Preparing for my first Urban Hike

 

Today is the first hike of my new year’s resolution to walk the Austin Public Library circuit. At 10.5 miles it’s also the longest urban hike that I’ve planned for the year. And with my lazy December, I figured I had better do some kind of prep.

Last week I did a virtual walk using Google Street View and made a few modifications to familiarize myself a bit with the route, reduce the amount of time spent walking along streets without sidewalks, and choose the best way to cross major highways. I ended up adding about a mile to the trip overall, but it’s safer and therefore totally worth it.

My kit (free of disposable items) is ready and waiting:

  • Light jacket for the cool morning
  • Baseball cap for the sunny afternoon
  • Phone, fully charged, and with the map saved as an image for guaranteed offline viewing
  • Reusable water bottle, pre-chilled
  • Various snacks: rolls, pecans, and a tangerine
  • $20 in case I need other sustenance (in my wallet)
  • Cloth napkin
  • Dry deodorant to freshen up at the stop points if needed
  • Library card (on my keychain)
  • Bag to hold everything
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Zero waste supplies for my urban hike

In addition to supplies for the walk itself, I also have my bus pass ready in order to get back home in a more timely manner and a plan for an easy and replenishing dinner. Based on my previous walk, it’s probably best if I don’t eat much in the morning or on the hike so I’ll definitely be ready for a good meal after.

I even went on the library website and have a couple of books picked to check out from each branch. Good thing my new year’s resolution wasn’t to be more sponanteous!

New Years Resolutions – 2017

Fireworks are popping all around the neighborhood. They may be illegal here in Austin city limits, but I’m making sure to appreciate the beauty of the few that I’ve seen from my bedroom window. And it reminds me that it’s time to make my resolutions for 2017 official. Some people don’t believe in yearly resolutions (I’ve been one of those people myself), but towards the end of the year I always end up losing a bit of focus and have found that this really helps for me.

2016 Resolution Recap

This has been a great year. Being a homeowner has brought unexpected challenges but I’ve grown more confident in who I am as an environmentally aware human being.

Recap of my 2016 resolutions:

  • Buy Nothing New: I’ve bought a few new things here and there but overall this was a success. I’ve even managed to avoid most freebies, which would have been unthinkable previously. This isn’t going back on the resolutions list for 2017 because it’s evolved into a normal way of life at this point.
  • Buy a house: We got our new home in February, and I love it! (For 2017, we plan on getting the roof done and also getting a real bathtub instead of the current flimsy plastic shell, but that’s not quite a resolution.)
  • Eat less meat & dairy: After a couple of weeks to get used to it, this is amazingly easy so long as you limit the amount of meat & dairy in the vicinity. I learned to make soup, chili, spaghetti, fried rice, and more without adding meat. After Thanksgiving I relapsed a bit due to travelling, feasting, and a week of being sick (and having several fast food places super conveniently located) but during that time I was eating less meat & dairy than I would have a couple of years ago.
  • Try at least one new food each month: I lost track of this resolution for a while, but I closed strong by trying guava (delicious!) and tecojotes (not actually a hand fruit) just a week ago. The highlight of the year was dragonfruit; I may try to grow it one day.
  • Reupholster the couch: What can I say? After realizing how much work it was to own a house that needs a bit of fixing up, this project was postponed indefinitely and later on decisively scratched off as a “Won’t Do” to ease the stress of a long ToDo list.

2017 Resolutions

To keep things realistic, I’ve chosen only four of my many wishlist resolutions to actually keep track of this year.

Walk the APL (Austin Public Library) circuit

I mentioned my plan for a “Walk in the Harvested Woods” in another blog post. This year, I’ll be walking library to library for the couple dozen APL branches in Austin. This is my primary resolution of the year and I’m excited not just to get in a little extra exercise, but to explore more of my hometown, check out more libraries, gain more transportation independence, and engender gratitude (for being healthy enough to do this, for the pleasant weather we often have here in Austin, and more).

Tuesday the 3rd is the first day the library is open in 2017 and I’ll be kicking off with the longest trek on the list, stopping first at my neighborhood Little Walnut Creek branch, then at Milwood, and finally wrapping up the urban hike at Spicewood Springs.

Try at least one new food every month

My natural inclination is to stick to the foods that I already know and love. Half the time I try a new food, it turns out that I don’t care for it. But there are always new things out there. Who would have thought a fruit with dragon-like scales on it would be a strangely sweet jello-like deliciousness inside with light crunchy seeds? Or that turnips are actually better-tasting than radishes? The only way I can learn these things is by keeping my eyes open at the market and trying new foods regularly.

Tithe

My husband and I are fortunate enough to have more money than we need. Unfortunately, my natural frugal tendencies are always encouraging me to save money for other things or for the future rather than giving back. For the past year, my husband and I have been choosing a new recipient each month and that’s helped to make it more interesting but we still didn’t hit 10%. This year we’ll exceed it.

Pick up 1000+ pieces of trash

There is so much litter in my neighborhood that I’ve gotten used to just ignoring it a lot of the time. So on my personal calendar for 2017, I’m adding 3 checkboxes on each day for the first three pieces of litter that I pick up on that day. That’s just a lower limit, though, to make this resolution easier to track.What are you working on this year? 🙂

Happy Texas Arbor Day!

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The national Arbor Day may be celebrated in the Spring, but here in Texas it’s celebrated the first Friday in November. This is because rather than worries about continuous freezing weather, here most trees need as much time as possible to grow strong before the intense summer heat.

I’m not sure if I even need to say this, but trees are awesome!

  • Trees sequester carbon and produce oxygen for cleaner air.
  • Shade from trees can keep your home cooler.
  • Shade from trees can make spending time outside in the summer bearable.
  • Tree windbreaks can reduce heating expenses during the winter.
  • Trees provide habitat for birds and other creatures.
  • Tree roots bind soil to prevent erosion.
  • The roots also filter water that is absorbed through the ground to replenish aquifers.
  • The tree canopy holds a lot of rain that never gets to the ground and helps with the flash flooding we regularly see here in Austin.
  • Deciduous trees drop their leaves, which make great mulch or compost.
  • Trees are beautiful. I’ve read that extra greenery can even reduce crime rates.

Sadly I’m not planting any trees soon. I do have some empty space on my lawn that could use it, but I want a kumquat for my next tree and citrus is best planted in Spring. Have you been thinking of planting trees soon? If you’re in Austin, TreeFolks even gives away some saplings and small trees throughout the season. Check their site for giveaway events.

However, I’m not doing nothing. I would love to watch a tree grow to mature size from seed and have been patiently waiting to see if my peach, plum, or persimmon seeds will sprout. They seeds were taken from delicious local fruits, so there’s hope that they may thrive here. The pomegranate sprouted earlier but is getting droopy and probably won’t make it. 😦

On the bright side, I grabbed some seed from Texas Mountain Laurels (TML) in the area and my first attempt (planted September 30) is looking promising.

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my Texas Mountain Laurel at one month

TML is a slow-grower so it’ll be many years before it gets to full tree size. But I’ve seen them shrub-sized and that looks lovely also. I hear they are covered with beautiful purple blossoms earlier in the year, will have to look out for that next year! How did I never pay attention to this before?

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Medium-sized Texas Mountain Laurel near my office

This week to make sure that I at least have multiple chickens in my basket, I planted two more little pots with TML and am anxiously waiting for them to sprout. On the next Texas Arbor Day maybe they’ll find their home outside. 🙂

A Walk in the Harvested Woods

This week at Talk Green to Me book club, we were discussing Bill Bryon’s A Walk in the Woods. It’s a hilarious tale about the adventures of the author and an acquaintance walking the Appalachian Trail. The stories of beautiful scenery and the sense of accomplishment after braving tough weather conditions and still going forwards–well, it inspired me and I was ready for a hike of my own after reading this book.

Of course I’m not going to travel halfway across the country for a hike, no matter how epic. There are just so many parts of Austin that I haven’t even seen yet. I had an idea, though. And to test it out, I decided to walk to book club at Recycled Reads from my office. It’s not the Appalachian trail, but at 5.7 miles it’s a decent trek. Google Maps predicted just under two hours to make this journey on foot. (And fortunately we are just far enough removed from the summer heat that being outdoors that long isn’t arduous in itself.)

