Thursday, July 5, 2007

Enviro Etiquette: Right for the Times, Or Just a Bad Idea?

Our neighbor across the street has done a nice job with his lawn. Rather, he hired a landscaper to replace part of his lawn with some tasteful perennials and the obligatory Japanese maple tree surrounded by some interesting boulders and decorator mulch.

The rest of the small, sloping, inner-city lawn is tended by a landscaping crew. They drew my attention the other day with a rather loud, gas-powered lawn mower, followed by the ever-irritating gas-powered leaf blower, in this case used to tidy up any grass clippings that might have strayed onto the sidewalk.

It's all very neat and natty, this particular landscaping, with the exception of the obnoxious whine of the mower and blower, or what we refer to around here as the "mow and blow" school of lawn care.

Now that I've become so terribly, boorishly, environmentally conscious, I had a mind to send our neighbor an e-mail inquiring whether his landscaper might not offer electric-powered mowing and blowing services. I was truly composing the note in my mind when my wife intervened with an emphatic shaking of the head. No, it just wouldn't due to start a tiff with the neighbors. Check that urge to intervene.

But this got me thinking. Why not? Why shouldn't we say something when we see global warming being committed on our very own block? Or is there some sort of new enviro etiquette that we should be observing? Is it time to start talking about how we interact with each other diplomatically in the carbon footprint era? Where is Miss Manners when the planet really needs her?

As longtime readers know, I have occasionally been ranting about the slaughter taking place in our oceans and occasionally throwing little Molotov cocktails into other blog sites on the matter of seafood choices.

In case you haven't noticed, humans have been emptying the oceans of prime seafood at an increasingly rapid pace. Having wiped out the cod and the humpback whale, having decimated the Patagonian toothfish and the bluefin tuna, having scooped up most of the favorite bottom dwellers such as flounder and sole, we continue to plow down the food chain, eating our way through yellowfin tuna, shark, monkfish, red snapper, disrupting eco-systems as we trawl our way around the globe.

I took the pledge at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, meaning I received a package of wallet-sized cards that I am urged to give to seafood purveyors and restaurateurs who either do or do not pay attention to the sustainability of the seafood they sell.

So imagine my consternation when a review appeared in The Washington Post Sunday Magazine lauding the red snapper seviche at Casa Oxaca, a new Mexican restaurant just a few blocks from our home.

I don't normally read restaurant reviews. We don't eat much at restaurants. But we love Mexican food. We love Oxacan Mexican even more. So how could we say no to a Oxacan restaurant in our own neighborhood?

But the red snapper is problematic. In fact, snapper, widely overfished, illustrates perfectly the quagmire that awaits anyone trying to sort out seafood sustainability from the consumer end.

The Seafood Watch website, for instance, under "snapper" lists nine different varieties in a range of hues. There are "gray/lane/mutton/yellowtale" snappers, "gray" snappers, "pink" snappers and "red/vermillion" snappers. There are also "red" snappers, "ruby" snappers and just plane "snapper." But within those categories there are varieties listed as being from "Hawaii," "Main Hawaiian Islands," "Northwest Hawaiian Islands," from the "U.S." and simply "Imported."

Among the nine categories, four are listed as "avoid," including the "red/vermillion" snapper (U.S.), the "red" snapper (Main Hawaiian Islands), the "ruby" snapper and the "snapper." Meanwhile, listed as "good" alternatives (one step up from "avoid," but not as good as "best") are the "gray/lane/mutton/yellow" snapper (U.S.), the "gray" snapper (Hawaii), the "pink" snapper, the "red" snapper (Northwest Hawaiian Islands), and the "ruby" snapper (Northwest Hawaiian Islands).

(If you are keeping score so far, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands win, the Main Hawaiian Islands are to be avoided. Meanwhile, the Oceans Alive site at Environmental defense lists five varieties of snapper and labels all five over-fished and "eco worst": mutton, silk, red, vermillion and yellowtail. Some even have health issues.)

So which of those do you suppose was the "snapper" in the seviche at our new neighborhood Oxacan restaurant, Casa Oxaca?

