The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!

The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone.                      EFM Notebook Index

  • 31 Mar 2021 8:25 AM | Deleted user

    Time for a turtle quiz! True or False?

      A glimpse at turtle anatomy

    1. Baby turtles are extremely cute.

    Answer: True!

    2. Turtle fossils have been found from the Triassic period.

    Answer: True! Turtle fossils from 220 million years ago show that turtle anatomy in prehistoric times was nearly identical to that of modern turtles.

    3. Turtles are among the only animals that can breathe with their butts.

    Answer: True!!!! Many turtles can use their cloaca to breathe when they are underwater. Essentially the cloaca doubles as a set of gills, sucking in water and absorbing the oxygen within.

    4. Native turtles are plentiful in California’s lakes, ponds, and rivers.

    Answer: False! The only native freshwater turtle in California is rapidly disappearing and is now listed as a species of concern by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The situation is also dire in Washington and Oregon.

    How did you do on the quiz? If you are like me, you may have gotten the first two right but were dead wrong on the third and fourth. 

    So let’s take a little time to learn about these creatures that are so familiar and yet exotic. And let’s find out what steps are being taken to save them from extinction. (Spoiler alert: I won’t be going further into the topic of cloacal respiration but you can look it up if you are interested.)

    Status of Native Turtles in Northern California

    Western Pond Turtle  

    On the West Coast of the US, the only remaining native freshwater turtle is the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata) and they are in deep trouble. The US Fish and Wildlife Service considers the Western Pond Turtle a “species of special concern,” and they are listed as an endangered species in Washington State.

    Why are these once ubiquitous creatures disappearing?  One problem is competition from the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). These are the turtles sold in pet stores; however, they are sometimes "released to the wild" by owners who can no longer care for them. Red-eared sliders are bigger and more aggressive than the shy pond turtle and compete ruthlessly with them for food. Also, they harm pond turtles by taking up their basking space. This is a problem because turtles depend on the sun to regulate their body temperature, and typically spend hours every day basking on rocks and logs.

      Red-eared slider: Nemesis of the pond turtle
    Other invasive species are a menace as well. The small and vulnerable baby pond turtle is particularly at risk for predation by non-native bullfrogs as well as small-mouth and big-mouth bass. 

    Habitat loss is another problem for the pond turtle in areas that are urbanizing. In addition to an aquatic environment, where pond turtles spend most of their time, the females need to access sunny, grassy areas for nesting. In Marin, fire suppression efforts have created a shadier environment, making it harder for them to find good nesting sites. The further they travel the greater their risk of being hit by cars. Additionally, agricultural and vegetation management activities can disturb the habitat and destroy their nests. 

      Adult turtles are secondary and tertiary consumers in pond ecologies

    Head Start for Turtles

    The absence of an important species like the pond turtle can have a profound effect on the surrounding ecosystem. Juvenile turtles provide a source of food for larger predators, and juveniles and adults feed on various invertebrates and insects. Moreover, as denizens of the water and the land, turtles are important indicators of the health of these ecosystems.

    So, in addition to managing invasive species and preserving habitat, what else can be done to prevent the pond turtle from going extinct?

    I recently attended a Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy webinar describing current efforts to reintroduce the pond turtle to southern Marin County, where it had not been seen since 1998. The Head Start Project, a joint effort by multiple local partners, began four years ago and will continue for one more year. It is one of many similar projects being conducted in all three Western states. 

    Pond turtle in paradise  

    The five-year project has proceeded in three phases: hatching and rearing young turtles, releasing them, and monitoring their welfare.

    The first step was to locate nests and “borrow” eggs for relocation. Park staff in Pt Reyes, where there is a fairly stable population of pond turtles, searched high and low for turtle nests. This was no easy task because these turtles can roam as much as one third of a mile from their water source in search of a good spot for a nest. The nesting process begins with the female excavating a hole, depositing from 1 to 13 eggs, and then filling up the chamber with soil and plant material. To learn more, read this excellent article, which is accompanied by great photos and a video of the nesting process. 

      Pond turtle hatching at the Woodland Park Zoo in Washington State  
      Released turtle  
      Two-month-old turtle swimming at SF Zoo  
      Biologist Gabi Dunn releasing a turtle  
    The second step was to take the eggs to Sonoma State University for their incubation period. In the wild, incubation takes about three months, depending on the conditions. Typically, juveniles that hatch in the summer make their way to water soon after emerging; those hatching in the winter may stay at the nesting site until the weather warms up. In any case they are on their own, with no help from mom.

    In the Head Start project, the newly hatched babies were transmitted to the San Francisco Zoo where they were cared for by zoo staff for about a year. Under these protected conditions they were able to grow three times as fast as turtles in the wild, quickly becoming “bigger than a bullfrog’s mouth” and thus able to avoid the clutches of the most dangerous predators. 

    To keep track of these precious creatures, staff glued a radio transmitter to the shell, each with a unique frequency so that the individual could be easily identified. The turtles also had an ID number painted on their shell.

    When the release day arrived in this past year, 20 of the youthful turtles were transported to the Rodeo Lagoon Watershed and 14 were taken to the Redwood Creek Watershed (see map for location of these watersheds). Another 7 were released in several ponds in Point Reyes. Twenty turtles had already been released through the program in the Redwood Creek Watershed in a previous year.  

    Each turtle was monitored on a weekly basis to be sure that it was adapting successfully to its new environment. Later in the year, the staff set out net traps to catch the turtles for weighing, measuring, and a general welfare checkup, as well as to repair the transmitter if necessary.

    So far, thanks to all of this meticulous care, most of the turtles released for the Head Start project are doing fine. Monitoring will continue for the fifth and final year of the project. Similar programs in Oregon and Washington have resulted in the successful release of over a thousand pond turtles.

    What Can You Do to Help the Pond Turtle?

    Use iNaturalist to monitor wildlife

    You can start by using the iNaturalist app to document the location of any and all turtles that cross your path. You can do this citizen science work on your own or in coordination with established projects. For example, visitors at the MidPeninsula Regional Open Space Preserve have been asked to record turtle observations for the Midpen Biodiversity Index on iNaturalist.

      Turtles on TV: Friendly, mellow, and funny….

    Turtles aside, this app is very easy to use and a fun way to increase your engagement with the wildlife around you. Your kids might think it would be fun to identify a species commonly found in your area and then see if they can go out and find a member to photograph and add to the database. 

    Think carefully before acquiring a pet turtle

    If you are tempted to get a pet turtle (or any other pet for that matter) do a lot of research about its care before you take the plunge.  I learned this the hard way. When my son was 8 and in the thrall of four fun-loving cartoon ninja turtles, he asked for an aquatic turtle, and I naively agreed to get one. 

    Turtles in real life: Grouchy introverts that live forever

    Fast forward 26 years…the turtle still resides in my home, although my son himself has not lived here since 2005. First lesson learned: Turtles live a really long time if you take care of them properly. Second lesson learned: Taking care of them properly involves a lot of work. 

    If you do have a turtle that you can no longer care for, don’t set it free where it will terrorize the native turtles. Instead, find a rescue organization like Creepy Critters Rescue that will care for it. 

    Support programs to reintroduce turtles

    Keep your eyes open for a turtle monitoring program such as that sponsored by the Marin Municipal Water District. In the past, MMWD volunteers have learned to monitor turtle habitat conditions, record their behavior, and educate the public during the spring when they are most visible. This is a flexible activity that families can do together, so it is a good opportunity to help children learn about wildlife in their area.

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image. Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more!


  • 8 Mar 2021 7:44 PM | Deleted user
    Eastwood’s Larkspur (Delphinium parryi ssp. Eastwoodiae) Alice Eastwood
    During the nineteenth century, especially in Europe, many important discoveries were made by so-called “gentleman scientists,” men born into wealthy families who pursued scientific inquiry as a hobby rather than a vocation. Charles Darwin was able to sail around the world for five years and then return home to write “On the Origin of Species” and other works, all the while supported by funding from investments managed by his father.

    What of the gentlewoman scientist? They are fewer in number but all the more interesting because of the societal barriers they had to overcome in order to pursue their passion for science. Let’s meet Alice Eastwood, a local hero who became one of the world’s most influential botanists.

    Born in 1859 in Toronto, Eastwood lived with her working-class parents and siblings until her mother died when Alice was six. After spending years living in a convent, Alice and her sister were reunited with their father, a janitor, who had moved to Denver. Alice eventually completed high school but unlike most “gentlemen scientists” she received no post-secondary education. 

    Alice Eastwood with her plant frame   

    By all accounts, Eastwood was extraordinarily intelligent and outgoing. She also had the physical stamina of an athlete. After moving to Denver, she began hiking throughout the Rockies to collect plant specimens, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find and identify plants throughout the world. Eventually she moved to California where she roamed throughout the Sierras as well as up into the Cascades. She was often alone on these early trips, but as professional botanists came to know and respect her, she was frequently accompanied by collaborators.

      A. canescens, a species of manzanita identified by Eastwood
    After arriving in San Francisco, she began working as a curator in the newly established California Academy of Sciences (CAS). By 1894 she had been promoted to Head of the Department of Botany, a position she held until 1949. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, as the CAS building lay in ruins, Eastwood and another employee climbed a crumbling staircase to the sixth floor where they wrapped the 1500 most important plant specimens in packets. They then lowered each packet by rope out the window to the street below, and had them taken by wagon to a safe place outside of the burning area. Under her direction, the plant collection eventually grew to over 300,000 specimens. 

    Although Alice Eastwood always lived in rented rooms in San Francisco, she loved Mt Tamalpais and often spent the weekend collecting plants there. She was fascinated by manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) and called attention to at least five new species on the mountain.

