Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Solar Thoughts About Incremental Progress

Here on the Beaver Creek homestead, our electricity has been made since 1988 using solar photovoltaic panels, or a generator when the sun is hidden by clouds.  We live off the grid so our electricity goes into batteries for use day and night, or is used directly when produced.  We make enough electricity for needs (2 kilowatts per day) between March and November.  The rest of the time a generator is run one or two hours per day to charge the batteries.  Only about 15% of our total annual residential energy needs are in the form of electricity.  The other 85% is supplied from propane, firewood, and gasoline.  Does this mean that we should not be using solar panels on the Oregon coast?  No, we need some electricity to run appliances and pumps. More importantly, we have learned how to be the power company and conservation consultants.  This knowledge has done wonders for our comprehension of energy budgets and the possibilities for rational energy use in this country.  We would not have learned this if we  had not used incremental thinking.  We also got many ideas for power systems from a magazine called Home Power.

In the new age of solar electricity, many are excited by the ‘green buzz’ about solar electricity and putting enough panels on their house to power the home.  Their systems are designed to be grid-tied and planned to push excess power into the grid during the day and get power from the grid during the night.  These systems are noble, efficient, and help the power companies avoid building new generator plants.  The home systems help their users learn about energy production, use, and conservation.  But one important ingredient is often missing in thinking and planning for them.  That is the idea that grid-tied systems can be incremental.  The whole-house systems are expensive ($20,000-50,000) and people look to tax credits to finance them.  Many systems do not leave planning stages because people think that they will not have payback, or that payback will take too long, or that they just don’t have the money.  So a stirling opportunity for learning and doing the right thing is lost.   

Instead of the whole hog approach, try the incremental approach to thinking.  Maybe you can buy one or two panels, or whatever you can afford, and grid-tie them on the house.  This is easy to do with the technology that is available today, especially if an electrician is hired to help.  The components are modular, so with proper planning more panels can be added as financing becomes available, until eventually you may be powering the whole house and some of the neighborhood.  The power company will probably buy your surplus power.    

With the installed incremental system, you can begin to monitor the balance between energy production from the sun and use in the house.  You can begin to play with energy numbers and learn what is going on with electricity in the house.  This knowledge is priceless, as it stimulates imagination, proposes new and more efficient production and use of energy, and steers onto the path of knowledgeable energy use.  We can all appreciate smart energy use these days!  Join the club and be the first on the block with some of those beautiful blue panels pumping electricity into the house and grid, one step at a time.  Don’t be afraid to take a step.  The journey of a house filled with solar power begins with one step, one panel, not necessarily the whole journey.  Even if you don’t take the first step of a solar panel, get an energy (watt) meter and monitor your uses in the house.  Start thinking about what you are doing with energy instead of sleeping through the dark night of blind energy use.  Its fun to be awake!

Posted by michael   

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

It’s Raining Cats & Dogs...And Toads?

As Spring progresses, sounds are set at high volume.   The mix of cool and warm air sets off thunder and lightning storms, pounding hail, gusty winds, and crashing surf on the beach as the ocean waves are churned by the weather.  Rainy days are punctuated with bright, sunny ones causing rapid growth of all the local vegetation, and the awakening of insects and other creatures. 

Pacific Tree Frog, OR Dept of Fish & Wildlife photo 
At dusk the marsh is alive with the voices of thousands of frogs and toads singing for a mate.  As the seasonal fervor intensifies, the buzz and whir of so many croakers sounds like a flying saucer ready to take off!   Mallard ducks and other waterfowl spontaneously add their verses.   
With all the rain we've had lately, I’m reminded of a story in an oral history interview of Beaver Creek pioneer, Evelyn Peterson Boddy (recorded in about 1975, and part of the Lincoln County Historical Society Oral History Collections).  
Mrs. Boddy stated, “...We didn’t have any when we came here.  I think it sort of rains down from someplace.  I can remember one morning, we had toads rain down on the farm at one time.  We didn’t have any toads around, and [then] the place was covered with toads.  So how did they get there, if they didn’t rain?...”
The interviewer asked, “You mean you went out in the morning, and there were toads?”
Mrs. Boddy replied, “Toads all over, all over the place, our road from right down by the creek and clear up to the barn, and that hill for years was covered with toads.  And they finally all died off, and maybe just a few, you know, that set, a few big ones, you know.”
This is the stuff of myth and legend, and it is easy to see how an unusual natural occurrence can become local legend.  How did those toads arrive so suddenly if they didn’t come on the rain?
How, indeed.