I thought readers of The Washington Post Magazine deserved to know. So I wrote to the magazine's restaurant reviewer, Tom Sietsema and told him so. Hold their feet to the fire! I urged Tom. Don't let those restaurants get away with serving "avoid" snapper!

Or was it merely "good" snapper?

Anyway, it wasn't the "best" snapper, because apparently there isn't any snapper that qualifies as "best." And if you recall, when I was cooking in Anguilla and looking for local snapper, the fishermen weren't catching anything big enough to fillet. The big snapper had already been eaten.

So now that I've written the local restaurant reviewer about sustainable fish, I'm sure this qualifies me as a seafood Nazi. I'll be branded forever as the guy who couldn't let go of the snapper thing. In other words, Shut up and eat your seviche!

Miss Manners, a little help over here!

(P.S. We later visited Casa Oxaca and loved it. The huitlacoche ravioli, listed as an appetizer, are huge--an utter bargain at $10--and come bathed in a delicious cream sauce with squash blossoms. The fish tacos are some of the best we've ever tasted. We asked the waiter about the "snapper" in the seviche. He had no clue.

And in case you're wondering, the menu at Casa Oxaca says the fish in the tacos is turbot, a European fish. The British Marine Conservation Society ranks turbot 4 out of 5 for sustainability, but with this caveat:

Avoid eating turbot from the North Sea where it is over-exploited. From other areas increase the sustainability of the fish you eat by choosing line-caught fish (where available) or fish caught in 'dolphin-friendly' nets above the size (30cm) at which it matures. Avoid eating fresh (not previously frozen) turbot caught during the breeding season (April -August). Throughout Cornwall Sea Fisheries District it is prohibited to land turbot below 30 cms.

Does that clarify things for you?)


susan harris said...

You've hit on THE ethical and social dilemma for do-gooders today (or self-proclaimed do-gooders) - how not to be boorish and obnoxious about it? Coz I've had that kind of judgmental, greener-than-thou finger-pointing directed my way and I have to say that while it's sometimes enlightening, it's just as often infuriating. Some people (lord no, not ME) might even cling to their eco-errors just to spite the insufferable prigs.

cookiecrumb said...

Wait till your neighbor puts in a koi pond.
(Is that "avoid" or "best"?)

Sensible said...

Dear "Gentle" writer,
Perhaps you should look at the
trash and debris blowing in your
own yard & driveway! Criticizing your neighbor
for upkeep of their property is
in poor taste. To help the environment start - quite literally
in your own yard!

Ed Bruske said...

Susan, whatever did you do to have the eco-finger pointed at you?

CC, I think you may have something there--local fish farming...

Sensible, you've got it exactly backwards. We don't litter. Any trash you see belongs to other people. In fact, we recycle just about everything. And what we don't put out in the recycling bin, we compost. And we use an electric mower on the little bit of yard we have, the rest of it having been turned into a food-producing garden. Frankly, I'm not sure what you're trying to say, unless you are of the "mow and blow" school...

Anonymous said...

I think Sensible is trying to find out why you don't pick up the trash in your driveway...of course it's not your trash. If you are so eco-friendly, why are you using an electric mower instead of a push mower? Frankly, I don't think the inner-city is a good place to grow a so-called 'organic' garden (or anything which resembles a field), which would obviously be polluted with car exhaust and come in contact with rodents, which it MUST be attracting. I sincerely hope you are not selling or promoting this produce as 'edible'. But if you MUST grow these veggies in your yard, PLEASE don't criticize others. Not many inner-city gargens out there, Ed...look around. Not everyone who uses gas powered equipment is trying to destroy the Earth...please use a little common sense and manners the next time you are promoting yourself.

Ed Bruske said...

My, my, my! It looks like we have struck a nerve. Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, if you want any credibility around here, you really must unmask yourself.

And you are so mistaken: urban vegetable gardens are happening all over the world. In fact, they were a regular feature during the "Victory Garden" era. There is a veritable movement to bring agriculture back into the urban environment. I'm afraid you are completely off-target there.

