Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Finding Faith - Fighting for the Earth and Food Justice

After watching “The Harvest,” “Man in the Maze,” “Forked,” and “Food Ministries in Tucson, AZ,” during the “Food Justice Mini Film Festival” at The Loft, I was all geared up to attend the “Food Justice, Faith, and Climate Change Forum.” But I have to admit, I was given a moment of pause when the word, “Faith” registered. I had become increasingly disillusioned with Christianity since "family values” were  shanghaied by politicians creating fear to divide us as a nation. Once in office, they sold out Christianity by denying fundamental Christian values such as taking care of the less fortunate. Using the media as a platform, they depicted the poor as lazy and stupid, not deserving of our sympathy. They coined the phrase “welfare queens” and dehumanized the homeless. They ignited racism by demonizing undocumented workers, calling them “illegals.” “Welfare” became a dirty word. Our representatives made a mockery of Christianity by denying science and climate change so their rich campaign contributors could continue to profit by savaging the earth. Being called an “environmentalist” became the supreme insult. It is a shame that you can’t even use the word “Green” anymore because it is such a turn off to so many people. This was NOT the same Christianity I had grown up with.

Franciscan Sister Joan Brown of Interfaith Power and Light
Arriving a few minutes late, I came in the middle of the opening prayer. For a few uncomfortable moments I wondered if I belonged there, if I was a fraud for even attending. But my fears were soon relieved as Franciscan Sister Joan Brown of Partnership for Earth Spirituality and New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light spoke on climate justice. Fred Bahnson, director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, spoke on using the Tree of Life as a symbol for faith-based activism on climate change. The Tree of Life is our chosen symbol, too! My spirit soared as one lecture was preceded by a Native American blessing. This interfaith event wasn’t about fear or exclusion, it was about love.

I was inspired by the faith-based responses to climate change and food justice. We heard how individual congregations were implementing environmentally sustainable practices like starting their own community gardens, and installing solar panels and rain gathering cisterns. There were practical lectures like: “Seed Libraries and other Strategies for Providing Better Access to Fresh Food in Food Deserts.” Barbara Eiswerth, founder of Iskashitaa Refugee Network, told us how they make arrangements with local residents to pick fruit that would otherwise be wasted. 

We heard some practical responses to food justice. Don Bustos, New Mexico Organic Farmer of the Year, spoke on “Farmworkers to Farmers: Empowering Those Who Bring Us Our Daily Bread.” On his farm he implemented training programs for farm workers to become independent organic farmers by using solar energy. Jose Oliver, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, shared how they reach out to schools to implement the Real Food Challenge. Through the program, schools work with food service providers, distributors, processors and growers to ensure: (1) local economies, (2) environmental sustainability, (3) fair labor, (4) animal welfare and (5) nutrition.

Veronica Kyle, Chicago Outreach Director of Faith in Place, spoke about reaching out to her community. She demonstrated how important it is not to shame people for their food choices, but to speak to them from where they are. Her organization published a Southern Cooking cookbook with healthy, organic recipes. Once Veronica was lecturing on organic gardening and spouting off sustainability jargon. The audience didn’t know what the heck she was talking about – even though a few had been gardening their whole lives. When she started a community garden, she made sure to ask those gardeners to share their expertise. She is reaching people where they live. 

I came away from this forum feeling inspired and hopeful that people of all faiths were coming together to make a difference in climate change and food justice. Just imagine the environmental impact if every church, temple, synagogue, and mosque encouraged their communities to do the same.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Planting the Rain: How we discovered the Watershed Management Group

I first heard about the Watershed Management Group (WMG) shortly after returning to Tucson in 2013. As I was talking to people about growing native and locally-adapted plants here in the Sonoran Desert, WMG frequently came up in the conversation. I checked out their website and read some of their newsletters, but I didn't really understand the benefits of water harvesting in anything but an intellectual manner until I rode my bike around town on the Homescape Harvest Tour in 2014. (Click the map below to join me on the tour.)

