Orange you glad I didn’t tell you what was in that glass of orange juice?

September 1, 2009

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Way back during my green year, I made a few changes that had to do with juice: One was to not consume anything that had HFCS or any other modified corn derivative in it (which a lot of juices do); another was to not buy any drink that came in disposable packaging, which all juices do. So basically, I had to make my own from scratch, using whole fruits that came from within Canada and the U.S. But to be honest, I’m not much of a juice person anyway. Smoothies with yogurt, ground flax seeds and ingredients that make it more of a meal I can understand, and the occasional peach, plum or pear will satiate the rest of my sugar cravings. Every time I drink juice, though, it just tastes too sweet and I think to myself, “If I’m going to be ingesting this much sugar, I might as well be drinking wine.” (Is this the first sign of alcoholism? Oh well).

However, my lovely boyfriend — who I will call J from now on because he doesn’t want all of his Google hits bringing up posts about lemon trees and Diva Cups — is a juice fiend. He is obsessed with Allen’s apple juice, primarily, but also likes a good youngberry juice from Ceres, and will occasionally throw some Tropicana cranberry or orange juice in there for good measure. I’ve been trying to wean him off the Allen’s because it’s less than $2 for a full 1.5 liters of the stuff and that just can’t be good (not to mention the possibility of BPA lining the cans), and the Ceres comes all the way from South Africa, which leaves quite the carbon footprint. I have generally felt that Tropicana is all right, despite being owned by Pepsi, as it’s not from concentrate, it’s an American company and it tastes pretty close to the fresh-squeezed stuff.

But man, oh man, have my opinions changed.

Have you heard about this new book, Squeezed? (Note the author’s stainless steel water bottle in the pic! And she’s Canadian!) Here’s the gist of what it’s about, according to the publishers:

Alissa Hamilton explores the hidden history of orange juice. She looks at the early forces that propelled orange juice to prominence, including a surplus of oranges that plagued Florida during most of the twentieth century and the army’s need to provide vitamin C to troops overseas during World War II. She tells the stories of the FDA’s decision in the early 1960s to standardize orange juice, and the juice equivalent of the cola wars that followed between Coca-Cola (which owns Minute Maid) and Pepsi (which owns Tropicana). Of particular interest to OJ drinkers will be the revelation that most orange juice comes from Brazil, not Florida, and that even “not from concentrate” orange juice is heated, stripped of flavor, stored for up to a year, and then reflavored before it is packaged and sold. The book concludes with a thought-provoking discussion of why consumers have the right to know how their food is produced.

And you can watch an interview with Hamilton on the CBC here:

So what do you make of all this? Is OJ especially evil when it comes to chemicals and preservatives, or is the same as any other juice on the market? Are certain companies or brands better than others? And can we check for certain labels or ingredients to make sure we get the best juice, or has the industry found a way to circumnavigate all the rules and guidelines about labelling? What juice do YOU drink??

Image from this website. Also, read Lloyd Alter’s review on Treehugger here.

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According to the New Yorker, I’m a slut who loves to fly and couldn’t give a s#!% about the environment

August 30, 2009

So have you read the latest edition of The New Yorker? If so, you might have noticed Elizabeth Kolbert’s rant about green memoirs. In it, she rips apart authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, authors of The 100-Mile Diet, as well as Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, and myself (you can read the full story here; the bits about Sleeping Naked is Green and me in particular are here). Basically, Kolbert takes a stab at my decision to move from a small apartment into a house with three storeys (she actually misspells it as having three “stories” — last time I checked, my house wasn’t a storyteller, but I definitely would’ve paid more if it was), as well as my trips to Banff, Oregon, Tel Aviv (it was actually the West Bank) and New York (she forgot to mention Spain), where she reveals how I met up with No Impact Man and “sniffed” at his choice of café, WHICH IS TOTALLY UNTRUE —  if anything, I felt embarrassed because I ordered a bagel with cream cheese before checking that the cream cheese was organic. Later, she mentions how Colin’s project was “almost as incoherent as [mine].” Does anyone here think my green challenge was incoherent? If so, I can explain it to you in one sentence: I made 366 eco-friendly changes to my life. That’s pretty much it.

Anyway, I’m not so much hurt by the article as confused by it — it seems Kolbert has taken the time to read through my book, or at least scan it pretty thoroughly, which makes me wonder how she missed the point of it all. In fact, the point of all these green memoirs is more or less the same: We wanted to find out what happens when the average person tries to be as eco-friendly as possible, and what our struggles and triumphs ultimately say about the green movement in general. What should we be doing? What should we not be doing? All four of us have taken plenty of time to acknowledge the hypocrisy and sense of futility that comes with such challenges, and we’ve all admitted that we’re far from being perfect environmentalists. True, perhaps we should have spent more time lobbying governments and less time debating whether or not to use toilet paper, but again, the point was to look at everyday habits — last time I checked, not everyone has time to be a professional activist.

But what do you think? Does Kolbert have a point about these “eco stunts”? Or does she have an unnecessary hate-on for green bloggers and memoirists? Leave your thoughts below!

P.S. Check out the post that Crunchy Chicken wrote about all this; she was much more on top of the game than me and there are almost 30 comments on her blog now (mostly supportive, occasionally critical).

P.P.S. I’m adding this very funny retouching of my book cover, done by one of the National Post’s graphics guys who I refer to as Stevetastic. Note the revised title (thanks, Steve!):

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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).


