Friday, August 07, 2009

A Bump in the Night

After living in Brooklyn for four years I'm used to hearing the city sounds at night, like traffic, people talking, and dishes clattering. What I'm not used to hearing is rustling in the trees and bushes at 4 am, so when I heard just that in the garden next to our new apartment's bedroom, I got nervous. I thought my reaction was perfectly normal considering that there could be some sort of intruder mere feet away from us--in the middle of the night, no less--but when I heard branches break and crunching sounds, I realized that what I was hearing was an animal. My anxiety melted into curiosity.

I came up with the two most probable options: raccoon or opossum. A look outside didn't do much good, since it was 4 am and dark out, and even though I was squinting, my eyesight just isn't that good without my glasses. Then I tried to narrow down my choice based on what I knew about the animals. They're well adapted to human environments. They eat...and here's where I faltered. Even though I'm an environmental journalist, I really don't know much about the habits of these wild animals. How embarrassing.

My search for information led me to John Harder, a biologist at Ohio State University who did a study on opossums in New York. He told me that "raccoons and opossums are sort of common.
If you have one you probably have the other."

So what could he tell me about an opossum's diet, then? They're generalists that eat everything from earthworms to dog food. "They love dog food--of any kind," he said. People mistake them for rats because of their pointed noses, but they actually eat them. The most interesting thing about the Virginia opossums, the species most likely to live around here, Harden said, is that they're actually marsupials, more closely related to kangaroos and koalas than rodents. They climb trees and the young ones even hang from their tails, he said. And yes, they allegedly play dead, putting themselves into a coma. That's not a behavior often seen by humans, though. They're not very impressed by us, apparently.

Raccoons also eat almost anything. In addition to garbage, they eat plants, animals, eggs, and insects. They've been haunting yards in my neighborhood for years, Anne Won, told me. As the director of landscape management at Prospect Park, one of the larger parks in New York located a few blocks from my place, she's heard of them prowling the grounds.

Having them, as well as opossums, is "just natural in any city park, just like in backyards," she said. "They’re going to be opportunistic. It’s a good habitat for them." So is our garden, so if I can play a small part supporting the local wildlife, I'm happy to do so. Now I just have to find that flashlight...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

DTV Transition

The transition to digital television is creeping up on us, and with it the possibility of tons of electronic waste. As long as Congress doesn't postpone the switch to June, a move that the Obama administration is pushing for, the changeover will happen on February 17th.

Delaying that deadline could give state governments more time to implement e-waste recycling legislation. It could also give the federal government the chance to pass a law that makes it impossible for companies to just ship the defunct devices overseas.

To learn more about the problem (and some solutions), check out this story I wrote for Sprig.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tired and Cranky

As evening darkened to night a few weeks ago, signifying the end of a wonderful but nearly sleepless weekend, I began to feel not only my eyelids, but also my mood getting heavy. As far as I could tell, there was no obvious reason for my crankiness other than my sleep deprivation attributed to a couple of early morning flights and a busy few days.

I remember returning from sleepovers when I was little and my parents telling me that I was cranky, but at the time I attributed it to something other than fatigue (something more along the lines of Mom and Dad were being just plain mean). But I’ve noticed my temperament changing when I’ve gotten fewer than the necessary hours of shut-eye. I started to ask myself if lack of sleep could actually be making me grumpy.

To my surprise, 60 Minutes reran a piece last night that focused on that very issue. Researchers like Matthew Walker at the University of California, Berkeley found that people who don’t get necessary 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep a night have more violent mood swings than those who get that amount of sleep.

Walker found this when he and his team deprived voluntary subjects of sleep and then showed them violent images while they were in a machine that shows brain activity. They found that one area of the brain is more active when someone has gotten less sleep.

“In the sleep-deprived subjects, Walker discovered a disconnect between that over-reacting amygdala (a region of the brain) and the brain's frontal lobe, the region that controls rational thought and decision-making, meaning that the subjects' emotional responses were not being kept in check by the more logical seat of reasoning. It's a problem also found in people with psychiatric disorders,” explained t.v. journalist Lesley Stahl.

So sleep plays an important role in moderating emotional reactions. These findings could even alter treatments for people with psychiatric disorders.

There are several other important reasons to get 8 hours of sleep a night (sleep helps moderate metabolism and improves memory), which scientists are only now beginning to understand.

