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NASA image of Earth

NASA image

Our Earth has a human-induced plastic problem. Plastic fills our dumps, our land, and oceans, and our air. Plastics not only make containers and equipment but are in cars, clothes, food packages, candy wrappers, papers, cigarettes, and our media devices. Just about everything has plastics in it, including our drinking water, food, and our bodies. The problem is we don’t know the ultimate effect of microplastics on our environment or within our bodies or how to remove them.

Earth’s land, water, and air are not ours, but part of the Earth where we live. Yes, you intuitively know that, but we act like we own the Earth. Some say God gave us this world to do with as we please. If so, he never promised a second world.

Plastics are necessary, and many people remain ignorant or uncaring about the problems that come from the unplanned disposal of all the plastic products we use. Our ever-increasing need for plastics and the resulting pollution expands as our populations’ demand for products surpass the limits of the Earth’s natural products to provide them.

We do not know all the dangers of the plastics to the Earth, but we can see what is happening in our waters. Many of us have seen the images of fish, seals, turtles, and other creatures caught up in plastics. We have islands of plastic floating in our oceans. Helen Briggs points out in a BBC article what might be happening to our water wildlife. She states “A study found bits of plastic outnumber baby fish by seven to one in the nursery waters off Hawaii,” AND, “There is growing evidence that plastic is being ingested by marine life, but the health implications are unclear.”

“Not only does it contaminate our oceans, but 22 million pounds of plastic are dumped into the Great Lakes every year” (Tony Briscoe, Chicago Tribune). Now, how they measured this I’m unsure, but I think its safe to say, we throw huge amounts of plastic into our waterways.

Plus, in Michigan, where every square inch is watershed for the Great Lakes, the state has tons of plastics dumped into landfills that have grown into mountains. Plastic in landfills may take 1000 years to decompose, and scientists are not sure how microparticles, those very tiny plastic particles that remain plastic and are now found in Earth’s air, water, and soil, will affect our ecosystems (UN Environment Program). Humans also freely dispose of any unwanted trash, much of it plastic, on roadsides, sidewalks, nature trails, and in our local, state, and national parks. I know because I help pick it up. We’ve all seen images of marine life caught in plastic, but it goes further, affecting microorganisms.

So, if you don’t care about what effect plastics are having on the chain of life, do you care that you now have microplastics in your body? They are in your water, even your beer and other liquid products, and in the food you consume. Microplastics are in the air you breathe. So what? The Ecology Center explains more and gives problem information related to each type of plastic. Microplastics can toxify your body with lead, cadmium, or mercury. It can damage fatty acids, which are important in brain function. It can affect other important body chemistry which can cause indigestion or depression problems. Further, it can lead to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or pancreas or thyroid damage as well as have effects on testosterone.

What makes plastics? Plastics are objects made from malleable synthetic or organic polymers, of repeating, often very long molecular threads of carbon and other elemental atoms. Biopolymers are natural and found in every living organism, but synthetic polymers differ. While biopolymers are the foundation of some of our natural products like cotton, linen, paper, and silk, synthetic polymers are man-made plastics. They play an important role in our way of life. Yes, they are made of natural elements but differ.

When was plastic invented? Alexander Parkes, a British scientist, invented the first plastic Parkesine in 1856 and through several variations became registered as celluloid in 1872. It is based on the natural compound cellulose. Celluloid became important in the photography and film industries. Movies were made from it.

Bakelite was patented by Leo Baekeland in 1907 and it was the first plastic made from synthetic materials. It soon formed the body components or containers of radios, telephones, and other household products. The invention of Bakelite led to the development of many other plastics.

This means that in 1000 years all known plastics used in the last 148 years will have degenerated into the elements that made them. If we control our disposal and find safe disposable systems now.

What makes up plastics today? Based on the materials used to create plastic, we have seven basics types of plastic which create products now vital to our way of life. They compose many of our appliances, containers, clothes, and even vehicles. The problem is too many people carelessly dispose of them both consciously and unconsciously.

Each type of plastic differs from others. Some are reusable, but others can become hazardous material after usage. Some plastics are easily recyclable, others are more difficult.

Take your nearest plastic product, maybe the lunch box you brought from home, your water bottle, your instant noodle cup. Study it closely, and you might find a number at its back or bottom. You probably already know what the number represents. It indicates the product’s type of plastic.

