Monday, January 26, 2009

Talking trash


I just came in from picking up cigarette butts. Forty-nine cigarette butts, to be exact. A tenant in one of our rental houses moved out and although no smoking was permitted inside the unit, that didn’t stop my tenant’s boyfriend from dropping his smoked down cancer sticks all over the ground around the house.

How stupid can people be? Apparently, pretty darn stupid.

These days, with the correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer so well documented, one has to be either foolish enough to think he’ll be immune to the hazards of continually inhaling carcinogenic smoke into his system or too dumb to care.

And that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration what smokers are doing to the environment. Every year an estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts find their way onto our streets, parks, sidewalks and waterways. Have you ever been at a beautiful beach or a lovely overlook along a highway only to glance down upon a mound of litter predominated by cigarette butts? Sadly, it’s an all too common sight.

Why are those cigarette butts still there? Don’t they break down and deteriorate like paper or cotton? In a word, no.

Cigarettes are not biodegradable. Ninety-eight percent of a filter’s composition is cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that does not readily decompose. What it does do is sit there on the ground until rains either sweep it into a sewer or wash it into a waterway. But that’s only the beginning of the bad news. One hour after a spent cigarette becomes wet, harmful chemicals like cadmium, lead and arsenic begin to leach out of the butt and into the environment. Fish and other marine animals ingest those chemicals. Birds eat them. So do wildlife and even humans. If you’ve ever been at a beach, you’ve inevitably seen a baby pick a cigarette butt out of the sand and stick it in its mouth.

Potent stuff, cigarettes. They poison the water. They poison animals. They poison people.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m frustrated – not just by cigarette butts but by litter in general. Trash lines our county’s streets. Beautiful lakes and waterways are depositories for tossed beer cans, old tires and the remains of fast food containers. A couple weeks ago I drove out my dirt driveway onto the paved county-maintained road only to discover several dozen tires dumped along the roadside.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated incidence.

What are we doing to our beautiful countryside? Are the majority of Lake County residents completely uncaring? Is the precarious state of our fragile environment so unimportant to most people that they’d rather pollute the land than put the tiniest bit of effort into keeping it clean? How difficult is it to throw a cigarette butt into a trashcan instead of dropping it on the ground?

Although generally an optimist, I’ve become pessimistic about the problem of litter. I used to think if one person did their part, others would follow.
Dutifully I filled garbage bags with the trash that landed along the roads leading to our driveway. I explained to the little girl down the street who repeatedly dropped bubblegum wrappers on the road when she walked to the bus stop and explained to her why littering was bad for the environment. I added a clause to every lease emphasizing my zero tolerance of all litter, especially that of cigarette butts. I chastised tenants who didn’t listen and, like the tenant who just moved out, picked up after them myself.

Still, litter continued.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Places do exist where litter is not an issue. When I lived on Cape Cod, garbage did not line the roadsides or fill the waterways. People cared enough to pick up after themselves. Even here in Central Florida, you’d be hard-pressed to find cigarette butts on the ground or fast food containers littering the roadsides of any on Disney-owned property. Why not? Because the people in charge at Disney takes litter control seriously.

There’s no reason Lake County can’t be a paragon of environmental consciousness. If enough residents let our county leaders know we want them to prioritize cleaning up the countryside, the amount of litter could drastically decrease. If enough parents insisted that our school leaders ramp up the anti-littering curriculum, more children could grow up to be informed, responsible adults.

If we don’t voice our concerns or make our desire for change known, well, I guess we deserve what we get – filthy roadsides, polluted water, cigarette-covered ground and a beautiful countryside marred by the ugly aftermath of county filled with uninvolved, poorly educated, uncaring people.

What better time than now, as we embark on Obama’s “Change We Need” presidency, to contact our school leaders and county commissioners. Insist upon the enforcement of existing littering laws. Demand that citizens – young and old - be educated on the importance of a clean environment. If more of us follow Obama’s lead and work for important changes in our own backyard, even difficult problems like littering can be overcome.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Winter or spring? Ask me in an hour

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 19, 2009)

If I didn't know better, I'd think it was spring.

Young mulberry leaves are starting to unfurl and the tips of the maple tree are swelling with promise.

A Carolina wren keeps sneaking into our garage in search of potential nesting sites, while a hormonally charged cardinal pecks repeatedly at the kitchen window.

Even the emerging weeds are reacting to the weather as if it were March instead of the end of January. Wild geranium, Spanish needle, and sow thistle are among the more identifiable weeds growing with abandon wherever an irrigation spigot has dampened the ground.

