Photo: Getty Images.
Record Store Day celebrates independent music stores in the UK, says the BBC, “with many labels and artists releasing limited vinyl editions specifically on the day.”

Some of us still listen to our vinyl records. And others are starting to. In fact, vinyl records have become so popular in England that there is now an official Record Store Day to celebrate the bricks-and-mortar places you can buy them.

Gareth George reports at the BBC, “More young music fans are snapping up the latest releases on vinyl, triggering a boom in LP sales. In 2022, vinyl outsold CDs for the first time in 35 years. Ahead of Record Store Day in the UK, the BBC asked young record store regulars why ‘old school’ beats downloads. …

“Will, 16, is a GCSE [General Certificate Secondary Education] student and guitarist who hopes to study music full-time at the Colchester Institute. He believes buying vinyl is a better way of supporting artists than streaming or downloading music and reveals he has inherited his own collection of records from parents and grandparents. …

” ‘You can inherit not only the music, but also the memories, and tell the story though vinyl.’

“Will is running a second-hand vinyl stall with Sam, 18, from Chelmsford, a guitarist and singer who plays in a band called Alison. Sam says record fairs are essential because new vinyl LPs can be expensive for budding collectors.

” ‘It’s hard to become a vinyl collector now when you go to your local record shop and see that it’s 40 quid a record,’ he says. ‘That’s why these record fairs are important. Stuff’s just cheaper.’

“The pair work at Intense Records in Chelmsford, one of the hundreds of independent music shops across the UK taking part in Record Store Day on 22 April. The annual event, which was established in 2007, has become one of the biggest in the music calendar, with independent record shops often achieving their highest sales of the year. …

” ‘We’ve definitely seen a new generation of younger music fans embracing vinyl,’ says Record Store Day UK co-ordinator Megan Page. ‘For superstar artists like Taylor Swift and The 1975, vinyl has become a really important part of their marketing campaign. …

“Jon Smith, manager of Intense Records, says DJs will be playing to the crowds of collectors expected to go along. He said many customers hope to grab a bargain or snap up a limited release on the day. …

“Nineteen-year-old Kasabian fan, Geordie Breeze, is ‘crate-digging’ in Norwich – a vinyl hunter term for flicking through the rows and racks of records in music shops. The environmental science student at Lancaster University says he already has ‘a few hundred’ vinyl LPs. ‘I think the sound quality’s better, and I like a physical record to hold,’ he says.

“According to figures from the British Phonographic Industry, vinyl records outsold CDs in 2022 for the first time in 35 years. The revenue generated from vinyl was [about] £119.5m [$128 million] more than CDs. …

“Musician Imogen Bradley, 23, looks out for ‘old school hip-hop’ on vinyl. She is a fan of British rapper MF Doom and American hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan. ‘I just prefer having a physical copy,’ she says.”

What was before vinyl? My grandfather left behind a wind-up Victrola with a horn that would be valuable today. But my brother and I at a young age thought it was hilarious to smash the records. Golly, but kids are weird!

More at the BBC, here. No firewall.

Photo: Suzanne and John’s Mom.

Photo: IPP [India Pride Project].
S Vijay Kumar, above, “travels through India, documenting artifacts and investigating the trail of missing objects online,” says the BBC.

For how many millenia have travelers thought it was perfectly fine to pick up local art objects and take them home, perhaps eventually donating them to museums? Today the looted countries are saying, “Wait a minute–that’s mine.”

Charukesi Ramadurai writes at BBC “Culture” that volunteers in India have started doing something about these thefts.

The story starts with recent speculation concerning the coronation of King Charles III, when many eyes in India were turned toward the Queen Consort and the “the contentious Koh-i-Noor diamond.” Would she wear it? She did not.

“While the palace has not made any official statement about the reason,” Ramadurai reports, “there were worries about it causing diplomatic issues with India, if it had been used, given the country’s claims to be its rightful owner. …

“The Koh-i-Noor, first found in written records in 1628, has long been the subject of acrimony between India and its former colonizer, with a persistent demand by the Indian government and its citizens for its return. As this piece in India’s Mint newspaper explains bluntly, ‘The main controversy around the diamond is that the British give an impression to its younger generation that the Koh-i-Noor was a gift from India and make no official mention of the violent history behind acquiring it.’

“The renewed uproar about the Koh-i-Noor has also led to intensifying questioning of all the other resources – not just the sparkly stones –  taken away from the Global South by western powers over centuries of trading and ruling. ‘Wear the diamond, give back the rest,’ suggests this op-ed piece in The Indian Express.

“Among the ‘rest’ are priceless cultural artifacts – and this is what the India Pride Project concerns itself with. This citizen movement for the restitution of stolen and smuggled antiques (particularly statues) from public museums and private collectors across the world was started in 2013 by shipping executive S Vijay Kumar and public policy expert Anuraag Saxena from Singapore. …

“These sleuths, with the help of a small, anonymous global team of volunteers from various fields – who communicate mostly online – have brought back to India several millions worth of antiquities from countries like Australia, Singapore, Germany, UK and the US.

“Most recently, they made the news when their efforts aided the investigation that prompted the National Gallery of Australia to return antiques worth $2.2 million – stolen by art smuggler Subash Kapoor – to the Indian government. Their targets include both artifacts taken forcibly out of India during the British colonial era, and those more recently stolen and smuggled from temples and public collections.

“Kumar, who is now based in Chennai in south India, and Saxena, who remains in Singapore, talk with ease about field trips to document missing idols and sting operations with auction houses. … This is not to suggest they are some kind of gung-ho art vigilante group, given the amount of plodding through paperwork and complex negotiation work they do. Their work involves advocacy, activism and coordinating between governments and law enforcement agencies such as Customs, Europol and Homeland Security within India and outside. Kumar says, ‘In the past when they reached out to India, nobody replied, so now we are doing that job.’

India Pride project is more of a network than an organization – we have no money, no employees and no authority,’ admits Saxena candidly, even a tad proudly.

“Art expert and former Egyptologist at the British Museum, Lewis McNaught, who now runs Returning Heritage, an online resource about cultural restitution, thinks the IPP model of citizen activism is intriguing. ‘They go out and actively source information using a social network of supporters. And only when they are able to confirm that the object has been stolen, do they approach the government, which in turn applies pressure on the museum or other governments where the object is being held.’

“There has been an established pattern of theft and trafficking of valuable art and artifacts from poorer countries in Asia and Africa to richer nations in the West – either directly by colonizing forces or in more recent times, through a sophisticated network of smugglers.

“In his book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire (and in various other places), writer and historian William Dalrymple has called out the looting of thousands of priceless objects from India to Britain by the employees of the trading East India Company. …

“Long after the colonizers have retired, there still remains a flourishing multi-billion-dollar black market in stolen antiquities. Serendipitous discovery is rare, such as this story from the 2018 Met Gala when Kim Kardashian took a photo in her sparkling gold gown twinning with a resplendent golden mummy. The photo drew attention to, well, the mummy, which was then detected to have been smuggled out of Egypt unnoticed in the chaos of the 2011 Arab Spring, making its way into New York’s august Metropolitan Museum of Art. The ensuing media outcry forced the Met – which had paid $4 million for fake documents – to return said mummy to Egypt.

“And before anyone feels too sorry for this museum’s loss, it is important to know that despite the 1970 Unesco Convention aimed at ending the illicit trade of antiquities, museums including big ones like the Met and The British Museum (the largest receiver of stolen goods, some say) have continued to buy from art thieves such as the now-convicted Subhash Kapoor. Kumar, who has written about his long pursuit of Kapoor in his book The Idol Thief, says this is simply because of the standard market economics of supply and demand. In a 2020 piece for the New Indian Express entitled: ‘When the buying by museums stops, the looting stops,’ Kumar called out museums for turning a blind eye to the origins of coveted antiquities.”

