Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Industrial Hemp: A tribute to Earth Day

Energy. Fuel. Food...all are becoming more expensive. 

One crop has great potential as a solution to some of our climbing costs and declining natural environments, but only if it’s made legal again.

During my Master Gardner classes last fall, we inevitably talked about crops -- which species are best for which soils, how to rotate crops to prevent nutrient depletion, which species produce the most output for the least energy input, etc.

During these discussions, the overall benefit of one plant in particular stood out to me: cannabis.

Industrial hemp, or cannabis sativa, has more than 25,000 uses, from textiles to birdseed to health and beauty products. However, in the United States, hemp is illegal to grow, even though our founding fathers grew it and drafted our Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.

The reasons hemp is illegal are somewhat disputed. One reason may be because it happens to look like a cousin, which, according to some, endangers human health - cannabis indica, otherwise known as marijuana. Because hemp and marijuana look the same, you can imagine the difficulty faced by federal drug enforcement officers if Americans were allowed to grow hemp but not marijuana.

But what if, say, someone bred a strain of hemp to be purple or orange so it would stand out against its naughty cousin? If the difference was clear, could we not grow it then?

Same Genus, Different Beast
There are hundreds of cultivars, or varieties, of the cannabis plant. Though they share common genetics, industrial hemp and marijuana are not the same things. 

For starters, to satisfy the United Nations Narcotics Convention, hemp has been bred to contain almost no delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Most hemp has about 0.3%. You could smoke a hemp cigarette every hour of every day and not feel anything. You’d just be tarring your lungs. Marijuana, on the other hand, contains between 6 - 20% THC. Smoke just one marijuana cigarette and, well, apparently it’s a different experience altogether.

Hemp was first lumped together with marijuana when the Marijuana Transfer Tax Act was passed in 1937. Some scholars believe that Andrew Mellon, the United States Secretary of Treasury at the time and investor in DuPont’s new synthetic fiber, nylon, was a major force behind hemp being added to the 1937 Act. The success of nylon, and Mr. Mellon’s investments, relied heavily upon the status of hemp, which was the major source of fiber before Act was passed.

William Randolf Hearst, America’s leading newspaper publisher during the time hemp was prohibited, had many timber holdings and could have benefited from the switch from hemp to trees for making paper. Coincidentally, according to some scholars, Hearst’s newspapers were the ones that published the country’s most sensational stories linking marijuana to acts of violence during the campaign in the 1930’s to spread awareness of the dangers of the “Marijuana Menace”.

Whether or not marijuana actually endangers human health or negatively effects human behavior anymore than, say, alcohol is a debate for another time and place, and one I’m not sure I’m willing to join.

But hemp and its potential for reducing deforestation, carbon emissions, and overall energy consumption, not to mention improving the health of humans and animals when consumed, is something I can devote some time to. 

Hemp poses no known danger to human health, and in fact it can do a lot to improve the health of, not just humans, but the planet as a whole.

Industrial Substitute
Hemp is the world’s strongest natural fiber. It produces four times as much material for paper per acre than a forest. And while trees take decades to grow, hemp crops required only about 120 days. 

According to the World Resources Institute, 47% of the world’s forests have been lost. Only 21% are currently intact, however, everyday more are lost. Loss of biodiversity, particularly in tropical forests, is of grave concern. Once a species is gone, it’s never coming back. With almost half of the world’s forests now gone, what does that say about the loss of our planet’s plant and animal species? 

Indigenous peoples living in some forests are being forced to leave their homes and completely change their lifestyles. 

Hemp, which can be used as fuel for transportation and manufacturing, has a ton of industrial, commercial, and residential applications. It can be instrumental in providing for our energy and commodity needs while preventing further deforestation.

In 1938, Popular Mechanics wrote that “over 25,000 products can be manufactured from hemp, from cellophane to dynamite.” That was 1938! Since then, technology has flourished. God only knows how many uses the plant could have in the future.

According to the North American Industrial Hemp Council’s (NAIHC) website, “hemp can displace cotton, which is usually grown with massive amounts of chemicals harmful to people and the environment. 50% of all the world’s pesticides are sprayed on cotton.” Because hemp plants grow so tightly together, there’s little need for herbicides to control weeds.

And consider the following facts:
  • Rudolf Diesel designed the diesel engine to run on hemp oil;
  • Hemp can be used to make moulded plastics, livestock feed and bedding, building and construction materials, clothing and other textiles, essential oils, medicines, paper products such as toilet paper and magazines, and tasty yet nutritional food products;
  • Hemp seeds contain all the essential amino acids and essential fatty acids necessary to maintain healthy human life. You can buy hemp seed oil in almost any health food store in America;
  • Most birdseed in the United States has hemp seed in it, since it is high in protein.
You can sell hemp products in America, you just can’t grow it. Or can you?

