Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Awakening the Inner Cave-Dweller

We’re down to one car here at Fun Central. My 12-year-old Renault Scenic died unceremoniously a few weeks ago and we decided not to replace it, because we are good Germans and like to think about the environment. This does put some pressure on me and Germany’s Top Husband, though, in terms of negotiating who gets the car when. I was fondly imagining I’d go grocery shopping this morning until he pointed out that he had a suit day in Heidelberg and the car was his. Off  he went, leaving me staring into the empty fridge wondering what the hell I was going to have for breakfast.

Turns out, it was a peach. Not a peach that was lingering in the fruit-bowl, but a peach that I had to hunt down by foot and then drag home, skin and eat.

There is something intensely satisfying about bringing your food home on foot. Here’s what I managed to scavenge by going into the Burg’s thousand-year-old town centre and walking around the shops there, instead of driving to the supermarket outside town:

1. Butcher: Thuringer sausages, both plain and spicy; marinated lamb chops (got the fourth free just by chatting to the lovely lady – that wouldn’t have happened at the supermarket); free-range eggs.

2. Greengrocer: a butternut (never to be found in a German supermarket), peaches, apples, grapes, cucumber, red peppers, a tin of marinated giant beans, a lettuce.

3. Schlecker: muesli, cleaning cloths, bin bags, snacks for the kids.

4. Bakery: Brezeln, both plain and cheesy, and a free chat about Germany’s chances for Saturday.

Then I dragged the whole lot home and pounced on my peach.

I have become a fan of the caveman lifestyle idea. Those of you who have been with me a long time know that diets have come and gone. There was Shangri-La, there was low-carb and long, long ago in the mists of time, there was Weight-Watchers.

But the caveman diet, I’m telling you, is the way forward. It has various names and proponents (paleolithic, caveman, primal blueprint), but the basic idea is the same: eat the way our ancestors ate, move the way they moved, and rest the way they rested, thus becoming fitter, leaner and healthier. It makes a lot of sense to me. Without wanting to repeat what the experts say, I point you to the best blog I’ve found on the caveman lifestyle: Mark’s Daily Apple. Check out his About section for tons of useful background information.

I’ve been acting the cave-dweller for the month of June. I’ve lost kilograms and centimetres, which is always pleasing. I am also happier, better rested and far less grumpy. And right now, I’m off to the pool in my mammoth-skin bikini for some caveman-like romping.

Want to join me?


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Green and Fabulous

If you want to be green but can’t face wearing hemp, if you get frozen in the supermarket deciding whether to buy the organic Italian apples wrapped in plastic or the non-organic apples that are loose and local, and if you feel guilty every time you let the tap run but still have to bath now and again, then Christie Matheson’s book Green Chic: Saving the Earth in Style is the book for you.

As Matheson says in the introduction, ” … we need to embrace the fabulousness of green living. And it is fabulous. Being green can help you look gorgeous, have a killer wardrobe, feel amazing, travel in style, create a home that’s an oasis, host fun parties, eat incredible food, and drink phenomenal wine, all while feeling more connected to your friends, family and nature.” She says that while buying an eco-friendly cashmere jersey will not stop global warming, it is the change in mindset, in starting to become conscious consumers, that will help us to reduce our individual contributions and encourage systemic change.

This week I bought some clothes for my kid, who needed shorts and T-shirts for summer. I have heard that you should wash new clothes before wearing them because of the chemicals shops spray on them to make them hang nicely, but I had never believed it until now. He put on one of his new T-shirts and within an hour had a rash across his neck. Cue parental guilt and vows only to purchase organic cotton tees from now on. Green is clearly not only good for the planet, but good for our health too.

Matheson’s book is clearly divided into useful chapters, from being green at home, to eating and drinking green, beauty, fashion, transportation and travel. There’s even a chapter on how to throw a green party. When I read blogs on the environment, like the No Impact Man or wonderful books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, my main reaction – apart from being grateful that there are people out there who are actually doing something about the environment – is to be intimidated and then feel guilty. Although in many ways we are a fairly green household, there is still room for improvement: we run two cars, still sometimes buy food in plastic wrapping, drink bottled water, forget to switch our computers off, even (aargh, pains me to admit) use paper napkins sometimes. Once I feel guilty, I get overwhelmed and can’t imagine how I could even start to change these things that prey on my conscience.

