Is there any point in having a green wedding if nobody notices?

October 28, 2010

Yep. Me again. Creeping into the blogosphere like I tend to do these days — about once every few months, with a totally random subject of conversation, which every blogger will tell you does NOT lead to a very consistent readership. Oh well.

But I thought y’all might like to know that Miss Thistle is now officially Mrs. Thistle (let’s go with Ms., actually — never did like Mrs.). On lucky Friday, Aug. 13th, 2010, I tied the knot at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. If you want to know more about the boy — or shall I say, my husband — you can read my book (a recipient of the Green Book Festival award for Best Biography/Memoir, by the way).

Now, those of you who know me realize that I’d never have a wedding unless it was a completely green wedding; and that it was! It’s impossible not to leave some footprint, however, and of course weddings are all about compromise, so it’s not as if it was off-the-grid vegan or anything. But still: We splurged on a menu that had Ontario trout, a vegetarian curry and grass-fed, locally raised steak (compromise); we had hundreds of beeswax candles; wild flowers that were grown locally where possible, with vintage mason jars as vases; programs printed on recycled paper; invites on old postcards; a vegan wedding cake with antique cake topper; reusable tote bags that folded up into little rosebuds as gifts for the ladies; even my engagement ring was Jacob’s great-grandmother’s ring, so no need for a flashy new diamond.

Here are some photos, courtesy of the amazing Catherine Farquharson (no relation, if you can believe that):

Getting my dress on, with some help from mum.

View from inside the venue!

Vegan carrot cake with antique wedding topper!

My sister and me at the head table.

View of the reception, up in the trees!

Jacob put on a wig, grabbed some back-up singers (two of our friends) and serenaded me with a Zombies tune and the Monkees' "I'm a Believer"

Sneaking away for some photo-taking.

A quick stroll in the park.

My engagement ring.

But here’s the thing: I made all these eco-conscious decisions, and yet I’m not sure anyone really noticed. Nobody was looking to see what type of wax the candles were made from; nobody was scrutinizing the jars that the centerpiece flowers were in; and most likely only a few people noticed that the steak on the menu was from the very reputable Rowe farms. Obviously, I feel good about all these decisions and know that they made a difference in terms of our wedding footprint — but to all you green brides out there: How important do you think it is to make an eco-friendly statement on your big day? Does it matter if nobody notices?


A man, a plan: Tim Flannery

October 28, 2009

FLANNERY by Alex Szalay_RGB

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my oenophile eyes and 30/20 vision (for reals, I have crazy-good eyesight) tell me that’s a bottle of Wolfblass in the photo above, nestled carefully in a grassy knoll. Oh, and that guy next to the bottle of wine is Tim Flannery — environmental author extraordinaire. I can confirm that this guy loves his Australian reds, too, because I sat down with him recently in Toronto and he ordered a glass of shiraz, apologizing for the long-distance selection. He then apologized even more when he ordered a plate of steak frites with it, insisting that he rarely eats meat when in North America. I was dubious about these menu selections, but I must say, by the end of our lunch date I was heartily convinced he is a man who cares about the planet and is very engaged in doing something about it.

His new book is called Now or Never, and it’s out in stores now. I scarfed it down in about two hours because he really is that good at conveying all the scientific this-and-that behind global warming to people like me, who can’t even explain why leaves turn red in the fall (I had to ask my mother, who has four science-related degrees and understands how chlorophyll works). He also provides incredibly concrete solutions that pretty much every single politician in every single country should be adopting immediately. Of course, even if you haven’t read Now or Never, you may know Flannery by his previous book, The Weather Makers, which was a best-seller and led to major environmental policy changes in Australia; he also chairs the Copenhagen Climate Council and is promoting the upcoming UN treaty negotiations that start in December, which is very, very soon (um, Harper? Did you hear that? It’s time to get yer ass out of the tar sands and over to Denmark!).

“When you’ve got as complex an issue as climate change, where no one has all the answers,” Flannery told me, “an ongoing dialogue is essential.”

