Tuesday, June 10, 2008

And Now We Return

To Our Regularly Scheduled


First, here's a bright new colorway of hand-dyed, handspun wool for you to look at. It's called, "Mauna Loa." This is a sample in Romney wool. I had a small amount of Romney loafing around doing nothing useful whatsoever, so it was perfect for dye experiments. Romney is not my favorite wool for next-to-skin wear, but it's fun in outerwear and many other applications, and it is fantastic for felting.

If I could get colors this vivid in cotton, I'd do some cotton in this colorway for the summer. Part of a good, vibrant color is lustrous yarn and unless you use perle cotton you won't get the same intensity of color in the fiery reds division -- at least I won't. Your mileage may vary. Maybe some of you have made a deal with the Cotton Dyeing Fairy.

So instead of sock yarn, I am considering offering this colorway at the arts market this fall in merino worsted and/or merino sock yarn, and thus I seek reader opinions: oui ou non?

I have been exceedingly remiss in blogging for the past several weeks and I owe my readers an apology, as well as my thanks for your enduring patience. I've been stranded in the doldrums ever since the beginning of spring, and it has been difficult to rally myself to be cheerful. There is no one, single, overriding reason for this ennui. Rather, it's the sort of fatigue and inertia that takes over when life sends you to the sort of emotional place where you are nibbled to death by ducks. Too many funerals, my real-job business is slow, relatives are ill, I have some decisions to make about earning my real-life trade, we had to do household repairs ... and just in case things weren't quite interesting enough, my body has decided that it's time for menopausal mayhem ... so this whole spring has been trying.

I'm not whining, my life isn't bad and I have nothing real to complain about -- I'm not living in Zaire or Myanmar and I don't have a serious illness, so I really have no business complaining about my own life. I've simply been beset by the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." Not much good for the old writing muse, who's been holed up in her apartment, sleeping all day with the drapes pulled tight and the phone unplugged ... and definitely not showing up for work.

The last time I tried to sit down and write was the weekend after Earth Day. We didn't attend the downtown festivities. It's too crowded for me and it involves too much walking for Dave. I'm afraid that, in Baton Rouge at least, no matter how many educational booths are set up by well-meaning groups ranging from Baton Rouge Green to the animal shelter to the citywide recycling service, the de facto meaning of "Earth Day" really translates to "Drive your SUV downtown, find a parking spot, buy a T-shirt, and stand in the sun listening to a live music while drinking beer, eating jambalaya from Sytrofoam plates and throwing your trash on the ground."

I have nothing but respect for the green-minded people who plan, organize, set up and recycle trash for this huge event, but I have yet to see it quite get through to the genral public, who, for the most part, view it is just another fesitval, and another excuse to get drunk and eat hot dogs.

Nothing wrong with the beer and hot dogs part -- I'd just like to see the "Earth Day" part be embraced as enthusastically as Bud Light. A considerable number of people took advantage of the opportunity to stroll over to the river levee and admire the awesome height of the river. Mother Nature is entertaining us this spring by threatening to spill the Mississippi River over the levees. While the river didn't quite reach the top of the levee in Baton Rouge, the wakes of ships and "barge trains*" did slosh over the peak of the New Orleans river levees at some locations.

Dave and I went to the levee near LSU a few days later to take in the view of the "river side" of the levee: treetops poking out of the water, light poles reaching up from submerged small-boating docks, and ducks paddling around in the eddies. Other people were on the levee, too -- some taking pictures of the perilously high water, others enjoying a jog or a ride on the bicycle path that runs along the river from LSU to downtown Baton Rouge. We watched as a glorious neon sunset spread across the west bank of the river, a mile away, bathing the river and the boats upon it in shades of red and purple. I was thinking, "I sure wish I'd brought the camera...."

And that is precisely the moment when one guy, after staring wordlessly at the river for a long, long time, tossed an empty beer can into it.

Le sigh ...

That's when we went home.

So, I present a brief and modest (not to mention belated) Post-Earth-Day manifesto. This is certainly not all-encompassing and it certainly does not represent everything we here at the Asylum do to lessen our impact on the planet, but it touches on some things that I think are important ... including some of the places the places where I fall short.