What Matheson does so well is to praise the baby steps. She’s not saying we all need to get solar panels tomorrow, but she is saying that we should be aware and start to make small changes in our lives. Very kindly, like a lovely big sister, she points out the small changes we can make. Here are some that resonated with me:

* Time how long your standard shower takes and then challenge yourself to cut it down

* Keep a full fridge (if you don’t have a large family like mine, fill it with organic wine instead of food) and only run a full dishwasher

* Avoid PVC in any form – it is evil

* Choose local and non-organic over organic food that has travelled a long distance (but long-distance organic is better than long-distance non-organic)

* Eat more whole food – it puts less strain on the environment than processed food (bye-bye chilli rice cakes … sniff)

* Cut back on meat – it is also a strain on the environment

* Use chemical-free lipsticks – the chemical ones contain a long list of hideous ingredients which we eat since they are on our lips. Yuck!

* Edit your closet so that you only shop for clothes you need

* Buy organic rather than conventional cotton, which is the most pesticide-intensive farming in the world

* Drive smoothly (no abrupt braking) and stick to the speed limit

* Switch the car’s air conditioning off and open a window

* Use the car wash instead of washing it yourself (or you could leave it dirty, like mine)

I have cherry-picked (ahem, nature pun alert) the tips that I can actually imagine myself doing, but there are many more which might resonate with you in this excellent book. For US readers, Matheson includes a long list at the end of her favourite eco-friendly retailers, many of whom have websites.

To celebrate all that is green, I would like to offer Green Chic to one of my fabulous readers. Just put your name in the comments if you’re interested, and in the course of this week I will draw a winner.

Now I’m off to town (on foot) to return some books to the library (borrowing, not consuming)!


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The EcoJustice Challenge

Today, as many bloggers have noted, is Earth Day. I have been guiltily noticing some of the bad things I do, including the environmentally not-friendly practice of driving to the gym in order to run on the treadmill. Bad Charlotte.

Then I chanced upon Emily’s EcoJustice Challenge, launched today! It’s a challenge that hopes to get us to change bad habits like the one mentioned above. I quote verbatim:

So, here is how this challenge will work. The first step is for anyone who wants to participate to pass the link onto at least five other people (or even if you don’t plan to participate, if you like the idea, please pass it on). If you have a blog of your own, this can easily be accomplished merely by linking to this site in a post on your own blog. Below is a list of things you can choose to do. Once every quarter between now and April 21, 2009, I will add to this list. Your challenge is to choose something from this list, to experiment with it, and to post about it here. Or, if you’d rather not post, that’s fine. You can just choose what you want and leave comments on this blog. You can choose to implement as many or as few from the list as you would like. You can choose to stick with one (or more) for an entire quarter, or you can mix and match (one — or more — this month, a different one next month, etc.). My hope is that by the end of the year, at least one item from the whole list will have become a way of life for you and your family. And if you’re already doing some or all of these things, come up with others you want to do, share them with us, and post on them instead.

To join the blog as a posting member, please send an email to: ecojustice08 AT gmail DOT com with your user name and the email address you’d like to use for the purposes of this blog. I will add you to the list of users. Also, please post on your own blog, if you have one. That’s it. And now, here are your choices for this quarter:

1. Choose one day a week in which you will not use your car at all (barring a major emergency, like having to drive your spouse/child to the hospital for stitches). Before you immediately dismiss this one, because you have to drive to and from work every day, please think about it. Is there no one with whom you could carpool two days a week? If so, the day you’re not driving would be the perfect day not to use your car at all.

2. Choose one “black out night” per week. All lights and all electrical appliances are off by 7:30 p.m. and don’t go on again until the next morning. What will you do without lights, television, your computer? Well, the weather’s getting nice where many of us live. Sit out on the porch/deck and tell stories. Read by candle light. Write letters by candle light. Play games by candle light. You know, people did this sort of thing for thousands of years. My guess is that if you have kids, this will be an exciting and fun challenge for them.

3. Choose two days a week in which you are only going to eat organic and/or locally-grown food. Do you know that inorganic farming is one of the best examples of evolution that we’ve got going these days? All the pesticides that have been used to grow our food have helped to create “super bugs” who are becoming more and more resistant to our chemicals. We’re definitely losing this battle in more ways than one. Talk to the people at your local farmer’s markets. Many of them are growing their food organically anyway; they just aren’t certified, because it’s a difficult and expensive process to be so. Buying locally, of course, cuts down on the oil used to transport food long distances.

4. If you need to go anywhere that’s within a 2-mile round trip radius of your home, walk or bike. Where might this be? The first place that springs to mind for me is your children’s school bus stop. Perhaps the post office is close to your home. The library? For me, it’s both the post office and the bank. If you’re super lucky, maybe you have a farmer’s market that’s close by. Or maybe you don’t live close enough to anything, but you do work close by to that deli, say, where you always drive to pick up lunch.