And really, all you have to do is watch an episode of Oprah to know that gas-powered equipment is a horrible choice for the environment, 10 times worse than driving an automobile. Do you think there aren't landscaping services who would be happy to take care of your or the neighbor's lawn in a more earth-friendly manner? Those two-stroke engines are absolutely killer. And if you saw our "yard," you would know why we don't have a push mower. But thanks for stopping by...

Columbia Heights Homeowner said...

You should be ashamed of yourself. I know exactly to which house you are referring. I live in the neighborhood and have watched the gentleman who owns the house spend a lot of time and money, like so many of our neighbors, trying to fix up these lovely old homes, as well as clean up Columbia Heights. And to all their efforts, you smug, pathetic little man, you grow a garden in your front yard!! This is not Green Acres and you are not Oliver Douglas.

Here's a thought - instead of growing corn in your front yard and embarrassing everyone who lives in your neighborhood, while creating a feeding ground for the all too many rats this city aready has, or sitting at your computer typing out your pseudo eco-friendly bull (and by the way, using electricity to mow your yard is NOT eco-friendly, fool!), why don't you try, oh I don't know, fixing up your house, cleaning up your yard and fixing that eyesore of a fence? Remember that old saying about glass houses? Maybe you should try cleaning up your own. If you want to play Mr. Greenjeans, why not move back to Paducah, where you can grow a garden in your front yard and pull your washing machine out on the front porch? You are an embarrassment, and if anyone needs a lesson from Miss Manners, I think you might be first on her list. Your house and your yard are an shame, and it's about time someone told you so.

Ed Bruske said...

We've seen a lot of things in the 20 years we've lived on this block. In those 20 years, we've completely renovated a house that was previously uninhabitable and are now renovating our second home,
mostly on a pay-as-you-go basis. And you're right--a lot of people have come into this neighborhood and spent a lot of money. Some, like the property owner to whom you are referring, have done a great job. No question--it's the use of two-stroke engines that was the original point.

The fence you're referring to must be the one a guy crashed through in a stolen Mercedes. We put a patch on it because that's where we're going to be building a retaining wall so we can extend our edible landscape.

Oh, and you won't have to look at the edibles too much longer, because there will be a hedge around the yard. And I do appreciate you letting us know how you feel about vegetable gardens, because mostly what we get are neighbors and passersby who stop, lean on the fence and chat about vegetable gardening and their own experiences gardening and how much they like it. So your view helps balance things out.

And, no, we don't grow any corn here. What we do grow are some greens and vegetables that help sustain us at the dinner table and give us a great deal of satisfaction knowing they were grown naturally and were not trucked in or flown in from some distant factory farm.

Indeed, the electric mower is more eco-friendly than the two-stroke engine and is as eco-friendly as we can be for the moment. At some point, we hope to have no more grass to mow. And you are correct, I am no Olive Douglas. But some people do call me Eddie...

The Wife said...


Columbia Heights Homeowner said...

Just as expected, my comments, as well as those made before me, have completely gone over your head. You are too sanctimonious to hear what's being said. Did it ever occur to you the people who stop and chat about "your garden" are making fun of you? But I suppose you wouldn't see that either.

The accident that wrecked the wreck-of-a-fence you have was done several years ago. Your excuse for not fixing it is lame, and you know it.

It is apparent to all of us who live in the neighborhood, EDDIE, you care very little about your neighbors, or about how people are laughing at you. Otherwise, you would either move to someplace like West Virginia and buy a farm or do the honorable thing and clean up that house and that mess of a yard you keep referring to as your vegetable garden.

But again, I am sure all of this is sailing over your head. You are one of those people who are so self-righteous you can neither hear the truth or be embarrassed by it.

We're all just waiting for the pigs and sheep to be brought in!

And "Wife" (LOL), I'm sure you do. There's always South East - bet you could get a deal on your house if you cleaned it up and sold it. ;-)

Ed Bruske said...

Wow, you managed to slander West Virginia, Southeast Washington, our neighbors who really like that garden, farmers and livestock all in one morning. You're batting 1,000 I'd say...

The Wife said...

The problem with blogging and email is that we often write and post without editing. Editing is important.

