Monday, August 30, 2010

Compost This

This weeks newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

My tomato plants lived a long and fruitful life. May they rest in pieces … in the compost pile.

More and more, people are starting their own backyard compost piles. Far from being a Johnny-come-lately idea, humans have practiced various forms of composting for millennia. Early farmers found that a mix of animal waste, straw, crop residues and other organic material would gradually turn into a rich, fertile, soil-like substance that was very good for growing crops. Archeological evidence shows signs of deliberate composting in Mesopotamia a thousand years before the birth of Moses, and George Washington - father of our country – was so much a proponent of compost that he constructed a special structure solely devoted to composting.

What is compost anyway?

When green organic material – grass clipping, table scraps, animal waste, etc. – containing large amounts of nitrogen are combined with brown organic material – dried leaves, wood chips, etc. – that have lots of carbon, a curious thing happens. Microscopic bacteria and fungi go to work to speed up the decomposing process, and the material breaks down into a dark, fertile blend. Mother Nature does this all the time; active composting just speeds up the process.

So what are the advantages of composting?

When added to the soil in your garden, compost supplies necessary nutrients lessening the need for synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers. The highly organic nature of compost holds moisture keeping your garden from drying out too quickly on hot summer days. And the loose structure of compost helps aerate your soil facilitating healthier plant growth.

On a broader scale, what goes into the compost bin does not have to be picked up, transported, and buried in a landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that lawn clippings and table scraps comprise over a quarter of all the waste that winds up in American landfills. And who pays for that? You do. In an age of clamor for smaller government and lower taxes, composting on a grand scale can reduce public expenditures. Many cities in the US have instituted city-wide composting programs that are reducing the cost of trash pick-up and disposal.

You can purchase a home composter, and there are plenty of good ones on the market, but if you’re a budget-minded do-it-yourselfer, you may want to consider making one. All you really need is about a three foot by three foot space in your back yard. Choose a location that is convenient to your garden, has good drainage and has at least partial shade. You can construct a bin out of wood and chicken wire, but it really can be as simple as layering dried leaves and table scraps on the ground. Turn the bin or stir the pile regularly to keep it well oxygenated, and if it dries out, add a little water.

Think about starting a compost pile when you turn in this summer’s garden. Add table scraps, fall’s falling leaves, and even this newspaper, and by spring, you’ll have a healthy and inexpensive head start for your next garden.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A More Perfect Union

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American)

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

When taken to heart and followed up with action, this is one of the most empowering and result-generating quotes I’ve ever come across. Of course, these words of wisdom were uttered by a meek, 90 pound man who was credited with breaking the will of the mighty British Empire and gaining independence for the nation of India - one Mahatma Gandhi.

On a more personal level, some years ago I was with a friend and mentor of mine – architect and futurist Doug Michels – when someone asked him if he was going to attend the big protest for I-can’t-remember-quite-what. He replied, “Absolutely not. People can protest if they want – I really don’t care – but I don’t think it does any good.” Doug went on to say, “I spend my time designing the world I’d like to see and I think that makes a much bigger impact.”

Imagine what TV news would be like if, instead of criticizing the motivations and actions of others, talking heads offered up discussions about their vision of the future and provided solutions to the issues of the day. Imagine the richness of the discussion if, instead of flame-throwing accusations and hyperbolizing about how the other guy’s policies are going to destroy everything, we had real visionaries collaborating in good spirit on ideas of how to make our lives better. I gave up television years ago exactly because of the divisiveness it fosters, but that would be television worth watching!

But divisiveness – “compare and contrast” is the gentle euphemism used most often – is what drives TV ratings, you say? Maybe so. Not politically smart, you say? Maybe so again. But where has this intellectual food fight in the form of constant criticism and assailed motives gotten us as a nation? Not very far. In fact, the more divisive we become, the more it seems we move backwards as a society.

I am old enough now to notice a discernable change in the way people argue. Once upon a time, there was an openness to ideas and a more collegial give-and-take when it came to debating issues. Now, it seems that arguments are more like football games: “My team is for this and your team is for that and I’m never for anything your team is for because we’re locked in mortal combat. Go team go!”

For a change of pace, try forgetting completely what you don’t like about something or someone, and detach from ‘who’s for this’ and ‘who’s for that,’ and focus on the things you would like to see in the world. You may find that you have much more in common with those you oppose than you think.

When ‘show me your birth certificate’ is replaced with ‘show me your vision, and by the way, here’s mine,’ we’ll be well on the way to realizing a more perfect union.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Feng SHe Launches Today

There's excitement in the air. Today is the launch of a brand new website devoted to achieving a balance of masculine and feminine energies in all areas of our lives. It's called Feng SHe.

And, I'm delighted to announce that I was selected as a regular contributor to the site. I'll have a weekly column exploring aspects of feminine/masculine balance in all areas creative. Click on the Creativity icon to read my articles.

So please click in to on a regular basis and join the discussion.

Directly from the heart - thank you!

James Polk

Monday, August 2, 2010

Buck Up, America

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

“If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way, you’re right.”

Attributed to Henry Ford, this is one of my favorite quotes, and it’s especially applicable to the current debate over fossil fuels and renewable energies.

Voices arguing against moving away from traditional dirty energies – most notably oil, gas, and coal – in the direction of clean energies proclaim that running America on renewable energy is a pipe dream, a fantasy – “pie in the sky!"

But I ask you: Whatever happened to that good old American “can do” spirit?

True, Henry Ford took a lot of ribbing for his idea of bringing horseless carriages to the mass market. (The buggy whip manufacturers were especially skeptical.) “What a silly idea,” they said. “Who would want to ride around in one of those things? They’re too expensive. They’re ugly. There are not enough roads to handle automobiles. They can’t possibly work for everybody. Pie in the sky!”

But we got over it, and by the mid-twentieth century, the automobile had transitioned from pipe dream to the American dream. And the buggy whip manufacturers somehow managed to make the transition too.

And now look at us arguing against our own ingenuity once again. This time, it’s not horseless carriages taking the brunt of the mocking criticism, it’s solar panels and wind turbines and alternative energy technologies we’ve only begun to explore. I don’t believe for a moment that we, as a society, are incapable of transitioning to clean energies; it’s simply a matter of will.

The vision of a clean-running America may very well be out of reach for those who close their minds off to the infinite creative possibilities lying ahead of us. But American innovation can only be throttled for so long. Eventually, either we advance as a nation, or we’ll be leapfrogged by the rest of the world. China, with its substantial investment in renewable energies, sustainable cities, and high-speed rail is on the verge of doing just that.

But everybody isn’t quite as down on renewable energies as are the current crop of nay-saying politicians and oil men. Right now, all across the US, in garages and labs, innovators and entrepreneurs are positioning themselves to be the next Henry Ford – this time, in the area of renewable clean energy.

That’s why I’m optimistic about the future of renewable energy. That’s why, regardless of all the negative talk, regardless of all the “here’s why we can’t” diatribes, this country is about to go through a fundamental revolution in the way we produce and use energy, and we’ll all be better off.

Years from now, our children will look back and wonder why we put it off for so long.