Sunday, February 24, 2013

Soap berry, soap nut ... the real environmental issues make me nuts

Hello everyone,

Hope you are fine, and did some interesting things over the weekend.

I had a really pleasant Saturday morning, at a local market, with a friend of mine.  We got to visit and also look over all sorts of interesting crafts, baking, and good things to eat generally.

For the first time, I saw something called soap nuts.  The idea is that you put some of these nuts (or more accurately, the dried shell covering the seeds of the Sapindus mukorossi / Chinese Soapberry) into water to make a soap solution and then you can wash ... all sorts of things.

You know me by now enough to know that I came home and looked up S. mukorossi on the internet. Browsing plant info always makes me happy.  It turns out to be a small tree, grows in Nepal and regions 'round, has been used for a very long time in those regions for cleaning ... and is one of the current trendy eco-cleaners.

There are quite a few places on line promoting soapberries.  One place talks about only half the soapberries in the Doon region of Nepal being harvested ... that the rest are "wasted" because they decompose on the ground.  That sure didn't sell me!  Gee, when plant material decomposes on the ground - more accurately in the ground - the soil and its billions of living organisms are being fed and nurtured.  Whoever wrote the website blurb wasn't a gardener!  That same site, and another site too, talked about the economic advantages that could come to a region that started planting lots of soapberry trees; jobs would be created, money would flow in.  That got me wondering what local food crops might not be planted if people felt themselves pushed to plant this new cash crop ... and then I got thinking about agricultural practices and soil enhancements and whether overcropping the soapberry would deplete the soil.

Several websites sold kits of soapnuts, plus bags to put them in if you were doing laundry (so you wouldn't have soggy plant material on your shirts I guess).  There is a short cut recipe for using soapnuts: simply soak in water for 5 minutes and you'll have a quantity to do some hand laundry, or your hair. But to get more of the soap-making ingredient saponin out of the shells you need to simmer the shells in water for 5 minutes, let stand and strain. I guess a target market that would use bits of plants to make soap won't mind doing some prep work, but it's a small target market.  (and you know I'm one who'd do this, so I'm not being disparaging of the work ... just of the short cut given to try and expand the market).

No website spoke about how the soapnuts are transported.  I suppose, given that a shipment probably goes by ship and is small in volume compared to many other products, that overall it's not a big fossil fuel footprint.  I wonder, however, about that.  And wonder about what plant grown locally could be chopped up, or dried to make soap.

Soapwort, one of my over-growing garden herbs/weeds is a mild cleaner, with saponins in its roots and the aerial plant parts (ie the green, growing parts).  It's long had a use in cleaning delicate old textiles in museums, and was used for hundreds of years in rural England to clean lots of stuff. Ruth Goodman demonstrated its use - by washing her hair in a lovely green solution! - on a recent episode of Wartime Farm, a BBC production.

Overall, I'm happy to have discovered something about a plant.  But a lot of red flags went up about yet another product that will, for a fad-time, flow into North American markets but might be to the detriment of far-off communities and that we don't need to expend energy importing.

Sort of analogous to the "why don't they exchange recipes?" question that arises when you realize Canada ships butter cookies to England, and vice versa.

Ah well!

Best regards,

Why's Woman

Thursday, February 21, 2013

White Dogs in the Snow

Good morning everyone,

It is really cold out! And all the slush froze under the snow that came down a day or two ago, so yesterday's trek across the park to a friend's house was quite the adventure!

The sweet part of this walk was meeting a woman with two children and three small, white dogs.  When I'd first spotted the troupe I couldn't figure it out, because the snow around the woman was moving!  Then I realized the racing snow was dogs on leashes ... it's just that they blended in so well!  These guys were small, and my imagination had them racing off leash and disappearing into the distance as the snow they were churning so happily settled back on them.

Have you ever noticed how dogs almost always love snow?  Even the fancy little guys with bows and the whippets who shiver naturally ... all enjoy dashing, diving and digging ... creating their personal snow storms.

Just a quick observation.

Hope you are well and seeing something everyday that brings a smile.

Best regards,

Why's Woman

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Seed Underground: a growing revolution to save food

Hello everyone,

Have you had loads of snow?  Is it sunny yet where you are?  I hope you are all well.

I'm all excited because I've just gotten a wonderful new book out of the library: The Seed Underground: a growing revolution to save food, by Janisse Ray, published 2012 by the ever wonderful Chelsea Green (

I'm only 30 pages in ... just finished Ray's short history of industrial agriculture, which is a succinct and clear overview of how farming changed from the 1930s onward, much to do with the types of seeds available.  Of course, she mentions the loss of biodiversity from hybrid and genetically modified seed, and the loss of control by farmers as they have purchased seed from ever-growing companies whose main interest is selling chemicals.