    It is hard to overstate Eastwood’s contribution to our understanding of plant life in Marin. Between her work and that of her successor at CAS, John Thomas Howell, we have an inventory of plants on Mt Tam that spans nearly one hundred years, a hugely valuable baseline for ongoing documentation of the changes to plant life on the mountain.

    Citizen Scientists and the Sea Star

    Toward the middle of the 20th century, amateur scientists like Alice Eastwood became less common as scientific research became the province of highly trained academics with substantial funding from public and private institutions. In recent years, however, the role of citizen scientists has again gained legitimacy in the natural and social sciences. How can naturalistic observation by nonprofessionals contribute to scientific knowledge these days? 

    Ochre sea stars  

    The most common use of citizen scientists has been to count things or measure them within the confines of a delineated plot of land or sea. Citizen scientists count Monarch butterflies in an attempt to understand their precipitous decline, for example. Equally important are the citizen scientists monitoring the massive die-off among the sea star population from Baja California up to Alaska. 

    Sunflower sea stars  

    The primary vehicle of this epidemic event is sea star wasting syndrome, in which the sea star literally dissolves within a matter of days. The cause of the syndrome may be related to a little understood virus; climate change and ocean acidification may also be implicated. Millions of sea stars have died since 2013, and in some places there are literally none left. 

    There have been tantalizing resurgences of sea star populations in some areas, but the reason for these changes is poorly understood and no one knows whether these renewed communities will continue to flourish.

    Two formerly common but now nearly extinct species of sea star are the ochre sea star and the sunflower sea star. They have a wide diet, including mussels, barnacles, snails, limpets, sea urchins, and chitons. They have few predators, although seagulls and sea otters occasionally eat them.  

    A barren kelp forest overrun with urchins


    This decline in the sea star population has triggered a “trophic cascade,” a domino effect when a failure at the top of the hierarchy affects species located the next level down, which in turn affect the level below them. The demise of the sea star has led to a huge increase in mussels and sea urchins which have then consumed the kelp forests that supply habitats for marine life and also help in sequestering carbon. In California, 90% of the kelp forests have been lost. It’s a catastrophe.

    How can citizen scientists help? The Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) is a large consortium of research groups working with citizen scientists to collect compatible data that are entered into a centralized database. Long-Term Monitoring and Biodiversity Surveys occur throughout the year at sites ranging from Southeast Alaska to Mexico. 

    One species that has been selected for annual monitoring is the ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceous). In this project, researchers train citizen volunteers in species identification, proper measurement techniques and disease category designation, and accompany them in the field to assist with site selection. This numerical data, along with photographic evidence of diseased individuals, is then combined with that from other groups to track the occurrence of wasting disease on a local and coast-wide scale. 

    Go to the MARINe website to see how you can become involved!

    Duxbury Reef near Bolinas with
    demarcated data collection sites


    Engaging Youth in Citizen Science

      Heidi Ballard

    As important as it is for adults to become engaged in citizen science, it’s also crucial that kids begin learning how to address our environmental challenges. Professor Heidi Ballard at UC Davis and her colleagues at the Center for Citizen and Community Science (CCCS) have conducted a number of projects that help students engage in scientific research in their own communities.

    One project sponsored by the CCCS is a long-term ecological monitoring study of milkweed plants and the monarch butterflies that rely on them. High school students participate as summer interns, measuring the plants and keeping track of the activity of monarchs that visit them.

    In addition to absorbing the basic science content, the interns learn how to communicate the findings to the public and how to take responsibility for the quality of their data. They also begin to self-identify as experts (hmmm, be careful what you wish for!).

    Participants in a CCCS program for middle school children

      Saba Island…Remind me to conduct my next research project there!

    Participatory Action Research: Citizen Scientists as Advocates

    As the environmental movement becomes increasingly aware of the disproportionate impact of climate change on low-income communities, new initiatives are underway to ensure that scientific inquiry focuses effectively on the results of racial and economic injustice. Participatory action research (PAR) is a type of citizen science that engages community members in data collection with respect to issues of pressing concern to their communities. 

    Once these issues are identified, citizen scientists participate in figuring out how to collect relevant data, how to analyze it, and how to find solutions based on the research results. The role of the professional researcher is to facilitate and participate in the process.

    Source: Eelderink, Vervoot, & van Laerhoven (2020)

    One example may help illustrate. On a Caribbean island called Saba, a nature conservancy noted an alarming decline in the local shark population. A participatory action research project was proposed to find solutions to the disappearing shark problem based on understanding the perspectives of all the local stakeholders, including local fishing families, conservationists, and local government and church representatives. 

    Initial interviews revealed something very important…there was little interest among community members in saving sharks! Given this basic mismatch between the perceptions of the nature conservancy and those of the community, finding effective solutions to the problem could prove to be difficult.


    Campaign promoting the consumption
    of lionfish

    However, subsequent exchanges revealed that community members had serious concerns about the declining population of redfish, the main catch for local fisherfolk and divers. They attributed this decline to overfishing as well as predation by an invasive species called the lionfish. Community members were also concerned about damage to the local coral reef.

    Lengthy conversations and negotiations resulted in a decision to introduce a yearly recovery period for the redfish. Funds were also obtained for the development of more effective traps for capturing lionfish. Lionfish are pretty tasty, and a local campaign was developed to encourage visitors and community members to start eating more of them. Their sale provided a source of income during the season when fishing for redfish was not permitted. 

    And to top it off, the increased redfish population and reduced lionfish population has a positive effect on the shark population because…wait for it…sharks prey on redfish but not on lionfish! As the marine ecology regains its balance, the coral reef is expected to recover, providing additional ecological benefits for sharks. Win, win, win!

    Calling All Citizens

    Everyone can get into the act!  
    There are lots of opportunities in Marin to become a citizen scientist. 

    For starters, you can participate in City Nature Challenge 2021. This event got started in 2016 as a competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles to see how many different plant and animal species residents could photograph in their respective urban settings. It is now an international event, with hundreds of cities participating all around the world. This year, all volunteers will take pictures of wildlife between April 24th and 27th, and then load them into a common database to be identified in the subsequent week by experts. Check out their website to find out how to get involved. 

    Have you heard of the Marin Wildlife Picture Index Project, a One Tam long-term monitoring program of mammals on Mt Tam? Millions of images have been collected through a network of motion-activated cameras on the mountain, and hundreds of volunteers have helped to identify the species captured on film. As the pandemic subsides the opportunities for citizen science will flourish, so keep an eye on their website.

    Also, I recommend a book by local author Mary Ellen Hannibal called Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction. In this book, she describes her participation in an astonishing number of citizen science projects around the Bay Area. And she takes you through the development of the citizen-science movement as well as her personal journey as she struggles with the sudden death of her father. Whether you want to count raptors or slosh around in tide pools, Hannibal’s book will get you going.

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook!

    Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image. Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more!


  • 17 Feb 2021 12:57 PM | Deleted user
      Dung beetles have a charm of their own
    For the last ten years, researchers have amassed considerable evidence that the insect population worldwide is experiencing a sharp decline, with many species becoming extinct. To date, most of us have focused on the collapse of a few species like the honeybee and the Monarch butterfly.

    It’s comparatively hard to get people to worry about, for example, the devastating drop in dung beetles in the Mediterranean countries. (Wait a second…a quick internet search shows I may not be right about dung beetles. They have a lot of fans out there.)

    But there are many reasons to worry about cute as well as noncute insects. Without an abundant and diverse population of insects neither we nor the charismatic vertebrates will survive either. The loss of a gnat deprives a bird of food, which is then not available to pollinate the plants needed to feed the antelope that is in turn a source of food for the gorgeous cheetah. It’s the circle of life, people!

      ”I’ll eat anything” “Nothing but milkweed for me”

    Abundance vs. Diversity

    Data emerging from studies world-wide suggests that warnings of an insect apocalypse are no exaggeration. For instance, a comprehensive research review published in 2019 by Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys estimated that more than 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction. And the overall number of insects is also dropping, at a rate of 2.5% per year.

    Factors Associated with Insect Declines (Source: Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys)

    Why focus on both diversity and abundance? Well, if a region is abuzz with bees that’s great, but if they are all from the same species then we lose the benefits that members of those lost species provide.

    Most highly successful species are generalists in the sense that they will eat anything. I am looking at you, cockroaches and opossums! Meanwhile, those with more specific dietary preferences are much more vulnerable if their sole food source is not available.

    The most powerful driver of insect decline is habitat destruction caused by intensive agriculture, urbanization, and deforestation as well as pollutants such as pesticides and fertilizers.

    These same factors are also contributing to a global decline in biodiversity, of which the insect apocalypse is one important part.

    Learning to Share in Urban Spaces: A Conversation with Dr. Paul da Silva

      Paul da Silva
    In order to zero in on the situation in Marin, I spoke with Dr. Paul da Silva, a local expert in environmental science and resource management. Paul earned a PhD in Entomology from UC Berkeley in 1994. He was a professor at the College of Marin from 1997 until 2020, teaching classes in biology, botany, environmental landscaping, and entomology. He is also a newly elected member of the College of Marin Board of Trustees.

    Paul began our conversation by introducing me to the concept of “spare or share,” a debate among environmentalists as to whether it is more important to spare large tracts of land for nature’s exclusive use, or to share with nature by finding ways to integrate biodiversity conservation into human landscapes.

    Entomologists like E. O. Wilson have long advised that we spare 50 percent of the earth’s land surface for pristine nature, finding ways to manage agricultural activities and urban development in the remaining half.

