Inspired by the Planet: Celebrating Earth Day and National Poetry Month

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Poppies on the west slope of the Sierra. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

The Sweet Spot of Spring

By Shauna Potocky

 

The shadows are leaning long

on the north east side of the house

so the crickets start singing,

even though there are a couple

more hours before nightfall.

 

The cold spring breeze is carrying

a thin film of burn pile smoke

from the western slope of the Sierra

down to the San Joaquin Valley;

it slips by like high clouds.

 

In the shadows the faint build up

of buds can be seen; the trees

are waking. Dangling mistletoe needs trimming

like the grasses, topped before burrs form

dry and tangle in the fur of unsuspecting cats.

 

Spring is divine. All the grasses

green and lush; wildflowers rise, bloom, seed.

The birds fill the forest canopy with chatter

song, a fair bit of whimsy.

It is the sweet spot of spring

before summer.

 

April offers much to celebrate—profound signs of spring along with two celebrations: Earth day and National Poetry Month.

This year, don’t miss the chance to find an Earth Day event near you and get out there to connect to the remarkable and unique environment in your community. Check your local community calendar listings; you are sure to find something spectacular. Many events are hosted at local parks and public lands, through businesses, by a local tribe or through full-scale festivals.

Look for local poetry events as well. Don’t miss all the talent blooming this National Poetry Month at your local bookstores, cafes, pubs or poetry slams. Many of these events are filled to the brim with eager people just waiting to share their thoughts and latest creations with you. Don’t let them down—sometimes the greatest thing we can do is show up—and you might just walk away WOW’ed and inspired.

If you’re really lucky you might just find a grassroots event that celebrates both!

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Sky Pilots in the High Country. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky.

This year, the connection of Earth Day and National Poetry Month came together at Intermountain Nursery in Prather, California, an exciting event inspired by music, storytellers, poets and of course, great food.

Intermountain Nursery specializes in California native plants and events that engage and empower individuals to embrace using natives as a smart source of landscaping. The nursery proactively educates people on common landscaping issues such as replacing water-thirsty landscaping with drought resistant plants and native species—a much needed consideration in the drought stressed state of California.

The nursery features an incredible array of community events, from their annual Harvest Festival to weekend classes on American Indian basketry, plant propagation techniques, illustration classes and much more. New for this year, Intermountain Nursery brought a unique blend of nature and art together in order to recognize and celebrate Earth Day and National Poetry Month.

Senator Gaylor Nelson fought a hard battle in 1970 to create Earth Day. Since then, his efforts have paid off. Today, Earth Day is an international event that is celebrated in schools, communities, public land sites and supported by international organizations and agencies.

Due in part to environmental champions as well as the awareness raised by Earth Day, the United States has put significant protections in place including the banning of DDT, creation of critical laws such as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and establishment of the Endangered Species Act. Although Gaylor Nelson was not responsible for all of these efforts, the momentum he created propelled many of these issues and solutions into the public eye.

National Poetry Month was established in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to bring wider attention to the amazing legacy of poetry. The Academy worked in collaboration with schools, libraries, literary organizations and writers, thus becoming the “largest literary celebration in the world, ” according to Poetry.org.

There is no denying the remarkable connection writing and poetry can create with the environment. Nature writers such as Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry along with poets such as Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver have captured our attention and held it, helping us keep the environment close at hand even when it seems far away from our busy urban lifestyles.

This month, take the opportunity to celebrate both Earth Day and National Poetry Month. Find some inspiration outdoors or curl up with a book from a celebrated poet or someone completely new to you—you might just find that they can connect you to the magic of the world we live in. Poetry might not be science, but it is a powerful art and its ability to help us discover and make connections to the natural world should not be underrated.

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Sandhill cranes at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Edge of the Refuge

By Shauna Potocky

 

Held down all night

the Tule fog breaks as the dawn does

it rises, ethereal, masking the sun’s luminance;

beneath this low cloud, living things stir

water moves, ripples–and the bird calls come.

