When a bumblebee is caught in the rain

After three days of rain and fog I went out to the garden to inspect the damage. Clumps of parsley, once proud mini-forests, were flattened to the ground. Carrot tops were tangled into one…bad…hair…day. I walked, squish-squish, over to a clump of yellow calendulas whose petals, heavy with moisture, drooped like basset hound ears.

Then I saw the bumblebee.

She was huddled in the center of a flower, motionless. “Water bombs” covered her body and pasted her wings against her abdomen. She looked as though she’d been in a mud fight.

As it was late afternoon, I knew she wouldn’t be going anywhere tonight. Question was, would she survive the night away from her cozy hive?

bumblebee, bumble, bee, macro, rain, metabolism, flower, God, tenacity, courage, will, Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer

The next morning, I went outside to investigate. I found her, just as you see in the photo, hanging vertically with each claw embedded in the soft petals like a climber holding ice axes to perform a self-arrest while sliding down a slope. At some point in our bumblebee’s slide, her abdomen came to rest on a leaf.

I set up my camera and tripod and took a number of shots, all the while thinking, “Is she still alive, or dead, and thus mechanically ‘frozen’ to the flower?”

I focused my lens on the antenna by her right eye.

It moved…she was alive!

I’d read about a bumblebee’s metabolism, that it’s 75 percent higher than a hummingbird’s. And that they can survive in temperatures which are too low for them to fly. To warm up, they shiver their flight muscles, much like we shiver when we’re cold. Blah, blah, blah…

I was not thinking about all that science stuff while lying on the wet grass watching a little bee come back to life. Rather, I was astounded by the bee’s built-in tenacity. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would deal with a life-or-death situation, let’s say, bobbing around the Gulf of Alaska in a life raft?

I gently brought my mind back to the here and now. As the bee activated each leg and slowly pulled her body up and into the saddle of the flower, I thought: If a bee is provided with the ability to overcome a night out in the rain, surely we are endowed with the courage, will power, and determination to help us overcome life’s obstacles.

Just something to think about…

Thanks for stopping by to read and share. Cheers and blessings,

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer

 

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Our world | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

On green bananas and how to avoid regrets

It’s a guessing game to decide what fruit to set out for our B&B guests. Apples? Not many people indulge in apples these days. Grapes and cherries? They’re usually appreciated. Bananas? Ugh. Bananas bring out the fussiness in humans. If a brown speck appears on the otherwise flawless, yellow peel, the banana sulks in the fruit bowl, ignored and dejected, as it becomes more speckled by the minute.

So the other day I asked our B&B guests from Minnesota if they liked bananas. “Yes!” they replied in chorus. “But I had a friend,” one added, “that didn’t like green bananas. He was an older guy who said he didn’t have time for them. ‘I might die before they ripen,’ he said.”

banana, green, regrets, garden

That got me thinking about why we hesitate to do things. We avoid a complicated recipe or balk at learning how to read music (that’s me!) because we think it takes too much time. “Summer’s almost over,” an acquaintance told me yesterday. “So why bother planting more lettuce?”

To do nothing is the easy way out. Dad always said, “If you don’t ask or don’t try, the answer’s always ‘no.’” And if you don’t at least try, you’ll end up with regrets at the end of your life. More on that later…

I used this “why bother?” theme in one of my weekly garden columns. True, our summers on Kodiak Island’s temperate rain forest come and go in a blink, but I tell readers that you never know when the snow’s gonna fly so why not keep growing to the end? Gardening–like many endeavors–doesn’t require a lot of time, effort, or money if you make a focused effort. Rain or shine, there’s always something you can accomplish. So in my column I offered 10 tips for things to do on sunny days and 10 for cloudy days. I followed with 10 things to do every day to avoid those regrets I mentioned earlier…

THINGS TO DO ON SUNNY DAYS
When the sun is out, so are we. But some garden are best left for cooler weather. Below are a few excuses to play in the sunny garden. (Substitute tasks for your climate):

  1. Sow a salad: The best time to get seeds in the ground is when the soil is relatively dry, but right before it rains.
  2. Mow the lawn: Set your mower at its highest setting.
  3. Water new transplants or big plants drooping from heat exhaustion.
  4. Dead-head flowers to encourage more blooms.
  5. Pick berries (see #7 in next list).
  6. Increase ventilation in greenhouses and hoophouses.
  7. Go on aphid patrol: Carry a bottle of neem oil spray. Inspect tips of plants and under leaves.
  8. After mowing the lawn, make compost with the clippings by mixing them with leaves, kelp, kitchen scraps, and old manure. Moisten if needed.
  9. Dig up dandelions and other weeds in your lawn.
  10. Pour a glass of iced tea, grab a book, and put your feet up.

THINGS TO DO ON CLOUDY DAYS
Overcast and rainy days provide special windows of opportunities for getting things done in the garden that plants appreciate more than on sunny days.

  1. Transplant seedlings and move perennials.
  2. Pull weeds: When the soil is moist it’s easier to get the whole plant, root and all. And when weeding around small seedlings or root crops, working in moist soil doesn’t disturb the roots as much. See #3.
  3. Thin carrots, beets and other root crops. Sprinkle with water when done to help them “settle in.”
  4. Rinse out used plastic trays and seedling containers.
  5. Fertilize the lawn, organically!
  6. Turn on the music and catch up on housework.
  7. Make jam.
  8. Go on slug patrol: Pick slugs, bait slugs, whatever it takes. A friend in Anchorage trapped hundreds of slugs overnight with a solution of soy sauce, oil and water. If you see a leaf a whole plant perforated with slug holes, leave it alone (at least for the time being) and treat it like a sacrificial plant.
  9.  Tend to indoor plants, who are often ignored during the summer.
  10. Take photographs of your garden. Not just flowers and dew drops, but bees, leaves, kids playing.

