Good vibration

The modern-day three R’s are not reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. No, the three R’s environmentalists have been pushing, in a last-ditch effort to save our Earth, have been: reduce, reuse, recycle.

Laurel Tormey Cole is part of a growing zero-waste movement that has added two more R’s — one on either end of the the commonplace equation: “refuse” at the start, and “rot” at the end.

In her humble yet inspiring way, Tormey Cole explains her personal journey into the zero-waste movement in this week’s Enterprise podcast.

It started, she said, when she was looking for a worm composter for the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center. Her further research led her to change her lifestyle. She now produces just one small bag of waste in a month.

She notes that most people recycle but says that the earlier steps are more important. If we refuse to use, say, a plastic bag at the store, we haven’t any cause to reuse it or recycle it.

At the other end of the equation comes rotting — taking organic waste and transforming it into a substance that will enrich our soil. Tormey Cole has a bin of worms in her kitchen that transform her food scraps into something useful.

While we laud towns and cities that pick up organic waste curbside from their residents to make it into something useful, and while we greatly admire places like Boulder County in Colorado or the entire state of California that have committed to zero-waste goals, what we find so inspiring about Tormey Cole’s approach is she isn’t waiting for government to act. She isn’t waiting for manufacturers to stop wrapping everything in plastic.

She believes in the power of an individual to make a difference.

Her life, it seems to us, has followed a pattern of problem-solving on a personal level from which she has then reached out to a wider community. For example, when she suffered from migraines, she started practicing yoga.

Since an important element of yoga is focusing on breath, she said, it makes sense that the practice could help with headaches — deeper breaths deliver more oxygenated air to the brain.

“If you can breathe, you can do yoga,” said Tormey Cole, who started when she was in her forties; she’s in her sixties now.

She is now a teacher of yoga, in the style of Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, known for introducing the modern concept of yoga to the Western world. Yoga, she says, “gives us a deep awareness of our physical being and allows us to open up literally and figuratively.”

Putting it succinctly, Tormey Cole says, “To me, yoga means awareness.”

She has long been aware of the world around her. Tormey Cole says a goldfinch is what led her to garden with native plants. Her cosmos, she explains, were too tall to deadhead. One day, she noticed a goldfinch eating the seeds from the spent flowers she’d been unable to pinch off.

Now her garden in Knox is almost entirely native plants, and she organizes a yearly sale at the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center to share with others the virtues of native plants. You can match a native plant to the soil you already have and not have to water it after its first season or clean it up in the fall. The seed heads spread their seeds and birds can feed on them, like the goldfinch she observed all those years ago.

Native plants don’t waste the valuable water that exotic imports do and they support local species. We’re all aware of how essential native blue lupine is to the endangered Karner blue butterfly, which lives in Albany County’s globally rare inland pine bush.

But many, many other creatures are sustained by native plants as well. Five years ago, Tormey Cole focused on the monarch butterfly. The monarchs that breed east of the Rockies migrate to forests in the mountains of Mexico. But in recent years their numbers have been greatly reduced.

Milkweed is to the monarch what lupine is to the Karner blue butterfly.  Because farmers now plant more genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops, they use the herbicide glyphosate on those crops, which doesn’t kill the corn or soybeans but does kill the milkweed that used to grow between the rows. Tormey Cole advocated planting milkweed native to our area to help the monarch.

This year, she is focusing on the rusty patched bumble bee, listed as a federally endangered species. The bee used to live in grasslands and prairies of the upper midwest and Northeast, but most of these grasslands have been lost or fragmented, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The rusty patched bumble bees remain in just a few isolated pockets, their numbers reduced by up to 90 percent. Tormey Cole notes it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and like there is nothing to be done to save a dying species. But, again, she charts a course that any individual can follow — grow native plants that will sustain the rusty patched bumble bee.

These include lupines, asters, bee balm, native prairie plants, and spring ephemerals as well as spring blooming shrubs like ninebark and pussy willow, according to the forest service. Also, avoiding pesticides will help all pollinators.

Although Tormey Cole stresses she is not an expert on bumble bees, she inspires wonder as she tells how bumble bees are important pollinators for tomato plants, blueberries, cranberries, eggplants, and potatoes. And where would we be without those foods, she asks. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the economic value of the pollination provided by native insects, mostly bees, is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.

Tormey Cole describes the way a bumble bee holds onto a plant and vibrates its flight muscles without moving its wings, causing the plant to release its electrostatically charged pollen onto the oppositely charged body of the bumble bee. The vibration the bee makes is that of middle C.

We’ve been deeply worried since the Trump administration’s weakening last year of the Endangered Species Act. For nearly half a century, that act had helped protect the plants and birds, the fish and insects and animals that are most vulnerable.

As the United Nations report warned last year, we human beings are altering the natural world and speeding extinction at a rate that is “unprecedented.” Up to a million plants and animals around the globe are now threatened with extinction, the report said, which in turn threatens the ecosystems humans depend on to survive.

These findings, based on thousands of studies, were approved by representatives of 132 countries, including the United States. Global warming, the report found, is a major force in pushing species to extinction.

It is hard to read such a report, knowing that at the same time our nation is recklessly undermining the very law that relied on science to protect endangered species, allowing instead economic assessments to determine whether a species is to be protected. Because the effects of climate change may not be immediate, those, too, are downplayed now.

For short-term profits from logging or drilling or mining, ecosystems that would sustain humans in the long run will be undermined. What recourse do we have in the face of such hubris? How can we avert the catastrophe that will surely follow?

We will continue to write in this space in the hopes of raising public awareness and thereby influencing legislators and policy makers, but we will also try to follow the model provided by Laurel Tormey Cole.

When we feel overwhelmed by the greediness and stupidity of acts that will cause, eventually, both natural and human destruction, we will plant seeds. We will raise up our bright shovels and dig in the earth — enriched with the compost made from our waste — and we will plant native plants: lupine or bee balm, asters or shooting stars.

Then we will wait, and we will listen for the buzz that sounds like middle C.


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