According to the NAIHC’s website, though “it is theoretically possible to get permission from the government to grow hemp, DEA would require that the field be secured by fence, razor wire, dogs, guards, and lights, making it cost-prohibitive.” It’s much cheaper and less stressful to just buy hemp from Canada, which legalized industrial hemp in 1998 after 50 years of prohibition. 

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp Report of 2010, Canada regulates industrial hemp through the legislative body Health Canada. (What’s hemp got to do with health again? Oh yea, it’s healthy.)

The report describes the regulatory process in Canada as follows:

Anyone who wants to grow, import, export, sell, transport, or possess industrial hemp must apply to receive a valid license, permit or authorization from Health Canada. The application requires each person to submit their name, address, phone number, date of birth, the address of each place where industrial hemp is to be stored, sold or provided, the approved cultivar to be sown (from Health Canada’s official list of Approved Hemp Cultivars), the number of hectares to be cultivated for seed, grain, or fiber, the number of acres cultivated for industrial hemp in the previous two years, the Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates of cultivated sites and an accompanying map showing the site locations in terms of their legal descriptions, a statement that the applicant is the owner of the land to be used for cultivation or a statement, signed by the owner of the land, indicating that he or she consented to that use, and the address of any property where the applicant will retain records, books, electronic data or other documents required by the IHR.

So Why Not Here, Eh?
So why can’t we grow hemp in, say, Minnesota, or any other state for that matter? One of the reasons hemp prohibitionists use when advocating against the legalization of hemp is that fields of it can be used to hide marijuana plants. 
But according to the NAIHC, “if hemp does pollinate any nearby marijuana, genetically, the result will always be lower-THC marijuana, not higher-THC hemp. If hemp is grown outdoors, marijuana will not be grown close by to avoid producing lower-grade marijuana.”

Several states, including Minnesota, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Maryland, Arkansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and (of course) California have all put legislation in place to allow the experimental growth of industrial hemp to determine the potential economic (and environmental, in some cases) benefits the crop can bring.

Colorado passed legislation most recently, Bill HJR10-1027 in 2010, recognizing “industrial hemp as a valuable agricultural commodity, and, in connection therewith, urging Congress to clarify the federal definition of industrial hemp, facilitate domestic production of industrial hemp, and remove barriers to state regulation of the production of industrial hemp.”

With rising costs in energy, food, and things in general, the United States would benefit from changing hemp’s status back to what it was in the days when Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin found it of immense value.

Alternative Energy
Natural gas drilling is touted as a bridge to energy independence. Natural gas is said to be much cleaner than coal. But is it as clean as alternatives?

Hemp is renewable and sustainable. Natural gas is not.

Because we depended upon hemp in the past, we already know that we can grow the hardy plant successfully and manufacture it at great economic and environmental benefit.

It costs a lot of money to convert a coal burning power plant to natural gas. Penn State University is spending millions to convert one of its Main Campus plants to natural gas. But when the gas is no longer viable, how many more millions of dollars will be spent converting to the next fuel source, to one that is sustainable and renewable?

“Wait, what’s that you say, little birdie? Why not just convert straight to the fuel source that’s already renewable and sustainable?”

Well, I’m not really sure. Here’s where you come in. Let us all ask someone who may be able to answer -- someone who can advocate for real change in our state’s policies...maybe even work toward applying the benefits of agricultural hemp to the great state of Pennsylvania...

Representative Martin Causer
78 Main Street, 1st Floor
Bradford, PA 16701
(814) 362-4400     

PA Senator Joseph B. Scarnati
Senate Box 203025
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3025
(717) 787-7084

...and here are some folks who could push for federal legalization of hemp, in order to gain energy and manufacturing independence in America, reduce our carbon emissions, and sustain a renewable economy:

Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr.
22 South Third Street, Suite 6A
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17101
(717) 231-7540

Senator Patrick J. Toomey
504 Hamilton Street, Suite 3814
Allentown, Pennsylvania 18101
(610) 434-1444

Representative Glenn Thompson
3555 Benner Pike, Suite 101
Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 16823
(814) 353-0215

(You can look up your PA legislators at: http://www.legis.state.pa.us. You can look up the U.S. Congress people for your state here: http://www.congress.org. )

Happy Earth Day, everyone. Remember to give alms to your planetary mother. Ah, men.

Friday, March 4, 2011

We thank you for this food. Amen.

Where do you get your food? Who do you depend upon to get it? What additives or chemicals does your food contain? 

If the lights went out tomorrow, how long without electricity could you, your neighbors, or the supermarket be able to keep your kitchen stocked? 

