Monday, March 30, 2009

A First and Maybe A Last

I saw the first boat docked at the Southport Marina, a few blocks from my house, on Friday. Saturday evening it began to rain, and then when temperatures dropped, the rain turned to sleet and snow. Sunday morning many activities were canceled as winds were gusting to 40 mph. We ended up with about 5 or 6 inches of wet, heavy snow. Today, however, the sun was shining and temperatures in the afternoon were in the forties.

I am sure the docks will soon fill with other boats, but like seeing the first robin in spring, seeing the first boat is a significant milestone on the way to real spring and worth sharing. Here's the first boat and traces of what I hope were the last snow.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Invasive Species: Yesterday and Today

It was flattering to be asked to write on the Great Lakes Town Hall website last week, but I am glad to be back to my own spot again. I have no idea whether anyone read my postings there, although the truth is I often don’t know if they read them here either (except I have this little meter that tells me here when someone signs on). But that’s okay, because this whole thing is part of a learning process for me. If someone else learns something along with me, that’s great. If not, I am still smarter and wiser.

I got smarter and wiser yesterday, as did many others including my husband. We went to a lecture given by scientists from the UWM Great Lakes Water Institute. I had mentioned this one day last week in my posting, but I am pretty sure none of the 50 or 60 people in the audience were there because of me.

The topic yesterday in a presentation by Drs. Carmen Aguilar and Russell Cuhel was Great Lakes invasive mussel species. You’ve probably heard about zebra mussels, but we learned that zebra mussels are, as Dr. Aguilar told us, “so yesterday”. Now scientists are studying quagga mussels. The two are similar but quagga mussels can survive in deeper, colder water and so present a new set of problems.

Both mussels affect the lakes ecosystem by filtering out the phytoplankton from the water. In case you don’t know, plankton are microorganisms on which fish feed. These mussels can clear a beaker of murky water in about 15 minutes, as was demonstrated to us during the lecture.

Clearer lake water might seem like a good thing, but the fish don’t think so because of the effect on their food supply. Clear water means more sunlight, which means more plants grow in the water. The small fish may like that because they can hide in the plants from their predators, but the big fish don’t think that’s a good thing. In addition, the mussels also collect on beaches, in storm sewers and can clog up water intake pipes. They have a huge economic impact. And by attaching themselves to recreational boats can affect inland lakes as far from the upper Midwest as Lake Mead Nevada. Amazing.

It’s not all bad news. Some species, such as birds and some fish eat the mussels and do better when they are around, but mostly the invasive species, which come into the come into the Great Lakes with ocean going ships, cause problems. Zebra and quagga mussels are not the only invasive species, just the ones that were discussed in yesterday’s talk.

If you think you know something about native species, or you want to learn what you don’t know, take a quiz I found. I know it says Invasive Species in Pennsylvania in the title, but it is a general quiz. Besides, you may have forgotten that Pennsylvania is a Great Lakes state. Not one of the major ones to most of us but ask the people of Erie PA if think it is an important one. I think they do.

I learned a lot yesterday. I am still thinking about it today and I plan to attend more of this series of lectures to learn even more. Not tomorrow but in two weeks.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Life Long Conservationist?

From March 23 until March 27, I will be posting daily as a guest on the website of the Great Lakes Town Hall. I have been following this site for the past few months and was very flattered to be asked to blog for a week. When they asked me to give them a brief bio, I checked to see what other bloggers had written, and I wondered how I fit. What would I say about myself? Many of the previous posters have academic credentials in ecology, biology, political science and other related fields. Several said they have been a “life-long conservationist”. I claim to be none of these.

What I did say you can see on the website, but I couldn’t get the phrase “life-long conservationist” out of my head. I grew up in a family where the great outdoors meant a picnic or eating on the patio of a restaurant. It meant occasional sledding in winter and walks around the park in the summer.

The first time I went camping was when Michael and I had been married for two years. Michael was still in school and we wanted a vacation, but we didn’t have much money. His parents had an old camp stove, a tent, and sleeping bags in their basement from the days when my father-in-law was a Boy Scout Leader, so he suggested we try camping. When I told my mother we were going camping in Maine, she thought we were nuts.

The first night out was a little scary for me- and a lot cold. Those sleeping bags were not adequate for August nights in Maine. But the next morning was bright and sunny. The air – and the coffee – smelled fabulous. From that day, I loved camping and I began to love hiking, being outdoors, and nature. I also came to realize that if we don’t care of all those things I now love, they would not be here for future generations

I do admit we haven’t been tent camping in a few years. Our more recent adventures have meant day-hikes staying in motels (some of which are not nearly as nice as a good campsite). When time and money permit, we would like to buy a small popup or RV. We’re too old for sleeping on the ground, but we aren’t too old to explore and enjoy the outdoors.

I may not be a life long conservationist, but that doesn’t make me less committed to the cause. It only means I have a lot of time to make up. I’m working on it.

Check out my posting this week at

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Good Answer and Some Wisconsin Trivia

Last night I heard the columnist Thomas Friedman on a TV program about global warning. I cannot quote him verbatim, but his thought was this. In the future we will not need to use the term “green” to describe cars or houses or anything except color because conserving energy, being mindful consumers and protecting the planet will be the norm. The green revolution will have happened.

That solves the problem of coming up with an alternative phrase to green, as I proposed in my last posting. Good answer, Tom. Thank you.

Here's a piece of Wisconsin trivia. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that my Wisconsin friends call a drinking fountain a bubbler. I recently learned why. It seems that in 1888 what was then the Kohler Water Works developed the original fountain and trademarked it a “Bubbler”. Other companies developed similar products and called them drinking fountains, but Wisconsin natives still call them bubblers.

I don’t know if the Kohler Design Center and Museum in Kohler Wisconsin, near Sheboygan, has old bubblers, but it is a cool place to visit to see plumbing, historical and modern.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Think Green. It's St Patrick's Day

Green means something different today than it did when I was younger. Green used to be a color – or many colors. Kelly green. Pea green. Avocado green – which was the color of the appliances in our first apartment. Green was the color of grass, artificial turf – and money. Green was the color of immigrants and Kermit the Frog, who told us it’s not easy being green. The immigrants would probably have agreed.

Today being green isn’t just a color, it’s a movement. Green is in. Despite what Elphaba might say, every print and e-zine tells us that green is good – and it is easy to be green. The term The Greening of America actually originated with the book by that title by Charles A. Reich in the early 1970’s. Then it was considered counterculture. Today it is chic.

I have no problem with that. Green is good, but I think the term is also becoming a bit trite. What does it mean to be “green”? Everything from detergent to coffee is green. Schools, office building, cars, clothing, cosmetics, even dog food is hyped as being “green”. Maybe some marketing types who are paid the big bucks to be clever could come up with a catchy phrase to express our concern for planet earth.

But then again, maybe green does say it all, and I shouldn’t fight it. And especially not today. Today everything wants to be green – including these daffodils, poking up through the winter brown. How many years has it been since St Patrick’s Day in Wisconsin has had sunshine, blue skies and temperatures over 70 degrees?

Hurrah. Spring is coming. Happy St Patrick’s Day.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring, According to Me

Spring may not be officially here until Friday, but there were many people out in my neighborhood today who can’t wait even five more days. With sunny skies and temperatures almost 50 degrees, the pathways along the harbor saw more walkers and cyclists than they have for months. Fisherman, too. This winter the harbor stayed frozen for weeks on end and so they did not line up the way I have seen in other winters, but today the fishing gear was out in full display.

Yesterday was the first day that I saw open water. There are a few clumps of ice floating around in the lake, but they are small and will soon be gone. The marina still has ice on it too, but that didn’t bother the people feeding the geese.

The lake temperature is up to 34.1. How do I know? No, I did not go out and measure it. I checked it out on the Great Lakes Observing System website, which links me to Coast Watch of Michigan State University.

