5 Terrifying Food Additives

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 14, 2013

5 Terrifying Food Additives

You probably remember the horror of pink slime, the ammonia-laced beef “filler” used in school lunches and Happy Meals until many food manufacturers retired the product after the loud and angry public outcry last year. But pink slime is creeping backinto our burgers and tacos, joining a whole host of ingredients and additives you may not know you’re eating. In the Halloween spirit, we’ve collected a few of the most frightening, guaranteed to give you a chill: 

1. Shellac, or “Confectioner’s Glaze”: Derived from the secretions of the Kerria lacca bug, shellac coats many of the hard candies we know and love, especially Halloween treats like candy corn. The resinous material makes sweets like jelly beans look bright and shiny. 

2. Castoreum: Next time you’re having a hard day and are tempted to down a tub of vanilla ice cream, think about this; castoreum, a flavoring extracted from glands near a beaver’s anus, may be the secret ingredient that gives your sweet treat its satisfying flavor. Castoreum has been used in foods and perfumes for years, in some cases listed simply and vaguely as a “natural ingredient.” The good news: most industry experts agree that today worldwide castoreum consumption is very low due to the difficult process of milking a beaver’s glands. Yum. 

3. Gelatin: The realization that swearing off gelatin doesn’t just mean ditching Jell-O can be a hard one for new vegetarians, and a test of will. Gelatin is a binding and stabilizing agent in many processed food products, and regardless of your opinion on meat-eating, a rundown of the additive’s components may give you pause. Gelatin is derived from collagen found in various animal by-products, including connective tissues. 

4. Carmine: Depending on your opinion of eating bugs, the origins of natural food dye carmine may or may not gross you out. The coloring agent is made from the processed bodies of Coccus cacti bugs. At one time the insects lent their vivid hue to coffee drinks, fruit juices, yogurts, and a number of other food products. 

5. L-Cysteine: L-cys for short, the food additive is a common dough conditioner and flavor enhancer used in human and pet foods. And it can be made from human hair, duck feathers, or hog bristles. Food manufacturers who will admit to using the hair-derived additive are few and far between, but some (like Safeway) don’t hesitate to own up to using duck feathers as a conditioning agent in baked goods.

Read online at SierraClub.org

5 Eco-Inspired Halloween Costume Ideas

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 9, 2013 

5 Eco-Inspired Halloween Costume Ideas

We’ve covered alternatives to the cheap, plastic costumes that line the shelves this time of year. You know all about going vintage, handmade, and hand-me-down to reduce yourHalloween waste. But when October 30 rolls around and plans for an elaborate costume based on your favorite literary character have fallen through, your options may seem limited: a bed sheet ghost or a quick trip to the nearest grocery store for a “Sexy [Whatever they have left]” costume? Put down the plastic, and make one of these easy, eco-inspired costumes that let you send a message (and still get the respectful “ah, you are very smart” head nod that your Holden Caulfield costume would’ve prompted) without too much effort or waste. 

Energy Vampire: Remind your fellow partygoers about the waste of standby power from unused but plugged in appliances. A large box can easily be turned into a computer with fangs, or a suit and black bed-sheet cape can be decorated with large paper power outlets to show the terrifying danger of wasting energy. 

Endangered Species: Spread the word about your favorite furry (or scaly, slimy, or feathered) friends who face extinction. A grey tracksuit with a paper-cone horn and ears becomes a message of solidarity for endangered rhinos, and animal costumes are cute on everyone. Search the endangered species list for your favorite animal, or search online for detailed DIYs, like this caribou costume tutorial from YouTube user BouTheCaribou.

Mother Earth: There are a lot of Mother Earth costume interpretations out there, so go with what feels right (or whatever is handy). Forgot to rake the yard? Glue a bunch of leaves to a dress and wear green tights. A great Mother Nature costume can also rely largely on pretty, ethereal makeup. It’s quick, easy, and spreads the word for a good cause, so if your friends try to guilt trip you about not putting effort into your costume, you can give it right back with a lecture about their unnecessary SUV.