Sigh. We tend to go about our days as if we’ll live forever. But we’ve only got today. At the end of our journey on this planet, the last thing you want to possess is a bunch of regrets. Please understand, I’m not trying to finish on a depressing note. Rather I want to encourage you to follow your dreams now to avoid regrets later.

THINGS TO DO EVERY DAY

  1. Do more for “you”
  2. Don’t work so hard.
  3. Don’t hold back your thoughts and feelings.
  4. Stay in touch with friends and family.
  5. Be happy.
  6. Care less what other people think.
  7. Be a warrior, not a worrier.
  8. Take better care of yourself.
  9. Be grateful.
  10. Live in the moment.

Finally, buy green bananas.

banana, green, regrets, garden

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Life coming full circle | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Mara and the blue marble

There’s a special patch of sand called Glass Beach on the east side of Kodiak Island, Alaska where hundreds, if not thousands, of colorful bits of glass temporarily rest among pebbles and shreds of kelp. Whenever I visit Glass Beach I carry a Ziploc bag in my coat pocket to hold my finds. Best of all, I enjoy walking the beach, just above the tideline, in search of wave-polished shards of blue, green, brown or red glass. It’s a slow, meandering meditation–a focused, but calming treasure hunt.

On this day, I was thinking of my sister Mara, who lives north of Seattle, Washington. She loves to search for beach glass too, and whenever I visit, we go for beach walks together. We don’t say much, just look for those special bits of rainbows in the sand.

I knew Mara had recently gone through some tough times. I prayed, “Dear Father, in my search today, please let me find something special for my sister.” I sent my request ‘out there’ and surrendered, unattached, to the outcome.

A few minutes passed and I reached the end of the beach where a rock wall rises out of the sand to meet a tree-topped cliff. As I turned around to head in the other direction a little voice said, “Stop. Look out toward the waves.”

Prayer, faith, beach glass, ocean, gift, meditation, God, Father, Kodiak, Alaska

I did so, and to my amazement, a small, blue marble, nudged along by a wave, rolled toward me on the sand and stopped to rest right at my feet. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Indeed, “With God all things are possible.” [Mark 10:27] but that day I also learned that He has a sense of humor.

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Where curiosity leads me | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

When I grow up, I want to write like Josephine Robertson

As a couple, they’ve climbed all 53 peaks above 14,000 feet which are known as the “Fourteeners.”  Jan’s spice cookies are famous and she’s written a lovely book called, “The Magnificent Mountain Women: Adventures in the Colorado Rockies.” Now in their 80’s, Jan and Dave Robertson continue to inspire by hiking and skiing in their Rocky Mountain backyard. We first met them when they traveled to Kodiak, Alaska and stayed in our B&B. The next year, Marty and I drove our motorhome from Arizona to Colorado to experience their world. Their home is located in the historic district of Boulder, a charming neighborhood with–how should I say–interesting codes. (To park the RV across the street from their house, for example, required special permission, for which Dave savored with delight).

Meditations on a Garden Themes, garden, devotion

The book I found in Dave and Jan Robertson’s library. They presented it to me as we prepared to hit the road.

After breakfast one morning, I took my coffee into their library. After browsing a little while I spotted a small book called, Meditations on Garden Themes, by Josephine Robertson. The pink jacket was tattered in the corners, a sign of good content, I feel. Inside, the pages were a pale, pea green. I turned the book over in my palm and read:

“Here Mrs. Robertson has used her garden experiences and those of others to express universal truths about everyday living. ‘I have collected this book,’ she says, ‘with the hope that from the bright blossoms of these gardens might be distilled some essence of faith and refreshment for the spirit.’

I heard soft steps behind me and turned to see Dave smiling with twinkling eyes. “My Mom wrote that,” he said. “And several other books.”

I sat down in a comfy chair, opened the book to started to read. Each of the 51 short devotions began with a scripture reading, followed by a brief meditation and a prayer. “Wow, no one writes like this any more,” I thought. It was beautiful, crisp, heartfelt writing. No fluff. Just grabs you. Let me share the first devotion with you…

DIGGING UP SEEDS
By Josephine Robertson

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.—Eccl. 3:2

He wanted a little garden of his own, where he could plant vegetables like his father’s and flowers like his mother’s. What excitement that bright May morning when he took his small shovel and dug holes in the patch which had been marked out for him! He poked each seed down in the damp earth as if he were hiding a treasure, smoothed the dirt over it, splashed it generously with water, watched it wistfully a moment, then ran off to play.

A few days later his mother came out and saw him digging up the soil.

“What are you doing?” she asked, as mothers will.

“Just looking to see if the seeds are ever going to grow,” he said, looking at her with round, disappointed eyes. “And they’re not growing at all!”

How often it happens, and how difficult it is for a child to realize that the seed must rest in the damp darkness until it is ready and that he cannot hurry up the appearance of that first green leaf.

Children are not the only ones who are too impatient for results. A young graduate wonders if he will ever get the job he wants; a writer who has had a few rejection slips despairs of being published; a mother wonders if her sons will ever stop quarreling; a newcomer in town wonders if she will ever have any friends; a troubled soul doubts that an earnest prayer has been heard.

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted. In between, any gardener knows, is the time for patience and faith.

seeds, inspiration, Christian, author, Josephine, Robertson, garden, meditation, devotions

On the back cover is a days-gone-by drawing of a boy planting seeds.

NOTE: I’m sure there are thousands of inspirational books out there, I really hope you’ll locate one of Josephine’s books to add to your private library. I was able to find copies of Josephine’s books on Amazon, AbeBooks and Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon).