Posted by jackie. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dandelion, Tooth Of The Lion Plant

The First Dandelion - Walt Whitman

‘Simple and fresh and fair from winter's close emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass — innocent,
golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face.’

Mention dandelion to an suburban homeowner and you may conjure up images of lawns gone bad and hear growling about that pesky weed and where is the nearest herbicide applicator.  TV advertising shows shoot outs between neighbors to determine who has the cleanest driveway and sidewalk.  Billions of dollars are spent each year in home improvement and farm supply stores on a concerted chemical warfare defending the traditional lawn or golf course.  Farmers have similar reactions to dandelions when they become competitive with crops.  Dandelion is a cosmopolitan species, naturalized from Eurasia and especially found in disturbed areas. The plant has many competitive advantages which makes it a potential weed species.  Its flowers are pollenated by a wide variety of insects and its seed disperses by floating on the wind.  It has a sturdy taproot.  It can grow leaves in a variety of orientations.  Its prostrate leaves can cover other plants to compete for light and space.  Where competition is less, leaves grow upright and reach into the sunlight.  

On our land next to Beaver Creek Marsh, dandelion is a welcome plant that has many uses.  Here, dandelion is a favorite food of deer, chipmunk, and rabbit and has a hard time growing in abundance unless it is protected by fencing; strange words to hear for a suburban lawn-grower.  Dandelion has many traditional uses.  It supplies delicious greens for salads.  Flowers are made into wine.  The root is pulled and used fresh or dried for many herbal remedies.  
John Lust, in The Herb Book says:
‘Properties and Uses: Aperient, cholagogue, diuretic, stomachic, tonic.  Dandelion has two particularly important uses: to promote the formation of bile and to remove excess water from the body in edemous conditions resulting from liver problems.  The root especially affects all forms of secretion and excretion from the body.  By acting to remove poisons from the body, it acts as a tonic and stimulant as well.  The fresh juice is most effective, but dandelion is also prepared as a tea.  Lukewarm dandelion tea has been recommended for dyspepsia with constipation, fever, insomnia, and hypochondria.  An infusion of the fresh root is said to be good for gallstones, jaundice, and other liver problems.  Dandelion leaves are popular and healthful as salad greens, especially in springtime.’
Steven Foster, in Medicinal Plants says: 
‘Uses: Fresh root tea traditionally used for liver, gall bladder, kidney, and bladder ailments; diuretic (not indicated when inflammation is present).  Also used as a tonic for weak or impaired digestion, constipation.  Dried root thought to be weaker, often roasted as coffee substitute.  Dried leaf tea is a folk laxative.  Experimentally, root is hypoglycemic, weak antibiotic against yeast infections (Candida albicans), stimulates flow of bile and weight loss.  All plant parts have served as food.  Leaves and flowers are rich in vitamins A and C.  Warning: Contact dermatitis has been reported from handling plant, probably caused by latex in stems and leaves.’