Indeed, Flannery is such a fan of dialogue that he took a remarkably different approach to Now or Never. Rather than simply publish his own views on the challenges of global warming, he invited a handful of critics to respond to his work. In the end, readers get 107 pages of his initial argument, followed by 45 pages of critique from Bill McKibben, Richard Branson, Peter Singer, Fred Krupp and Peter Goldmark, Gwynne Dyer and Alanna Mitchell, with a final reply from the author. The idea was to make the book resemble a 19th-century political tract, at least in format: a concise, pointed essay meant to both enlighten and provoke readers.

“I felt that this was an important book to get out in advance of the Copenhagen meetings,” Flannery said. “Progress is slow right now, and that scares me. I must say, I wake up in the small hours of the night occasionally thinking, ‘What are we going to do on Dec. 19 if we’re faced with a suboptimal outcome?’ ”

He certainly didn’t seem to have high hopes for Canada, either: “This is as bad as a developed country gets… Harper has no friends internationally in this anymore — he used to have [former U.S. president George W.] Bush and [former Australian prime minister John] Howard and they’re gone now, so it’s a real concern … It’s in the government’s interest for the Alberta tar sands to continue, but the rest of the world can’t afford it … The tar sands represent one end of the hydrocarbon spectrum — the really dirty end — and other countries will eventually look at Canada and say, ‘If they, as a wealthy country, can get away with destroying their environment and producing highly polluting petroleum, then why can’t we?’ It’s a corrupting influence on the world.”

Flannery’s words sound harsh, but he also admits there are good things happening here too; part of Now or Never, for instance, looks at an alternative energy system called pyrolysis, of which Vancouver-based firm Dynamotive is one of the world’s leading developers. There are also a number of carbon-neutral or even carbon-positive housing developments being constructed on the West Coast and in Toronto, not to mention countless Canadian environmental NGOs, charities, offsetting organizations, wind and solar companies and more.

“It’s easy to get disillusioned in the West, but the world is moving and there’s still hope,” says Flannery. “Look at what people have done in the banking sector — how we’ve reigned in some of the greediest people in the world and said to them, ‘This isn’t good enough anymore.’ If we can do that for finance, we can do it for greenhouse gases, and we will.”

But what do you think? Is this really achievable, or has Flannery had a few too many glasses of shiraz?

P.S. Exciting news: Green as a Thistle will be in Copenhagen for the first week of the climate negotiations!! Stay tuned for more details on where to find my reports!


Garden-sitting for the Alters: Harvest edition!

September 11, 2009

Well, the summer has pretty much ended, which is kind of a bummer. On the bright side, however, harvest season is in full force! Before my final schlep up to the Alters’ garden (I’ve been garden-sitting, for those who don’t know; here’s Part 1 and Part 2), Jacob let out an exasperated sigh and said, “Remind me why you’re doing this, again?”

I had four words for him: We’re sharing the bounty.

And my, oh my, what a bounty there was! I was literally stopped in my tracks when I entered the backyard and saw a zucchini plant crawling up a tree, the tendrils of a squash plant creeping over to the house next-door and lettuce that had grown nearly as tall as my chest (I decided to let it “bolt” just to see how high it would get — turns out, it can get pretty high; and it even has beautiful little flowers at the top in a cute starburst formation). Part of me was almost weirded out by the whole scene, like it was straight out of Little Shop of Horrors and Audrey 2 was everywhere. But I regained my composure and started wandering amongst the foliage to see what I could pluck — I was told by Kelly to “eat, eat, eat” whatever was ready to be harvested — and eventually discovered two HUGE zucchinis. The squash wasn’t quite ready yet, so I gave it more water and let it be. There were ridiculous amounts of kale, so I snatched a few leaves of that; then I took some stuff that I thought was maybe spinach but is actually a complete Mystery Plant to me. It has a kind of lemony taste to it and big, flat leaves. The peas had unfortunately dried up, but the beets were still kicking, so I pulled up a couple of the bigger ones. Here’s the finished cornucopia:

Harvest!

I guess it doesn’t seem like very much, really, considering the square footage of the garden itself. However, it’s still exciting that, with a horribly damp summer and next to no green thumbs, I was able to help the Alters produce real, living, healthy food. Needless to say, I returned home, dragged Jacob outside, pointed to the veggies and said, “THAT’s why I spent all that time weeding!” Then, we had a delicious vegetarian curry.


A trip to skincare heaven: Colleen Hague’s homemade organic lotions and potions

August 22, 2009

Those who have been reading this blog for a while (or my book, of course) will know that underneath my newfound appreciation for minimalist living lies a ruthless product junkie. It really wasn’t so long ago that I could be found slinking through the aisles of high-end department stores in search of the Best Face Cream In The World, and I’d pay up to $100 to get it. Fortunately, during my green challenge, I was able to see just how ridiculous this was and realized that the only thing my face really needed was a firm slap; eventually, I managed to pare down my long list of facial products to a simple bar of soap and a bottle of jojoba oil. I still maintain that we don’t need much more than this.

However, I recently had the privilege of meeting an incredible woman named Colleen Hague, a clinical aromatherapist and founder of Awaken My Senses, a line of organic skincare products, which she makes in the basement of her Toronto home — a space that’s been converted into a beautiful and serene kind of apothecary, laboratory and womb-like healing centre (that smells AMAZING). This is Colleen:

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Can you believe she’s 55? Anyway, I was introduced to her by a friend of mine who raved about the Awaken My Senses products. Then I heard that, instead of testing on animals, Colleen tests all her lotions on herself — and you can see the difference. It’s hard to notice in the photo above, but in person, you’ll see that the right side of her face has fewer lines and a firmer, smoother texture. But what really caught my attention when I first met her was how she walked into the room, pumped out a blob of organic moisturizer into her hand, and licked it right off.

“If you don’t feel comfortable eating it, why would you put it on your skin?” she asked, adding that up to 80% of what we slather on our bodies and faces every day ends up being absorbed within 30 seconds, gradually making its way into the bloodstream.

She then took some peppermint oil and rubbed a bit on my foot.

“You’ll taste that in your mouth after a few minutes,” she said. “That’s how quickly it gets into your system.”

OK, I thought. So I have to be careful about what I put on my skin. But I already am careful about that. What I wanted to know was this: Does it matter whether we use an essential oil or a carefully blended mixture of oils, water and other nutrients? And to what extent does our diet really affect our skin? And really, is there any truth to this aromatherapy business? I was once told that, because of my low blood pressure, I should never smell lavender again — but come on, that’s a bit crazy.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Colleen convinced me that what we smell can definitely affect how we feel, and this also has an effect on our health. But more important is what all these different oils do once they’re absorbed by our bodies. In a mini lesson on dermatology, she explained that there are three layers of skin: The epidermis (on top); the dermis (below); and the subcutaneous (even futher below), where new skin cells are formed about every 28 days. Standard moisturizers only affect the epidermis, but pure essential oils will get down to the subcutaneous level; a good skincare regime therefore involves using a combination of both oils and lotions.

When it comes to problematic skin, you also have three areas of concern: Eczema (which belongs to the dermatitis family); psoriasis (which is related to the nervous system and is often stress-induced); and rosacea (a cardiovascular problem that manifests itself in the skin).

As we get older, the nutrients we ingest are diverted more to the endocrine system and skin becomes less of a priority organ. But just because our bodies care less about our skin, doesn’t mean that we have to forget about it, too. So while it’s important to eat healthy, bear in mind that our skin will be the last to benefit from all those antioxidants and whatnot, which is why we need to feed it topically as well.

In terms of treating wrinkles, pimples, redness, dryness and so on, there’s no single magic ingredient — the secret, says Colleen, is all in how you blend the oils. It also makes a difference when you use the whole oil, rather than extracting it, synthesizing it and then reinserting it into a water and petroleum-based cream to give it fragrance, which is what most manufacturers do. But Colleen also blends her products according to environmental and climate factors, pointing out that a person’s skin will look and feel different in the prairies versus the east coast.

Anyway, after almost two hours of poking around her lab, I was desperate to try some stuff out. Then, Colleen came up with an even better idea.

“Why don’t we make something up right now?” she said. “I’ll let you choose which oils and how thick you want it, so it’ll be custom-made.”

SO EXCITING!

She tied on her apron, we went over to the counter, turned on the hot plate, brought out the electric whisk and got down to business. I wanted to use the extra-virgin avocado oil as my base as she had just gotten it in and had been raving about it, and it’s a lovely green colour. So she poured some out in a measuring cup, then grabbed a vegetable-based emulsifying wax, shook a few kernels out into a mixing bowl and let it melt. Here’s the photographic documentation:

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Once this was melted, Colleen added it, along with some distilled water (or maybe it was spring water… I can’t remember), to the avocado oil and began blending them all together:

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Soon, it turned into a lovely, thick cream that looked good enough to eat (and, naturally, we could have eaten it and been totally fine):

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She then added some carrotseed oil, which gives it a longer shelf life (Colleen says most of her products have an expiry date of six months), as well as some jasmine, and presto! Beautiful, nourishing moisturizer:

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And finally, here’s a shot of her clays, which she uses for face masks. I just thought they looked pretty (sorry about the lack of focus):

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I really can’t say enough about Awaken My Senses — I’m not about to suggest that everybody go out and buy every single one of her products, because the packaging and shipping does have some environmental footprint. However, if you’re serious about nurturing your skin and making it as healthy as possible, these lotions and potions are the perfect answer. On top of this, Colleen is an incredibly inspiring woman, so if you want to learn more about natural approaches to dermatology, give her a call. And check out her amazing stuff over here: www.awakenmysenses.com.


Garden-sitting for the Alters, Part Two

August 9, 2009

Anyone who knows anyone in Toronto will be able to tell you that this city has been plagued with the worst summer weather this year — nothing but rain, rain, and more rain. Add a 34-day garbage strike to that (not to mention no daycare, community centres, ferries to the island, etc.), and you’ve got about two million people wearing their cranky pants like they were never going out of style. But I’m finding that one of the best ways to get out my frustration is to head over to the nearest garden and pull up weeds for an hour. However, because my garden is teensy, I usually go to the Alters, who have kindly let me garden-sit for July and August.

So here’s a little update: The beds of seedlings (beets, pea shoots and a bunch of other stuff) are sadly not doing very well but I can’t quite figure out why. I’m guessing it’s either a lack of sun or animals, except they’re pretty well guarded with chicken wire. The peas are faring the best, but who knows if the beets will make it. Here’s the pic:

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Here’s a close-up of the peas (I don’t have a macro lens on my camera, so they unfortunately look a bit blurry):

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On the bright side, however, the lettuce is doing quite well — it’s growing in these crazy vertical stalks rather than stubby little heads. I didn’t know lettuce could grow this way, but it looks healthy:

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And although the kale at the back of the garden is covered in slug holes, the ones at the front look fab:

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The squash and zucchini are also surviving the rain-and-no-sun problems, although I accidentally stepped on one of the zucchini stems while trying to cut back some dead flowers. Grr.

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And finally, there are the herbs — the basil looks to be in stable condition but also appears to have finished growing. The sage, after a bit of pruning, looks pretty decent, and the container pots are still alive and upright (one got knocked over by a raccoon but survived the trauma):

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That’s it for now! Feel free to offer any tips/advice on how to cope with mass amounts of rain… In the mean time, I’m going to stay home today and clean (and also sulk).


Garden-sitting for the Alters (Part 1)

July 2, 2009

My garden is lovely. It really is; and it’s mostly thanks to my mother, who sneaks in while I’m away to plant hostas, Virginia creepers, herbs, ferns and juniper bushes. I’ve added my own lavender and cat grass to the mix, and on my top deck there’s the tomato plant, overly ambitious blueberry bush, spring onions, lettuce and Mr. Meyer Lemon. Out front, I’ve got an enormous, surely hundred-year-old tree (I don’t even know what it is, actually, but I want to say it’s an oak) with some unruly green bushy business underneath (what is that again, Mom?).

But the amount of actual gardening space is still fairly restricted; I do live right downtown, after all, in a highly dense row of houses. While lamenting this fact the other night in a conversation with Lloyd and Kelly Alter — both fellow Torontonians and writers at Treehugger.com — they began also lamenting the state of their own garden. Every summer, they go up to the cottage for two months, and whatever they plant in their backyard usually dies by the time they return.

“Well, why don’t I look after it?” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Kelly’s eyes lit up as she realized the potential of this: They could spend the next few days filling their yard with fruit and vegetable seedlings, give me a quick briefing on which plants need what kind of care, show me where all the tools are and how to get in, then relax up at their cottage knowing I’d be dropping by the Toronto homestead on a regular basis to water, weed and maybe aerate the soil.

By September, there’d be a solid harvest.

What’s in it for me? Well, the Alters have done all the purchasing and planting ahead of time and have also offered to split the bounty (providing I don’t kill everything!), and in the mean time, I get some extra gardening practice. It’s kind of like a community garden or an allotment, but more straightforward — in a word, I’m garden-sitting.

So from time to time, over the next couple months, I’ll be blogging about my experiences in surrogate urban gardening, posting lots of photos so Lloyd and Kelly can check in on my progress from the cottage and see how things are going. To begin, here’s a pic of me weeding around the kale plants earlier this afternoon, snapped by Jacob, who claimed he was too jet-lagged and full of ribs to help:

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Er, yeah. Ignore the cleavage please. Anyway, I was mostly weeding, but also clipping back some dead parts of the rose bushes, aerating the soil a bit and making sure everything was watered. Some things are looking pretty good: The lettuce is still alive, the squash and zucchini plants are growing, the basil is healthy. But the Alters seem to have a lot more animal issues than me: The kale was being eaten by some sort of bug, a lot of the bell pepper and bean seedlings are now only tiny stalks, and the tomato plant… well, see for yourself:

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I don’t know what got into that. Either way, we’ll see how things go — maybe I’ll bring around some of my organic slug bait and fertilizer next time, or rearrange their chicken wire to make it more animal-proof. I’m also going to wear sturdier gloves — those rose thorns are killer!

That’s it for now! Happy gardening, everyone!


Pics from the SNiG launch in Toronto!

May 20, 2009
OK, I promise I’ll stop droning on about my book — but not quite yet! Maybe by September. Yeah. Anyway, for those who are not yet sick of all this retched self-promotion, take a look at some of the photos from my recent book launch at the Libra Lounge in Toronto. It was a complete success, almost to the point of being disturbing — everyone from ex-boyfriends and high school teachers to former lifeguard colleagues and journalism school classmates showed up, and I only had about 30 seconds with each of them before I had to move on to the next. A friend of mine warned that this is what weddings are like, but with more politics involved. Yeesh. Anyway, here you go:
Grass Pots

My mum made these centrepieces as a nod to the cover design (and no, those are NOT my legs on the book cover)

My high-school English teacher Ms. Carrier, alongside my mum and sister

My high-school English teacher Ms. Carrier, alongside my mum and sister

I had to make a quick speech...

I had to make a quick speech... (that's Meghan on the far left)

... and sign some books

... and sign some books

It was PACKED in there! I didn't move, eat or drink for two hours (then again, I kind of didn't move, eat or drink for my whole challenge. either)

It was PACKED in there! I didn't move, eat or drink for two hours (then again, I kind of didn't move, eat or drink for my whole challenge, either)

One of the best surprises of the evening: My aunt came in from Hong Kong for a visit (I only briefly admonished her for the carbon cost of that). My dad is there on the left, too.

One of the best surprises of the evening: My aunt came in from Hong Kong for a visit (I only briefly admonished her for the carbon cost of that). My dad is there on the left, too.

That’s it! A big thanks to my amazing publicity team at Wiley, especially Erin and Caroline, for making the night such a success. In the mean time, I’ll be at Paragraphe Books in Montreal, on McGill College Avenue, this coming Monday, May 25th, at 3 p.m. — so if you’re in Montreal, drop by! I’ll also be coming down to New York around July 15th to be on a panel called Greening Gotham (more info to come) and am always in Toronto for all your signing/interviewing needs!

All right, enough blathering about myself for now. Carry on!


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