Even two of the more robust varieties of clumping bamboo, which normally wait until all chances of frost are past to demonstrate above-ground growth, are tentatively sending out tender new shoots.

Is it winter or spring? The calendar says one thing, but nature says another.

One of the marvels of life in the Sunshine State is the swift succession of changing seasons. You can wake up in the morning reluctant to abandon your cozy bed because the temperature outside is in the 40s and the house is chilly. A few hours later, you're unbuttoning sweaters, rolling up sleeves or discarding outerwear entirely because the air has gotten so warm.

Blink and it's winter. Blink again and it's spring.

Lately, as I watch the plants respond to January temperatures in the mid- to high-70s, I feel awed by nature's adaptability.

What happens when the inevitable cold snap -- (it will be unseasonably chilly this week, for example) -- nips at the tips of those unfurling mulberry leaves? Will they wilt and fall off or maintain their momentum, hang on and endure?

During my early years as a Florida resident, I would get upset when chilly weather killed back the tropical plants in my yard. My mood would take a dive when green leaves turned black, flowers shriveled up and ripening fruit either fell off or withered on the stem. I'd feel and look as glum as the landscape.

Not anymore.

While I still prefer warm weather to cold and would rather we didn't have to endure the ugly aftermath of a freeze, I now realize that a bit of chill is not worth getting worked up over.

Plants rebound with remarkable efficiency, often responding to temperature dips with unexpected vigor. The few plants that don't make it probably deserved more care than I could provide and didn't belong in my yard in the first place.

I'm learning to appreciate whatever nature dishes out. If it's an early crop of mulberries because the weather has been so warm -- wonderful! If there's no crop at all because a freeze zaps the young fruit, well, we'll make do without.

Even the blackened leaves of cold-sensitive plants aren't so awful if viewed with perspective. Dead leaves fall off and, when left on the ground, decompose into soil adding important nutrients to be absorbed back into the plant. The end result: Larger, healthier plants as the seasons progress.

Although the calendar hanging on my office wall still says January, it looks and feels more like March. With the exception of the window-pecking cardinal who has confused the unseasonable warmth for territorial protection time, I'm enjoying these premature peeks into the real spring ahead.

Warm days, emerging fruit, new shoots, green leaves and a crazy red bird repeatedly attacking the window . . . if that's not enough to put a bit of spring in my step, I wonder what will?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lesson of the timid diving bird: It's OK to make it on your own

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 12, 2009)

I'm curious about a bird.

This winter, a pied-billed grebe has returned to our lake as it has done for several winters in a row. The bird -- an unobtrusive creature that doesn't make much noise or have fancy displays of feathers -- is shy and skittish. It's also alone.

Every day it swims around the lake, intermittently taking long, underwater dives. Although finding food is the obvious objective of these frequent aquatic forays, they suit another purpose as well. The bird submerges itself to escape potential enemies.

I guess I'm the bad guy in this scenario, at least from the grebe's perspective, because as soon as this pigeon-sized creature perceives the slightest sign of my approach, it disappears underwater.

Grebes must have incredibly sensitive hearing. If the bird is swimming along the shoreline closest to our house, all I have to do to trigger its flee mechanism is open the porch door. With barely a splash, the brown-feathered bird retreats to the aquatic environment in which it seems so at home.

Grebes are built to dive. They have thick, waterproof plumage and legs set far back on their bodies, making it difficult for them to walk on land but easy to dive underwater. Their feet are not webbed, but flaps of skin on the sides of their toes enable grebes to glide effortlessly through the water. Their well-designed anatomy allows them to catch fish easily.

Sunfish, perch and small catfish, aquatic insects, crayfish and invertebrates make up their diet. And, apparently, our lake provides enough of these tasty tidbits to support at least the one grebe that returns annually.

But why only one?

As I observe this interesting little bird from the comfort of my kitchen, I can't help but wonder why a lone grebe has decided to make our lake its winter home. Is the bird a scout seeking out potential feeding or nesting grounds for a flock of other grebes? Or is it a loner without need of like-minded company?

From what I've been able to glean online and from library books, grebes are for the most part solitary birds. Their nesting season is in the spring and, following an elaborate mating dance, which I have yet to observe, they settle down into monogamous pairs.

They raise their young on floating nests that take the couple up to 10 days to build. Like their human counterparts, some pied-billed grebes live year-round in Florida, while others are migratory, flying south to enjoy the warmer weather when ice and snow threaten northern climes.