If there’s a bad crop season this year in the Midwest and down into Mexico, how would this affect your ability to access food?

By 2050, the world population is projected to reach nine billion people. With this growth, more and more resources are needed to feed the world. Last week, The Washington Post reported that increasing food prices are already leaving millions more people across the globe unable to feed themselves.  

Yet another scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has reported that unless we change the way we produce food, the way we eat, and the rates at which we reproduce ourselves, our earth will not be able to sustain life as we know it.

At the recent Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Farming for the Future conference, Wes Jackson, founder and director of The Land Institute,  pointed out the obsession with “growth” of the economy. For Jackson, President Obama and too many others want to see expansion at a time when they should be modeling their agendas and policies with a mind for sustainability. 

For Jackson and many others, we need to stop and even reverse expansion, therefore consuming less instead of more and in a better position to sustain populations with local and regional food systems. 

The status of the modern food system is that, for most people, food comes from far away places. 

Because produce is transported from far away places, consuming huge amounts of fossil fuels to do so, it must be fumigated with pesticides to prevent pest infestation during transport and storage. Apparently, these pesticides are impossible to wash off completely. 

(Mmm, mmm, good.)

Most of the supermarket produce eaten by the general public lacks essential vitamins and minerals, in no small part due to our soils being depleted by unsustainable agricultural practices. 

Our botanical diversity has shrunk by milestones in the past 100 years because large agribusinesses plant huge plots of just one crop, stressing the soil. Crop varieties that can aesthetically withstand the “travel” from farm to table are chosen rather than more nutritious varieties.

Most meat and dairy, unless otherwise noted on the package, comes from livestock that is likely to have been force fed because the feed is not something the animal would normally eat. Cows are meant to eat grass, not the corn feed most of them are forced to eat. 

And because “factory” farms keep livestock stacked together in pens, antibiotics are a necessity to keep animals from falling sick due to exposure, lack of exercise, and unnatural diet. The increase and buildup of antibiotics in animals we eat, in our bodies when we eat them, and in the environment create resistant germs and the need for greater amounts of stronger and stronger antibiotics. 

The same type of cycle can be seen when using crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand application of Roundup, an herbicide created by Monsanto, a giant agro-chemical company in the U.S.

Roundup Ready seeds, genetically modified (GM) and sold by Monsanto, are able to withstand widespread application of Roundup. The main active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, a molecule that Monsanto created and patented in 1970.

Roundup has been shown in lab tests to disrupt or destroy endocrine and reproductive function and formation in human and animal embryonic cells.  

Nutritionists, doctors, and healers of all kinds say we are what we eat. If so, and if we eat GM foods that are sprayed with Roundup, then we too are part glyphosate. 

How do you know if you’re eating GM foods? Well, unless you spend hours picking up phones and calling food producers and distributors, you don’t. Because in America, GM foods are not required to be labeled.

In countries where GM labels are required, consumers shy away from GM foods. GM companies in America feel that labeling will decrease profits, so they lobby against it. 

All of this makes answering the question about where you get your food and who you depend upon to get it a bit harder to answer. 

Here’s another question:

Which companies control the seeds that grow into grains which feed the livestock you eat and are used for much of the grain you consume? 

The top two are both U.S. chemical companies: Monsanto and Dupont. Chemical companies? Oh yes...one of them responsible for giving us Agent Orange. 

These chemical companies and other have bought up many smaller seed companies all over the world. They are companies using genetic modification (GM) to create new organisms, like salmon that can’t reproduce (lest the GM salmon have opportunity to breed with native, natural, god-created salmon populations with unforeseen consequences.)

There are also companies using this “terminator technology” to create seeds that grow into plants that don’t reproduce themselves. This has become necessary in case these patented seeds make their way onto a non-patent-paying farmer’s land.

No matter how GM seeds end up on a farm, the farmer is responsible for honoring the patent. Contamination from patented GM organisms has led to major lawsuits against farmers who have ended up with GM seeds on their land through no choice of their own. 

And no wall is tall enough to keep birds from flying over your fields. Up against huge corporate lawyers, some farmers have gone bankrupt trying to litigate when they refuse to destroy their crops and seed stores when contaminated with patented GM seed. 

Companies like Monsanto claim that their genetically superior seeds will save the world from hunger. Meanwhile, some studies show that yields from GM seeds are actually lower than yields from traditional varieties. 

In Africa, entire fields planted with GM seeds have produced nothing. In other areas, drought-resistant GM seeds have not actually produced drought-resistant plants. 

There have been “success” stories as well. But “success” is subjective and only temporary when not arrived at sustainably. 

Meanwhile, organic farmers using heirloom seeds have found plant varieties that have proven hardy in their native climate for generations, negating the use of chemicals.