 

In the rise, wings   s p r e a d,   e v e r y t h i n g

o u t s t r e t c h e s ,   l i f t s in the coming light.

Song, chatter, foreign languages of the past

stir the damp cold of morning, every little thing

shattering in the waking of day.

 

The genes of wildness and knowing pass through the generations

they face boldly, calmly, the hunts, migrations, births, deaths

and this morning, all who wake, have triumphed.

They gather, breed, sing, sigh, continue the journey

their breathy words rise, sink, fade…

 

Their final syllables muffled as they come to rest

at the edges of the wetland, dampened by the wild

songs of the redwing black birds, who hold the line

in the tall, wind chilled icy reeds

that hold back the hunters and the rest of us.

Predators at my Window: The Recovery of Predator Populations in Southern New England

The author's rapid sketch of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) spotted outside his study window.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

The author’s rapid sketch of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) spotted outside his study window. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By: Richard Telford

On an early Saturday morning this past January, working at my desk that faces the eastern sunrise, my gaze was arrested by a sudden movement crossing the breaking sun.  My desk window faces a break in the 18th century stonewall that encloses our 1770 northeastern Connecticut farmhouse on three sides; beyond this wall break is a massive brush pile that I have created as I’ve cut back overgrowth along the wall edges to increase light and decrease Lyme tick habitat.  On this particular morning, I experienced a momentary disconnect as I gazed at the unusually stocky, bob-tailed housecat that had broken the line of the emerging sun, quickly realizing that it was, of course, no housecat but instead a bobcat (Lynx rufus).  While bobcats are reasonably common in our area, they are crepuscular—largely active in the twilight hours—and thus difficult to sight.  Further, like most mammalian predators at the upper trophic levels, they are discreet in their interactions with humans. In the twelve years I had lived in our farmhouse, I had never seen one prior to that morning.

The author's six-year-old daughter's sketch of the bobcat seen from his study window.

The author’s six-year-old daughter’s sketch of the bobcat (Lynx rufus) seen from his study window.

I quickly called my wife, six-year-old daughter, and two-year-old son to the window, where we watched this particular specimen as it stood with its forelegs perched on an angular piece of granite half-buried in front of the brush pile, likely a stone toppled from the wall years earlier.  Finally, the bobcat vanished into the woods east of our house, likely heading towards the series of stepping stone parcels that comprise the 324-acre Natchaug State Forest, which borders the 1765-acre James L. Goodwin State Forest, providing a significant habitat for bobcats as well as a sizeable eastern coyote population.

Seeing the bobcat at our window was for me a euphoric moment, similar to the moment I first saw a black bear (Ursus americanus) in the wild at close quarters fifteen years ago while through-hiking Shenandoah National Forest with my brother, bypassing the summer-crowded Appalachian Trail leg in favor a network of abandoned club trails dating to the 1930s.  In both cases, each moment of wonder was tempered by concern, and it is this balance that, in my view, largely defines the interaction of the American public with regional predator populations.  We long for wilderness, but we likewise crave safety, not just in the context of the natural world but in the whole of our lives.  The former impulse can lead us to conserve, while the latter may prompt us to destroy.  Effectively balancing these two desires is central to ensuring the safety of both predator species and their human observers.

In Shenandoah, my brother and I would go on to have eleven more close encounters with black bears which, like us, gravitated to moving water sources in the valleys during a period of severe drought.  Each interaction filled us with wonder, but we also remained aware that an encounter gone bad could end terribly, both for us and the bear.  One afternoon, crossing a brushed-choked summit with a narrow cut-through along its ridge, we became acutely aware of this.  Pounded by rain that largely drowned out most other noise, we repeatedly heard the crushing of brush in feverish spurts off to our right.  We continued to hear these irregular utterances until, perhaps ten yards off the trail, we saw the head of a large black bear rise like a periscope from the brush, its nose drawing in heavy drafts of air that no doubt included our scent.  Perhaps a second or two later, a movement to our left drew our gaze, a cub that had treed itself in the skeletal remains of a long-dead conifer.  Alarmed, we sprinted down the trail, our heavily-laden packs jangling loudly as we put distance between ourselves and the franticly searching sow bear.  Though with less urgency, the need to balance the desire for wilderness with the desire for safety permeated our sighting of the bobcat less than fifteen feet from our house on that early January morning.

While a bobcat poses no significant threat to an adult human unless it is rabid, our three children—ages six, two, and one—fall well within the weight range of typical bobcat prey.  A study published in The American Midland Naturalist documented the bobcat’s ability to take prey up to eight times its body weight, in that case fully grown white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Further, while bobcats in southern New England feed primarily on Eastern and New England cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus and Sylvilagus transitionalis), in winter they will vary their diet significantly when prey is less abundant.  Pound for pound, they are fierce and capable predators.  Thus, though our sighting of this particular bobcat filled us with wonder, it also made us pause in terms of managing the threat that it represents, albeit a remote one.  While this may seem an overreaction to some, the lack of such caution among the general public, arguably, represents a more serious threat not just to humans but to upper-level predator species as well. One widely reported negative predator-human interaction has the capacity to significantly alter the public view of a predator species, even when that interaction stems primarily from poor decision-making at the human end—e.g. the classic bear-feeding dilemma at refuse dumps in national parks and other such sites.  Thus, if we wish to preserve these species, we must shape our interactions with them with greater awareness.

During the first half of the twentieth century, upper-level predator species in Connecticut had largely been eliminated, but by the 1950s, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, western coyotes (Canis latrans) migrating eastward reached northwestern Connecticut, eventually dispersing statewide. Interestingly, the eastern coyote is considerably larger than its western counterpart, a likely product of interbreeding with Canadian gray wolves (Canis lupus) during migration.  Additionally, a 1988 reintroduction program aimed at restoring Connecticut’s fisher cat (Martes pennant) population, decimated in the late nineteenth century by excessive logging, has been successful in establishing a robust enough population that the state initiated a limited trapping season in 2005.  Red and gray foxes (Vulpes vulpes and Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are likewise abundant in Connecticut, and the black bear population has grown considerably over the past twenty years.  From a practical point of view, the recovery of predator populations in Connecticut has lead to a significantly healthier food web, and a more vital and ecologically sound set of natural systems and organismal interactions.

From a spiritual point of view, there is an unquantifiable gratification that comes from living within a more complete ecosystem.  At night, we frequently hear the howling of coyotes along with the calling of barred and great horned owls, and, though these sounds are ubiquitous in rural northeastern Connecticut, they never fail to evoke in us a sense of gratitude for the privilege of living beside these remnants of long ago wilderness, these creatures that have adapted to a shifting landscape that has been shaped and reshaped by anthropogenic change.  Interestingly, one particular anthropogenic change, late nineteenth-century farm abandonment, has probably bolstered the aforementioned recovery of upper-level predator populations in Connecticut more than any other single factor.  Northeastern Connecticut, for example, has returned to a 78% forested landscape, albeit a fragmented one in contrast to pre-Columbian days.  Thus, this recovery will likely maintain an upward trajectory until the various populations approach their respective carrying capacities.  This is cause both for celebration and caution, as noted earlier.  We must eschew the historic, almost fanatical human impulse to extirpate predator populations, an impulse largely rooted in fear—a tall order when, as a society, we grow increasingly transfixed to electronic screens and increasingly disconnected from the natural world.  The fear, whether it relates to physical or economic harm, must be mitigated through education, must be tempered by on-the ground realities.  It cannot, however, be fully eliminated, nor should it be.

The author's six-year-old daughter's sketch of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

The author’s six-year-old daughter’s sketch of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

Last month, I walked with my daughter out to the brush pile outside my study window. That morning, we were looking for evidence of cottontail rabbits—likely introduced eastern cottontail rather than the declining, native New England cottontail—that we believe are occupying a former woodchuck (Marmota monax) burrow.  Down the hill from the brush pile is an old farm dump that, based on its contents, appears to have been used by former occupants of our house from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s. I asked my daughter if she wanted to walk down to the dump, and her response surprised me.  She told me she did not want to walk in woods where there might be foxes.  I assured her that a fox would likely never attack her, especially with an adult present, and, by the time we reached the farm dump, she seemed to have shed her fear entirely.

The author's six-year-old daughter examines fox tracks left by a likely breading pair that passed near the author's study window in the early morning hours.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The author’s six-year-old daughter examines fox tracks left by a likely breading pair that passed near the author’s study window in the early morning hours. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Several weeks later, early in the morning, I saw through my study window what looked to be a breeding pair of red foxes.  They trotted along the edge of the clearing south of the brush pile and quickly vanished.  The night before, a light, late-season snow had covered the ground, and, when my daughter awoke, I told her what I had seen.  When breakfast was done, I took her and our two-year-old son out to see if we could find the track trail.  Though the snow was wet and already melting, we were able to distinguish several tracks, and my daughter quickly grew engrossed in the process. This prompted other observations as well: several small rodent tunnels in deep pockets of snow; a lone, half-opened milkweed pod with the gauzy filaments of its coma ruffling in the light breeze; a half-toppled apple tree, its sweet bark gnawed by a hungry white-tailed deer.

I aimed that morning to ease the sense of fear my daughter had expressed several weeks before and foster instead her already-strong sense of wonder.  The latter already largely defines her view of the natural world, and it took little that day to draw it out, but it is tempered at times by the equally natural and logical fears of childhood.  As noted above, we must mitigate but not shed those fears entirely in adulthood as we look to coexist with increasing upper-level predator populations.  A healthy fear can guide us to interact with these populations with foresight and a sense responsibility for their continued survival; it encourages us, as well, to foster such interactions in our children.  A healthy fear can guide us to take reasonable precautions: to secure our refuse properly, to protect small pets and livestock from undue exposure to predation, to manage compost piles and bird-feeding stations with awareness of the drawing effect they can have for upper-level predators.  A healthy fear in this context perhaps translates to a deep respect for these extraordinary creatures, for their survival needs, for their instinctual drives developed over millennia, for their right to exist in the world, and for the way in which they enrich that world by their presence and diminish it with their absence.

Honu, the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle–A Conservation Success Story

By Neva Knott

I saw more honu, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtlesthis trip to Maui than I did during the whole year I lived there. Maybe because I snorkeled more. One day, I swam about 10 feet above a small specimen, following him on his morning tour of the coral reef in Ahihi Bay. The next, while snorkeling at Five Graves, I saw two turtles napping in small caves along the reef. Later that day, while body boarding and swimming at Kamaole Beach Park, a sand-covered turtle swam right past, making his way down the shoreline. He came from a black lava outcropping, where two more bobbed in and out of the waves. There were a few little boys playing in the waves, local boys, who kept yelling “shark” with nine-year-old boy abandon each time they’d see the turtle. When he swam past, one boy said to another, “Ride him.” I looked at him, knowing he knew better, and said, “No ride ’em” in my best pidgin, my way of letting him know I knew he knew better.

The last full day of vacation, my friends and I ventured to the North Shore, to Baldwin Beach. While the beaches along the south shore where I’d seen the other turtles are along the protected side of the island, Baldwin runs along the over open ocean. As I walked down that mile-long stretch, I came across a large turtle out of the water. A young woman was standing, watching. She explained to me that this same turtle had been basking in this same spot for a week or more, a spot just out of a little calm pool created by lava rock. People were concerned, and someone had called the wildlife agency. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the turtle; she seemed to need time out of the water, possibly in anticipation of laying eggs, I thought, having seen a turtle lay her eggs once, in Mexico.

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I sat and watched her bask for awhile. The combination of the trade winds, the lapping of the blue water on the black rocks, the sand on my feet, and the expression of life given by the turtle seemed to be all that existed. As I watched, another turtle swam ashore and nuzzled the one basking. He’d nudge her and she’d move closer to the water. Then the second turtle put his head upon that of the first. I don’t know if this was a sexual act or one of comfort, but it was universal in depth of emotion.

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The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. According to literature published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), honu populations were in severe decline in the 1960s and 1970s, due to over-harvest. Since protection was granted for the species, it has made an incredible recovery, increasing over 53 percent in the last 25 years. Not only are honu part of island lore and culture, an emblem of the islands, this recovery makes them an icon of successful conservation efforts. All it took was a change in human behavior. Now that harvesting turtles and turtle eggs is illegal, honu surround the islands.

Even though the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle populations are increasing, both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA recently published a report on the Federal Register stating, ” we do not find delisting warranted.”

Honu are part of the beauty of the islands, and their presence is a reminder that the natural world and the human world only work in balance.

Follow this link to detailed information about the natural history of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.

7 things to know about California’s drought

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Originally posted on Grist:

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the drought in California, especially since this past week, when Gov. Jerry Brown introduced mandatory water cuts for the first time in the state’s history. So what exactly makes this drought so bad? And what are people doing about it? Here are a few important points to keep in mind:

Drought is the norm in California. How bad is this one? There are always wet years and dry years, but the past three years have been among the driest on record — and state officials worry that 2015 will be even drier. Last week, for the first time in the state’s history, Brown imposed mandatory water restrictions, requiring all cities and towns to cut their water usage by 25 percent. Though agriculture…

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Maui Reflection

By Neva Knott

To watch the sun rise over Haleakala, Maui’s dormant volcano, is to watch the world begin. Simultaneously, darkness lifts across the island and silhouettes become palms, hibiscus and plumeria. The birdsong begins and the ocean’s surface turns from a black void to rippled water. By the time the sun is above the volcano, Maui is alive.

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Photograph by Neva Knott.

Each morning on my recent trip, I arose in the pre-dawn darkness to walk. It’s the best way to get a sense of the place. The first morning, I found a shore bird nesting sanctuary just near the Kihei boat ramp. According to Andrew Engilis, Jr. and Maura Naughton, authors of the U.S. Pacific Island Regional Shorebird Conservation Plan, “The USPI [United States Pacific Islands] are home to one endemic shorebird,the endangered Hawaiian Stilt, and are important wintering areas for three species of Holarctic- Nearctic breeders: the Bristle-thighed Curlew, Pacific Golden-Plover, and Wandering Tattler. The majority of these species’ populations overwinter in the Pacific Islands, and these islands are critical to the maintenance of these birds.”

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Hawaiian Stilt. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

As Engilis and Naughton mention, the Hawaiian Stilt is an endemic species. Endemic species are those only found in the region they inhabit, and no where else in the world. Island biogeography and islands as ecosystems are interesting in that they are closed systems, microcosms of larger landmasses; endemic species add a layer to what scientists can know about a particular ecosystem and it’s health.

I love awakening to a new day on Maui. It feels pure. It feels like all life is interconnected. I feel alive there, and part of the web of life created by the sunrise and birdsong. I feel privy to the ancient truths embodied by the mountains.

Later that first day, I snorkeled at Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, a bay created by Haleakala’s lava flow. I watched species of fish feed and swim, and I knew that they were as important to the day as any other species, just as important as any one of us. Because fish do what they do, humans exist. In the ocean that day, I witnessed the mystery of life.

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Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Islands can teach humans much about keeping the environment healthy. Just as each island species adds value and continuity to the web of life, it is easy to see on an island how each act of depletion causes irreparable harm. On an island, each piece of trash matters–will it blow into the ocean? Will it make it into a land fill? Where will it go when the land fill is full?

When I exited the ocean after my snorkel, the island was doubly alive–alive with the natural web of life and alive with consumeristic tourists, all of whom were excited about the fish and coral and the blue of the water; none of whom seemed concerned about their part in the web.

How to Honor Earth Hour on March 28

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Earth Hour is a worldwide grassroots movement uniting people to protect the planet, and is organized by World Wildlife Fund. Earth Hour was started as a lights-off event in Sydney, Australia in 2007. Since then it has grown to engage more than 7,000 cities and towns worldwide.

Now in its ninth year, Earth Hour will again be honored on Saturday, March 28 at 8:30 p.m. local time, when people from 172 countries will switch off their lights for one hour to focus attention on climate change.

Won’t you join the movement?

World Water Day 2015

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly designated World Water Day, to be celebrated annually on March 22, with the purpose of raising awareness and making a difference for people who suffer from water related issues. It is also a day designated to prepare for how we manage water in the future. In 2015, the theme for World Water Day is Water and Sustainable Development.

Worldwide, over one billion people lack access to safe drinking water. That is more than one in six people lacking a basic human need. Each human, each day, requires at least 20 to 50 liters of clean water for cooking, bathing and drinking. Access to clean, pathogen free water is a basic human right. Yet 1.8 million people die annually from water-related diseases, while tens of millions of others suffer from serious illnesses which are otherwise easily prevented.

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If the Earth is covered two-thirds by water, what’s the problem? Most of the Earth’s water is seawater. Seawater is not suitable for drinking. Only freshwater is drinkable, which is water that does not contain significant levels of dissolved minerals or salts. Only about 2.5 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh water and two-thirds of that is frozen in ice caps and glaciers.

Even though World Water Day 2015 has passed, there is still plenty of work to be done and it begins by treating every day as if it were World Water Day. Here are some of the ways I am doing so.

First, as I have typed this blog, I have purposefully ignored my smart phone, refusing to even touch it so as not to disrupt an app I activated just before setting it down. By downloading and running UNICEFTAPPROJECT.ORG for 15 minutes, you are obliging sponsors and donors, such as Giorgio Armani, to fund one day of clean water for a child in need. Go longer, fund more.

The UNICEF Tap Project is a nationwide campaign that provides clean water and adequate sanitation to children around the world. UNICEF works in more than 100 countries around the world to improve access to safe water and sanitation facilities in schools and communities and to promote safe hygiene practices.

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Secondly, I have utilized rain barrels in my gardening activities for the last fifteen years. In fact, I have one on each side of my house so that filling a watering can is a cinch, no matter where I happen to be.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a rain barrel is a system that collects and stores rainwater from your roof that would otherwise be lost to runoff and diverted to storm drains and streams. Usually a rain barrel is composed of a 55 gallon drum, a vinyl hose, PVC couplings, a screen grate to keep debris and insects out, and other off-the-shelf items. A rain barrel is relatively simple and inexpensive to construct and can sit conveniently under any residential gutter down spout.

Lawn and garden watering make up nearly 40% of total household water use during the summer. A rain barrel collects water and stores it for when you need it most, providing an ample supply of free “soft water” to homeowners, containing no chlorine, lime or calcium making it ideal for gardens, flower pots, and car and window washing. A rain barrel will save most homeowners about 1,300 gallons of water during the peak summer months. This helps protect the environment and saves money and energy by decreasing the demand for treated tap water. Diverting water from storm drains also decreases the impact of runoff to streams. Therefore, a rain barrel is an easy way for you to have a consistent supply of clean, fresh water for outdoor use, FREE.

But my favorite part of having rain barrels is having water where I need it, when I need it, without having to go back and forth to the spigots connected to my house. Between the two rain barrels and the two tap spigots, my lower back gets a break in spite of my having flowers and vegetables in various and sundry locations, three out of four seasons each year.

Thirdly, when watering plants, I employ a couple of methods that insure the water is absorbed by the soil and the roots of the plants. Depending on the size of the container, one method I use is ice cubes instead of water. Because the ice cubes melt slowly, all the water is absorbed instead of running off. The other method is watering spikes inserted in the soil adjacent to the roots and then inverting an up cycled wine bottle or any other long necked glass bottle that is filled with water. This method keeps the roots watered for a couple of days in even the hottest period of the southeastern summers I am accustomed to.

For more ideas, visit The Water – Use It Wisely campaign’s 100+ ways to conserve water. This campaign began in Arizona in 1999 to promote an ongoing water conservation ethic.

What are some of the ways you conserve water? Please share in the comments. I would love to read your ideas!