5. Read that challenging book about the environment that you’ve been putting off reading, you know the one you don’t want to read, because it might make you a little uncomfortable (e.g. The World without Us, Diet for a Small Planet, Affluenza). Read it. Post about it. Maybe implement an idea or two based on what you’ve read.

6. Buy only those things sold in recyclable packaging and make sure you recycle that packaging.

Hooray for Emily. My plan for this quarter is to do 1 and 6. I will choose and commit to a non-driving day (and jog out from house rather than on a treadmill) once a week. Also, I plan to read and post about Affluenza and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, both of which I already own.

Please post about this, pass it on and commit to one or two of Emily’s challenges. Together, we can do it!


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39 Things I Have Learnt

Next week, I will be 39. I am thrilled about 39. Really, I am. I’m convinced that my fortieth year is going to be the most exciting year of my life. I feel it in my bones. I sense adventure, success and happiness and I’m embracing it all with joy.

To celebrate my birthday, here are 39 Things I Have Learnt:

1. If you don’t have the time or inclination to polish your boots with polish and a brush, a baby wipe will do just as well.

2. Cooking, if you have time and sufficient inclination, is not drudgery. It is relaxing, calming, recuperative, creative and feeds people.

3. We all breathe too shallowly.

4. Walking is better for our bodies than jogging, but swimming is best.

5. The only way to keep weight in check is to balance input and output. Eating fewer carbs helps too.

6. We can’t all be famous, but if we blog, we can pretend we are.

7. Writing every day leads to writing every day.

8. There is no such thing as “finding your other half” or “being completed” by someone else – the only way to have a successful relationship is to be a whole person already.

9. Living for your family, while satisfying at the time, can be pointless if you carry on doing it after they have left home.

10. Even very old people want to have sex.

11. Empathy is more useful to another person than sympathy.

12. No one person can be “everything” to another person. We get what we need piecemeal from all the people around us.

13. Love is all around, actually.

14. Children need time and laughter from their parents far more than they need expensive stuff and trips to fun-fairs.

15. Women should stop judging each other’s choices and stand up for each other – if someone’s anti-fashion or obsessed with her looks or works or stays home with her kids or breast-feeds or bottle-feeds or eats local or eats vegetables from Kenya, you don’t have to be her friend but don’t judge her.

16. We can’t protect our children from every little hurt or wound, but we can provide a safe place for them to come home to and talk about it.

17. I am scared of global warning and the aftermath of AIDS, but I am angry about patriarchy.

18. I don’t think any woman anywhere will be truly free until no woman is raped, abused, forced to wear clothing to hide her body from the gaze of men, prevented from getting educated or expected to carry out all the home and child-care in exchange for men’s benevolence.

19. Getting out of bed to care for the children when you’d rather lounge there, eating chocolates, filing your nails and watching Friends reruns hurts, but is also rewarding.

20. Speaking your truth is brave.

21. When you do speak your truth – without the intention to wound or hurt – you are not responsible for the reaction of others.

22. Fear is a bad philosophy of life.

23. Children get far more joy out of paper, glue, scissors and paint than they do out of big shiny plastic things from the toy-shop.

24. Being passive-aggressive is abusing the truth.

25. Whether you’re a man or a woman, earning a salary is only a small part of your responsibilities.

26. Whoever earns the most money does not own the remote control.

27. Partners who ask “What can I do to help you?” are very, very sexy.

28. What goes around, comes around.

29. A half-finished household task makes a job for someone else. Always complete.

30. We don’t have “one chance to accept God into our lives”. God, or the divine, is already there – whether we like it or not and whether we believe or not. And if you don’t believe me, climb a mountain, listen to music or hear a baby’s gurgling laughter.

31. Gossip hurts both the gossiper and the gossipee.

32. Using children as a weapon is low.

31. Having good friends, even if it’s just one or two, is essential to a happy life.

32. People who use others as audience, or mirrors in which to view their own reflections, are bores and best avoided.

33. It’s better to have a warm and friendly home than a perfect one.

34. Money, while great to have, is not the be-all and end-all. Love is.

35. Shopping destroys, in more ways than one. It’s soulless, bad for the planet, addictive, pointless and far too much fun for its own good.

36. Those who abuse apostrophes should apologise.

37. People who have benefitted from an iniquitous system – Apartheid, patriarchy, national socialism – should find a way to give back.

38. There is no such thing as too many books.

39. The only way forward is with love, and a sense of humour.

(I pinched this idea from the lovely Sognatrice of Bleeding Espresso, who recently turned 31.)


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The Forest Maker

I have this little brother, Andy. He is big and quite funny. He is also kind, dreamy, hard-working, full of empathy, sporty, outdoorsy, loyal and committed. For a living, he makes forests.