Nature has provided ample material with which to feed ourselves. So why mess with a good thing? Because when you do, you could potentially increase yield, and therefore profit margin. However, this is not guaranteed.

I saw a bumper sticker once that read “Sustainable Farmers Do It Longer.” Or maybe it was “Sustainable Farmers Do It Better.” Either way, both are true.

A sustainable models works on a smaller scale, using native and perennial varieties that work within particular climates.

Altering or working against natural processes has unforeseen consequences. And once those consequences are released into the natural environment, there’s little or no way to contain them. 

Not to mention that anything else, especially a petri-dish genetic experiment released into the wild, seems plain arrogant, like someone trying to play god. 

As if to say, “Whatever, god/nature...you may have sustained life on this planet for millennia, but we totally can do it better than you.”

Where our food comes from, how it is processed, and what’s in it are all intricately tied to the world’s  biggest problems, from poverty and pollution to foreign energy dependence. 

By adopting a localized diet, we all can be healthier and do a lot more to ensure that we leave our young people with an economy, environment, and food system that doesn’t leave them dependent upon foreign sources while lacking essential nutrients. 

Eating is, for many, an afterthought when faced with the rest of the daily duties that consume our time and energy. 

Take a few moments each time you pick up a food product to notice 1) where it came from, and 2) what’s in it. If you don’t know what those big words mean in the list of ingredients, take a minute to call the company and ask. Better yet, find out for yourself by using the internet or a reference at your public library. 

Learning what just one food additive really is every week will make you much more aware of what you are really eating. 

 If what we eat is genetically modified, chemically dependent, unsustainable, and insufficiently nutritious food, then we are genetically modified, chemically dependent, unsustainable, insufficiently nutritious people, too.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Words that make you eat them

“I have a rebuttal for your editorial,” said third grade teacher Teena Erway, extending her arm to rest over my shoulders at Coudersport Elementary School’s First Annual Scribs Spelling Bee.

The editorial to which she referred spun off an article I wrote about Northern Potter School District’s mobile learning device program with Verizon. Thanks to a generous donation specifically for the program, every Northern Potter student will have a handheld cellular device this year if service is strong enough to support the mobile network.

Mobile learning devices can be a phenomenal way for learning to become more present and, at the same time, more ubiquitous. Administrators who spotlighted the program for the anonymous donors have involved students and their families in the preparatory work, which is a great indicator of overall success.

The editorial emphasized the importance of spending just as much time outdoors, in the “real” world, as is spent “plugged in” to a virtual world or even just indoors in general. Time and resource should be equally distributed between technology and environmental education. This goes for any subject really, from mathamatics to the arts.

In other words, how many hours per week will students spend using mobile learning devices, and how will that compare to the number of hours spent outdoors?

Standing in the school gymnasium while fourth through sixth grade students filed into the bleachers behind us for the spelling bee assembly, Teena said, “We actually spend a lot of time outdoors.” At that very moment, in fact, her third graders were outside - snowshoeing.

“There’s a whole class set of show shoes here?” I asked.

“Yep,” said Teena, “See? And of all the schools, Northern Potter probably has their students outside the most.”

It’s times like these I enjoy putting a bit of my foot in my mouth. But I’d still like to see the comparison of hours spent “online” with those spent outside.

No Child Left Behind legislation was a big part of the last decade’s decline in school time spent outdoors. Across the country, some elementary schools struggling to raise scores did away with recess completely.

In a post to Harvard Education Publishing’s blog two Wednesdays ago, U.S. Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland’s third district wrote of a bill he has authored and will present to Congress this year called No Child Left Inside. It seeks to reverse the declining amount of time children spend outdoors, a trend that a growing number of people identify with “nature deficit disorder” coined by Richard Louv, a journalist and past advisor for the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

When I asked Dr. Bill Waltman at Potter County Cooperative Extension in Coudersport which natural features of Potter County he finds unique, he replied, “This is a great place to teach field geology camps. There are features here you won’t find in other areas.”

In fact, our features are so nice he’d like to see certain colleges, like Dickinson in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, open field camps in Potter to conduct research.

Dr. Waltman noted the glacial border that runs across the middle of the county. “Where the ice stopped and created the water basins is very pronounced.” He also mentioned the boulderous “rock cities” below the glacial border, pushed into place by the collosal ice sheet and deposited in the southern half of the county.

“Then there’s the frost polygons,” he continued, which were tundra here long ago. “You’ll find Ice Age features there that you’d see in Alaska or the Yukon Territory today.”

Potter County also boasts two features quite famous in geologic literature: Rose Lake and the Triple Divide.