Seven types of plastic exist, Types 1, 2 and 5 are considered the safest for food and 1 and 2 are the most recyclable.
Type 1: PET or PETE, or Polyester (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is primarily used for food and beverage packaging as it helps prevent oxygen from entering a package’s contents. It also produces a wrinkle-free fabric. It does contain antimony which is a carcinogen and can contaminate any food or liquid stored in it for long or if the plastic is heated. This type of plastic is recyclable.
Type 2: HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) is a dense and strong plastic used in plastic bags and bottles for products from milk to shampoo to medicines, and is also recyclable.
Type 3: PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) plastics make toys, medical bags and tubing, and loose-leaf binders among many uses. It is considered a hazardous plastic and is usually not recyclable. The chemicals used to make it can be hazardous to health.
Type 4, LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) “has the simplest plastic polymer chemical structure, making it very easy and very cheap to process.” Plastic bags, plastic wraps, milk cartons, beverage cups, and covering for wire are common products using this plastic, but It is difficult to recycle.
Type 5, PP (Polypropylene) makes up hot food containers and diapers. It isn’t recyclable.
Type 6: PS (Polystyrene) or Styrofoam is used for certain food containers, helmet lines, and packing materials. Hot oily food can leach styrene, a component that could damage the brain and nervous system. Polystyrene is also hard to recycle.
Type 7: Is all other plastics, which can be layers of several types of plastics, but also PC or Polycarbonate which is used for many infant products and food containers. It can cause many health problems and should be avoided as harmful and toxic in certain amounts
More sources for explanations of plastic types: Quality Logo Product, or at Non-Toxic Revolution or at How Stuff Works.

The public’s ignorance of plastic types has led to many of our problems. Disposable to most humans means throwing the product away– anywhere, but that is not always the best answer.

The biggest question is what needs to be done and can it be done? What can you do?

Note: Published in both my gardening and writing blogs.g blogs.

As a gardener, I know humans have introduced many invasive species like Dandelions, Japanese Knotweed, and Phragmites, into many of our native North American habitats. I have witnessed it, and to some extent participated (in ignorance) of the problem.

As little as two hundred years ago the forests surrounding the Great Lakes lacked earthworms. The Ice Age and glaciers eliminated the native species, and during the 10,000 years since the last glacier, our trees and plants evolved to live in the wormless local soils. This became a thick layer of duff or the debris of trees and shrubs that lined the forest floor. Duff remains for years, slowly decayed by fungi, but providing a habitat for many Michigan ferns, delicate wildflowers, and small animals like salamanders.

Since settlers first moved into this area, they introduced European earthworms like the red wriggler to encourage composting. Gardeners still think of worms as a desirable asset to their garden’s soil. These worms eat decaying matter, aerate the soil, and leave humus-rich worm casting behind as they burrow. In general, they do good things for garden soil.

In the forests, however, worms eat the duff in as little as two years, lowering the soil’s acidity and making nutrients more available. The plants in our forests survived in the poor fertility and the high acidity of our original native soils. While the introduction of worms won’t necessarily harm the mature trees growing there, the duff’s absence affects the number of seedlings growing in an area. It also makes an advantageous situation for unwanted invasive species that couldn’t have grown in the more acidic original soil.

Bloodroot

As this debris layer disappears, so does the habitat for plants like Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, Blue Cohosh, Sweet Cicely, Mayflowers, Wild Ginger, Lady Fern, Bloodroot, Bellwort, and the tiny Goblin Fern which might already be extinct in this area. They adapted to germination and growth in the thick layer of duff that provided them nutrients, moisture, protection from extremes in temperature and predators, and microorganisms like fungi necessary for their survival.

It is also believed the loss of the duff effects the salamander population that fed on insects living in the debris. The salamanders, in turn, provided food for snakes, shrews, thrushes, and screech owls, so the earthworm invasion affects a whole chain of living organisms.

Worms were introduced from dumped fishing bait, on the root-soil clumps of purchased plants, and on the tires of vehicles entering the local forest. The most severe invasions are usually near roads. This is one reason the U.S. Forest Service is restricting logging and road-building in certain forest areas in states around the Great Lakes.

Trillium

Once the earthworms infest an area, little can be done to remove them without doing more harm to the forest. We know many of the above plants grow in worm-infested soil because we grow them in our gardens, but a study in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota showed these species do not return to worm-infested forests.

Some ecologists hope the ecosystem of the forest may eventually come to a new balance. In the meantime, don’t spread earthworms into wormless areas, don’t dump worm bait in forested lands, and keep your vehicles on roads and trails. Gardeners in wooded areas need to keep compost piles and worm contaminated soil from contaminating the woodlands. These may seem like small measures, but it was a little thing that started this change.