Posted in Essays and inspirations | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The bumblebee and the crocus

It was a warm spring day, way up north in Kodiak, Alaska, and I was scrambling to take care of garden chores. (Spring happens that way here: One day it’s winter; the next day we’re experiencing 15 hours of daylight and it’s time to transplant seedlings). As I pruned currant bushes, a bald eagle shrieked from a nearby tree and from the corner of my eye I caught glimpses of fishing boats putt-putting out the channel on their way to the fishing grounds.

Pushing the wheelbarrow between raised beds, I couldn’t help but notice a patch of purple and white crocuses blooming through the not-yet-green lawn. Bumblebees were foraging among the flowers. I took off my garden gloves, walked over, and knelt down. Soon a large queen bumblebee, dusted with yellow pollen, crawled inside a blossom and began to wiggle around the base. Slowly. Eventually she stopped moving. Maybe her metabolism was slowing down. I leaned over and breathed into the flower. The bee shuddered and then became still again.

bumblebee, crocus, spring, flower, nectar, pollen, wild, alaska, kodiak, macro

The flower petals were closing in–clamshell style–like crocuses do at night. I left to fix dinner and returned a couple hours later. The flower had clamped shut, but I could see the top of the bumblebee’s wings inside. Would she be there in the morning? Did she crawl inside the flower knowing the weatherman was calling for frost tonight?

I Googled the words “bumblebees crocus” and learned some cool things about these amazing creatures from bumblebee.org:

  1. Most bumblebee colonies have a yearly cycle.
  2. Queens that have mated in late summer the previous year hibernate, usually in the soil, and emerge in spring.
  3. These queens haven’t eaten anything since the previous summer, so they are hungry. This is why it is vitally important that they find early flowers to feed.
  4. A bumblebee cannot fly unless her flight muscles are at 30 degrees C, so she has to brave the cold weather to feed or else she will sink into torpor and never wake up. She continues feeding and sheltering at night near the food plants in nooks and crannies for a few weeks until her body signals her that it is time to find a nest site.

I confess that I’ve become attached to these humble bumblebees and just ordered some books to help me identify them as the spring and summer progresses. I guess I’ll have to practice carrying my camera around with me in the garden…

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Our world, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Work smart. Save time: Spring cleaning tips for the house and garden (you can thank me later)

Unlike breathing, there are many life skills that we’re left to figure out on our own. Pumping gas, uncorking a bottle of wine or even… housecleaning. Thank God for my sister Mara. For many years, she worked as a house sitter and caregiver, which means having coffee with Mara is story time. For example, one gentleman loved to play Scrabble; another loved to make beef stew for her Thursday visits. (She doesn’t like beef stew). Another client, a widow, could never let go of magazines. When the tall stacks started to lean in towards each other and threaten to close off the circuitous paths throughout the house, the relatives were called in.

Mara might be a petit, size Small, woman, but she’s big at cleaning houses, which can send you into a panic when she stops by for a visit. Thank goodness she shares her trade secrets. Her work uniform, for example, is nothing fancy: A baggy sweatshirt from Goodwill that doubles as a duster and polishing rag for those missed spots.

When she learned we were opening a B&B in Kodiak, Alaska, Mara mailed a copy of Speed Cleaning, a book by Jeff Campbell. (Jeff was the founder of The Clean Team, a cleaning service in San Francisco). “It’s my go-to cleaning bible,” she said.

The subtitle, “Clean your entire house in 42 minutes with the Clean Team’s unbeatable system that makes every move count,” got my attention. Wouldn’t it get yours?

cleaning, home, house,

Here’s the book my sister sent me. When The Clean Team says you can “Clean your home in half the time or less,” they really mean it.

The Speed Cleaning method is not rocket science. It’s about working smart. The book and website/blog is filled with creative tips that make all cleaning jobs less cumbersome and less frustrating (who wants to spend a sunny day cleaning house?). Adding a dash of efficiency to house cleaning means you’ll have more time to go for a hike, hang out with your cat, wash the car, or relax in the sunshine.

Let me share my collection of spring cleaning tips for the house and the garden, collected from my sister, my weekly garden columns, and the Clean Team:

Spring cleaning in the house

Make every move count. Work your way around a room once, carrying all your tools and supplies with you. I like to keep everyone in a portable caddy. It really helps cut down the time it takes to clean your home. No more wasting energy by zig-zagging around a room.

Work from top to bottom. Don’t fight gravity, work with it! Start at the top and work your way down. One of my favorite tools: A microfiber feather duster. I always thought feather dusters were useless. Nope. As you clean things high up, the dust and bits of grime fall to the lower regions. That way, you don’t end up cleaning an area twice. Besides, you vacuum last.

Don’t clean things that aren’t dirty. This might sound silly, but you’d be amazed how much time is wasted cleaning and dabbing at surfaces that weren’t dirty in the first place.

The right tool: Recognize if the tool you’re using isn’t working. Shift to a more heavy-duty cleaner or tool (such as a retired toothbrush) if the task call for it. Better than expending unnecessary elbow grease.

Use both hands. Remember the famous line, “Wax on…wax off…” from the movie Karate Kid? The new kid on the block, Daniel, learns about focus, paying attention, muscle memory and efficiency as he cleans and waxes Mr. Miyagi’s car all summer. Perfect training for karate.

Whether you’re a martial artist, brain surgeon, or housecleaner, it’s all about being efficient with your tools. So if you’ve got two hands, use both of them. Spray with one hand while you reach for the cloth (100-percent cotton diapers are best) with the other. Scrub with one hand while the other wipes up behind it. It might take a while to perfect the motions, but all motor skills get perfected by practicing them over and over, right?

Pay attention. When you work with full attention on tasks, you’ll be working at the edge of your full abilities and this makes the work more fun. That’s right—cleaning can actually be fun if you concentrate on the task at hand. Don’t be thinking about what’s for dinner!