Apparently, Rose Lake was created by a big chunk of ice that broke off and was left behind by the glacier and dates back about 14,000 years. It is so deep, you need scuba gear to try to find the bottom. Rumor has it there is a sunken vessel in it’s depths. Other rumors say that the bottom of Rose Lake has never actually been found.

The Triple Divide near Gold in Ulysess Township was created by the glacier too. Triple Divides form at the border of two continental divides and drains into three different watersheds. It’s said that if a huge drop of water hits the top of our own Triple Divide, part of that one drop will eventually end up in three different major bodies of water - Lake Ontario, The Chesapeake Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.

My favorite job to date was teaching Outdoor School (OS) for Penn State’s environmental center. Schools brought kids to OS for an entire week to live, play, work and learn in OS’s lake and forest ecosystems. I’d love to see kids here learn about the natural wonders in their own backyards as well.

At the spelling bee where Teena told me about ways schools are already getting kids outside, some of the words that disqualified spelling bee contestants were ones I wasn’t even familiar with, like ‘lugubrious’ which is hard to say let alone spell. Some words get all jumbled up in the mouth, almost as if the word itself is trying to make you eat it. 

I’m happy to eat my words if my perception that students in Potter County don’t spend as much time outside as I think they do is wrong. 

Soon, I’ll be asking local schools to let me accompany teachers and students when they spend time outside the school building. Stay tuned for stories about how Potter County students are getting out and learning in the real world.

*Originally published in Potter Leader-Enterprise, February 9, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

EcoTechnoDigiLogical Learning

By this spring, when the first thaw makes room for worms to wriggle and new seeds to sprout, every student at Northern Potter School District may have constant access to the digital universe, if you will, right in the palm of their hands.

Verizon Wireless has a fairly new mobile learning device program its planning to pilot in Northern Potter. The program, which gives every student a cellular device like that of a smartphone such as iPhones and Androids, allows for textbooks to be stored digitally, presentations to be created and shared online, instantaneous connections with people and opportunities all over the globe, and whatever else can be imagined.

For an entire rural school district to become one with the world wide web-iverse in such a way is a pretty big deal. Currently, if a family can’t afford to have the Internet at home, a student has to, lord forbid, depend on the Internet services available at the public library in order to do projects requiring more and more technology. With mobile learning devices, as long as there’s cellular service, students and their families will have the Internet at their fingertips in the home as well, regardless of income.

This makes both researching and plagiarism so much easier. And while exposing new users, both young and old, to mobile communication devices, Verizon is guaranteed to have a lifetime of savy customers for its developing technology as these young people grow into adults, join the workforce, and relish in all the joys of our market-driven consumer culture.

Meanwhile, those seeds will be growing into plants of all kinds outside in the natural environment, in the world beyond walls and ceilings and screens - both real and virtual. While the Internet provides instant access to people and places all over the globe, the world outside provides instantaneous, tangible, breathable access to everything else - to our whole biotic community. You know, the one upon which we depend for the most basic of our human needs?

I don’t believe environmental literacy is more important than being technologically literate in a digital world, but it should be at least as important.

One of the most important books I purchased in college wasn’t a required text. But as an education student and lover of nature, people, and the world, David Orr’s “Earth In Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect,” caught my eye. Every page I read felt like something I already knew but could never have articulated as powerfully as Orr, who is described as “one of those rare authors, who...[in] admirable essays delivers the revolutionary credo necessary, in my opinion, for the long-term survival of our species.” This is the opinion of Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor and Honorary Curator at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Really? Long-term survival of our species? Is environmental education really that crucial?

The shortest possible answer - yes, duh.

In “Earth In Mind,” Orr does not talk about the problems in education, but of education. He sees most problems in our formal school system as “inherent in the poverty of [the system’s] underlying philosophy” and attributes many pitfalls in education to an industrial obsession with the economics of living and little or no focus on the whole system of living and learning. It seems to Orr, the system of education in this country is basically a mechanism for creating human cogs in an economic machine.

He’s far from the only one. John Taylor Gatto spent a lifetime teaching in New York City schools, only to resign in the Op-Ed section of the Wall Street Journal while still a three-time New York State Teacher of the Year, stating that he could no longer hurt children. Gatto discovered what he calls an “underground” curriculum within our public school system, not designed by educational philosophers like John Dewey or Horace Man, but instead by the leading elite of the industrial revolution - none other than Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan...the barons of steel, oil, assembly lines and capitalist finance. These are the real fathers of our modern system of education.

For more about the birth of our educational system, which was designed in, but not of, a democracy, check out some of Gatto’s book at the library, if the library has them. If you’ve racked up too many library fines not returning your DVDs on time, or have lost your inter-library privileges by turning in a loaned book too late, you can borrow a couple titles from me, such as “The Underground History of American Education” or “Dumbing Us Down.”