(Updated. Originally published in the Cadillac News in 2002.

Here it is the beginning of July and I’m tied up in everything but my failing garden. Bad weather has plagued the spring, but the asparagus seemed to like it. It did better this year than it ever has and we had about 20 pounds of produce from our 21 plants. I planted the vegetable garden in the first week of June, but many of the vegetables did not come up. Some were new packets of seeds and still did not sprout. The weeds, on the other hand, are thriving. My flower gardens are overgrowing their bounds. I weed in spurts between other projects.

While gardening is good moderate exercise, three years ago I had a terrible pain in my hip and groin down to my knee. The doctor had an x-ray taken and then asked me if I knew when my hip had been injured. Yes, in a car accident in 1979. He told me that was causing the pain and if I wanted to keep using it, I’d better exercise. I didn’t do anything for one year, then used our old rowing machine to work out for over a year. At 4000 strokes a week I ended up wearing out the pull rope and replacing it was more expensive than the machine. Since I’ve worn out my rowing machine, I’ve been walking. I’m up to two miles at 40 minutes five or six days a week, which is over the CDC  recommendation of 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity aerobic activity.” I plan to buy a new rowing machine in October to use during the winter months.

One thing I’ve noticed while walking is the amount of trash thrown out on the roadside. Interestingly, all states have anti-littering regulations, but they are all different in what is litter and penalties applied. In Michigan, it is a civil infraction and any amounts less than one cubic foot is fined up to $800; amounts greater than one cubic foot but less than three cubic feet are fined up to $1,500. So ethically, we all know littering is illegal, but many people make moral choices to ignore this and throw the unwanted out the window. I regularly find empty beer cans alongside the road even with Michigan’s 10¢ refund for returns. I’m sure this dumpster is also breaking the no drinking and driving law. On July 4th in my 1-mile trek down the road and return I picked up two plastic grocery bags of mostly plastic trash. At least there were no dirty diapers to collect.

What many residents don’t realize is that every square inch of Michigan is part of the Great Lakes watershed. And while plastic doesn’t break down for many years, it does break into microplastics that litter the world’s waters. The heavy tractor the village or county uses to mow the roadsides breaks the plastic up into small pieces (as well as the road’s asphalt edge). The Great Lakes now have large percentages of microplastics (22 million pounds of plastic added each year). Matter of fact, a new study says everyone is now pooping microplastics, so I’m glad I’m doing the little tiny bit I can to help prevent more plastic (and other trash) seeping into Lake Michigan, but was glad to learn of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

 

I love seeing leaf buds as they are about to burst from branches. Often they emerge in colors that identify a plant, like the yellow-gold of willows. For me buds symbolize the promise of life and timeless renewal, and the introduction of a new gardening season.

We all enjoy the shade of leaves above streets in summer, and the sound of wind rustling through a canopy of leaves, but you might not find leaves an exciting topic for many reasons. For the most part, they are green, although they come in different shades and tints. Many leaves’ shapes come in an uninspired oval, varying only in size. Leaves seem to be more concerned with function than aesthetics; a plain green leaf produces more food than a fancy-shaped variegated one. Leaves can cause work, too. Some leaves, as in lawns, need labor to make them attractive. Others need raking every autumn.

Yet to me, leaves are so much more.

Every leaf is a complicated chemical laboratory and manufacturing site, and the only one known to be capable of taking water, air, and sunlight to make food. We all live off this wonderful ability because we either eat leaves or animals that eat leaves.

They perform another service. Leaves change carbon dioxide into oxygen and water, helping humidify the air we breathe. Matter of fact, all the breathable free oxygen in our atmosphere comes from leaves. And while they perform this miraculous service, they help clean the air of pollutants.

Inside these little chemical factories, sugar, their main food product, can be changed into starches, protein, oil, and alcohol for consumption or sometimes for fuel. They also produce chemicals that heal us. Many drugs are still based on organic formulas found in leaves.

Some of these chemicals are poisonous, capable of killing rather than feeding or healing. A few poisonings by a plant are famous, like Socrates, whose politics forced him to swallow poison hemlock. Instead of using these leaf chemicals to eliminate our fellow man, we now use them as weapons against bacterial agents and insects.