Global Warming: Grab a fan or a spray bottle and a blue shirt, add green construction paper continents, and voila! You have a terrifyingly serious threat to our health and safety. Go scare Al Gore.

FrankenFood: Are your friends appropriately frightened about GMOs on their dinner tables? Scare them with monster fruit! A homemade fruit costume easily turns into its creepy counterpart with the addition of some zombie makeup and a few large bolts to the neck. 

Now that you have your costume, go forth and frighten (and educate!). But don’t be get preachy. Nothing ruins Halloween like a preachy genetically modified apple. 

Read online at SierraClub.org

Junk Drawer Recycling Challenge

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 9, 2013

Junk Drawer Recycling Challenge

Everybody has a junk drawer. When we move, the junk drawer becomes a surprisingly large junk box of items that don’t really belong anywhere — the contents don’t go in the kitchen, but not necessarily in the living room, and definitely not in the bathroom. What do you do with the accumulated knick-knacks and not-quite-trash of years past? Avoid adding to our ever-growing landfills and recycle your leftover junk with these programs.

ReCORK America collects wine corksat grocery and liquor stores throughout the U.S. Deposit your collection during your weekly shopping trip, or look up the location of the nearest collection bin. These souvenirs of happy nights with friends can be recycled into soles for shoes and fund the effort to plant trees.

Broken crayons see new life with the National Crayon Recycle program, whose representatives estimate they’ve diverted more than 92,000 pounds of unwanted crayons from landfills. With crayon production in the U.S. around 12 million per a day, they can use all of the help they can get. Parents can box up the stragglers and send them off to be given a second chance at coloring within the lines. 

Keys are the ultimate junk drawer menace. It’s like they multiply in there, and you don’t know what any of them actually unlock. So into the junk drawer they go, where they produce mysterious key friends and gather dust. Instead, try boxing them up and putting them to good use raising money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Keys for Kindness is a family-run organization that recycles keys in hopes of finding a cure, and that old key to the back door of the basement of your old apartment building can help.

Yes, your 4th grade spelling bee trophies are an important part of your history, but it is time to let go. Every child outgrows her trophy collection at some point, but the mementos of hard-earned recognition can be difficult to part with. The little gold soccer players can go on to do good, however, as programs throughout the country collect and recycle old trophiesTotal Rewards and Promotions, Inc uses discarded trophies for parts, re-engraves them to sell online, and donates them to charities that can’t afford to buy them new. 

And for everything else, TerraCycle collects junk of all kinds, from empty Scotch tape dispensers to used highlighters. The company offers free shipping for most items it collects, and awards you a monetary credit for each item recieved, which it will donate to the cause of your choice. Check out its website to see what it’s collecting now. 

When in doubt about what to recycle where, check out Earth911‘s quick-search tool to find recycling locations near you. 

Read online at SierraClub.org

6 Unique Sharing Services to Cut Your Consumption

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 8, 2013

6 Unique Sharing Services to Cut Your Consumption

Some life lessons learned in kindergarten stick: don’t eat glue, don’t run with scissors, friends don’t hit one another. For some of us, the importance of sharing was a hard one to learn — what kid wants to give away half of their cookie? Fortunately, we’ve warmed up to sharing, and learned to harness the power of lending, borrowing, giving, and renting to care for the environment. We’ve collected some of the greenest of what the sharing economy has to offer — from rental chickens to leftover Chinese food, here’s a small sampling of ways you can depend on the kindness of strangers to reduce your consumption and waste: 

1. To eat: Whether you have too much or too little, when it comes to sharing food, you have options. If you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, start or join a community garden. If you have lots of leftovers or made too much for dinner, services like Eat With Me andLeftoverSwap let you share your bounty with others, instead of tossing it in the trash. 

2. To farm: Interested in learning more about what urban homesteading has to offer your pantry? Give it a test run. A surprising number of groups and individuals throughout the nation rent out egg-laying chickens along with coops, bedding, and feed, at surprisingly affordable prices. Many of these groups hope to help decrease the number of abandoned chickens flooding animal shelters, which some attribute to the ever-increasing popularity of urban farming. If it doesn’t work out, simply send the rented chickens back, guilt-free. Do a quick search for chicken rentals in your state, and get farming.

