becoming earth literate


Sr. Miriam Macgillis

Genesis Farm’s mission is to teach and promote earth literacy as we exit the short earth era defined by oil powered machines and environmental hubris. What is earth literacy, you might ask?

The green living movement has gained prominence in recent years with recycling efforts, carbon awareness, pollution control, biofuel, farmers’ markets and what not. But during Sustainable Warwick’s visit to Genesis Farm in Blairstown, NJ on April 16 we got a taste of an example of true earth literacy – and it is very different from and goes way beyond composting your kitchen scraps or going on a week-end hike.

Besides Genesis Farm’s mastermind, Sr. Miriam Macgillis, with her broad cosmology and spiritual ecological vision for the future, we also met Dr. James Conroy, aka The Tree Whisperer. Dr. Conroy comes from a traditional scientific background in horticulture and plant pathology, and worked for years treating diseased plants with agricultural chemicals. He made a 180o turn when he woke up to the realization that his methodology, and that of our culture at large, was like being at war with nature. He became aware of his intuitive ability and began treating plants cooperatively as living organisms.

deer flags around a fruit tree

deer flags around a fruit tree

“Dr. Jim Conroy’s philosophy is based on rejuvenating trees’ inner health.  Inner healing occurs when a plant’s or tree’s inner parts, systems, and the aggregate of inner processes are bioenergetically transformed and imprinted with new and healthy patterns of operation,” he explains on his website.

deer flags around planting beds

deer flags around planting beds

In addition to healing trees he has now expanded his intuitive ability to communicating with the deer on the Genesis property. In order to avoid fencing specific areas in, he works cooperatively with the deer, identifying those areas on the farm that are set aside for produce gardening with flags  they supposedly have learned to recognize. The deer are free  to roam and eat from all other areas on the farm. Asked whether the deer listen to him, Conroy answers with a smile that it seems to be working so far, but that every spring the new born deer walk all over the place and have to be taught anew where they can and cannot go. Way beyond bringing your own grocery bags to the store!





why raw milk is greener and maybe even healthier

raw milkHomogenization and pasteurization add a whole lengthy and energy intensive industrial process to milking and make milk processed that way a “product.” Homogenization and pasteurization require trucking the milk from the dairy in huge milk trucks to a facility with machinery that sends the milk through both processes, bottles it, then distributes it to stores and supermarkets. Simplified, homogenization is a process that applies high pressure to force the milk through little holes, rendering the fat globules so small that they won’t separate again. Pasteurization, simplified again, involves the quick heating and subsequent cooling of milk to destroy potential pathogens.

Raw milk from pastured cows, in comparison, is a totally low tech and unadulterated food from nature. Raw milk is something like an emulsion. Even if you shake it up, the milk fat (from which you could make butter or icecream or use it in a sauce or over hot cereal) separates from the skim milk again and rises to the top, leaving that famous cream line.

In recent years the potential benefits of raw milk have turned up on peoples’ radars as we have become more interested in our food supply, a bit more wary of the food industry’s motives, and, perhaps more importantly, how the food we eat influences our health.

Not only is raw milk a lot less labor intensive, ergo “green” as in sustainable and requiring minimal energy input; after all it gets bottled right after the cow has been milked, you can buy it the same day (it doesn’t get any fresher than that) – The End.  It is also a local food since you buy it directly from a farm in your neighborhood.  Moreover, recent research seems to indicate that raw milk is potentially easier to digest (many lactose intolerant people tolerate raw milk), might boost the immune system, potentially prevent various allergic and asthmatic conditions, and is generally a more complex and valuable food because it retains all its nutrients, which otherwise get destroyed during the pasteurization process.

Of course plenty of detractors, but also fearful and perhaps insufficiently informed people have lobbied against raw milk in recent years. Inform yourself, do your research, know your body and your dietary preferences, then do what’s best for you with.

scary GMOs

gmo-orange-kiwiFrankenfoods is the popular name for GMOs or genetically modified organisms.   GMOs can actually be either plants or animals bred for food, but also plants for biofuel or fiber. GMOs involve the deliberate manipulation of genetic material, usually through introduction of DNA foreign to the original organism, to force the alteration of the plant or animal’s genetic make-up.  Brave New World, here we come.