Concentrate all your thoughts on the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.
~ Alexander Graham Bell

Spring cleaning in the garden

bleeding heart, greenhouse, garden, lawn, flowers, perennials, Alaska

I love springtime in Alaska!

Be gentle. When raking branches, dead leaves and twigs, pay attention to the impact on the grass, nearby plants and shrubs. Snappy and quick often can damage more than heal. Plus, lawns might still be too squishy from heavy rains to hold up against heavy foot traffic and ambitious raking.

Prune and trim. Prune back weatherworn or winter-killed bushes and trees. Trim away brown-ness until you reach viable green. For edible shrubs like currants, gooseberries and any raspberry canes that bore fruit last year,  trim before the sap starts to flow. That said, not all trees and shrubs should be pruned early, especially some of the flowering ones like rhododendrons, azaleas, lilacs, and flowering crabapples. Best to prune them after blooming because early spring bloomers set their flower buds the fall before.

Be patient: It’s tempting to dive into the garden and de-winterize perennials by pulling back dead leaves, twigs and old stems. Best to wait a little longer to avoid damaging new, tender shoots and inadvertently removing seeds that are waiting for the right post-winter conditions to germinate. Clear signs of new growth is your go-ahead signal.

CobraHead, garden, tool, Johnny's, Seeds

The CobraHead. A universal garden tool if there ever was one. Available through Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

The right tool. Gardeners are notorious for grabbing what’s handy or just using their hands to dig a hole. Work smart, remember? My favorite source for quality hand tools is Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. Many of their tools are inspired by wise, Japanese gardeners.

Take action against weeds. Write this on a yellow sticky note and post it on your fridge: One year’s seed is seven years’ weeds. 

Divide perennials and donate them to a plant sale or a friend who would appreciate new flowers. Spring is the ideal time for dividing primroses, blue poppies and rhubarb. Try to do this as soon as possible after the plant emerges. It’s amazing how quickly plants recover from this abuse if you catch them early when the weather is still mild and they’re raring to grow.

Going green makes lawn care easier. That’s right. According to garden writer Jeff Lowenfels (who, by the way, has the longest running garden column in the U.S. ) and organic lawn takes less effort than a chemical-ized one. Here’s his article about how to repair an old lawn that has become hard packed and ween away from chemicals.

Organic, lawn, care, soybean meal, molasses, grass, seed, compost, steer manure, shredded kelp, dolomite lime.

Our lawn in Kodiak, Alaska is nurtured with organic TLC: Applications of soybean meal, molasses, compost, steer manure, shredded kelp and dolomite lime.

 

House, cleaning, tips, talking dirt, speed cleaning.

Fabulous book, and a fun read!

After my sister sent me Speed Cleaning, I purchased another Jeff Campbell book called Talking Dirt. To everyone we hire to help with the bed and breakfast, I give them these books to study.

And though I’ve yet to clean our house in 42 minutes, I discovered one of my favorite tools called a “Zip It.” It’s a simple tool that clears clogged drains in sinks, tubs, and showers. It’s a plastic strip that has specially designed teeth which allows you to pull the clog out of the drain. Here’s a photo of the tool. I didn’t think you wanted to see the tool in action, cleaning my hair from our bathroom sink…

zip-it, tool, drain, hair, unclog

The BEST tool for cleaning hair (of which I have lots) from a drain.

 

Posted in Making life better, Organic gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How a medical emergency launched my new love affair with plants

It all began when a medical emergency cut short our vacation on October 22, 2016. Soon afterwards, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Alaska State Master Gardeners Conference on April 22, 2017. Earth Day. I knew I couldn’t just give a ra-ra speech about how to grow vegetables. What follows is the Powerpoint presentation I shared at the conference. I’m posting it on my blog with the hope that it will save someone’s life…

Thank you for inviting me to this conference. It is great to be here. I’ve always felt that to hang out with gardeners is to be among friends.

Alaska Master Gardener Conference

Soon after moving to Kodiak in 1984, I completed my Master Gardener training. Since then I’ve tried to share the good gardening word. That’s why we’re all here, don’t you agree? I look forward to exchanging ideas and learning amazing things about fermentation, grafting, high tunnels and more.

I’m here today with a mission for all Master Gardeners: To encourage people to grow and eat more fruits and vegetables. Now more than ever. Let me explain, by telling you a story…

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Last October, my husband Marty and I were camped in Capitol Reef National Park, in southern Utah. Capitol Reef is our favorite national park, in the land of red rocks and narrow canyons. It’s relatively unknown and crowd-free, with glorious hiking trails and night skies. And orchards.

Orchard, Capitol Reef National Park

Three thousand fruit trees that were planted by Mormon pioneers in the 1800s and are now maintained by the National Park Service. Apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, apples, almonds, and plums…Best of all, you can pick all the fruit you want.

One night, after dinner, Marty called his daughter Amy. I sat across from him, typing on my laptop, working on my garden column.

“Hi Amy, we’re now in Capitol Reef. You should see the golden trees set against the red rocks. And tomorrow we’re going to pick apples and……”  I looked up. Something was terribly wrong. Marty was trying to speak, but his words were garbled.

Oh my God, he’s having a stroke! And then, out of the blue, this thought popped into my head: Wait a minute, Marty can’t be having a stroke. These things aren’t supposed to happen on vacation. And it’s his turn to do the dishes!

I turned to my computer and Googled STROKE. Four letters popped up on the screen: F-A-S-T.

Signs of a stroke. FAST

F, stands for face: “Smile, Marty.” He looked okay.

A is for arms. “Raise your arms!” Perfect.

S is for speech: “Marty, where are we?” He shook his head.

T is for time: The description read, “If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.”

