The constant gargle, whether crashing or calm, gloriously filling your ears against small or faraway sounds. At the ocean, it is just you and it.
The broken sunlight forever chasing its changing surface, cloistering its depths from we outsiders.
The bobbing lightness of standing shoulder-deep just beyond the break, rising on tiptoe in each swell, until a slight crest appears higher than your head and invites you to sink your face into its face.
The soothing sting of seawater on the dozens of bug bites dotting your arms and legs. The slight crust of salt infusing your hair with the texture and wave it sadly lacks.
The jolt of a memory of fear, unnamed and unknown, unfamiliar and familiar, turning you to shore slowly, you think slowly and elegantly but probably quickly and obviously.
The sound of your youngest behind you, wise beyond years and yet unbelievably just coming of age, in a clumsy crashing tripping dance of heavy legs and paddling arms.
Love grows best in little houses, so the song says. After seven years in a little house, I think it true. With three children and a one-time partner and his child in and out of my tiny two-bedroom house, my home has seen myriad living arrangements. With only me and one of my kids still at home, our 650 sq ft house feels downright grand. With a recent desire to hibernate, I’ve found myself retreating to rebuild in small ways to make my nest more comfortable for we current inhabitants.
The studio out back was finished a couple years ago, to house tenants or my mom or any children that come back to the nest. As with the house, I designed and chose materials for the studio to be as resource-efficient as possible. Since it is difficult sometimes to remember or find green resources, here are a few lessons learned. I still make mistakes, like remembering polyurethane is a plastic after sealing my guest room floor. We are, after all, still in a market that isn’t looking out for us. But we can all have healthier homes, for ourselves and the planet, with intention and a little research.
Use what you have: the studio was a kit building with a concrete floor, a solid metal roof and posts, but cardboard walls and plastic windows. I kept the footprint and roof, and framed in new walls so I could insulate for warmth and coolth.
Reclaim materials: for the best use of materials (and money), reclaim solid and natural materials from elsewhere. The metal windows, wood door, kitchen sink, and bathroom fixtures came from a Habitat ReStore. The wood floor came from a dance studio that was giving it away from free on craigslist. The brick for the patio was the foundation under my friend Meg’s old house.
Use non-toxic materials: this is a hard one. But fiberglass insulation is easy to substitute with recycled cotton denim insulation with the same R values. It is not only non-toxic and easier to hang, it also does a better job of blocking sound. For paints and finishes, look for no VOC options, and look up Safecoat for plastic-free alternatives to polyurethane … the one I forgot about in the house, argh.
Study renewable, natural, and/or low embodied energy materials: for the siding, I chose Hardie board because it is cheap and hailed as a green material. With sand, concrete, wood fibers, and water, it has little to no toxins; and since it is distributed regionally, the transportation impacts are less than products unavailable regionally.
You’ve heard of the butterfly effect … the pterodactyl is no less intertwined into every choice we make. With the Dakota Access Pipeline injustice, fear of fracking-related earthquake, and a general repulsion for war, I’m making a bigger effort to wash my hands of oil and its by-products.
Walking, biking, and public transit have always been my MO. I bought my house because I could walk or bus to nearly anywhere I needed to go. With my latest job and the need to get around Southern California quickly for meetings, I acquired an all-electric car. Three months of no gas fill-ups makes me ridiculously happy.
But what about the energy I’m using when I plug in? California is progressive, but still heavily reliant on fossil fuels for its energy supply. While Senate Bill 350 mandates 50% energy from renewable sources by 2030, we now get just over 10% of our power that way. Fortunately, I can do something directly as a homeowner. I signed a contract for PV panels to use the sun’s energy to recharge my car.
To install them, though, I needed a new roof.
“That roof will collapse your house in an earthquake,” my realtor told me when I first looked at the house. It had five layers of asphalt shingles oozing at the eaves like lasagne noodles. Replacing them with one new layer of asphalt would have been easy. But I wanted to hold out until I could afford metal … twice the cost but with so many benefits.