It is interesting to contemplate the range of opinions between controlling dandelion by chemical means and the potential medical benefits of dandelion.  Definitions and control of weed species are strongly dependent on social preferences and goals, which vary widely with geography.  One person’s answer is another’s question.   Herbicides are often important micro-components of runoff from lawns and fields and can have profound health effects on wetlands and stream ecology, as indicated by information on product labels.  An alternative middle ground is to learn more about organic weed control methods.  These methods rely upon an understanding of various aspects of plant ecology that control germination, growth, seed production, dormancy, competition, and companion planting.  Humans can actually form teams and alliances with plants to produce landscapes that support life, increase employment, and reduce chemical costs and health concerns.
There are other plants on our land that could be considered weeds.  They have wind-blown seeds or pervasive rhizomes and they tend to dominate certain areas.  However, by creating many different types of habitat and by harvesting young plants (weeding) and mulching, we are able to keep these putative weeds under control and in balance with the other plants in the area.  With a little thought and creative planning, weeds are gone and plants each find their chosen places.  Each year plants tend to move around on the land as microclimates change and soil develops fertility.  We experience an ever changing landscape that delights and feeds many animals without the use of poisons.  Weeds are a matter of opinion and attitudes, which can be changed and appreciated with knowledge and understanding.
Posted by michael

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pileated Woodpeckers

Photo © Tom Munson

This morning while walking along our driveway, I was reminded of forest space by the call of one of the more charismatic birds in the swamp and upland forests surrounding Beaver Creek Marsh, the pileated woodpecker.  This woodpecker is the size of a crow and has a distinctive red crest and loud call that we refer to as the tiki bird.  You can hear it through the forest and it makes you laugh in its resounding exuberance.  Sometimes they swoop up into a nearby tree and look down with a cocked head, checking out my presence with a careful curiosity.  They go about the business of finding bugs, listening carefully for insect noise and then enthusiastically stripping off bark and making large and smaller rectangular holes in dead and dying trees.  These holes may later be used by many other birds and bugs for living, feeding, and nesting spaces.  The woodpeckers also make larger cavities for nesting in older trees that have not fallen from the effects of decay.  This woodpecker definitely changes the forest landscape for the spontaneous benefit of many other inhabitants.  Contemplating the vibration and shock from which the bird’s brain must be cushioned by such bill pounding is a spellbinding task.  I am left with a sense of wonder at how this bird has adapted its body and behavior to the resources at hand and touches the lives of so many other forest inhabitants.  It has left impressions all over the snag trees that border the marsh and is completely at home pounding and calling to fill the forest and marsh with resonant reminders of the wild side.  It is a privilege to be in their living room while witnessing the steady search for food.

Posted by michael

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Blue Sky Day And March Flowers

Yesterday was a blue sky day.  The temperature rose to 78 degrees, inviting a walk around the yard to see the new flowers that have come with Spring.

Posted by michael

Friday, March 19, 2010

They're Baaack!

Excerpt of painting/collage by Jackie Niemi, © 2009

We were away for a couple of weeks and returned home to spring in full bloom!  So many blossoms had emerged.  The garden is full of color and new leaf.  

Another sign that spring is here is that the swallows have returned.  They suddenly appeared one sunny day this week, joyfully swirling and swooping high overhead, chirping their gladness as they flew.  The tree swallows are the ones that nest on our property, but I’ve seen other swallows in the area, such as barn and cliff swallows. 

The returning flock has already discovered the birdhouses that have housed many batches of chicks over the years.  Like newlywed human couples, pairs start finding each other and then “look for real estate,” already defending good prospects from starlings, robins, and other swallows.  One of the prospective “buyers” will sit on the perch and peek into the hole entrance, with its partner situated on top of the house or nearby.  They “talk it over” and assess the location and siting.  Are there plenty of bugs to eat, do we have to go far to get them, are we sheltered from weather and predators?  
The complete pairing off process hasn’t happened yet, and usually takes a couple of weeks.  When romance is in the air, their chirps turn to gurgles and coos when they communicate with each other.  Then they will begin to gather nest materials and move in to raise this year's brood of chicks.  
We have been fortunate over many springs to witness this cycle again and again.  We have seen the little ones fledge and take their first flight.  The field next to our house has been commonly used by all the youngsters in the neighborhood for flight training.  The newbies are easily identified by their slightly chubby appearance and slower, jerkier movements.  All the while adults fly among them, coaching and egging them on.  

It is a joy to have them back!

