Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...
Listen! The wind is rising, and the air is wild with leaves, We have had our summer evenings, now for October eves! ~Humbert Wolfe
And not just any October eves... we're almost upon Halloween, so here's a beautifully spooky photo for this Nature Nerd Wednesday:

This long-exposure photo of blue ghost fireflies was entered into the National Geographic 2014 photo contest. The scene was captured in Brevard, North Carolina by photographer Spencer Black, who noted that "Blue Ghost fireflies are unique because they stay lit and only hover about a foot off the ground."

These fireflies are aptly named, as it seems they are as elusive to find as a restless spook on Halloween. Blue Ghosts are found glowing in the southern U.S. and throughout the Appalachian Mountains in early summer. Although I love Washington and its beautiful natural scenery, I must admit that I'm slightly jealous of our Southern neighbors for their fireflies. Here's a great article on these rare Blue Ghosts, so all of us Pacific Northwesterners can see what we're missing.

If only these fireflies were active during this time of year! I think walking through a twilight forest ankle-deep in a glowing cloud of fireflies is a much more fitting and enjoyable way to spend Halloween than dressing up in silly costumes, no?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Musings: Living Up to the Lives of Trees

Lainey Piland photo

A pile of sodden paper lay on the kitchen counter in front of me, unceremoniously dumped there after my quick dash out to the mailbox in the midst of a drenching autumn rain shower. After peeling off my dripping jacket and drying my hands, I turned my attention to the overwhelming pile of mail and tried to determine which item to deal with first.  My prodding fingers caused an envelope from Orion magazine, my absolute favorite publication, to surface to the top of the pile. We have a winner.

The letter was a request for donations, as the magazine is ad-free and relies entirely on donated funds to continue in print. I usually toss such things aside, but, as with everything else Orion produces, this letter was so compellingly written that I stood there damp and shivering at my kitchen counter and read the entire captivating thing - front and back. The last sentence of the first paragraph was the most utterly profound thing I've ever read in a letter asking for my monetary contribution: "...this particular magazine endeavors to live up to the lives of the trees it is printed on". 


Continuing toward the end of the letter: "... every cell of heartwood or sapwood that becomes part of Orion carries a word or image that we believe is worth it."

What an incredible ethic to incorporate into one's daily life, business, and thoughts.  Certainly not surprising coming from a nature-focused publication, but after reading this, I couldn't help but think how our world would be changed so much for the better if every individual adopted this mindset.

If we all internalized an utter respect and gratitude for our environment and natural resources, I think we would be much more careful with how we utilize them. The next time you grab a paper towel to clean up a mess; the next time you use a disposable coffee cup; the next time you read a book or magazine - stop and remember what these items are made of. Don't see these things as they are; instead, see them as they were. Think of that tree in its natural and unadulterated state. Are these products just as useful and necessary as the original tree from which they were made? How much more fulfilling, beautiful, inspiring - and less wasteful - the world would be if we were careful to only utilize consumer products with as high a purpose as their original forms.

Trees are pretty important. They sequester carbon. They provide shade. They turn carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. They provide wildlife habitat. They absorb rainwater. They provide an unending source of awe and comfort. When they die, their nutrients feed a new generation or trees. Trees are important. And for a print publication to recognize this fact and endeavor to have the content printed on its pages live up to the importance of all those things listed above... simply beautiful. You know there will be no waste of trees or words there.

Now back to the rest of that mail pile. Credit card offers. Grocery store advertisements. Political fliers (if I find one more of these ridiculous things stuffed into my mailbox or the cracks of my front door, I give up. I'm not voting for anyone!). None of these things breathe life. None of them provide shade for a weary soul. None harbor awe or wonder. Future generations will not be inspired and nourished by them. When it comes to living up to the lives of the trees on which these mailings are printed, none of them even come close. However, I will grant that each did a smashing job of absorbing rainwater during my soggy dash back into the house.

With my new-found perspective, I glumly dropped these failures into the recycle bin, mourning the wasted lives of the trees which supplied their paper. Best of luck in your next incarnation, dear trees. Perhaps you'll be lucky enough to be recycled into the pages of a publication that appreciates you.