3. To get around: Car sharing is nothing new — from Getaround to RelayRides, there are lots of easy options that make it easy to abstain from car ownership. But bike-share programs are also cropping up all over the U.S., making green transportation easy and accessible for all. Have a bike you seldom use? Put it to work for our environment with peer-to-peer sharing organizations like Splinster.  

4. For household goods: In this day and age, borrowing a cup of sugar isn’t as simple as knocking on a neighbor’s door. But that doesn’t mean you should forgo borrowing the Jones’ stepladder in favor of buying your own and adding to the dusty pile of seldom-used goods in the garage. Websites like NeighborGoods and The Freecycle Network allow users to post and search for items in their community — everything from video games to bike helmets. Give it a shot, and help keep reusable items out of landfills. 

Can’t find the tool you need on your block? Check online to see if your community has a localtool lending library, and if not, consider starting your own

5. For outdoor adventures: We know that ski resorts and campsites aren’t always as eco-friendly as we’d like them to be. Fortunately, you can take a few more steps to green your trip. Websites like GearCommons and Backcountry Ride let you connect with others who have gear and rides to rent or share. 

6. For the kids: Healthy kids grow like weeds, which means clothes and toys are outgrown quicker than parents can replace them. Instead of tossing out things that have fallen out of favor, search for toy libraries and co-ops in your area, or check out websites like thredUP and reCrib, which resell gently-used clothing and kids’ gear online.

Read online at SierraClub.org

You’ll Smell Better: 7 Unusual Reasons to Go Veg

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 7, 2013

You’ll Smell Better: 7 Unusual Reasons to Go Veg

By now, most of us are aware of the environmental, health-related, and ethical reasons to cut back on meat consumption. And what better time to evaluate your own meat-eating habits than October, which is Vegetarian Awareness Month? If you’re looking for extra motivation to take the vegetarian plunge, we’ve compiled a list of unexpected reasons to put down that hot dog and pick up a carrot. 

1. You’ll smell better. Is your B.O. holding you back with the ladies? Slowly step away from the hamburger. A 2006 study by Czech researchersfound women judge the body odor of vegetarian men to be “significantly more attractive, more pleasant, and less intense,” than that of their carnivorous friends. So, cut out the meat and go in for the cuddle: Your armpits smell “significantly less intense” than that dude’s. 

2. Even Ronald McDonald is a vegetarian. The actor Geoffrey Giuliano, who famously portrayed the cartoon clown in the ’80s in publicity appearances for the “Ronald McDonald Safety Show,” has since publicly apologized for encouraging children to eat the fast food chain’s offerings (and to believe that hamburgers grow in pleasant garden patches). A converted Hindu, Giuliano now encourages parents to raise their children on a meatless diet.  

3. You’ll be better in bed. Well, probably. Primate research suggests soy and soy-based foods might influence hormone levels and increase sexual activity in humans, and veggie advocates have long held that cholesterol from meat and dairy products can clog arteries and inhibit blood flow to our (ahem) vital organs. At the very least, it’s a safe bet that cutting back on meat might give you a little extra energy in the bedroom. 

4. You’ll be an upstanding citizen, according to Russian author Leo Tolstoy. In his 1891 essay “The First Step,” the Anna Karenina author condemned meat eating as serving only “to develop animal feelings, to excite lust, and to promote fornication and drunkenness.” So while you’ll be a pro in the sack (according to the monkeys), you’ll also be super sober and suave about it (according to Tolstoy). 

5. Veggies make you happy. A recent study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found a strong correlation between eating your vegetables and a positive mood. Almost 300 participants kept food journals over several weeks, charting their moods as well as their diets. On days they ate lots of fruits and vegetables, participants reported feeling “calmer, happier and more energetic” than they normally did. The researchers recommend eating at least seven servings to brighten your day. 

6. The ladies love it. Surveys consistently find female vegetarians outnumber their male counterparts. If you have any interest in romancing, befriending, or simply dining with the fairer sex, try whipping up a veggie-based meal for two

7. It’s a smart decision. A British study of more than 8,000 participants over 20 years found that people with higher IQs as children were more likely to be vegetarians as adults. They were also more likely to be working for charities, local government, or in education.