I'm not sure what intrigues me most about this small, unassuming bird, but I find the fact that it seems so content to travel alone fascinating.

The grebe is not the only bird to frequent our lake without like-species companions. A single great blue heron, a tri-colored heron and a lesser blue heron all visit the lake regularly.

But these birds tend to interact with each other despite being different species. I'll often look out and watch the three types of herons follow each other from one feeding spot to another. Although they too lack same-species companions, they exhibit what appears to be a need to interact to some extent with other wading birds.

That's not true of the grebe. He or she -- I can't get close enough to determine for sure -- contentedly navigates the lake without a discernible longing to interact with other birds. A flock of wood ducks also visits the lake in the winter, but neither the grebe nor the ducks demonstrate any desire to interact with each other.

Some might look at the little grebe circumnavigating our lake and feel sorry for him because he's alone. Not me. I've never been one to associate being alone with loneliness. The way I see it, the pied-billed grebe exemplifies independence, survivor skills and contentedness.

How different the world would be if people were as content with themselves as the pied-billed grebe appears to be. We wouldn't always be sticking our noses in other folk's business or be continually struggling to secure a spot in one group or another in order to feel fulfilled and accepted.

We could each go our individual way, separate but content, finding food, thinking for ourselves and evading potential threats rather than provoking conflicts.

Sometimes the best examples of how we should live life come from the most unexpected sources. A modest little bird that is too skittish to let me come close may be an unlikely but compelling source of elucidation.

Our job, as fellow inhabitants of this awesome shared planet, is to observe other species and apply what we learn from them to our own humble lives. Listen, look and learn -- that's the objective. With a little grebe as the teacher, consider class in session.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A year of promise hangs from a thumbtack

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 5, 2009)

The first week in January is such a hopeful time. With the tossing aside of last year’s calendar we throw away unfulfilled dreams, broken promises and unmet goals. A new calendar is tacked to the wall and with it comes a year of blank pages. An empty grid of potential, promise and possibilities is ready to be either crossed off with X’s or filled in with memories.

As an unabashed optimist, I could never mark a calendar with giant black X’s. I’d feel as if I was wishing away time. That’s far too negative an approach for my positive mindset.

Just as unlikely would be to leave the pages blank, reflecting no record at all of the passing days. To me, that would seem too passive, as if I didn’t care what happened. On my calendars, the rectangular boxes become repositories of pertinent notes. They track appointments, record accomplishments, mark celebrations and memorialize moments I hope never to forget.

With the previous year’s calendar spread on the table before me, I can be a time traveler, reveling in the past, reflecting on what was. Memories return with the flipping of a page. Last January was filled with notations about exercise — how many miles I walked, which days I rowed, how frequently (or not) I bounced on the trampoline.

Like most people, I entered 2008 filled with resolve to get back in shape and quickly found that recording my accomplishments motivated me to continue. Had I not kept a daily record within sight of anyone who chose to look, my determination to exercise might have diminished. Instead, it grew with each passing month as I competed with myself to tally on the calendar more and more accomplishments, more and more miles.

Although exercise routines are consistently noted, athletic activities are not all I listed. In February, I marked down when we picked loquats and wrote in March when mulberries began to ripen. My first plunge into the lake’s cool water was on March 15 and just seeing that day on the calendar brings back the shivers. In April, we installed a solar hot water heater and then proceeded to fret as clouds blocked the sun for most of the month. Fortunately, by May, the sun had reappeared and we could finally enjoy steaming hot showers without relying on fossil fuels. May also was blueberry-picking month and the time when I played in my first Scrabble tournament.

In summer, I must have been too busy with work to do much notating and by the time autumn arrived, my diligent recording had begun to dwindle. A few exceptions included the day my oldest daughter announced she was pregnant with our first grandchild and the day our second daughter called from Massachusetts to announce her engagement. I also made note of when we saw certain wildlife on the property — the day a bobcat appeared, when a coyote wandered by, the first time an osprey claimed a bamboo pole in the lake as its roost.

I recently tacked a 2009 calendar up on the wall. The lines of my green felt-tipped pen have not yet touched its pristine pages. As I stand in the kitchen quietly flipping through the months, I can’t help but wonder what the New Year will bring. What markings will eventually fill in each square? Which events will I deem worthy of reporting or feel eager to record?

On my kitchen wall, a year of potential is dangling precariously from a thumbtack. You might also have a new calendar hanging on your wall. If you do, I hope it’s soon filled as I intend mine to be, with memories and treasures no matter how small and with the simple pleasures of everyday life.