The Good Life
All things Mother Earth Living

Our Choices Matter

In Mother Earth Living, we spend a lot of time focused on how our food choices affect our health—in this issue alone, we share recipes that help a food writer manage chronic health conditions; a profile of some of the world’s healthiest spices; and a look at the toxicity of Roundup. Yet, vital as our food choices are to our health, the impact of our choices goes way beyond our own bodies.

When I visited Rise & Root farm in Chester, New York, to write a profile of the four inspiring women who turned their farm dream into a reality, I knew I’d learn about the farm and the work that went into building that dream. I didn’t know I’d learn so much more about the ways our food choices support injustices in our laws and treatment of farmers and farm workers.

When we buy food from the industrial agriculture system, we’re not only consuming pesticide residues. We’re also supporting a system that depends upon the mistreatment of people. Many temporary or seasonal farm workers are exempt from minimum wage requirements, which means they often work long hours for below minimum wage, with no overtime pay or sick leave According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey published by the U.S. Department of Labor, the average annual income of crop workers is between $10,000 and $12,499; 30 percent of farm workers’ family incomes are below the poverty line.

Low pay and no benefits are just part of the problem. In the media, stories of farm worker abuses abound, with everything from sexual harassment and rape to wage theft. These workers, often impoverished, have little power when it comes to defending their rights. As Bill Tamayo, regional attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission told NPR in a story about sexual harassment against farm workers, “Conditions that allow sexual assault to occur all revolve around who has power.” On industrial farms, supervisors have all the power: “He determines who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets fired. And if you’re a sexual predator, that’s the ideal position to be in because you can determine whether her family eats or not,” Tamayo says.

Our food system depends on the exploitation of farm workers to keep prices low and profits high (the CEO of one major farm/food conglomerate is worth $2.4 billion). Many industrial farms also claim a dependence upon chemical herbicides to produce high yields. Thus, on farms throughout our nation, underpaid people wear hazmat suits as they spray carcinogenic chemicals on the food we eat. And it’s no better in the arena of factory-farmed meats. When it comes to our food system, problems abound.

So, what can we do? One of the simplest answers lies in supply and demand. It’s our responsibility to consider the impact our food choices have on our planet, on other creatures and especially on other people.

High-quality food can cost more, and I know the idea that we all buy from small, organic farms suggests a level of economic privilege many people don’t have. But by engaging with local farmers via CSAs and farm-volunteer programs, it’s possible to get better food for less money. If there is one worthwhile expense, it’s healthy food. Eating well is not only crucial to the health and well-being of ourselves and our families—eating well honors the work of our fellow humans, the sacrifice of animal life and the wonders of the earth itself.

3 Things I Love This Issue

From the garden to the grocery store, ways to eat well every day:

7 Surprisingly Healthy Foods

Healing Recipes

Planting in the Fall for a Spring Bounty

Spend More Summer Time Outdoors with an Efficient Evaporative Cooler

When it comes to the idea of energy efficiency, "air conditioning the outdoors" is the quintessential no-no. But severe summer temperatures (in Kansas, it's going to be 98 degrees today and feel like 104) can mean not spending time outdoors. I will admit I was doubtful of the ability of Honeywell's outdoor evaporative air coolers to make sense in my life. But when I got one, I realized that these fans make a serious difference in enjoyment of outdoor activities. So many days have found our family outside rather than in thanks to the difference the air cooler makes. It evaporates water, then uses a fan to disperse mist into the air, cooling an area of nearly 400 square feet. It's also super energy-efficient, requiring about 288 watts to operate (for comparison, a dehumidifier requires about 350 watts, while a coffee machine requires about 1,500). In my solar-powered home, I feel OK using that energy to spend more time outdoors, even when the temperatures are through the roof. Another benefit? The breeze helps keep away the No. 1 deterrent to my outdoor time in our Kansas home--mosquitoes. So, this efficient dual-purposed device has most certainly enabled me and my family to spend more time outdoors in the summer, whether the temps are scorching or the mosquitoes are biting. The cooler is expensive at $450, but it's likely cheaper than alternatives such as installing an outdoor ceiling fan or enclosing a porch. They also have lower-priced models. I wouldn't recommend this product for anywhere but places with the hottest of summers--here in the lower Midwest and through the Southwest and Southeast--but if you find you can't enjoy your outdoor spaces throughout much of the summer, you might want to give it a try. 