Make no mistake, GMO technology is being used as a solution to agricultural and environmental challenges we have been unable (or dare I say unwilling) to resolve otherwise, such as eradicating world hunger, or agricultural challenges arising from climate change like the need for more drought tolerant crops. The consequences of introducing these questionable man-made creations into nature and our bodies have not been thoroughly enough researched (the time frame has been too short), yet, eager for profit, their launching has been hastened. Some effects are known, some can be anticipated, others will take the population at large by surprise, although already predicted by scientists, but in short they are all worrisome.

Based on research and case studies health consequences may encompass increased exposure to allergens, elevated cancer risks, increased resistance to antibiotics, risks of neurobehavioral defects, doubling the risk of miscarriages in advanced pregnancies, and disruption of the endocrine system.Fish-and-Tomato

Environmental effects are loss of biodiversity, pollen spreading from genetically engineered to non-genetically engineered plants, and interbreeding not only with wild species but also adjacent non-GMO crops. This disrupts the natural ecology and weakens the plants by genetically forcing characteristics external to their own ecosystem on them, which in turn stresses the plants and makes them unfit in the long term. Puerto Rican journalist Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero has written about the large scale environmental problems caused by herbicide-resistant GMO soybeans that have led to deforestation, soil degradation, and pesticide and genetic contamination.  This is huge!

Ricarda Steinbrecher, a molecular geneticist, has documented the scarily unpredictable side effects of genetically modified salmon reared in Scotland that was engineered to grow fast, but which also unpredictably turned green. Oops. And we are finding out that the genes of such Frankensteinian organisms are unstable in later generations.  So who knows what would happen if these green salmon were to escape and mate with nature made salmon.  Scary….

A serious ethical concern, that has farmers already up in arms, is the biochemical companies’ profit driven and complete control over the never ending, and of course unsustainable, dependency cycle on herbicides and pesticides, fertilizers and GMO seeds (Monsanto and others sell them all and require farmers to certify that they will not save seeds from one year to the next!).

gmo-freeTake note that many countries have either never adopted or already banned GMO crops. Our best bet is to refrain from buying, and thus promoting the further use of GMO crops, and supporting GMO labeling. Did you know that open produce in supermarkets is already labeled? A 4-digit fruit label (say #4011) means “conventionally grown banana,” a 5-digit code starting with a 9 (say #94011) means “organically grown banana,” and a 5-digit number with an 8 (say #84011) means “genetically modified banana.” Organic certification forbids the use of GMOs, but almost all conventional soy and corn crops in the US, and much rice and cotton, are now GMO. Why not refrain from buying anything with high fructose corn syrup, and no supermarket cereal – better for your health anyways. And when you buy local corn in late summer ask the farmer – many of our local farmers are aware and don’t grow GMO corn.









the many window questions


triple-pane casement window opening in

triple-pane casement window opening in

When we were researching windows for our zero-energy house the reply to our questions about triple-pane windows was often “what do you want to do that for?” The common thinking is still that nobody really does it (not true, the Canadians and Europeans do it), and that it costs too much (although we actually make a choice between spending more on heating fuel versus insulation, windows and in turn less on oil or gas). Evaluating things strictly from that outdated ROI (return on investment) perspective is reductionist and simplistic in this day and age of climate change, need for sustainability, increasing energy costs and depletion of fossil fuels in the not so distant future.

this is how double-hung windows slide against each other

this is how double-hung windows slide against each other

Walls are of course by far the best insulators, but since we can’t live in the dark for the sake of our energy bill we need windows. Yet, there are windows and windows and windows. Typically, a house loses 20% of its heat through the windows, more if they are single-pane and old. That adds up to hundreds of dollars per year in utility costs that literally go out the window.

casement windows close like this

casement windows close like this

For over twenty years, while living in a 200-year-old house, we did just that, heat the outside. What kinds of windows you replace your old ones with, or buy for your new house, and where you place them (here in the northeast we lose the most heat in the north, and gain the most in the south) makes a big difference.