    However, strong arguments for sharing have been made by others, including Kremen and Merenlender at UC Berkeley, who favor “working lands” conservation. They argue for the establishment of buffer zones surrounding open space to protect habitat and resources for some species while facilitating dispersal and climate change adaptation for others.

    Expanding our Horizons

    How can we create effective ways of sharing space in the urban and suburban landscapes in Marin and throughout the Bay Area? Paul da Silva is particularly adamant that we include as many native plants in our gardens and public spaces as possible in order to support insect diversity.

    Why has this goal been harder to achieve than you might have thought? Paul identifies one stumbling block, noting that we humans are generalists and that makes it hard for us to realize that many of our local insects need specific native plants in order to survive.

    Also, in Marin we can grow a huge variety of gorgeous plants from all over the world. I admit that I am very partial to Japanese gardens and have definitely strayed from a steady diet of Manzanita! But the more I have learned about the native options, the more able I am to create an interesting garden from ecologically supportive plants.

    Looking at the Lawn

    To mow or not to mow…  
    Any move in the direction of biodiversity requires close scrutiny of our county’s abundant lawns. Lawns are prized for their appearance and they are great for running around on. But they do little to enhance insect diversity.

    Paul suggests that we reflect on the following goals before putting in a lawn: How desirable is the aesthetic look of a homogenous green lawn? Do we want the space to hold up to a lot of foot traffic? How prepared are we to put in the time and costs associated with mowing, fertilizing, watering, and weeding? And how important are the environmental goals of avoiding pesticides, enhancing biological diversity, maximizing carbon sequestration, and increasing soil permeability?

    Then, having identified our goals, how do we figure out what to actually do? To help us take this next step, Paul has developed a taxonomy of ten types of lawn or lawn substitute. Each contains a particular grouping of plants that meets a particular constellation of goals. Here are four types that are most consistent with the goals pertaining to enhanced diversity and that require relatively little maintenance.

    •   Meadow garden
        Ground iris and
      Mariposa lily

        Dwarf coyote brush and Ceanothus

      Creeping thyme and Clover

      If you highly value the environmental goals, do not want to devote time and money to mowing, watering, etc., and do not want to use the space for tossing around a frisbee, you can consider a meadow garden. A meadow garden approximates a native California meadow, with bunchgrasses like California or blue fescue, needlegrass, or deergrass mixed in with flowering herbs like California poppies and lupines.
    • If you share those environmental goals but would really like to be able to walk or run around in the space, you can create a meadow lawn. A meadow lawn does not include bunchgrasses, so it can be mowed occasionally and can withstand some foot traffic. Thingrass is useful for this type of lawn, along with some forms of red fescue. Paul suggests the use of perennial native plants like the suncup, ground iris, mariposa lily, soap lily, and blue dick.
    • Moving farther away from a grass-like lawn, you can plant the space with a woody groundcover. It’s best to avoid the invasive non-natives (e.g., ivy), and think in terms of California natives like dwarf coyote brush or ceanothus as well as low-growing manzanitas. These native plants are particularly good for sequestering carbon, compared to the herbaceous plants in the meadow garden and lawn. They do require some weeding, but little or no water.
    • If you really want to be able to walk and run around on the lawn and are willing to sacrifice some of the environmental objectives, consider a bee lawn. Bee lawns typically include the kinds of grass used in conventional lawns along with compatible plants that provide nectar or pollen for bees. Some common examples are clovers and creeping thyme. You can mow these just as you would a conventional lawn and will need to water and fertilize them as well.

    Paul’s lawn matrix really helped me think through my options as I continue to transition toward using native plants in my yard. Click here if you want the details.

    Last Thoughts on Biodiversity

    One Tam
    I also learned some good news about biodiversity in Marin from a webinar recently sponsored by One Tam.

    The webinar, Birds and Bees of Mt. Tam, featured two great talks, one by Renee Cormier, avian ecologist at Point Blue and the other by Gretchen LeBuhn, professor in the Department of Biology at San Francisco State. Both scientists described their own recent research to document the abundance and diversity of species in various regions and ecosystems within Marin.
    Some highlights from their talks:

    • LeBuhn’s team found that Marin supports a high diversity of bee species. Particularly exciting was the diversity found in the coastal chaparral sites, which are less often studied and about which little is known.
    • Cormier and her team found evidence that most landbird species in the Marin Municipal Water District are stable or increasing relative to numbers represented in data collected as early as 1996. She also noted that the nationally threatened Northern Spotted Owl is doing well in Marin, possibly because few Barred Owls have entered the county.

    Contact One Tam to access the video from this webinar, which was held on February 11. You may have to become a member first, but that’s not a bad idea either!

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to Dr. Paul Da Silva for sharing his ideas for enhancing biodiversity here in Marin.

    Banner photo credit: Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image. 
    Check out their award-winning
    book or visit their website to see more!

  • 12 Jan 2021 9:54 AM | Deleted user
      Monarch resting
    on an Aster
    Question: Bees, birds, bats, flies, moths, and butterflies…what do they have in common besides the ability to fly? 

    Answer: They are all pollinators, and absolutely essential to the survival of plants throughout the world. 

    In this post I focus on butterflies, particularly the Western Monarch. You may already know that the Western Monarch is on the brink of disappearing. The situation in Marin is particularly dire. An article in the Point Reyes Light recently reported on local efforts spearheaded by Mia Monroe and Morgan Patton to count the Monarchs at Marin overwintering sites: “So far this year, 150 monarchs were counted in Bolinas, five in Stinson Beach and two in Muir Beach.” In contrast, 22,253 Monarchs were counted in Bolinas, for example, in 2015.

    Monroe and Patton cite a variety of general causes for the butterfly’s decline, including climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss. In Northern California, these environmental threats were compounded in the last two years by unusually hot and windy weather accompanied by massive wildfires. The result is a near total absence of Western Monarchs on our coast.

    Alarming statistics  

    The Life of a Female Monarch

    To understand how to revive the Monarch it is a good idea to know something about the life cycle of these creatures. Let’s start with the birth of a baby Monarch (I know, that sounds like the first line of a BBC documentary on the royal family).

    Summoning her energy, the female Monarch lays 300-500 eggs on the leaves of a milkweed plant, attaching each precious bundle to the leaf with a bit of glue she secretes. After anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, the eggs hatch into larvae. The green and black striped babies eat milkweed and nothing else for about two weeks. Then they spin a chrysalis to protect themselves while they transform in a week or two into an adult butterfly.

    Newly hatched Monarch larva Larva on a milkweed plant Adult emerging from chrysalis  


    But the caterpillars aren’t just getting plump during their two weeks of munching on milkweed. In fact, the milkweed contains toxins that caterpillars are able to store in their bodies. These toxins render the adult butterflies poisonous to birds and other predators, who associate the distinctive orange and black color pattern with mortal danger and therefore leave the butterflies alone.


    If adult Monarchs emerge in the spring or early summer, they disperse throughout the Western US to go through successive breeding generations. But if they’re born in the later summer or fall, they head toward warmer climes. Monarchs in the Western states generally migrate to the coast, while those east of the Rockies often fly all the way to Mexico to overwinter. For more information on this amazing journey, check out the website of the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to pollinator conservation. 

    How to Help the Western Monarch

      Everyone has
    a role to play in supporting the Monarchs!

    Activists nominated the Monarch to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2020. The US Fish and Wildlife Service affirmed that protected status was warranted but did not take action at this time. However, there are a number of other national, state, and local groups dedicated to saving the Monarch. For example, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has established a Western Monarch Working Group to promote “unified, ecosystem-based management approaches at the landscape-level” to the protection of the Monarch. 

    Individual citizens have an important role to play as well. In the Point Reyes Light article referenced above, Morgan Patton of the Environmental Action Committee of Marin (EAC) has noted that, “One of the most important things to emphasize is that individual actions for habitat support are just as important as large-scale habitat restoration. They are primarily migrating through private property, and the action people take in their own gardens has an impact.” 

    Patton also emphasized the importance of making sure that we plant native species of milkweed (e.g., Asclepias fascicularis or Asclepias speciosa) and not tropical varieties (e.g., Ascelpias curassavica). Be careful because the tropical varieties can easily be found in garden centers. Also, if you live within five miles of the ocean you should not plant any milkweed at all. The presence of this plant in the "wrong" place throws off their reproductive and migratory activities.

    If you want to learn more about the current status of the Western Monarch and what you can do to help, take a look at the EAC website. Or you can investigate the possibility of becoming a “Monarch Waystation” by planting milkweed, monitoring visitations, and reporting your observations to a portal that aggregates the data across all contributors. 

    On the Somewhat Brighter Side: Other Butterflies in Marin

    Compared to the plight of the Monarch, many species of butterfly are doing relatively well. Marin County is home to more than 70 butterfly species, and all of them would love to stop by your yard for a sip of nectar. 

    Satyr Anglewing California Tortoiseshell

    Coastal Green Hairstreak

    Common Buckeye

    The best plants for butterflies are California natives. Having evolved together, native plants can provide native butterflies the nectar they need to thrive and the leaves required by their larvae. Butterflies are picky about where they lay their eggs because, as we saw in the case of the Monarch, caterpillars can eat only certain plants. 


    Another reason to look for native plants is that when non-natives travel across state boundaries they are treated with pesticides. These toxins persist as the plant grows and can be ingested by pollinators. 

    We are lucky in the Bay Area to have many great sources of native plants, whether it be in the form of seeds (e.g. Larner Seeds in Bolinas) or plants (e.g., Bay Natives Nursery in San Francisco; Mostly Natives Nursery in Point Reyes Station). Another resource for native plants is the website of the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. And be sure to check out the beautiful and informative website of Home Ground Habitats, a native plant nursery and educational organization where volunteers propagate native plants for a variety of restoration projects. They also provide many plants for sale by the California Native Plant Society Marin Chapter, and for installation in local school gardens. 


