Chicago River Day 2017

We had a fun day with Volunteers Untapped improving the local ecosystem and community.



Earth Day; Fantastic Day

Earth Day Photo

Like many people, on Saturday we celebrated Earth Day by working hard to better our local environment. We celebrated with an inaugural event at Clarendon Park; our local park, and where I came into a garden plot since dating my girlfriend, Angie. Since we were already coordinating the garden Angie and I decided to join our friend Chelsea to organize the Earth Day festivities.

Great Results for the First Year

This being the first year we had Earth Day at Clarendon we weren’t sure exactly how many folks would come. We planned a number of activities revolving around cleaning and maintaining the park and garden. If we had five volunteers I was prepared to call the event a success, as 9 am came and I saw close to 40 people my excitement grew. I knew we would have a great day and I was not wrong; we met new friends as we picked up litter, cleaned benches and the bocce ball court, prepared garden beds, and turned compost.

Earth Day 1704Along with the volunteer activities, we engaged kids by letting them make recycled planters and plant seeds in them. We wanted kids to think about how they could reuse what they might think is trash, and we wanted to encourage them to grow their own plants. In the prior weeks, we collected up soup cans, yogurt containers, and other packaging items we could use as planter pots. On Saturday we let the kids decorate the pots with crayons, markers, and scratch paper; we then filled the pots with soil, and the kids picked out a few seeds they liked to plant.

Kids Recycled PlanterAs they worked on their project the kids learned about what their plants need to grow. Older kids were encouraged to read the seed packets and think about how different plants need different conditions to thrive: sunlight or shade, space requirements, and special planting or thinning considerations.

Composting Lessons Learned

After the volunteers were organized I focused on working with a group that was turning the compost bins for the garden. There are two large bins where material had been collected by the gardeners for more than a year. I was hoping we would find some good compost in the bins, we did, but it was too hard to separate from material which was still decomposing. If we had turned the compost once or twice previously I’m sure we would have had some good compost to put on the beds.

Compost TurningWhen tossing and spreading the compost we added much needed air into the mixture and loosened packed material, which will speed up decomposition. I was happily surprised that we didn’t find much material that was not compostable. But, I did notice some things the gardeners could easily do to speed up the process. From the smell alone I knew we had too much of the green, recently dead material, compared to the amount of brown material. I also saw that much of the material hadn’t even started to decompose, we found complete newspapers intact and folded at the bottom of the pile. By simply separating the pages I’m sure the paper would have been decomposed, and if it was torn it would have composted faster.

I am happy we got the compost turned Saturday, and I am proud with the group for getting dirty and smelly to get all of the compost turned over.

Clarendon Park Garden Compost Bins

I am always invigorated by the passion and excitement of volunteers working together to improve our community. Thanks to Gethsemane for donating seeds, and Northern Fork for donating snacks and coffee. Most importantly thanks to all of the community members and my new friends for making Earth Day awesome. I’m ready for the next community event!

Let’s Get Beyond the Fear.

The US presidential election was a horrible result for those of us who are inspired by working together to create vibrant communities and create a sustainable, peaceful world. It’s ok to be scared of what policy will come. But we need to overcome that fear, and I think the best way for me to do this will be with action.

If the government reduces social services or inhibits sustainability actions we can and must pick up the slack. There are great non-profits and grassroots groups that are already working on these issues. We can contribute more to these groups; we can start our own groups; we can initiate community work. I know, at the very least, I will be volunteering more.

If a talking head riles up a group of people because spurring division and throwing out insults boosts his or her ego, let’s come and work together on something that will benefit us all. Even working together on a small community project, like planting flowers at a school, creates discussion and great feeling between all of us.

If we see justice and rights being infringed on we must bring awareness to it. Information exchange is incredibly easy, but we can’t let the important stuff get lost. Celebrity marriages don’t affect most of us, but the Standing Rock water protectors are being harassed for ensuring we all have clean water and land. Let’s share important information we find that is real and actually affects our lives or the lives of others. Then we have to speak up and tell our policymakers we don’t like it. And, we have to keep telling them. And then remind them again.