Besides all these attributes, leaves can talk to the gardener, telling them of a plant’s needs before it is too late and the plant dies. If I read the message, I know when your plant needs water, and when there is too much or not enough sun for their liking. If they mature smallish in size with yellow or reddish veins, they are telling me their soil needs an application of nitrogen, a common complaint. If leaves mature twisted and misshapen, the soil might lack zinc, an unusual occurrence. If I know the language, leaves can tell me when they need phosphorus, potassium, calcium, boron, manganese, sulfur or iron. There are garden books that tell everyone how to understand leaf talk.

In our area, where we enjoy leaves that are deciduous, lasting only for the season, they have one more wondrous trick, they tell time. When swelling along the edges of bare winter branches they calculate spring. A full overhead glory of green tells of summer, and the changing of colors says autumn has arrived. When they have all fallen, except for the dried brown leaves showing an oak tree’s stubbornness, I know to turn on the furnace. So watch the leaves and enjoy the gardening season.

BUZZBy author Thor Hanson
From publisher Basic Books
ISBN-10: 0465052614
ISBN-13: 978-0465052615
Publish date: July, 2018

BUZZ is more than a title because a ‘buzz’ of interest kept me reading. The information on the evolution of bees from wasps, changing from carnivores to vegetarians during the age of dinosaurs, was fascinating, as was learning how long man has been harvesting and treasuring honey. It shows cave paintings of this activity! As a gardener, I also found the number of bee species astounding and their effects on how flowers developed through the millennia interesting. Only recently I learned Michigan has over 300 variety of bees, but had no idea on how many species there are in the world. All the information Mr. Hanson gives on the many types of bees in BUZZ is thought-provoking, and goes far beyond the scope of honey bees and their decline.

BUZZ is a well written personal narrative telling of the author’s own interest and journey of discovery on the topic of bees. Author Thor Hanson writes in easy to understand language rather than in the jargon of science, but he provides quick definitions when words of a scientific nature are used and gives supporting evidence on his information from many experts in the field. BUZZ also holds a message that humans need to become more aware of their relationship to the creatures and plants that surround us and makes living possible.

The perennial wild violet is sometimes unwanted when it spreads rampantly through lawns and garden beds, but its domesticated relatives are cold hardy plants perfect for local gardens. Edible, you can use the flowers and leaves of violets as a garnish or as an ingredient in salads, cold soups, gelatins, jams, or almost any desert. For entertainment you can serve up an accompanying story about violets.

Johnny Jump Up

Johnny Jump Up

This comes to mind as I dig the unwanted weeds out of the cracks between my brick walkway; all except the Johnny Jump-Ups. They’ve been given permission to grow wherever and however they want.

long spurred violet - native wildflower

Long Spurred Violet

Annual pansies and perennial violets come from the same genus, Viola. They have been grown for food and medicine for centuries and in that time, the plants have accumulated a volume of myth and folklore. Pansies bloom longer in a northern garden than they do in areas with hot long summers, occasionally lasting long into the summer. Gardeners have hybridized violas extensively to produce the wonderful array of flowers now available.

These low growing plants come in many colors and color combinations. In northern areas most bloom in April and May, but some like Viola tricolor, or Johnny-jump-up, bloom all summer long. The small flowered types make great ground covers. The large flowered plants are great in containers or for a splash of color in the garden. Most like moist growing sites, but will thrive in ordinary garden soil.

Downy Yellow Violet

The perennial violet is often called the sweet violet, although there are many species of perennial violets. Our native species are the marsh blue violet, the Labrador violet and the bird’s-foot violet, all found in Eastern North America. Violets readily hybridize making identification in the wild difficult. Most perennial violets sold in garden markets are hybrids. Some look more like pansies than the traditional ‘sweet violet.’

Sweet violets are Viola odorata, a European species with a history that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. Zeus turned his mistress Io into a cow to hide her from his wife, Hera, and gave Io violets to eat when she found grass unpalatable. They were also the favorite flower of Napoleon who became known as ‘Corporal Violet.’ His empress, Josephine, wore violets at their wedding to honor him. After his defeat and exile in 1814, Napoleon claimed he would return with the violets in the spring. When he returned to France in March of 1915, the violets were indeed in bloom. This may be why violets are the birth flower for March. Legend says before Napoleon’s final exile he visited his dear, but divorced, Josephine’s grave. He picked a few of the violets growing there and placed them in a locket he wore until his death.

There are superstitions tied to sweet violets, too. To give a gift of violets is to offer the recipient good luck, and wearing a garland of violets prevents dizziness. However, if violets bloom in the fall, epidemics will come within the year. I hope this lore doesn’t apply to the violas and pansies sold blooming in most nurseries during September.