Common Baby Skin Products with Harmful Chemicals Part 1

It's disturbing enough to look at the ingredients in personal-care products and cosmetics for adults--with zero government regulation, these products are frequently filled with chemicals that are, no exaggeration, proven carcinogens. Take, for example, formaldehyde, categorized as a human carcinogen by both the U.S. government and the World Health Organization. This ingredient is the base of keratin treatments used for straightening hair. It's also frequently used as a preservative in lotions and other products.

But it's even more disturbing to discover the harmful ingredients present in popular products for babies. Parents of infants--likely too overwhelmed to research every ingredient on every product they buy--purchase these items in good faith, hoping to help their babies. Unfortunately, despite marketing to make these items seem healthful, some common baby products contain chemicals proven to be harmful.

So for this blog series, I researched some of the top-selling baby products in the U.S., and hope to share their harmful ingredients for all the parents of little ones who are a little too busy to spend time researching product ingredients. Here's to naturally healthy little ones.

 Johnsons#1: Johnson's Baby Creamy Oil Aloe Vera & Vitamin E 

This product gets an overall score of 5 out of 10 on the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database--a moderate risk. It's likely not going to cause serious damage, but it has several ingredients of concern. My take is why use something with potentially hazardous chemicals when you can use natural salves or other better products.

Ingredients of concern:

Fragrance: The main problem with fragrance is that companies don't have to disclose what makes up this ingredient. The EWG ranks this ingredient an 8 on its 10-point hazard scale, citing high concerns for allergies and immunotoxicity. Fragrance frequently contains phthalates,  known hormone-disruptors. "Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system," the EWG writes.

Propylparaben: Parabens are a family of preservatives that mimic estrogen and can act as potential hormone system disruptors. The EWG ranks propylparaben a 7 out of 10, citing strong evidence of  human endocrine disruption, immune toxicity and allergenic activity.

The product also contains several items ranked a 4 by the EWG, among them: Hydrogenated cottonseed oil, which itself is fairly safe but raises the risk of contamination (contamination risks occur when chemicals break down and recombine to make new potentially dangerous pollutants) in the product of mercury, arsenic and lead, all ranked highly hazardous; ethylparaben and methylparaben, two more parabens considered endocrine disruptors and potentially immunotoxic; and phenoxyethanol, a preservative that can cause irritation of the skin, eyes or lungs. 

Peace from the Past

This past weekend found me working in the garden, and as I dug holes, added compost and packed dirt in around seedlings, I was reminded of what gardeners the world over avow: Working in the soil is calming to the mind. There’s something meditative about the motions of digging in the earth, fully focused on the task at hand. It’s almost impossible to multitask while planting a seedling. You must perform each step one at a time.

According to most accounts, my birth year puts me among the oldest of the Millennial generation. I’m not sure it’s a perfect fit, but I do think I fit that generation in my attitude toward technology: I consider it a fundamental element of life, one I believe transforms the way humans interact in the world. To me, technology is a powerful tool; like any tool, its benefits or harms are determined by how we use it. The internet has allowed a democratization of information never before seen, and this is proving to be a catalyst for social change. In the age of information, transparency is necessarily on the rise in politics, law enforcement and business.

But we also know living in a way that is very different from the ways of our ancestors may be problematic. For example, the predominant psychological ailments of our times—anxiety, hyperactivity and depression—all have links with the fast pace and tech focus of modern living. Studies show that the things most tied with our evolutionary past—spending time in nature, for example, or getting regular exercise and eating a whole-foods diet—offer significant benefits for these afflictions. But what about other activities our ancestors enjoyed before the age of “screen time”: Making music, creative writing, dance and visual arts? Preliminary research has found them all to be therapeutically useful.

When I was writing the feature about hobbies that benefit our brains for this issue, I was particularly struck by one fact: Reading is good for our brains because, evolutionarily speaking, it’s a relatively new and complex task. Humans have been reading for thousands of years. Yet, for our physical brains, it’s still a challenge because all of those years just aren’t that long in the grand scheme of things.