Ray uses a term I've never heard before: landedness.  It seems to mean a blend of living on and making one's living from the land, from land where one grows food and is in charge of the decisions that grow that food.  I like that.  It's sort of "terroire" for people.

Ray's book is going to be a call-out to people to be building, to have hope.  Here's what she says in her  introduction:

I want to tell you about the most hopeful thing in the world.  It is a seed.  In the era of dying, it is all life.  Every piece of information necessary to that plant for its natural time on earth is encoded, even though the world is changing and new information will be needed.  But we don't know what is in a seed; its knowledge is invisible, encased, secret.  A seed can contain any number of surprises. A seed can contain a whole tree encrypted in its sealed vault.  Even with climate change there will be seeds that have all the wisdom they and we need.

There's something literary in Ray's writing.  I have to check, but I think she is a poet.  Her book is stories about her own experiences and meeting with people who grow food and save seed.  There's going to be compost.  There's going to be wilt.  And there's going to be colour and flavour and hope.

I'm really looking forward to getting on with this book, which also has a long list of resources - people and organizations and businesses - involved with seed saving.  Gardeners and farmers are practical.  They know you don't do it alone.

For right now though, I'm going outside to shovel snow!

Best regards, as always!

Why's Woman

Friday, February 8, 2013

Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medals - some London Ontario recipients

Good morning everyone,

I hope this post finds you well.  We're getting snow, 10 centimeters so far, looking light and fluffy on the tree branches outside my window. Very pretty, lots of raccoon and rabbit tracks on the fresh white.

Here in London, there was an afternoon party the other day, where the first Diamond Jubilee medals were given out to Londoners who spend volunteer time working for their neighbourhood associations and communities, and who encourage other to participate in how their city works ..."citizen engagement and civic action" as it was termed.

Two city councillors, Joni Baechler and Nancy Branscombe, came up with a list of nominees they could send in together.  This is an excellent model of how two hard-working, intelligent people - with sometimes different perspectives - can work together.  They also paid for the party personally.

Councillor Baechler's website ( has full information about the good work done by those on their list who received the medals, but here's a quick list with just one achievement.

Congratulations and thanks to all of them for helping make the city I live in a good place. I appreciate the good examples, and the reminder that there are so many people plugging away at the three [oft-seeming  intractable] levels of government.

Best regards,

Why's Woman

p.s. a full list of London recipients has not yet been released.

 Some London recipients of  the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal - people nominated by city councillors Joni Baechler and Nancy Branscombe.

Carol Agocs – environmental protection of Stoney Creek subwatershed
Gina Barber – championed the Age Friendly City Initiative (
Susan Bentley–  founding member of the Ontario Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods.
 Paul Berton–  involved in the inception of Doors Open London
Marie Blosh–  appointee to the animal welfare task force and  Animal Welfare Advisory Committee
Dr. Stan Brown– worked  to protect Gibbons wetland/woodland, and get designation as Environmentally Sensitive Area
Maureen Cassidy – co-chair of a large community association, encouraging civic activism
Susan Eagle– volunteer for social justice issues: equality, inclusiveness, human rights, homeless and poverty
Jackie Farquhar–  35 years leading her community association on redevelopment, heritage preservation and other issues
Hugh Fletcher– Agricultural Advisory Committee, often taking on the leadership role as chair
Greg Fowler –single handedly live streamed council meeting for many years using his own equipment
Genet Hodder– active and vocal champion for built heritage
Margaret Hoff– championed women rights and equality and worked with Child Care Advisory Committee
Sandy Levin– over two decades involved in civic issues, environment through transit to governance
Russ Monteith – served on various London service boards - Transit Commission, London Hydro and others
Gloria McGinn-McTeer– founding member of the Ontario Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods
Kathryn Munn– a lawyer with a focus on dispute resolution whose volunteer time champions human rights
Mari Parks– championed the study for the Bishop-Hellmuth Heritage designation
 Dennis Pellarin– coordinated a city wide liaison group with an interest in Town and Gown (University) issues
Nick Sauter– founding member of the Argyle Community Association, with particular interest in importance of recreation
Dean Sheppard– coordinating community action for the Million Tree Challenge and ReForest London
Bob Shiell– respected educator, who championed educating about the environment
George Sinclair– Old South Community Association,, with much work to protect the Normal School heritage site
Ken Sumnall– involved with Community Living London, which advocates for people with different abilities 
Lani Teal- A founding member and co-chair of a large community association
Greg Thompson– founding member and served as president of  the Old East Village Community Association 
Stephen Turner– served as Chair and Director of the Urban League of London
 Dr. Tutis Vilis - director of Masonville Residents Association and on executive of Urban League of London

 David Winninger –  civic action on social justice issues