And, if you have access to the Internet on your home computer, smartphone, or mobile learning device, you can walk through an interactive and very interesting multimedia presentation on Gatto’s Website, 

There, Gatto reveals the “Fourth Purpose” the tycoons of industry added to the three tenets that ruled the traditional way of schooling in America prior to 1890: 1. To make good people; 2. To make good citizens; 3. And to make each student find some particular talents to develop to the maximum. According to Gatto, the Fourth Purpose, which has marginalized the previous three, made “school in America...like school in Germany, a servant of corporate and political management.”

David Orr would probably agree. He sees the modern structure of education to be the first problem with, not just schools, but society in general.

It’s when we are young that we are most impressionable, best at absorbing new things, and often when we have the most vigor and passion. Most importantly, the young are innocent. They should be never be required to follow the same standard as everyone else or stuffed into molds prescribed by people they’ll never meet. Yet, in our current system, it happens all the time.

A break from the industrial pattern requires innovation, an end to further denial that the system doesn’t work, and commitment. I know the system as it is does work just fine for some students. I was one of them, satisfied to work for the approval of my peers and elders by obtaining good scores, not for the purpose of gaining true knowledge or creating something new. Just because it may “work” for some doesn’t mean the system couldn’t do more and be even better for the people it is supposed to serve - the students.

The industrial revolution has come and almost gone. The digital revolution is upon us, and brings with it many convenient and technological opportunities for learning. But it’s more important now than ever to incorporate ecological literacy into student’s everyday lives along with technological literacy. How important is knowing how to navigate a cybernetic forest compared to finding your way around a real one? What if a massive solar storm disrupts satellite communication for an extended period of time and we’re left to fend for ourselves? What if the lights go out, so to speak? Will we always have enough paper and pencils, or books in print, enough trees or clean air and water to keep learning and living well?

People spend more and more time indoors, behind screens, in a virtual universe. It is now more important than ever to be connected to the real world, the whole world, and focus on developing the bodies, minds, hearts and souls of whole students. They need to know just as much about the natural world as they do about the technological one.

Mobile learning devices have a lot of advantages and useful applications for public schools. Northern Potter School District is able to participate in the Verizon program due to a $40,000 donation from anonymous residents who came into money through the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling boom sweeping across Pennsylvania. Verizon will be donating the devices, and the school district will need to pay for the cellular service to operate them.

All this can be a very good thing, but let’s not lose the big picture.

How much money is being spent on environmental literacy? How many school days per year do students spend learning about their ecology, how it works, what effects it and what it affects? How many hours do young people spend outside compared to the number spent behind screens?

Ecological literacy teaches the necessity of balance in all things because everything is interconnected. Hopefully Northern Potter students will be able to truly exercise the “mobile” feature of Verizon’s learning devices and get outside into nature as much as they get behind their little screens.

*Originally published in Potter Leader-Enterprise, January 26, 2011.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Curtain Trumps a Screen

Sunday night my mother and I went to see The Tourist playing at the Coudersport movie theater. I love this theater for several reasons: 1) the neon glow of the retro sign on the front of the building; 2) the single theater setting - one movie, one screen - no gluttonous list of choices and times and crisscrossing lines of people hungry for Hollywood and $13 bags of popcorn; 3) the original, blood red velvet curtain that’s opened and closed every movie since 1928. 

Sewn onto the two curtains are scenes depicting, as it states on the theater’s website, “the legendary Spanish night Amadis de Gaula on the left, and two female Spanish dancers beneath the mystic blossoms of a tree on the right.”  

In gold satin, the Spanish dancers are dressed in traditional attire, arms extended in dancer’s poses, while the blossomed tree towers over them like something out of a Tim Burton movie, disproportionate and cartoonish in contrast to the dancers. 

Every time I sit in the audience waiting for a movie to start, I can’t help but study the lines created by the dancers’ stalled movements. I imagine them able to “unpause” and continue their dancing, what it would look like under the tree’s strange but beautiful blossoms. 

On the other curtain, the knight Amadis de Gaula sits on a mighty steed dressed up in a manner like Amadis. Like many legends, the original date and author of his story are unsettled and disputed. The oldest known edition of Amadis’s tale appeared in 1508, but the knight is also mentioned in texts dating back to the 1300’s.  

Pause - the 1300’s? So...what does that mean exactly? What was life like in Europe then? After perusing history books and websites about the 1300’s and reading about the spread of disease, class struggle, economic depression, and climate change (they had advancing polar ice caps, not receding ones like us), it seems that the only things really different about today and the 1300’s are tasers, toilets, billion dollar professional sports franchises, microwave ovens, and the world wide web.  