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A lovely wide walking trail along North Burnet Road 😛

This definitely was not the most scenic hike. Since almost my whole route was alongside Burnet Road, I had a great view of traffic and there were all kinds of shopping centers. Fortunately, crossing 183 was easy (I expected more of a mess of traffic lanes like at Lamar Boulevard and 183) and there were a variety of scattered trees and plants that I was able to stop and view more closely at my leisure. I arrived at my destination just a few minutes later than Google predicted and barely breaking a sweat.

Since that two-hour walk didn’t kill me, I was reassured that my more insane plan would work. A couple of months ago, I came up with the idea of a new years resolution to visit every Austin Public Library branch in 2017. Nearly a couple dozen of them. It doesn’t involve buying anything, which makes it a near perfect resolution for me, although not that much of a challenge.

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Map of Austin libraries

Well, you can probably see where I’m going with this. For 2017 it would be awesome if I walked to every libary branch! No, I’m not going to walk from the northernmost Spicewood Springs Branch to the southernmost Southeast Austing Community branch in one go. My idea is to start from my home to the nearest library constituting a single trip. The next trip would be from that library to any other library. And so on, accumulating a new potential starting point with each new destination achieved. For some sense of scale, the distance between North Village Branch and Yarborough Branch is about an hour walking, so none of the branches are more than a two-hour walk from another (although I have the option of making non-optimal trips).

Do you think I can do it? I think I can. The library is closed on January 1 & 2 next year, but I’m already planning my January 3 walk up north to Spicewood Springs branch–a happy 7.6 miles from my neighborhood branch. Worst case scenario, next year December I’ll hop on the bus to quickly visit any branch locations that I didn’t make it to on foot. 🙂

StormWater Wisdom

Every time it rains, a bit more of the soil around my house erodes away. We don’t have any gutters currently and most of the lot slopes down a bit towards the creek. Naturally, I was more than happy to attend a free Green Stormwater Conservation class this weekend to get some ideas on what to do about it.

Before sharing some of what I learned though, I wanted to share a few pics of the beautiful artwork at the Zaragosa Recreation Center. The artwork was all over the classrooms, too. An awesome tribute to our latino background.

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The class itself was led by Staryn Wagner of the Austin Watershed Protection Department. For three hours, he showed us pictures of streams that had been eroded, told us stories of various chemicals and other nasties that get into the water in different parts of Austins, and taught us all about what we could do to prevent excessive flow of water into the streams whenever there’s a storm event with all the impermeable surfaces around. There’s probably no one who loves rain gardens more than Staryn.

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One of the things that I was surprised to learn was just how beneficial ragweed is for streams. The creek by my house is covered with the stuff, and whenever I looked up ragweed online the results were full of much cursing and disdain for the plant. However, it turns out that in addition to the soil improvements that most weeds provide, ragweed is also great for storm management (although there are more aesthetic options if you have the money and time). As soon as the storm water comes, the ragweed bends over so the rush of water can flow over top while protecting the precious soil underneath. I’m thrilled that this means there’s one less thing I need to take care of, and it’s fine to leave the ragweed in place for now.

For landscape design, there’s vegetation, swales, and berms. However, as might be guessed from above, Staryn’s favorite feature to talk about is the rain garden. There are many types of these, but it pretty much amounts to having a depression in the ground designed to hold and slowly absorb water. They’re any shape and size but are generally from 4 to 12 inches deep so they can hold plenty of water but not take more than a couple of days to drain (to prevent mosquito problems). In addition to the info linked above, there are some more examples on the CreekSide Story blog.

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Example of rain tank surrounded by a rain garden

And finally, the part I’d been waiting for–rain catchment systems. Since my roof needs to be replaced soon and I have erosion issues, looking into gutters and rain tanks has been on my list since moving in. I had been thinking of a smaller system, but Staryn said he wanted every home to have a 1,000- to 3,000-gallon system. Yipes! Of course, his perspective wasn’t so much about having the water for use in the landscape but to protect the watershed during storm events. Since I don’t plan on dealing with rain harvesting installation more than once, it’s time to crunch some numbers and see if a larger system actually makes sense for us before getting into the process.