A metal roof is cooler than asphalt, will allow me to use rainwater in my garden without fear of contaminating my vegetables, will last 60-100 years as opposed to 15-20, and isn’t made of petroleum products. It was an easy decision.
“Asphalt shingle roofs are the most compatible with PVs,” said the American Solar Direct representative in my living room.
“But I want a cool roof,” I said, throwing out the term used in design for roofing that reduces the urban heat island effect.
“Asphalt is what our engineers recommend,” she answered. “They will have to approve metal first.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m getting solar panels to reduce my use of fossil fuels … and a metal roof will help keep my house and community cooler, reducing our use of energy in air conditioning, and I can safely harvest rainwater. It’s not just about the PVs, it’s about the whole interconnected system.”
“Oh! I thought you meant cool roof as in it looks cool,” she said. “Let’s call the engineer.”
We talked it through with the engineer, who approved the metal roof. And then I talked it through with two more people from the solar company, who called to question the metal roof. I got my roofer involved in the conversation with them, and he sent the details for a special clip they use to attach photovoltaic panels to standing seam metal roofs which actually makes it the easiest system to install them on.
So it’ll happen. My metal roof is scheduled to be installed in January, and the photovoltaics go in right after that.
In the meantime, I’m designing my rainwater harvesting system so I can catch and reuse rain to water my garden and maybe even bathe in. Metal roofs allow that.
The next hurdle? Most large rain tanks are made of plastic: another petroleum product.
My grandfather Henry was born the day after Independence Day. We drove from Columbus, Ohio, to North Carolina each summer to celebrate his birthday and the Fourth of July on the Outer Banks. One summer, Henry gave us money to buy beach towels. We ran down the road to the Trading Post in our bare feet, stopping only to pick out sand spurs stuck in our heels. We came back and stormed into the house to show off our colorful selections.
Henry took one glance at Jasper’s towel, marched into the kitchen, and came back with a pair of scissors. He grabbed the towel and cut it into shreds on the living room floor. Jasper had chosen a towel with the confederate flag on it, unaware of its history. Henry, a proud Virginian, made sure we understood the significance of the flag, and the oppression it symbolized.
The week of my 18th birthday my mom took me with her on a bus full of League of Women Voters and other friends to Forsyth County, Georgia. We marched with 20,000 people from all over the country to protest violence that had broken out the week before at a Martin Luther King, Jr. parade.
As we marched, a thin line of National Guardsmen and policemen separated us from thousands dressed in Ku Klux Klan uniforms or camouflage gear. They held confederate flags and shouted ugly words. I heard later David Duke was there. We sang songs of solidarity and peace and drowned out their hate. Coretta Scott King spoke, and Mayor Andrew Young, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. It was 1987.
I have never felt as afraid of other human beings, nor as connected to so many people as I did on that day. I have never felt so much hate and so much love in the same place. I have marched in other protests and happenings. But none so powerful as that one. I wonder if today’s demonstration feel the same? It has been almost 30 years.
My grandparents and parents participated in the democratic process. I counted votes with my grandparents when I was young. My mom ran for the Ohio House of Representatives when I was in high school. We celebrated election day by going to the polls with our parents to watch them vote. Our schools were closed.
I love my country. But I’m not a patriot. A patriot is “a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country.” It implies sacrifice. I am a matriot. I show my love of country by doing my best to love my neighbors and raise my children to be forgiving, loving, empathetic humans. I believe life is precious and want to work towards a peaceful planet of co-existing communities. I try to live lightly on the land, and believe we can all be happier and healthier if we build community and extract as few new resources as possible.
People are afraid. Some are afraid of an uncertain future. Some are afraid of change. I am afraid my children will have fewer chances for a secure and happy life than I did. While it is impossible to say what will happen in the future — near or long-term — one thing is certain. We each have power to make our world a little more like the world we want it to be.
Despite my grandparents and parents’ example, it took me a while to find my voice as an advocate and community builder. I struggled for a long time with believing I had anything of value to say despite having an education, a privileged upbringing, and people who believed in me. When I began advocating for a safer neighborhood for my children, I decided to go back to school, in large part because I thought people would believe me if I had letters behind my name.
