The Wonderful World Of Harbingers

Moments after posting about this owl, an email promoting a course about owls appeared in my inbox. Owls have been considered harbingers in different folk and mythic traditions, none of which I subscribe to. A harbinger event on the computer is now most likely an algorithmic event, where one thing triggered another on purpose. Normally I find those intrusive, at best. But, I get emails from the Lab of Ornithology frequently and this one came a few days after the news of the owl in Central Park. Did they put together this course and promo after seeing the publicity that the Central Park owl was getting? If so, bravo. Quick reaction. Well communicated. Watch the brief video that came in the email and tell me you have no interest:

As creatures of the night, owls can seem mysterious and kind of spooky. Some people think of them as bad omens, harbingers of death. But they can also be symbols of knowledge and wisdom.

Owls have fascinated people for millennia. Everyone knows what an owl is, even if you haven’t actually seen one in real life. They’re instantly recognizable, with their large, round heads, flat faces, and forward staring eyes. We seem to be drawn to them because they resemble people. They’re definitely birds, but they also kind of look like us…

Some people are interested in learning more about birds, others are not, but this lesson plan sounds like a good one for starters: Continue reading

Winged Victory Of Central Park

Barry’s fans, in the North Woods of Central Park. Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Two years ago when a mandarin duck caught the attention of New Yorkers, and others with avian interests, I was struck by the diversionary value. Now, even more than then, winged diversion is welcome. This one provided me a diversion within a diversion. A sculpture dedicated on a Greek island more than two thousand years ago honored a victory, and the sculptor chose the goddess of victory to represent that honor. At that time, the goddess was always depicted with wings. If victory has been on your mind lately, you might see this owl as a harbinger.

Barry the Barred Owl is New York City’s bird of the moment. Dave Sanders for The New York Times

That’s up to you. Even without thinking of victory, a good owl photo is always a welcome diversion. The photograph by Joshua Kristal (click the image below to go to his Instagram feed) is particularly well composed. My thanks to Lisa M. Collins for this story:

‘I Had to See That Owl’: Central Park’s New Celebrity Bird

New Yorkers are so obsessed with Barry the barred owl that some are concerned he could be scared away. So far, he seems to like the attention.

Joshua Kristal finally got to see (and photograph) Barry during a Birding Bob night tour through Central Park earlier this month. Joshua Kristal

It was late afternoon in the North Woods of Central Park, and the sun was setting fast. Joshua Kristal, a photographer with a penchant for birds, was starting to feel despondent as he searched along the creek, looking for any movement. This was the third time he’d traveled more than an hour from Brooklyn to see Manhattan’s newest celebrity bird: an ethereal and majestic barred owl.

Currently known as Barry, the owl has intense black eyes and elegant poufs of white feathers streaked with brown and gray. He looks like a perfect stuffed animal from a high-end toy store. But Barry is also unusual. Though owls are typically nocturnal, he makes regular daytime appearances, and has become something of a performer. Practically vogueing, he stares, preens and swoops into the shallow stream to wash and flick his feathers. Barry will turn his head 270 degrees right and left and up above to check for his archenemy, the hawk. He plucks chipmunks with his talons and devours them, seemingly unfazed by adoring fans and the paparazzi, many of whom have already made him Instagram-famous. Continue reading

Organikos, Sophomore Year

Getting to one trillion trees planted will happen one tree at a time, requiring many helping hands in many places. The round hunk of granite in the photo above reminds me each day that even with a good plan and strong motivation, hurdles are always on the horizon. This morning, as hurricane Iota moves on from Central America, and we can see that the sun still rises in the east, Organikos is now in its sophomore year. Freshman year started auspiciously enough with the Brunca farm visit that completed our selection of one dozen coffees to offer in the Authentica shops.

Our first hurdle came when Costa Rica’s airports closed in March of this year. By the time they partially re-opened in August we were already jumping the hurdle. Our mission is to plant as many trees as we can. On the land that Organikos has right now, that means a few thousand trees. And we are well on our way to completing that mission based on sales during freshman year, hurdle notwithstanding. Many have been inspired to pivot and selling online is not our course correction. Organikos will continue its plan to acquire more land to regenerate more bird habitat; that will require exponential growth, relative to freshman year. We are also now planning to allocate funds for regeneration on land owned by others, leveraging currently limited resources into more trees planted. We will announce the first collaboration in these pages pronto.