    Pipevine Swallowtail


    What inspired me about Insight Garden Program was it was a safe place where I learned to meditate and discover my reconnection to nature and the gardens. This has allowed me to successfully transition to a stable job and be present with my family and community in a way that I never have before. I have a different way of being in the world and the space that I hold in it.

    -Bilial Coleman, IGP graduate 

    Within the Prison Gates: Environmental and Social Justice

    It’s one thing to encourage privileged citizens of the Bay Area to establish pollinator gardens. But what about residents who do not have space to plant a garden, who may have had little opportunity to learn about horticulture, or who are living with pressing financial concerns?

    In the course of my research for this post, I came across two inspiring programs that seek to support environmental as well as social and criminal justice for residents of marginalized communities in the Bay Area. 

    In 2002, Beth Waitkus founded the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison. Waitkus and her colleagues developed a curriculum focused on vocational gardening and landscaping training. In 2003, IGP built a 1,600 square foot native plant and flower garden in the prison yard. In addition to learning about horticulture, IGP participants learn strategies to reconnect to the self, the community, and the natural world. The IGP program calls this an “inner” and “outer” gardening approach. The IGP program is now being implemented in eleven prisons in California as well as in a number of other institutions throughout the US.

    Planting Justice is another impressive local program focused on environmental, social, and criminal justice. Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders co-founded the organization with four programs in mind: landscaping, education, grassroots fundraising and urban farming training. Their program draws on the permaculture model of sustainable design. 

    Catchment system designed by Planting Justice staff  
    Planting Justice has been collaborating with the Insight Gardening Program (IGP) since 2009, expanding the garden at San Quentin and participating in IGP’s education and training efforts. Planting Justice also employs teams of gardeners and landscapers – most of them formerly incarcerated people -- who plant edible permaculture gardens in the Bay Area, encouraging people to grow their own food. They can help home gardeners plan a garden, build a chicken coop, establish a beehive, or design a rainwater catchment system. 

    Planting Justice also runs a large organic nursery in Oakland, with proceeds benefiting local communities and formerly incarcerated citizens. They are oriented toward mail order business, and their extensive stock is truly impressive, with many varieties of rare and heirloom plants. They are also developing a retail-oriented site in El Sobrante, where customers will be able to obtain high quality organic plants as well as support formerly incarcerated individuals’ successful transition to life in their community. 

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks to Christopher Jadallah for sharing his knowledge of pollinators, and for introducing me to the Insight Garden Program. 

    As this post comes out, appalling political events are taking place across the country. Nevertheless, I continue to hope and believe that the incoming government will be far more proactive than the outgoing one on environmental issues. 

    The events of the last years, months, and days have shown me how important it is to advocate for environmental and social justice. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the EFM and for your interest in the Notebook.

    Banner photo credit: Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image. 

    Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more!

  • 17 Dec 2020 1:18 PM | Deleted user

    With all the pandemic and political madness, why should you take an interest in bees? Because they are totally cool, essential to our survival, and in dire need of our help. Let’s get our bee-related synapses firing with a pop quiz!

    1.  We’ll start with an easy one…Which of the following is a bee? 


    Answer: Did you pick the fuzzy one? Good job!

    2.  How many species of bees are there?
    a.  Fewer than ten
    b.  Ten to 100
    c.  Thousands

    Answer:  Thousands! This surprised me…

    3.  Which of the following insects are experiencing huge die-offs?
    a.  Bees
    b.  Bees, yellow jackets, and wasps
    c.  None of the above

    Answer:  The bee population is plummeting, but yellow jackets and wasps are doing fine, which doesn’t seem fair.

    4.  What can you do to support the bee community?
    a.  Establish pollinator plants in your yard
    b.  Encourage elected officials to consider the needs of pollinators when landscaping public areas
    c.  Remove and relocate unwanted bee colonies humanely
    d.  Count bees as a citizen scientist
    e.  All of the above

    Answer:  These are all good ideas. Read on for the details!

    What Be a Bee?

    Which is which?

    The kind of bee you may be most familiar with is the honey bee, which was imported from Europe in the middle of the 17th century. There are also thousands of species of wild native bees, one of which is the bumble bee. To keep things simple, I will focus mainly on the honey bee and the bumble bee.

    You can probably tell them apart. The round fuzzy bumble bee has two sets of wings. The smaller, thinner honey bee has one set of wings and its head is more separate from its body.

    These two kinds of bees are quite different in terms of their behavior. Honey bees are very social and live with thousands of friends and family members. Honey bees use caves, rock cavities and hollow trees as natural nesting sites, and of course they are also kept by bee keepers.


    Queen honey bee surrounded by attendants. Sorry Slim Harpo and the Rolling Stones, but there is no such thing as a “king bee.”

      Bumble bee sprinkled with pollen

    Bumble bees are also social, but their hives are usually limited to a few hundred individuals. They build nests in burrows or holes in the ground. Most other types of native bees are solitary, but like bumble bees they frequently nest in the ground.

    How do these bees stack up in terms of their performance as pollinators? Domesticated honey bees are invaluable to American agriculture. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Honey bees are like flying dollar bills buzzing over U.S. crops….About one-third of the food eaten by Americans comes from crops pollinated by honey bees.”

    The crazy thing is that honey bees are not THAT great at pollinating compared to many native bees. For instance, contrast the honey bee with the more patient, focused bumble bee. Bumble bees don’t dash around responding to signals from each other like honey bees do; rather, they quickly and efficiently remove the pollen from a single area. And because they are relatively large they can carry heavier loads than the honey bee. They are also better at learning how to extract pollen from different flowers, so they are good at cross-pollination. And they are more resistant than the relatively flimsy honey bee to cold weather, rain, and limited light conditions.

    Even though honey bees get most of the attention, native bees are also useful for pollinating crops. They have a special way of vibrating their bodies to break pollen free as they gather it. This “buzz pollination” makes them particularly good at collecting pollen from  greenhouse tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, whose anthers release pollen when vibrated.

    Threats to Bees

    Sick honey bee  
    The sharp decline of the honey bee population has received a lot of attention over the past two decades, particularly when the somewhat mysterious colony collapse disorder (CCD) was observed starting in 2006. In colonies associated with CCD, the workers mysteriously desert the hive, leaving the queen and young bees to perish.

    Honey bees are also succumbing to mites, fungi, viruses, and bacterial diseases. Pesticides are a huge problem, particularly neionicotinoids, a type of systemic insecticide that is applied to seeds but which remains active throughout the plant’s lifecycle. Bees who ingest the pollen or nectar of treated plants can develop a neurological disorder that leaves them disoriented and confused. Yet another problem is that floral diversity has been reduced as farms are increasingly planted with a single crop.  

    Native bees, which often share habitat with honey bees, are under stress from many of the same environmental threats. For instance, recent research has shown that bumble bees are particularly vulnerable to global warming. Because they are large and covered with hair, they stay comfortably warm in cold weather but are miserable when it is hot.

    Scientists, government officials, and environmental activists are addressing the plight of the native bees but the situation is extremely dire, and some species have already become extinct.


    Native plant garden in Pt. Reyes Station


    What Can YOU Do?

    Plant a bee-friendly garden

    If you have some garden space, whether it is big or small, you can put in some plants to support honey bees and native bees. Basically, they need flowers that provide nectar (sugar and amino acids) and pollen (protein).

    Here are some things to think about in terms of food...

    1.  Plant in groups to increase pollination efficiency. If a pollinator can visit the same type of flower over and over, it doesn’t have to relearn how to enter the flower and can transfer pollen to the same species more efficiently.

    2.  Plant with bloom season in mind, providing food from early spring to late fall.

    3.  Select plants of different heights with flowers of varying colors and scents.  

    4.  Try to use native plants because they have evolved to support the needs of specific native bees. If you sneak in some non-natives I won’t judge you. Honey bees as well as some native bees are generalists and visit native and non-native plants.
    Native plant garden in Southern Marin with plenty of places for bees to nest  

    Bees also need a variety of options for protection and nesting…

    1.  Leave tree snags (e.g., stumps where a branch has broken off) for nesting sites and other dead plants and leaf litter for shelter.
    2.  Build bee boxes to encourage bees to nest on your property.
    3.  Leave some bare soil to give ground-nesting bees access to underground tunnels.

    A few other things to keep in mind...

    Consider the area outside your own property boundaries. Maybe you can get together with your neighbors to coordinate plantings in the strips between the sidewalk and road.

    Also, it’s essential to avoid pesticides!!

    Nurseries that specialize in native California plants include Annie’s Annuals and Perennials in Richmond and O’Donnells Nursery in Fairfax. You can find plant lists and other information on the website of the California Native Plant Society’s Marin Chapter. Or visit botanical gardens like the one above the UC Berkeley campus or the Marin Art and Garden Center.

      Chris is very
    to bees!
    Arrange for Bee Removal and Relocation, Not Extermination

    Given how beneficial bees are, and how threatened, most people want to support them if possible. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to remove them. Honey bees and most native bees should not be exterminated; rather, you can hire a beekeeper to relocate them.

    A couple years ago I hired a specialist, Chris Conrad, to remove two beehives, located in a soffit below my roof. Chris carefully vacuumed the adult bees out of the hive and into the lower section of a special box. He removed the honeycomb with its baby bee residents and attached it to a frame inserted into the upper section of the box. Then he allowed the vacuumed bees to join the young ones on the frame. He relocated the bees to his bee yard along with the honeycomb and honey they needed to re-establish the colony.  