But here’s the secret. Participating in our democracy is free (at least, my mentor reminded me, if you are white and straight and male and christian). Everyone, no matter how young or old, how educated, or how poor, can have a say in making our future. Yes, we can vote (if you can take off work and get to the polls and have an id). But we can do so much more. Every city and town has open meetings where the public are invited to comment. Every voice is welcome. If you want to voice an opinion, propose a change, weigh in on a plan, you can have a say.
Your voice matters. You alone experience your community from your shoes. No one else sees what you see. When we assume that someone else knows best or planned best we disempower ourselves. When we assume a park is neglected for a reason, or there are no shade trees for a reason, or a crosswalk can’t go there (because wouldn’t it already be there if it could?) we disempower ourselves. And so often we ask, why isn’t someone doing something about this?
That person can be you. You know how you feel and move through and interact in your community. You know what’s hard and what’s beautiful and what needs to fixed and who needs help. And if you don’t, you can start looking for them. You can start a movement to change a life or a park or a street or a neighborhood. You can speak and write and vote and assemble.
And you don’t need letters after your name. You just need you.
I’ve been getting this question a lot, since our circles have begun overlapping. Accompanied by bewilderment or curiosity, the asker often conveys a sense of betrayal, as if they were somehow misled.
So, I’ve decided it’s time to come out in the open:
I’m a twin. As in identical twin.
No, we don’t feel each other’s injuries or read each other’s minds or have our own language (though my brother swears we did), but we look enough alike to be confused for one another.
“I told you I had a sister,” I reply when people wonder why I didn’t divulge this secret.
“But not that you have a twin sister.”
To which I sometimes reply, “But what difference does that make?” And since the one asking doesn’t know what it’s like to be a twin and I don’t know what it’s like not to be, the conversation doesn’t go too much further.
But it does make a difference. I am lucky to have a sister who is phenomenally talented at making things and supporting people. And because we are twins, I have a sister who was the same age as me during the crazy times and fun times and hard times. This probably gives us a unique understanding of each other … maybe closer than most sisters, but I wouldn’t know.
What I do know is that being a twin steals a little of who I am. It makes me feel a little more invisible than I otherwise might. Because people see me in relation to someone else. No matter that we weren’t raised with rhyming names or matching clothes (thank you Mom!). We look enough alike that different haircuts or the fact that I’ve always been bigger than her doesn’t erase our similarities. So people ask:
“Which one is more social?”
“Which one got in trouble more?”
“Which one …?”
You get the picture. These questions seem to imply that we are each half of a balanced whole. One is good the other is bad. One is quiet the other is loud. But answering that we are both ambiverts or that we were both good students also doesn’t tell a complete story. Being identified as half of a pair of twins is like being identified as “So-and-so’s wife.”
Oddly, the person who most threatened my holistic identity was me. Growing up with a sculptor (twin) sister and a painter brother, I felt I was impinging on their territory if I painted or made three dimensional art. Even though I love art. It was as if I could only do those things that were deemed mine, instead of do what I loved even if someone else also did those things. It took me a long time to realize I got to decide what I wanted to do and be and make, and it didn’t matter whether my sister or brother were also doing it.
So, no, we never traded places in school. And though I love matching footsteps to those I walk beside, I make an effort to walk out of synch with her. I am hyper-aware when we say the same thing or wear the same color. And I worry my boyfriends will fall in love with her. She is edgier than me, after all. Still, I wouldn’t trade her for the world. I love my sister.
People often look at me with recognition in her neighborhood or in downtown LA. I know the look. They see me and think they know me and I have no memory of meeting them. I smile and give a little nod, and if they greet me I say, “Hi, you must think I’m Julia.” I don’t want to offend them.
She might not do the same. So if you’re walking down the sidewalk and see me, and I don’t smile at you or seem to recognize you, or I give you a cold stare, just remember it might not be me. It’s probably just my evil twin.
“He’s ready.” The hospice nurse had woken us a minute before. I sat in an overstuffed chair at one side of the bed, my mom on the other, the morning my grandfather died. He breathed in one last rattled breath and let go. As I looked across the bed to my mom, a movement behind her drew my gaze to the garden. Out the open window, a hummingbird hovered, facing me. It caught my eye for more than a moment then flickered away.