Posted by jackie. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Biodiversity And The Marsh Of Ideas

We are naturally attracted to areas where life is diverse.  We seem to have an instinctive need for variety in things, processes, and places that are stable and that support our sense of well being.  We may feel a sense of stewardship towards these wild areas and aspire to conserve them.  We can label this need (the intrinsic value of biodiversity) and we can assign and appreciate the value of ecological services for humans (anthropocentric value).  This labeling expresses the basic human need for nature.  The next time you contemplate the beauty of a natural area, consider how this appreciation is communicated to others through art, science, and culture.
Biodiversity is a scientific attempt to measure and predict arrangements of variation and stability and is used as a tool in management of natural systems.  Biodiversity can be measured in several ways which are interrelated. 1) Ecological processes can be measured (N-fixation, photosynthesis, respiration, and cleaning and conserving water).  2) Functional types of organisms can be counted, including types associated with processes, patterns of distribution (zonation, spatial and temporal gradients, symbiosis, and parasitism), or behavior (herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores). 3) Functionally equivalent species can be measured within functional types outlined in (2).  Diversity also occurs at different levels of spatial interaction.  Alpha diversity reflects number of processes or species within a habitat.  Beta diversity reflects between-habitat diversity.  Gamma diversity measures geographical diversity over large areas.  
The analysis can look at components and at the moral, philosophical, and political aspects of systems.  Because we do not have a specific understanding of what is diversity, each viewpoint may give a different picture of diversity and its values.  Intrinsic value may be difficult to define but easy to experience.  Anthropocentric monetary values may be assigned and include economic benefits, aesthetic and recreational benefits, scientific and ethical knowledge, and future potential benefits.
Processes regulating biodiversity include chance, history, laws of interactions (growth, competition, and cooperation), speciation, immigration, emigration, extinction, area, productivity, spatial heterogeneity, and disturbance.  Predictive models have been developed to simulate biodiversity on several spatial and temporal scales.  Studies of biodiversity have included surveys of diversity in processes, genetics, species, indicator groups, and surrogate environmental measures for processes.  Initial surveys are conducted and systems are then monitored for subsequent changes and comparisons with model predictions.
Assigning value to diversity and prioritizing conservation efforts will require careful thinking and consensus for the goals of societies and the future of wild places.  Perhaps the place to start from and return to is our instinctive appreciation of wild places, regardless of our political and philosophical persuasions.  
Posted by michael

Monday, March 15, 2010


Photo © A.D. Drew/ USFWS

A new report is out on the ‘The State of the Birds’.  This report is a summary of what birds are telling about climate change.  Birds have been metaphorical for change throughout history.  Examples include: the canary in the coal mine; swallows and robins returning in the spring;  geese leaving in the fall; and migration in general.  Birds fly through the air on a path that leaves no trace.  
The report uses information about measures of species sensitivity to climate change.  Sensitivity traits include: 1) migration status measures sensitivity to distance and matching between food availability and arrival at stopover and resting places; 2) breeding habitat obligate requires use of specific habitats; 3) dispersal ability to change habitats as climate changes; 4) niche specificity to specific limited habitat and food resources; 5) reproductive potential of annual young; 6) habitat exposure to conditions likely to experience climate change.  These traits were scored by sensitivity and then overall species vulnerability to climate change was calculated.
Birds of every habitat will be affected by climate change.  Especially vulnerable are oceanic and coastal species, as sea level changes and storm intensity increases.  Places like Beaver Creek Marsh become even more important to conserve, as they are important stopover points and nesting sites for migrating species that are dependent on coastal wetlands.  The report emphasizes that conservation needs for birds have been widely assessed, but that the effects of climate change have rarely been considered.  Climate change can make things worse for birds that already have conservation concerns and new species may become conservation concerns.
Detection of climate change effects relies in part on long term records of bird counts and habitat use.  In Beaver Creek Marsh and Lincoln County these records have been maintained by groups such as Lincoln County Birders.  The importance of these historical records will increase as urban growth expands.     
Posted by michael