Lainey Piland photo

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Wind-blown mountains in Olympic National Park. - NPS Photo

Rocky snow-capped mountains, alpine lakes, mossy temperate rainforest and chilly ocean beaches... the diverse scenery of Olympic National Park is beautifully captured in a stunning time-lapse film recently created by More Than Just Parks. This video is the first of 59 that More Than Just Parks plans to film -- one film for each national park in the U.S. -- with the hope of bringing "greater awareness of the treasures that reside within America's National Parks".

What a wonderful and worthy project this is! I look forward to seeing the other films, and they sure picked a great park to highlight as they kick off this project, if I do say so myself as a humble Washingtonian.

What a perfect nature escape.  Are you ready to hoof it out into the wilderness yet?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Here we're about halfway up the tree.  Who knew the view from inside a cedar tree was so beautiful?  Lainey Piland photo
"...then it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles."
~John Muir, A Wind-Storm in the Forests, 1878
Naturalist and writer John Muir was infamous for going to extreme lengths to observe and experience nature. He walked across the continent, climbed any number of mountains, explored his beloved Yosemite from valley bottom to mountaintop, and, as in the essay quoted above, climbed fearlessly into the treetops during a wintertime windstorm.

I recently had a "John Muir-esque" nature experience of my own. I went zip-lining.

The zip-lining itself was fun and exhilarating, but separate from those few adrenaline-filled seconds of flying suspended above the forest floor was a quieter, peaceful, and reflective experience that I hadn't at all expected.  While waiting for my turn to zip at each line, I probably spent over the course of the afternoon well over an hour simply standing on gently swaying platforms 50 feet above the forest floor. These wooden platforms tightly hugged the pliable trunks of Doug fir and sturdy western red cedar, and offered an amazing "tree's eye" view of the surrounding forest. 

The trees didn't seem to mind our artificially-supported presence, although Muir would have hated the platforms for the fact that their required supports were drilled into, wrapped around, and propped into the trees. I couldn't help but feel a little bit of his adventurous spirit as I stood there in the treetops and thought of his long-ago account of riding out a windstorm in the forest. On that wild, wind-whipped winter's day, he had likely free-climbed to the same towering height at which I currently stood, securely tethered, on a calm sunny afternoon. 

The tree's eye view from the second-to-last zip-line platform. Lainey Piland photo
We all know what it's like to stand at the foot of a tree and squint upward into its towering branches from our comparatively puny human stance. Not often, if ever, are we granted the ability to look outward from between those branches - to stand elevated at a height where we enter the rare society of those Doug firs and cedars, stealing for a moment the mysterious and silent knowledge that trees alone can hold. An exclusive experience, breathlessly accepted and reverently remembered.

I can relate well to Muir's parting impression as he left the forest that day:
"...I dismounted and sauntered down through the calming woods... I beheld the countless hosts of the forests hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience.  The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, "My peace I give unto you".
Another view from the second-to-last platform, looking through high-up branches of Douglas fir and bigleaf maple. Lainey Piland photo

Friday, October 10, 2014

Going Green: Toxins in Your Shampoo? Clean Up Your Beauty Routine

These days, many people are increasingly concerned with living a healthy lifestyle.  We exercise daily. We purchase organic foods and free-range, grass-fed meat. We grow our own fruits and vegetables. We try to get eight hours of sleep every night. We drink wine... for the antioxidants, of course. But how many of us take a moment to evaluate our personal care products for harmful chemicals?

Hiking: healthy exercise, healthy air! Bonus points if you have a cute rescue pup along. Lainey Piland photo

You can get a good night's sleep, do yoga daily and eat your homegrown organic kale for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but your health could still be at risk from carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting chemicals lurking in your shampoo, deodorant, lotion, soap, or makeup. Any personal care product is suspect.

The Issue

Wait a minute, there are dangerous chemicals in my shampoo?  Doesn't the government regulate that sort of thing?  Unfortunately not. According to information from the Environmental Working Group, the Food and Drug Administration does not require products to be tested for safety and does not review or approve ingredients before products are sent to store shelves. This means that your shampoo company can use any ingredients they well please, without having to prove they are safe to use.