That made me wonder: What activities might make our brains feel most at peace? I think the answers may lie in those activities so fundamental to human survival that we’ve been practicing them for eons: Growing our own food, harvesting wild plants in nature, knitting or sewing clothing, making art, telling stories, sitting by firelight. My life wouldn’t work (at least in its current form) without technology, and I wouldn’t want it to. The internet helps me know what’s going on with people across the globe; it enables my parents to frequently talk face-to-face with my son even though we live a few hours apart; and it allows me to collaborate on this magazine with our fantastic art director although we live in different states. But I find it intriguing to think about our health needs through the lens of human history. I think some of the best advice for calming our minds and spirits may be to step away from technology from time to time and spend a few hours on the activities humanity has cultivated since the earliest beginnings of civilization.

3 Things I Love This Issue

Ways to reduce our bodily intake of synthetic chemicals:

1. Safe, natural alternatives to common OTC drugs

2. Tips and recipes to use DIY salves for a range of minor ailments

3. A look at chemical use in personal-care products

Right at Home: Personalize Your Living Space

I recently had the good fortune to visit Santa Fe and the surrounding area. I’d never spent much time in the region, and I was only vaguely aware of its unique and complex history — a combination of native tradition and European influence, a fascinating example of the melting pot that makes America an amazing place to live. While there, I was lucky to visit an incredible home that combined the best, and most beautiful, of the region’s rich history.

The home was built in the traditional adobe style. Modern adobe buildings incorporate concrete, making them stronger and more durable. In this more primitive construction style, the layers of adobe wear away continually, requiring the outer layer to be replaced every year (and reminding me of the perpetual renewal going on inside and outside our own bodies).

The family’s history was one centered in both agriculture and the arts. Its former owner, who passed down the place to his daughter who still lives there, had spent time living in Europe in the 1960s, and he collected an astonishing array of European art including exquisitely woven Polish tapestries and ancient Roman statues. The family had also collected some of the most beautiful native art of the region—preserving traditional religious artworks that had ended up in estate sales and thrift stores after local missions began renovating starting in the ’50s. Throughout the home, family heirlooms, precious works of art and invaluable pieces of regional history commingle, creating a museum atmosphere. And yet, alongside its sophisticated art collection, the home is also a hardworking farm. We learned about the farm’s work with a microbiologist who studies the ways fungi, nematodes and bacteria in compost influence the plants that grow around them; and we admired the 400-year-old irrigation system.

Some of you may know that I was an editor at Natural Home magazine for many years (as well as at The Herb Companion; we merged those two titles into Mother Earth Living four years ago). Part of my job at Natural Home was traveling across the country, interviewing the owners of interesting, green-built homes and directing photo shoots of their inspiring residences. These homes ranged wildly in style—some were handbuilt homes made entirely out of salvaged materials (I profiled six of these case studies in my 2011 book, Housing Reclaimed); others were uber-modern renovated warehouses, minimalist and industrial. But no matter their style, every one of these homes shared one common element with each other, and with the home I toured near Santa Fe—they were absolutely unique, and reflective of their owners’ tastes, styles and preferences.

It’s unfortunate, and something we might not think about often, but in many ways modern housing has been commoditized and homogenized in much the same way as industrial foods. Developers have found a lowest common denominator they believe can please the most people, and it often looks like a large, plain white box.

But our domiciles shouldn’t be made for just anyone. They should, in design as they do in practice, house us, in particular, unique individuals with unique needs. Whether you live in a home you built yourself to your exact specifications or, more likely, in an apartment or condo or basic contemporary housing development, I hope you’ll consider the many ways in which you can make your home your own. A house designed to suit our own needs is the best one for us, and we all deserve a home where we feel ourselves, our history and our lifestyle reflected.

3 Things I Love This Issue

Ways to make our lives more beautiful, outdoors and in:

1. A doctor’s four-step program to eliminate seasonal allergies.

2. Expert advice to use color to enhance our homes.

3. Garden tips inspired by horticultural therapy techniques.

Face the Day: Find Inspiration in Nature

Seasonal changes are among nature’s most wondrous displays. I’ve lived all of my life in the Midwest, where these changes are dramatic. The prairie is home to tornadoes, thunderstorms, snow, ice, some of the hottest summer temperatures in the nation, intense winds, droughts, dust storms and drenching rains. Yet even with all this drama, I think nothing is more awe-inspiring than the seemingly impossible transition from winter to spring.