That hummingbird brought me peace and lightness around my grandfather’s death … a lasting connection to him that presents itself every time I see a hummingbird. My first recollections of hummingbirds were those whirring about his ranch house in the desert outside Tucson. They fed at the yuccas and ocotillos and perched on the thin branches of mesquites around the small dark pool where he swam everyday. They hovered over the water that buoyed him and flew back and forth as his powerful arms propelled him across the pool, unencumbered by the crutches that supported him on land. The hummingbird is the perfect symbol of my grandfather’s love and stamina and the desert he called home. And they are everywhere, or so it seems.
After my Ohio-North Carolina childhood (split by divorce) I moved through the Appalachians and the North Carolina foothills before heading west. I moved from small town America through suburbs and bedroom communities before ending up in L.A. My brother moved to Austin before New York, and my sister moved to Tucson and then Los Angeles before me. As an empty nester, our mom left Columbus for Tucson to be close to her dad. I had lived in Columbus, Chapel Hill, Kill Devil Hills, Buladean, Statesville, Cornelius, Diamond Bar, Walnut, and Eagle Rock and visited my family in their many places. In nearly every place I am, there is a moment when I think I could live here. This feels like home. Sometimes it is the person I am with, or a street I am walking on that brings on a lost memory or a loved feeling. But mostly it is an atmosphere.
Just now, sitting outside in my garden and hearing the familiar whir of hummingbird wings, I feel it. A helicopter is flying overhead, not low enough to clatter the windows, but accompanied by sirens in the distance. People are having a light-hearted conversation somewhere nearby, just far enough away that I can’t hear what they’re saying. The low roar of traffic reminds me of the freeway on the edge of the valley. But the feeling is here with me, outside. The sun is breaking through the orange tree and warming a spot on my arm. A cool-ish breeze, the smell of earth and dried leaves under varying trees, and the chirps and flutters and tweets of birds bring me home instantly.
We pulled them out. The unwanted weeds. Brought by wind and in free city mulch. From who knows were. They took up residence in the pavement cracks and the bare dirt, and the gravel. We deemed them undesirable. Despite their wild beauty. Despite their many (medicinal and edible and material) uses. Germinated by winter rains and early warmth, they threatened to overtake the flowers and succulents that we planted there before. We weeded for days. We tried to uproot them before they set seed, lest they reproduce. And smother the more delicate plants we intentioned.
The weeds were beautiful. Wildflowers. Was it their foreign ancestry that made them unwelcome? Their ability to adapt? Their unruly character? Or our lack of understanding them? Would becoming familiar with their uses let us appreciate them? Love them like we did as children holding them to our chins, making wishes on their floating seeds, chewing on their sour stems?
I ask out of desperation. Because my garden has become more weeds than selected species. And I am tired of weeding. But also because I cannot look at its weediness without thinking of my children: gangly and beautiful and wild. And not just my children but all of those somewhat prickly teenagers floating out into the world to find themselves and root themselves much like the weeds we pull and the weed they smoke. In fact, hemp (Cannabis sativa) was a major U.S. fiber crop from colonial days until after World War II, when cheap synthetic fiber killed demand for it.
We don’t welcome teens into our everyday urban lives. Our sidewalk seating is reserved for paying customers. Our plaza steps and walls are designed to reject skateboards. Our new parks with tot lots, welcome children aged 5-12. Our high schools are fenced and locked to try to keep them in. This only makes them want to escape. They have the skate parks in the corners of some of our parks. And their friends’ basements or the converted garage. Or fast food joints. Or in our neighborhood, the amphitheater behind Yosemite Park where drug deals go down. No wonder they become reclusive … they feel unwanted and anxious.
Teenagers are forgotten, or purposely excluded, in planning and design. A New York Times article called out how suburban design was failing teens nearly two decades ago, in the Columbine aftermath. A more recent academic article describes in detail the benefits for all when teenagers participate in the urban and community design process. Today’s teenagers are tomorrow’s environmental stewards and decision-makers. How we include them and plan for them will make a difference in how they approach the problems they inherit. How we treat them today will shape how they treat us tomorrow.