    If you want to relocate the bees elsewhere on your property, Chris will bring them back after they’ve had a few weeks to regroup in his yard.

    Citizen Science: Counting Bees!

    Classifying bees based on data collected by citizen scientists  
    Dr. S. Hollis Woodward, an entomologist at the University of California Riverside, has proposed an approach for collecting data on native bee populations as part of the U.S. National Native Bee Monitoring Research Coordination NetworkThe project will train members of the public to look for and track wild bees.

    The bee count will run through 2023, and the program encourages participants to sign up at its website or send an email to Volunteers will be given an app to upload photos and basic information about the location where the photos were taken. Scientists will identify the bees in the photos and record the information for their database.

    The program is based in part on similar efforts to track bird populations. You may have heard of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, which relies on nearly 300 “citizen scientists,” volunteers who count migrating hawks and other raptors as they stream over the Marin Headlands in the fall.

    Support Local Efforts to Create Public Space for Pollinators

    Many of you have probably driven along Redhill Avenue and seen the new median strip that was installed recently, thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor. The other day I went over to take a closer look at the plantings. 

    A primary goal of the project was to design a median that retains stormwater in order to decrease the amount flowing into neighboring creeks. The median strip is bisected lengthwise by a “river” of multicolored stones varying from one to three or four inches in diameter. The stone river is dotted with beautiful boulders covered with lichen and moss. An array of mostly native shrubs and grasses is artfully scattered beside the stones, with a diversity of plant texture, color, and size. Medium size trees including Japanese maples and Western Strawberry trees provide additional interest. So cool! You can find the plant list on the town of San Anselmo website. This is a great example of an attractive public space that provides essential food and nesting space for bees and other pollinators.

    Heading to San Anselmo on Red Hill median


    Interesting contrasts
    of texture and color



    Plenty of color even  in winter


    Convenient landing pad for a hungry bee

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions:

    Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website  to see more birds, flowers, and other images.

  • 24 Nov 2020 12:45 PM | Deleted user

    Did you know that 9% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector? But environmentalists, scientists, and farmers are identifying farming techniques that actually remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it, not just offsetting agricultural emissions but also drawing down excess CO2 created by other activities. 

    A Very Brief History of Agriculture in the United States

    Corn and other crops were cultivated by Indigenous peoples in North America for more than 7,000 years before the arrival of the first English settlers. This agricultural knowledge was passed along in the 1600s when the Wampanoag native residents taught the English colonists how to clear land, till fields, and grow the corn that was crucial to their initial survival.

    While the agricultural practices of the Native peoples were sustainable for thousands of years preceding the colonists’ arrival, the adoption of new farming methods by subsequent waves of settlers changed the ecological context considerably. During the 1800’s, many practices intended to increase crop yield became widespread including fertilization, use of pesticides, irrigation, and the use of gas-powered tractors. While these developments increased productivity, they also damaged the health of the soil. Moreover, destruction of vast areas of grassland in the Midwest eventually led to the catastrophic loss of topsoil during the drought and subsequent dust storms of the 1930s. 

      Fun fact: 
    It takes 300 years to form
    1 inch of agricultural topsoil
    This crisis prompted some attempts by federal and state officials to identify techniques for promoting the health and fertility of agricultural soil. However, by the 1970s it had become clear that the nation’s enormous agricultural productivity had been achieved at the expense of a wide range of environmental consequences. To understand what happened let’s review a little chemistry.

    The Chemistry-Phobe’s Guide to Carbon

    I tend to zone out when anyone talks about chemicals. I admit that Chemistry was my least favorite class in school. I developed a huge mental block concerning the term for the basic unit of measurement in chemistry: “mole.” And believe me it’s hard to succeed in chemistry class if you keep picturing the wrong kind of mole. But bear with me, we can do this.

    According to UC Davis researcher Jessica Chiartas, “The soil represents a huge mass of natural resource under our feet. If we’re only thinking about farming the surface of it, we’re missing an opportunity. Carbon is like a second crop.” Why is she so excited about carbon?

    Carbon is a chemical element like hydrogen or nitrogen. It is a basic building block of biomolecules and is found in all organic matter. Carbon exists on Earth in solid, dissolved and gaseous forms. 

    Under the earth’s surface, carbon is stored in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas as well as in some kinds of rocks. When fossil fuels are burned, the carbon they contain is released into the atmosphere as a gas (carbon dioxide or CO2), where it traps heat and contributes to global warming. Decomposing organic matter on the surface of the earth also releases CO2 into the air.

    Now take a look at the ocean. The ocean is a carbon sink (or repository) because it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. However, this absorption also makes the water more acidic. The amount of damage done depends on the balance of these conflicting processes.

    Now let’s get to the sequestration of CO2 in biomass (i.e., plants, trees, and algae). You may or may not remember that photosynthesis is the process of using light energy from the sun along with CO2 and water in the atmosphere to make food for plants, trees, and algae. When the greenery dies, the constituent carbon becomes part of the soil. 

    We can support this sequestration process by improving the health of the soil used in agriculture. When soil is healthy, plants grow to their maximum productivity and are thus better able to absorb and sequester carbon so that it doesn’t go back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.

      Source: US Dept of Agriculture

    How Can Farmers Give a Boost to Carbon Sequestration?

    Farmers are uniquely positioned to assist in drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere. I was surprised to learn that plants are better suited for this sequestration than trees. Unlike trees, plants sequester most of their carbon underground. Even if the plant burns, the carbon stays fixed in the roots and soil. So, while forests have the ability to store more carbon, grasslands are more resilient in unstable conditions created by climate change.

    For this reason, scientists and farmers are becoming more and more excited about the possibilities of soil-based carbon sequestration.

    After all, 40% of land in the United States is abundant storage area for carbon! 

    That is some good-looking soil!

    Effective Practices for Creating Healthy Soil

    Conventional agricultural practices typically involve stripping the soil of all plants other than the primary cash crop, usually with the assistance of pesticides and aggressive tillage. The alternative is to encourage the growth of diverse plant life in addition to the primary crop. Here are several ways to do that.

    Cover cropping. Cover cropping refers to seeding fields between harvests. Cover crops may include either a single species or a mix of seasonal grasses and other plants. As explained by the Fibershed Carbon Farming Education program, the roots from the cover keep the topsoil in place and aerate the soil as they penetrate it, helping the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive. This healthy soil also promotes the abundant growth of the primary cash crop. 

    Planting windbreaks. Planting native trees and shrubs creates a barrier to prevent the wind from drying out the soil and blowing it around. They also provide wildlife habitat and resources for bees and other pollinators. 

    Rotational grazing. After crops have been harvested, farmers can allow animals to graze in the fields in order to remove some of the dried-out, dying remnants and allow weeds and other green plants to emerge. These little green interlopers reduce fire risk and increase carbon sequestration.

    A cover crop of poppies in a vineyard in Sonoma County   Planting windbreaks   Rotational grazing in Marin

    Opportunities for Change

    Here in California, several important programs have been developed to assist farmers and ranchers develop a plan for enhancing the potential of their land to sequester carbon. One of these is the Healthy Soils Initiative, which helps farmers increase carbon sequestration by supporting their efforts to improve plant health and crop yields, increase water retention by the soil, and prevent erosion. 

    Another important initiative is the Carbon Farming Network. The Network is a coalition of support organizations and land trusts along with 41 of California’s 96 Regional Conservation Districts. These districts work with farmers, ranchers, and foresters to maximize carbon storage in soils by implementing regenerative land management practices based on local conditions. The Network sponsors trainings and workshops to share information and facilitate peer-to-peer learning among its practitioner members. They are particularly attuned to the needs of farmers from marginalized groups, including women and people of color. The Network has facilitated the completion of 57 carbon farm plans to date, encompassing approximately 46,000 acres across the state.


    What Can You Do?

    Consider patronizing businesses that follow the sustainable farming practices associated with healthy soil. One sterling example is Coyuchi, a purveyor of organic bedding, towels, and apparel that supports regional farms and ranches. Based in Point Reyes, Coyuchi has partnered with Fibershed to support “carbon farming practices that actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, creating climate beneficial fibers.”

    Another choice you can make is to buy organic dairy products from local farms. Orchard Valley operates as a collective of small farms across the country. Long committed to sustainability and high animal care standards, they recently secured funding to help member dairies develop methods to increase carbon sequestration and reduce green-house gas emissions. Straus Family Creamery is located in the town of Marshall on the site of a dairy farm established by Bill and Ellen Straus in the 1940s. In the 1980s, their son Albert Straus converted the farm to an all-organic operation and founded the first 100% certified organic creamery in the country. Today, products from the Creamery all come from the Straus farm itself or one of 12 other organic, family-owned farms located in Northern California. I myself am extremely partial to their whole milk Greek yogurt!

    Click on this "buy direct" link supplied by Soil Centric  to purchase from other producers that use regenerative farming and grazing practices. 

    One final note: Recently the EFM sponsored a webinar on Healthy Soils as part of the Forum 2020 program. I was educated and inspired by the presentations. Thanks so much to presenters Renata Brillinger of CALCAN, Cynthia Daley of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture, and Jeff Creque of the Carbon Cycle Institute, to moderator Diana Conlon of Soil Centric, and to emcee Anne-Christine Strugnell of the EFM for their fascinating insights into the issues and solutions in this important area. Please contact Kim Rago at if you are interested in viewing a video of the webinar. 

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions:

    As usual, thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website to see more birds, flowers, and other images.