First, we love our neighbor's yard and his house, they are beautiful. And we like him very much. That wasn't the point of the post. Though a bit of above said editing might have improved the tone.

Second, I don't love the aesthetic of Ed's garden, but I do admire what he's doing. In fact we've drawn up a plan more fitting of the site that I think the neighbors will find very attractive. We hope to start work on it in late summer.

I'm afraid it will still be mostly edibles, but it won't look like the back forty. As for the safety of eating said edibles grown in an urban environment, we've done quite a bit of research on the subject. We also consult regularly with two organic farmer friends with masters degrees in agriculture. Also the soil has been tested. So we feel pretty confident about the vegetables.

As for the rats, I'll take my chances. I do wonder though, do you think the vegetables you buy in the grocery, any grocery, have not come in contact with vermin and other wildlife while being grown? Have you ever left a grain product in your pantry too long then you had an infestation of moths? Those moths hatch from the eggs that were laid on the grain before it was packaged. The USDA allows for a certain percentage of insect protein in grain products. I could go on and on about the safety of our food supply.

Lastly, we will make a more concerted effort to pick up the trash around the property. As far as the house itself goes, it's come a very long way since we purchased it eleven years ago. And the work continues...

Anonymous said...

I am somewhat appalled by the comments. This is a community. You are community. The city is community. We are all community. You are all yelling at each other on the internet instead of speaking to each other in person, as neighbors are supposed to do. You are accusing each other of things (e.g. polluting the earth, attracting rats, growing poisoned food, etc) without the facts. Food is grown in cities across the country and the world and is often found to be more healthy than rural food which is much more difficult to regulate. Can any of you trace the food on your plate to where it was actually grown and what was added to it to grow it? Think about if for a second, or two. The government is regulating the food you buy at the store-- that "fresh" food filled with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, and so much more. Then, trucked over 2000 miles (on average) to your plate. Talk about environmental impact and gas usage! Plus the gas that went into the tractor that tilled the fields that grew the corn that ran the machines to make the corn syrup that's in your soda-- that's environmantal impact! And rats: rats are in a city. They aren't attracted to a food garden. They are attracted to the rotting food you put in the dumpster in your alley. Throwing food in the landfill should be your concern, not the rats, not your neighbor growing some corn. Ignorance is bliss and not getting along with our neighbors is the same bliss that fuels the American society to to be the way we are, as a community of people who don't know our neighbors because it's easier to shut and our door and dislike each other and as a country who fights war with war. Step out of your anger and distaste for each other based on history. Open your mind to the possibility of new things. Show your child a carrot grown in YOUR front yard and see their eyes widen and their appreciation of the delicious flavor of that carrot.

mandie said...

Ed, Long before I knew who you were, I totally admired your front yard and food producing landscape, AND I lived in Columbia Heights. Also, no one was laughing at you, but I'm pretty sure that CoHigh homeowner has few friends with all that bitterness - YIKES!! PS, my unfriendly-neighborhood-homeowner, there are LOTS of inner city gardens out there, look around! Tomatoes and basil on front stoops, community gardens, window boxes.
Eddie, we heart your garden and eating your salads from it. Perhaps your neighbor is jealous. Also, my fence is broken, too, growing food is more important. As for the lawn mowing issue, can you bypass your neighbor and contact the landscaper and let them know about 2 stroke engines? Then you, too, can be an anonymous Columbia heights homeowner! Seriously, though, I'm with your wife. Don't get into it with your neighbor, unless the topic of hybrid cars and global warming comes up. Then let 'em know about the evils of gas-powered lawn equipment.

POP POP BANG said...

Do you know how much of the "fresh produce" found in supermarkets comes from places like China, where they tend to use things like human feces for fertilizer? I've had vegetable gardens in DC for two years now and I love it. I like knowing where my food came from and it's a great feeling knowing that I made it. Until they actually put labels on food that state the place of origin, I'm going to continue growing more and more of my own food...and buying local produce. Don't let this disgruntled neighbor get to you, Ed!

bs said...

oh ed, what a spectacular little chat you've got going here! i was simply inspired to share something with you and susan. it was something biblical about how christians should lead unbelievers to christ through their grace rather than their evangelism. can't recall it now, but it appears you've got grace in spades responding so serenely to your critics...

Ed Bruske said...

Everyone--one things rings clear in all of these comments, and that is the original question--whether we need a new kind of language or etiquette to deal with the global warming we confront on a personal or neighborhood level--definitely and most emphatically merits further study.

Meanwhile, I hope we can all agree that litter on the sidewalks is not a good thing, and that gas-powered lawn mowers and two-stroke garden equipment are REALLY not a good thing.

Thanks for joining in...

peter said...

Great blog!

My neighbours made a few comments about the large white rectangular buckets I have hanging off my 2nd floor apartment balcony, where I grow tomatoes, dill, basil, oregano, chives, and cucumbers. Now a few neighbours have buckets of their own...

I was almost going to tell you to correct the typos and errors in your entry, but decided that people make mistakes and sometimes we don't have the time to edit everything. It's more important to tend your garden!

Keep on pushing,

aka Nosher of the North

Ed Bruske said...

Peter, I guess I was spoiled when I was a reporter at the Washington Post. I had editors, copy editors, and more editors to correct every little thing. I write incredibly fast and try to post daily, so I guess my bad spelling and errant typing too often make it into ether-print. I usually (but not always) remember to use spell-check. I find myself making corrections when I look at the posts later.

Perhaps I should slow down a little, but I don't think I will ever eliminate all the typos on my own. I do like a little rawness in a blog--we are, after all, supposed to be an alternative to the mass media, not emulating them. Thanks for stopping by. I have to go find those typos and errors...

WashingtonGardener said...

I don't even know where to begin...

Getting back to your original query -- I'll paraphrase it as: "How does one politely tell a neighbor that they are inadvertently committing a serious sin against the planet?" I'd say trying to back-door it by posting it to your blog is NOT the way - LOL ;-)

Putting myself in your neighbor's shoes -- I imagine you'd feel attacked and criticized. Unless you had a ready solution to the problem (like a recommendation and contact info for a good green landscape crew), then I definitely would not suggest starting any conversation on the subject.

So how about it, everyone - any suggestions of good, affordable, earth-friendly DC landscape maintenance folks out there to come to the rescue?

Ed Bruske said...

Kathy, this has been a lesson because I write for a small, world-wide audience and never intended the original post as a criticism or as anything "aimed" at a neighbor. It was merely a background anecdote by way of introducing the question as you have so correctly framed it. Clumsy me, mea culpa, where's an editor when you really need one?

More constructive would be a dialogue on ways we can be friendlier to the planet in our personal lives.

Someone else said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I think your neighbor would REALLY hate living near us. When we move out of our apartment I'm planning on having no grass as soon as I can arrange it, but that's hardly the worst of the neighborly sins I commit.

My family gets along great, I bake and cook for people on the block, the kids are popular with everyone in the neighborhood, and for the most part we look like a super happy June and Ward Clever kind of family, until people ask which one of the the men that lives in my house are my husband.

The response that both of them are tends to make the more conservative and reactionary of them rather... loud. One of them had the gall to tell Hubs #1 that we were unamerican (a major insult in Texas!). Given that Hubs #1 works in law enforcement and is a disabled veteran (who's also conservative and used to be a regular on Rush Limbaugh... Hubs # 2 is a lifelong democrat. Election years are interesting here!) that conversation did not go well for the neighbor at all.

I suspect that my hippy leanings that include putting up tibetan prayer flags and bottle trees would go over just about as well. The only reason I don't hang clothes out to dry outside is we have 2 people in the house with pollen allergies!

Some people don't like different, and if you are different in a way that they can see or infringes on their view of the world at all, they can be SO VERY ANGRY. Don't worry about it, if you don't have any critics it's a good sign you are playing life too safe and need to take a few risks.

I think your yard is wonderful and I'm very glad you are blogging about it. :)

Ed Bruske said...

Well, that certainly is different. But I think I can speak for my wife when I say that one husband is probably more than enough.