Fortunately, Marty’s speech and memory returned to normal within a few minutes. Now what? I spotted the Utah map on the table and read the, “What to do in case of an emergency” information: The closest hospital was in Richfield, 40 miles away. Hmm. I looked out the window. Great. It’s pitch black and it’s Saturday night. Marty and I discussed the pros and cons of driving our 30-foot RV on dark, country roads and decided to leave in the morning.

After breakfast, we packed up and hit the road, driving past family farms and rolling hills. I whispered a prayer, “Lord, I know it’s Sunday, but please have a doctor on duty.”

We parked the RV across the street from the hospital and checked in. Five hours of tests later, the doctor came in and sat down.

Hospital tests

Marty, in the Richfield, Utah hospital where he received top-notch care.

“Mr. Owen, it appears you’ve experienced a TIA. It’s also called a mini-stroke. A TIA is caused when blood flow to part of your brain is temporarily blocked. When you get home, share these lab results with your doctor.”

Kodiak, Alaska airport Benny Benson

Sunset over the Benny Benson Airport, Kodiak, Alaska

We flew home to Kodiak, drove straight to the health clinic, dropped off the results from the hospital, and then headed to the house.

As we opened the front door, the phone was ringing. It was Marty’s doctor. I’ll call him Dr. Greg.  “Marty, you gave me a scare. Having a TIA is a serious warning sign because now you’re more likely to have a full-blown stroke. I can recommend medications and suggest you take a baby aspirin every day, but that does not fix the problem, which is the plaque that’s built up in your arteries. Another option is to change your diet. Start by watching the documentary called, ‘Forks Over Knives.’ It could save your life.”

Forks Over Knives

That night, we signed onto Netflix and watched as the film Forks Over Knives presented scientific evidence that a Standard American Diet loaded with meat and dairy causes many of our most deadly diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and… stroke. And that these same diseases can be prevented and even reversed by adopting what’s known as a whole-food, plant-based diet.

We learned that a whole-food, plant-based diet is an eating plan that includes lots of plant foods in their whole, unprocessed form, like vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. It does not include animal products, like meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs or processed foods like oils or sweets.

Whole Food Plant Based diet

That was a mouthful for us, but the evidence was clear. And Dr. Greg was certainly an inspiration. Four years ago, at 5-ft, 9, he weighed 230 pounds and was shaped like a pear. His cholesterol levels were off the charts. Today he exercises regularly and weighs 160 pounds. He dropped the fried chicken for pizza, minus the cheese and salami.

After watching Forks Over Knives, Marty and I decided to give plant-based eating a try.

Whoa, habits die hard. I’d always believed that by growing our own veggies and cooking mostly from scratch, that our bodies would be alright. Yet what I’d been serving Marty all those years–some of the same stuff that’s killing millions of Americans–had been silently killing him.

Leading causes of death in the United States CDC

Leading causes of death in the United States (from Center for Disease Control data, 2014). Chart design by Marion Owen.

What you’re looking at are the top 15 causes of death in the United States. The red bars represent diseases caused by obesity and diet. At the top is heart disease. More than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease each year. That’s one in every four deaths in this country. Heart disease is not limited to adults, either. Recent studies show that heart disease is showing up in children.

You know, for all that our heart does for us, we take it for granted. We don’t give it much thought as we go about our busy days. To bring attention to your heart, I’d like you to do this exercise… Make a fist with your left hand. Now cover that fist with your right. That’s the size of your heart. Our bodies contain about 5 quarts of blood. And your heart beats that 5 quarts of blood through your body 2,000 times. Every day. 2,000 times!

Don’t you think we could take better care of our heart?

When I describe what we eat these days, people say the most interesting things. Like, “Wow, no eggs or cheese? That sound pretty extreme.” Extreme? I think using a saw to open up your chest for open heart surgery is extreme.”

At the heart of the problem, is the Standard American Diet—what most Americans eat—is loaded with too much fat, sugar, meat, dairy, and refined, processed junk. We haven’t always eaten this way. The eating pattern in our country began to change right after World War II.

Standard American Diet

From the Mother Jones article, “The Standard American Diet in Three Easy Charts”

Like most Americans, I was told that eating meat helped kept you strong and healthy. I was also taught that if I didn’t drink milk every day that my bones will crumble. Sound familiar? Well, guess what? Our bones are crumbling. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, countries like the U.S. and Australia that consume the most dairy products, have the highest rates of bone fractures.

Meat dairy

Thanks to the Standard American Diet, more of our friends and family members are getting sick and dying prematurely, despite all the procedures and pills we prescribe. We have the most advanced medical technology in the world, yet our life expectancy has dropped for the first time in 22 years. And our children…

The youth of today may live shorter lives than their parents.
~ New England Journal of Medicine

You know what makes me cry inside? We’ve become so accustomed to chronic illness that we consider heart disease and strokes as natural parts of the aging process, like wrinkles on your skin. Let me tell you, there’s nothing natural about my grandfather dying of high blood pressure at age 49. Or my mom and dad dying early from preventable diseases. No one ever counseled them about nutrition.

Hold on here. Since most premature deaths in the country are preventable and related to what we eat, you’d think that nutrition would be the number-one subject taught in medical schools. Sadly, it’s not. You know why? There’s no money in writing prescriptions for broccoli.

Vegetables healthy diet

Let food by thy medicine and medicine by thy food.
~ Hippocrates

I don’t want you to be discouraged because things are changing for the better. For example, Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO in the United States which covers about 9 million people with 15,000 physicians, publishes educational brochures to help make plant-based diets the “new normal” for patients and physicians.

Meanwhile, until America catches on to the value of plants as preventive medicine, Marty and I find ourselves in the minority. This was obvious at a recent family gathering. My siblings had questions and concerns. Understandably. We’ve all been led to believe that you must eat meat and eggs for protein, and drink milk for calcium. It’s all marketing hype. Let me share the Top Three questions they asked us. It might help with some of your questions, too:

First question:
Where do you guys get your protein?