California’s Institute for Local Government wrote a white paper on the who, what, why, where, and how of engaging young people in the planning process. And because I can’t let go of the parallel between teens and weed(s), check out this NPR story on foraging for edible weeds in the urban landscape.
Let’s cherish these wild, wind-blown weeds and teens. Let’s listen to them and plan for them and with them. Let’s learn from them about determination and resilience. As the future gets tougher and hotter and wetter or dryer (depending on where you live), we’re going to need both.
I remember darkness. I found darkness in the Appalachians … and the Outer Banks … and Tucson … and camping in the Sierras. Two winters ago I drove my son to Mammoth so he could snowboard. I left Los Angeles after work and Levi fell asleep halfway up there. Past Bishop the sky darkened until it exploded with stars. So many stars that the mountains appeared like a cardboard cutout in front of a curtain of lights. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen them. One or two … maybe a dozen … might shine through the dimness of Los Angeles’ eternal light on any given night. But I lost the sparkling magic of a truly dark night when I moved to LA. I miss seeing stars.
So when I saw the note for Earth Hour announcing lights out from 8:30-9:30, my optimism got the better of me. Maybe we’ll see stars! I thought. I went downtown where the LA Department of Water and Power was hosting a lights off gathering, and where the Broad Museum and Disney Concert Hall were going dark. My sister and I stood at the top of Grand Park where we could see Disney Concert Hall down the street and the LADWP building above Dorothy Chandler Plaza. We waited anxiously for 8:30.
Is it 8:30?
I think so …
Did anything happen?
No? Wait. Yes? Look! The Broad Museum is dark.
Right. But what about everything else?
A few facades were slightly darker than they had been a minute ago. But the office buildings, and LA DWP, and City Hall were still illuminated with office lights gleaming from within. Streetlights still shone, so bright it was hard to make out which building facades were no longer lit. Needless to say, not one additional star surfaced. We walked past Disney Hall and saw its lights were off, but its shiny sides glowed from adjacent lights. Beautiful. But disappointing after expecting stars. Driving back to Northeast LA was more promising. The hills were considerably darker than usual. People were participating. Still … no stars.
I’ve had countless moments where too-bright lights disrupted sleep, and vision, sense of safety, and those stars. The nice thing is, we can do something about this. Tucson and Flagstaff, Arizona, protecting the scientific sky studies of their observatories, have protected its dark skies with progressive policies allowing only low light levels from shielded lamps.
Thierry Cohen‘s Darkened Cities photographs imagine a world where starlight illuminates our urban environments. Wouldn’t it be worth it? What dreams and wishes and wonders and machines have been made seeing stars? Wouldn’t it be worth changing the brightness of our lamps, shielding our streetlights to only shine down, and changing the way we light our buildings and landscapes … to free the darkness and see the stars?
The fourth Drought and Beauty series lecture was last Friday, organized by the landscape architecture departments of Cal Poly Pomona, USC, and UCLA. Eleven of us gave quick, pecha kucha format presentations, followed by a brief response from two local writers. I chose to tell the story of one reason I work in landscape architecture: my education on the lawn.
According to Michael Pollan’s 1989 article “Why Mow?”, it was Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1868 Riverside community that introduced lawn to American suburbs in the form parks, greenways, and continuous front lawns. But it was Levittown after World War II that became the first suburb to sell houses with lawns already in place. The Levitts dogmatic support of the lawn was helped by recent inventions of the rotary lawn mower, pesticides and fertilizers made from the remnants of war explosives, and weed-free grass seeds.
Cristina Mileni’s 2005 dissertation mapped and modeled the biogeochemical cycles of turf grass. She mapped 32 million acres of lawn in the contiguous US. That’s our largest irrigated crop, three times larger than the area used for growing corn. No matter the climate, soil moisture, or natural habitat, the same turf grasses cover drastically different regions of the country – with the result that most require irrigation or chemicals or both to stay green.