Besides the considerations of the frame material- aluminum (cold)/vinyl (better)/ wood (best insulator) -, frame type – casement or double-hung (casement closes much tighter and therefore prevents heat loss), frame hinging – swinging in or out (it is much easier to clean and doesn’t catch the wind on a breezy day), there is also the glazing consideration.

wooden European window frame with multiple closing points

wooden European window frame with multiple closing points

In colder climates, like here, where the heating season is longer than the cooling season, we profit from high heat gain glazing on the south side, which lets the heat from the winter sun penetrate the glass. In warm climates on the other hand, such as Florida, where the cooling season is longer than the heating season, a house profits from low heat gain glazing on the south side, because this glass deflects the sunlight.

Because of their colder climate, the Canadians have already jumped on the triple-pane bandwagon, albeit out-swinging windows with vinyl frames.  They are better than the ones found south of the border (we don’t believe in them yet). The Europeans, however, make by far the best windows with far superior wood frames. Roughly, a European double-pane window compares to a Canadian triple-pane window in energy efficiency. In the European Union triple-pane windows will be the standard for new commercial construction beginning in 2019, and for new residential construction as of 2021.

Cost is of course always a consideration in any renovation or construction project, as are priorities. If neither your roof nor your walls are (well) insulated, forget about the triple-pane windows. If, however, you are building new or have improved all other aspects of your home, triple-pane windows are worthwhile looking into.

tilting in

tilting in

We love our European triple-pane windows. No drafts whatsoever; a heat gain of up to four degrees on a freezing cold sunny winter day in the room with the big southern windows; the entire panel (not just half, as in the double-hung kind) opens wide to the inside for easy cleaning and quick effective airing out; the frames close very tightly and lock in several places, which prevents air leaks and also makes them very secure; and lastly, they optionally tilt open at an upward angle to let air in without taking up window sill space or letting rain in on a wet day.


sustainable meat

DSC01152These days so many issues fall under the umbrella of sustainability, even meat eating (or not) and how.

Meat eating has lately been harshly criticized by many vegetarians and vegans with a demand to abstain, period. They are indeed right to condem supermarket meat, by which I mean meat that has been raised and processed in big-ag CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Meat that comes from such operations is sad and sick meat, not only because the poor creatures live and die in horror movie conditions (no exaggeration – read Jonathan Safran Foer and others), but also because of the major adverse environmental impact of these types of facilities. This meat cannot possibly be healthy for our bodies and the “production” method is an environmental and moral catastrophe. Why do you think CAFOs are closed to the public and the press? Because the uproar would be such that it would signal the beginning of the CAFO’s demise.

A happy compromise to the meat eating quandary, however, and a sustainable one at that, for those of us who do eat meat (and I am one of them), is to buy grass fed and pasture raised meat from local farms. When the process is transparent and the operation open to visitors you know there is nothing to hide.  Here, the animals graze outside in a natural environment and feed on what their systems are meant to digest (unlike the sickening corn and grain fed diet of CAFO animals).  Here, the animals’ manure is reused sustainably as fertilizer.  Here, the animals have room to roam.  We are so lucky to live in a place with many such sustainable farms.DSC01151

On the surface this sustainably raised meat is more expensive than supermarket meat. But supermarket meat has so many hidden costs that are passed on to us through the back door, costs to the environment, to our conscience and to our health.  Moreover, our meat consumption has skyrocketed to unhealthy levels over the past few decades precisely because meat has become so cheap. Lastly, coming from Europe I am used to eating all parts of the animal, from kidneys to pigs tails and pigs ears, to liver and sweetbreads (a true delicacy in France), which I find respects and appreciates the life we are taking for our own nourishment, rather than wasting many of the animal’s parts. Better therefore to eat (much) less meat but from a sustainable source. As food advocate and author Marion Nestlé says, we should be eating meat in “condiment quantities.”




Voices of Hope

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 12.36.21 PMI just attended the Voices of Hope in a time of crisis conference in NYC.

We are in crisis for sure – environmentally, economically, culturally, healthwise, politically. It is quite chaotic out there. Why is this crisis manifesting itself across the board on all fronts? Because everything is interconnected, which makes it very complex.  Yet, there is hope when we can see the bigger patterns, the grassroots movements that show where we may be headed, the pioneers who are guiding us with their visions. That’s what this conference was about – not losing sight of the bigger picture, or perhaps rather recognizing it.

We heard awesome speakers whose minds fiercely cut with determination through the grease of chaos (Chris Hedges, Laura Flanders, Camila Moreno, Elizabeth Yeampierre, Michael Shuman), or quietly plowed through the cultural morass fuelled by an inner vision (Catherine Ingram, Bayo Akomolafe), or joyfully embrace a life as we would all like to see it (Scott Chaskey, Judy Wicks, Manish Jain).