If we don't make green choices a part of our everyday life -- each and every day-- we're not going to make a big difference. We can't all be perfect, but if we try to remember to make as many green choices as we can mange each day, we can make a big difference, one paper towel at a time. Some things we do at our house:
  • Change light bulbs to fluorescents (except for a couple of odd bulbs we haven't found fluorescent equivalents for, like the oven light)
  • No drying of clean hands on paper towels. We use bar rags and shop towels for hand-drying and ordinary cleaning tasks, and we launder them. We use paper towels only for greasy messes (it's unsafe to launder grease spills) or for exceptionally groady messes, like cat yark. This has reduced our paper towel use quite significantly. Restaurant supply stores and Sam's sell bartender's rags and shop towels very reasonably, and we store the clean ones in a bin of their own. Likewise, old bath towels and hand towels can be used for this purpose. When an especially shredded rag is on its last use, it can be used for a greasy mess and discarded.
  • Lights off in rooms not in use -- this was drilled into me as a kid but it's great practice.
  • Bed heater. This winter, we bought ourselves a heated mattress pad. On the lowest setting, it keeps the bed and the sleeper toasty and negates the use of the furnace on all but the very coldest nights (for us, the pipes have to be in danger of freezing to turn on the heat). This also means we get a bedful of cats, but everyone stays warm for pennies a night. As a result, we only turned on our furnace a very few nights this winter. This may not work as well for people in the ice belt, but perhaps it will allow you to considerably turn down your thermostat at night.

  • We don't use the furnace much in the winter months. Being Southerners, we've always relished the opportunity to enjoy our sweaters while we can. Late in the evening on chilly nights, we use the fireplace to burn cordwood and the deadfall from the trees in our backyard. Keeps the yard clean and wards off chill in the house. I also save the cardboard tubes from the paper towels we do use, and from toilet paper. They make great firestarters. As a result we only used the furnace on the wettest, coldest days this winter, and then we kept it in the 60s. Not using the furnace isn't an option for folks in much colder climates, but wearing sweaters and burning your deadfall in the fireplace can take the edge of the chill in transitional weather.
  • Recycle whatever we can. Our community has curbside recycling and Dave and I take more than a small amount of pride in being among the initial people to push for it, work in the pilot program, and get the whole thing started back in 1990.
  • We don't exactly have a lawn. We just have grass. It gets cut. We don't use fertilizer (aside from what's provided by the compost heap), pesticides, or chemicals. It's just grass. Neat and clean. It's not a status symbol.

  • I don't have a hybrid, but I do drive a highly fuel-efficient diesel VW Golf that I adore. Depending on how I drive -- highway miles or in town, air conditioning on or off -- I can get up to 50mpg.

  • We buy fewer, better-quality things. One L.L. Bean shirt will last many years as opposed to four or five look-alike, lower-quality shirts.

  • We buy used whenever possible. I would probably slightly embarrass my mother if she knew how many clothes I really buy from the thrift store. But used goods demand few or no new resources (an old bookcase might need a fresh coat of paint, but used jeans require no new resources) and a worthy cause benefits from the profits.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers some of the things we try to be conscientious about, along with little things like bringing our own bags to the store. Bringing your own bags is one fo those "little things add up" habits. There are about 300 million people in the USA alone and I figure most people buy at least a few items each week. And Americans are the ones who most urgently need to reduce our waste. So if every American can do without a plastic bag just a few times a week, that represents a descrease in demand for disposable bags at the rate of a billion bags a week. It won't solve the problem, but it's a step in the right direction. Most of the above are not "born-again green" habits we injected into our lives last week. These are things that, in one form or another, we have been doing for many years.

To avoid the risk of seeming Greener-Than-Thou, I shall now list the major green challenges at the Knitting Asylum:

  • Air conditioning. Unlike some people I know (and I'm lookin' at you, Lisa!), we unfortunately don't live within walking distance of the beach in Hawaii. We live inland, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, far enough from the coast that we don't even get a measurable breeze in the summer (even New Orleans has that), and we live in a house built in 1947 that, unlike pre-war houses, was not designed with tall ceilings and transom windows to help circulate heat out of the house. Our house gets hot in a hurry. However, we do have ceiling fans and, wonderfully, the original vintage whole-house fan still works. We use the whole-house fan as often as possible, opening the windows and letting the fresh air in as long as we can stand it. This helps us defer use of the air conditioner far into May, and to reduce use of the A/C in early June. However, the gauntlet hits the ground when it hits 90 at ten in the morning, with matching humidity, and it stops cooling off at night. Each summer seems to get hotter sooner, stay hotter longer, and stay hotter at night. I don't care what the right-wing politicos say -- it simply was not this hot when I was a kid, and my mother remembers it that way too. We did not have air conditioning when I was a child (window units came later), and we were reasonably comfortable with the whole-house fan (in a house built at the turn of the last century, with high ceilings), and it cooled off outdoors at night -- at least it was noticeably less hot, if not refreshingly cool. Nowadays, in July and August, I can step outside at three in the morning and it is still 90 degrees. Without A/C, sleeping on any upholstered surface during a 90-degree night with 80 percent humidity is utter misery -- ceiling fan or no ceiling fan -- and we simply have no place to put hammocks in our house if we wanted to indulge in the comfort of no upholstery. Yup, doing without the A/C is our biggest challenge.
  • Buying books. I know -- trees. For a long time I was on a library-only jag but I also believe that authors need to eat, too, and that there are many books I'd like to keep. So I compromise by borrowing light reading from the library whenever possible. I have mixed feelings about the new "Kindle" gadget. Pros: very Star Trek, saves trees, saves space, read in bed on insomniac nights without waking the male marital unit ... and authors still get to buy groceries and cat food. Con: it's not a book! Also, it requires electricity, and there's the je ne sais quois of the aesthetic experience of holding a book, turning the pages, resting your eyes on your lovely overflowing bookshelves, etc. Compromise: Perhaps buy a "Kindle" for light reading, novels, etc., but still purchase classics and reference books in the traditonal form?
  • The newspaper. Same thing. I can read it online, but it's not the same. So we recycle it.