My personal battle with the lawn began in 1998 when I landed in a typical suburban home just north of Charlotte, NC. The backyard was mostly a wood and practically took care of itself, other than an annual thinning of saplings sprouting beneath the trees. The front was mostly lawn. I didn’t mind at first but it quickly became a burden to mow with three small children under toe. One day, I watched a flock of starlings peck about on my lawn, reminding me of my childhood yard in Ohio. My neighbor across the street – with the crew-cut lawn to match his crew-cut hair, yelled “you got grubs … better kill them … or they’ll kill your lawn!” So I did some research.
Diazinon was recommended to kill grubs, beetles, spiders, fleas, a dozen other critters … and was available everywhere. I dug a little deeper (because I like birds and I love my children) and I found the EPA banned diazinon that year as a poison but allowed it to stay on store shelves for another four years. This enraged me. If the EPA wasn’t going to look out for my children, who would? I began reading every bottle, box, and packet before I brought it into my house.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped ban DDT in 1972 … but we’ve increased chemical use in our landscapes. … And it’s not working. The more chemicals we use, the more damage pests do to our crops, and the more resistance they develop to those chemicals. As I read I came across Cradle to Cradle design where the Waste of one endeavor becomes Food for another, as in nature where a tree creates blossoms and fruit to procreate and feed animals and then fall beneath the tree to build soil and create nutrients for that tree and other things that depend on the soil. What we have instead are toxins being used AS food to GROW food laced with chemicals and leaching into our groundwater and streams. Instead of Cradle to Cradle Design we’ve set up an entire Grave to Grave system.
To state the obvious, I was obsessed with grass … and the high cost of its perfection … and with eradicating it from my children’s lives. Inspired by my mania, my sister made the sculpture, above, called Blade. The vinyl represented the lawn’s artificiality. The huge scale gave us a new perspective on grass. I was so mad about grass and the toxic mess we were swimming in (and other issues around urban ecology) that I moved to Los Angeles so I could study landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Here we had an even bigger lawn, weirdly, that our landlord mowed occasionally, until he went to jail.
After the winter rain, with no mowing, the lawn became an overgrown weed patch… much to the delight of my children. They made mazes through it and hid behind mounds of sour grass and mallow. Little did I know, these are all edible and nutritious. These weeds have value. Dandelion greens sell for as much as $9 a pound. Our weedy gardens and lawns are a huge source of potential free food.
There are precedents for less work yielding more crops. Masanobu Fukuokadeveloped a natural farming method with no plowing, no agricultural chemicals or prepared fertilizers, and no flooded rice fields. His methods produced more food than Japan’s most productive farms. When I was still at home with my kids I read a book called The Lazy Gardener … it was my first introduction, at the very small scale, to Designing with Nature. To work with nature instead of against it, whether improving soil health, guiding water flow or planting for pollinators.
When I bought my own house in Los Angeles, I used those principles and low impact design to keep rainwater on site, use no chemicals, and have native and drought-tolerant plants under my orange, pecan, and Oak trees. I let nature do its work so I can work less. After 6 years, my garden requires no chemicals, and only occasional water during the drought. The orange tree gets my laundry water. The maintenance is infrequent (mostly in spring), and involves weeding and mulching, and transplanting the expanding succulents. These smallest choices can have big impacts. Consider this. According to the National Wildlife Federation:
18% of municipal solid waste is composed of yard waste.
The average suburban lawn received 10 times more chemical pesticide per acre than farmland.
A gas lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as a car. A weedeater 21 times more, and a leaf blower 34 times more.
Learning what went into to keeping lawns alive, even in the rainy southeast, changed how I felt about them. Lawn went from beautiful to ugly to me. I see a perfect lawn and cringe at the pollution and noise it requires to survive. Landscape architects, designers, and gardeners allocate resources in ways that can appeal to and shape the public’s sense of beauty. The more we do to communicate the importance of natural systems in our everyday landscapes, the more we can reframe beauty in the eyes of beholders. For what could be more beautiful than landscapes that offer clean air, clean water, healthy soil, healthy food, and a rich variety of plants and trees?