The overriding message of the conference was the importance of relocalization of our economies to put the power back into peoples’ hands in a very direct and practical way – Helena Norberg-Hodge said “our arms have grown so long that we can no longer see what our hands are doing.” Other messages were about rebalancing male and female energy to get away from the relentless push towards efficiency, and changing I to We in a spirit of cooperation.  And while many tend to see the crux of the problem in their particular discipline, and others believe that the ultimate and main challenge of the 21st century is climate change, Charles Eisenstein, one of the speakers and an author with a big vision, put another spin on resolving our chaos. He said that precisely because everything is interconnected you can move and shift and budge in one area and things will seemingly miraculously start to move and budge and shift in other areas. It works that way on a personal level, and it works that way culturally once critical mass has been achieved. But shift we must.

When we come together as a community and enact a vision, as we do here in Warwick, there is hope.








shut your engine!

A few weeks ago I received an office supplies delivery. The delivery truck driver left his engine running while he was rummaging in the back for my stuff.   I often see parents idling their car while waiting to pick their child up at school. At the railroad tracks in Warwick most – I don’t want to say all (and I am not one of them) – people idle their car while waiting for the (usually long) freight trains to pass. And I have never seen people turn their engines off while waiting at the drive-up ATM for their turn, at a red light or at a drive-through.

UPS is making an effort to reduce idling their trucks while the drivers deliver, because they know it wastes gas, which costs money (probably their first concern, before the CO2 emissions), although in our context air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are the deeper concern.  They report in a press release that ” Idling for 30 seconds uses more fuel than restarting your engine, and idling for 10 minutes a day wastes an average of 24.6 gallons of gas per year.”

Various cities and states in this country have already implemented anti-idling laws and there are penalties for idling more than 3 or 5 minutes, depending on the locality.  But we know this is difficult to enforce.  In Europe people are more conscientious about shutting their engine off while waiting at the railroad tracks for the train to pass.

But do we really need an ordinance telling us that spewing CO2 into the atmosphere while the car is not being used is a waste? Pollutes the air? Contributes to greenhouse gas emissions? Why not get into the habit of shutting your engine off as soon as you realize that you will be standing there for a while? Why not do your bit to conserve energy and limit greenhouse gas emissions?

toxic dry cleaning

too much plastic

too much plastic

I am always surprised by the types of clothes people bring to the dry cleaner – men’s dress shirts, women’s blouses, sweaters, cotton slacks. A lot of it can safely be washed at home for a lot less money and at a lower environmental (for all of us) and health (for the dry cleaning staff) price.   Dry cleaning is a chemically intense process that involves the toxic solvent perc (follow the link for information about dry cleaning), still used by 85% of all dry cleaning businesses.

I only get business suits and dresses dry cleaned since they cannot be laundered at home.  I never even brought sweaters in and hand washed them instead, the way my mother always did; but luckily I now have a washing machine with a hand wash program that does it safely and gently.  And, I concede that you’ll have to do some ironing if you launder more at home and don’t care for wrinkly slacks and dress shirts.

To add insult to injury, dry cleaners wrap the cleaned clothes in those long thin plastic sleeves to protect them from dust while awaiting pick-up, and then for the way home. So, while I have brought my own canvas shopping bags to the supermarket and farmer’s market for years to avoid using environmentally unfriendly plastic bags, I have only now awoken to the nasty dry cleaning plastic wrap scourge. Unlike the plastic supermarket bags, the thin dry cleaning plastic bags cannot even be recycled! Between toxins and trash, a double whammy that ends up in the garbage stream.

I have now asked my dry cleaner to refrain from slipping those plastic sleeves over our clothes. They have been very cooperative and are hanging our unwrapped clothes on a pick-up rack by the door.

Lastly, there are now two environmentally safe dry cleaning methods, professional wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide cleaning (follow the link for information on environmentally friendly methods). Keep a lookout for cleaners that adopt these new safer methods.