Well, how do hippos, horses, elephants, gorillas and cows get their protein? And brown ears. Did you know that 75 percent of a brown bear’s diet is plant-based?

You’ll be happy to learn that protein is easier to get than you think. Even lettuce and tomatoes contain protein. All whole plant foods have some protein in them and by eating a balanced, plant-based diet you get all the protein you need. That goes for Richard Gere, Paul McCartney, Bill Clinton, and athletes too, like NFL defensive lineman David Cater, and tennis champion Venus Williams. And regular folks like Josh LaJaunie from Louisiana. Take a look at this before-and-after photo…

When Josh turned 32, he weighed 410 pounds. He joined a gym and began working out; even started jogging. Then, after watching Forks Over Knives he switched to a plant-based diet and today he weighs 190 pounds and competes in ultramarathons. But his greatest achievement? His whole family has adopted plant-based diets.

Second question:
No dairy? Where do you get your calcium?

Cress calcium

Move over kale! Cress is the numero uno green.

Calcium, folks, does not come from cows. It’s not cow-cium. The best way to get usable calcium is to eat a variety of plant foods. The mother lode of calcium? Kale. And quinoa, chickpeas, sesame seeds, spinach, almonds, and cress. (Cress, by the way, now tops kale as the healthiest green). And figs. A half cup of figs has as much calcium as a half cup of milk.

Third question:
Marion, what about olive oil? Isn’t it plant-based and good for you?

Olive oil

Olive oil, coconut oil and other oils are highly refined. Which means all the good stuff, vitamins, protein, minerals and fiber, has been removed. What’s left is fat which causes plaque to build up and clog your arteries. And with more calories per gram that any other food, oils are not part of a healthy diet.

Ah, yes. Today is Earth Day [talk was give on April 22, 2017] and it’s springtime in Alaska. Queen bumblebees are emerging from their underground burrows, and it’s time to prepare the garden, which means starting seeds and pulling weeds.

bumblebee

For the last part of my talk, I’d like to share some of the peaks and valleys we went through while transitioning to healthier eating plan and provide suggestions for how to get started…

One day, soon after we watched Forks Over Knives, I stepped into the kitchen and began pulling food from the shelves. No more mayonnaise, frozen chicken breasts, chips, or sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. It felt great, almost liberating, like pulling weeds after a long winter.

pulling weeds

Then I stood back and stared at rows of empty shelves. It was time to go shopping…

For my first plant-based shopping spree, I’d made a list alright, but I didn’t realize I needed to bring a sleeping bag with me! Steering my cart up and down the aisles, I ended up reading so many labels (Is it oil-free? Is there milk in it?) it took me over 3 hours before I reached the checkout line. As I began placing items on the moving belt, the clerk looked at me, and my cart, and started chuckling. “We were beginning to think you were going to spend the night here!”

Trader Joe's

As for planning plant-based meals, I knew it was important to eat a variety of plant foods, but how much of what …? I never gave it much thought before. I mean you could live on Yukon Gold potatoes and technically you’d be following a plant-based diet. But it wouldn’t be healthy. Then I discovered a checklist called, The Daily Dozen while reading Dr. Michael Greger’s bestselling book, How Not to Die, which is available through Amazon.

Plant based recipes cookbooks

Being a visual kind of gal, I re-created Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen chart on a dry-erase board and set it on the kitchen counter. Here’s how The Daily Dozen works… On the right are the kinds of foods you want to eat each day; on the left are the ideal number of servings.

Now as a child I ate my share of Tater Tots and fish sticks, but these days, I actually cook… a lot. During the summer for example, I feed eight people almost every night on our Galley Gourmet dinner cruises. And I love to cook So, when we converted to a plant-based style of eating, I was afraid it would be boring and too restrictive.

Galley Gourmet dinner cruise

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that this new world of food was refreshing and quite satisfying. There are thousands of tasty, easy-to-make recipes out there that don’t require eggs, oil, or milk. Sound impossible? Try this recipe…

I serve this tasty sorbet to nonbelievers. What a cool way to eat more greens. I call it sneaky nutrition.

I don’t always create winners, though. And I know when something’s a flop, because Marty will say, “Well, that was different.” Case in point: At first, we really missed cheese, so I tried to create a fake cheddar cheese from sweet potatoes, agar flakes, and cashew butter. Hmm, not so good—I tossed it into the compost pile. Hopefully the earthworms won’t mind.

But the parmesan cheese substitute blended from almonds, cashews, nutritional yeast and salt? That was a keeper.

But then, somewhere along the line, I became sort of a food Nazi…

Another story for you: When I was about 10, my parents gave us a science kit called the Visible Man. Now that I think back on it, maybe it was their prelude to The Talk. Imagine a 16-inch model with see-through skin which shows the major veins and arteries. The kit comes with the skeleton, vital organs, and brain. The idea is to paint the organs and then assemble the kit. We learned a lot, but we had fun, too… putting the bladder in the skull and the brain in the abdominal cavity. So keep the Visible Man in mind while I tell the rest of this story…

While vacationing in Arizona this winter, I’d been really stressing out over food. How much oil was in a slice of Dave’s Killer Bread? Will the restaurant throw us out if we ask for no cheese on the veggie burger? Because of my love for Marty and concern for his health, I fretted over every food choice to the point where I made myself sick with worry.

I called the health clinic in Kodiak. “Dr. Greg, I’m scared that we’ll eat the wrong things. I mean, it’s not like Marty is the Visible Man, where I can see what’s going on inside him!”

“Marion,” he said. “It’s OK to eat animal protein now and then. Just keep any servings to the size of a deck of cards.”