If people voted because they felt disenfranchised or think the world is passing them by, it is not time to shout at them or blame them; let’s talk to them; let’s explain how real knowledge and understanding is needed, and we need to consider how talk and actions affect more than ourselves. When we think of others and think on a global level we will all realize that this is not the world of our childhood; it is better! It is better because more and more people are working together to improve the world and raise awareness the important issues. It is better because there are innovative technologies and methods available so that we can live in a completely sustainable world. It is better because now we all have great opportunity to live happy, enriched lives.

I know I am not the only who believes that action is better than fear; the peaceful protests on Wednesday have shown this. I know some of my thoughts are pie in the sky idealism, but we have to dream, and we have to do!

River Day Fun v2

So we had another fun day, picked up a ton (well more than that actually) of garbage, saw some ducklings, and made new friends. We had about 45 volunteers at our site north of 18th St; joining hundreds of other volunteers all along the riverbank.

Even though we had to pick up some garbage that was left from last year it didn’t dampen the spirits of the volunteers. I realized this is a big reason I enjoy serving; working with people we just met, we each inspire and motivate one another to do the hard jobs that are important; while often we would find the work mundane or dirty or difficult, we all have great fun as a group.

Why Solar? Keep Me Healthy; Preserve My Wilderness!

If I were asked the advantages of using cleaner energies I would explain about how these energies positively affect climate change, after all energy production accounts for 1/3 of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. I would also explain that these energies are called renewable because they don’t rely on a source that takes millions of years to create, needs to be mined and refined, before being spent in a way that creates air, water, and land pollution.

I tend to focus on the global impacts, but lately I have been considering the impacts on the community level. A few years ago the last two coal plants in Chicago closed. Plants like these just don’t make sense; especially in such a densely populated area; especially when many of those living in the area are finding more and more ways to live more sustainably. That’s why these weren’t the last coal plants in Chicago, they were the last coal plants in any large metropolitan area in the U.S.

We’ve known for a long time that burning fossil fuels causes more than smog and climate change. Health problems greatly increase with proximity to plants like Chicago’s; these plants alone caused 41 deaths and 550 ER visits every year. This Chicago Tribune article talks about the specifics. Chicago Coal Plants Close Article

The writers spoke to those in the community who organized grassroots campaigns to make a healthy community. The impacts of coal plants are great, but it is inspiring to see that the long struggle of the community can be successful.

Another successful fight occurred around Great Smoky Mountains NP. When I think of National Parks I think of awesome wildlife, views that go on forever, and breathing in the purest air in the world. But this is not the case in the Smoky Mountains where smog from power plants and factories as far as the Ohio Valley contributed to decreased visibility of 80% since 1948. The Smoky Mountains have some of the most polluted air of any national parks, and the pollution impacts more than our ability to breathe while hiking. Acid rain and ozone pollution have become major problems in the park; adversely affecting river, wild, and human life.

GRSM-Visibility NPS
Great Smoky Mountain Visibility

A few years ago the Tennessee Valley Authority agreed to shut down almost 60 coal fired units. This article outlines the potential environmental impacts of the plant closures, Great Smoky Mountain Plants Close Article , and this interview with the National Parks Conservation Association gives a view on the impact the closures have had on the park, Great Smoky Mountain Plants Close Interview.

Over the last few years agreements have been made to shut down more than 100 coal fired plants. As these older plants shut down the energy they produce will have to come from other sources. It makes sense to use more renewable, cleaner sources like solar and wind. Even if new fossil fuel plants produce less pollution they will never be the cleanest technology, and will always rely on limited resources.

Northern Arizona has been the site of another fight over coal power. The plant is owned by a group of utilities, it is on Navajo land, and uses coal mined from other Navajo land, and the plant is only 15 miles from the Grand Canyon. The pollution from the plant affects as far away as Nevada. But, in this situation, the people who are most greatly affected by the plant, the Navajo, people in the tourism business, and the tourists are only a small portion of the customers. It’s unfair considering the energy is used as far away as central California.

The plant is responsible for 300 asthma attacks and 25 heart attacks every year, but affects the area in less measureable ways also. This great article from the “LA Times” gives a feeling of what it is like to live in the shadow of the smoke stacks, People and the Navajo Generating Station Article.

The fight is still going on to shut down and clean up the plant, but it is drawing more attention. Last year the LA Department of Water and Power, and NV Energy both divested from the plant. This prompted the closing of one of the three generators. This probably won’t have a large impact, but it is a start. An article from the “Arizona Republic” has more details, Navajo Generating Station Impact Article.

Another large issue with fossil fuel generation is getting the fuels out of the ground. We have seen the impact of mountains being moved to get to coal in the Appalachians. Recent oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and North Sea and the fight over fracking has brought more awareness to other mining areas. But coal, natural gas, and petroleum have been mined in our backyards for a long time.

Last year I camped in the Alleghany National Forest in Pennsylvania. I saw quite a few drilling sites for oil and natural gas. It dampened my experience to see this industrial equipment in such a beautiful area. It also made me consider the impact on the forest and wildlife. It must take a lot of equipment, pipelines, trucks, and workers to mine and move the material – and disturb the forest ecology.

Recently, I read an article in the “Sun Sentinel” about oil drilling in the Everglades, Everglades Oil Drilling Article. The wells are located in an Everglades preserve called Big Cypress, and more are being proposed. There have been spills from the wells, and most of what was spilled has been contained. Since 2011 168 gallons of oil were spilled and lost. But even a little oil can have a big impact; using great resources and efforts to clean-up even contained spills. With more wells there is more potential for large spills; it is not if, but when a spill will happen, and how big the impact will be.

raccoon point
Raccoon Point Drilling Pad

These are supposed to be the most pristine places in the country, but pollution and human impact from mining and electricity production are affecting these areas more and more. No energy is 100% clean, and human activities have an impact, but we should be working to alleviate our impact so that we are healthy, the Earth is healthy, and we have beautiful areas to get away to, think, and breathe.

Now that I have examined all of the issues I feel that health of the people, and the local environment are the best reasons I can give for renewable energy.

Why Solar?

I am currently studying to be able to do assessments for prospective solar photovoltaic sites. Since I will primarily be working with homeowners interested in solar I became intrigued as to what prompts people to investigate solar for their homes. I know most people get solar to be environmentally friendly and save money, and some have the added desire to become energy independent or have stable electricity in areas with limited service. But I wanted to learn more about these reasons, and discover additional reasons people have; surely there must be some. So I’m checking out the internet, and over the next few posts I will be sharing my thoughts on some of the articles, posts, and videos I come across.

Solar is becoming more popular, and costs continue to go down, falling by 13% to 18% every year for the last 5 years. A recent NPR Morning Edition report describes how one homeowner has decided to get solar simply because the price has fallen so fast.

Morning Edition Link

One reason for the price drop is that new panel producers are creating more options for the high demand. But there also have been new products developed which have made installation more uniform, and installers are becoming more experienced. The installer in the report says that the project time has dropped from 2 days to 4 hours.

The report prompts intriguing considerations in regards to the negative consequences of new manufacturers producing cheaper panels. Most panels are warrantied for 20 to 30 years, but most systems using high quality panels and are older than 30 years often have very little reduction in efficiency. It will be 20 or more years before we know if cheaper panels equate to less efficiency over time. Another consideration is whether or not the company will be around long enough to honor any warranties. The following testimonial, although from a panel manufacturer, has a list of considerations that one homeowner used when choosing an installer and panels. Although a long standing business isn’t necessarily a sign of quality and ethics, the homeowner in the testimonial makes some good points.

Homeowner Testimonial Link

Another consideration is that with more competition, new companies will have less regard for human, and environmental issues. What is the tipping point where pollution from the production and disposal of the panels and equipment outweighs the pollution prevented from the electricity produced? And, how does it compare to other renewable systems? If you only care about the cost savings of solar, then you may not care about this; however, I think most people considering solar are doing so in part as a way to live a more sustainable lifestyle, so ethics and the environment have to be a big consideration.

As costs continue to fall, we will see more photovoltaic systems, and it will likely become mainstream. To me, and many others I’m sure, it is important to create a global renewable energy system with people and the environment in mind.

Fencing in the Rain . . . On Halloween

Looking back, it was ridiculous . . . but a unique experience . . . in a good way . . . mostly.

Trick or treating in a large city is always a little different, especially when it’s a northern Midwestern town. Saturday I saw how Halloween works for some kids in Chicago. Lincoln Square, the actual square that is, is a segment of road which encourages pedestrian traffic; the road is lined with a number of small shops and restaurants. On Saturday the square hosted a little Halloween event; kids went trick or treating along the shops, showed off their costumes, got some candy, and broke up the monotony for the folks working at the sandwich shops.

It was the first Halloween in a few years that wasn’t extremely cold or snowy. Unfortunately, it was rainy; more than a drizzle, but not quite a downpour, just constant wet; which meant everyone was damp – and cold. So, kids changed their heavy winter coats for raincoats. Mostly, I couldn’t see more than make-up or a mask, and the fringe of a costume hanging out of the bottom of a raincoat. There was however a lucky kid or two who was able to show off his or her costume, because an umbrella was being held over his or her head. That way the young one could hold both the bag of candy and the lightsaber. It didn’t matter that mom or dad was getting soaked; the kid was “Frozen”, and the world knew it. Oh, the sacrifices parents make!

Last week, when my fencing coach asked if I would help at a demonstration I didn’t have any problem agreeing. I didn’t realize it was going to be on Halloween, but when I did, it only made me more excited. (It’s like getting to wear a costume, and playing too. – Right?)

So, I headed to the club on Saturday, trying to protect my gear from the heavy drizzle which was dogging those of us who wanted to be outside. Once inside the club I of course asked the obligatory questions: “This thing is outside. Right?” and “You do know it’s raining outside?” Too which I was told yes, but the organizers had a tent for us, so we would see what happens. I always love these situations. But, hey, nothing to do but go along with a good attitude.

A group of about 10 of us, adults and youth, fencers and parents, headed into the damp void of Lincoln Square. We got to the square, rounded a corner, and just cracked up. We all did; not one of us could hold the laughter in. When I was told there would be a tent I imagined a nice large catering tent where we could do the demo, while people stood underneath to watch, and we all would be safe. What we got was a picnic tent, about 8 feet by 8 feet, and not even 6 ½ feet tall. It did keep us dry though . . . if we didn’t stand too near the edge.

We waited in the cold for a bit, but not too long, until our appointed time. For the first time in my life I was glad we wore heavy jackets to do our sport. As we started there were maybe six people standing in the rain watching us. But you know what? Sometimes things just have to be done. Plus, going in with a good attitude means good results. So we spoke a bit about the sport. And, we got one person to put down her umbrella and hit us. And, we even figured out a way to have a couple of youth from the club fence a little.


Truth be told, the half hour or so we spent out in the cold wetness went by pretty quick, and I smiled most of the time. Afterwards, as I sat and warmed up with perhaps the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had I realized somehow I strangely enjoyed the absurdity. And, I didn’t even mention how inspired I was by how determined the kids were to go trick or treating through the rain.

I don’t know if one of the few people who watched us try to fence will come to the club. But I do know it was a unique experience, of which when I think about, will make me smile. There are times when you agree to lend a hand knowing you’ll have some fun, only to find it is ridiculously more than you could have imagined.