Read online at SierraClub.org

Backyard Beekeeping 101

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, September 16, 2013

Backyard Beekeeping 101

There are a number of reasons Americans are taking up beekeeping — a backyard colony can help your garden produce more fruits and veggies, harvesting your own honey cuts down on your grocery bill, and honey bees continue to be threatened by colony collapse disorder. Take your pick, and join the growing ranks of urban apiarists.

Keepers of rooftop and backyard hives extol the spiritual benefits of beekeeping, as well as the tasty ones.

“It is a joy to have them around and observe their intricate dance with life,” says Ruby Blume, a Bay Area beekeeper who teaches courses on the subject at The Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland. “When the bees come out in spring there’s a huge uplifting feeling in my spirit, and I know it’s time to start gardening and engaging with the outside world again.” 

A single hive in an urban setting can produce as much as 60 pounds of honey, requires less management than a cat or dog, and has relatively low start-up costs, making it an appealing way for city folk to connect with their country roots. Here are a few things to consider when contemplating a hive of your very own:

You will need to do your research. “The more you know, the better beekeeper you’ll be,” advises Blume. There is a wealth of resources out there for aspiring beekeepers, frombooks to classes. Take several classes, says Blume, or find a mentor. Most cities have beekeepers associations full of enthusiasts who would be happy to help. 

But first, investigate your city’s laws — you don’t want to unintentionally become a fugitive while pursuing your apiarist dreams.

Consider the financial investment. While the initial cost is not outlandish, beekeeping will require some funds. A beginner kit can cost anywhere between $150-$400, and doesn’t include bees. But don’t lose heart just yet; some beekeeping organizations have resources to mitigate the financial burden of classes and equipment, and catching your own swarm will alleviate the cost of the insects themselves. 

Will your yard or rooftop make a good home? Bees thrive in many conditions, but your neighbors may not be as adaptable. Your bees will travel up to 5 miles away from the hive to forage, so be respectful and do your best to keep your bees safe and out of others’ way. Provide them water, flowers, and an unobstructed flight path. Most colonies will stick to one route as they travel to and from the hive to forage, and humans routinely walking through the colony’s flight path can upset both the bees and the pedestrians. In Keeping Bees, author Ashley English advises constructing a high hedge or tall fence to encourage bees to fly up and over the heads of passersby. 

When it comes to weather, bees like morning sun, afternoon shade, and very little wind or fog, says Blume, so choose a spot for their hive carefully. 

Procuring your bees. A starter colony can be ordered from a supplier and will set you back $60 – $150, but be careful to consider your environment  — bees shipped from warm weather won’t do well in cold climes. Catching your own swarm solves this problem, as does finding an established beekeeper who will split their colony for you. 

Do you have time? Most likely, yes. “Being a good beekeeper is mostly about observing and only intervening when you can see something is wrong,” says Blume. Depending on the system you choose (Top Bar vs. Langstroth hive), you’ll only need to visit your hive weekly, monthly, or even yearly, depending on the season. When your bees start producing honey, expect to set aside a few hours for extraction. Otherwise, according to Blume, most people interfere too much. “Bees are incredibly developed creatures,” she says. “They do what they do very well without help from us.” 

Read online at SierraClub.org

How to Cook a Feast Without a Kitchen

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, September 11, 2013

How to Cook a Feast Without a Kitchen

New freshmen and recent grads are learning one of life’s hard lessons right about now: a full kitchen is a privilege, not a right. Cooking green and eating well in an efficiency studio is a challenge, and dining hall food can be questionable at best. Fortunately, being without a stove isn’t a culinary death sentence. Many who have gone without kitchen have found you can eat pretty well with simply a microwave, hot plate, toaster oven, or slow cooker. So fear not: frozen taquitos are not the only cuisine in your future. Brave pioneers of microwave cooking have discovered you can nuke artichokes and even polenta with surprisingly tasty results. They’ve also found it a greener way to cook, as microwaves use less energy than stove tops to heat small servings.