Does Planting A Trillion Trees Sound Implausible?

A nursery manager plants a whitebark pine at Glacier National Park in Montana in September 2019, part of an effort to restore vegetation following a wildfire. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Here in Iota-drenched Costa Rica there is damage from this hurricane and from the one that just ended a week earlier, but it is minuscule compared to what Nicaragua and Honduras have sustained. If you are scientifically inclined, then two complementary ideas are easy to digest: 1) the people suffering most from the effects of climate change are among the least responsible for causing it; and 2) they live in places that may be best-suited for mitigating it.  For our part, planting trees when coffee is purchased is a drop in the ocean of need. A story we missed from a few months ago gives some hope that this particular idea has a future:

Two-Thirds of Americans Think Government Should Do More on Climate

Bipartisan backing for carbon capture tax credits, extensive tree-planting efforts

A majority of Americans continue to say they see the effects of climate change in their own communities and believe that the federal government falls short in its efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change.

At a time when partisanship colors most views of policy, broad majorities of the public – including more than half of Republicans and overwhelming shares of Democrats – say they would favor a range of initiatives to reduce the impacts of climate change, including large-scale tree planting efforts, tax credits for businesses that capture carbon emissions and tougher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Continue reading

Changing Seasons In Escazu, Changing Climate All Around

The plant in the photo above, called Rosa de Jamaica, which looks like hibiscus but is not, grew from a small cutting gifted by friends on the other side of the mountain where we live. After a few weeks in the ground it is doing well. In the photo below you can see one of the poro saplings we also planted a couple week ago, already home to what counts as charismatic wildlife in our family.

When we started to prep the land in order to restore an abandoned portion of an old coffee farm, seeds were just then falling from the poro trees that are essential to the plan. It is heartening to see how quickly the animal kingdom responded. The dry season normally starts this month, but we are expecting more rain from yet another Greek-named hurricane hitting the isthmus this week. Seasonal change, meet climate change.

A Classic Dish, A Keeper

Restaurant 51, Xandari Harbour. Photo Credit: Architectural Digest India

The photo to the right shows an interior view of the restaurant we named 51, one of our favorite accomplishments of seven years working in Kerala, India. The painting on the wall shows a traditional onion keeper, and it came to mind when I read these lines in a recipe-essay by Gabrielle Hamilton:

Photograph by Heami Lee. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Rebecca Bartoshesky.

…and, of course, the onion tarts. We were steeped in his cooking and his thinking, and it was an excellent exercise to prepare the dishes of a long-ago iconic restaurant, and to see whether they stood the test of time without becoming museum pieces. Every one, especially the onion tart, was still pitch perfect….

The notion of “not becoming museum pieces” is the evocative part of the essay. Envisioning what 51 should look like, as with the entire exercise of developing Xandari Harbour, we constantly repeated that our goal was to be respectful of history without being a slave to it. By which we meant we wanted the heritage to be clear while also showcasing the new directions of Kerala’s culinary culture. And with all due respect to museums, this was to be a lively eatery.

The recipe-essay stirred another memory, from 1988. We celebrated the second anniversary of our marriage by having dinner at Lutèce. Somewhere in our stored papers is the menu from that evening, signed by André Soltner. Having worked for a chef who inspired me to see a lifetime career in hospitality, this dinner was a perfect mark on the map moving in that direction.

Authentica & Sense Of Place

After completing our work in India and transitioning home to Costa Rica in late 2018, two properties came back to the forefront of my attention. The property above is set on a coffee estate in the Central Valley and the one below is set on a Pacific beachfront property that is 90 minutes from the Central Valley property. I knew both properties during their original construction and opening phases and ever since then believed that these were among the most special Marriott properties in the world.

They were going through renovations that started in 2018 and were to be completed in late 2019. My attention was drawn by a creative new focus on sustainability, the tiniest of examples being this one. Another example was that they invited proposals for how the gift shops in both hotels might be managed differently going forward. We submitted a proposal–with a focus on locally produced and design-forward products–and it was chosen for implementation. The rest is history that I have written about plenty in the last year.