Pick the blossoms of Johnny Jump Ups and add them to your dinner salad tonight.

Book coverAn Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries, and Herbs in Cold Climates

By By John Whitman
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN 978-0-8166-9839-4
February 2017|
Gardening

FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is a marvelous book. It is a large and comprehensive volume for growing edible food plants only, but discusses edible flower garden plants and other unusual and unexpected edible plants. This book is for gardening in cold areas like mine, and as a long-time gardener, I know this can be difficult.

Part I is devoted to the basics of gardening and growing crops organically. It explains a variety of approaches from growing in containers to creating many types of land gardens. Soil and compost is explained along with how to water and fertilize. Directions for plant seeds is provided, but it also includes other methods of propagation. It explains how to grow crops and how to weed and harvest them. The information goes further to include culinary terms, food storage, and even gives reasons why some people love or hate a particular vegetable. All the tools and products necessary for gardening are listed along with safety tips. Great photos and many easy-to-understand charts supplement the text.

One thing among many I learned was that pH means potential hydrogen. I’ve known what a pH reading was and how it applies to plants, but not what the acronym meant. It’s not only the solid information but also the good advice provided, such as the myth the gardener controls their garden, and many ways exist to achieve a bountiful harvest. Author John Whitman encourages gardeners to use whatever method works best for them.

The most wonderful part of FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is Part II– an extensive listing of all the vegetables, berries and herbs that can be grown in the food garden. Many I have grown, but even more I haven’t. From asparagus to zucchini, every crop is described. The information includes when and where to plant, the plant’s nutritional facts, the varieties available, how to grow it, problems and pests that can occur, and how to harvest and store the crop.

While FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is invaluable for gardeners in cold areas, defined in the book as anywhere the temperature can dip below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, the basic information is relevant anywhere. The extensive list and discussion of crop foods makes this garden book one every gardener will seek out repeatedly, not only when choosing plants to grow for the upcoming season, but also whenever problems or questions occur during growing or harvesting of those crops. For beginning gardeners or experienced gardeners, FRESH FROM THE GARDEN offers effective gardening know-how.

Despite seven cats in the neighborhood, this squirrely squirrel seemed extremely relaxed while enjoying a sunflower snack. Maybe he could even be labeled as show-offy. He must have known all the cats were in the house and sound asleep. Or, like many Michiganders, maybe he is only celebrating and enjoying a sunny, fairly warm spring day.

Unfortunately, the DNR has suggested everyone empty their bird feeders. The 3,000 or so bears in Northern Michigan are coming out of hibernation. They will be hungry and find sunflower seeds delectable.  Several years ago in the middle of the night I watched one laying on his back in the snow with two feeders he had torn down, pouring the seeds into his gaping jaws. The back porch lights illuminated his misdeed. Sorry birds, sorry squirrels. I don’t want Smokey on my back porch.

After a long spell of foggy warm days and melting of previous layers of snow, temperatures lowered a little and it snowed over night. In the morning wet and heavy snow coated everything. (I know how heavy as I had to shovel it!) It is one of those spectacular winter views that turns the landscape white and black, a fairy-esque landscape sparkling in ice and snow on trees. This is one of the wonders of living here. You can see how heavy the load on the branches is as they bend with the snow’s weight.

photo of last night's snow

 

photo pileated woodpeckerWe had a special visitor today– a Pileated Woodpecker. These are just great birds to view. I have to say I see bald eagles more often than I see this particular woodpecker.  This maybe my fourth or fifth viewing, and the others were not this up close and most were when we lived in Missouri nearly twenty years ago where the holes being pecked out of wood were from my house.

He (this is a male; the female has a grey forehead that turns to red further back) landed on the bird feeder on my back porch and pecked at the suet on this side of the feeder once but was more interested in the the suet block on the far side of the feeder. I took twenty photos, but the bird moved so fast I mostly got blurred images or only tail feathers as he bent over the far side of the feeder to eat suet.  That bill looks dangerous, doesn’t it? Good for chopping wood.

The bird sites say these woodpeckers are about the size of crows, but the crows in this area are not this large or impressive. They live year round in much of the eastern United States, but also inhabit areas in lower Canada. Obviously they can face our cold winters. If your want to know more, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site gives more about information about Pileated Woodpeckers.

I hope he comes to visit again. Six more packages of suet sit in a cabinet and we will buy more if he keeps visiting.

2nd photo pileated woodpecker

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