The U.S. cosmetic industry's self-policing Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel has deemed a total of 11 chemicals too dangerous to use in personal care products. The European Union, however, has banned the use of over 1,400 chemicals in personal care products due to health and environmental concerns.  Many of those banned ingredients are regularly used here in the U.S.

Why are certain ingredients so dangerous? Many of them are carcinogenic, meaning they cause cancer. Other ingredients are endocrine disruptors, which means that they interfere with the normal function of our hormones - reproductive hormones in particular. The use of such chemicals in personal care products is especially concerning because, well, we use these products on our skin.  All over our bodies.  And our skin readily absorbs them (some products actually contain compounds to increase skin absorption of the product). Many of these chemicals accumulate in our internal organs and fatty tissues, where they can potentially reach high enough levels to cause cancer, affect reproduction, or cause other health issues.

Those same chemicals can also be ecotoxic, or toxic to the environment and wildlife. Chemicals in our personal care products typically enter the environment when we wash them down the drain during showers, when we wash our hands, flush the toilet, etc. This water then travels through the sewer system to a wastewater treatment plant.  While excellent at removing the icky yucky stuff and disinfecting the wastewater, these plants are unfortunately unable to remove chemicals from personal care products before discharging the wastewater into the environment via rivers, the ocean, or bodies of water such as Puget Sound.

If you're feeling skeptical and thinking it seems impossible that cosmetic companies would use harmful, cancer-causing chemicals in products that we apply to our bodies... I agree completely! However, this is the unfortunate and unfathomable reality. Read on and find out for yourself...

What Can I Do?

Clearly, our personal care products can pose serious threats to our health and the environment.  But how do we know if the shampoo in our shower or lip balm in our purse is harmful? One quick and easy rule of thumb is to look at the ingredient label.  If it contains a long list of ingredients that you cannot pronounce and/or have not a clue what they are - then you probably don't want to put that product on your body.

One of the best methods for determining product safety--and the one which I rely on--is to gather all of your products and look them up on the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. This well-researched and easy to use database will give your products a score of 0-10 based on the toxicity of their ingredients. The higher the score, the more toxic the product. Once you locate your product, you can see toxicity scores for individual ingredients and a list of associated health and environmental concerns. They even offer an app for your smartphone: with a quick scan of the barcode, you can find your product on the database. Fair warning: this can be a scary endeavor!

If, after looking up your products, you decide that you need to find less-toxic options, the Skin Deep database can help with that as well. Simply select the product type you're looking for from the menu, and the database will pull up all of the options, categorized from the lowest toxicity score to the highest. The mobile phone app is helpful for finding safe products while in the store.  Scan the barcode, find the toxicity score, and determine whether you want to purchase the product or fling it back onto the shelf and run away! Don't be fooled by products with the word "natural" on the label - this term is essentially meaningless, and many purportedly "natural" products still contain harmful ingredients.  Read the label, and look it up!

My Own Experience


I found out about the Skin Deep database several years ago, and have had a nagging feeling since then that I needed to switch to safer personal care products.  It wasn't until about 6 months ago that I finally took the time to research new products, and surprisingly (or perhaps not), finding safe products that were reasonably priced, actually worked, and which had a score of 2 or lower on the Skin Deep database ended up being a rather exhausting endeavor.

If you're interested and need some recommendations... here are the products I currently use, which emerged victorious from my hours of research:

Shampoo and conditioner - I purchase these items from Face Naturals (toxicity score 0-1).  These products smell divine, are made from organic ingredients that you can actually pronounce, aren't tested on animals, and are reasonably priced, for the most part (they last a long time!).  Just a warning to anyone making the switch from conventional to natural shampoo and conditioner: you will probably hate it at first. Your hair might feel flat, greasy, and just not good, but stick with it.  You'll go through a transition period of 1-2  weeks, and then you will love your hair! It will be light, clean, and shiny, with no residue buildup that typically happens with conventional shampoo. To really clean my hair, I add a sprinkle of baking soda to my shampoo every other day.

Lotion - I use plain ol' organic coconut oil (toxicity score 0). Trader Joe's sells it for about $6 per jar - the best price I've found so far.  Rub it into your skin and use a clean towel to dab away the excess, if needed.

Soap/Body Wash - I use Dr. Bronner's castile liquid soaps (toxicity score 0-3). The lavender scent is heavenly and relaxing, and the peppermint is refreshing! Plus, the crazy bottles give you something to read in the shower.

Deodorant - I make my own using Deodorant Recipe #3 on this page. (all ingredients have a score of 0).

Makeup - I purchase all of my makeup (except mascara) from Rejuva Minerals (toxicity score 0-1). For me, this consists of powder foundation, blush, and eyebrow powder. These products are free of toxic ingredients, packaged in biodegradable paper containers, and are not tested on animals. Plus, my blush is made with crushed rose petals. ROSE PETALS! I feel like a princess every time I use it. Their products might look pricey, but I promise they last a long time and are well worth it. I use Physician's Formula Organic Wear mascara (toxicity score 1) which works well and can be purchased at most drugstores for a price comparable to "regular" mascara.

There are many other products available which are safe and effective - the ones listed above are just the products that I personally decided to go with.

There you have it: my total collection of beauty products

Whew! This was a long post.  If you made it this far... thank you.  This is an important health and safety concern which the majority of the population probably isn't aware of. Please tell family and friends, feel free to share this blog post, and be sure to leave any of your own personal tips, experiences, or questions in the comments below.

You can also take action and join the effort to pressure cosmetic companies to remove toxic ingredients from their products.  The Story of Stuff is petitioning Proctor & Gamble to do just that: read more and sign the petition here.

Note from the Nature Nerd:  I realize this post is slightly different from the content I usually share on this blog, but the issue of toxic personal products is critically important to both human health and the environment. After reading the Story of Stuff petition linked above, I decided to write this blog post immediately. The petition calls out Proctor & Gamble for "pinkwashing" their products in honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  To "support" breast cancer awareness and encourage consumers to purchase their products, the company slaps a pink ribbon on the label... the very same label which lists cancer-causing chemicals in the ingredient list.  This is a slap in the face to anyone whose life has been touched by cancer, and is completely inexcusable. These companies need to be held accountable for the dangers their products pose to consumers.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Fall foliage - Lainey Piland photo
"A woodland in full color is awesome as a forest fire, in magnitude at least, but a single tree is like a dancing tongue of flame to warm the heart." ~Hal Borland
As autumn marches along, more of the scenery around us is set ablaze with color each passing day.  So much of it, in fact, that the colors can be seen from space.  Below are two photos from the NASA Earth Observatory showing the blooming fall colors across the Great Lakes region and the northeastern United States.

Oftentimes we seem unable to fully appreciate the magnitude of a phenomenon until someone tells us "you can see it from SPACE!" Somehow the knowledge that something can be seen from space puts it on another level altogether, with an implicit reverence and awe for that thing which suddenly seems beyond comprehension. We can now add "autumn" to that venerable list of "things visible from space" which includes the likes of the Grand Canyon and other wonders of the world.

Image source: NASA Earth Observatory
Image source: NASA Earth Observatory
Amazing to see, isn't it? Autumn spreads the warmth of its colors across the country one leaf at a time. Whether those leaves are viewed as an abstract orange glow from the broad perspective of Earth's orbit, or viewed in crisp definition from the close-in view outside the window, in your yard, or along the sidewalk, their blaze is always a heartwarming sight.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...
"Walking takes longer... than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed."
~Edward Abbey, "Walking"
Autumn and walking... this combination might rival even the perfect pairings of peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, or rain boots and mud puddles. These two things complement each other so well. Autumn offers colorful leaves overhead and crunchy ones underfoot, clean air tinged with the sweet fragrance of decay, and temperatures cool enough that you can walk for quite a distance without breaking a sweat. And walking... well, it offers a pace slow enough to take in - see, hear, breathe, feel, taste - all the beauty of the season.

Autumn is the perfect season in which to "stretch time," given that its breathtaking colors last only for a few weeks before giving way to the bare, gray austerity of wintertime - why wouldn't we want it to last as long as possible?

Here are a few photos from a recent walk of mine, where the first blush of autumn gold, yellow, and orange is just beginning to show...

Lainey Piland photo

Lainey Piland photo
  Autumn walking: slow down, take your time, and take it all in.