Authentica has started its second year of operation, and Costa Rica has just re-opened its borders to receive international visitors again. These two Marriott properties have transformed operations to ensure maximum safety in response to the global health concerns. Our shops have transformed accordingly, and yet our original intent is as strong as ever: come in and sense the place.

Organikos coffee, our best-selling “taste of place” product, was joined in both shops last week by another way to sense the terrain of Costa Rica’s various regions. Pollen Keepers is a small family business whose bee colonies are placed to capture unique characteristics of a location. One of those is a coffee farm, and the honey produced there is unlike any I have had before. I am still learning the vocabulary for tasting notes for honey, which we have been sampling in recent weeks at home, so will keep it simple: Cafetal is my favorite, so far.

Simile, Smile, Citizen Science & Civil Society

Michael Bohmeyer, center, riding his bicycle in the office of “My Basic Income,” the website he founded to provide a monthly basic income for 600 randomly selected people. Moving helps him think, he said. Lena Mucha for The New York Times

In the fifth paragraph of this article, which I started to get a better understanding of the European approach to universal basic income, my attention was caught by a simile:

“We have a lot of ‘citizen scientists’ counting birds, and giving the data to scientists. This is like that, but for civil society.”

Since we have featured so many stories and articles about bird-focused citizen science, the simile caused a smile. Continue reading

If You Can, Consider Buying Your Books From An Independent Bookstore

Shoppers waited to enter the Strand on Sunday after the bookstore said its business “had become unsustainable.” Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Books and the love of books have been a constant theme since early posts on this platform. Likewise, libraries are in these pages frequently due to their important and sometimes essential role to communities; and of course librarians can change lives. Bookstores, cultural institutions in their own right, show up plenty in our pages. The Strand has not, even though it has multigenerational resonance in our family. Today it is newsworthy for complex reasons. The title almost says it all. Book lovers respond, for reasons that all our other posts about books and book places hint at. For me the subheading has the word that caught my attention. While book lovers and bookstore lovers respond to this shop’s call for help, some of the shop’s resources were invested awkwardly (I have hinted at such awkwardness plenty of times). When an independent bookseller is an option, consider the value they represent. Meanwhile, thanks to Sean Piccoli and Elizabeth A. Harris for this:

The Strand Calls for Help, and Book Lovers Answer

“It’s awkward because the track record for the ownership here is not great,” one customer said. “But it’s also an institution. My parents shopped here.”

For months, the Strand bookstore in downtown Manhattan, from its fiction stacks to its cookbook section to its rare books, has been nearly deserted. But on Sunday, half an hour before the store was scheduled to open, about a dozen people lined up in the cool fall breeze, waiting to get inside. Continue reading

Biochar & Regeneration During The Dry Season

This is not the first time I am hearing of it, but this concept is counterintuitive to me because it involves combustion, which I associate with carbon emissions. On our hillside we are working to regenerate quality soil on what once was a fertile, productive coffee farm. When the sun rises over what we planted this year to help prepare the soil for next year’s coffee planting, I have been considering what we need to do differently during the dry season. October is the last month of rainy season, so we are almost there. It is clear that we need all the good ideas we can find in this effort. This seems worthy of consideration:

Loading soil with biochar allows farmers to cut way back on irrigation

At high applications levels, researchers found that biochar can not only soak up a lot of carbon, but also reduce the need for irrigation by almost 40%.

Biochar – the charcoal product used to enrich agricultural soil and trap carbon—may have a hidden commercial benefit for farmers: it could lock moisture in the soil and save on gallons of costly irrigation.

The coarse, black material, made by combusting wood, grass, and other organic materials under low-oxygen conditions, helps to sequester carbon in the soil. Continue reading

Museum Legitimacy & Commercial Legitimacy

Mysterious in effect, the Louvre is delightfully mysterious in history, too. Illustration by Vincent Mahé

Audio: Listen to this article.To hear more, download Audm for iPhone or Android

If you favor essayists, you read essays on topics far afield, as well as more familiar topics like this one, at least as much for the quality of writing as for the topic. You can hear (click above), or read (below) this as a book review, but as in any well-crafted essay there are also ideas–in this case much more broadly related to art and relics and museums–that go beyond the title subject. My favorite two-liner, about half way through this essay, caused me to pause and smile:

The Parthenon Marbles are part of a still existent if damaged architectural whole, and the splendor of the Acropolis Museum is that it looks directly out on the original site. They ought to be returned.