To guide you on your voyage to preparing your own healthy, green, and convenient food, we’ve rounded up a few authors who specialize in convenience cooking to share their favorite recipes that can be made without a stove.

Cold cereal is the obvious no-bake breakfast of champions, but if you’re craving something warm, try this hot plate recipe for Two Bean Confetti Hash from Melisser Elliott, author ofThe Vegan Girl’s Guide to Life.

 “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but who has all morning to make a feast?” says Elliot. “This hash is easy, uses ingredients available at any grocery store, and is super stick-to-your-ribs hearty to get you through the morning. If you don’t eat it all in one sitting, the leftovers reheat well in a skillet on low heat with the lid on. Start your morning right!”…

Read the full post online at SierraClub.org

Green Your Back-To-School Shopping

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, September 10, 2013

Green Your Back-To-School Shopping

Back-to-school shopping can be a serious undertaking, as anyone who’s dragged a middle schooler through a department store knows. If everyone else in the class is going to be wearing [insert trend here], you don’t want your poor little fashionista ostracized for being sartorially lacking. But in addition to being a serious battle of wills between you and your child, back-to-school shopping can be expensive: Americans spent $8.5 billion at family clothing stores last August, according to the U.S. Census. Avoid the cost and make back-to-school shopping (slightly) more fun with these tips for greening your child’s new wardrobe.

Go thrifting. Hand-me-downs are only a bad thing if they come from an older sibling with questionable taste. “Vintage” is still a magic word for hipster teens, and younger kids with character might enjoy the treasure hunt presented by your local Goodwill. Come prepared with your child’s sizes memorized and the energy to hunt through the racks for hidden gems, and the ultimate find: clean, popular label, and with the tags still on!

Shop secondhand online. If sorting through the racks isn’t your thing, you can let someone else do the hunting for you. Websites like Schoola Stitch sell clean and well-preserved used children’s clothes for a fraction of their retail price.

“There is certainly a negative ecological impact bringing new merchandise to the marketplace to consider [when back-to-school shopping],” says Schoola Stitch CEO Stacey Boyd. “Chemicals used to grow or make cotton and synthetic materials as well as other resources that are depleted in the process leave a pollution footprint we can’t ignore.” 

The best part? Buying used online doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give up on shopping to benefit a cause; Schoola Stitch donates a percentage of what they make on each item to the school of its original owner’s choice.

Sew it yourself. Call up your old home ec skills and alter old or pre-worn clothes to better fit those little troublemakers who insist on growing like weeds. Turn it into bonding time (or prepare to outsource this chore) by taking a parent-and-child sewing class, offered by a number of craft stores and specialty sewing shops throughout the U.S. 

Shop new, sustainably. Look for clothing made from sustainable materials like bamboo, organic cotton, or hemp. Many online retailers sell children’s clothing made from organic materials, though they can be pricey. Some larger retailers like Hanna Andersson sell organic options and have stores throughout the U.S., which cuts out the cost and environmental impact of shipping. Carefully choosing timeless pieces that won’t soon go out of style can also help you get your money’s worth. 

While a trip to the mall may sound easier, shopping green for children’s clothes is worth the effort: according to the Organic Trade Association, it can take almost 1/3 of a pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow the cotton needed to produce one T-shirt. 

Read online at SierraClub.org 

4 Unique Picks for National Honey Month

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, September 9, 2013

4 Unique Picks for National Honey Month

For as long as we’ve been preparing food, humans have been using honey. It has become a dietary staple all over the world, eaten on its own for a quick energy boost, and used as an ingredient in everything from sweet teas to insect kabob marinades. But not all honey is created equal. If your go-to honey comes in a generic bear-shaped bottle, it’s time to branch out and try one the 300 different varieties available in the U.S. From the dark and robust to the light and mild, we’ve rounded up four unique and eco-friendly brands to try this September to celebrate National Honey Month.