Back to Amadis - according to the legend as recounted on Wikipedia, he was born to a King and some lady who apparently weren’t supposed to get together because they ended up putting the innocent baby Amadis on a barge to England. 

The babe was found and raised by a Scottish knight. Later in life, Amadis embarked upon a series of adventures to discover his origin. He eventually found his way to his father, King Perion, who knighted him before Amadis wandered off for more heroic encounters with wizards, priestesses, and various mystical geologic formations.  

Of course, the legend of Amadis being a chivalric romance, there is a love story. Throughout his travels, Amadis is faithful to his childhood sweetheart, Oriana, yet she still manages to get bent out of shape over some “rival” princess and sends Amadis a nasty letter that drives him to madness and isolation on a deserted island. Thankfully, Oriana calms down and sends her maid to fetch the poor wretch. (She apparently couldn’t go to him herself.) Upon his return, Amadis and Oriana, who happened to be heiress to the throne of Great Britain, scandalously consummate their love and produce an illegitimate son of their own. 

Ahh, romance.  

Amadis then had to get a away for a while, like ten years, to avoid Oriana’s father, who wasn’t exactly found of him. During his travels in exile, Amadis become famous for battling a giant monster born of incest who’s stench was poisonous and body covered in crusty scales. 

Though often emerging from battles drenched in his own or his adversary’s blood, Amadis is unique because, though he was a handsome knight, he also cried a lot when rejected by his lady-friend.  

And check this out - Amadis de Gaula is also the character who later inspired and was parodied by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote. Who knew that guy on the curtain at Coudersport movie theater was the inspiration for the borderline-insane, adventuring fool Don Quixote de la Mancha? 

And who really needed to know?  (Honestly, I’m kind of surprised you’re still reading.) 

I am a nerd. I like weird, inspiring, thought-provoking things, and I enjoy the same in my movies. I know for a lot of people movies are supposed to be relaxing and let you just sit back and be entertained. But in my humble opinion, Hollywood takes the strictly entertainment thing too far, as demonstrated in The Tourist. Literally, almost nothing happens during the entire movie. It’s all about looking at handsome people and nice Venetian scenery with a boat chase scene and Italian gangsters thrown into the mix.  

One of the things that I miss about other areas I’ve taken up residence, is the presence of small, independent theaters that regularly show short film series, foreign and independent films, or even classics like Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight on a Saturday while serving pizza and micro brews.  It’s such a nice option to have next to big, multi-screen cinemas that blast mostly shallow, flashy things on screens all day and night.

Coudersport movie theater has the character and potential to be like independent theaters in other areas, but I have no way of knowing whether artsy and foreign films would be a big enough draw to have the theater open for these kinds of showings.  

 My dad, who is a borderline workaholic, (love you dad) doesn’t like to round out a long day with a movie that requires reading subtitles. I doubt my father, for example, would attend a showing of foreign films for this reason. But there must be enough people in this area that don’t mind reading while watching -- enough people who would enjoy seeing independent films to justify at least one night a week dedicated to these kinds of cinematic wonders.


Whether it’s a documentary about surfing, a short film about unique culinary micro cultures, or a modern, hardly-heard-of rendition of the classic Don Quixote, I’d like to see the beautiful, historic Coudersport movie theater, at least one night a week, show movies that don’t come out of Hollywood. Movies that make you read, think, even discuss strange and interesting things with friends at a pub down the street when it’s over. The kinds of movies that really move you and stick with you like a great book. 

In the case of The Tourist, the story about the curtain was better than that movie, which I paid $5.50 to see on the screen. Thanks to the internet, the story of Amadis was free. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Years in New York

I unexpectedly ended up in the Big Apple for New Year’s Eve. There, I met the reincarnated Buddy Holly in my new favorite establishment on planet earth, a tiny bar and restaurant called 169. Some friends of mine went to see the band Phish at Madison Square Gardens. Others actually had the ridiculous notion to go to Times Square. Gratefully, my friend and New York City tour guide, Adam, designed a less crowded route for us. 

Williamsburg Music Hall in Brooklyn is where we would end up, chanting that midnight chorus from ten down to zero. I had no idea where Brooklyn was on a map of New York City, but with a friend who loves it as a personal tour guide, one needn’t worry about such things. (You know, someone could make a killing being a “backpacker” tour guide in the city, revealing the best not-so-popular, off-the-beaten-path places to complete rookies such as myself.) 

Williamsburg Music Hall is not exactly off the beaten path, and in a literal sense, all paths in NYC are well beaten. But along them there are tiny, unpretentious gems almost avoiding detection from tourists. They aren’t flashy. Just existing, doing their thing.  

We began our final jaunt of 2010 at Grand Central Station after taking the train from Connecticut. Knowing I am slightly obsessed with food, Adam immediately took me to the station’s market. Fresh herbs, spices, artisan cheeses and breads, amazing falafel, fish so raw and wonderful it melts in your mouth, hand rolled pretzels, exotic jellies…anything and everything a foodie could want, and we hadn’t even left the station. 

I made a head count of things to buy on the way home before Adam pulled me away from  the market to admire the zodiac paintings and new star lights on Grand Central’s cathedral ceiling. Apparently, the star lights are set to shine at the exact luminosity of the real constellations. We tried to identify the signs of the zodiac depicted, got a kick out of Aquarius (we’re both Aquarians) and then ejected ourselves out of the building and into the streets of New York City. 

After a short pub crawl near Grand Central, a couple Carlsbergs, and fresh guacamole and chips, we headed to Chinatown to meet a couple of Adam’s city friends.  Here we spent the next few hours at the 169 Bar. 169’s low ceiling and quirky objects gave it a colorful, cave-like feel, like it could have been a den in Andy Warhol’s basement. It had a tiny stage, just a few feet wide and deep, backed by a huge mirror and hemmed in Christmas lights. When I ran into the reincarnated Buddy Holly, he posed on this tiny stage with me for a photo op before singing his dissertation on subatomic love. Ahhh. I’m falling in love with the Big Apple. 

169’s two tv’s hung behind the bar and strictly played cheesy films from the sixties and seventies. You know, the ones where everyone is tan and beautiful, driving smooth cars or wearing wings and sliding down plastic tubing in a strange futuristic scene. Special effects consisted of hanging the winged man from a cable in front of a screen where the sky rushed behind him as he made flapping motions with his arms, careful not to sway too much and disturb the illusion that he was really flying. 

For $3, the Vietnamese barkeep at 169 will present to you two fine cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon - or one Pabst and a shot of the house bourbon. I didn’t know you could buy anything in NYC for $3. 

But the best part about 169 Bar, other than meeting the reincarnated Buddy Holly, was a small, ornately carved  bar  near the leopard-skin pool table, where for $3 more you could get two plump oysters, two clams, and two shrimp with all the raw food fix’ins. Nothing goes with PBR like some of the best raw oysters I’ve had since I can remember, shucked by a guy wearing a suit, tie, and no apron. 

On the wall, where a bar in north-central Pennsylvania would have mounted the head of an antlered animal, 169 has the bust of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Now that’s what I call hunting! 

The manager of 169 is a short, comedic, Scandinavian woman. She knows most people in the place by name. She’s lived all over the world, and now spends her days keeping the 169 Bar and it’s patrons upright. 

It was approaching show time, but I didn’t want to leave for Williamsburg Music Hall where our tickets awaited us at will call. Alas, all things must pass. Until next time, 169...

Adam and I jumped in a cab to the show. The Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn is known for its music scene. Rock and rollers all over seek out its glamorous and dingy corners. Hipsters rule the night.

And speaking of dingy, I don't think this is the case all the time in NYC, but there were piles upon  piles of garbage bags everywhere.  Stacks, mounds, mountains of trash, in front of hotels, pizza joints, taking up whole sidewalks, half buried in snow with bicycles and cars that hadn’t been dug out yet since the previous week’s storm. 

And then I felt spoiled. New York offers so much. Whatever you want, for a price, is at your finger tips. Any kind of cuisine, any kind of art or entertainment, any type of living, from cardboard box to penthouse suite. All of it in the same place. 

For as much as I complain sometimes about living in the boondocks and not being able to get sushi grade salmon whenever I please, there is some benefit to having limited access to the things you want. You appreciate them more when you do get them, for one thing. If I lived in New York City, would I eventually take fresh market fish and live music for granted? How long would it take? 

And what of the sacrifices one must make for life in a city that has it all? All but wide-open spaces, wildlife, natural wonders, calm and quiet streams, clean streets, solitude, and a night sky so clear you can see the Milky Way. None of those things are found in any sort of abundance in any city. Then again, seems they are becoming less abundant everywhere these days, even rural areas. 

We are now not hours but days into 2011.  Back home in rural Pennsylvania, I take time to reflect upon and appreciate the trappings and trimmings of both country and city. Hopefully, someday, I will live in a place where I have access to the best of both. 

I wish everyone here, there, and everywhere a bold, boisterous 2011 that pales in comparison to years past. Onward and upward, mis amigos! Set your sights on the goals that lead from dream to reality. Best of luck and love to you in making them come true.

And if you visit a big city, I suggest you hire a backpacker tour guide with tastes similar to yours. 

You can read Adam’s travel journalism blog at http://backpackerjournalism.blogspot.com/.