What in this world seems more unlikely than the tender, fragile curls of a fresh spring sprout overcoming the heavy, cold snow above? And yet, unbelievable as it seems, the little sprout wins out, year in and year out, fighting as hard as it can to survive and thrive against improbable odds. A purple petal stands out against gray slush. Life asserts itself once again.

I think most of us inherently know spending time in nature is a benefit. We feel rejuvenated as we step out for a brisk morning walk, dig in the dirt planting seeds, or feel the sun on our backs as we pick a perfectly ripe strawberry. Studies have found spending time outdoors to be beneficial for everything from our circulation to our aptitude for kindness and empathy. Most of us also have personal experience with nature’s ability to impact our mental state—perhaps most noticeably at the change of seasons. Who can deny the cozy sleepiness of winter, or the rush of spring fever?

As we build our connections with nature, however, I wonder if we might add “source of inspiration” to the list of its benefits for us. Today’s world can seem like a frightening place, teeming with difficult problems and deep disagreements about the solutions. Sometimes it can be tempting to throw in the towel, bury our heads in the sand and retreat from the worries of the world.

And yet, that is not what life on our planet is trained to do: Life on this planet has been so vastly and broadly successful because every living thing has fought for the chance to survive and thrive. As a society, I believe we too must struggle to thrive, to become our best selves, to grow despite the many obstacles in our way. Perhaps if we take inspiration from the pluck of those tiny, delicate spring sprouts, we will remember to face our problems every day with braveness and dignity, even—perhaps especially—when we feel faced with impossible odds.

3 Things I Love This Issue

1. Tasty, simple recipes filled with spring produce

2. A study of the many ways nature benefits our bodies and brains

3. A roundup of a few of the best seed companies out there

Treat Yourself to a Day of Rest

Several years ago when I was an editor at Natural Home magazine, we featured a concept that really stuck with me: a day of rest. I love the idea and have revisited it many times. Of course, this is far from a new concept. A day of rest is a component of almost all major world religions, one people have followed for thousands of years. That said, among religious and nonreligious people alike, it’s a habit that has, for most of us, fallen by the wayside.

Today, people spend more time working after hours than at any other time in modern history. We’re able to respond to work emails in bed at midnight, on the playground on Sunday afternoon, in the car at a stoplight. Even if we’re not working 24/7, we’re constantly connected to news of world events and politics, our friends’ activities, advertisements, click-bait and more. Many people believe crime is rising despite the fact that violent crime rates are at an all-time low; that’s probably because we can hear about crimes no matter where they happen in the world. All of this connectedness can make the world feel overwhelming. And it requires more conscious effort than ever to actually stop and rest.

Over the years, I’ve instituted the day of rest concept with varying degrees of strictness and success. I’m not generally one for imposing strict “rules” for living, but I found that a few guidelines helped make it happen—sometimes following rules, even for a short time, can be the quickest way to habitualize. One rule I enjoy is to take a break from technology. I might watch a movie with my family, but I won’t look at my email—work or personal—or engage in any kind of social media. It took some effort to switch off the automatic impulse to glance at Facebook on my phone, but I really felt the difference in turning inward and taking a break from the outside world.

If you want to try it, your day of rest could take many forms. Of course if you are religious and want to observe or refresh an adherence to your religion’s traditional day of rest, that’s a great way to engage with this concept. For the nonreligious, you can choose your day to rest. For many of us working the standard workweek, Sunday is the ideal day, but if you work a different schedule, your day of rest might be Tuesday or Friday—whenever you will be able to determine your own schedule for the day.

Maybe you want to take a total break from technology on your day of rest. Maybe on your day of rest, you want to stay in your pajamas all day and veg out in front of the TV. If so, I say do it! Perhaps you love cooking and want to devote your day of rest to opening a bottle of wine, turning on some music and cooking meals for the week. Maybe instead you want to ban any and all household chores from your day of rest. Do what feels right to you.

Along with do-nots, you might also make a list of dos for your day. Maybe you want to set aside time for yoga and meditation. Perhaps you want to start a new hobby, or maybe you want to spend more time in nature.

No matter what you choose to emphasize and what you choose to forgo, remember that we all have one life to live on this planet, and we owe it to
ourselves to spend at least some of that time caring for ourselves, doing what we love. The laundry will still be there on Monday, I promise.

3 Things I love this Issue...

1. Easy One-Pan Meals

2. The Building Blocks of Nutrition: Healthy Eating Guide

3. A Guide to Simplifying Life