less to farm. They struggle to keep their children in school, because they realize that education may be the only way to ease their poverty. For most, the choice becomes attempting to feed their family or paying school fees. Unfortunately, many of the children are not in school for parts of the year because of unpaid school fees, and their families are also hungry.

One Acre Fund, a non-profit company, works in Kenya with the mission of helping small farmers with all aspects of farming. They provide farming education first, because many African countries have not had any sort of “master gardener” aid aimed at small shareholders. Loans are provided to purchase seed and fertilizer, which are also made available through the organization, farming practices are taught, and storage systems are developed. A lot of the grains grown are eaten by weevils or go moldy during storage, so efficient small-scale storage systems are important. Unfortunately not much development has been done in this area because you can’t run a company by marketing to impoverished people. One Acre Fund is funding and encouraging research into storage systems, as well as improving seeds and fertilizer for African farmers.

The Last Hunger Season follows four families as they begin their planting season with the aid and backing of One Acre Fund. Their goals are so basic: to feed their families and educate their children. Even the poorest of Americans seems wealthy compared to these families. If you are a gardener, some of the practices the Kenyan farmers employ may seem contrary to what we practice here in the Northwest. As the book progresses, however, you come to find that the growing conditions in Africa are quite a bit different from ours. 

The biggest difference, of course, is that the Kenyan families will starve if they can’t get their farm to produce. They simply don’t have the luxury of experimentation on their own. The book follows the families through to their harvests and beyond, into what would normally be their next hunger season. If you read this book you will learn quite a bit about a world totally different from ours. A world that many of us could not imagine living in, yet at its’ core is very similar to our own.


Working in the Shadows

We often don’t think about how the food we eat comes to be on our supermarket shelves. Turns out, there’s a lot of very hard, dangerous, and sometimes mind-numbingly boring work that goes into it.

In Working in the Shadows, author Gabriel Thompson decided to try his hand at several  jobs that he’d been told normally go to immigrants because “Americans won’t do them”. His reasons for writing the book have more to do with the question of immigration, but for me his book is about the work that no one wants and how food gets on our table.

When Thompson works in the fields cutting lettuce, his co-workers are very welcoming and friendly, but they suspect him of working for the Immigration Department. The work is more physically demanding than any he has ever done. The author is amazed and proud when he’s able to make it to his self-imposed limit of 2 months on the job.

Working at a chicken processing plant, he finds that the work is also physically demanding, but so repetitious that just about all the employees are eventually injured. Reading about the processing plant will put you off chicken nuggets (and possibly all forms of chicken). You will also discover that chicken feet used to be a waste product, but are now shipped to China.

He has a short job in a wholesale flower shop, and finds that many illegal workers get bullied or taken advantage of because they’re afraid to complain about their working conditions. His last job is delivering food at a restaurant, again a very physically demanding job for low wages.

All the work he tries is low-wage, some of it below minimum wage. Most of the people he works with are immigrants, either legal or illegal. Someone in a far-away office has decided these jobs are unskilled, and therefore deserving of low pay, but in reality they do require skills and a lot of hard work.

Whether you’re working at a fast-food place or in an apple orchard you’ll find there’s struggle and strife, and at times brain melting boredom, in every job. This book brings to light many of the injustices and fears that many workers run up against.

Makes your job not look so bad, huh?


Hell on Two Wheels

You’ve been on a bike before, right? Maybe it was just when you were a kid or maybe you still ride. (If you don’t ride, I’d like to encourage you to start.) You’ve probably also seen part of the Tour de France, or at least heard of it. I’m sure you’d be as surprised as I was to learn there’s a race even tougher than the Tour de France. It’s the Race Across America and it’s the subject of Amy Snyder’s fascinating new book, Hell on Two Wheels.

The Race Across America involves getting on your bike and riding across America (obviously). The winner is the first person to reach the finish line (again, obviously). The twist is that once the race starts, the clock is ticking and there are no breaks—not for sleeping, not for eating, not for hygiene. Any time you take for those needs counts against you on the clock. The racers push themselves to the point of hallucinations and injury. As I read Hell on Two Wheels, I started to think those Tour de France guys were sort of wimpy for resting at night, eating healthy meals, and probably showering and changing their clothes.

Hell on Two Wheels recounts the 2009 Race Across America. Unbelievably, the winner finished in under nine days! Wouldn’t you take almost as long to drive across the country? Some of the riders dropped out after undergoing terrible physical hardships, but many did finish.

The prize? A medal and a lifetime of bragging rights (if you find enough people who know about the race to be impressed by your achievement). Many of the participants ride year after punishing year. The race doesn’t have big sponsors, so riders bring and outfit their own support teams. These teams usually consist of family members or friends that they’ve coerced into coming along. Hell on Two Wheels gives background on the riders and the history of the race before following the riders day after gory day as they race across America. The riders—and readers—experience sleep deprivation, hallucinations, tears, spats, falls, over exertion and injury.

Even if you don’t take my advice to pick up a bike, I hope you’ll do yourself a favor and pick up this fast-paced, true story of adventure and endurance.