Sunday, June 28, 2009

Catching Up

When I started this blog, I had every intention of keeping up with it on a regular basis, say, once or twice a week. I've found, however, that after staring at a computer screen for 8 hours every weekday, I have little patience left for the same activity when I'm at home. This should really come as no surprise and there's been no shortage of fun to distract me from becoming the stellar blogger that I yearn to be.

Among the highlights over the past few weeks was the party that the founder of Building Green and his wife held for the staff last Tuesday. Alex and Jerelyn, who began BG in their home over two decades ago, had us all over for drinks, dinner and a rousing tournament of "Hit the Garbage Can with a Frisbee" in their back yard (seen below).

Liz, Ben and Tristan have real team spirit
Andrea gives it her all

This event was a great opportunity to hang out with my new coworkers in an atmosphere just slightly more relaxed than that of the office. It also gave Liz some much needed doggie time. She never seems to get her fill. Here she is with Abby, one of the dogs who makes a regular appearance at work:

Four or five folks at work bring their dogs to the office. In addition to Abby, the Shih Tzu/Lhasa Apso, there's Zoe, the Greyhound; Beauford, the mut (my favorite); Roxy, the Golden; and a Setter, whose name escapes me. This dog population is dwarfed when compared to the number of dogs who are walked through our neighborhood every day. It's like a little slice of heaven for Liz.

In any case, the summer party was definitely worth our while, with excellent food, good company, and lots of beer. What more could a girl ask for on a Tuesday afternoon? And all of this was set against a beautiful Vermont background, which we were able to enjoy for a while after the party as we stopped along the road to splash around in a chilly mountain stream before dusk.

I have a lot more to share about how we've been spending our free time, but it will have to be saved for another post.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Itchy and Scratchy

A few days before we moved, Liz and I visited my parents in Harrisburg, PA, where I helped to design a small garden for their backyard based on the principles of permaculture. The asymmetrical keyhole garden features primarily perennials, though several annual vegetable and herb species have also been included. Many hours were spent researching plant types, requirements, and functions, as this is the first permaculture garden I have designed since earning my certification in graduate school. In addition, I consulted with my parents, verifying information on contour, lighting, shading, soil type, wind direction, annual rainfall and personal vision for the yard. The garden has been planted close to the back of the house for easy access from the kitchen. Since this is the first time my folks have planted a garden, practicality of design was my primary focus.

Most of the work was done from Pittsburgh amidst the turbulence of moving, with the trip east being the final step in realizing the garden design. I was extremely excited about putting my plans into action while lessons from Bill Mollison, Masanobu Fukuoka and Toby Hemenway were still fresh in my mind. While in Harrisburg, we ended up buying a couple hundred dollars worth of plants at Stauffers, a great garden center in the area. Having the plants meant being able to manipulate the design to see how things fit together. I delighted in arranging the lovely little flowers, shrubs, mosses and annuals in accordance with their exposure to sun, shade and wind, carefully noting the special needs of each species we'd chosen.

Here's the finished product:

With the whole family in the yard, we'd stopped to test our tree identification abilities, looking into the ravine behind the house for proof of oaks, maples and sycamores. Then BBBFB asked me to ID what was possibly the most easily recognizable tree of the bunch: the sassafras. It was the sassafras that had endowed me with my beginners' tree guide, which I had won by identifying the species via DCNR's Question of the Month at Blue Knob State Park on Labor Day weekend. "Ha ha - the sassafras!" I thought. I was so thrilled to see the familiar species and show off what little natural history knowledge I had that I leaned over, grabbed a leaf and chewed on it, waiting for the sweet taste of sassafras to validate my skills.

That is when it must have happened.

Liz and I left Harrisburg early Saturday morning to finish our packing and prepare for the move, which was only three short days away. Sunday night, Tara and Todd hosted some friends at their farm for an evening of beer and lawn games. I was happily sipping a beer when I noticed that my left wrist was bleeding. Looking down, I realized that I had been scratching a tiny, raised bump for quite some time. It was very itchy. All the beer must have somehow prohibited me from noticing just how itchy it was. I did my best to ignore it but it was just too ITCHY in a oddly familiar way. Was it eczema, which I've had since college? No. Was it - wait - if it wasn't eczema and it was this itchy, it could only be one thing...


