Sunday, March 29, 2009

Say "Tata" to gas-guzzlers?

It's News Monday again, and we must confess to being a little slow on the uptake. However, your Miss has an excuse. She's been wrestling with just how to handle this wee little bit of news (and it is wee). In fact, it's so wee that you could probably fit all of it into a Mini Cooper.
Yes, we're talking cars here on the Green Sugar 'Blog today. Specifically, we're talking about the Tata Nano, a 30-horsepower, 52 miles-per-gallon critter that is only available in India and which only costs the equivalent of $3200. It's a sweet little beast that performs best where the traffic is slow and the streets are perpetually crowded. Still, it's got us thinking about the way we travel. The Nano only goes up to 45 miles per hour, which is great for city streets, but wouldn't do so well on our superhighways.

It's cute! It's orange! It's...a car?!

Although I'm already smitten with the Nano's friendly shape and, okay, yes, the idea of a car that uses such a small amount of gasoline and is still large enough to lug around a weeks' worth of groceries, there is something else that is stopping me from fully appreciating the net worth of this addition to the automotive world: It's an addition to the automotive world.
Look, I'm not knocking the Nano itself. I'm really more frustrated with the idea that there are so many people out there who think it's OK to drive the mile to the grocery store. (Your Miss grew up in Southern California. She knows from too much driving.)

The area covered by this map, which covers the Miss' home town of Claremont, CA, is maybe 10 square miles. That's a lot of car dealerships!

The thing is, millions of people in almost every major American city get by without cars. They either walk to the grocery store, pulling along a cart for the food haul if it's going to be a big one, or they get on that most wonderful of creations, the bicycle, for their short-haul trips to the many destinations that make up our lives: the post office, a visit to a friend, picking up something at the drug store.
I'm fully aware that many of us don't live in areas that allow for safe bicycle riding, or safe walking, even. And for those of us with kids, well, it often can feel like an added annoyance to bundle your child into his own bicycle, or, if the kid's young enough, to strap them into the Baby Bjorn, adding another 25 pounds to your own weight, before you head to the grocery store to ballast yourself with 15 pounds of groceries.
But the payoffs are multiple: You get a little exercise. Your child gets outside. Maybe you get to see part of the neighborhood you never discovered before, and from street-level, instead of SUV-level. Perhaps you'll even find it in you to lobby your local representative for better infrastructure all around, so that when your kids are old enough, they can safely hop on their own bikes, help you with the groceries.
The world doesn't need another car. Our immediate world, these United States, needs a better way for folks to get around. The incentives are already there.
Your Miss has one more confession to make before she leaves you until Did You Know? Thursday. I'm missing my own commuter bike, a sweet little mountain bike that's been with me to New York, California and Colorado, terribly. It was poached from our house by someone who I hope will use it to cut down on their own driving. Mmmhmmm. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Little Raccoon Story

This week, for Did You Know? Thursday, we'll be exploring a little something called the raccoon.

We've all seen them: those incredibly intelligent-looking eyes; the very human habit of washing their food before they eat it; and those curiously adept paws. Almost no one I know can look at a raccoon picture without making an "Awwwww!" noise so enthralled, you'd think the raccoon came with a laugh track.
But we're not here to make you make noises. We're here to shed a little light on nature. Today's Did You Know? fact is on etymology: The raccoon's name comes from the Algonquin name for raccons, ahrah-koon-em. It means, literally, the one who rubs, scrubs, and scratches with his hands.
This makes sense, after all. Raccoons do almost everything with their front paws. And when you see them "washing" their food in the water? Well, it's been posited that that's another way for the raccoon to "see" its food, get a better sense of what shape it is, what kind of texture it is, much as a dog feels with his mouth, or we humans feel with our own hands.
Those dexterous paws! [Photo courtesy of alasam's flickr stream.]

So. Yes, we're happy we got to post cute photos, but what's the point? Well, all animals sense things in their own ways. You might think that we humans appreciate nature primarily by sight, but now that things are blooming and so much is happening around us, it's a good idea to exercise your other senses.
Your sense of smell is the strongest of all of your senses, believe it or not. Think about it: Don't you have great memories built entirely around smells from when you were a kid? Now's a great chance to give your child some memories that go way beyond what he or she sees.
One great way to do this is to take your child on a night-time walk in a park, or on a walk in the woods.
Pick a night with a full moon, stick to well-marked, clear paths, and enjoy the show. Keep it short, so no one gets scared--but turn out the flashlights, let everyone's night vision adjust, and just see what you can hear, sense, experience. No pun intended.
You'll find that there's a lot more to nature than you might have thought.
The last time your Miss did this, she spotted a raccoon sitting in the lower branches of a tree, looking right back at her.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Eating Our Way Through News Monday

Today, I'd like to dedicate the Monday news 'blog to the all-important subject of eating.

Consider it: This week alone your Miss found articles on the First Lady, writers, kids, and farmers, and they were all linked by one big subject: Food, and the way we consume it. Everyone from the White House down is concerned with what we're putting in our mouths, and that's a good thing. But then I found an article titled, "Eating Food That's Better for You, Organic or Not." (Link is below.) It was long, and it took me the better part of a cup of coffee to work through.

The article discusses the shortcomings of the organic label in the United States, and how confusing it can be to try and remedy that confusion while still letting "organic" mean something to the general consumer. It tackles the fact that organic food is still out of the price range of many supermarket shoppers, and it made the very important point that organic doesn't necessarily mean "good for you." And, then, finally, at long, long last, it talked about the concept of local food, but only then to make the point that "organic" doesn't mean "local."

I thought, geez, if it takes one adult human fifteen minutes to read through an article that basically only presents that problems with organic, kids must be totally frustrated.

Here's a solution: Go local first, organic second. In the first place, if we're all about getting back to food the way it's meant to be grown and consumed, doesn't it make sense to also consider what's natural for the land, and growing cycles? And in the second place, kids can learn about the very nebulous idea of organic in a super-tangible way: by looking at what grows best in their own backyard.

I speak figuratively, of course: In my household, we order from a CSA group. CSA stands for "community-supported agriculture," and while it's nice to know that we're supporting local businesses by buying from farms nearby, it's also wonderful that we're getting food that wants to be grown near us, as opposed to being force-grown, in a greenhouse, or in a different state, or country. I like the idea that I'm getting, for instance, root vegetables and dark, leafy greens in the winter, as opposed to delicate romaine lettuces that have no business surviving a hard winter, and endive that had to be shipped in from Mexico.

These are vegetables that belong in winter.

These are vegetables that don't.

Eating organic is something to aspire to, and something every kid should know about at some point, for sure. But this is a great opportunity to teach them about their immediate surroundings, and teach them what belongs there--naturally. (Your Miss is reminded of the unfortunate day she found out that her assistant, who'd grown up in New York City, had no idea what a chickadee looks like. New York City, of course, is a major birding mecca.)

This is a Chickadee. Now you know, too.

Find out what the folks who lived here so long ago, before there were trucking lines and airplanes, lived on. Take a look at our history, learn from it. And, this winter, when the ground is hard and frost covers your window, cook up a parsnip. And when it's hot and sticky in the summer, find an eggplant, saute it with some cherry tomatoes. Your kids will find out right fast: It was meant to grow in the season you're buying it, it'll taste miles better, and it won't have traveled miles to get to you.

Read the article I did at the New York Times.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Know Why the Migratory Bird Sings

...with apologies to Miss Toni Morrissey, I find non-caged birds to be ever so much more interesting than caged birds.
Today's 'blog post marks our first-ever Did You Know Thursday, and we'll learn something astonishing about some pretty impressive winged beasties.
When your Miss started work at Audubon magazine, years and years ago, she thought "birders" were little old ladies who stood outside staring up at trees. More likely than not, I thought, they used binoculars because they just couldn't see without them.
But then I started work there. And I realized that birding, as it was called, was a darned fine activity. You got outside; you got to learn something about the world around you, and if you were really cool, like an acquaintance of ours named Kenn Kaufman, you could do really cool, slightly sexy party tricks, like naming a bird from just one note of its song, without even blinking an eye or even looking at it.
Anyway, here's your fact of the day:
Purple martins, a species of bird, have been known to fly an average of 358 miles per day over 13 days during spring migration from Brazil to Pennsylvania.
I think about this bird particularly because it's an early migrater, and, here in Chicago, we sit smack in the middle of the Mississippi Migratory Flyway (below).

Now, while the purple martin does not specifically follow our migratory flyway, some other very impressive birds do: The American Golden Plover, for instance, flies over 50 hours straight--that's no sleep!--over 3000 miles, to get to where it needs to go. And the Eastern Kingfisher, a feisty little critter, summers in our area, starting its migration from South American in mid-April. (In fact, the Eastern Kingfisher is such a cranky bird that its scientific name is tyrannus tyrannus.)

Eastern Kingfisher. Cranky-pants.

So now that we've given you a sampling of some of the great birds you can find out there--and the amazing things they can do--feel free to share some of the knowledge with some young people. I don't think an entire generation of kids who think that birding's, well, for the birds would do anyone any good.
Here are some great birding resources to get you started:

Audubon's Great Backyard Bird Count
Cornell University's All About Birds

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pillows and Sheets Will Do Just Fine, Thanks.

Hi everyone!
It's Monday, and it's also Green Sugar Press' blog's day for news.
We start off this week on an intriguing note: in my old haunts of northern Manhattan island in New York City, there lies a best-kept secret: Inwood Hill Park, home to Manhattan's only remaining old-growth forest. It's a special place where eagles have been reared, and it's rumored to be the spot where the Dutch purchased Manhattan Island from the local Indians. It was also one of your Miss' favorite places to run, there among the lush greenery and the old lamp posts and ghosts of history past.
This weekend, though, seventeen trees were cut down by either axe or machete. It's a terrifically sad story, but part of me just can't get past one line in a brief New York Times story this Sunday: the trees may have been cut down by kids looking to find wood to build forts with, or people looking to improve the views from their condos to the Hudson River.

This is the view from Inwood Hill Park. Didn't think you were still in New York, did you?

This makes your Miss very, very sad. First, since when are trees a lousy view? And second, well, second...well, I only ever built forts out of chairs and pillows.
This might because I grew up in the suburbs. But I think it's more because I grew up very, very lucky, with great people around me who knew the value of a good romp in the woods.
When I was in first grade, for instance, I had an extraordinary teacher. We did a lot with nature. We made leaf rubbings, and earrings out of fallen pine cones for our mothers. We took walks through the woods behind our school, and learned about the way that plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. The thing is, though, I don't recall these small forays into the outdoors as being classtime. I just remember them as being flat-out fun, except for the day I got my first bee sting, and even then I couldn't stop marveling at the way a small creature to make me feel such agony.
From that year on, I never could see nature as anything other than a living, breathing entity.
The New York City Parks Department is especially diligent about Inwood Hill Park, for obvious reasons. They work really hard to replant trees that have fallen due to natural or unnatural causes. This March, they have their work cut out for them.
Our work, too, is cut out for us. It's our job to take the next generation outside, let them see nature as a playmate, something to be treasured.
This week is going to be the warmest of the year for those of us living in Chicago. It's going to hit the mid-60s, and it's a perfect time a peek out of the windows, to watch things growing and breathing.
Whatever you do, be sure to tell someone else about it. Maybe they'll be able to see trees as more than raw material for a fort, or, oh, OH--maybe they'll get to see forest AND the trees.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Hi everyone!
This is the blog of Green Sugar Press. You can find us online at, but keep an eye out here for news and updates, and to find out what's on our minds.
Our most regular posters are Miss Midwesterly, Green Sugar's resident writer, and Green Sugar himself, Tim Magner, the founder of our company and all-around green guy.
We publish great books on nature for kids, but we also love keeping in close touch with you here. So be sure to check in with us frequently.
Over the next few days we'll be rolling out some transplants from our old 'blog and some fun features here. So keep your eyes peeled...we're happy to see you!

The Green Sugar Team