You can get all kinds of information from these websites, and view current harbor conditions on a WebCam as well. I look at them occasionally, but I prefer to make my own observations. I watch the ice and when it disappears, I know the temperature has gone up. I watch what people are wearing, too, although that is not as reliable. Today with a slight wind of 5-8 mph off the lake, I was still wearing my winter coat. No gloves or hat, and my coat was partially undone, but I saw people, primarily young ones, in short sleeves and no coats. I guess their thermometer is calibrated a bit differently than mine.

Nonetheless, I was delighted to be out in the nice weather, and so were they. The Vernal Equinox may be on March 20, but spring was here today and so were the people.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Whose Appointment Is It Anyway?

A few weeks ago, when I didn’t attend Conservation Day in Madison, Wisconsin, I did read the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voter’s Priorities for 2009. In a nutshell, the priorities involve preservation of ground water, doing as much as possible to stop global warming and climate change, protect drinking water, and restore conservation integrity. It was that last item that I had to read more about because as a newcomer to environmental issues in Wisconsin, I wasn’t sure what that meant. I did skim the WCLV materials, but mostly I enjoyed the pictures.

This morning Steve Lund, Editorial Page Editor of the Kenosha News, did a good job of summarizing the issue so that even people who never read the WLCV materials will understand. The issue is whether the Secretary of the Wisconsin DNR Board (Department of Natural Resources for other newbies) should be appointed by the Governor as has been the case since 1995 or by the DNR Board, as it used to be before then Gov. Thompson changed things. A bill restoring the original method has been introduced into the legislature for the past 14 years. However, although the bill has a majority of votes from both the House and Senate, it does not yet have a veto-proof majority, according to an editorial today in the Green Bay Gazette and posted on the WLCV blog.

Maybe I am wrong but both ways seem political. It just depends on where you are standing how you view the issue. However, Mr. Lund does a good job of summarizing DNR activities of the past the 14 years and why the old way of doing things might be better.

Only one thing- a typo in the print version of the column changes the meaning of the last paragraph of Lund’s piece. He says, "Bring back the old days. Let the Natural Resources Board appoint the governor, let everyone else complain about the DNR having too much power...." Appoint the Governor? I thought we voted for the Governor. I think what he meant was “let the Natural Resources Board appoint the Secretary” or am I missing something in this argument?

I know what Mr. Lund meant to say, and he told me it has been corrected in the on-line version. I agree with the position and I will write a letter my State Senator, Bob Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) who is sponsoring the bill to restore the original way of appointment. Thanks, Steve, for writing the editorial. More people in Kenosha should now understand what this is all about.

Monday, March 9, 2009

No Laundry Day

“Didn’t you wear underwear over the weekend?” I asked my husband this morning.

He gave one of those “are you crazy” looks. The reason I was asking was that the laundry hamper was not as full as it usually is on Monday mornings, and I was wondering why. Turns out, he did wear the appropriate underwear since I last did laundry. Socks and shirts, too, so maybe the lack of laundry had something to do with me.

Nonetheless, I decided to forgo my usual load of Monday morning laundry and wait until I had a full load to do. You have to understand that for me, a creature of routine and habit, that is a large concession. But I have been trying to be more mindful of my water consumption and do things like turn the water off while I am brushing my teeth and take shorter showers, which is also very hard for me. Not doing the laundry on my usual day is a big deal.

How much water does it take to do laundry anyway? And how much am I saving by skipping one load? I tried to find out.

The first place I went was to the Sierra Club website. I did a search on “laundry” and on that site alone I had 204 hits. Most of them had to do with toxic laundry (the use of harmful detergents etc) or advice to air-dry laundry to save energy. One item in a category called Lazy Green Week had many tips on energy savings including one that said, “Let the Laundry Pile Up”.

I searched further and learned a lot more about laundry, including that there are celebrities promoting green detergents and auctioning off tote bags to further their cause. I learned about methods of doing laundry, energy efficient washing machines, and that there is a magazine called Appliance Magazine. Who knew?

It was all interesting and important, because our water is greatly effected by the detergents that we use. But I still wanted to learn specifically about the water aspect of doing laundry. I googled “laundry water usage” and got 2.55 millions hits, and that was just .orgs. There is no lack of information about water usage. Almost every water utility has tips on saving water, as do municipal, state, and federal government agencies.

They all pretty much say the same thing, but the point is that if you want to learn how to save water and energy there is no lack of resources. Of course, you have to look at them – and heed them.

A few facts I gleaned from my research include:
• Laundry consumes about 20-25% of all household water usage.
• Most of the energy consumed by the washing machine is used to heat the water. Cold water works just as well.
• Depending on your washing machine, each load can take from 35 (high efficiency top loaders) to 60 gallons of water.
• You can save 2,000 gallons of water a year just by consolidating loads.
• We should all wear our clothes a little longer before washing them ( well, maybe not the underwear.

I also found a quiz called How Green is my laundry? The quiz asks things like how efficient your washing machine is, if you use hot, cold or warm water, and how much dry cleaning you do. I took the quiz, and although I didn’t fail (I got 72) I could do better. Not doing the laundry today probably boosted my score a good few points. Want to know how you do when it comes to laundry? Take the quiz.

Now if I could just shorten the length of my hot showers, I would be in great ecological shape.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Once Upon a Mattress

Several times I have mentioned Simmons Island, which is visible from my side of the harbor. A large part of the island is a park, with a public beach. The island also is the location of a few private houses, the Coast Guard Station, two lighthouses, the water production facility and yacht club, as well as a small boat marina. It’s a reasonable walk for me on a nice day. Even when its not a nice day, I see it when I walk the dog every afternoon, or when I drive almost anywhere from my house.

In case you were wondering, the Simmons that the island is named after is the mattress guy. In 1870 Zalmon G. Simmons with his first factory in Kenosha. Simmons started off by producing wooden insulators and cheese boxes. A few years later, he started producing mattresses. Mr. Simmons was very influential on the way we sleep. First he mass produced mattresses, making them affordable. Then he introduced spiral coil springs, making the mattresses more comfortable. Simmons Manufacturing quickly grew to be the largest company of its kind and had factories and warehouses all over the country.

The Simmons family was influential on Kenosha, too. That’s why the island was named after Zalmon. This plaque stands under the flag pole near the old beach house, which also has an interesting history. I will wait to tell you more about the beach house in the summer. I am there even more in summer, as I am a frequent visitor to the beach.

1923 the Simmons Mattress Company headquarters was moved from Kenosha to New York City and then to Atlanta, Georgia in 1975, where the company still resides. In 1979, Gulf & Western acquired the company, shifting control to outside the family for the first time.

The story of the mattress company was repeated by other industries all over the Great Lakes in the 19th and 20th Century. The region had many advantages, not the least of which was transportation routes along on the lakes. The harbor outside my windows is a deep-water harbor, which can accommodate large cargo ships. The peninsula on which I live was once a tannery then belonged to American Motors. Historically, the industries of the Great Lakes were steel, paper, chemicals, cars, and other manufactured goods, like mattresses.

The downside of all of that industry was that so much pollution was poured into the lakes. When industries started to move south or overseas in the 1970’s that pollution declined. Unfortunately the number of jobs in the region did, too. I would like to spend some time thinking about the current economic situation and the effect of the stimulus package on this region’s economy, but those thoughts give me a headache. They make me think about my son who lives in Michigan, the unemployment capitol of the country, where he is one among many.

Perhaps I will just go lie down for a few minutes on my comfortable spring coil mattress. Oops, it’s not a Simmons mattress. Sorry, Zalmon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Cool – and Important - Project

Although I can see two lighthouses from just outside my house, and as the crow flies they are only a few blocks away, to visit them I have to walk about 20 minutes. I have to go around the harbor and over the bridge onto Simmons Island.

On my walk to the pier, I pass the Kenosha Yacht Club, the History Center, and the O. Fred Nelson Water Production Plant, part of the Kenosha Water Utility. In the summer, I often stop for a drink at the water fountain (a bubbler to my Wisconsin friends) outside the water facility building. Somehow, I think that water is fresher than what I might have carried in a water bottle.

Today I want to tell you a little something about some people who work at the water facility. This is not about water treatment but about treatment of people who need water. And its not here in Kenosha. It’s in Guatemala. And it’s very cool.

It is a program that was set up through the Wisconsin Water Association’s “Water for the World” project. The project, in conjunction with other sponsors such as Rotary Club, help people primarily in Central and South America get safe drinking water, like that which comes out of the bubbler across the harbor. I take that water for granted but in many places good, clean water is not so easy to come by. Volunteers and funds donated from across the United States, and here in Wisconsin, have helped set up water systems to get safe water to people in several of these communities.

But there’s more. In addition to providing water, volunteers are also helping teach our children about this important project through a website called Adventure Kids Learning Expedition. With the help of the Kenosha Unified School District staff and volunteers at the water facility, technology allows children in Kenosha and in another community in Wisconsin to follow the activities of the volunteers as they build the water system. The website also has information about the country, its people, and how to design a water system. There are problems for the kids to solve, a photo journal, and resources for teachers on the website, too.

What a cool thing this is. Bringing water to those who need it, and teaching those who have it how important it is. And that it doesn’t come easily to everyone. I don’t think the kids who participate in this learning experience will ever take the clean water from a bubbler for granted.

I plan to follow the volunteers, too, as they report on their progress from March 11 to March 18. Join me.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Light But Not Yet Heat

It’s March. March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. So far, it has done what is supposed to do. Yesterday was very, very windy. And cold, too, with wind chills back to zero and below. I went out and took some pictures (and yes, it was cold) of the harbor. I plan to go back on April 1 and take pictures at the same place. If there is still ice, I will consider it an April Fools Day joke.

The first picture, which shows just how frozen the harbor is, is Simmons Island on the opposite side of the Kenosha Harbor from where I live. The building with the red roof is part of the Coast Guard station. The other picture shows the old Southport Lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper’s dwelling. The house is currently being restored to what it looked like in 1866 when it was the primary lighthouse in Kenosha. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places. In the nice weather, for a small donation you can go up to the top of the tower. It’s a great view. The Kenosha History Center, which is visible slightly to the right of the lighthouse, has more information about the lighthouse’s history.

There has been a lighthouse in Kenosha since 1848. The North Pier Lighthouse, the red one at the end of the pier, is the one that is active now. The Coast Guard currently operates it, although last year I read that it was deemed “excess” and they have tried to sell it. I haven’t heard if they did or not. What would someone do with a lighthouse? Or without one, for that matter?

The History Center sells replicas of the North Pier Lighthouse. Photographs, too. I have five photos of the red lighthouse in my downstairs bathroom. I have the pictures partly because the bright red looks terrific with the black and white wallpaper in there, but it is also because the lighthouse is special to me and I want my guests to see as much of it as they can. When we first moved into this house, I had a great view of it from our dining room windows. However, when the built the Civil War Museum, our view was obstructed, so now I have to walk a half block to see it.

I’d buy the lighthouse but I don’t think it will fit in that little bathroom.
I will have to make do with photos and daily walks to make sure
it is still there. And speaking of daily walks, those gulls have been sitting in that same spot for the past three days. I am beginning to wonder if they are glued there. (I know they blend in, but trust me they are there.)

Great Lakes lighthouses are interesting, and there much that can be written about them. Even within short driving distance from my home, I can visit many historic sites and styles of these treasures. But I will hold off on this topic until nicer weather when I can visit them and take pictures without freezing my hands. Until then, if you are interested there are some great websites to look at. One of them is Seeing the Light: Lighthouses of the Western Great Lakes.