I interview Treehugger; Treehugger interviews me

July 31, 2009

What’s an environmentalist to do when she has some extra time on her hands in New York? Here’s a recommendation: Track down the editor of Treehugger.com and harass him for a coffee! Highly enjoyable — and yes, this was precisely what I did when I went to the Big Apple a couple weeks ago. At 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, I met Graham Hill at Earth Matters, a hippie café in the Lower East Side. It was absolutely sweltering and there was no air conditioning available (what with the establishment being green and all), so I ordered a smoothie. Graham got himself a latte and some fruity granola; then we both pulled up a seat and began to chat. Here’s the transcript of our Q&A:

Thistle: How long has Treehugger been running now?

Graham: It started about five years ago, in 2004. My friend Nick Denton (of Gawker.com) and I felt there was a need for the green movement to be a bit more cool and convenient. I mean, hippies are awesome, but they’re a very small group. And we realized that while most people will care about the environment, it can take a while to figure out what exactly is happening and how to do something about it. So we wanted to repackage green and make it more accessible.

Thistle: When I first began checking the site, all the posts seemed more about sustainable design than anything else.

Graham: Yeah, it was very design-oriented at first, but there’s been a natural shift towards news stuff. That said, I’ve been complaining to people recently that we’ve really lost the whole design element, so I’d like to work on bringing that back.

Thistle: What types of posts generate the most hits?

Graham: Any meat-related or animal-themed stories, for sure, especially something like seal-clubbing, which always leads to controversy and a lot of comments. But we just want good, compelling stories.

Thistle: How does one get a job writing for Treehugger? Is it a difficult application process?

Graham: We hire our writers based on their resumés and previous work experience; we make sure they agree with our general manifesto, then we work with them on a few stories, holding their hand for a bit before letting them post on their own. The full-time staff tend to be more beat-oriented, whereas the part-time writers will maybe focus more on their location. They’re anywhere between 22 and 60 years old, male and female, chemists, architects and journalists, and from all over the world.

Thistle: What’s the current goal for the site?

Graham: Well, right now, we really want to focus on helping people understand their impact on the planet and how they can actually change this in concrete ways. The symptoms of the Earth, as a patient, are not looking good. Carbon dioxide is increasing rapidly as though the green movement never even happened, so we need to get people to understand the scale of their behaviours and make actual changes. It’s all well and good to be really diligent about unplugging your cellphone charger every night and using tote bags, but that accounts for less than 1% of your carbon footprint. And even if the whole world starts doing this, then we’ve still only reduced everybody’s collective footprint by 1%. Small steps are only good if they lead to big ones.

Thistle’s Inside Voice: I wonder if he realizes my challenge was all about taking 366 small steps?

Thistle: So how much change is actually occurring right now? And who needs to be making the majority of them?

Graham: The reality is, the vast majority of people like to blame suburbia, blame the red states and so on. But I can’t even tell you the number of panels I’ve been on about the water crisis where everybody has plastic water bottles sitting in front of them. I mean, if we can’t even get these little symbolic things right, it’s pretty bad.

Thistle: How is Treehugger’s relationship with Planet Discovery?

Graham: They’re in 52 million homes right now. The partnership has been great — they’ve left us alone and let us do our thing. I’m still here two years after that happened, so that proves something.

Thistle: In your time as editor, has there been any one story, person or book that’s really inspired you?

Graham: Some of the most inspirational stuff to me is the basic, old-school way of doing things; really simple technologies that anyone can use. Like awnings, for instance — New York used to have awnings all over the place and we lost them, but they can seriously reduce heat in the summer. You can also just wear appropriate clothing. And offices really need to turn down the air conditioning and look at ceiling fans again — you should never be cold in the summer.

——-

Well, unfortunately, it’s been pretty darn cold and rainy in Toronto all summer; on the one hand, this means no need for air conditioning, but it also means that even my vegetable garden is starting to complain. And last weekend, it was no exception: Sunday afternoon began with a massive thunderstorm — but it wasn’t enough to deter me from stopping by the Alters’ place so my friend Lloyd (who writes for Treehugger) could interview me about Sleeping Naked. So, if you’re not completely sick of hearing about my book yet, watch the video below!


Sleeping Naked in Portuguese

July 29, 2009

Green as a Thistle reader Gustavo has just written to let me know that Sleeping Naked is Green has hit the shelves in Portugal! They’ve done a hilarious marketing campaign for it, which you can see here, and apparently the cover art looks quite different. Take a look:

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How do you say risqué in Portuguese?


A trip to the Orretts’ organic farm

July 26, 2009

Just wanted to share some photos with everybody from my trip to this amazing organic farm about two hours north-east of Toronto; Jacob and I went there this weekend to visit a friend and spent most our time picking raspberries, swinging in hammocks, playing with the dogs, brushing the horses, inspecting all the vegetables, going for hikes, miraculously dodging the persistent rain and generally having a wholesome, nutritious, sustainable time — definitely worthy of Wellingtons and pigtails. Oh, but one tip for potential raspberry pickers: do NOT wear a white shirt.

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Me crouching by the entrance to the farm.

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Craig marching through the fields.

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Garlic drying out on the back porch.

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Me and one of the work horses.

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Canadian Gothic — our photo shoot in the barn. Does this make a good Christmas card or what? Watch out, Sears Portrait Studio!

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Here’s the original, for comparison.

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Raspberry bushes! That’s another friend of ours, Caroline, in the background. She actually got full just from eating raspberries.

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How yummy do these look? No pesticides or GMOs here…

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Standing in the river. Somehow, the novelty of being able to stand in water and not get wet is going strong, even at 30 years of age.