  • 12 Nov 2020 1:34 PM | Deleted user

    Pandemic notwithstanding, most of us will engage in some amount of festive cooking, home decorating, gift giving, and celebration in the next two months. We all have an opportunity to make some consumer choices to lighten the impact of our merrymaking on the environment. Here are some ideas!

    Not all candles are created equal

    Let’s start with the humble candle. Until I did the research for this installment of the Notebook, I had never realized that inexpensive candles are made from paraffin wax, a petroleum by-product. They are chockful of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde that are released into the air along with smoke and carbon dioxide as the candle burns.

    Beeswax candles are a far better choice than those made from paraffin. They don’t emit any smoke or toxins and they are made from a renewable resource. They are easy to find in stores and online, but if you are feeling crafty you can also make your own. Beeswax is hard to infuse with scent but you can always stick cloves in an orange if you want your home to smell nice!

    You have another option that is a bit more complicated: candles made from soybeans or palm oil. Soy and palm oil plantations, while providing employment for many, have caused the deforestation of millions of acres in Indonesia and other countries. However, candles made from them can be eco-friendly if sourced from sustainable, traceable crops. You’d need to do some research to verify the origins of the product.

    The Lowdown on Gift Wrap

    Americans spend a lot of money on gift wrap, which accounts for roughly 10% of the US paper market revenue. And half of the 4.6 million pounds of gift wrap produced each year ends up in landfills. Not to mention that approximately 38,000 miles worth of ribbon is also purchased during the holiday season.

    Some types of wrapping paper may be considered recyclable by some hauling services, but Marin Sanitary Service is not one of them. They advise customers to put all wrapping paper in the landfill cart. Other haulers may accept unlaminated wrapping paper for recycling; however, paper that is metallic, has glitter on it, or has a texture is rarely if ever considered recyclable.

    Also, resist the temptation to burn your wrapping paper in the fireplace. Many of us did this in the olden days. But we now know that wrapping paper releases noxious smoke containing dioxins and heavy metals when it is burned.

    Alternatives to Traditional Gift Wrapping

    Gift-givers may want to consider alternatives to wrapping paper. Here are a few unusual ways to wrap a gift:

    • Use a dishcloth, produce bag, or other reusable fabric item
    • Swath the gifts in used maps, newspaper, or brown paper bags
    • Offer the items in mason jars or vintage boxes and tins
    • Make your own wrapping paper, maybe by printing it with carved pieces of apple or raw potato

    The Christmas Tree Conundrum

    Eco-friendly option or environmentalist nightmare?  

    Some argue that artificial trees are better for the environment than natural ones because the consumer can reuse them every year. However, artificial trees are made of non-renewable plastics and petroleum-based products. They take five times more energy to produce than natural ones. Eventually they are thrown into landfills. And the analyses I’ve seen indicate that you’d have to reuse your artificial tree for about 20 years before it is more sustainable than a real one.

    In contrast, natural trees are a renewable resource. It takes about seven years to grow a six-foot Christmas tree, and during that time it is acting as a carbon sink, trapping carbon dioxide.

    Perhaps the most sustainable solution is to buy a live tree and plant it in a pot, thereby allowing you to reuse it in subsequent years. However, most people buy cut trees from lots. One heartening point is that trees harvested on Christmas tree farms are not cut to the ground. The technique is more akin heavy pruning. The farmer lops off the top for sale but allows the rest of the tree to continue growing for another year.

    Your tree can also be put to good use after its holiday service is over. Most communities have curbside collection services for Christmas trees, or you can drop your tree off at a collection site. According to the Marin Sanitary Service, “Some of the holiday trees are ground up and used as mulch or further composted to create soil amendment. Other trees are chipped and used as a biomass fuel source at a Co-Generation power plant. These trees replace traditional fossil fuel sources like coal and are considered a carbon neutral fuel source.”


    Carbon Offsets: A Gift to the Planet

    One other thing to bear in mind is the emissions caused by frequent flying during the holidays (at least, pre-pandemic). Overall, flights were responsible for 2.4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 — a figure expected to grow more than threefold by 2050.

    Carbon offsets offer a way for consumers to balance out their pollution by investing in projects that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If you’re taking a flight from San Francisco to Chicago, for example, you can purchase a carbon offset to account for the specific environmental impact of your voyage. The projects you will be investing in range from planting trees to improved forest management to working with farmers and ranchers to avoid practices that generate methane gas.

    Purchasing a carbon offset is not expensive — likely less than $10 for an SF to Chicago flight. Click here to find out more about how to buy them. 

    Getting Down to the Essentials…

    The seven principles
    of Kwanzaa


    Eschewing elaborate gifts and fancy holiday decorations is not just about environmental sustainability but also presents an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human connection and commitment to higher ideals during this important time of the year.

    In 1965, many children watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time. As Charlie bumbles his way to the truth about the holiday, he inspires his friends to abandon gaudy (dog)house decorations (Snoopy), long lists of desired gifts (Sally), and self-aggrandizing entertainment plans (Lucy). When Lucy sends Charlie and Linus to get a "great big, shiny aluminum tree…maybe painted pink," Charlie picks the only natural tree, a sorry-looking twig too weak to hold up a single ornament. But as Charlie’s friends gather to nurture the twig it transforms into a brilliant, beautiful tree. Fifty-five years later, this simple show and its message of unity, purpose, and faith continue to inspire us.

    This year has been deeply unsettling for numerous reasons, and many of us may be feeling off-kilter, anxious, bereft, and even traumatized. But the symbols of the upcoming holidays can help us remember the pleasure, meaning, and fulfillment to be found in acknowledging and celebrating our deep connection to each other and to our planet.

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. I wish you happiness and good health as we sort through the remaining political and medical challenges coming our way! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions:

    Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at Visit to see more birds and other images.

  • 27 Oct 2020 9:58 AM | Deleted user
      Vintage Japanese Fireman’s Jacket Dyed with Natural Indigo
    In this post I dive into the inviting blue world of indigo to explore the pros and cons of natural and synthetic dye and to shed some light on new initiatives to create environmentally sustainable garments.

    Rebecca Burgess and the Search for a Natural Blue Dye

    Textile artist and environmental activist Rebecca Burgess traces her thinking about sustainable garments to the summer of 1998 when she was teaching a class at UC Davis on textiledyeing. She and her students had to don the equivalent of hazmat suits to protect their skin, eyes, and lungs from the toxic chemicals in the synthetic dyes, which they then poured down the drain when the dyeing process was completed. Her concerns about the environmental and health impact of these practices prompted her to embark on an intense study of plant-based dyeing in indigenous communities in the US as well as village-based textile cooperatives in a variety of other countries.  

    In 2009, Burgess challenged herself to create a homegrown personal wardrobe based entirely on local resources. A core objective of this year-long experiment was to develop plant-based dyes in a variety of colors. She had no problem sourcing local plants to create green, pink, orange, yellow, and brown dye, including Toyon, coffeeberry, and hinsii walnuts. 

      Rebecca Burgess
    However, she hit a wall when it came to producing a blue dye. Most indigo comes from a plant family called Indigofera, which grows throughout tropical and subtropical regions. However, it is not easy to cultivate it here; in fact, it took Rebecca years to find a genus that would grow locally and then to master the art of extracting blue pigment from the leaf material. Today, she and others in the Northern California Fibershed continue to study the economic, social, and environmental efficacy of local indigo production.  

    My interest piqued by Rebecca’s quest, I decided to learn more about the history of indigo dyeing, and find out the current status of natural indigo production. 

    Indigo: Early Days

    Indigo plant   Double ikat textile made from natural indigo dye

    The first thing I learned is that people of the world really like to dye their clothing. The earliest known dyed fibers were found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia; these fibers are estimated to be 36,000 years old. Indigo dye, in particular, has been used throughout the world for a good 5,000 years. 

    Japan is particularly well known for its indigo textiles. The art of indigo dyeing flourished during the relatively peaceful Tokugawa period from 1603 to 1867. During that time, people in the lower classes were banned from wearing silk and they turned to cotton fabrics, which took indigo dye very well. Regions where the indigo plant was plentiful became wealthy, and indigo artisans perfected their patterns, hues and skills. One particularly beautiful Japanese textile that is made with indigo is called kasuri, which is called ikat in other parts of Asia. I really love double ikat weavings, a process in which the warp and weft threads are meticulously tie-dyed to form distinctive patterns when they are woven together.

    When it comes to indigo, nothing says success like the American invention of blue jeans. But how did indigo come to the US, and when was it first used to dye a pair of jeans?

    From West Africa to South Carolina

    I was surprised to learn that indigo came to the US as a by-product of the slave trade. Beginning around the fourteenth century, Africans began creating indigo in the dye pits of Kano in northern Nigeria. Textiles, and those made from indigo in particular, held significant cultural and economic value in many West African communities, particularly for women. In Ghana, Mali, The Gambia and Nigeria, textile artists created beautiful batik and stitched resist techniques using fabric dyed with indigo.

    Some Lowcountry residents are interested in re-introducing natural indigo  

    In the 1700s, slave traders bringing their human cargo to the Southeastern coast of the US also introduced knowledge about indigo and its value. Indigo plants began to be cultivated in South Carolina and for a time were one of the most lucrative crops produced in the region. 

    In the Lowcountry area of coastal Georgia and South Carolina, enslaved people from a variety of West African communities lived in relative isolation from whites while working on large plantations. They were thus able to retain many aspects of their varied linguistic and cultural heritage, including a belief in the power of blue to offer protection from harm. Early inhabitants of this area used indigo to dye fabric for garments and other household uses. 