When he was growing up and in his early twenties, it was never clear what Andy was going to do for a job. He tried his hand at insurance and while his boss liked him, Andy found the relentless daily grind of office work unbearable. He also became bogged down by office politics – as a non-political animal, he just couldn’t understand it and was often hurt by people standing on his head to climb onto the next rung of the ladder.

He knew it was not for him and he left. He began making my mother’s smoked trout pate and selling it at local markets. This work suited him better: he was his own boss, he could work at his own pace and it allowed him more time to be outdoors. Andy’s smoked trout pate became very popular in KwaZulu-Natal and he even started selling it to a few shops, but it still wasn’t The Thing he wanted to be doing with his life. The family, as you can imagine, were wringing their hands. What was he going to do? Who was he going to be?

What nobody knew was that, in his heart, Andy knew what he was going to be. In his time off from the smoked trout pate business, Andy took his beloved black Lab Billy for walks in the indigenous forests of KZN. While there, he would collect seeds off the forest floor, take them home and nurture them. Achingly slowly, over a period of years, Andy developed a nursery of 4000 trees in his garden. He found he was spending more time looking after his trees than making trout pate. He joined local environmental groups, made contacts and began to be known as someone who knew a lot about indigenous trees.

Going indigenous is a big trend amongst South African gardeners because plants that are local to the area attract more birds and insects, whereas exotics leach the soil of precious nutrients and can be destructive. Andy began to sell a few trees from his home nursery, started to advise the lady gardeners of Pietermaritzburg on replacing exotics with indigenous and participating in drives to replace exotics in public spaces with beautiful indigenous trees.

And then his miracle happened. He was offered tenancy at the nursery of the local Botanical Gardens. He carefully transported his 4000 trees from the garden at home to the Gardens, where he now has a shop, staff and a public venue for his skills and knowledge. He is also involved in wholesale indigenous tree sales, participates in tree fairs and has become known as one of KZN’s top tree people. He still landscapes for lady gardeners, but he has also worked on golf courses and larger projects, removing hillsides of exotics and replacing them with indigenous. He is the forest maker.

My brother inspires me because he didn’t take the traditional route into the working world, but followed his heart. He ignored all the naysayers and did what he had to do. When he found his true calling and began to live it, his miracle happened. He is not an arrogant boss; he labours with his team, digging and hacking and hauling. He speaks brilliant Zulu. His employees love him. His employers love him. He is the gentle tree-man of KwaZulu-Natal. I am so proud of him.

And the best news of all, selfish sister that I am, that he is finally earning enough money to buy himself a ticket to come and spend Christmas with me and my family. This is his first visit to us ever and the best possible Christmas present I could have.


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Why Animals Matter

Fancy another inspirational South African story? Because I’ve got one!

Apart from Google, I gather most of my news from BBC Radio 4, so I know a lot about breast cancer recovery rates in the UK, how bad the pay gap is in Britain and ways to cook pumpkin risotto. However, one lucky morning by sheer chance I caught an interview with Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist and mad South African who took it upon himself in the early days of the Iraq invasion to go to Baghdad to rescue the remaining animals in the Baghdad Zoo. I was amazed and astonished by his story, and then last week, a friend lent me his book, which tells this very tale.

Lawrence Anthony owns a game reserve called Thula Thula in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa that I call home. KZN is a land of immense privilege and immense poverty. Game reserves attract vital tourist dollars that support not only conservation and these precious oases of savannah, but also local communities who find jobs as game rangers and reserve staff. If you ever have the chance to go on safari, snap it up; it’s an unbelievable opportunity to experience beautiful animals in their natural surroundings.

Lawrence Anthony was watching the fall of Baghdad on TV from the relative comfort of Thula Thula in April 2003 when he realised that he, of all people on earth, was going to do what he could to rescue the animals of Baghdad. He says:

Standing out there on that magnificent African starlit night, watching my elephants contentedly showing off their progeny, I decided for once I was not going to be a bystander. Enough was enough. It was time for me to make a stand, even if I failed.

He got himself a visa, some money, said goodbye to his family and within days found himself waiting on the Iraq/Kuwaiti border with two brave compatriots from the Kuwait Zoo. They were the first civilians to enter Iraq after the invasion. They found their way to Bagdad, miraculously unscathed, and found both the city and the zoo to be a scene of apocalypse. I won’t repeat the details of what he found at the zoo, but accept that it was horrifying: 80% of the animals were dead or looted, and only the carnivores were left. These were nearly dead of starvation and dehydration.