More at the BBC, here. No firewall.

Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai.
Tigers at Kanha National Park in central India.

With its huge population, extremes of wealth and poverty, and religious suppression, India has more than its share of challenges. But one thing it seems to be getting right is its approach to protecting the national animal, the tiger.

Charukesi Ramadurai reports for the Christian Science Monitor, “On a misty winter morning in a central Indian forest, a soft caw-caw punctuates the silence. Dozens of grazing deer perk up their ears, then join in the staccato warning screeches of the langur monkeys and birds high up in the trees. As the chorus of animal alarms reach a crescendo, a frisson of excitement runs through the humans seated on the safari jeeps, bulky cameras and pricey binoculars at the ready. The urgency of these calls can only mean that a predator has been spotted. 

“The tourists let out a collective gasp when the tiger finally emerges from the thickets, the orange and black fur gleaming in the muted morning sunlight. …

“All eyes are on the king of Indian jungles as the country marks the 50th anniversary of Project Tiger, a program founded in April 1973 to save the species from extinction. Five decades later, India houses the world’s only stable and growing tiger population … with numbers expected to pass 3,000. India also now boasts 53 tiger reserves across 18 states, encompassing about 2.4% of the country’s total land. It’s a success story marked by unwavering hope. 

“ ‘Back when it started, nobody could have imagined that we would have more than 50 protected tiger reserves in this country,’ says conservationist and wildlife tourism expert Amit Sankhala, who is also the grandson of Kailash Sankhala, the first director of Project Tiger. ‘These habitats exist just for the tiger to exist.’ …

“India’s tiger population dwindled from over 40,000 in the 1930s to a mere 1,827 by the end of the 1960s, due to organized hunting and habitat destruction. Spurred on by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Indian government announced the landmark Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, paving the way for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to launch Project Tiger the following year. Authorities established nine tiger reserves and implemented a blanket ban on hunting, and the tiger was declared India’s national animal.

“Despite the program’s early success, progress has been inconsistent. In fact, tiger numbers dipped to an all-time low of 1,411 in 2008 because of continued habitat loss outside protected areas, as well as unchecked poaching, which wiped out tiger populations in major reserves such as Panna in the central state of Madhya Pradesh and Sariska in the west Indian state of Rajasthan.

“That sparked an urgent push to increase public awareness through celebrity campaigns, and the conservation reins were handed over to a special task force known as the National Tiger Conservation Authority. With stricter wildlife policies and improved monitoring, numbers have been rising slowly but steadily since then. Every consecutive four-year census has shown an increase of a few hundred tigers; according to the 2018 census, India has a tiger count of 2,967, a figure which accounts for nearly 75% of all tigers in the wild.

“Reputed naturalist and wildlife guru Hashim Tyabji calls India’s success in preventing tigers’ extinction ‘a miracle in conservation.’ The project, he says, is a testament to India’s expertise in capturing and relocating tigers from their home areas to forests where numbers are lower and more space is available for these solitary, territorial animals to roam freely. … ‘We have modern tools like camera traps to track tigers. And not to forget, there are many many people who are hugely committed to conservation, and practice responsible tourism.’ …

“The uptick in tiger populations is especially impressive considering India’s rapid rate of development, says Aly Rashid, director at Jehan Numa Wilderness, which operates sustainable wildlife lodges in Madhya Pradesh. 

“ ‘We have 1.4 billion people living here, and the [human] population has doubled since 1973. Given all this pressure on land and resources, I would say this is a huge achievement,’ he explains.

“Although the WWF reports that wild tiger populations are growing globally, the solitary predator isn’t out of the woods yet. It’s still classified as endangered, and in India, degradation of critical tiger corridors and human-tiger conflict pose serious challenges. But Mr. Rashid is hopeful that with community buy-in, India can overcome these challenges. …

“That hope extends beyond tigers, which Mr. Sankhala, the conservationist, calls ‘poster boys for wildlife.’ The apex predator has also helped draw attention to India’s other endangered species, he says, including red pandas and Asiatic lions. Recent amendments in the original 1972 wildlife act have made it possible to protect and nurture various animals, from the barasingha (swamp deer) and gaur (Indian bison) in the heart of the country, to the one-horned rhinoceros in the eastern reaches. …

“ ‘Once you save the tiger, you save everything around it,’ Mr. Sankhala says.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

Photo: Whitney Eulich.
Angel del Rosario Hau Paat, who raps as ADR Maya, is seen here with his mother in Tulum, Mexico. He grew up resistant to speaking Maya but now embraces it.

When a new generation decides that the old folks’ way of speaking could actually be cool and even powerful, a language that is in danger of dying out may get an extension.

Whitney Eulich writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Angel del Rosario Hau Paat leans over the rainbow-colored hammock where his grandmother lies and speaks directly into her ear: ‘What do you think of my singing?’ he shouts in Maya, the Indigenous language of Mexico’s Yucatan.

“Hard of hearing, she strokes his face as she responds. ‘She’s happy,’ he translates, with a bashful laugh. ‘She says my Maya is good.’

“Growing up in the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Mr. del Rosario says he wasn’t interested in learning Maya, the only language his grandmother speaks and which his mother grew up speaking. Spanish is what was useful for him at school and among friends.

“But today he is part of a growing trend among young people – here and across the Americas, from Canada to Chile – who are rapping in Indigenous languages. It’s strengthened his connection to the language his mother raised him speaking (and to which he grew up responding in Spanish) and to his family’s traditions.

“ ‘I never imagined myself using Maya so much. I’m making more connections with my culture and with people from other countries also rapping in Indigenous languages,’ says Mr. del Rosario, a pool technician in the resort town of Tulum who records music under the name ADR Maya in his free time. ‘It feels really good.’ 

“Mexico is home to more than 60 officially recognized Indigenous languages. Many of them, and their associated cultures, are at risk – despite a 2002 law protecting the right to use one’s Indigenous language and education reforms in recent years that require some languages be taught in public schools.

“At least 40% of the world’s Indigenous languages are also in danger of disappearing, according to the United Nations. But, for young artists like Mr. del Rosario, the discovery of rap in Maya is serving as a motivation to double down on learning more. …

“Says José Antonio Flores Farfán, a professor of linguistics and anthropology at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City, ‘Treasures that human beings have accumulated for centuries are encrypted in language. … It’s these kids, these rappers, these artists who give me hope. … They are talented, doing something about it from the bottom up, and they’re inspiring younger kids and new generations to see value in the language in the process.’

“In the Yucatec-Maya-speaking region of southern Mexico, Jesús Cristobal Pat Chablé, more popularly known as ‘Pat Boy,’ could be considered the Johnny Appleseed of Indigenous rap. The artist, in his early 30s, started playing music when he was 5 years old and experimented with different genres, from rancheras (Mexican ballads) to rock to reggae, launching his solo rap career in 2009. 

“Today, he travels internationally, rapping in Maya; collaborates with artists who speak other Indigenous languages; and encourages young Maya speakers to write and record their own music, some of which ends up on albums he produces through his label ADN Maya. He’s currently building a recording studio in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, about 140 miles south of Cancun. 

“Themes of daily life in Maya communities – customs, education, love, and traditions – populate his lyrics. His efforts have won him international recognition, including the 2022 Linguapax Award.

Last year, a song Pat Boy collaborated in writing and singing was featured on the ‘Wakanda Forever’ soundtrack.