      Vietnamese woman with indigo dyed hands and scarf (photo by Rehahn)
    As Rebecca Burgess found out during her years of experimenting with indigo, the natural dyeing process with indigo is long and arduous. Unlike other natural dyes, indigo is not water-soluble. Instead, the leaves of the plant must be fermented along with other products in order to extract the dye. When the dye is ready, the artisan soaks, wrings and dries the textile to be dyed, repeating the soaking process many times to achieve the deepest indigo hue. 

    The economics of indigo dyeing began to change in the mid-1800s, when a German chemist named Adolf von Baeyer succeeded in determining the structure of indigo. Shortly thereafter other German scientists developed a way of synthesizing it. There can be no doubt that the advent of synthetic dye was a boon to the modern textile industry. 

    Blue Jeans: From Natural to Synthetic Indigo and Back? 

    Readers from the Bay Area may know that blue jeans were “invented” in San Francisco by Levi Strauss, a German-born immigrant who came to New York in 1847 to work in his family’s dry goods business. In 1854, he opened a West Coast branch of the company in San Francisco, which was expanding rapidly as a result of the Gold Rush. Together with Jacob Davis, Strauss obtained a patent for work pants with copper rivets to reinforce points of stress such as the pocket corners. The men settled on denim, a fabric first developed in France for work clothes, as the most suitable fabric for their new pants. They used natural indigo dye to create the now iconic jeans color. 

    The company eventually switched to synthetic dye, along with rival brands that started springing up in the early part of the 20th century. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2018, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide.

    Given the huge amount of water and many toxic chemicals use to create all these blue jeans, is there a way to meander back to the days of natural indigo? Basically the answer seems to be…yes!

      High-end denim fashion in Japan
      Patagonia Denim Jeans
    The New Frontier for Blue Jeans….in Japan?

    For consumers willing to spend more money for higher-end garments made with indigo, it might be of interest to take a look at Japanese jeans. As many of the American brands increasingly chose to outsource their work overseas, a number of Japanese jean producers decided to keep things local, refining their craft and sometimes continuing to use vintage looms and old techniques. The result is a high quality denim fabric that is only half the width of the rolls produced by newer machines but one with a more durable finished edge. Some denim brands, such as Japan Blue, still choose to dye the cotton by hand using the leaves from the indigo plant for their most premium jeans. However, these jeans tend to be pricey…a pair will most likely set you back around $180.

    American brands are also experimenting with less harmful ways of creating blue jeans. For instance, Wrangler is now using a new foam-based process called “Indigood” to transfer indigo to the fabric without using so much water. The company also notes that they obtain recycled denim from pre-consumer denim waste and break down the fibers to produce recycled cotton which is then spun into new yarn. And the other good news is that Wrangler has kept prices low on their jeans.

    Patagonia has also made a commitment to sustainability. Their denim garments are made from organic cotton, grown without the use of GMO seeds or harmful fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Like Wrangler, they are also using an innovative dyeing process to reduce the use of water, electricity and chemicals. Less carbon dioxide is also produced, compared with traditional dyeing methods that make use of synthetic dyes. 

    While the specific claims of Wrangler and Patagonia are somewhat hard to verify, I have hope that their efforts represent a move in the right direction.

    What Can You Do?

    Fibershed Learning Center in Point Reyes  

    Maybe you are not ready to raise a small herd of sheep or weave a water-resistant poncho, although Rebecca Burgess and her colleagues at Fibershed would be happy to help you get started on either project. But you might want to take a class from them on natural dyeing processes or let them teach you how to mend clothing in a way that looks cool and extends the life of your favorite jeans. Check out their website to see what classes are on offer. You can also download their handbook with practical solutions for the clothing consumer. If you want to learn even more, I encourage you to read Burgess’ absorbing and informative book Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy.

    I also recommend that you watch "Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo," an independent, feature-length documentary by Mary Lance about the history, culture, and revival of indigo. Lance focuses on people around the globe who are using indigo in projects intended to improve life in their communities, preserve cultural integrity, and nurture the environment.

    If you love indigo textiles, read Indigo: The Color that Changed the World” by Catherine LeGrand. This beautiful book, published in 2013, explores the production of indigo textiles throughout the world, with lots of photographs and drawing that provide close-ups of patterns and textiles.

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. Don’t forget to vote if you haven’t already done so!

    Many thanks to Rob Badger Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Nita and Rob’s new award-winning call-to-action book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” is available at To see more birds and other images visit

  • 8 Oct 2020 12:32 PM | Deleted user

    In the midst of the political upheaval and myriad other crises we are currently experiencing, the need for a rational, science-based approach to health and climate issues has never been greater. In this installment of the Notebook I help you understand how to scrutinize and evaluate arguments about the environment so that you can be an informed consumer of all the information we are inundated with on a daily basis.

    These days, being able to think critically is particularly crucial because we are increasingly exposed to corporate greenwashing, a type of marketing spin in which deceptive claims are made to persuade the consumer that an organization’s products and policies are environmentally friendly even though they are largely or totally harmful. Over the last two decades, corporate greenwashing has become very sophisticated, but you can learn how to pierce below the surface of their claims!

    What is Critical Thinking?


    By Alf van Beem - Own work, CC0


    You need to have critical thinking 
    skills in order to evaluate whether
    or not the writer 
    of an article you
    are reading has used critical 
    in the process of composing the 
    article! Recursive? Yes! Important?


    Critical thinking refers to a process of being receptive and curious while also remaining skeptical as you evaluate and analyze new information from all angles. If I am reading an article about climate change, for example, I need to learn something about the authors of the article. What are their motives? What is their expertise? I should also evaluate the evidence for their assertions. Is the argument based on actual data or on anecdotes and opinion? I need to study whether they are conducting a careful analysis. Are they offering convincing ideas or just manipulating my emotions? How clear and logical is their thinking? Do the conclusions follow from the evidence?

    Critical thinking is something that all humans are equipped to do. Based on pioneering work by Jean Piaget, psychologists have shown that children develop the capability for logical reasoning by adolescence. For example, while young children need to see physical objects in order to line them up from tallest to shortest, teenagers can use inference to answer a question like the following: “If Kelly is taller than Ali and Ali is taller than Jo, who is the tallest?” Piaget’s argument was that the ability to think logically and critically is biologically programmed and that, barring terrible deprivation, it will be attained by everyone. 

    Threats to Critical Thinking

    More recently, behavioral economists and social psychologists have highlighted the human tendency to use cognitive shortcuts in reasoning about everyday matters. Sometimes the shortcuts are reasonable timesavers that result in accurate understanding but in other cases they can produce biased or illogical results. Here are four cognitive shortcuts that are particularly likely to trip us up when we think about environmental issues.

    Number 1: We are more persuaded by vivid anecdotes and examples than by statistical information.

    Examples and anecdotes tend to make a big impression on us, particularly if they strike an emotional chord or refer to something we have experienced personally. We respond less immediately and viscerally to statistics, even though data from a large group is much more likely to provide valid information than a single example. For instance, if my friend crashes her car, I may decide against buying one of that make and model, even if Consumer Reports has conducted a thorough analysis and gives it a big thumbs up.

    So beware of writers who rely on examples and anecdotes to make their case. And when you are the one trying to present an argument be sure to use the best evidence available. It’s fine to use examples to illustrate a point, but the example needs to be backed up by deeper evidence.

    Number 2: We may reject valid information just because it does not fit in with our prior beliefs and understandings.

    We like to think of ourselves as logical people whose ideas and values all add up to something consistent. When someone points out a contradiction between what we say and what we do, we feel very uncomfortable. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as cognitive dissonance.

    For instance, I have read a lot about plastic pollution. I am very convinced of the seriousness of the problem. I certainly want to reduce my own plastic consumption. Indeed, I have started chipping away at the problem, and am happy to report that and am happy to report that I can’t remember the last time I bought a roll of Saran Wrap. But during the pandemic I have been ordering groceries to be delivered, and they come in a lot of plastic packaging. I try to find ways to reduce the stressful feeling created by the inconsistency between my beliefs and behavior, such as vowing to shop exclusively at the farmers’ market as soon as the pandemic is over.

    So examine your own responses to new information with curiosity and skepticism! If you detect a tendency to resist new information that might be valuable and important, encourage yourself to explore the contradictions. 

    Number 3: We tend to mistake simple patterns of association as being evidence of cause and effect.

      Theory links all the processes depicted in this image.
    Whenever you see two things going together in some kind of a pattern, it’s tempting to assume that one thing is causing the other. A classic example of this is that the number of shark attacks on swimmers is correlated with the sale of ice cream cones on the Pacific Coast. Does that mean that sharks are more prone to attack people because the people have eaten more ice cream? No, eating ice cream does not cause sharks to attack you. It is more likely that outdoor temperature is a hidden, or confounding, third variable. In other words, people are more likely to go swimming (and to get attacked while doing so) as well as to eat ice cream in hot weather.

    Sometimes it can be OK to look at correlations for some evidence of causation. But the key is to have a good theoretical reason to support the notion of causation. Theory focuses your interpretation of correlations on sensible rather than arbitrary hypotheses.

    For example, suppose the number of coal-burning plants is correlated with the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and with increasing air and sea temperatures. We can confidently point to the causal role of coal if we have good information about the type of gases emitted by burning coal and understand how these gases prevent atmospheric heat from escaping into space.


    Number 4. If we establish that something is a cause of something else, we often jump to the conclusion that it is the only cause, or the most important cause.

    Sometimes it’s hard to consider all the contributors to a complex and multidimensional problem. For instance, it has been established that the presence of lead in children’s bodies causes cognitive deficiencies. And we also know that many children in low-income communities have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. But it would be overly simplistic to say that low school achievement in these neighborhoods can be solved by removing all the lead paint (although removal would certainly be a good start, and the ethically responsible thing to do).