We should all be eating fruits and vegetables as if our lives depend on it–because they do.
~ Dr. Michael Greger, Nutritionfacts.org

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Marion, it’s too late to change how I eat.” I’m telling you, it’s never too late to begin a plant-based diet. You will see results in as little as 3 weeks: Your cholesterol will plummet, you’ll have more energy, and you’ll lose weight. Without trying. No more stiff and swollen joints, no more gout, no more bloating after meals, and no more… constipation, thanks to all that great dietary fiber. Think of all the time you’ll save by not sitting on the toilet for so long!

If you want to be as regular as a Swiss train, eat a plant-based diet. It will be a moving experience.
~ Rip Esselstyn, author of Plant-Strong and the Engine 2 Diet

Another thing that’s not so humorous. If, instead of beef, chicken and butter, more people ate sweet potatoes, carrots and beans, everyone’s health would improve and Medicare costs would drop by the billions of dollars. And let’s consider the health of our planet…

According to the U.N., plant-based diets may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have a gentler impact on the environment. In fact, “livestock emissions,” might be more dangerous for the environment than automobile emissions.Seriously though, did you know that around the world, more crops are grown to feed animals than people? It’s adding to climate change. Every year, thousands of acres of rainforest are cleared and converted to pastures for soy production and cattle grazing. Trees are the lungs of the earth.

The earth.  The conference theme is, “Every day is Earth Day, when you’re a Master Gardener.” This spring, I started my broccoli, lettuce and turnips with renewed enthusiasm… I’m more passionate than ever about growing veggies. It’s hard to describe the freedom that comes with eating this way…

I hope what I’m sharing has inspired you to make changes toward a healthier lifestyle. Please understand, you don’t have to go cold turkey, so to speak. Affirm your goals, celebrate the small victories, and don’t give up. It’s like standing at the bottom of a tall staircase. You don’t ever feel you can’t get to the top just because you can’t get there in a single leap. You look at the stairs and think, yes, these are doable steps. One, two three…

Here are 7 steps to help get you started on a plant-based journey:

1. Get your blood tested. LDL, HDL, triglycerides. Understand what these numbers mean.

2. Bring cooking back home. Cook from real ingredients. And invite kids into the kitchen. If you don’t know how to cook, try to learn. My mom always said, “If you can read, you can cook.” Perhaps the easiest way to get your feet wet as far as shifting to a plant-based diet, is to change a favorite recipe to be plant-based, say making split pea soup without ham, or tacos with beans, rice and veggies without the meat and cheese. Served with a salad made from home-grown veggies… It’s like saying “I love you” with food.

3. Don’t eat fast food. Period. Fast food is like poisoned honey. It might taste good at first, but in the end, it’s a killer.

From Women’s Health magazine

Not a very pleasant image, is it? It got my attention though. It was in the March 14, 2014 issue of Women’s Health magazine that began with a direct appeal to readers: “We’re guessing that you would never even consider smoking cigarettes, given how awful they are for your health, right? But an alarming new study suggests that the Standard American Diet may be as harmful as smoking.”

Plant-based diets are the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking.
~ Dr. Neil Barnard (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)

4. Change your relationship with food. A healthy relationship is one that loves you back. You might love macaroni and cheese, but it doesn’t love you back. Next time you’re online, Google “plant-based.” You’ll discover blogs, recipes, and workshops. And you never know, your neighbor might be ditching the macaroni and cheese, too! And check out the database of 2,000 videos on NutritionFacts.org.

5. Encourage schools to bring plant-based menu options into their cafeterias. The same goes for prisons and other institutions. We all need to eat, but everyone deserves healthy food.

6. Step out of your food comfort zone. Grow or buy 3 fruits or vegetables this year that are unfamiliar to you. If you’re never grown cauliflower for example, give it a try. If anything, to make awesome coffee and chai un-milkshakes. Just replace the ice cream with almond milk and frozen cauliflower bits.

7. Be patient with yourself and with doctors. When the film Forks Over Knives was released in 2011, it helped spark a medical and nutritional revolution. Americans have a long way to go,  but with each passing day, more and more people are adopting a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle. You can see this, even in Anchorage. At a Costco store last December, we discovered many products that were labeled “Plant Based.”

In closing, the past 6 months have convinced us that Marty’s stroke was the best thing that ever happened. For one thing, our blood numbers have returned to normal. I’ve also gained a higher regard for my garden and a new appreciation for the human body and how best to nourish it.

My husband Marty, relaxing…

Which reminds me. Your body is like no one else’s. Take care of it. It’s the one you walked in the door with; it’s the suitcase that carries your soul, that spark of God within you, as you travel on this earth. And in that spark, is the wisdom to choose those things that will give you freedom, happiness and health. And who wouldn’t want good health? Because when you don’t feel well, it’s difficult to play with your grandkids, take in a symphony, enjoy your garden, or sit quietly to meditate on God.

I’m not a physician, but if I had one wish, it would be that every doctor’s prescription would look like this:

In the beginning of my talk I said that Master Gardeners have a mission: To encourage people to grow and eat more fruits and vegetables. My goal today was to tell you why it’s so important.

I hope I’ve inspired you to begin the journey back to optimum health, for the earth, for ourselves, and for our children.

Thank you, and God bless you. And thank goodness chocolate is plant-based!

Posted in Diet and health, Essays and inspirations, Food and recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Is every snowflake perfect? What about us?

The glow from a small porch light defined my coordinates on the globe: A trampled patch of snow, the size of a manhole cover, located between a sliding glass door and an outhouse ‘privacy’ tent. Inside the tent, my camera equipment sat perched on milk crates, shielded from the falling snow.