I’d never heard this mentioned before, but as shown above, it’s recommended to have the rain tank surrounded by a rain garden to both filter the first flush water and help handle anything in excess of capacity. That’s something I can totally do on my own, though.

There are three features to keep leaves and gunk from your roof from getting into your water tank.

  • Gutter screens – to keep leaves from entering your gutters. The smaller the filter, the more that will be kept out. The weaker your screens, the more likely stuff will just weight it down and clog the gutters.
  • Downspout filter – to catch any leaves that get through when part of the gutter screen inevitably tears.
  • First flush system – to capture the dirtiest roof-scrubbing water at the start of the storm and direct it away from the main tank. (Pro tips: Have a drainage hole at the bottom of your first flush system and one a little higher up to ensure it will empty on its own. Also, make it easy to remove the first flush system for cleaning.)

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Another pro tip is to have multiple spouts for your tank. After the presentation, Staryn showed us the rain tank he installed at the Zaragosa Recreation Center. This (what looks to me huge) 1250-gallon tank only collects water from just one portion of their roof. This is an interesting system because the first valve will only empty until the tank is half empty. Another valve will empty to a lower level. And the final valve will release any water. Actually, there’s one more valve right near the tank so the flow can be disabled if the other valves need to be maintained or modified.

I didn’t get any pictures of the surrounding area, but there’s a nice little rain garden around this tank with native plants. And across a little walkway, there’s a low area which was then filled up on the down-sloping sides in order to hold water. So whenever there’s a large flow of water, that’ll act as a rain garden to capture it and allow it to seep back into the ground.

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With that in mind, here’s a picture of my own already created rain garden after some of our spring rains. You may not be able to tell because the grass is a bit high, but that’s a pretty huge puddle next to the house. I’m already doing a bit for diverting water from flooding the creek too quickly and allowing more to soak in. Before this class, I was planning on filling it in with some dirt, but now I’m proud of it.

Seriously, though, I’m definitely going to add some dedicated rain features into my yard over time. I’m good with a shovel. 🙂

PFJ Day 1: Plastic Everywhere

Plastic Free July has started! And started as a collosal failure. 😦

It started when I went to visit my folks since my new nephew is in town for the week. They wanted to have lunch at Whataburger, and I was content that I could get a burger with just a paper wrapper. Sure, there’s also a plasticy sticker on the wrapper, but not too bad. And since we were ordering together, it was just one line item on the receipt instead of a whole separate receipt. Unfortunately, while I went to grab a table while others were still ordering, the cashier was unconvinced that I didn’t need a drink and insisted that I have one. On her. And my folks still up there ordering were happy to accept the extra foam cup and even pick up a packaged straw to go with it before they reached my table. This has never happened to me before. For the past year, I’ve been able to make sure I had a bit of water before going out and have never had any problem having a light meal without an additional drink. But there you have it, a foam cup and straw that ended up going straight in the trash.

More folks were coming over in the afternoon and it had already been named Rudy’s day. We placed the order online for what seemed like a ton of food, and it all came in foil trays with foil lids or foam cups with plastic lids, everything totally wrapped up in plastic wrap. Plastic serving utensils included as a bonus, plastic-wrapped of course. Decent enough quality to be reused but probably won’t be. And in the end less than half of the food was eaten. But that may be because my visiting sister and her family will be happily eating barbecue leftovers the rest of the week–when they’re not trying out other barbecue places, that is.

So no, I didn’t break any of my own rules for Plastic Free July, but I may have taken a step backwards. The next time I go over to visit this week, I may just take my own food as a backup. At least there’s usually watermelon too. 🙂

A Graduation Celebration, Or “The Day I Totally Pigged Out”

My oldest nephew graduated from high school today! I still remember him best as a small child, and it’s so strange to see him now ready to fully embark on the journey of independent life. He’s a lover of animals and a vegan, and has a beard the likes of which would definitely have kept him from walking back at my high school graduation (although it’s nothing compared to his dad’s).

Deciding on a gift was easy. My husband and I gave him cash. He recently earned an honor for Economics, so there’s some hope that he may use it wisely. 🙂

We didn’t go out and buy a five dollar greeting card for him. I could have made him a card from some nice paper that has printing on only one side, but I still had a pack of generic blank greeting cards that I picked up at Goodwill a while back. As it turns out, another family member needed a quick card, and we did make that one out of a sheet of paper that was laying around and some markers. It was a fair decision because later on, the graduate was happily counting all the cash he had received while the various cards were laying about totally neglected.

My cousin (his father) hosted the celebration party at their house. Many other relatives were there, and even my grandmother made it in to town for the festivities. But we were nowhere near enough people to eat the smorgasboard of food that unfolded before us. We started with crackers and hummus dip and chips with pico de gallo. There were vegan cookies. Someone brought chocolates. Then food started coming into the house from the grill. Burgers and sausage. It was surprising that with a vegan graduate there were no veggie burgers, but I was hungry and immediately gobbled up the beef delight before me. By that time, more food appeared and fortunately included many fruits of which I ate some pineapple, strawberries, and grapes. A batch of veggie kabobs made their way in, but those were specially for the birthday boy and not enough to go around. The trays kept coming, though. Some chicken kabobs. Shrimp kabobs. Being surrounded by food, I helped myself to a sausage burger. Within one hour I had eaten more meat than I would normally eat in a week! Then veggie burgers appeared, only after I was stuffed enough to avoid any more entrees. More veggie kabobs appeared, but those again were just enough for the graduate. So much food around me! One of the chicken kabobs also somehow disappeared into my mouth. After that, I kept nibbling for the duration of our stay, barely managing to stick to strawberries and grapes.

Oh, but it wasn’t just the excess of meats. (Or the fact that the kabobs were probably store-prepared and excessively wrapped on foam with plasticwrap in addition to the kabob stick.) The drinks that were available at the party were canned sodas and bottled water. I had considered bringing my own, but the auditorium where the graduation was held had a no outside food or drink policy and I was afraid they’d confiscate my favorite water bottle. I drank from the water fountain at the arena, but I was out much longer than anticipated and needed something more. Since bottled water is so repulsive to me, I opted for the soda. Full corn syrup. Full caffeine. Full plastic-lined can. In retrospect, bottled water is still probably better than canned soda in every respect — for the environment, for my health, for the wallet of my hosts.

So, there you have it. My confession of how I succumbed to the pressures of the day. It’s not so bad though. Another time, I might have eaten multiple burgers or several chicken kabobs. I might have really pigged out on the individually-wrapped chocolate candies instead of filling up on fruit. I could also have partaken in the cake and ice cream. This was moderation and progress. I can only hope that the ton of food left over also left an impression that maybe less food should be bought for the next time. Then again, in our family I’m not sure if there’s ever been a celebration where we didn’t all leave with achingly full bellies. We haven’t learned yet.

Bee Magic

Three bees in a squash flower

Since moving in, I’ve seen wasps, dragonflies, butterflies, regular flies, lightning bugs, and all kinds of ants, beetles, other insects. But not a single bee. However, the moment that the squash flowers were in bloom, they knew instantly. Not just one of them, but three are crowding into a single flower at this moment. It’s magic. And if delicious yellow squash is the result, well, that’s magic too.

Rest In Peace, Brightbutt

Firefly on a man's hand
(not our firefly) Photo by: Marty Gabel

My husband and I were just talking in the living room when a bright light suddenly flashed in the kitchen. Not stationary but moving in that moment of glow. Until recently, we would not have recognized it because it had been decades since we’d seen one. But they’re a regular visitor in the yard of our new house by the creek. Yes, a precious little firefly. It must have snuck in when I came in from the yard earlier.

We wanted to release it outdoors again but had never caught a firefly before. While it was sitting on the curtain, I tapped it into my coffee grounds collection jar so we could take it outside. Unfortunately, it wasn’t moving. And it moved no more.

Brightbutt, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill you. In memory, my grass out back is growing long so your old friends can frolic and remember you happily.