Rare Hawaiian Great White Honey isn’t actually made from sharks, but it is probably the most badass thing you will ever put in your tea. Who doesn’t want the opportunity to say they just added some shark honey to their sleepytime brew? Dr. Michael Domeier, Rare Hawaiian Honey Company owner and white shark researcher, is celebrating Hawaii’s few great white sharks with a special release of the island’s equally rare Kiawe honey. Added bonus: the company has pledged to donate 10% of the proceeds from the sale of their Great White Honey to shark research. If you aren’t feeling brave enough to tackle the Great White, try one of their other unusual options, like the Organic Sunset Kiawe Honey, named for the unique color and citrus-y taste of the honey produced at the end of the Kiawe tree blooming season. $15 – $21, rarehawaiianhoney.com 

Madhava Organic Very Raw Honey is entirely unfiltered, raw honey that hails all the way from the wildflower fields of Brazil, where the company works with local farmers to harvest the goods. If you need an incentive to try this sweet treat, throughout 2013 for every jar of their organic honey to sold, Madhava will donate ten cents to non-profit organizations working to save bees. Check their website to find Madhava products in a store near you. MSRP: $10.99 – $11.49, madhavasweeteners.com

Y.S. Eco Bee Farms offer a number of different unpasteurized and unfiltered options for the honey-curious. Branch out a little with their cinnamon or pomegranate-infused Gourmet Specialty Raw honeys, or go basic with Certified Organic Raw Honey. Y.S. Eco Bee Farms products are sold by a number of retailers online, and in most health food stores. $5 – $13,ysorganic.com

Royal Hawaiian Honey products are single-source, organic, and varietal. Royal Hawaiian also advertises their products as the first America’s first certified Carbonfree™ food product, meaning “all carbon emissions generated in the production and shipping of our honeys are calculated and off-set by investing in reforestation, renewable energy, and energy efficiency projects.” They pay close attention to the eco-impact of their packaging, purchasing most materials in the U.S. to cut down on overseas shipping and selling their honeys in entirely recyclable jars labeled with soy-based ink. Try the Organic Lehua Honey for its sweet, butterscotch taste, or the Organic Christmas Berry for a slightly spicy kick. $11.50 for a 12-ounce jar, $17 for a 44-ounce tub, royalhawaiianhoney.com

To find these or other organic honeys for sale near you, check out localharvest.org.

Read online at SierraClub.org

5 Steps to a Bee-Friendly Garden

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, September 3, 2013

5 Steps to a Bee-Friendly Garden

Bugged by aphids in your garden? Spray them with garlic oil. Overrun by slugs? Eggshells will do the trick. Most experienced gardeners know the ins and outs of pest control, and avoid using conventional insecticides that can be toxic to the wildlife in their gardens. But even the environmentally aware may have been caught off guard by the recent news that supposedly bee-friendly plants purchased at big-name hardware stores can come pre-treated with chemicals believed to be fatal to bees. As more and more research linking colony collapse disorder to pesticides use comes out, it’s more important than ever to look out for the bees in our own backyards. Here are some tips for keeping your garden bee-safe:Know your plants. Choose what to grow based on your local environment and begin to prevent infestation even before you plant. Research which plants fare best in your area and in soil conditions, and carefully monitor plant health so you’ll recognize signs of infestation later on.Buy organicBegin with untreated seeds or organic plant starts, and plant them in organic soil. Ask around for a trusted neighborhood nursery or seek out suppliers who have demonstrated a commitment to growing organic. Keep an eye out for providers who’ve signed the Safe Seed Pledge.Know your pest. Learning to recognize your pests is an essential first step in eco-friendly gardening, as you can target your attention on the uninvited guests and keep your essential predators safe. To get a closer look at what you’re dealing with, post sticky cards in your garden to trap a few of your pests.

Be pesticide-free. “In a backyard situation, pest insect problems hardly ever become so overwhelming that a pesticide is required,” says Dr. Eric Mussen, UC Davis apiculturist and honey bee expert. “There normally is some physical way to detach the insects from the plants — picking, dousing with a hose, etc. We have simply become too used to squirting our problems away with toxic chemicals.” The internet is full of safe and chemical-free solutions, from using organic items that naturally repel certain insects to planting trap crops to lure pests away from the threatened plant.