“[It brought] the Maya language to theaters around the world with lyrics like: ‘They say we disappeared from this earth, what do you think? / It isn’t true … years passed, we became stronger. / Today I treasure the Mayan culture.’

“It’s a far cry from how he started.

“ ‘It was tough. I’d try to get a spot in a public festival and people would say, “But what do your songs say?” ‘ he recalls of his early years performing in Quintana Roo. ‘I was in my right to speak and sing in my maternal language, but there was this fear [among organizers] that I was motivating people to do things against the government, to rise up, because it was written in Maya and they didn’t understand the words,’ he says.      

“ ‘People in the city say, “You can’t achieve things if you’re Maya, you come from the countryside. You can’t be an artist or a painter or a writer,” ‘ he says. ‘When I started there wasn’t a lot of interest in what I was doing. Now, everywhere I go I meet young people dreaming of singing in Maya.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/CSM.
LaShawnda Phillips flourished thanks to the Ebony Horsewomen opportunity. She is now a barn manager for the program and is graduating from the University of Connecticut in animal science.

In Hartford, Connecticut, a remarkable woman called Patricia Kelly founded Ebony Horsewomen Inc. and soon expanded it to reach local children who never had exposure to the joy of horses. Sara Lang reports about her program at the Christian Science Monitor.

“A sleek chestnut stallion circles the edge of the indoor riding ring heading for a jump. The horse isn’t running quite fast enough and stumbles. 

“ ‘That’s right, keep going. You got it,’ urges Patricia Kelly from just inside the door, encouraging both horse and trainer with hands on her hips, boots firmly planted. 

“After some urging from the trainer in the center of the ring, the horse picks up the pace and clears the next jump effortlessly. Ms. Kelly, who runs this riding stable in Hartford, Connecticut, smiles and cheers. She’s been encouraging both horses and riders for decades. 

“Ms. Kelly established Ebony Horsewomen Inc. in 1984 as a way to introduce the joys of horseback riding to women in the Hartford area. In the three decades since, EHI has grown to include 16 horses, 25 miles of well-maintained trails, stables, riding rings, public lessons, and advanced jumping and dressage team training. It has also drawn accolades for its leadership in equine therapy training – using horses to help riders heal from trauma.

“Through this work, Ms. Kelly is raising awareness around Black equestrians. People of color make up just 10% of the U.S. Equestrian Foundation, which oversees equine competition of all levels across the country. 

“One challenge for underrepresented communities is access to stables and riding centers. EHI, situated within Hartford’s 693-acre Keney Park and accessible by public transportation, draws nearly 400 young people to its programs. And that’s not all. In January, EHI awarded its first annual Black Boots Award to recognize ‘the work, presence, and accolades of Black equestrians in the horse industry.’ 

“ ‘African Americans have been unsung individuals in the equestrian field,’ says Jeffrey Fletcher, president of the Ruby & Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum in Stratford, Connecticut, who co-sponsored the Black Boots Award. ‘She broke the glass ceiling.’ …

“Ms. Kelly and the work of EHI have been noticed across the country. In Connecticut, she was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame and earned the state’s African American Affairs woman of the year. She earned a community service award from the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials. And in Texas, she’s been inducted into halls of fame for both the National Cowboys of Color Museum and National Cowgirl Museum. …

“ ‘There is not the stuff out there on women of color,’ says Diane Vela, associate executive director of the National Cowgirl Museum. ‘It takes a champion like Patricia Kelly out there talking about it.’ …

“In March, EHI [opened] the Mary Fields Museum and Training Space, honoring the first African American woman to serve as a horseback-riding mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service at the turn of the 20th century. ‘There’s someone everyone should know about,’ says Ms. Vela. ‘This incredible woman who protected these stagecoaches.’ …

“Ms. Kelly never set out to open an equestrian center, let alone one specially designed to help children and veterans recover from unseen wounds. After serving as a message decoder in the Marines during the Vietnam War, then practicing law and raising a family in Hartford, Ms. Kelly created Ebony Horsewomen to lead rides for Black women as a way to unwind and connect.

One day the riders encountered a group of children playing in a park. ‘Is that a real horse?’ one child asked.

“And in that moment, Ms. Kelly knew that her group would take on a bigger purpose. ‘It became quite apparent that what the kids needed was greater than what we needed,’ she says.

“At first, Ms. Kelly took horses and riding lessons out to children in different neighborhoods. Eventually, EHI purchased its first building in the park and gradually expanded its offerings. 

“ ‘This is something that they might never have had the opportunity to experience,’ she says, ‘because, one, the equestrian sport is very, very expensive, and, two, it is never located in their community, and, three, they’re not operated by people of their culture. Until we came along.’ …

“Soon EHI went beyond horses to include a summer garden where students can learn to grow and cook with fresh produce, spend time reading, and undertake science experiments.

“One of those students was Fred Wright, who is now in charge of Keney Park’s equestrian rangers – and recipient of the 2023 Black Boots Award in the Equine Tradesmen category. He started in the program when he was 7 years old, with riding lessons, mentorship, reading classes, science classes, and horsemanship.

“Mr. Wright went on to attend Cornell University and its farrier program, where he learned how to trim a horse’s hoofs and nail on shoes. He now travels around the country as a farrier, in addition to looking after the EHI horses. …

“ ‘I always had the choice to go back home to … the gangs and the drugs and all that other stuff,’ he says. ‘As long as I’m here, I’m safe.’ …

“Students from every Hartford-area school have come through [EHI]. And thanks to her continually expanding efforts, Ms. Kelly has made EHI – and Hartford – a leader in access and opportunities for future equestrians from all backgrounds. 

“ ‘It’s life altering,’ she says. ‘It changes your direction to something you didn’t even know existed.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

Photo: Whitney Eulich.
Omar de Jesús Vazquez Sánchez shows his Sargablock solution to the smelly seaweed invasion across the Caribbean shore of Mexico. He makes construction blocks out of it.

Today’s story is an example of someone with too many “lemons” who finds a way to make “lemonade.” It all started with smelly seaweed.

Christian Science Monitor writer Whitney Eulich reports from Puerto Morelos, Mexico, “Sargassum, the invasive, sewage-scented seaweed piling up on beaches across the Caribbean, isn’t something most people look upon kindly.

“But for Omar de Jesús Vazquez Sánchez, his first encounter was ‘love at first sight.’

” ‘Everyone said, “It smells horrible!” and I remember thinking, “There’s something more here,” ‘ says Mr. Vazquez, the founder of Sargablock, a small company in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that transforms the algae into construction blocks.

“A record amount of sargassum is turning crystal blue Caribbean coast waters brown and smelling of rotten eggs as it decomposes in tourist spots from Mexico to Caribbean islands and now along the beaches of Florida’s east coast.

“Researchers blame pollution, overdevelopment, and global warming for the seemingly never-ending seaweed invasion that’s also present in the Atlantic.

“In 2015, as part of his gardening business, Mr. Vazquez launched a beach cleanup service to remove the leafy seaweed. But, as its arrival intensified, he started considering how to turn it into something useful, and in 2018 conceived a way to use sargassum in building blocks. Today he not only sells those blocks to construction projects, but also builds affordable housing in his community.

“ ‘When I look at Sargablock, it’s like looking in a mirror,’ he says, comparing his company to conquering his personal struggles, including addiction, and briefly, homelessness.

‘When you have problems with drugs or alcohol, you’re viewed as a problem for society. No one wants anything to do with you. They look away.’