I used to argue that people can get used to less sleep, but that also turns out to be incorrect. It seems that people now are proud of how little sleep they get, scientists in the story admitted. Based on an American Cancer Society survey of one million Americans, people in this country get an average of 6.7 hours of sleep a night, down 15 percent from just 50 years ago. Yet less is not more in this case: sleep remains a valuable and necessary part of life, say the researchers.

Although I don’t always spend a third of my day (or night) in bed, my mood may depend on just that. So apparently your prescription was right again, Mom and Dad. To avoid being cranky after a late night, I should just take a nap.

Are You a Scuppie?

When my wonderful fiancée Tim went to see an old friend of his the other day, his buddy asked if we are scuppies. A little confused, Tim asked for the definition of scuppie before answering yes or no. His friend answered with something like, "You know, a socially conscious yuppie."

Apparently I'm way behind the ball on this one. The word was coined by financial planner Chuck Failla, the author of the soon-to-be-published Scuppie Handbook. Treehugger published a post way back in March about scuppies, a number of people have already written articles on the term, and there's even a scuppie website for the book.

So what does it take to be a scuppie? Well, we unplug our power strip when we leave the apartment; we shop at the farmers' market for our vegetarian meals when we can (and bring our groceries home in our own canvas bags); we changed our lightbulbs; and we recycle. But I'm not sure that's enough.

There are also many things that we don't do, like work on a community garden, as Michael Pollan suggested in The New York Times Magazine last week. We don't offset our travel with carbon credits or anything, we don't compost, and we don't use only green cleaning products. We also eat fish (so I guess, technically, we're pescatarians).

I haven't decided if we fall into the scuppie category. After doing some thinking, I decided that there should be another term specific to the environment for people who are doing everything they can to live a sustainable lifestyle. Ecuppie? If only it didn't sound so much like a hiccup...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Melting Ice

It can be difficult to envision exactly what global warming looks like. In this AFP video [no longer available] about Andean glaciers, which scientists find melted five meters this year, the narrator equates the ice and the resulting waters that flow from it to endangered species.

Although glaciers may not have the aesthetic appeal of a Siberian tiger or a giant panda, they are even more vulnerable to climate change than many species on the brink of extinction. Thankfully, researchers have developed projects like the frozen zoo and the encyclopedia of life to preserve animal biodiversity, but it is a pretty sure bet that all glaciers will fall victim to global warming. Despite their chilly reception, glaciers are some of the best indicators of climate change and while they last, they will continue to help scientists better understand our environment.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Stories of Plenty

Check out the most recent issue of Plenty magazine on stands now. I also wrote two stories for the website last week. The first is on the environmental effects of crops that are genetically modified with the Bt insecticide gene, and the second is a Q&A with Alan Weisman, the author of the new book The World Without Us. Enjoy and let me know what you think!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Solutions to Seltzer

As the days get hotter, there are certain things that are irresistible: ice cream, cold beer, and seltzer. The only problem with seltzer is that it seems that it only comes in plastic bottles or aluminum cans.

Sure, you can recycle both of those containers, but wouldn't it be great if there was an easy way to make your own bubbly refreshment? A Grist reader asked Umbra today about recycling soda siphons, which, it turns out, can be economically and environmentally beneficial:
Once I bought the siphon, the only cost would be the charging capsules, and that would be about the same cost per quart as the bottled water.
Soda siphons might not be the first alternative I thought of the last time I guiltily purchased a seltzer water in a plastic bottle, but this summer, I just might give it a try.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Local Eating Challenge

I tried eating locally for a week, which turned out to be great. But I'll admit that I made more exceptions that I originally anticipated. I still came in under my budget, but I would like to do the same challenge again to see how much money I spend in another seven-day time frame.

Here are some answers to the survey I completed after the Penny-Wise Challenge:

The hardest thing about eating locally on a budget had less to do with the budget part as much as the local part. The temptation to grab something around the corner instead of finding, buying, and transporting something local when I'm not at home can be nagging, but the price restriction was not as much of a problem.

The easiest thing was visiting the farmers' markets. I just love the experience of going to the market, searching out the foods that are fresh and in season, and buying the products from people who actually grow and harvest them.

I think that if people are willing to take the time and make the effort, they can eat locally on a budget. For me, eating locally is a challenge and at times it can be expensive. Yet it is becoming a habit at my house, which is something that I am increasingly proud of.

I will continue to incorporate local foods into my diet, especially now that more and more local foods are coming into season!