Know your natural predators. It pays to know who’s on your side. Most people know ladybugs can be counted on to take out aphids, but plenty of bugs have a whole host of enemies out to get them. Parasitic natural predators contribute a lot to pest management, says Dr. Andrew Sutherland, Urban Integrated Pest Management advisor to the San Francisco Bay Area. In the right numbers and conditions, insects like lacewings and parasitic wasps can provide great pest control, but only if you provide them the resources they need to survive. Make sure your garden has enough flowers to keep your pollinators happy and healthy, recommends Dr. Sutherland, and you’ll have a tiny pest-control army.

Read online at SierraClub.org

John Muir Trail Hike Raises Funds for Student Aid

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Explore blog, September 25, 2013

John Muir Trail Hike Raises Funds for Student Aid

As the weary hikers rested under the trees after a long day on the John Muir Trail, Pitzer College philosophy professor Brian Keeley read from Jack Kerouac’s account of climbing Matterhorn Peak: “In no time at all it was two o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was getting that later more golden look and a wind was rising and I began to think ‘By gosh how we ever gonna climb that mountain, tonight?'”

Like Kerouac, the hikers in Pitzer College’s John Muir Trail hiking group faced a daunting challenge: to traverse 230 miles on the John Muir Trail in just 27 days. In July, college President Laura Skandera Trombley was joined by several current students, Professor Keeley, a parent of a Pitzer undergrad, and two alumnae in celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary with a hike to raise funds for student aid. The hikers, who were chosen by lottery, raised nearly $55,000 for first generation scholars awarded the John Skandera Memorial Endowed Scholarship, established by Trombley last year in memory of her father.

“My father had a great love of nature, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll hike to pay homage to him and raise funds for financial aid,'” said Trombley. “It seemed to make a great deal of sense.”

The scholarship honors the life of Trombley’s father John Skandera, an elementary school teacher who passed away in 2010. This year two students were selected to receive the scholarship, funded in part by the sponsored hike. Donors made both one-time contributions and per-mile sponsorshipsTrombley, who’d hiked portions of the trail herself in college, proposed the trip to two students who organized the hike.”They loved it and asked if I’d be willing to join them,” Trombley said. “With little hesitation or thought I said ‘sure.’”

The group suffered their share of setbacks, including the theft in the night of a hiker’s boot by wild animals (some thick socks and another hiker’s tennis shoes made for a quick fix until the next supply checkpoint), and an ankle injury that resulted in a 16-mile pack mule ride to medical care. But despite the occasional hardship, the trip left a lasting impression on the hikers.

“It’s spectacularly beautiful,” said Pitzer alum Lisa Gellar, ’76. “My log, every day, just said ‘unbelievably beautiful.’”

In the evenings after dinner the hikers took turns reading aloud from their “library,” several accounts of similar hikes by literary greats, including Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and some of Muir’s own writing.

“To be reading about [John Muir’s] descriptions of the same mountains we were in while we were there, I was struck by how similar they were, the plants and animals and the views,” Keeley said. “The physical environment hasn’t changed much.”

Undergraduate student Lisa Hirata, ’16, remembers the moment Muir’s words began to ring true to her own experience.

“At first I didn’t relate at all, but your priorities in that first week really change, from ‘I’m so dirty, I need a shower, I wonder what’s going on in the outside world’ to really feeling comfortable in the outdoors,” she said. “[After reading Muir’s work] you think ‘yeah, my feet really hurt,’ but it helps to hear how in love with the land he is, how at home he is in nature.”

The trip was such a success, both for the participants and for the scholarship fund, that Trombley says they’re considering a second hike next year.

Professor Keeley remembers people were eager to support the hikers when they learned of the trip’s good cause.

“[The scholarship] opened a lot of doors for us,” Keeley said. “If we were talking to people and trying to get information or help with something, when they heard that we were doing this for first-gen college students there were people we ran into who said ‘I was a first-gen college student’ or ‘My parents were.’ They really liked that the president of a college was out doing this kind of thing for students and future students.”

Read online at SierraClub.org