In conclusion, consider saving on the dry cleaner by washing more of your clothes at home, looking out for dry cleaners that use environmentally safer methods, and if you must, at least forego the plastic.

leave the plastic at the dry cleaner's

leave the plastic at the dry cleaner’s


go solar, go

Our current target here in the US is to generate 20% of our power from renewable energy sources by 2020, while Germany’s goal is 80% by 2050.   Currently, about 13% of our electricity comes from renewable sources (mostly wind and solar), while 27% of Germany’s current electric needs are covered by renewable energy sources, Michelle Froese, editor of North American Clean Energy, reports. We have some work cut out to meet the climate challenges ahead of us.

It’s easy to go solar, and leasing your panels is easiest. So here are your options in a nutshell.

When you lease your panels you basically rent out your roof space in exchange for a lower electric rate.  Not bad, since you don’t have to pay upfront for your panels, you pay a lower electric rate, and you don’t have to maintain your panels either. But the real profits land in the lap of the panel owner, the lessor in this case.   When you own your own panels, on the other hand, all profits go back into your own pocket.  And with the current federal and state rebates the purchase price drops to 1/3 of the acquisition cost and guarantees payback within 5-7 years.

There are two basic options with solar:

photovoltaic panels

photovoltaic panels

  • Photovoltaic electric panels, or PVs, which produce electricity. PV panels can be grid-tied or off-grid. When they are grid-tied they tie into your electric carrier (O&R here in Warwick), and become what they call net-metered. This means that they provide for your direct electric needs, and even turn your meter backwards if you produce more than your consumption is. PV panel technology is still in its infancy and the panels are currently only 15%-19% efficient. Besides the technology, the output also depends on your site conditions (angle, shade, orientation).   Off-grid PVs store excess electricity in batteries.
  • Solar hot water panels look different from PVs and strictly produce your hot water. There are closed loop systems for cold climates, and open loop systems for warm climates. Solar hot water systems are quite a bit cheaper than PVs.

    hot water panels

    hot water panels

Of course you can have some of each. Like with any new technology prices will keep dropping and efficiency will go up (think PCs or cellphones), so frontrunners will pay more and set examples to followers.  As to the lease vs. owning option, my stance is that the leasing option puts more solar panels out there without any upfront investment.   More panels on rooftops increase public awareness of solar energy, spur sales and with it the improvement of technology and efficiency. Choose the best option for you.



where we go from here

WarwickReykjavik plans to be entirely off fossil fuels by 2050, imagine! Already now this mini capital “gets its energy for heat, hot water and electricity entirely from hydropower and geothermal resources – both of which are renewable and free of greenhouse gas emissions,” as Maria Trimarchi and Jacob Clifton report in Of course, Reykjavik sits on hot springs, so geothermal is a no-brainer. Every place has to figure out its own best way.  When you’re in the desert solar makes sense, when you’re in the Windy City wind power is it, when you’re in Reykjavik it is geothermal, and hydrogen fuel cells will be the future in many other places. It’s all about working with local circumstances, and many solutions will be hybrids. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

The scientific evidence on climate change is quite terrifying – what with the prospects of frying in the blistering sun, being continuously flooded by reoccurring torrential rains, running out of water (in the West and Southwest), running out of oil because we haven’t seen it coming (say what?), and other nasty thoughts?

We all really have to do our part, right now, right here in our backyard. So how sustainable can we make Warwick? What can we do as a community to prepare for climate change and all it entails?

Jeremy Rifkin, social scientist, economist, prolific bestselling author, brilliant global thinker and inspirational change agent, who I heard speak at last fall’s Omega Institute Conference on Sustainability, has been writing about our environmental predicament (sounds milder, but it really is closer to a catastrophe) as the cause of our cultural paradigm, since the mid 1980s. His books are easy to read (I really recommend them), totally eye-opening and perspective changing, and show the road to where we’re headed if things are not too late (Rifkin consults with the European Union because many over here are not yet ready to hear his message).  But his vision goes way beyond the mere replacement of oil with renewable energy sources, to predicting and envisioning a culture that no longer exploits for short-term gain, to a new cooperative, sustainable and compassionate culture whose goal is everyone’s  wellbeing for long-term gain – peace, stability, and a decent standard of living for all, not just a few.

A sustainable community provides for quality of life while continuously renewing the environment and its resources. This can only happen in a cooperative and cocreative culture. So how sustainable can Warwick become? Let’s work together on such a vision for our town.

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