“ ‘When sargassum started arriving, it created a similar reaction. Everyone was complaining,’ he says. … ‘I wanted to mold something good out of something everyone saw as bad.’ …

“The state government of Quintana Roo collected 19,000 tons of sargassum from beaches in 2020; 44,000 tons in 2021; and 54,000 tons last year. Researchers say the amount could nearly double this year, and it arrived months ahead of what is typically the start of sargassum ‘season’ in May. …

“Mr. Vazquez mixes 40% sargassum with other organic materials, like clay, that he then puts it into a cement-block-forming machine. The blocks bake in the sun for several days before they’re ready to use. He says he used 3,000 tons of sargassum in  2021, 2,000 tons last year. By early April 2023, he’d already used 700 tons.

“The UNDP [United Nations Development Program] selected Mr. Vazquez’s work transforming sargassum for their Accelerator Lab, which identifies and broadcasts creative solutions to environmental and sustainability challenges globally. The idea is that some of the most timely and creative responses come from locals living the repercussions of environmental dilemmas firsthand. …

“A joint study by universities in England and Ghana found that blocks made with organic material like sargassum can last for 120 years. The ecology and environment offices of Quintana Roo concluded the blocks are safe for use in construction. 

“Mr. Vazquez grew up surrounded by nature – and the hardships of poverty. It shaped him into someone who takes action, he says. He remembers singing for spare change on the street as a child, before his single mother moved the family to the U.S. as unauthorized immigrants. They picked grapes in California, and Mr. Vazquez dropped out of high school to double down on what he considers his profession: gardening.

“ ‘There’s this idea of the American dream. But, for me, personally,’ he says, ‘I was always asking God to let me come back to Mexico.’

“It took almost 30 years to do so. ‘Coming back, it took a lot of time to adapt – the salaries are different. Sometimes people are skeptical’ of Mexicans returning from the U.S. he says. He worked odd jobs, like selling timeshares to tourists passing through the Cancún airport. Eventually he invested his savings – $55 at the time – in a nursery.

“As his nursery grew, he was making a name for himself creating a small but promising solution to the sargassum challenge. He gained attention through appearances on Shark Tank Mexico and a locally organized Ted Talk. Although he was living the ‘Mexican dream,’ something was missing. He reflected on when he was happiest in his life and it came down to two things: Memories of spending time in his grandparent’s simple adobe-block home in Jalisco, and being with his mother, who had sacrificed so much for him before passing away in 2004.

“ ‘We never had a house of our own, we didn’t have much food or clothes. I didn’t have a father,’ he says. When he built what he expected to be his nursery’s new office with Sargablock, he designed it as a replica of his grandparents’ home and named it after his mother, Angelita.

“ ‘The first thing that came to my mind and heart was to donate houses to women like my mother, who are doing everything in their power to make it work,’ he says.

“Enter Casas Angelitas. Using Sargablock, Mr. Vazquez has built and donated 14 homes to families in need, many single moms, but also elderly couples and parents supporting kids with disabilities.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall. Subscriptions for the online publication are reasonably priced.

Photo: The documentary Fat Kathy.
In Warsaw, clams are used to test for toxicity in the water supply.

I have blogged before about the role of oysters and oyster shells in cleaning up polluted water (for example, here and here), but today’s story suggests other mollusks are equally hard at work.

Judita K writes at Bored Panda, “Some manmade things are better left to nature. [That’s why parts of] the world have decided to trust clams and mussels to monitor the cleanness of their water. Despite most of us being used to seeing clams on a fancy dinner plate, some of them get a more important mission — monitoring the purity of drinking water. …

“The water quality in Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, is monitored by … well, yes, clams. A Polish Tumblr user who goes by nickname Ftgurdy explained that the city of Warsaw gets its water from a river and ‘the main water pump has 8 clams that have triggers attached to their shells. If the water gets too toxic, they close, and the triggers shut off the city’s water supply automatically.’

“There’s a whole documentary on that, called Fat Kathy, and you can check out its trailer here. It follows how the main scientist-malacologist watches over the system’s operation. …

“Municipal Water and Sewage Enterprise in the Capital City of Warsaw confirms the use of fish and mussels for biomonitoring. They explain that they use biomonitoring at Warsaw Waterworks to increase the safety of the water treatment process. …

“The mollusks first undergo an acclimatization process after being caught and brought to the laboratory. It takes about two weeks. During that time, scientists also determine the natural opening of their shell — clams leave a slight opening and feed by filtrating water. Within one hour, one clam can filter and thus analyze the quality of 1.5 liters of water.

They live only in completely clean waters and shut their shells immediately if they sense any impurity.

“After completing their acclimatization process, clams are placed in a specially designed flow tank. They are connected to the system controller that sends data to a computer which records the degree that the clams’ shells are open all the time. If the water quality deteriorates, the clams close their shells to isolate themselves from the contaminated environment. That automatically triggers an alarm and shuts down water supply while scientists perform laboratory tests.

“In order for the clams not to get used to the water that’s being tested, they only serve for three months. After their service is done, they are transported back to the same water they were taken from and are marked by the scientists so they don’t pick up the same clams again.

“This Polish Waterworks company claims that this biomonitoring method is one of the most effective proven technologies for water quality testing. According to them, mussels monitor water quality for over 8 million people in Poland. Turns out, Minneapolis is using this method as well. Minneapolis Water Treatment and Distribution Services credit 12 mussels for keeping the water clean and safe.

“ ‘They are filter feeders, so they are feeding off of the water that’s in there, pulling the nutrients down,’ said George Kraynick of Minneapolis Water Works. ‘They live for up to 50 years, they are there 24/7 and they are happy in the tank, just feeding. [After they’ve served their time] most likely, we will just set them free in the river. … Minneapolis is currently the only city in the US that uses clams for biomonitoring.”

The writer also includes great comments on this technology from Twitter and elsewhere on the internet.

More at Bored Panda, here. No firewall. If you prefer your sources to be less like Tumblr and more like the Economist, click here.

Hat tip: John.

PS. You might also like to read how Dr. Thabile Ndlovu in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) is building a national bank of water data to ensure the water is safe to drink: here. She and her team are particularly focused on the danger of heavy metals.

Photo: Dua Anjum.
“Poet Hiram Sims,” the Christian Science Monitor reports,” has given poetry a permanent home in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.

This is another story about how the Covid pandemic gave some people a moment of “not much going on” to pursue a dream.

Dua Anjum writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “From Hiram Sims’ earliest memory, poetry defined his inner world – songs of praise at his church choir; the rap lyrics of The Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, and Mase’s ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’; Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ in seventh grade.

“ ‘Poetry’s like a frequency that I can hear above all other frequencies,’ he says. … ‘When I hear that sound, I pay attention.’

“That sound became his favorite form of expression. As a kid, he wrote about candy, his thoughts about God, and a lot of verses for girls at school. In college, while he progressed to mature writing around the Black experience in America and the struggles of being young and broke, witty comic poems remained key to his repertoire. He chuckles recalling a poem comparing Ugg boots to rhinoceros feet. Now, he has published three collections of poetry and frequently writes love poems for his wife.

“While it was clear early that his calling was poetry, Mr. Sims remembers having an anchorless feeling: Poetry sections of libraries were rare, and the poetry scene was a series of countless borrowed spaces in restaurants, cafes, and bars. It felt like ‘poetry is homeless because it’s constantly couch surfing,’ says Mr. Sims, who became a creative writing and composition professor at colleges in the area, including his alma mater, the University of Southern California.

“In 2020, he gave poetry a permanent home in his South Los Angeles neighborhood, founding the Sims Library of Poetry, for reading, writing, studying, and performing poetry. 

“The space has evolved into an indispensable gathering place for anyone looking for inspiration, say poets who live nearby. It whimsically invites the public in: ‘Poetry Lives Here’ is painted on a low concrete boundary. A mural pays homage to the dragon fire that poets spit in words. A ‘Poet Parking Only’ sign peeks from a patch of grass. 

“The spiritual foundation for this landmark came from what Mr. Sims considers a personal triumph: the Community Literature Initiative (CLI), through which he helps poets produce manuscripts ready for publication and connect to presses.  

“ ‘I was at an open mic and I heard all of these amazing poets. After the show, I said, “I’d like to buy a copy of your book,” and none of them had books,’ says Mr. Sims, who has coached poets in publishing now for 10 years in space provided by USC. … Sims Library origin story goes back to a $29.99 suitcase.

After assigning his CLI students to read one book of poetry a week, he realized: They couldn’t afford them, and libraries had slim poetry offerings. 

“So, he fit 80 books from his collection into the purple-brown suitcase, carted it around in his car, unzipped it, and let students borrow poetry collections by living authors, especially local LA poets.

“ ‘One of my students said, “This is the little Sims library of poetry right here.” And I was like, “Wow.” … After that, I put all my energy into building that microcosm of the library that I had in my head.’

“The idea came to life in his garage at a birthday party-turned-library-launch. … Several poets read their own verse. And people brought boxes full of books: The party started with 300 and ended with 2,000. 

“Mr. Sims’ mother, Gwendolyn, who remembers her young son loved to read greeting card stanzas at the Rite Aid, was one of the first to donate money. The library continued to thrive with family, community, and foundation contributions of books, cash, and grants. And CLI class tuition also helped. 

“It was peak pandemic, and the preschool run by his wife, Charisse, closed. The family decided to take over the building as the next iteration of the library. Mr. Sims’ father, Edward, who is a contractor, and his brother Job helped with shelves. Word of another donation drive reached further and book donations came from across the country. …

“The nonprofit offers more than 9,000 volumes of poetry, says Mr. Sims. ‘So many of these books are people that live in LA, you know, people in this community.’ 

“Open until 8 on Saturday nights, the thrum of activity – from book launches, workshops, and open mics – spills into the neighborhood with singing voices, fingers snapping, and the rhythm of rhyme. …

“Mr. Sims says, ‘I think the library represents value for a part of people they don’t often share. So people often bring poems from their shoeboxes and folders. It’s so personal with people.’ …

“ ‘When the first volunteers came in, they expected to come to a library, but then realized, we have to build one,’ says Karo Ska, library manager and a CLI writer. For them, the best part is that the library has books that can’t be found elsewhere – pre-1950s special collections, self-published collections, periodicals, local literary journals, and handmade chapbooks.

“ ‘The idea of giving back to the community is a phrase that a lot of people use but isn’t always manifested,’  says Lynne Thompson, 2021 Los Angeles poet laureate. ‘[Hiram] is as interested in the work of others and facilitating not only the writing of it but the publishing of it as he is in his own work.’ …

“Poet bridgette bianca, who grew up in the neighborhood without a public library nearby, says: ‘We are in an area that’s very much Black, very much brown, very much working class. And that somebody built a library here is just fantastic.’ 

“Now, as a community college professor, she uses the library as a resource, encouraging students to explore the poetry collection and attend events for extra credit.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall, but subscriptions are encouraged.

Photo: AkunaHikes.
“I learned that I was capable of living, I was capable of leading,” said the 41-year-old Army veteran who had struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after Iraq.

I know that the Sound of Music is a little corny, but there is wisdom in the line “I go to the hills when my heart is lonely,” which Maria (soon to be Maria von Trapp) sings. Nature can be healing.

Andrea Sachs writes at the Washington Post about an Iraq war veteran and how the mountains healed him.

“Will Robinson was about 100 miles into his hike on the Pacific Crest Trail when the dark clouds started to lift. Not the ones high in the California sky, but the ones clustered in his head.

“ ‘I learned that I was capable of living, I was capable of leading. I was capable of inspiring and motivating people. That was something I had completely lost for a decade-plus,’ said the 41-year-old Army veteran who struggled with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder after his medical discharge in 2003. …

“Since that first long-distance hike in 2016, his mileage has multiplied to more than 11,000 miles and counting. In 2019, he became the first Black American man to earn the Triple Crown of thru-hiking by completing the trifecta of legacy trails: the 2,650-mile PCT from California to Washington state, the 2,194-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail from New Mexico to Montana. Two years later, ESPN declared Robinson ‘the trailblazing superstar of thru-hiking.’ He also received the 2022 George Mallory Award, which honors exceptional outdoor explorers. …

“Before the PCT, Robinson had never seriously hiked, though the military had prepared him for similarly tough challenges. ‘The closest thing I did to hiking was drill marching,’ said Robinson, who grew up on bases with his Army father. ‘It’s a lot different with a 100-pound pack and an M16, but it gave me a basis for hiking.’ In the armed forces, he powered through his pain, a practice he had to unlearn as a trekker. …

“After six months in Iraq and a stop in Germany for medical treatment, he returned to Louisiana, where he often felt too broken to leave the house, much less pursue outdoor activities. He underwent multiple surgeries and tried various therapy treatments and medications, to no avail. ‘After Iraq, I was disabled at 23,’ he said. A chance ‘encounter’ with celebrity long-haul hiker and Wild author Cheryl Strayed provided the jolt he needed to recharge his life.

“On that fateful day in March 2016, Robinson was in his room, ‘like always,’ when he glanced at the TV and saw Wild on the small screen. In the film version of Strayed’s best-selling memoir, he watched Reese Witherspoon lug her pack by a PCT trail marker, a scene that stirred up a memory from Iraq. During his downtime, Robinson would often pore over a PCT guidebook that someone had sent to the soldiers in a care package. ‘One day I’d love to do this,’ he said, reminiscing about that period in his life when he envisioned a future filled with adventure.

Without waiting for the closing credits, he jumped onto his computer and acquired a free long-distance permit, one of 5,657 issued that year.

“On April 2, he arrived in Southern California and embarked on a journey of personal discovery and recovery that resembled Strayed’s transformative quest two decades earlier. …

“In addition to the physical benefits of hiking in nature, medical experts extol its psychological virtuesStanford University-led research from 2015 determined that walking at least 90 minutes in a non-urbanized setting can help alleviate depression, lower stress and anxiety, and reduce rumination, the infinite loop of negative thoughts. A 2019 study called ‘Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective’ also explored the wide-ranging rewards, such as a happier state of mind, more positive social interactions, a clearer sense of purpose and a sturdier grip on life’s demands. …

“Robinson did not initially set out to complete the entire PCT, which runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. His primary goal, he said, ‘was to try to see if I could find me again, regardless of how many miles it would take.’ With only a few weeks to prepare, he trained around Slidell, about 30 miles northeast of New Orleans. …

“Early in the hike, he found his trail family and earned his trail name, ‘Akuna,’ a riff on a Swahili phrase (and The Lion King refrain) that translates to ‘no worries.’ The nicknames are bestowed by other long-distance hikers or are given to oneself. They are often fanciful, silly or philosophical.

“About five miles in, he was resting on a rock, feeling sluggish, when a woman named ‘Cookie’ appeared at his side. She determined that he needed food and proceeded to stuff her namesake snack into his mouth. The pair forged a bond, along with ‘2Pie,’ a teacher from Ohio, and ‘Nothing Yet,’ a veteran who had tackled the AT [Arizona Trail] the previous year to quell his PTSD. The group hiked together for long stretches, a major breakthrough for Robinson, who for years had avoided social situations because of his fraught mental state.

“ ‘Being around people triggered panic and anxiety attacks, and I didn’t want any part of it. I just shut down,’ he said. ‘But on the trail, I ran into so many great individuals who were there for me. All they wanted was to be part of my adventure and help me accomplish my goal.’ …

“He said, ‘For me, every hike is like a therapy session in progress. I’m going through things in my head, working out problems. When I find a solution, I can zone out and be in peace.’ “

More at the Post, here, and at AkunaHikes, here.

Photo: Francisco Kjolseth/Salt Lake Tribune.
Dropping lake levels on the Great Salt Lake, along the north side of Antelope Island, continue to expose more reef-like structures called microbialites on Wednesday, Jan. 4, but the lake benefited from an epic snowfall this past winter.

Good news/bad news on climate change today. Utah’s Great Salt Lake, in danger of disappearing entirely, got recharged after heavy snow in the mountains this past winter. So what does its future look like now?

As Dan Stillman reported at the Washington Post in April, “Just three months ago, scientists issued a report with a dire warning: Utah’s Great Salt Lake, after decades of drying that had only accelerated in recent years, was on track to disappear in five years. Now a record snowpack, fueled by more than 800 inches of snow during the season in some locations, offers a glimmer of hope for the Western Hemisphere’s largest saltwater lake and an important economic driver for the state.

“The Great Salt Lake reached its record low in November when it dipped to 4,188.6 feet above sea level, having lost more than 70 percent of its water since 1850, according to the report published in January by researchers at Brigham Young University. [However] the lake had risen three feet in a little more than five months, primarily because of snow and rain dumped directly into the lake by a season-long series of water-loaded storms. …

“ ‘While we celebrate our progress, we must continue to prioritize water conservation efforts and make sustainable water management decisions for the future of this vital ecosystem and for water users throughout the basin,’ said Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, in an email.

“This season’s record snowpack promises to push water levels even higher in the coming weeks as warmer temperatures melt the snow and runoff enters the lake. The statewide average snowpack, which is measured by calculating the amount of water contained in the snow, reached 30 inches on Thursday, beating the previous record of 28.8 inches in 1952.

“ ‘This year’s snowpack is nothing short of miraculous. After so many years of drought, this definitely feels like an answer to prayers,’ Brigham Young University ecologist Ben Abbott said in an email. Abbott was the lead author for the January report, which warned of ‘widespread air and water pollution, numerous Endangered Species Act listings, and declines in agriculture, industry, and overall quality of life’ if the lake were to vanish.

“Despite its recent rise, the lake is still six feet below what is considered ‘the minimum acceptable elevation for the lake’s ecological and economic health,’ according to Abbott. … Even if the water level recovers to an ‘acceptable’ level, the longer-term sustainability of the lake will depend on water management decisions and conservation efforts. …

“Historically, management of the Great Salt Lake watershed has prioritized human water usage over the health of the lake, with most of the river and stream water flowing toward the lake diverted for home, business and agricultural use. A February assessment by a team of Utah researchers and state officials found that 67 to 73 percent of the decline in water levels is due to natural and human water use.

“Water levels have been further diminished in recent years by an intense drought, made more likely by climate change, which has only finally started to ease with this winter’s record snowfall. In March 2021, the federal drought monitor showed most of the state in extreme or exceptional drought, the two driest out of five drought categories. In the latest report, [extreme] and exceptional drought have disappeared, with most of the state classified under the two least severe drought categories.

“Reduced inflow of fresh water into the lake results in high salinity levels that have far-reaching consequences including the release of toxic dust, poor air quality, the collapse of food webs and loss of brine shrimp that feed fish and shrimp sold worldwide. …

“More controlled water releases, such as the one coordinated by city and county officials in early March, could not only reduce flood risks this spring but also help restore the lake closer to a healthy water level. Yet regardless of how much improvement comes from spring runoff, Abbott stands by the cuts in water consumption he and his co-authors recommended in their report earlier this year.

“ ‘We’ve got to keep our eye on the conservation ball,’ Abbott said. ‘To replenish Great Salt Lake, we need to reduce our consumptive water use by 30 to 50 percent.’ “

More at the Post, here.

Photo: Suzanne and John’s Mom.
The flag as seen through a window and a mirror.

I may feel ambivalent about the goodness of my country at times, and especially about its wars. But I never feel ambivalent about the people who have died and need to be remembered.

Monday is Memorial Day here, and I thought it would be a good idea to learn more about exactly what we’re memorializing. I know Veterans Day in November specifically honors the sacrifices of veterans, but is Memorial Day different?

Turns out, the details depend on who you talk to. Different groups come at it from different angles. For many years, as I learned from Wikipedia, the commemorations of lives lost during the Civil War were split into those honoring the Confederate soldiers and those honoring the Union dead.

Here are other things I discovered from the entry.

“Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) is a federal holiday in the United States. … It is observed on the last Monday of May. From 1868 to 1970, it was observed on May 30. … Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day to honor and mourn those who died while serving in the U.S. military. Many volunteers place American flags on the graves of military personnel in national cemeteries. …

“The first national observance of Memorial Day occurred on May 30, 1868. Then known as Decoration Day, the holiday was proclaimed by Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic to honor the Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War. This national observance was preceded by many local ones. …

“Many cities and people have claimed to be the first to observe it. However, in 2022, the National Cemetery Administration, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs, credited [Southerner] Mary Ann Williams with originating the idea. … The world wars turned it into a day of remembrance for all members of the U.S. military who fought and died in service.  …

“Of documented commemorations occurring after the end of the Civil War and with the same purpose as Logan’s proclamation, the earliest occurred in Charleston, South Carolina.

On May 1, 1865, formerly enslaved Black adults and children held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union soldiers.

“Those soldiers had been buried in a mass grave at the Washington Race Course, having died at the Confederate prison camp located there. After the city fell, recently freed persons unearthed and properly buried the soldiers, placing flowers at their graves. The estimate of 10,000 people comes from contemporaneous reporting,”

Other documented claims of being first, Wikipedia says, come from Virginia, both Jackson and Columbus in Mississippi, and Gettysburg and Boalsburg in Pennsylvania.

Have you ever seen veterans or veterans’ families handing out red paper lapel poppies around this time of year? Here’s the backstory, also from Wikipedia: “In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres [in World War I], Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, ‘In Flanders Fields.’ Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in Flanders.

“In 1918, inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as its official symbol of remembrance.”

As my neighbors headed off to the annual commemoration at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, and I just went for my daily walk, I thought about one line from the Wikipedia entry that particularly struck me as a person guilty of neglecting the “memorial” part of Memorial Day: “In 1913, one Indiana veteran complained that younger people born since the war had a ‘tendency … to forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races, and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears.’ “

“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
“Between the crosses, row on row. …

“We are the dead. Short days ago
“We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
“Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
 “In Flanders fields.”

Photo: Bluetti Power.
Using solar power for a fish farm is better for the environment than the usual diesel.

Who wouldn’t be encouraged to see all the clever ways innovators are working to reduce the harm that human activity can cause to the planet?

If it’s happening anywhere near Rhode Island, the nonprofit ecoRI News will find it and tell you about it. For example, Rowan Sharp covered the advent of a solar-powered, self-cleaning fish farm in Rochester, Massachusetts, back in 2012.

“Dale Leavitt told me to meet him at the 7-Eleven in this small town of about 5,000. I wouldn’t be able to find the fish farm on my own, he said. ‘It’s way out in the woods — it would be impossible.’

“He pulls up in a pickup — a cheerful, mustached man with slightly wild silvering hair. He wears a weather-beaten baseball cap and T-shirt, both advertising the marine biology program at Roger Williams University, where he teaches part time. He has blurry tattoos on his forearms, including one of a cartoonish, polka-dotted octopus. …

“I follow him down Route 28, until he veers into forest. Soon we’re rolling slowly down an unpaved track, just rutted wheel marks with grass tufting up between them. … Leavitt parks on a little scrap of solid ground amid the bogs, where a murky pond and a bank of solar panels are the only clues to the one-of-a-kind innovation hidden here. But this unassuming exterior packs a punch. Leavitt, cranberry farmer Brad Morse, Roger Williams University engineering professor Charles Thomas and a handful of undergraduate students from Roger Williams University have turned hard-won Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant money into a solar-powered, self-cleaning fish farm that may prove two to three times more efficient than conventional fish farms, at scant environmental cost. …

“Leavitt — his students call him Dale — is in his element here. He produces a plastic container of what looks like dog food pellets — Purina Fish Chow, actually — and happily leads me over to an unnervingly rickety plank onto a metal walkway over the pond. Weathered boards delineate the 15 6-by-8-foot mesh-sided fish pens.

The 15 6-by-8-foot fish pens are stocked with juvenile largemouth bass. … Soon the surface roils with activity: 6-inch juvenile largemouth bass, voracious eaters, which, by fall, will grow into 14-inch, one-and-a-quarter-pounders. Each pen is a module that can be lifted out with a backhoe. The mature fish will be sold at Boston’s live seafood markets or over-wintered for pond stocking this coming spring.

“Each pen can comfortably hold 100 bass, though some aren’t yet filled. Soon three of Leavitt’s assistants drive up with more fish in plastic tanks. Leavitt bought the bass as 2-inch hatchlings from a Delaware hatchery last winter; he and his students raised them to their current size in a Roger Williams University laboratory. …

“[Cranberry] farmer Morse is out today, but this enterprise owes its beginnings to a struggling late-1990s cranberry market that left Morse searching for other options. Morse is a fifth-generation grower who has farmed the 65-acre bog surrounding us since 1971.

“By 1999, cranberry prices were so depressed that many farmers feared selling their land for development was the only viable option. But Morse had another idea.

“ ‘I was looking for ways to diversify,’ he says in a telephone interview. He connected with the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, where Leavitt then worked as an aquaculture extension agent. Leavitt found funding to help Morse launch a fish farm, and the two became good friends as they worked together on an elegant partitioned aquaculture system, kept clean by phytoplankton.

“It was a two-pond design: one pond for the fish, with water circulating by paddle wheel through a wider, shallower pond — a converted cranberry bog — where naturally occurring algae absorbed fish waste from the water. An aerator gave the needed oxygen boost.

“The farm was ‘a learning curve,’ Morse says, but it supplemented his income until the cranberry market recovered. The project’s Achilles’ heel, however, was its fuel consumption. The bog is too isolated for an electricity connection; a diesel generator powered the paddle wheel and aeration.

“In 1999, diesel had cost 76 cents a gallon. By 2006, it was well over $3. The fish were no longer profitable; Morse converted the filtration pond back to cranberries. Leavitt turned his attention to other things.

“But Leavitt’s passion has never strayed too far. He joined the Roger Williams University biology department and continued doing aquaculture outreach, advising new oyster farmers and even designing a solar-powered shellfish growing system. His lab also grows oysters for restoration of Narragansett Bay.

“In 2008, Leavitt called Morse to say, ‘Brad, I’m ready to start fish farming again.’

“This time, Leavitt had a different plan. He applied for an EPA grant to work with undergraduates in developing technology for sustainable living. Morse was more than willing to get involved. …

“Morse, Leavitt, and Thomas worked with a team of senior engineering students to “completely revamp the concept” of the fish farm. They modeled the new system on the flow dynamics of an automobile turbo-charger — a lucky stroke of inspiration from a student. They designed a single-pond system, with waist-deep fish pens on one side and a shallow, 18-inch algae filtration area on the other; algae need plenty of sunlight to photosynthesize fish waste, so depth matters. A single pump would aerate and circulate the water, and the whole pond would only be a quarter acre.

“Eighteen 200-watt, 24-volt solar panels power the fish farm’s water pump.Goodbye diesel. They were going solar.”

More at ecoRI News, here. No firewall.

Photo: The Smart Local.
Members of the Gomi Hiroi Samurai, or the trash-collecting samurai, wear full-length samurai outfits and wield waste tongs that look like swords.

Proving that any kind of work can be turned into a game, Rebecca Rosman and Julia Kim report at Public Radio International’s the World, about some waste pickers in Japan.

“Passersby do a double take when they see Kaz Kobayashi and Ikki Goto. The two men glide through Tokyo’s bustling Ikebukuro district in full-length samurai outfits, while wielding objects that look like swords. They are members of the Gomi Hiroi Samurai or the trash-collecting samurai. …

“On closer inspection, their samurai swords — or katanas — are actually just very long tongs, used to pick up litter. Kobayashi said the tongs are important for novelty value.

“ ‘We’re doing this as entertainment … but it can be tiring sometimes. It’s tough, Man.’

“The Gomi Hiroi Samurai do this three times a week. There’s four of them, and they’re professional actors. In their spare time, they volunteer to keep the streets of Tokyo clean. Goto formed the group in 2009. Since then, they have become a viral sensation on TikTok, with over 700,000 followers and counting.

“Here in Ikebukuro, they target back alleys and parking lots, which are rife with litter. Kobayashi and Goto, working in sync, slice and spin their tongs through the air, meticulously seizing cigarette butts one by one before tossing them into the wastebaskets strapped to their backs. …

“An hour later, Kobayashi and Goto took their wastebaskets to a recycling base. There, they separated out every piece of rubbish they’ve collected. They said that they hope to recruit more Gomi Hiroi samurai  in Japan — and around the world — to spread their message: ‘We punish immoral hearts.’

“It means that trash in and of itself isn’t bad. Instead, it’s people and the actions that stem from their negative mindsets. And a growing sense of negativity is something that Kobayashi said worries him.

“ ‘This is a problem in Japan,’ he said. ‘People don’t go outside.’

“Last month, a government survey showed that 1.5 million people are living as social recluses in Japan. With loneliness and depression on the rise, Kobayashi said he hopes that their fun, zany take on something as mundane as trash-collecting helps people reengage with the outside world.

“ ‘Samurai is a warrior,’ he said. ‘Our philosophy is to help people.’

“For these eco-warriors, ‘clean space, clear mind’ is more than just a saying — it’s the way of the Gomi Hiroi samurai.”

More at the World, here. I was amazed that the “samurai” are doing this hard work as volunteers. PRI also has stories on trash pickers in countries like India, Ghana, and Colombia, where they earn a meager amount of pay and live very difficult lives.

I have to say, I think that public litter is best addressed by everybody pitching in. Clean communities are often the result of peer pressure against creating litter in the first place and individuals who are proud enough of their community to pick up litter where they see it.

PS. In case you don’t always read the Comments, do look at Hannah’s, which included a tip about Ya Fave Trashman. Like the trash samurai, he adds entertainment to an undervalued job. His online talks gained him fame during the pandemic, when trash was piling up in Philadelphia. Read about him here.

Photo: Suzanne and John’s Mom.
A tree canopy benefits any community.

After one of my posts on the importance of urban trees, Hannah sent me a 2021 report on what Philadelphia had started doing.

Katherine Rapin wrote at the Philadelphia Citizen, “Imagine, for a moment, it’s 2025 and you have a bird’s eye view of Philadelphia. As you scan the stadiums up to William Penn’s hat and beyond, you see a whole lot of verdant green amid the concrete as much as 40 of the city’s 142 square miles.

“These trees are purifying our air; storing tons of carbon dioxide; and reducing residential energy costs. Their masses of living roots absorb and hold water, reducing flooding, and their leaf canopy lessens the impact of rain drops on the ground, decreasing erosion. Their shade and transpiration magic is reducing temperatures by as much as 20 degrees. And they’re raising property values: Houses on streets with a lot of trees see a 10 percent boost in their sales price.

“The City’s goal is to increase our tree canopy to 30 percent by 2025 as part of the Greenworks program. …

“ ‘The big problem is that, for the last several decades at least, we as a city have not been planting enough trees to make up for the trees that naturally die or are lost to development,’ says Tim Ifill, Director of Trees at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society [PHS].

“Granted, the decline would be worse if not for the efforts of programs like Tree Philly, launched by the City in 2011 along with Greenworks to give free sidewalk and yard trees to building owners who would care for them, which has given away more than 20,000 trees. … And PHS, which has been fighting to catch up with canopy loss through their Tree Tenders program — training more than 5,000 volunteers who have collectively planted over 25,000 trees in their neighborhoods.

“ ‘Every neighborhood is different,’ says Ifill. ‘Both from a canopy perspective but also for the types of people who get involved and how they decide to set up their tree tenders group.’ In East Passyunk tenders worked with PHS to establish an urban arboretum, mapping about 40 different tree species … in the neighborhood. In Hunting Park, Esperanza partnered with PHS to host the first bilingual tree tender training — their group has been among the most dedicated tenders since, says Ifill.

“If you’re tree tender curious, join the fall tree planting bonanza this week; from November 17th-21st, PHS Tree Tender groups and community orgs and volunteers will plant more than 1,350 trees (60 different species!) across the city. No prior tree-planting experience is required; volunteers will be led by at least one official Tree Tender who knows the ins and outs of this process well. …

“[Here are] some of Philly’s least green neighborhoods, according to conservation nonprofit American Forests’ recently released Tree Equity Score map. The Equity Score measures the gap between targeted tree canopy in a given block group — considering population density and climate as well as income level, employment rate, race, age distribution, health outcomes and heat island impact — and existing coverage. …

“To get all block groups to a score of 75 or higher, we’d need to plant 198,923 trees here in Philly. Compare that to Washington DC, which only needs 28,121 more trees to achieve the same goal. And the city isn’t far from their targeted 40 percent canopy coverage by 2032.

“Planting nearly 200,000 trees here in Philly would save an estimated 106,165 cubic meters of runoff; remove 14.6 tons of particulate matter pollution; and sequester 2,707.4 tons of carbon every year. And they [studies show they] reduce violence and increase mental health. …

“ ‘Even in a built environment like Philadelphia, we’re all part of nature and we have that connection with trees, with plants,’ says Ifill.” More at the Citizen, here.

I was unable to find out how the trees being planted in the 2021 article are doing now, but there were many sites covering the ongoing planting and protection of trees in Philadelphia.

The USDA Forest Service, here, described the work of Michelle Kondo, a Northern Research Station scientist, who “studies the many benefits trees provide and the ways cities are investing in programs to expand tree cover.”

The City of Philadelphia wrote that the Department of Commerce and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation were “collaborating on a new proactive model for community-based maintenance of street trees. The TCB Cleaning Ambassadors scope of work would be expanded to encompass tree care while receiving training and being paid for the additional hours of work involved. For the past two years, the William Penn Foundation also provides funding support to the Overbrook Environmental Education Center (OEEC) expanding their Philly Green Ambassador (PGA) pilot program. The program enhances the careers of PHL TCB Cleaning Ambassadors by teaching tangible skills related to environmental stewardship.” 

And PHS has a lot more as it leads in spreading the word that “the Greater Philadelphia region still needs more trees. While a ‘good’ tree canopy coverage (the area of land shaded by trees) is considered to be 30% of land area, the city of Philadelphia only has 20% coverage and as little as 2.5% in some neighborhoods.” Apparently cities like Washington are much farther along in reaching their canopy goals.

Find your city, here. on a 2023 list of urban areas with the best tree canopy. Minneapolis is at the top.

Photo: World Farmers.

Immigrants to the US, if they were farmers in their home countries or just want to grow food they can’t find here, may end up working in agriculture. And as this University of Rhode Island professor’s research shows, many are joining the new wave of urban growers.

Frank Carini reports at ecoRI News on John Taylor, associate professor of agroecology at URI, who recently received a $973,479 award from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for his research.

I had to look up that new-to-me field of study. The Soil Association says that “agroecology is sustainable farming that works with nature. Ecology is the study of relationships between plants, animals, people, and their environment – and the balance between these relationships. Agroecology is the application of ecological concepts and principals in farming. [It] promotes farming practices that mitigate climate change … work with wildlife … put farmers and communities in the driving seat.” Read all about it here.

Carini writes, “The $973,479 award from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture was one of 12 to receive funding through the institute’s Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education and Extension Initiative. The agency’s $9.4 million in grants are part of a broad U.S. Department of Agriculture investment in urban agriculture, funding research that addresses key problems in urban, indoor, and emerging agricultural systems.

“The project will bring together Taylor’s research with immigrant gardeners and farmers in Rhode Island, Julie Keller’s agriculture-focused work with diverse communities, Melva Treviño Peña’s work with immigrant fishers, and Patrick Baur’s work on food safety and urban agriculture. …

“Although always a part of city life, urban agriculture has recently attracted increased attention in the United States, as a strategy for stimulating economic development, increasing food security and access, and combating obesity and diabetes.

“Food justice is about addressing access to healthy and affordable food for low-wealth and marginalized communities. It seeks to ensure the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, accessed, distributed, and transported are shared equally.

“Many neighborhoods in metropolitan areas, including in Rhode Island’s urban core, have little to no access to fresh food or full-service grocery stores — a situation often referred to as living in a ‘food desert.’ Other marginalized communities are surrounded by ‘food swamps,’ areas in which a large amount of processed foods, such as fast food and convenience-store fare, is available with limited healthy options.

“One solution to this environmental justice problem is to encourage the growing of local food. Developing effective policies and programs demands as a first step the accurate mapping of existing urban agriculture sites, according to Taylor. He hopes to provide that template.

“Taylor and colleagues at URI, the University of Maryland, and the University of the District of Columbia will soon begin mapping the alternative food provisioning networks of immigrant communities and communities of color in three East Coast cities — Providence, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. — to better understand these networks.

“He hopes this transdisciplinary research will reap new information about alternative food provisioning networks in the Northeast, evaluating their impact on food system outcomes, and identifying opportunities for policy support. …

“At URI, Taylor’s ‘home garden’ is a quarter-acre plot at the Gardiner Crops Research Center [at] the bottom of the Kingston Campus. His plot, visible from Plains Road, represents in microcosm the immigrant foodways he will be studying for his research during the next few years.

“At URI’s Agrobiodiversity Learning Garden and Food Forest, he grows crops that are integral to the food traditions of Rhode Island’s diverse communities: South American sweet potatoes, Mexican tomatillos, Haitian tomatoes, Mediterranean herbs, Asian bok choy, and produce from an African diaspora garden. Taylor tends the garden with students in URI’s Plant Sciences and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems programs and URI master gardeners, demonstrating how sustainable farming reinforces community-building.

“With the learning garden, he follows a lead set by generations of immigrants who moved to Providence and cities like it, bringing their growing practices, and sometimes seeds, with them. …

“A descendant of five generations of Pennsylvania farmers, he grew up on a 100-acre integrated crop-livestock farm near Pittsburgh. Taylor began gardening at the age of 6 and started a market garden while in high school. He left the farm to attend the University of Chicago … then managed federal education studies for 10 years before returning to school to study horticulture and practice landscape architecture.”

More at ecoRI News, here.

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