  • Repairing instead of replacing. We do this whenever we can, until it's a lost cause. But some things, unfortunately, aren't even designed to be repaired. This truly vexes me because I far prefer to repair an old thing rather than buy a new one. It's easy to fall for the argument, "Why not buy a new dishwasher for $300 if it costs $200 to repair the old one?" The answer, of course, is that when I repair the old one, only the motor is discarded -- not the whole shebang. In our parent's times, both major and minor applainces were designed to be repaired. I can remember a shop in our neighborhood where a man supported his family nicely, repairing everything from toasters and hair dryers to lawn mowers and washing machines. I think if the public insisted on repairable merchandise as a condition of the sale, manufacturers would have some impetus to produce easily repairable durable goods.

Things we plan to do this year:

  • Make our house at least partly solar. At very least, a solar hot water heater. Me, I think that building codes should make whole-house fans and solar water heaters mandatory in all new construction. I definitely think builders should offer whole-house solar as an alternative to the standard option, but a solar water heater should be mandatory at very minimum. The solar heater would help take the sticker shock off whole-house solar, and the fan would also allow people to have a choice between air conditioning and the house fan on mild days. Stunningly, only one entrepreneur in our city of half a million people sells or installs solar water heaters. Alternately, we may switch to an on-demand (tankless) water heater. A less ideal choice, but significantly more energy efficient.

  • Line-dry at least some clothing. We live too close to a major highway (one hundred feet, to be exact) to line-dry outdoors without having stinky clothes, but I've installed a drying pole from the ceiling of our screened porch (which has a ceiling fan and faces away from the highway). The drying pole is meant for air-drying hand-dyed yarn but I can line-dry at least some clothing on that

A few fiber-related things we all can do:

  • Search thrift stores for yarn, needles and notions. Re-using is the best form of recycling, and it's amazing how often good-quality stuff turns up at the thrift store.

  • Choose wool, alpaca, angora, cotton, bamboo, soy and other natural fibers. These are renewable, reusable, and recyclable resources. The soy fiber coming into this spinner's hands as of late is the silky by-product of tofu manufacturing, a by-product that would otherwise go to waste. What's not to love? I have even convinced a few vegans that (at least in most small-farm environments) sheep are not enslaved or abused. I buy fleece from small farmers who carefully tend their individual animals daily, and who play with their sheep and give them names. Most of the sheep raised by the small producers I know get better care and grooming, and more daily individual attention, than the average dog or cat in a suburban house full of parents and kids frantically running to and from jobs, school, soccer games, play dates, football practice, Girl Scouts and band camp. Sheep, goats, chinchillas and other living creatures from whom fiber can be harvested can be raised quite humanely -- even spoiled rotten -- and removal of their fiber does no more than relieve them of a heavy coat during the hot summer months. Unlike fur and leather products, the sheep lives to grow another coat. Everybody wins. I choose these fibers, not because I am a luxury fiber snob, but because they are a better choice for Earth and the environment, because they are a renewable resource, and also because border collies need jobs. Buying synthetic yarns from garage sales and thrift stores, and re-using synthetic fibers are other good ideas.
  • Support small farmers, local artisans, and independent producers everywhere you can find them, both locally and on the Net. Shipping the item to your house doesn't take up significant resources -- the FedEx and UPS trucks burn fuel in your neighborhood every day anyway, whether you order products or not.

Those are just a few things on the potentially endless list of thinsg we can all do to take a bit of pressure off this little rock in space that we must share.

So, my dear readers -- what are some of your ideas? What are you doing in your own households to live greener and conserve fuel? What environmentally friendly and/or fuel-conscious steps are you taking with regard to your knitting and spinning habits? I think we can all learn a lot from each other by sharing ideas.

Inmates in the Asylum since July 27, 2006: