Tuesday, August 29, 2006


For about nine months of the year our home is a little island, surrounded on three sides by farmer's fields, and on the fourth by an abandoned apple orchard. The orchard was planted almost a century ago by my husband's grandfather, Esli. When he retired from farming, Esli sold off most of the farm to an immigrant family who wanted to live close to the land. The two acres of property that we live on are all that remain of the homestead that has been in the family since 1827. In time, the new owners sold the property to a land speculator, who is now waiting for the zoning to change so that he in turn can sell the property to a developer. The official plan says that within 20 years the burgeoning city will engulf us with subdivisions, and our two little acres will be all that remains of the local countryside.

Until then, the fields are leased to a local farmer who is a good steward of the land. He rotates his crops every year so as not to deplete the soil. Some years he plants soya beans, others it's corn. On a year such as this one, when cornfields become our temporary neighbor, the land is transformed. Slowly at first, the corn stalks emerge out of the ground. Throughout May and June we watch as the horizon slowly sinks around us. And then one morning, early in August, we are suddenly cast adrift on a sea of corn.

It's magical. Like the mists of Avalon, the cornstalks reach up to engulf our tiny oasis and we all but disappear. I didn't realize how complete the transformation was until recently, when I was giving someone directions to our home. At this time of year, the only landmark visible from the east is the loft of our garage. It seems to float above the cornfields, some incongruous apparition, strangely out of place in a sea of green.

Our dog loves the cornfield. If we're outside for more than a few minutes, Jessie will lope off in the direction of the corn. The only evidence of her passing into the cool green canopy is the zigzag rustling of the corn tassels. When we call her name, the rustling becomes more frantic as she runs toward our voices. There's always that moment of panic that she won't be able to find her way out of the giant maze. Then suddenly she appears - tail wagging, tongue lolling to one side - a victorious explorer, returning from the depths of the lush jungle.

When our son Peter was little, he would get dressed up in his very best space explorer costume, and he and his friends would disappear into the field, phasers in hand, ready to tackle aliens in this verdant world. The leafy canopy seemed to transport them to a distant planet, where the eternal battle between good and evil was played out again and again. Occasionally they would lose their sense of direction in the corn and for a moment their playground was truly an alien world. Always prepared, Peter would take out his compass, and the space warriors would return safely to their home base.

The members of my family aren't the only visitors who have found refuge in the cornfield. Several years ago, late in the season when the emerald stalks had dried to amber, our family took a walk up the field. We discovered a strange circle of corn that somehow had been laid flat. Our space explorer Peter immediately assumed that the area had been the sight of an alien landing, until my husband noticed hoof prints. The cornfields had apparently provided a tiny sanctuary for a family of deer, desperate to hide from the encroaching civilization and the illegal guns of not-so-sporting hunters.

Too soon autumn will be upon us, and our tiny island will re-emerge from the leafy sea that surrounds us as the mature cornstalks fall under the blades of the combines. Once again, we'll just be a farmhouse in the middle of a field, located dangerously close to the city. But for now our home is a magical island, floating on an ocean of green.


If you're not lucky enough to be surrounded by a cornfield, the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Board can help. Visit Ontario Farm Fresh and choose what kind of farm you'd like to visit, what kind of fresh produce you're looking for, and where you live.

You can also check out Rural Routes, a terrific guide to the products, services and activities that are available throughout Rural Ontario.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Lighten up, Ontario!

Canada's famous funny man, Colin Mochrie, is the poster child of a new campaign geared toward helping Ontarians reduce their energy consumption. "Lighten Up, Ontario" is calling upon everyone to reduce electricity consumption over the next twelve months. The goal is lower energy bills, a reduced need for new generating capacity, and a lower risk of blackouts and brownouts due to energy shortages.

The campaign was launched earlier this week on the third anniversary of the August 14th blackout that left much of the northeastern part of the continent without power.

To help launch the campaign, Mochrie's familiar face can be seen mugging with a compact fluorescent bulb on posters displayed at Beer Store locations across the province. The goal is to have everyone log on to the "Lighten Up, Ontario" website and make a personal pledge to reduce energy.

"People are aware that we need to conserve electricity. The Lighten Up campaign gives them a starting point," said Chris Winter, Executive Director of the Conservation Council of Ontario. "We're asking everyone to begin by buying ten compact fluorescent light bulbs and installing them in high use areas. The next step is to visit our website and take the pledge. This encourages looking beyond the obvious to realize significant energy savings."

We took our own pledge earlier this year and we were astounded at how easy it was to reduce our energy bill. While I would like to take credit for the whopping 25 percent reduction in our electricity consumption from July 2005 to July 2006, the credit goes to my husband Brian.

Here's what he did. Our daughter's asthma means that we have to rely on central air-conditioning and electronic air filtering to keep her condition under control. To cut our energy costs, Brian used our programmable thermostat, on the summer setting, and increased our minimum temperature to 23 degrees, up from 20 degrees. Our maximum limit was increased to 25 degrees, up from 23 degrees.

In addition, he programmed activity times in our house to be specific to our family. In other words, air-conditioning is only necessary during high activity times, such as dinnertime. To help reduce the cooling burden during these peak periods we've been cooking outside on the barbeque whenever possible. This not only reduces the heat in our house, it makes meal preparation a lot more fun.

I've also banned the use of the dryer during the summer months. All of our household laundry is dried courtesy of my clothesline and the sun. As an added bonus, the sun acts as a natural bleach on cottons, reducing the need for chlorine bleach and other chemical cleaners.

We replaced all of our light bulbs with compact fluorescents several years ago, so to further reduce our electricity needs, Brian installed X-10 modules to control all of our lighting. A computer program means that our lighting is set to correspond with our activities, room by room.

"We only need lighting and other services when we’re home and active in certain rooms," said Brian. "There’s absolutely no point in wasting energy when we’re not there."

While it all sounds rather complicated, X-10 modules are relatively inexpensive units that are fairly simple to install. The modules use existing house wiring to manage electricity consumption with the aid of either a control device or a family computer. In our case an ancient Mac IIsi computer, which would have otherwise been destined for the dump, runs our house.

I'm happy to report that our actions are right on track with the Lighten Up campaign. According to Winter, the six recommended steps are:
* Buy compact fluorescents bulbs
* Reduce energy waste
* Maximize natural cooling
* Air dry laundry
* Buy energy efficient appliances
* Have an energy audit done on your home

"The key is to pick the steps that make the most sense for your home and family's needs," said Winter. "Lighten Up isn't about simply making a one-time pledge. It's about creating a permanent cultural shift. We need to rethink how we use electricity and then develop the programs, the products, the services, and the incentives to support that shift."


Take the pledge. Visit Lighten up, Ontario.

Book an energy audit. Go to Green Communities.

For more information about how to use X-10 modules to control your energy use, run your home and have fun, visit shed.com.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Back-to-School Cool

Getting ready for back-to-school has become big business. According to the U.S National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2006 Back-to-School Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, families with school-aged children will spend an average of $527.08 on back-to-school items per child. This is an increase of 18.7 percent over 2005. For Canadian families, that figure is estimated to be even higher.

So where does the money go? More than half, or $228.14 will be spent on clothing, $98.34 on shoes, school supplies will take another $86.22 and the balance of $114.38 will be spent on electronic gadgets. For families with two or more school-aged children, the impact on the family budget can be considerable.

"As students gear up to return to school in August and September, costs for clothing, computers, backpacks, calculators, notebooks, pens and paper and other school supplies quickly add up for any household," said Duke Stregger, Executive Director of the Credit Counselling Service of Toronto.

Stretching the family budget isn't the only reason to curb back-to-school spending. Canadians are part of the rich 20 percent of the world's population that currently consume 86 percent of the world's resources. At this rate, we'll shop ourselves out of a plane! The good news is that with a little planning and some creative shopping, it is possible to meet our children's needs without costing the Earth.

Start by taking an inventory of what your child already has. Set aside some time early in the day, when temperatures and tempers are their coolest, and have a try-on session. Raising three kids has taught me that, "It's too small" often means, "I don't like it anymore." If that's the case, find out why. Sometimes simply changing the buttons or adding some trim or patches can put the article back in favour and save you the cost of replacing it.

When you're sorting clothes, keep three boxes or baskets at the ready. The first is for clothes that either need alterations or laundering, the second is for clothes that are to be discarded or donated, and the third is for the recycling circle pile.

Recycling circles are creative way to save money and resources and are made up of friends and family whose kids don't go to the same school. This avoids the embarrassment of clothes being recognized from one wearer to another and includes such big-ticket items as winter coats and dress clothes, both of which are usually outgrown before they are worn out.

When our boys were little, our recycling circle was made up of five boys from four families. For years we passed on suit jackets and dress pants, saving each family hundreds of dollars in the process.

Once you've sorted your child's clothes, take an inventory of what they have. This makes is easier to look for coordinating pieces. Sit down together and sort through sale flyers. Make a list of what your child needs - not simply wants.

Before you hit the major retail stores, visit your local re-sale shop or consignment store. This is a great way to find really expensive designer items at a fraction of the original cost.

"Why spend $100 when you can spend $25 or less for the same or higher quality goods?" said Adele Meyer, Executive Director of the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops. "Resale offers a practical way to outfit your children while watching those savings add up."

Don't forget to take along the items that you've set aside for donation. This helps teach your child that recycling isn't just about putting stuff in the blue box.

Set spending limits and stick to them. If your child wants a $100 pair of shoes and your limit is $50, suggest that they make up with difference with birthday money or babysitting earnings. This keeps you on budget, and teaches your child how to make financial decisions. It's also a timesaver. If the shoes are beyond your budget, and your child is unwilling or unable to make up the difference, move on.

Remember that you don't have to buy everything before the first day of school. With summer temperatures continuing well into September, you can postpone the purchase of heavier items. This helps minimize the impact on the family budget, and gives you time to find what you're looking for at consignment stores or on sale.


To read more about the back-to-school survey, visit the National Retail Foundation,

Thinking about opening your own re-sale shop? Check out the how-to books and other resources at the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Summer Movies

Traditionally, summer is the time for movie going. Hollywood teases us all year with the promise of bigger and better blockbusters. This summer, The Pirates of the Caribbean II and Superman Returns topped the list of box office smashes.

The summer of 2006 also saw the beginning of a new movie phenomenon - the environmental epic. And while these movies are not playing at every Cineplex in the country, they have wide enough distribution to make them available to those who really want to see them.

Topping the list is Who Killed The Electric Car? and Al Gore's much touted An Inconvenient Truth, a film about the global warming crisis. I have to admit, I had high hopes for this movie.

After burning a half a tank of gas to make the hour-long trek into Toronto to see it, I was disappointed. An Inconvenient Truth is essentially a slick packaging of a keynote address given by Gore who introduces himself as "the man who used to be the next president." The content of Gore's presentation is a disturbing, scientifically accurate and visually stunning account of how rapid climate change is destroying the ecological balance of the planet. So far, so good.

What's disappointing is that between clips of the presentation, viewers are treated to shots of Gore's own personal story, which is largely told from the back seat of a limousine, or from behind the wheel of a Cadillac, or while rushing to meet a jet plane, some of the most energy inefficient ways to travel. Viewers are also taken on a journey to the rolling hills of the Gore farm, where the family made its fortune raising Black Angus beef and growing tobacco, arguably two of the least environmentally responsible crops on the planet. While Gore explains that the family stopped growing tobacco after his sister died of lung cancer, they continue to raise cattle, a major source of methane. Methane is 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

If you can get passed the inconvenient truth of Gore's perceived hypocrisy, the film is well worth watching. Unfortunately, An Inconvenient Truth provides Gore's critics in the oil industry a chance to diminish what could have been a brilliant opportunity to shape the broader public opinion.

The good news is that a new generation of films and mini-documentaries is moving like a carefully engineered virus throughout the Internet and available for viewing on a computer screen near you. Even better, you don't have to burn a tank of gas to see them.

While some of these films are amusing parodies, others challenge the very foundation of our beliefs. Still others are thinly veiled attempts by the oil industry and others to discredit the overwhelming scientific evidence that warns, among other things, about the dangers of climate change.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute definitely falls in the latter category. The CEI website offers a series of commercials, including one that bashes Gore's Inconvenient Truth, and promote the life-giving benefits of fossil fuels. Each concludes with the line, "Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life." Having seen the commercials, I call them propaganda!


The CEI commercials can be viewed at cei.org

For more on the environmental impact of factory farming, check out two classic parodies The Meatrix and The Meatrix II at meatrix.com

The most disturbing film I've seen on the web is something called Loose Change, 2nd edition. The movie questions the official account of what happened on September 11, 2001, and raises some serious doubts about exactly who was responsible. Visit loosechange911.com. If you have trouble accessing this website, it can also be downloaded from video.google.com

On a lighter note, www.jibjab.com offers a variety of political spoofs to enjoy. My personal favourite is Big Box Mart, a parody of how big box stores are stealing jobs and destroying the environment.

This summer's other environmental feature, Who Killed The Electric Car, was featured on this website on July 8th. Check previous articles.