    This oversimplifying phenomenon is clearly illustrated in efforts by the petrochemical industry to persuade consumers that plastic pollution is caused by inefficient recycling and that if we ramp up our recycling capability we will all be fine. Recent reports suggest that the plastic industry officials are engaging in critical thinking – they themselves do not believe recycling to be a viable solution! But they continue to promote it anyway as they seek to offset their profit loss from decreasing use of oil and gas with increased sale of plastic. In this case the industry is trying to take advantage of consumers’ tendency to feel satisfied with addressing a single cause of a complicated problem and distract them from other serious contributors.


    How Do Emotions Enter the Picture?

    I would argue that our emotions are frenemies with respect to our attempts to engage in critical thinking. We are emotional creatures and obviously not all emotions are bad – but we have to be aware of how they come into play when we are trying to engage in critical thinking.

    And what am I, chopped liver?  
    We have already seen some examples of how emotional responses can cloud our ability to think about an issue rationally. We can be seduced by a vivid example, and we resist new information that creates cognitive dissonance. But we will never be able to stamp out our feelings, nor should we. Emotions such as empathy are crucial to moving in the direction of social justice. If we can’t respond with empathy to pain and suffering we will not be motivated to take action. Indeed, the environmental movement often tries to arouse our protective and nurturing impulses with poignant photographs of animals in distress.

    But sometimes we should set emotions aside and focus on the evidence and analysis of the issues. And we should remember that saving only the cute animals is not really the solution.


    Another way in which emotions can enter the critical thinking process is via the phenomenon of tribalism. 

    Humans are in some sense pack animals. We unconsciously favor those most like us, those who belong to our group or tribe. Tribalism strengthens social cohesion and increases our propensity to sacrifice for the common good. However, tribalism can be maladaptive when it causes out-group stigmatism. And when there is a perception of insufficient or unequal distribution of resources, between-group hostility can easily arise.

    Several points about tribalism are relevant for environmental advocates. First, we can resist tribalism when it undermines the formation of broad coalitions in finding solutions to our climate crisis. We should reject attempts by government leaders to stoke hostility among groups for political gain.

    Also, we can be aware of the complex way in which tribalism has shaped our current media landscape. Social media platforms and cable channels have greatly exacerbated the tribalism in the ways that we consume news. We all select news outlets that we generally trust and respect. However, it is important to remain vigilant even with sources that we think are generally reputable. There can be strong disagreements among generally like-minded people, and it might take careful thinking to sift through the arguments carefully in such cases. Controversies regarding the culling of tule elk on Point Reyes and on the use of rodenticide in controlling house mice on the Farallon Islands are two cases in point.

    Thank you for paying attention to this very important and challenging topic. No doubt we will need all our critical thinking skills as we continue to wrestle with our political and environmental challenges. I wish you happiness and good health in the coming days and will be back in touch with a new Notebook post in two weeks!

    Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at Visit to see more birds and other images.

  • 23 Sep 2020 10:46 AM | Deleted user
    Years ago people often made clothes from untreated plants, like this Mexican rain cape made from palm fronds  
    Last week I endured a flea invasion in my house and consequently spent a huge amount of time washing and vacuuming. Can I draw any positive lessons from this extremely annoying occurrence? What I learned is that I have way more textiles (AKA flea habitats) in my house than I ever realized. Carpets, curtains, bedding, pillows, upholstery…it’s a lot of textile. And why is this positive? Because it got me thinking about different types of textiles — especially clothing — and their environmental impact. In this post I focus on natural and synthetic fabric, and I’ll give you some tips about how to make an environmentally sound choice the next time you buy a new pair of sweatpants for your pandemic wardrobe.

    Textiles: The Stealth Polluter?

    Pollution from textiles tends to remain somewhat outside of the environmentalist spotlight compared to other problems. But in fact the production of textiles is very resource intensive and contributes significantly to the degradation of our environment.

    But let’s start on the bright side

    Most sources agree that the most environmentally sustainable fabrics are organic cotton, linen made from flax, wool, and silk (as well as the lesser known hemp, jute, and ramie). These natural textiles are all biodegradable, typically within a year. The exception is silk, which is the most tough, and doesn’t begin to biodegrade for approximately four years.


    And the bad choices?

    Conventional (i.e., nonorganic) cotton seems to have earned first place in the textile hall of shame. Pesticides are poisoning workers and wreaking havoc on the planet. Cotton is grown on 2.5% of arable land in the world but uses 6% of pesticides, including one particularly toxic one that is a nerve gas.

    Nylon stockings became popular in the 1930s. During World War II silk and nylon stockings were recycled into parachutes.  
    Also problematic are the majority of synthetic textiles. The oldest one, nylon, was invented in 1935. Derived from petrochemicals, the production of nylon is three times more energy intensive than cotton. Producing nylon results in the release of nitrous oxide, a very harmful greenhouse gas.

    So far so bad, but also, unlike cotton and flax, nylon takes natural dyes poorly, and the chemical dyes that are used contribute to water pollution. And it is of course completely nonbiodegradable. It sheds fibers when it is washed, contributing to the microplastic pollution in our waterways.

    OK, but what about recyling nylon? Many people throw out used clothing, but it can obviously be used by someone else, or it can be shredded for insulation, for example. Additionally, some clothing designers are experimenting with recycled nylon textile to create new products.

    Bamboo? Greenwash? Say it isn’t so!
    Recent developments……semi-synthetics

    As a bamboo lover I am eager to believe that fabric made from bamboo would be fabulous. Bamboo is an extremely fast-growing crop requiring no chemical fertilization or pesticides and a fraction of the water used by cotton. Bamboo can be grown and harvested in a short amount of time and does not need replanting (as you know if you’ve ever tried to get rid of it from your yard).

    Chemicals are used to turn cellulose from the bamboo into fiber, including sulfur, nitrous oxide, carbon disulfide and hydrogen sulfide, all toxic pollutants. This water intensive processing also results in water discharge that is also highly polluting if untreated. Moreover, nearly all bamboo textile is produced in China, where the energy needed to produce bamboo mostly comes from burning coal.

    Textile artist and environmentalist Summer Edwards votes for organic cotton over bamboo in the textile sustainability smackdown. But she recognizes that bamboo may be “a first baby step in the progression towards stronger environmental practices in the fashion industry” and she concludes that it “lies somewhere in the middle on the continuum between unsustainable and sustainable textiles.” In terms of textiles, I am transferring my affection from bamboo to flax, which is sustainable as well as beautiful.

      This advertisement for Tencel highlights the benefit of closed loop production.
    Tencel to the rescue?

    Tencel is viewed by most designers as one of the most environmentally friendly semi-synthetic textiles. Tencel is a brand name for lyocell, a cellulose fiber made with wood chips that are washed (sometimes with bleach) and then mixed with a solvent made from petrochemicals. The company that holds the patent for Tencel uses a closed loop production process meaning that the solvent is reused and not discarded. The resulting fibers are woven into cloth. Lyocell requires less dye than cotton.

    Most sources I consulted were happy about the sustainability of Tencel, with two caveats. The first caveat is that a great deal of tree material is wasted in the production of this fabric. If trees for Tencel production are not grown sustainably, production of this material could have a negative environmental impact. And second, most Tencel is now produced in China, and it is not always possible to ascertain that producers follow the sustainable closed-loop extraction model.

    Questions remain…

    It can be difficult for consumers to know the full story behind a particular item made of supposedly “sustainable” fabric. But it’s worth making the effort.

    Labor abuse in the garment industry is egregious, particularly toward women.  
    One suggestion is to check out the website of companies whose products you purchase, and see whether they appear to be engaged in sustainable practices. If you look at Eileen Fisher’s website, for example, you can read extensively about the company’s commitment to social consciousness, a term they use to refer to supporting human rights and environmental sustainability. You can also do a little internet research to see whether company claims are backed up by independent sources. Eileen Fisher is frequently described as a leader among environmentally-oriented clothing companies.

    To find other clothing companies with a focus on environmental sustainability and fair labor practices check out the Toxic Textiles Scorecard developed by Green America. They evaluated 14 major American apparel companies. The top-ranked companies on their scorecard are Target, North Face, Nike, Gap, and Anne Taylor.  

      Flax flowers
      The little girl in this Korean story uses a patchwork cloth made by her grandmother from old clothing to carry her lunch and books to school.
    What else can you do?
    • Check to be sure the clothing you buy is certified by The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-tex 100 or another international certification body. This ensures the organic status of textiles with respect to harvesting the raw materials and engaging in socially responsible manufacturing.
    • Investigate on-line consignment shops that sell clothes (e.g.,
    • Take a look at this thoughtful essay by a woman who loves clothes but learns to take a sustainable approach to buying them. 
    • Become a fan of flax. Flax flowers are beautiful and the process of making linen from flax is interesting. Read it about it here.
    • Consult Summer Edwards’ Guide to Sustainable Textiles. She describes all the ethical and sustainability considerations in textiles to enable you to make purchase decisions in line with your ethics and commitment to sustainability. Or take a look at this fascinating article about lyocell.
    • Read this article in the Atlantic about the edgy work being done by Modern Meadow, a company that biofabricates leather from a strain of yeast to produce collagen, the protein in skin that gives traditional leather its strength and stretch. 

    • Find out how to reuse and repurpose textiles. For instance, join the folks who wrap gifts in textiles called furoshiki, following the practice common among the Japanese.

    That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at

    Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at Visit to see more birds and other images.

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