I was dumbfounded. Really? Poison ivy? I honestly couldn't remember the last time I even worried about coming into contact with poison ivy. But there it was, all over my wrist. The next day it appeared on my right arm, then on my fingers, then on my inner thighs, which is never an encouraging sign. OK, OK, I could deal with a little poison ivy, I just had to make sure that it wouldn't continue spreading. It made packing (more of) a pain in the ass but what other choice did I have? So we packed and dismantled and cleaned, and the itchiness intensified, as it always does with poison ivy. I was determined not to let it get to me, on top of of all of the other stress that we were dealing with regarding the move. A few days passed, the move went as well as one could hope, and the itch was there with me for the ride.

Here's the clincher: Thursday, the day after the movers unpacked the truck, I developed a rash. What kind of rash? Nobody knows! Nobody will ever know! It was widespread, puffy, red, and unimaginably ITCHY.

So there I was, terribly emotional about moving and settling in, feeling generally drained from all of the planning and changes, and now I had poison ivy and a rash. I waited for days, hoping that things, anything, the ivy or the rash, would improve, but the condition of my skin only worsened. A week and a half in, I accepted that I would have to see a doctor; no huge deal in Pittsburgh but super annoying in a new and unfamiliar location. Of course, the doctor, who turned out to be a physician's assistant, couldn't tell me what had caused the rash. There were no obvious culprits, besides the move itself. But who gets a rash from moving? We hadn't changed soaps or detergents, my allergies hadn't been flaring up, the new climate seemed essentially the same as the old. My personal, and highly scientific, theory was that I must somehow be allergic to New England.

I was given a prescription for the steroid Prednisone, which is one way to aggressively combat poison ivy and, hopefully, the rash. In addition to the pills, Liz and I bought some local honey from the Bellows Falls farmers' market. I ate the honey daily and used it as a topical on the rash, hoping for a naturopathic fix in the case that allergies were to blame. I also slathered myself with some special salve made of calendula, olive oil and beeswax, which was concocted by a friend from SRU. Without this salve, I think I would still be in a world of itch.

Thankfully, things have really cleared up - just in time for me to start work tomorrow. I do hope, after all, to make a good first impression with my coworkers, one that isn't forever shrouded in a mental image of me squirming and scratching and seeming distracted. At least I can arrive feeling like myself and not like some sort of insane, scratch-crazy pariah.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sweet Jesus

The Penguins have given me the first reason to miss Pittsburgh since THEY WON THE STANLEY CUP! I only wish that I could be there to share in the celebration with my hockey-loving comrades.

Oh, Pittsburgh! You've waited 17 long years to see the Stanley Cup come back to tahn. Congratulations! I knew the Pens would do it!!

A Brief History

I have never known what to do with my life. Until now.

Ten years ago, I studied German at a small Pennsylvania state university and attended a study abroad program in Duisburg, Germany. I graduated with honors, clueless about how to practically apply my foreign language skills. I spent the next decade working desk jobs in Pittsburgh and generally wasting my time. I would, on a good day, give, oh, maybe half of my energy, work ethic and attention to whatever office chair I happened to be occupying.

It all sounds very boring, and it was, aside from my social life, which has always been a driving force in my life. It’s not all bleak, though. I met my lovely wife Liz while I was working in Pittsburgh and I was, in fact, at one of these jobs when I stumbled upon the graduate program that would prepare me for the next phase of my life. I like to call this my adult phase. Although I have been an adult for many years, I have often felt that I was only an “adult,” a poser or imposter, someone who could act the part when needed but was really just killing time until friends came around or something fun was happening. I shirked responsibility and tried to keep things easy.

This was the old me.

I recently earned my Master of Science in Sustainable Systems (MS3) degree from another, smaller Pennsylvania state university, where I worked as a graduate assistant for the Pennsylvania Center for Environmental Education. I studied ecology, sustainable agriculture and soil science, green design, environmental issues and grant writing. I interned on an organic farm, I built a vermicompost bin, I dug holes in the earth to examine soil samples, I designed brochures for urban beekeepers and permaculture enthusiasts, I created an Integrated Pest Management plan for a friend’s farm. I attended workshops and seminars on environmental education, beekeeping, and agriculture. Everything that I did was so different from what I had previously done that it was closest thing to a rebirth that I have encountered. I learned, and am still learning, and made wonderful friends along the way.

I discovered that I had a passion for agriculture and gardening, knowledge with which Liz was already somewhat familiar. We began making plans for our back yard garden in Pittsburgh and experimenting with sustainable ag techniques. We discussed farming on a larger scale without the use of fossil fuels, going to market, ideas for niche marketing and diversifying our farm. But from our home in Pittsburgh, a lot of this discussion felt far removed from reality.

I began looking for jobs in January 2009, when I still had a semester of classes left. I was sure to look several times a week for postings, applying to positions in the familiar territory of Pittsburgh and to multiple unfamiliar dots on the map. I found listings in places like Boone and Pittsboro, NC; Bar Harbor and Unity, ME; Millbrook and Ghent, NY; Bennington and Brattleboro, VT, and I applied to all of them. Each of these jobs related to food sovereignty or agricultural issues, the field on which I had set my sights several years prior while sitting aimlessly behind a PC monitor. My only goals were to live in an area and work at a profession that allowed me to connect more with the natural world, preferably in a location not too far from my family.

Then a funny thing happened. I received an email from a publishing company in Brattleboro requesting a telephone interview for the position of Editorial Intern. During my graduate studies, I volunteered for the East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh, writing profiles of local farmers and food purveyors who sold to the co-op. I would visit farms, talk to the farmers about their agricultural endeavors, take some photos and do a quick 400-800-word write-up for the newsletter. I was able to directly connect customers to the folks who were producing their vegetables, health and beauty products, cheese, eggs and more, and I found it all extremely gratifying, as it allowed me to network and continue learning, and to creatively express myself. When I saw the ad for the editorial position at Building Green, I applied on a lark, submitting my co-op articles and a grant proposal as writing samples, never really expecting to hear anything.

The first interview went well and a second was requested, despite a glaring mistake that I had inadvertently sent to the interviewer regarding the Question of the Week, my primary responsibility at the PCEE in Slippery Rock; horribly embarrassing stuff. However, after engaging in the second interview, I was certain that I would be offered the job. Liz and I talked it over and we decided that I should accept, regardless of the meager wage it offered. This was a chance for me to hone my writing and editing skills and learn about sustainable building, a subject largely absent from my graduate studies. The new job also affords me the opportunity of earning a graduate certificate in green building from the Boston Architectural College, free of charge, which I fully intend to do. After all, I am the new me.

So here I am.

Liz and I took the big plunge, leaving our home and friends behind and starting fresh in the small town of Walpole, NH. We are living in a house that was built in 1832, on a street that was named for our neighbors’ family long ago. We delight in the back yard garden. We walk to town to get freshly baked breads, locally raised meat, dairy products and beers. We stop by the library. We walk “the loop” in the evenings, a 1-mile round trip trek on a beautiful country road. We plant flowers and vegetables and drive to nearby towns to explore different parts of Vermont and New Hampshire. We visit the co-op in Putney, VT and the farmers’ market in Bellows Falls, VT. We visit with neighbors and find ourselves feeling as though we are becoming part of this wonderful community.

Most importantly, we stop to smell the flowers. This is something that seemed to always escape us in the city. There was always something to do, somewhere to go, someone to see or to have drinks with (not that I don’t love a drink with friends). Life was seemingly nonstop running around. Now it is just creating and being at home. It is living well and enjoying good food, and nature, and life and all of the things on which modern American living is not based.

I am going back to the office, the desk job, and the computer, but everything is different this time. Not only do I have a long-term goal of starting something great with Liz, but I have a genuine interest in the work that I produce. This is not the final stop in our personal evolution, but I can say without doubt that I am home.

our house
back yard