We set off on our odyssey from another Tucson treasure, Bicycle Inter-Community Art & Salvage (BICAS) and pedaled away to see what our neighbors were doing to harvest water in their own yards.

On the tour, I saw people doing truly amazing things with water harvesting...at a lot of different levels. In one case, it was little more than building up a berm between the house and the roof line to make sure the rainwater would flow into the small backyard garden, instead of flooding the foundation of the house.

Another homeowner took the recycling approach: building a cistern, composting barrel, and chicken coop out of "junk" saved from the scrapyard.

And, it's not just homeowners who were getting into the act: responsible businesses, like the Tucson Association of Realtors, installed curb cuts and catchment basins filled with native grasses and plants to reduce flooding in their parking lot and filter the pollutants out of the water before allowing it to settle in to help replenish our diminishing groundwater reserves.

The Shipek house (Lisa Shipek is the Executive Director of WMG and Catlow Shipek is the Policy and Technical Training Director at WMG) was a true showcase of just how much is possible by taking a holistic approach to managing water and waste. While it will be a long time, if ever, before we get to the same point with our humble midtown home, it was incredibly inspiring. Whether it is the rainwater-sustained lush greenery that greets you from the street (a rarity in Tucson!) or the composting toilet and solar heated shower that we all had to line up to check out, there were so many great ideas in this one home alone, that I could easily write another blog post just about all the features of their oasis in the desert.

The tour wrapped up at the WMG Living Lab - the office, classroom, and demonstration site that is "home base" for the Watershed Management Group.

When the 2015 Homescape Harvest Tour rolled around, I knew I needed to bring Jana along with me. We started off our walking tour with the full tour of the Living Lab.


We also saw a really exciting example of a neighborhood coming together to convert a vacant lot that used to be full of trash and surplus equipment into a "pocket park." This neighborhood eyesore is well on its way to becoming a garden spot that the whole neighborhood can enjoy. Seeing what they are doing in the Palo Verde neighborhood has inspired us to consider similar projects in our own neighborhood.

Jana and I are very excited about water harvesting and the Watershed Management Group. We have a lot to do to make our xeriscaped plastic sheeting and gravel Tucson yard into a desert food forest, but we're very excited about the challenge and the potential we see in our yard. And, with every workshop we attend at WMG, we get a lot more ideas to try to implement. We're ready to plant some water!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Starting Where We Live

We plan to take out the rocks and use greywater to water our backyard. 
Glancing at the sweet Tree of Life Valentine card Dan gave me, brings to mind how we have grown together in the past two years. The Tree of Life represents our connection to each other, our community, and the planet.

After giving up on internet dating, I found Dan on Facebook. There were pictures of him mentoring teens in robotics, gazing fondly at his 3D printer, and painting the walls at CoLab workspace. I was impressed by how he was trying to do good in the world, so I asked him for a tour of CoLab. He rushed by me sweating profusely from riding his bike. After showing off CoLab, he offered to give me a tour of “his downtown” – Maker House and Xerocraft. We settled in the courthouse courtyard and talked for 6 hours. I told him about my creative boys, my screenwriting, supporting local filmmakers by organizing film events, and writing reviews of meaningful films. He told me in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t interested in dating. He came to Tucson so he could live inexpensively while working on his many humanitarian projects. The one that was dearest to his heart was “The Pineapple Project” a computer program that would allow subsistence farmers worldwide to use their cell phones to find out what was best to plant on their land.  

That's Gary Nabhan there. We're big fans. 
When we got together a few days later (yeah!), we struggled with finding time for us and all his projects. We are still working on finding the right balance. Dan soon discovered that he needed to apply his program closer to home, so “Sonoran Gardener” was born. Combining my interest in film and his in sustainability, we have gone to just about every sustainability or environmental movie event in Tucson! I even found ways to discuss environmental issues in my movie reviews at Reel Inspiration.