Anthony’s book tells of how during the next few weeks he managed to scrabble an existence for these creatures: all the pipes had been looted, so he carried water to the cages in tin cans, and when he was finally given a bucket, it was stolen. He fed them with food brought from Kuwait. The zoo staff, hearing that someone was feeding and watering the animals, trickled back, and with their support he started cleaning up the cages, scaring off looters and slowly creating order from the chaos. He paid the staff, so that they had enough food to feed themselves and their families, and so that they had the energy to come to work and haul water for the animals. The staff then sourced donkeys as food for the animals.

When Anthony was sure that the animals of the Baghdad Zoo were going to live, he then turned his attention to Saddam Hussein’s many private zoos and menageries. The book details how he and his team rescued lions, bears and even ostriches from unspeakable conditions in other places in the city. One particularly vivid image has three ostriches running through an army barricade, closely followed by a troop carrier with an ostrich’s neck and head sticking out of the top.

What is stunning about this story is Anthony’s deep-seated conviction that the animals mattered. When his colleagues from Kuwait decide to head home, understandably unsettled by the precarious nature of life in Baghdad, Anthony decides to stay. He watches his life-line, in the form of his Kuwaiti rental car, drive away and realises that whatever it takes he will make a stand on behalf of the animals:

I considered again my reasons for coming here. For me, this was more than just about saving a zoo. It was about making a moral and ethical stand, about saying we cannot do this to our planet anymore. This realization had a profound impact on me, and I decided that an example had to be set. A responsible, influential stand had to made against mankind’s irreverence for other life-forms. I decided then and there than Baghdad was to be the place it started.

The rest of the book tells of more animal rescues, Anthony’s efforts to get the zoo onto the radar of the US administration in order to receive much-needed funds, and well-intentioned – but insulting to the Iraqis – attempts by international NGOs to relocate some of the Zoo animals to the wilds. While not a political book, it inevitably becomes of and about politics as Anthony negotiates the fragile space between Americans and Iraqis. He was still an outsider after all.

The book is jointly written by Anthony and journalist Graham Spence. It’s a well-written, gripping story that happens also to be true. It gave me a different viewpoint into the invasion and the war, and all the wonderful people who are doing their best inside their city and their country to survive day-to-day.

Lawrence Anthony received the prestigious Earth Day Award at the United Nations in March 2004 for his rescue of the animals at the Baghdad Zoo. In September 2004, he was invited to become the first South African member of the Explorers Club of New York. Lawrence Anthony is the founder of the international Earth Organisation dedicated to environmental issues.

Because none survive alone.


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Blog Action Day

Today is:
Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

The idea is to get as many people as possible blogging about the environment. Today. Right now.

(I was alerted to it by Lia.)

I’m not an good environmentalist. I do bad things: use plastic nappies, forget to switch my computer off sometimes, leave a bathroom light on at night for kids who are scared of the dark and I love a full, deep and very hot bath. However, since it’s Blog Action Day today I thought I’d note, for my conscience, some of the environmentally-friendly habits I have got into:

1. Recycled loo paper: I have bought recycled loo paper ever since it’s been on the market, or since I became a householder, whichever came first. It’s scratchier, but we’ve got used to having a little less loo-time luxury.

2. We use fluorescent light bulbs.

3. We allow daisies to grow in our grass for the bees to enjoy and don’t use any chemicals in our garden. We are happy to share it with nature and enjoy the company of a variety of birds, lots of bees, a few hedgehogs and a parliament of owls.

4. We participate fully in the local recycling schemes available in our corner of Germany (monthly glass recycling, separation of rubbish into compost, recyclables (paper, metal etc) and compost). We return empties to the shop for a small financial incentive.

5. We share bath water. The kids always share a bath, together or separately, and I either add some hot to that for my own luxury soak or offer my husband my bath water later. Romantic, no?

6. I use my car infrequently. I try to walk wherever and and whenever I can. All kindergarten drop-offs, play-dates, extramural activities take place per leg power. We are also teaching our kids to love their bikes, trying to inculcate the good German value of ‘why drive when you can cycle?’.

7. We’re teaching our kids to love nature. Ollie attends a forest kindergarten, where he spends three hours a day outside. He is learning that a stick and a tree and some chestnuts make good toys, just like cars. They also love technology, but we believe that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

8. We try to shop local, going to the markets and consciously choosing products made closer to home. It’s not always easy because it’s hard to resist the delicious Italian or French products that turn up, but we are being more conscious about our shopping decisions.

It’s very small in the grand scheme of things but the words that should be highlighted are: participate, consciousness and habit. That’s the very least that we can do on an individual level – develop good habits, be more conscious of how our decisions affect the environment and participate in any local schemes available.

I’d love to hear what you are doing.