the ethics of sprinklers

6 a.m., I was out walking my dog. The sky was still mostly dark, and up ahead I spotted sheets of mist rising up out of the ground. Even though we’ve had three or four days straight of rain, the sprinklers were on.

I live in one of those condo neighborhoods that looks like a golf course — lots of green space. I’d been attracted to the area by the meandering walking trails, many tall trees, nearby lakes and more. But it hadn’t really registered just how much landscaping work goes on here, and the longer I live here, the more I feel that most of this is simply unnecessary.

Sure, this is an automatic sprinkler system, and probably a rather old one. But aren’t there humans involved in the planning process? How difficult would it be to install some kind of moisture sensor? There have been way too many days when the sprinkler systems activate in the middle of a rain storm.

Unfortunately, there are a good number of “old school” (think: trust in chemical fertilizers) gardeners in the community for there to be any real hope of switching to a below-ground, drip-irrigation system in the near future — or to replant our common areas with native species of ground cover that don’t need so much intervention and care.

What struck me this morning is this: plant life evolved — successfully — over millions of years without any human “assistance.” Even as early peoples developed agriculture, we were learning to work with natural cycles and resources, rather than foisting our aesthetics onto the natural order and expecting it to behave.

Our efforts to control nature have resulted in pesticides, fertilizers and other nasties that are showing up in our soil, water systems and air, not to mention the waste of natural resources like burning coal to make electricity to power the sprinkler computers that just waste water on grasses that aren’t well adapted to our climatic zones to begin with.

There’s more awareness these days about native species, and the resource impact of cultivating non-native plants. More people are turning onto the idea of using their land for harvesting produce, herbs and flowers, rather than manicuring lawns year after year. Others are remembering that most grasses grow tall naturally, and experiment with letting their lawns become meadows.

That’s good progress on both resource conservation and learning to live in concert with the environment. It may take several more generations for more “natural landscaping” to make a dent, and I admit I can get impatient with steep learning curves.

So what’s my point? Sometimes grass is supposed to be brown.



Taking a cue from a good friend, I decided to start the day by drawing a Tarot card — something I’ve not done in ages, but that’s another discussion.

I was hoping for something light and airy, inspirational. A card that would stimulate my creativity and help me launch into a particularly productive and joyful week. But that’s not the card I drew. Instead, the card that came into my hands was Judgement (20).

Yeah, I never have been one to start with the easy stuff.

The Judgment card is about a day of reckoning. It speaks to self-judgment, and how our own real freedom comes from the choice we make to forgive ourselves. This is a card about making difficult choices, about how we meet the challenges and opportunities that come our way, and about the Final Judgment of our lives as a whole — how we have chosen to use our time here on Earth.

So what does a Tarot card have to do with living a sustainable life?

There are times that I don’t know how to start a project and so I end up wasting a lot of time considering each possible approach from every angle — not actually trying any of these, but just examining them. I’ve spent too much of my life being afraid of “doing it wrong” or making a mistake or unintentionally offending someone, and I’ve often missed out on real living. This includes my efforts to bring myself into greater harmony and better symbiosis with the planet I’m living on.

I get overwhelmed with choices. If I sign up for renewable energy through Portland General Electric, what does that really mean? Aren’t they still burning coal to generate most of their electricity? Is it a scam, or does it make a positive difference? Or should I build a small electric generator with an exercise bike, and then run my laptop computer and printer off a car battery that I can charge up? Am I really using the best power strips to help conserve electrical usage? Mine are kind of old, but should I replace something that still works, even if a better model exists?

And so on. I spend way too much time worrying about making the wrong choice, both in environmental terms and in life in general. With so many questions and concerns competing for attention, it’s easy to get exhausted just considering the possibilities, and then not have any energy left over to actually do anything about them. The result is that I don’t make as many changes or as much progress as I can, and then I judge myself — often rather harshly — for not doing better.

The Jewish High Holidays are fast approaching. Last year, I wrote about making Yom Kippur a day of “green atonement,” of recognizing where I’d failed the environment during the previous year, and deciding how I could do better over the next twelve months. I’ve not completely failed in my efforts to be a better “eco citizen,” but I don’t know that I’m a shining example of hope and inspiration either.

The good news is that each new year — and every new day — brings another opportunity to try again, not only to try to do better in my relationship with and my impact on the environment, but also to lighten up on the self-judgment so I don’t end up paralyzing myself into inaction and futility.

And if I decide to take another shot at drawing a morning Tarot card tomorrow, maybe I’ll get one that’s a bit gentler and more cheerful.

Nature cannot be defeated

There is hope. It’s right outside your door.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been impacted by the current, global economic downturn, and the headlines seem to grow more dire every day. People losing their jobs, their homes, their will to survive. People losing hope. People who are facing one hardship after another, who keep trying and keep getting shut down — whether they’re applying for jobs, trying to get health coverage, or trying to forestall foreclosure. People who simply give up.

It’s hard not to feel demoralized and defeated right now. It’s difficult for a lot of people not to just stay in bed each morning. It’s too easy to say, “Today’s no better than yesterday. What’s the point of even trying?”

I was thinking about this earlier this morning, when I happened to glance out my window at the lavender bushes in my garden. About five or six honeybees were busy buzzing from one purple blossom to the next, gathering food and spreading pollen.

Businesses may be closing their doors, but the flowers are still blooming. Banks may be passing their own hurt onto consumers, but the rain continues to fall (at least, it does in Portland). What does nature know of economic collapse?

Watching those bees this morning helped me to breathe more easily. The sun keeps rising every morning. The clouds continue to drift across the sky, and the moon and stars still stand vigil each night. Winds blow, rain falls, flowers grow.

It reminds me of one particular scene from the movie “Excalibur,” where armor-clad knights are riding to the battlefield on strong horses, pushing the blooming branches of cherry blossoms out of the way with their swords. The cherry blossom trees didn’t care about strife within the kingdom. The trees didn’t care about the kingdom at all. It was spring — time for growth and the promise of life — and the trees knew it.

That’s not to say that the environment isn’t hurting right now, too. Unemployment figures may not directly impact air quality, but decades of industrial pollution certainly do. Our waterways are more polluted, there’s litter seemingly everywhere, and our weather systems are reacting — often violently — to climate change.

But I have yet to see nature take a defeatist attitude. I’ve yet to see a tree decide to take a season or even a day off from the work of growing, simply because it’s tired of fighting against smog. I’ve yet to see the dawn drag its heels because it’s depressed or sad.

Last week, I met a survival instructor on Portland’s light rail MAX system. He was talking about efforts to live more in harmony with nature, rather than always setting ourselves up in opposition to it. And right now, the environment can play a very active, partnered role in the healing of our hearts and minds in these troubled times.

The next time I feel myself slipping into frustration or even defeat or despair, I’ll try to remember to look out again at my lavender bushes and the bees going about their daily work. I’ll pause to watch the robin perched on the tree branch and will close my eyes to listen to its song. None of this will instantly fix our current economic mess, of course, but it does provide some much needed perspective.

No matter what happens today, the sun will still rise tomorrow. Breezes will rustle tree branches. Birds will sing. Bees will dance around flowers. Every day is a new opportunity to get on with the business of living and growing, regardless of what happened yesterday or even five minutes ago. The bees don’t care about my checking account balance, nor about how many (or how few) projects I have to work on. They’re focused simply on what’s right in front of them, and on what they can do right now to keep on living and moving forward.

Fasting for Darfur

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, is fasting on June 15 and 16 (today and tomorrow) to raise awareness about the dire conditions in Darfur. Her fast is part of the Darfur Fast for Life “fasting chain” – successive two-day blocks of fasting by activists, entertainers and political figures.

Messinger has invited AJWS members and others to join her in her fast.

“A person can suffer no greater indignity than not being able to feed his or her children or prevent dehydration that is often deadly,” Messinger said in a videotaped message.

I grew up with what seemed like nightly stories about famine in Africa — always broadcast on the evening news while my family was eating dinner. I was in 9th grade when “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World” were released. I’m sad to say that part of me has learned to accept this kind of human suffering as a simple fact of life.

However, scientists and other experts are warning that conditions like those found in Darfur may easily become more commonplace if global warming continues to escalate. Drought and famine may become a way of life for far too many of us — though, really, should it be a way of life for anyone?

Fasting is difficult. Hunger impacts our higher thinking and compromises learning and productivity. And, as Messinger points out, hunger has a demoralizing affect as well, deflating our hopes day after day for a better future.

Those like Messinger who are choosing to fast in a protest of compassionate solidarity with Darfur are hoping that the temporary hunger and discomfort of fasting will teach us to listen, and to act. I hope so — compassion and heart-felt action are too often lacking in this world. But such fasting may teach us something else — what life could be like for many, many more of us, if we don’t get our acts together and start working more effectively with the planet, rather than against it.

(If you don’t know where Darfur is, you’re likely not alone. Many Westerners struggle with African geography. Darfur is in Western Sudan — on the northeast coast of Africa. Sudan is a large country bounded by Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Libya.

Not so obvious connections

The idea behind this blog is to connect spiritual and religious traditions with environmental concerns and action. While the link between these two is fundamental — in my opinion — the connections aren’t always so obvious.

Not quite ten years ago, I started volunteering with the WITNESS human rights organization as their webmaster. I had also done some work with my local chapter of Amnesty International, but they didn’t need me as much as WITNESS did. I was floored, honored and a little intimidated to find myself in a key position of the organization’s information flow. I worked with some wonderful people there — some of whom have gone on to other organizations like Just Vision and 1Sky. I volunteered with WITNESS for about two years.

About a year or two after I first moved to Portland, Oregon, I was attending a networking event for media professionals sponsored by MediaBistro, and I was talking with a young man about climate change. I described my quandary of not knowing quite where to put my volunteer energy, because there’s so much I care about — human rights, stopping animal abuse, literacy, civil liberties, clean water and air, etc.

He helped me see that environmentalism really does trump all the others. Not only is a healthy, thriving planet a basic human right, it’s also an absolute necessity. If you don’t have a place to live, all those other concerns disappear — there would be no humans whose rights needed protecting, no vulnerable animals in need of help.

So if I ever find myself vacillating like that again, I just remember that conversation. That doesn’t mean I don’t do other charitable work. Climate change is just my priority.

As a spiritual person — and a religious studies scholar and trained interfaith minister to boot — I find this to be a natural spiritual issue as well. Religion — often referred to as simply “organized spirituality” — is frequently concerned with seeking balance and meaning in life.

Seeking balance within and balance without has a perfect companion in environmental awareness, with the outer world reflecting back what’s going on inside. The external world is also a brilliant canvas showing us the consequences of our actions, thoughts and attitudes. If we’re seeking meaning in our lives, we must also find and be mindful of the meaning in our actions and intentions, and what impact we have on others and the world around us.

So I’m just trying to tie it all together, sometimes admittedly more successfully than others. Where I can, I tie these environmental thoughts to specific religious philosophies and practices — or link climate change action to holidays or faith traditions. This blog has a growing list of “faith categories” — including 12-Step, Humanism and even the Law of Attraction at this point — but sometimes these musing here don’t fit so tidily into one basket or another.

There’s a heavy emphasis on Judaism — because that’s my own path — and Neo-pagan traditions, because of the inherent Earthiness and reverence for the natural world found there. But I’m keeping my eyes, ears and heart open for any and all texts, traditions and wisdom that honor, respect and protect this planet we live on.

I’ll keep posting here, and I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting. I’d love to hear your ideas, and to learn more about what you’re learning and discovering on your own journey.

Start your day off green: used coffee grounds

I just found this Planet Green article about what to do with your used coffee grounds.

Admittedly, I’m not a coffee drinker; I never did develop a taste for the stuff. But I know a lot of people who swear by a good cup — or two — of joe in the morning. I’ve added coffee (the beverage, not the grounds) to my shampoo before, but didn’t know the grounds themselves can be used for conditioning. Also, I’ve always loved the aroma of coffee — just not the taste — but hadn’t thought of using coffee grounds as a natural deodorizer.

And don’t forget that composting worms love coffee grounds!

Now, who has ideas for used tea bags?

The environment and the Law of Return

I had been thinking of offering a list today of my favorite “green” folks on Twitter, until I got this message from’s GreenScope:

The law of karma gets restated in a hundred different ways. In environmental terms, it’s simple: whatever you do will literally come back to you. So look for cleaning products that can go safely into the water supply system. Baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice work on almost anything and are completely biodegradable.

I’d written previously about green cleaning products — and yes, baking soda, white vinegar and lemon juice make for some excellent “mean green clean.” Apart from the elimination of toxic chemicals from your home environment (commercial cleaners are full of the stuff) and the fact that make-at-home cleaners are also friendlier to your wallet, it’s absolutely true that homemade green cleaning products are easier on our landfills and water treatment centers.

Instant karma’s gonna get you.
—John Lennon

We do reap what we sow. The impact of our chemically-dependent — for lack of a better term — lifestyles is showing up in our waterways and fish populations, in everything from algae blooms to reduced fertility rates. And I don’t have a comprehensive list of all of the chemicals and other materials that waste water treatment facilities are able to filter out, but I don’t imagine they’re able to scrub the water of absolutely everything.

In Wicca and other branches of Neo-Paganism, the Law of Three states that whatever you send out into the world will come back to you three-fold. This admonition is aimed against the practice of questionable spells — usually curses and the like — but can also be effectively applied to day-to-day living.

Do I want to treat the Earth with respect, and then have this same consideration returned to me three-fold? Yes, please. Do I want to trash the planet and then have three times that level of destruction visited upon me? Not so much, no.

There’s a split in the scientific community over whether global warming is a reality — which I don’t understand. There’s also a split amongst those who recognize that climate change is indeed happening, between those who attribute environmental impact to human beings and those who believe it’s a natural, cyclical phenomenon.

I’m in the “yes, climate change is real, and humans have contributed to it,” camp. And I believe we are dealing now with the consequences of the quick rise of industry and technology from generations past (alongside rampant consumption of natural resources) with no heed given to environmental impact — and that future generations will continue to deal with those problems as well as with whatever additional damage we do today. The results of the solutions that we come up with now may not really be felt until after our lifetimes, but that’s the environmental legacy we leave for those who come after us.

Karma can be a bitch, but it can also be a blessing. You get back from it what you put into it. We just have to figure out what kind of environmental return we want to have visited — perhaps even three-fold — upon our descendants.