The Poo looking guilty. 
While I have always recycled and have never driven, I am grateful to Dan for introducing me to sustainable living. It has added so much to the quality of our life together. In addition to not owning a car, Dan makes his own bread (lucky for me and the boys) and we are experimenting with planting heritage foods and edible weeds. (That’s right! Weeds!) The heritage Sonoran winter wheat is growing nicely, but the only one who has eaten any of it is “The Poo,” Dan’s dog. We did enjoy some purslane that was growing behind the neighbor’s fence. (I found a yummy Mexican recipe for a green sauce made of tomatillos, garlic, onions and serrano chiles!) We even tried planting purslane and some wild amaranth in our garden.  We may be the only ones who purposefully plant weeds in our garden!

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea).
Sometimes our environmental efforts conflict with each other. We would like to shop local, but not having a car makes it very time consuming to get to the farmers markets on the far end of town. We do cook some heritage foods that we purchased at Native Seeds:  like Tohono O’odham tepary beans. (Those stubborn little beans took over 24 hours to cook after soaking overnight!), and mesquite flour pancakes with prickly pear syrup. (Yum!) Dan would like to harvest his own mesquite beans, but they always fall to the ground before he gets to it. It’s hard being a programmer/gatherer!

Dan and I are great partners in living sustainably. Though we still struggle with developing daily habits. I squawk at Dan for leaving the water on while he reaches for a fork, “We live in the desert!”  I have learned to turn the water off while brushing my teeth! But I still kick myself for forgetting to bring the reusable grocery bag to the store.

Watershed management workshop.
We have found new ways to water our Tree of Life. Dan introduced me to the Watershed Management Group. We started with a lovely neighborhood tour. And we recently attended the Rainwater and Greywater harvesting classes. We are excited to redesign our yard so we can use washing machine water on our landscape. It’s sure to be hard work, but fun too! 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Steps Towards Sustainability - We Had To Start Somewhere.

Excited and energized by the "Food Justice, Faith and Climate Change Forum," I tried to share what I learned with my apathetic teenage son. Feeling frustrated after he told me that everything I was doing to combat climate change was stupid (I hate that word!), I tried to paint him a picture of how it would affect us. “You know the way the land looks in "Mad Max: Fury Road" – where nothing can grow on it - that’s possible.  It could happen again. It has happened before in this country. In Oklahoma, the farmers overworked the land so much that nothing would grow on it.” My son said he already knew about that.  “That’s the Dust Bowl. I don’t care. What would you have done about it? Told those farmers not to farm on their land? Would they have listened to you? What good do you do?”  I replied, “I don’t know. But I know that I couldn’t live with myself if I left that for you without doing something. I have to start somewhere, don’t I?"

Our fledgling tree still needs support
So here I am starting somewhere.  My husband Dan and I started where we live. Bit by bit we are making an effort to transform our convenient consumer lifestyle into a more sustainable lifestyle. Admittedly, we are still learning what that means. My simplest definition is incorporating sustainable practices and habits into our everyday life that protect our precious land (so it will continue to grow plants like the food we eat and maintain the various ecosystems and wildlife) and conserve our precious water supply. This is especially important since we live in the desert. While reduce, reuse, recycle is a great start (I am still groping with changing old habits), it goes beyond that to shopping locally, gardening, water harvesting, reducing use of fossil fuels…  We have so much to learn!  But it’s kinda fun and exciting.

I have been wanting to start a “Sustainable Living Tucson” blog for some time.  Dan and I have discovered so many incredible resources (Watershed Management Group, Native Seeds/SEARCH, PimaCounty Seed Libraries), that I wanted to start a blog showing how Tucson is a sustainability mecca in the desert. And hopefully I will get to that someday. But as my wise brother-in-law suggested, it might be more useful to share our honest struggles in changing our lifestyle from that of an average American consumer to being more responsible for the future of our home. So here I am - starting where we are NOW.