I happen to agree. Others may not. But the essayist makes clear how this statement relates to other examples of plundering that would not be considered acceptable by most people today, as well as plundering that we have somehow come to accept as part of being civilized. Legitimacy is a key point in this essay, which makes it all the more frustrating when the online publication of the essay directs you to the most monopolistic option of where to buy the book being reviewed:

…Mysterious in effect, the Louvre is delightfully mysterious in history, too, as James Gardner shows in “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum” (Atlantic Monthly Press). No one knows why the Louvre is called the Louvre. You would think that it has some relation to “Lutetia,” the Roman name for Paris, or the like, but not a bit; the origin of the name is as opaque as the French love of Johnny Hallyday. Even so, the name has stuck through the site’s transition from citadel to showplace. The continuity the Louvre represents is the continuity of the French state. Gardner relates the long story of the Louvre, starting around the thirteenth century, when it was simply a castle, through its elevation as a palace, and then, in the seventeenth century, its expansion into service as an office building for French royalty. Continue reading

If You Have IKEA Stuff, Note This

I am not a fan of IKEA. That said, I shopped there once, as a younger parent. There seemed no other choice at the time, and I did not regret it until I became more acutely conscious of the perils posed by this business model. Thanks to Olivia Rosane at EcoWatch for sharing this story, which I missed in the Guardian because I scan the Environment section and usually skip the Business section (note to self):

IKEA to Buy Back Used Furniture This Black Friday in 27 Countries

IKEA created the world’s longest outdoor bookcase on Bondi Beach, Australia to celebrate its 30th birthday and promote literacy on Jan. 31, 2010. James D. Morgan / Contributor / Getty Images News

Swedish furniture giant IKEA has a plan to make this year’s Black Friday a little greener.

As part of its bid to become more sustainable, the store will allow customers to sell back their used furniture for up to half of its original price.

Sustainability is the defining issue of our time and IKEA is committed to being part of the solution to promote sustainable consumption and combat climate change,” UK and Ireland IKEA retail manager Peter Jelkeby told The Guardian. Continue reading

Arborists & Urban Futures

Xuebing Du

An article by Clive Thompson we linked to in 2016 makes me wonder why today is the first time we are sharing his work since then. I remember reading a review of his book last year but did not see a fit with the themes we tend to focus on here. Urban trees,  for one example, feature in our pages frequently. And trees more broadly speaking have probably been featured more than any other topic due to our mission. So our appreciation to the Atlantic for publishing this, and an added thanks for the excellent photographic accompaniments:

Trees Are Time Machines

Arborists are planting trees today that must survive decades of global warming. The health, comfort, and happiness of city dwellers hang in the balance.

City trees lead difficult lives. A lot of things are trying to kill them, particularly the trees planted on sidewalks: Tightly compacted soil with high alkaline content makes it harder for them to absorb nutrients. Tiny plots of land admit very little rainwater. They’ve got dogs peeing on them, people dropping cigarette butts nearby, and cars belching pollution.

Xuebing Du

“We’re talking about trees that are very vulnerable,” says Navé Strauss, the head of street-tree planting for New York City. His team manages the planting of new trees on streets and public rights of way; there are more than 666,000 street trees in the city, and the team plants about 16,000 new ones annually. For decades, New York arborists have tended to prefer “tough,” hardy species that thrive well against adversity—such as the London planetree, which sports grayish bark and big, maple-like leaves that offer sidewalks tons of shade.

But lately, Strauss has been looking for trees that can handle an even tougher challenge: climate change.

Xuebing Du

In the past century, the United States has heated up as much as 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue reading

Common Octopus, Uncommon Story

My Octopus Teacher is available on Netflix

I was not avoiding it, exactly, but by night time my attention span diminishes. From a reluctant start at 7:30pm yesterday, assuming I would fall asleep less than half way through, my absorption became total from the first minute and remained so until the end. It was a compelling conclusion to a very long day. Film reviews rarely appear here, but New Scientist gives me good reason to share more than my own opinion:

My Octopus Teacher review: The strange lives of cephalopods up close

In many ways, the octopus is a tough proposition: a soft-bodied mollusc that carries the bulk of its brain in its arms, that can render itself solid without a skeleton or liquid despite its beak, that evolved separately from nearly every other organism on Earth. That otherness is at the heart of our fascination with octopuses: can we even aspire to understand something so foreign? A new Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher, follows one man’s attempt. Continue reading

Milo, Mushroom Clubs & Mylo

Mylo, a material made from mycelium, in natural and black. Bolt Threads

Milo’s teen years convinced me of the wonders of fungi. The Mushroom Club of Georgia was in the right place at the right time for him to convert intense curiosity into something more powerful. On another day, more on what he has done with that in the decade since. For now a bit of thanks. We have had the privilege of hosting members of that Club in our home in Costa Rica, and intend to do so again now that travel restrictions have eased. This post is an overdue shout out to that Club and others like it. More kids in those clubs would be a good thing. Meanwhile, nice to see these folks making news again. It helps persuade me that fashion is of greater value than I have given it credit for up to now:

Fungus May Be Fall’s Hottest Fashion Trend

A surprising group of fashion rivals including Stella McCartney and Lululemon are joining forces to back Mylo, a new mushroom leather.

Bolt Threads mycelium mats in the grow facility. Bolt Threads

It may be fashion week in Paris, with showgoers in face coverings parsing runway looks from the latest designer ready-to-wear collections, but several thousand miles away from the French capital, out of the dank, dark belly of an industrial hangar, a potentially more momentous industry trend is … growing.

Mushroom leather might not sound stylish. But Bolt Threads, a start-up that specializes in developing next-generation fibers inspired by nature, is one of a growing number of companies convinced that the material is a viable replacement — in both form and function — for animal-sourced and synthetic skins. Continue reading

Cambium Carbon’s Reforestation Hubs

When we started this platform for sharing news and experiences related to innovative approaches to conservation, Seth was in Nicaragua and wrote multiple posts on Simplemente Madera  It is odd not to find a more recent post about their One Tree initiative because in early 2019 while sourcing for Authentica we sought out products that supported tree-planting. Today I am reminded of all that from a link I followed to Cambium Carbon in this story:

Courtesy of Cambium Carbon. Cambium Carbon aims to turn cut or fallen urban trees into wood products that can be sold to fund tree-planting efforts. Currently, most trees removed from cities are either chipped for low-grade application or hauled to a landfill at a significant cost.

Reforestation Hubs, ‘Coming Soon’ to a City Near You

Cambium Carbon, an initiative founded by YSE students to combat climate change and revitalize urban communities by reimagining the urban tree lifecycle, has earned a $200,000 Natural Climate Solution Accelerator Grant from The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with The Arbor Day Foundation. Continue reading

Authentica, Sophomore Year

At the end of my freshman year I quit college and went to work as a blacksmith’s apprentice. By the time I realized I did want formal education after all, I had left the smithy behind, spent the next year in Greece studying the language of my mother, and finally was ready to apply myself. Sophomore year was not the year I returned to school, but the year I left it behind, to recalibrate. And it was important, to say the least.

Yesterday was the last day of Authentica’s freshman year. Today, as we start sophomore year, another recalibration. It is not obvious what the new better will be for Authentica. The photo above shows where I have spent time in recent months, planting trees and prepping for coffee planting to get Organikos ready for sophomore year. We know that freshman year is over, and that for both Organikos and Authentica sophomore year is the time of recalibration. Apart from that we know that the sun still rises in the east. That is something.

What Is The New Better?

A woman sits at the counter at a Pret a Manger.

When the pandemic stopped people from going to their offices, in March, Pret a Manger was an immediate economic casualty.Photograph by Isabel Infantes / AFP / Getty

A gifted observer, Sam Knight captures in the plight of a sandwich chain the puzzle for most of us in retail, hospitality, and other high contact professions. The question is obvious and the answer is not: what now? The founders of the chain, whose advice is sought in this context, tell the CEO to go back to the origins of the business model which was about, in their words, “killing sacred cows.” By the end of his observation, the journalist attempts to get some resolution and this is what we get:

…I asked Christou if he woke up in the morning wishing that life could return to how it was—which is what Pret a Manger, with its affective labor, its illusion of luxury and freedom, signifies for most of us. He said no. “I want things to be better,” he said. “What the new better is, I guess at the moment we don’t know.”