It was 12 degrees in Anchorage, Alaska. I was staying at a friend’s house, though the 2 AM hour found me not in bed, but standing outside on their back deck. If a neighbor happened to be up at that hour, perhaps to pee, and looked across the yard, the scene might have appeared like a silent film: A short person, dressed in baggy pants and a down jacket with pajama tops poking up through the collar, shuffling in tight circles while holding a card at arm’s length. A narrow, white beam from a headlamp, darted around the card’s surface like a tiny stage light.

What the neighbor wouldn’t have been able to see was the snowflake ballet I was witnessing in the light of my headlamp, as hundreds of tiny white snow crystals sifted down like tiny parachutes. As each one touched down on the black foam core, their 20-minute journey to earth was complete.

I have a fascination–nay, a love affair–with snowflakes. Some of my earliest blog posts, such as Are Snowflakes Alive? share my profound joy of tracking down beautiful crystals and photographing them. It’s a thrill, like reaching the top of Everest, when a snowflake’s crystalline structure comes into sharp focus.

This night though, I was deeply frustrated. For three days, my efforts to photograph these sky crystals had been hampered by high humidity in the atmosphere that encased each snowflake in an armor of rime.

On this early morning, I scanned the black card for the perfect flake. Finding a potential candidate, I carried the card into the tent, scooped up the snowflake with a narrow paintbrush, and placed it on the microscope slide. Holding my breathe in anticipation (and saving the snowflake from a death-blast of warm breath) I brought the crystal into focus. Here’s what I saw:

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

“Darn,” I thought, feeling crushed. “Another bad one. I might as well go back to bed.”

Just then, a special clarity came over me and a thought filled my consciousness. “Do you still love me?”

It came to me clear as a bell. I don’t really know how to describe it, except that the words sounded bold, as if someone had shouted in my ear.

Transfixed, I stared at the snowflake through the view screen on the back of the camera, the question, “Do you still love me?” still ringing in my head.

It’s hard to describe what happened next, except that I felt full, connected, non-judgmental and filled with love. My whole attitude shifted and for the next couple hours I danced about, childlike, capturing and photographing dozens of “imperfectly-perfect” snowflakes. It was pure joy, like discovering new friends.

Here are the very snowflakes I discovered that night:

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak, B&W

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak, black and white

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak, rime

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

That night, oblivious to the coldness soaking into my feet and bare hands, I learned something about myself. For one thing, the question, ‘Do you still love me’ might well have been, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, you know.” (I think I’ll come back to that one in another post).

I also realized that we are all broken or blemished in some way. We carry baggage in the form of habits, desires, and indifference–tendencies that hold us back from knowing who we really are. That’s why we’re here on this little red schoolhouse called ‘earth.’ To learn, to grow, to improve our lot.

And you know what’s cool about the journey? You never know when or where your answers and inspirations will come from. A billboard, a comment from a friend, a newspaper article, or a snowflake.

Exciting, isn’t it?

Cheers and blessings,

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer

Relevant links you might enjoy:

Striving for Excellence vs. Perfection, by Victor Cheng

 

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Ansel and the Snowflake

It was 8 PM and I’d been trying to photograph snowflakes all day. But try as I might, the wind was howling and I could only “harvest” bits and pieces blown off the roof. Feeling a little discouraged—realizing that this would be the last chance to photograph snowflakes until next winter—I retreated inside.

Three hours later, a thought tap-danced across my concentration: “Go outside and try again.” So I pulled a pair of insulated pants and a parka over my pajamas, donned a hat and gloves, and headed into the night. This snowflake was the first one to land on my black sampling board and “sparkle” in the light of my headlamp. I picked it up with a paintbrush (like scooping up a pancake with a spatula), and set it on the microscope slide. Holding my breath so I wouldn’t melt the snow crystal, I quickly adjusted the camera settings. As it came into focus, I nearly cried…

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photo, Ansel Adams, snow, winter

Thanks for stopping by. Be inspired. Be happy.

Love,
Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Goodness gracious great balls of chocolate!

For health reasons, Marty and I recently adopted a plant-based diet, a personal story I share in this post. No more animal protein (meat, dairy, eggs) or processed oils. Suddenly the cookbooks I’d consulted for 40 years were no longer my kitchen buddies. In darkness however, I found light: Chocolate is plant-based! Here is my new, favorite recipe for Chocolate Chews, a fantastic diary-free and gluten-free treat. Jerry Lee Lewis would have said, “Goodness gracious great balls of chocolate!”

chocolate, vegan, plant-based, dessert, balls, sesame seeds, cocao

CHOCOLATE CHEWS

1/2 cup almonds
1/2 cup cashews
1/3 cup tahini or almond butter
1 cup raisins
2 tablespoons ground flax seeds
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 tablespoon hemp hearts (raw, shelled hemp seeds)–optional
1/4 cup unsweetened powdered cocoa
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup maple syrup or honey
1 tablespoon orange zest or 7-10 drops orange essential oil
1/2 cup sesame seeds (or unsweetened shredded coconut)

Put almonds and cashews in a food processor and pulse until crumbly. Transfer them into a bowl. Then add tahini and raisins to the food processor and blend until well mashed. Follow with the processed almonds and cashews and the remaining ingredients, except the sesame seeds. Pulse until well combined. Transfer the mixture back to the bowl and using a small ice cream-cookie scoop or tablespoon measuring spoon, scoop out the mixture and roll into balls. Roll each ball in the sesame seeds, place them on baking sheet and chill for at least an hour. For long-term storage, freeze them first and then transfer the chews into a reusable container or Ziploc bag. Makes 24-30 chews.

When I first made these treats, I brought them to a Christmas potluck. In no time, they were all gone…

I’d love to know what you think. Thanks for visiting. Cheers,

Marion Owen, photographer, organic gardener, Kodiak Island, Alaska

 

 

Posted in Food and recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments